Saturday, May 3, 2003

Destructive Christianity

Being back in the U.S. and visiting friends have brought back various memories from my past. One aspect is my religious upbringing. I grew up in a charismatic Korean American church. The Korean American church is interesting because like many immigrant churches it served the dual purpose of being a religious institution and social hub for its members. Without going into much detail here, the Christianity that developed from Korean and Korean American churchs has been influenced by Korean culture. From Buddhism to Confucian doctrine to Korean cultural history, many of these factors have influenced the practice and thinking within the Korean church today (more for another day).

Part of my experience and a characteristic of the Korean Church is the strong legalistic culture and tendencies that still dominate many of the churches today. Growing up, I was very legalistic and saw almost everything as black and white in terms of whether my actions, words, and environment was edifying to myself and others around me. In high school, I consider those years my "pharisee" period where my views mixed with my strong personality tended to be just as destructive and self-inflicting as the pharisees that lived during the time of Christ. I really didn't learn the meaning of "grace" and "love" until my college years and beyond.

A fair amount of Christians in the Korean American community are affected by this lack of knowing grace and a self-righteousness that blinds them to being effective in the world today. Interestingly enough, these same Christians are part of a vast majority leave the church soon after graduating from college. Many of their beliefs and faith stood on shallow ground, and I believe time has proven this so. They lived in an isolated bubble during college and maybe high school. Much of this was not their fault due to the natural tendencies of recent immigrants to gravitate towards each other out of comfort, common culture, and family ties, but the dangerous mentality of being critical and judgmental towards anything outside of their sphere of comfort as Christians is a poison hurting the health of the church today.

It's sometimes amusing because I hear about some of these "pharisees" leaving the church and denying their faith because they enter the outside world for the first time after college and they live in a way that is counter to their prior ideals and shallow beliefs. I heard of a person getting drunk once and soon renouncing his faith and belief in God because of the experience. Did he think he was a messiah? Did he find truth in the bottle of whiskey? Or was he overwhelmed with the guilt of his past harsh judgments and words upon others who he labeled as "sinners" or "unchurched"? If these types of minor actions or situations turns away these "fervent" Christians from God or renounce their belief in the Bible, I assume their faith stood on wafer-thin ground.

I recently was talking with some friends who attend a Korean American church in Chicago. They were informing me about another situation where some church leaders were critical of a member's lifestyle. She might not have done anything directly to them, but they held some bitter, self-righteous attitude towards the person. Without going into details, I understand she was considered unstable in some ways and had some personal issues, but as leaders you have to accept the worst about people. Maybe the issues surrounding her is something I can't fathom, but I will continue to use this as an example of what occurs in many Korean American churches to varying degrees.

Anyway, she left during the conflict, but came back later on. Instead of accepting her back with open arms and love, like a prodigal son returning, they continued to ignore and isolate her from their circles. I sometimes wonder what benefit do they see will come out of these actions? The person already apologized and asked for forgiveness, which I don't even think she should have done. Are they being judge and jury and laying "God's punishment" upon her? This is the same mentality that I saw during college that divided many Korean Americans on their campuses throughout the U.S. It was usually from the Christians that this rift was created. They didn't want their church members associating with such "sinners" or being influenced by their lifestyles. This is exactly how the pharisees would react in these situations today like when they criticized Jesus Christ for eating with the "sinners".

The thinking is similar from these leaders at this church because they do not have a perspective of equality in the spiritual sense. In a deluded sense of self-righteousness, they hold judgment and anger against this woman because they themselves would never do such an act or live such a way. Ignorance and stupidity are amusing to watch from the outside. This reminds me of Phillip Yancy's book What's So Amazing About Grace? and how he talks about the situation where a prostitute was afraid in approaching God initially because of the Christians at the church she visited. It also reminds me of a sermon I once heard at Redeemer Church in New York when Tim Keller was discussing how most people think they are in the middle of the bell-curve or slightly above in terms of their "sinfulness". Charles Mason, Hilter, and others are on the bottom 1%-5% of the curve while Mother Theresa and others are in top 1% of the curve. Keller was stating that Apostle Paul truly thought of himself in the bottom part of the curve and we should would be deluded to think otherwise. Self-righteousness makes Christians the poorest examples of their faith and worst enemy of their life's mission.