Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reflections from Seoul on Mission in a Global City

Seoul is an extraordinary city.  I am here for six days to visit NYTS alumni/ae and current students, deliver a lecture, and preach in various chapel services and in Sunday morning worship.  I arrived on a Tuesday at 3:00 in the morning with the coordinator of our Korean Ministries program, Dr. Chang K. Behk.  Our first stop was in one of Seoul’s numerous saunas where business people regularly go in the morning to start their day.  Ours was on the 12th floor in the Cerestar office building in the central district.  After some time in a han jeung mak or kiln sauna, a shower, and a change of clothes, we headed off to a full day of work.  Since then it seems we have been continuously on the move from early in the morning until late each evening, traveling through the streets by cab or driven by our various hosts in what seems like an endless unfolding of lights, skyscrapers, and people.  In between travel times we meet with small groups of alumni and alumnae or visit campuses of theological institutions with whom NYTS has developed relationships.  I will end the week on Sunday morning in the Hallelujah Community Church where I will preach during the three morning services before returning to New York.

Two kinds of visual symbols have grasped my attention in the city during this trip.  The first is the proliferation of ads and other signs of consumer goods from around the world that are central to the economy of the global city.  Cosmetic products and clothing are especially prominent, with huge images hung on banners covering large parts of the sides of buildings or posted on billboards.  Often above them are the names and logos of corporate entities that are everywhere throughout Seoul.  Many of these are familiar symbols of the global economy.  Especially prominent are those of the electronic industry such as LG and Samsung, or the industrial giants such as Lotte or Hyundai.  While the names of the major industries and conglomerates tend to dominate the upper floors and top levels of buildings across the city, I note that the street level tends to be dominated by the signs and images of smaller companies, local restaurants, food stores, clothing vendors, and the like.  Throughout the city there are goods for sale everywhere along the streets:  lamps, chairs, rugs, electronic items, and more.  In one neighborhood there is a stretch of stores a block long offering stainless steel industrial restaurant ware out on the sidewalk.  In another we pass industrial machines with workers cutting metal beams that stretch across the sidewalk into the street.  Life on the streets has the “everyday” feel of a local economy, while the skyline is dominated by symbols of the global economy.

The other symbols that catch my eye are the red illuminated crosses that are up on top of churches throughout Seoul.  Many of these are visible especially in the evening as they shine in the simplicity of a red light outline forming the shape of a traditional Latin Christian cross.  But I have noted that they are not nearly as prominent as they once were in Seoul.  I remember being struck during my first visit to the city twenty years ago by the manner in which these crosses dominated the skyline especially at night as they shone out over certain neighborhoods.  During this visit I notice how much these crosses have been diminished in the overall skyline of Seoul.  This is so not necessarily because the crosses are fewer in number, although they may be.  Rather, it appears to be on account of the explosive growth of the commercial aspects of this city where office buildings, apartment buildings, and shopping centers overwhelm the visual so that even the largest megachurches now tend to recede into the neighboring cityscape.

My colleague at NYTS, Dr. Peter G. Heltzel, recently posted a blog on the Huffington Post on “Resurrection City.”  Resurrection City was the name of the tent city that Civil Rights leaders constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in the days following the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968.  Dr. Heltzel notes that King died while leading a campaign for a living wage for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968.  He urges us to continue the struggle today in New York and in other cities in the USA, in an effort to secure economic justice that is informed by the hope for a Resurrection City.
Seoul in its own way is a Resurrection City as well.  Seoul was in ruins in 1953 as the Korean War came to an uneasy truce.  Over the next two decades a major industrial city arose from the rubble, with its vast slum neighborhoods populated by the urban industrial poor.  During the 1960s, 70’s, and ‘80s, its streets were often the scene of battles between students and other human rights activists demonstrating for democratic reforms on the one side, and police and government forces on the other.  I visited the Myeong-dong Cathedral again this week and was shown the steps where the police used to stop as they pursued demonstrators taking sanctuary in the Cathedral during those years.

What arose from the industrial city is now a global city, with cell phones replacing bull horns in the streets.  The global urban rhythms of hip-hop music occasionally blare from cars or in a sidewalk café throughout the city.  Multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are replacing older homogeneous cultural formations. A new generation of younger Koreans is coming of age that is more highly educated than those who came before them.  They work in the corporate offices or in the service sector, engage in social networking online, and are far more sophisticated about consumer products.  Many of them no longer hold on as strongly as their parents did to the ways of their elders in matters of religion and culture.  They are still Christian, but they are bringing guitars and drums into worship and tend to wear jeans in church.  Out on the streets I cannot tell the difference in young people who are Christian, Buddhist, or possibly secularists without any formal religious affiliation at all.

I am hearing two currents of theological response to the realities of this new global city among the church leaders and in the theological schools that I visit in Seoul.  The first I will call for the lack of a better term “traditional global missions.”  Korean churches, I heard one person say, have been called to take on the responsibilities of being the new global missionary force, carrying on the tradition that they received from Western missionaries who first brought the Gospel to them.  Another theological educator pointed out to me that with the slowdown and even decline in church growth in Korea, the theological schools in the land are producing more graduates than there are openings in churches for pastors.  Koreans are going to have to turn increasingly to global missions, he said, to find jobs for these candidates.

That is one response I am hearing.  But a second, although not necessarily antithetical response, is one I would call a new or renewed theology of the neighbor.  Christians in Korea must learn in new ways what it means to become a church for others, one pastor told me.  Christians must learn that evangelism begins with service, another theological educator said.  Ministry is the manifestation locally of the transformation God intends globally a third pointed out to me.  A new conversation about public theology and public faith is emerging in Korea, said a fourth.  This second type of response is no less missional in character, but it begins with the question not of what does the church need.  Rather, it takes as the starting point for mission the question of what does the world need?  What is most compelling in the city or in the world, this approach is asking, and how should the churches respond in mission and ministry?  Such questions, I realize by the end of the week, are not unique to Seoul, or to the global city in general.  This second response seems to me to entail a deeper engagement with the Gospel message that asserts, “for God so loved the world.”

Dale T. Irvin is the eleventh President of New York Theological Seminary and Professor of World Christianity. He is the co-author with Scott W. Sunquist of History of the World Christian Movement. Dr. Irvin is also the author of Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Orbis Books, 1998), and The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama (Orbis Books, 1996), which he edited with Akintunde E. Akinade.

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