Vinoth Ramachandra

Korean Ruminations

Posted on: November 4, 2010

Earlier this week I visited the de-militarized zone on the border between North and South Korea. This is the last frontier of the Cold War, and the zone is anything but de-militarized. The tension is palpable. South Korean guards stand to attention facing the north, their roving eyes hidden behind dark shades and their fists clenched in the tae-kwon-du position of military preparedness. On the other side of the dividing line stands a solitary North Korean soldier, in full military regalia, peering at us through his binoculars. We were told that that is what he did all day; and that there were other eyes, human and electronic, that were following our every move. We were instructed by our guide not to wave at them, raise our arms or point any fingers, as these were hostile gestures. They could provoke hostilities and trigger the next world war!

There is a comic, even farcical, aspect to militarization wherever it happens. Young men and women, barely out of school, strut around in robotic fashion, with an air of self-importance and speaking their own arcane jargon. Like government bureaucrats, only with guns instead of forms (but filling in forms is also a part of army life). The Indo-Pakistan border must be like this, I thought. North Korea, India, Pakistan- governments which cannot feed their own populations but rich enough to build nuclear stockpiles and massive standing armies. Is the US any better? Perhaps my American readers should answer that. Military expenditure far exceeds Obama’s health reform costs, but one hears hardly a squeak about this from any of the political parties and their followers.

Armies, we are told, bring out the best and the worst in human beings. No doubt this is true to some extent. The worst would be sadism, brainwashing and blind obedience. The best courage, self-sacrifice and discipline. But what about the courage of someone like Father Michael Lapsley, a white South African and a member of my tour group, who lost both his hands opening a parcel bomb directed at him because of his anti-apartheid activity? Lapsley is the founder-director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, where he helps others damaged by the trauma of war and terrorism learn to forgive and work for reconciliation in violent societies. Why are Father Lapsley and scores of others like him around the world not held up as examples of courage to schoolchildren? Why are their stories not depicted in films?

Lapsley and I were in Seoul for an international conference on peace and reconciliation, co-hosted by a British university and the first “megachurch” In Korea, Youngnak Presbterian Church. The latter was founded in 1945 by Rev. Kyung-Chik Han who fled the north after Soviet troops replaced the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. The conference is partly in honour of Rev. Han whose tenth death anniversary fell this year. He was, by all accounts, a remarkable man, widely recognized as the greatest Christian leader that Korea has produced. He began the church with twenty seven of his fellow refugees. The church now has over 50,000 members and over 600 sister churches all over the world. It has an extensive education program, from primary levels to tertiary, and has a passionate commitment to serve the people and churches of North Korea. Han’s mission was holistic, and he seems to have remained a humble, simple man despite his fame and the vast sums of money that flowed through his hands. He was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 1992 for his tireless efforts in organizing regular shipments of food to starving millions in the north.

I was surprised to find a chapel in the demilitarized zone. I was not surprised to learn that it had been built by Youngnak church and that, every day, groups of South Korean Christians gather there to pray for the unification of the peninsula. I too pray for the collapse of the brutal regime in the north, and for the release of all prisoners of faith and conscience. But, while I respect the passion of many South Korean Christians for political unification, I am unable to share it. Unification is something the northern Koreans, too, will one day need to decide for themselves.

What I find curious is the lack of any similar passion for the unity of the Church in South Korea. Perhaps this reflects the individualistic gospel they inherited from American missionaries. But the visible unity of his church was surely a passion for Christ; and Christians who cannot work together have no witness to bear in a divided world. It seems that ethnic unity has displaced Christian unity in the consciousness of most Korean Christians. Not surprisingly, they export their divisions and rivalries to the rest of the world, just like their British and American forebears did (and some still do).

One of my translators at the conference was a young Korean woman, armed with two university degrees, who is a marketing agent for a well-known multinational tobacco company. She told me she was in the job because they paid well and had a good management program. For all her education, she was unreflective about her work. She didn’t ask herself “who bears the cost of what I do or the skills that I am acquiring?” I wondered how different she and other university graduates like her in the South were from the North Korean soldier I saw peering at me through his binoculars. She, at least, can change her job. He doesn’t have that choice.

6 Responses to "Korean Ruminations"

Dear Vinoth,

I have been reading your blog for a little while, and am occasionally tempted to contribute, but I usually prefer just to read and think about what you are writing. I appreciate your passion, and it is contagious.

