The Faith That Saves A Nation
Paul Langkamp penned this reflection while undertaking a teaching appointment during one of his times in South Korea (2007).
Every weekday morning on the way to SungMin University where I work, I ride my motor scooter across the exact spot in ByeonChon village market, in central South Korea, where, on April 1, 1919, rows of Khaki-clad soldiers and navy-blue uniformed foreign police, raised their carbines to eye level, and fired into a crowd of 3000 surging Koreans. The Koreans were protesting their right to freedom from foreign domination. 30 were seriously injured. 19 were killed, including both parents of the 17-year-old girl, Yu Gwan-Sun, who was at the forefront of leading the marching protesters. The girl wasn’t killed then. She was taken to the notorious Sodaemun prison in Seoul.
Such strife seems far away in this peaceful rural village: the mountains here – just like all the mountains that cover 70% of Korea – are covered in luscious trees, and from the mountains flow crystal clear streams down picturesque valleys. At this time of the year, at the start of the summer raining season, everywhere there is verdant growth in rice paddies and hand-tended vegetable patches of cabbage, corn, potato, and pumpkin.
That such strife happened and is again possible is kept visible in the public realm. Just beyond Byeonchon, over a stream, is a tree-covered hill several hundred metres high. Half way up, there are a number of beautifully maintained traditional Korean royal palace style buildings. A three hundred metre-long two-lane boulevard leads up to them. There is a huge statue of Yu Gwan-Sun, with her arms stretching upwards inspiringly, a large and beautiful building to educate about her deeds and heroic attitudes, and further up the hill, within a serene garden, there is a monument to her memory.
And there the visitor can see the outline of Yu Gwan-Sun’s life. She was born in December 1902. In 1916 she won a scholarship to Seoul’s prestigious girls’ school, Ehwa. In 1918, her school was closed by the colonizing force. On March 1, 1919, she attended the now famous rally in Jongno in central Seoul that declared Korea’s independence.
She returned to her home hamlet, near Byeonchon, prepared many Korean flags, and then waved the flags while she marched in the market. Her parents were killed. She was arrested and imprisoned at Sodaemun. In prison she refused to accept foreign domination and said to her fellow prisoners, “Outside, they don’t know if we’re dead or alive. Let’s shout ‘Mansea’”. It means, “Hooray”. And for her part in this “rebellion”, she was subject to terrible tortures (which are graphically displayed at the nearby Independence Museum) and she died on September 28, 1920. She was only 18. Her remains have been lost.
There were alternatives open to her. She could have compromised. She could have accepted, as some Koreans did, the colonizers’ idea that they came with good intentions. Some Koreans compromised to the extent of accepting property the colonizers had taken from other Koreans. Even today, some descendents of such Koreans still continue to claim property “given” by the colonizers. She would have none of that.
Her acts are indeed worthy of the patriotic hero status that she is afforded. But there is more to Yu Gwan-Sun that extends her relevance beyond Korea’s shores to Christians who face testing times.
As a student at Ehwa Girls’ School, she regularly attended the church next door – ChungDong First Methodist. It is known that, during the period of terror, when her school was being shut down, she went into ChungDong church’s Bethel Chapel, into the enclosed space behind the organ at the back of the church, and prayed. Even her secular epitaph declares that she did not give up her faith. It was her faith that sustained her. And it is because of her witness to faith that Maebung Methodist church was built next to her birthplace, in a hamlet behind the same hill where her place of remembrance is. It is a wonderful testimony. Yu Gwan-Sun’s faith is her witness to all Christians. We can rely on Jesus Christ in times of dire stress, and when facing the most threatening circumstances.
There is more to her witness. These days, faith in the saving work of Jesus that was Yu Gwan-Sun’s faith, is under attack. At the last National Assembly, the Uniting Church’s leaders demanded that Christians accept practices that are, and have always been, rejected by the Christian church. The Uniting Church leaders insist that Christians accept two different principles that are logically incompatible with each other and with the Christian faith. You can accept the compromise these leaders offer: “If you accept these practices, you can keep your property, and you can practice the Christian faith the way you see it.” Perhaps there are some who can see the easy advantage in such a compromise. But it’s plain to see, compromise attacks the foundation of faith itself. There are no guns here, to kill the body. Just smooth compromising words, to kill the Christian faith, and wound the soul. If we compromise, we have nothing. This is the truth that Yu Gwan-Sun understood.
Yu Gwan-Sun’s last words were; “Japan will fail!” And so will those church leaders who compromise our faith in Jesus. In compromising that faith the Lord himself has given us, we give ourselves up to slavery – to worldly pursuits of self satisfaction – and finally death. Do not compromise the faith that saves a nation!