Understanding Korean/American Evangelism


A review of Contemporary Korean/American Evangelical Missions: Politics of Space, Gender, and Difference. By JU HUI JUDY HAN.

In this 2009 dissertation for the department of geography at UC Berkeley, Ju Hui Judy Han asks what lies behind the many world evangelical missions undertaken by Koreans and Korean-Americans: What motivates the participants? What enables the mobilization of so much human effort? What beliefs underlie the enthusiasm for evangelical work abroad? And, finally, what understandings and effects are produced through the experience of mission? In exploring these questions, Han draws on theory, primary textual sources, and a multi-sited ethnography of missionary projects.

Han’s analysis focuses on the intersections between ideology, global power dynamics, and lived experience. Han examines the notion of “Korean responsibility” to evangelize. Central to that notion is an understanding of (South) Korean economic developmental success as related to Korea’s history as a Christian missionary target in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the history of rising from the devastation of colonialism and war. The leaders of the evangelical movement draw on this heritage of religious conversion and economic development to justify their own expertise in showing others the way to a better life. Han asserts that this rhetorical strategy connects Korea, and Koreans, to the politics of US hegemony. Han further argues that through the experience of short-term missions, participants draw on and reproduce this narrative, while undergoing an emotional experience that forges particular kinds of subjectivity. In this way, Korean evangelical Christians come to embody and to perpetuate a vision of themselves as privileged emissaries and exemplars of prosperity and Christian propriety.

Following an introductory chapter, the dissertation is divided into Parts I and II. The first part focuses on the evangelical movement and its ideological foundations. The second covers Han’s fieldwork in California, South Korea, China, Uganda, and Tanzania.

In the introduction, Chapter 1, Han establishes the importance of geography, in particular spatial imaginaries as well as spatialized experiences and spatial dynamics, in the operation of Christian evangelical missions. Han looks at the “power geometries” of missionary ideology and of the travel involved in the missions themselves. She takes as her point of entry a 2007 incident in which twenty-three Korean missionaries were captured and held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Han notes that “[t]his extraordinary hostage crisis … calls attention to the ubiquitous presence of Korean missionaries in many parts of the world today” (3) and she identifies several questions stemming from this incident as those that animate her dissertation. These include the motives of these missionaries, the extent to which “Korean missionaries operate as unwitting proxies of the American empire,” and how the missionary project “challenge[s] and fortif[ies] the everyday relations of domination and subordination that underpin the expansion of global hegemony” (2-3). Han goes on to identify a Korean sense of exceptionalism that positions “Korean missionaries … as geopolitical and racial intermediaries — explicitly non-Western yet having ‘taken off’ from the lower rungs of the developing world, confidently asserting their own notion of ethno-racial-national superiority” (11).

Following this introduction, Part 1 focuses on evangelical ideology and evangelical institutions. Chapter 2 traces the formation of a conservative Protestantism in South Korea “bookended” by pro-Americanism and Anti-Communism (19). Chapter 3 looks at the production of evangelical perspectives in North America and in South Korea that (re)create racialized global imaginaries linked to proselytizing efforts and praxis. Han describes the processes through which evangelical institutions have translated the mission project into a quasi-military strategy utilizing scientific jargon to target the two billion “unreached people” of the world. These “unreached” populations are identified spatially and culturally as the “10/40 window”: that part of the world that lies between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator in the Eastern Hemisphere. Evangelists employ new quasi-scientific processes of population analysis using “missiometrics” or “evangelistics” that employ geographic information coding (54) to divide the human population according how much they have been exposed to and embraced Christianity. These techniques have led evangelicals to identify 3,000 “unreached people groups.” Han concludes Part 1 by focusing on the limits of discourse: both as an analytic method in the production of her thesis, and in the ideological experience in the lives of the missionaries she studies. She argues that ideology alone is not persuasive, and that practical activity is what makes it so (56).