In this post, you stated, “Is the US any better? Perhaps my American readers should answer that. Military expenditure far exceeds Obama’s health reform costs, but one hears hardly a squeak about this from any of the political parties and their followers.”

There is one inaccuracy here. Throughout the healthcare debate that occupied most of the year here in the US, proponents pointed out many, many times that the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could instead be directed toward health care. (Here is one example of that: ). You may have heard “hardly a squeak,” but the topic was in fact central to the question: “how will the US be able to afford socialized medicine?”

But there is a larger, more penetrating observation behind your comment, namely that if the US spends a great deal on the military, but does not provide health care for its citizens, then we are no better than “North Korea, India, Pakistan … which cannot feed their own populations but [are] rich enough to build nuclear stockpiles and massive standing armies.”

To answer this question, though, we must first establish a Biblical role for government. Paul instructs us that the government’s role is to bear the sword to dissuade the evil-doer: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. … if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom 13:3-4). So we can at least agree that if a Government bears its sword, it need not repent of it. He is, after all, God’s minister.

But is it the Government’s duty to feed its people, or is it the people’s duty to feed themselves? Paul also, wrote, “this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat…. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.” (2 Th 3:10-12). We can at least agree here, that the able-bodied are to work productively and provide for themselves, and for their own families (cf. 1 Tim 5:8).

So then, whose responsibility is it to feed the poor, the disabled, the widow, orphan and fatherless, all of whom are our neighbors? If we are to follow the model of the Good Samaritan, let us feed them from our bounty, knowing that the hedges of our fields, the Lord has reserved for them (Lev 19:10, Dt 24:21). It is indeed robbery (of God) if we do not feed the poor from our bounty.

What is missing, however, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is a Government program. The Good Samaritan provided medical care, food, clothing and lodging, but at no point did he pause to establish a government program to do this in his stead. It is difficult, therefore, to equate “love thy neighbour” with “pay your taxes so the Government can establish yet another program to provide for your neighbour.” Yet his is precisely what you recommend.

In your March 26, 2010 entry, “Reflections on Healthcare,” you wrote, “If the rich want special clinics for breast enlargements, liposuctions and Botox lips, they can pay for that themselves. But public funds, … should be devoted to providing services that every citizen can enjoy.”

What I find at least marginally humourous is your distinction between “public funds” and what the rich can pay for themselves. In the US, those “public funds” come almost exclusively from the rich: “The overwhelming majority of federal income taxes are paid by the very highest income earners. The top 1% of income earners pay about 32% of all income taxes. The top 5% pays 51.4%. The top 10% of high income earners, pay 63.5%. The top 20% of income earners pays 78% of all federal income taxes.” (source: Congressional Budget Office, ).

Your March 26 entry can therefore be re-translated to say: “If the rich want special clinics for breast enlargements, liposuctions and Botox lips, they can pay for that themselves. But the rich should also be providing services that every citizen can enjoy.” This is resonant of the sentiments you expressed in your 2009 interview with The Other Journal, basically saying that the income of people in the US already belongs to people in other countries: “the U.S. and U.K. governments have created offshore tax havens that have robbed poor nations of the taxes of the rich.” ( )

I don’t think we can hold this principle up to the light of Scriptures and not challenge it. It is, of course, covetousness. The rich have something, and you want everyone else (in the world) to have their goods, and you want a government program that accomplishes this for you. Can we at least agree that we cannot build a sound government policy on covetousness? “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Pr 14:34). We can start with “thou shalt not covet … any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Ex 20:17). That would be a good first principle in addressing this issue.

As a US businessman with enterprises in the US and in Singapore (precisely because it is a low tax jurisdiction), should I repent of this legal means of reducing my tax burden because that money already belongs to you and every third world citizen on earth? Or should I use my additional retained earnings to feed and care for my neighbour myself? You can be assured that the money I retain through a reduced tax burden goes where it should, with no Government program siphoning off burdensome overhead costs in the process. Or may I participate in private foundations and organizations who accomplish this very thing at a fraction of the cost of a Government program? Surely this is my prerogative, wouldn’t you agree?

