South Korea: Five years of an untold story

by Se Chan Oh, Rainbow Theology Institute, South Korea

(Translation by Hyeyoung Lee)

Five years ago, the search for and exclusion of the queer community and queer allies launched at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PRK) in 2017. It was the beginning of targeting churches and seminaries. The denomination’s seminary, which should have raised issues and suggested alternatives to the resolutions that were passed without sufficient discussion, gave up its responsibility as a research institution and meekly followed the decision and materialized it as a rule within the school in order not to offend the people who control the denomination. 

Students and pastoral candidates felt pressure and a kind of coercion that they would be penalized if they did not actively participate in queer hatred when applying to churches or seminaries. The seminary, which I have been attending since 2018, has created a pledge that new students must agree to when entering the school. In that document, phrases such as, “I will not raise any concerns about being disadvantaged if I do not follow the guidelines of the denomination regarding homosexuality,” was included.

My friends and I started questioning these ridiculous processes. For example, as a means of support and solidarity to LGBTQ+ people in our school and denomination, when participating in the chapel held on May 17, 2018, which was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOBIT), we wore clothes that represent the rainbow colours at worship. 

After worship I simply uploaded photos of the worship service on Facebook. It was a huge scandal. The incident grew so large that the school was disciplined for the same purposes as, ‘non-fulfilment of professor’s guidance’, ‘disruption of class’, ‘hosting an illegal event’, and ‘damage to the school’s reputation’. 

The next year, I passed the sermon-manuscript writing, essay, Bible, church history, constitution, and interview exams for the pastoral exam, and I was placed on the list of successful candidates for the ordination exam. However, a report of over 100 pages of information stating that, “a person who is an advocate for homosexuality is on the list of successful candidates for the ordination exam” and my Facebook posts and past activities were submitted. In the end, I had to have a more than two-hour-long special interview with 20 more-powerful, older male pastors. 

Our issue was being used to cover over another issue, one of apparent nepotism or favouritism: that of a son of the head pastor of a large church inheriting the position of head pastor immediately following his father’s retirement. That is why we had to raise our voices more clearly, study more intensely, create logic, and organize people to respond. We found ourselves facing a second problem. We were accused of failing to follow the strategy of preventing the hereditary succession first and then dealing with our issue last, and that we gave the group trying to pass the hereditary succession an excuse to attack us. So we have experienced double oppression, condemned by both those who try to pass the hereditary succession case and those who try to stop it. The church, one of the largest churches in our denomination at the time, eventually followed through with this hereditary succession. The pastor, who was chairman of the Homosexuality Countermeasures Committee, raised his voice to try to rebrand the issue of his son inheriting his position as an issue of resisting queer people. After the hereditary succession issue ended, the issue of queer people and their allies has gone silent both within the denomination and within the seminaries.

I know many denominations have gone through similar processes, but we should not stop here. It is very easy to regress once you stop moving for change. As we can see in the last two or three years, the winds of nationalism have blown across the globe, and some countries that had adopted democracy have turned into dictatorships. In South Korea, the right-wing party lost to the far-right party in the last presidential election. During the next five years of a far-right government, it is expected that movement among the denominations will be insignificant. I don’t know if the Korean denomination has a golden time left. Young people are leaving the church and becoming increasingly conservative. Churches seem to be the biggest obstacles to social development and the expansion of human rights. A continuous and active self-sustaining solidarity that transcends denominations and the state is necessary. That will be the work for our church now as well.

We are making a new movement. We started the Rainbow Theology Institute. Those who were disciplined and expelled for various reasons, and those who voluntarily participated in their own expulsion, gathered together to re-discover the language that could explain our lives and society in Christianity and theology. Anything we can do together is always welcome. 

Let’s be more connected and united.

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