In Part 2, Han stays fairly close to material she collected in her multi-sited ethnographic research: in a Korean/American cell church in California, as well as in evangelical missions in North Korea, China, Tanzania, and Uganda. Chapter 4 focuses on the Korean/American church community. In this chapter she highlights the cell structure of the church, and examines the hierarchies that define and delimit status, role, and agency in the church. In Chapter 5, Han shifts to the work of South Korean missionaries near the Chinese border with North Korea. South Korean missionaries attempt to “save” refugees from North Korea, often hiding them in safe houses and attempting to bring them to South Korea via often complicated and circuitous international routes. Han also indentifies conflicts between two kinds of salvation goals: salvation from the oppression of the communist North Korean regime, and salvation from non-belief itself. For example, Han points out that South Korean missionaries in China often encourage North Korean refugee women who have been sold into marriages with local men to stay in those marriages as a Christian duty, without regard for the issue of human trafficking.

In the final chapter of Part II, Chapter 6, Han turns to the experience of Korean and Korean/American missionaries in Uganda and Tanzania. This section focuses on the importance of affective experience in the making of missionary evangelicals. Han details some of the hardships the missionaries undergo, and the effects these hardships have on their sense of the work they do, social differences inside the group, as well as on their position vis-a-vis the local people. Missionaries are discouraged from learning anything on their own about the local history or people, and as Han points out, the “development” work of the missionaries tends to legitimate the perception of vast pre-existing social difference (105), and reinforces the missionaries’ sense of their own special status as both beneficiaries of a gospel of capitalist deliverance, and as privileged sources of the message of development and hard work as a route to Christian salvation and to prosperity. (One passage describes a Korean missionary’s attempts to motivate Ugandans to work toward prosperity by referencing a Christianized vision of the Saemaul Undong, South Korea’s 1970s-era rural development initiative.) Han also highlights the age, gender, and nationality (and linguistic) dynamics in the group of missionaries, noting, for example, that the preponderance of women reflects the dynamics of a gender-segmented labor market that leaves women “free” to volunteer their time to missionary work.

Han’s concluding chapter, Chapter 7, recapitulates her arguments and asserts the complex and even ambiguous qualities of evangelism. Han highlights three functions of the Korean evangelical developmentalist ethos: First, it presents an opportunity for the “development generation” to teach younger Koreans how to think about South Korean development history; second, the envisioning of world missions reinforces and confirms the hierarchical positioning of South Koreans and “less developed” mission target peoples; and finally, the experience of being part of a mission is a ritual experience of confirming authority upon South Koreans, and within that group, upon members of the development generation in particular. Han concludes by calling for a critique of the power-knowledge system that motivates Korean-led world missions, which she asserts functions to “perpetuate the power-laden systems of inequality” by establishing the powerful as virtuous “compassionate donors, heroic aid providers, devoted volunteers, and experienced teachers” (128).

Han’s methods include analysis of American and South Korean evangelical literature and discourse; interviews with evangelical missionaries; interviews with a small number of North Koreans who had been the targets of evangelical work; and participant observation in a Korean/American church in northern California, with missionaries along the Chinese-North Korean border, and on a short-term mission in Uganda and Tanzania. Han’s training in geography is an excellent match for the subject matter she tackles. Han structured her research as a multi-sited, global investigation to mirror the scope and scale of Korean/American evangelical efforts. “From the start, it was the audacious breadth of the missionaries’ far-reaching transnational movement that piqued my interest” (16). As she explains it, her research is multi-sited to trace the flows of ideas and people across space, and global, in that it examines the making of new globalisms and new localisms through evangelical work.

Throughout the dissertation, Han draws effectively on several theories from cultural studies, critical and feminist geography, and anthropology, and queer studies (e.g., Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler, Doreen Massey, Mary Louise Pratt, and Michael Watts, to name just a few) to illuminate and reflect upon her data and insights. Within the Korean studies field, this dissertation resonates with a number of recent works within Korean studies on Christianity (in particular on gender and Christianity, such as Kelly Chong’s) and on the globalization of Korean lived experiences.

Laura Nelson
Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology
California State University East Bay

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley (Department of Geography). 2009. 142 pp. Primary Advisor: Michael J. Watts. Additional Committee members: Gillian Hart, Elaine H. Kim, John Lie.

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