Talk about a story that raises some prickly questions linked to faith, evangelism, oppression and religious freedom -- in North Korea, no less.
I am talking about a recent piece from The Guardian -- "Christianity was the only way out, says North Korea defector" -- about Joseph Kim and his journey out of one of the world's darkest dungeons and, rather reluctantly it appears, into Christianity.
I want to stress that this is certainly an interesting and important story. The issue, in this case, is whether The Guardian has only told half of it, leaving a Christian ministry accused of the old "Rice Christians" approach to evangelism, with no way to defend itself. Here is a dictionary definition of that term:
* a convert to Christianity who accepts baptism not on the basis of personal conviction but out of a desire for food, medical services, or other benefits
Now, here is the top of The Guardian report:
The first time Joseph Kim heard the words “Christian” and “church”, he had no idea what they meant. He had never seen a church and Christianity was as unfamiliar to him in his famine-ravaged North Korea as Disneyland.
“Kwang Jin”, a friend said to him, using the Korean name by which Kim was then known, “if you ever go to China, the churches will give you money.”
To which Kim replied: “What’s a church? Why would they just give you money?”
“Because they’re Christians,” the friend said.
“What are Christians?” Kim asked.
At 16 he set out, crossing the Tumen river into China and looking for freedom. Again, he heard that the solution to his problems was to find a church. How do you find one? "Look for a cross," he is told.
There is a strong news hook here and, in many ways, a positive one:
Unbeknown to Kim at that time, his connection with the Christians meant that he had entered the most sophisticated underground support network for North Korean defectors then in existence inside China. Backed with money and logistical support from South Korean-based, largely Presbyterian, churches, an intricate system was in place for hiding away, and then providing escape routes, for people who had fled famine or persecution in the DPRK.
But then again, there is the dark side:
The shelter and food that Kim received from Grandma and her Christian network did not come entirely without a cost. He was expected to embrace the religion. He attended Bible-reading lessons, and later Grandma took him to underground church services. ... He admits in the early days he was only interested in what Christianity could give him. “I was merely interested in the aid I could get from them. There was no sense of moral development.”
Over time, though, he did come to appreciate the lessons and to embrace the religion. The sacrifices made on his behalf by Grandma and other local Christians chimed with what he was reading in the Bible, and he started to understand the value of altruism.
His benefactors even, to his dismay, insisted that he change his name Kwang Jin to the biblical Joseph Kim.
So what is the issue here?
The problem is that this theme eventually becomes the big idea, the central theme, of the story. That, in and of itself, is not something that I would knock. But the problem is that there is no way for these Chinese Christians to help him to speak for themselves or even to dispute the accuracy of what Kim has to say.
I would also imagine that there are scholars who have studied this situation and could confirm, or deny, that these patterns -- convert or else is what is suggested -- existed at that time and continue to exist today.
Readers, in the end, are given a very simple story about what is clearly a very complex and even secret, for valid reasons, situation. The "rice Christians" equation is accepted at face value, pure and simple.
Parse this, from Kim:
“I didn’t feel tremendous force to join the religion, but it’s also true that I didn’t have any other option. No one said to me, ‘By the way you don’t have to become a Christian to get help.’
“One thing Christianity could do to help address the question is to say to North Korean defectors, ‘It’s totally up to you -- whether you join the religion or not -- we’re going to help you regardless.’ I think that could be helpful, but I don’t know whether South Korean missionaries are prepared to do that.”
So, Guardian editors: What do the South Korean Presbyterians have to say in their own defense?
No need to talk to them. Moving right along.