Posted : 2012-09-20 17:20
Updated :  

Religious fervor on display

By Donald Kirk

The populist spiritual yearnings of Koreans can be difficult to fathom. Just as K-Pop has taken off from Tokyo to New York, Korean religious movements draw adherents worldwide over seemingly insurmountable barriers.

That was my sense after two days of uniquely elaborately contrived rituals, influenced by Christianity but in Korean settings, that had thousands of foreigners joining Koreans in prayer, weeping and singing and cheering.

First there was the funeral last Saturday for the Rev. Moon Sun-myung before about 14,500 people inside a sparkling new hall that was a dead ringer for an American basketball arena worthy of any team in the National Basketball Association.

In fact, mingling with the crowd inside the arena, before descending to a comfortable media seat right below the VIP meeting room, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., home of the Washington Wizards.

You have to visit the enormous complex set up by the Rev. Moon in Gapyeong northeast of Seoul to begin to imagine the dream of the man who was a self-declared messiah and when beside his wife was one half of the ``true parents of heaven, earth and humankind.” Up rolling hills beyond the arena you see ``the palace” ― it really is a palace said to be modeled in part after the White House ― where he and his wife and members of their personal family lived.

On other wooded promontories are a school, a senior citizens’ home, the hospital where he died at 92. The buildings are modern, surrounded by forest, an unimaginable setting for the heart of an empire that encompasses far-flung business interests and offshoots of the Unification Church around the world for whose glory Moon had young people on street corners selling roses to raise money.

How could anyone believe that such a man was really ``the messiah?” For that matter, how could anyone have had the ego to proclaim himself as such? Two of his sons, Moon Hyung-jin, leader of the church, and Moon Kook-jin, leader of the Tongil (unification) holdings in Korea, garbed in long white robes, spoke tearfully of their father’s legacy. Throngs in the arena, and another 20,000 massed outside before huge television screens, the men in black, the women in white, prayed as the soul of the man they worshipped ascended to the heavens.

Whence came the drive, the passion behind a man and a religion that relies on contributions from adherents, some wealthy, others not, all urged to hand over ten percent of their earnings? Why did they make such sacrifices for one man and his extended family, living vastly wealthy if often contentious lives in Korea and the United States?

While contemplating these questions, I was treated the next day to an even bigger display in the form of a ``world peace festival” in the Olympic Stadium at Jamsil. I’d come prepared for a few hours preaching and singing. No way did I envision 100,000 people filling every seat in the stadium, plus thousands more on the playing field, marching in elaborate formations, dancing, enacting biblical scenes.

The program, a “culture and sports celebration of restoring light,” wound up with men and women’s soccer games, a track meet, basketball, judo, tugs of war. Oh, and on stage in front of the reviewing area, magicians and ballroom dancers and jazz musicians and a host of other entertainers were carrying on as well.

This “world peace festival” evoked memories. Was it a modified version of the annual Arirang Mass Games that opened this week in May Day stadium in Pyongyang? On visits to North Korea, I’ve never seen any performance quite so amazing as the prancing and dancing of tens of thousands of performers against a backdrop of tens of thousands in the stands flipping flash cards of scenes and messages of whatever the North Koreans were selling from happy school kids to verdant fields to humming factories to warplanes.

Not quite so many people were on the field at the “world peace festival” as at the Arirang Games, but young people filled 60 percent of the seats, flipping cards on cue, forming slogans and scenes. This whole performance lasted ten or eleven hours, from morning to after dark when the rain was already falling and pinpoints of lights replaced the cards.

Much of the inspiration seems to have come from Lee Man-hee, the elderly pastor of a fringe grouping called the Shinchonji Church, viewed as “heretical” by mainstream Korean Christians. He sat in a Super VIP seat beside Kim Nam-hee, leader of the Mannam Volunteer Association, collaborating with the church on the ostensible mission of putting on “an unprecedented event where people from all over the world will gather.”

Korean contacts tell me that the Shincheonji church and the Mannam organization are about as controversial as the Moonies. Pastor Lee, they say, may not call himself “the messiah” but preaches an extremist view of Christianity that many Christians find distastefully overdone if not absurd.

Maybe so, but to an outside observer such outbursts of astounding fervor on display in Moonie rituals and the “world peace festival” represent a significant aspect of Korean life and spirit. And you don’t have to worship the symbolism of the cross, as formed by dancers on the field and placard-holders in the stands, to appreciate the theme of peace ― not quite the message conveyed by the Arirang Games in Pyongyang.

Columnist Donald Kirk,, has written half a dozen books and thousands of articles on war and peace in Asia. He is reachable at
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