Vinoth, you have indeed deeply challenged me to be ever vigilant in the cause of the poor, and your challenges have not fallen on deaf ears. I do appreciate your ministry, and I find myself under conviction when I consider my wealth vis-a-vis the poverty of downtrodden and neglected. I thank you for that. But it is neither sound public policy, nor godly charity, to start with “somebody else has something that I want… so give it to me.”

Very kind regards,


Dr. Ramachandra,
Thank you for your posts. This response is actually suited for another post (about poverty) which is much older, but I leave it here in hopes for a response. International poverty is a ghastly reality. And there is a glut of opinions available as to the causes, ramifications, etc. While these critiques on poverty multiply daily, we rarely hear about robust Christian models which can teach us how to engage this social catastrophe in a transformative way. From your experience, can you offer a model (though certainly imperfect) for engaging poverty? Is there some area of the world that has experienced success in bringing dignity, health, and humanization back into a marginalized and “invisible” group?
John Gayle

Dr. Ramachandra,
partly in response to your posting and to Tim (above) what I appreciate is the reflective point, what are we doing to help those without? Without reflection and even without a voice from outside of ourselves, we are bent towards a self service and self preservation default. While we can debate the role of government, any budget (if personal, civil or corporate) does reflect values and morals. And leadership is something wants to influence and impact such values.

Ought not corporations, governments and family units share in some responsibility to care for others? I think all would answer in the positive, the next question is what are ways influence in effective ways. Here is where a robust debate can begin.


Dear Tim,

Please forgive the delay in responding to your kind letter. I have been “on the road” for the past two weeks and haven’t had the time to handle thoughtful correspondence like yours.

Thank you for pointing out the inaccuracy regarding “hardly a squeak”. What I wanted to say, and admittedly didn’t say it well, was that military spending in the US (as in India) does not provoke the same passionate debate, whatever the political party in power, that health care reform or welfare spending do.

Given the limited nature of Blogs and emails, I can only give relatively brief responses to the matters you raise. What I find most disconcerting about your letter are (a) the way you use Biblical texts, and (b) the false dichotomies you draw between individual, collective and governmental actions in relation to poverty and human need.

1. Selectively quoting Scripture, and ignoring the contexts in which these texts were written, is a recipe for disaster. (It’s the way the Bible has been used to justify every evil from slavery to apartheid). For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus in answer to the question put to him: “Who is my neighbour?”. It was not an answer to your question of how to help one’s neighbour. The latter answer depends on one’s neighbour’s situation. To use the absence of any mention of government help is to read the text through ideological lenses- to make it say what you want it to say!

2. Similarly, Romans 13: 1-7 has to be read against the background of Romans 12: 14ff (chapter divisions in our Bibles are often misleading). Paul is not giving us a Christian theory of government. In a context where Christians were tempted to reject Roman rule as incompatible with the Kingdom of God that had arrived in the resurrection, Paul reminds them that God does intend them to submit to the institution of government which still has a role to play in restraining evil in this age.

If you want to develop a fuller theology of government, you need to read the whole Bible, as well the rich tradition of Christian political thought that has developed on this subject since Augustine. The recent book God and Government, edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin (SPCK, 2009) is a very readable introduction to political theology. If you want something deeper, the work of writers such as James Skillen, Richard Mouw, Oliver O’Donovan and Nicholas Wolterstorff should be consulted.

3. There is a rich vein of thought concerning “the rights of the poor” that runs through the Biblical narrative and early Christian writings. The references and details are given in Chapter 3 (“Myths of Human rights”) of my book Subverting Global Myths. Note: “rights”- implying justice for the poor- and note merely charity. Political authorities in Old Testament Israel were charged with defending the rights of the poor and were assessed by how well they did this, not- unlike Israel’s pagan neighbours- on how massive their militaries were (e.g. Prov.31:8-9; Ps.72:1-4; Is.10:1-2; Jer.22:1-5 & 15-16). The Torah recognizes that, in a fallen world, the poor don’t compete on a level playing field; hence the structural provisions such as the Jubilee, various Sabbaths (weekly and every seven years), restrictions on debt, centralized tithing for distribution to the poor, etc. Helping the poor was never left to individual charity/generosity alone.

