Placing and displacing martyrdom : martyr-making in the Protestant Church in Korea
Choi, Sang Do
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This thesis investigates the phenomenon of making martyrs in the Protestant Church in Korea (PCK) especially the relationship between the institution and the designation. Tracing the historical development of ideology of martyrdom linguistically and semantically from the pre-Constantinian base-line, the writer points out that martyrdom is not a fixed or universal concept but is variously employed in different times, settings, and places to justify, legitimate and memorialise a death in a specific group and frequently for a specific reason or purpose. It may also be directly linked with the identity of one persecuted community setting a firm boundary between it and the hostile persecuting group. Furthermore, the designation of martyr is an intentional act which speak to the living not the dead. In other words, martyrdom is a part of the interpretive semantics of a particular death seen by particular lives for particular purposes. Martyrdom pertains to the politics of death, yet at the same time to the politics of the living. Martyrs for the PCK represent three major periods of Korean Protestants’ death-events: the late Chosun Dynasty (1866-1905), the rule of Japanese imperialism (1905-1945), and before and during the Korean War (1945-1953). Most Protestant Christians’ deaths occurred as a result of a clash between religion and the political power represented in each era. The PCK only started to ‘make martyrs’ by collecting and interpreting the first such deaths after 1926 and increasingly from 1983 onwards. However, their work of martyr-making has exposed PCK leaders to misusing the term, by including death after natural disasters and accidents. It is arguable that the situation in post-World War II Korea was such that the strands of anticommunism and ethnic nationalism profoundly influenced the historicity of the death-event. Martyr-making processes in the PCK context, therefore, functioned politically to define the persistently common enemy of communism and anti-nationalism, mobilizing Christians against them, and justifying creative martyr-making by its effect. Thus it will be argued that martyr-making is part of the power structure of the PCK: and power, any power, always has the potential to be wrongly used. To analyse the operation of PCK’s martyr-making more specifically, this thesis includes two case studies. The first is of Rev R. J. Thomas who is said to be ‘the first Protestant martyr in Korea,’ whose martyr status was tentatively designated in 1926 and elevated at the time of the 1884-1984 celebration of Protestantism in Korea. And the second is Rev Son Yang-Won, widely known as ‘the atomic bomb of love’ from 1948 when he adopted the killer of his two sons amid the ideological conflict between the leftist and rightist, whose reputation as the ‘martyr of love’ increased from 1950 immediately after being killed by communists in the early stage of the Korean War. The Thomas case uncovers the ethnic nationalistic tendency of the PCK’s martyr-making, and their anticommunist attitude in the treatment of Rev Son. In short, it will be argued that PCK leaders controlled the collective memory about deaths in the specific historical contexts to sustain their socio-political views, placing and displacing some death-events to commemorate some or intentionally exclude others, based as much on the ruling ideologies of South Korean society, mainly anticommunism and ethnic nationalism, as on the image of Jesus’ death. What this may mean for the PCK now and in future is briefly explored in the final comment.