4. When you quote 2 Thess.3:6-10 (as many political conservatives do), once again please remember the context. Paul is speaking of Christians who can work, but choose to sponge off others (presumably the expectation of the imminent return of Christ was one motivating factor). It is mischievous and humiliating to apply it to all poor people, many of whom work far harder than the rich but find their path to social mobility blocked by various economic, cultural, legislative and political obstacles.

If you must use this text, would it not be more appropriate to apply it to the “idle rich”, especially the sons and daughters of rich parents? I know many such children who would be better off as human beings if they were denied access to their parents’ fortunes. I wait to see those Christians in the US who are enamoured by 2 Thess.3:6-10 use this text to plead for higher capital taxes and even to ban family inheritance since it can make rich kids bone lazy.

5. You have misquoted my comments on offshore tax havens. The preceding sentence indicates (in the interview) that I was referring, not to people like yourself, but to Third World politicians, businessmen and army generals who hide their ill-gotten wealth (stolen from their nations) in tax havens created by the rich nations. The latter (including Singapore, which you mention) live off such stolen wealth. It is only when it comes to crimes that affect rich nations- tax evasion in the EU, terrorism in the US after 9/11, drug transactions in Singapore- that the rich governments demand greater transparency from these banks. Tax havens encourage money laundering and the continued siphoning off of Third World wealth by unscrupulous local politicians and many transnational corporations. I see no ethical justification for them.

6. Your comments regarding the taxes paid by the rich are one-sided and potentially misleading. It is obvious that the rich pay more taxes (as they should!). But the fact is that even the poorest people (including undocumented migrant workers) pay government taxes every time they purchase food or pay rent. These taxes affect them disproportionately more than do the rich. When did you last hear of a rich person foregoing a meal because it was too costly? Moreover, tax evasion by rich individuals and corporations is a well-recognized problem in many nations, including the US. It is also the case that corporations offset their taxes by passing them on to consumers.

When President Obama recently visited India, he was accompanied by over 200 American business leaders. This is the real “nanny state” in action: the rich not only have political connections, but they “piggy back’ on governments. For all the textbook rhetoric about “free markets”, in the real world “big” businesses seek- and are given- political leverage by their governments. They are given huge subsidies (look at US agriculture), tax incentives and government bail-outs every time they fail to compete successfully in the global marketplace.

Why is it, then, that all your worries about government intervention on behalf of the poor do not seem to apply to government interventions on behalf of the well-off?

With best wishes,


Dear Dr. Ramachandra,

Thank you for your lecture at Hope College. I wonder if you remember me who introduced as a Korean pastor.

In a part of your speech, you have mentioned about how each ethnic group can see the scripture and the world differently depending upon how they engage with their lives.

It was very interesting. Because I had experienced exactly same hermeneutic misundeerstanding from each other in a few classes. Even though we were basically open-minded to each other, we had some trouble in catching up with different context. And I got to know that there is a significant gap between different ethnic, social groups. And it took time for all the members in that seminar to be on the same page, finally we made it though.

But, I had been thought overwhelmed because I felt I was almost the only one who feels the hermeneutic obstacle between different commitments to the world. However, your lecture gave me a proof that I am wrong totally. I appreciate it so much, again.


I am grateful that someone I know pointed me to your blog! I have spent a couple of years teaching English in Korea and have married the love of my life whom I met while living there. Korea and I will be forever bound and this struck home in many ways.

1. I have noticed a lot of church divisions in my city in the USA amongst the Korean groups, starting as one church and now three. It does seem that they have learned it from the West, both our good and our bad are passed on as our spiritual legacy I’m afraid. The job of the Church, well, one of them, is to be one as Christ and God are one and that even applies to marriage. Marriages represent God’s love for us and should be a reflection of that. How can the church accurately reflect God when it is divided? How can broken marriages reflect the unity of God? I hope that this can be changed in the future!

2. When I first arrived in Korea I had hoped for a humble people, perhaps akin to South Americans, who would remember the horrors of war and enjoy the most important things in life. What I found was that they seemed more interested in money and status than many in the USA. I do have to consider that I lived in Seoul and North Carolina might not accurately represent the USA. Anyway, regarding your comment on the young girl who translated for you, it seems that she was trying to be as successful as possible, and that is exactly what the guard is doing. I think that the guard likely eats regular meals and has great honor in North Korea, as he is part of the party. That is a most interesting parallel you have drawn there.

Great writing and thanks for sharing your views on everything.

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November 2010
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