Mrs. Foley and I are honored to enjoy the friendship of a number of North Korean defector Christians and Christian families who were previously underground believers when they lived in North Korea. To a person, they are all extraordinary human beings from whom I have learned–and continue to learn–a great deal about faith and patient endurance and the high cost of discipleship, which they insist is a privilege that is to be joyfully paid.
It is rare for us to publish their stories because Christianity runs in families inside North Korea, and almost all of them have family members still there who would be punished for the defector Christians’ indiscreet speech. Still, they are a great help to us in everything from teaching us North Korean underground Christianity to serving as a sounding board for our projects and curricula to helping us investigate/validate/evaluate the claims made about underground Christians in the media, books, and film, most of which are sadly exaggerated or flat out incorrect. We owe these former underground believers a debt that, happily, continues to mount and that we will never be able to repay.
And yet, it is impossible not to notice the ambivalence with which they live their present lives of faith:
- All of these different individuals and families are still believers. Engage them in a discussion on the Bible and it is as if they emerge from a deep, persistent fog.
- Most, though not all, attend church in South Korea. All, however, struggle with their experience of church in South Korea. This is not because of something deeply troubling about South Korean churches. The things they struggle with are some of the things that many Western believers would assume to be very basic and right and normal and attractive about church–things like: pastors telling stories in their sermons; little emphasis on memorization; the church being built around the lives/interest/needs of its members (think “relevance”) rather than around the Bible (which is interesting given that the South Korean church is far more Bible-centric than most evangelical churches in the West). Still they would never criticize their church openly. Fascinatingly, they just end up viewing their church involvement as tangential to their faith life and development.
- Most are wistful, bordering on nostalgic, for the struggles they faced as underground believers. They light up when they talk about the pain they had to endure. They often speak about these experiences as if they are as fascinated by them as we are.
- And here’s the hardest thing to write: In their present walk of faith (and I think they would all agree with this characterization), they are less zealous in their actions than they were during their time inside North Korea. From a “hear the word” standpoint, they still clearly love the Bible and are as evangelical/orthodox/theologically straight-arrowed as ever. But when it comes to putting their faith in practice, it is as if in many ways they are retired, on furlough, distracted… Most of them would be easily describable as workaholics at their present jobs in South Korea. Their default conversations are much like ours. When we ask how they are doing they talk about aches and pains and illnesses they or their family members in South Korea are facing (most North Korean defectors have pretty significant residual health problems even after having been in South Korea for a while). They talk about their kids, they talk about school, they talk about work. I would not describe them as naively materialistic, but I would describe them in the same way I describe most of us Western and South Korean Christians: Pragmatically materialistic–our agenda set by the world and by work and by our kids, with God as an ever-present help to get us through another day. Still actively hearing the word (through Bible study, prayer, family devotions, and church attendance) but not so actively doing it. A bit like retired superheroes, with a little bit of a paunch and gracefully graying hair, always happy to reminisce longingly about past capers but no longer entertaining thoughts about putting on the cape again.
I’ve wondered over the years whether this was just a phase, and a very understandable one. After all, these are refugees with all that entails. Who can go full tilt for God while trying to learn how to operate an elevator, peel a banana, and get a job?
But what I’ve observed as time has passed is that former underground Christians are more adept than many North Korean defectors at achieving material success in South Korean society. They save money well. They stay at one job instead of hopping around. In short, they think about the future and not just the present. And as they achieve that success, I note that they become just as attached to it as we Western and South Korean evangelical Christians do to our own success. They don’t become raging materialists. But they do become surprisingly recognizable Christians of the type that South Korean and Western societies produce, ones that have made their peace in the world even as they continue to know that they are not of the world.
In other words, over time they come to look a lot like you and me.
Now none of this causes me to despair. I am incurably optimistic and so I keep their superhero costumes dry cleaned and phone booths ready for them to charge into. I regularly shine the bat signal into the sky outside their windows and drop not-so-subtle hints that Mrs. F and I are going out crime fighting and there’s a seat available in the batmobile.
But all of this does shape my thinking on what I believe to be some important issues that we as Christians all to rarely discuss:
- I think it is not quite accurate to say that persecuted Christians are amazing. I think it is more accurate to say that the Holy Spirit is amazing and that God draws especially close to those willing to suffer for his name.
- I think “the good life” is far more corrosive to the spirit than any of us have really yet fully grasped.
- I think Paul was not being modest but rather incredibly insightful about human nature when in Philippians 3:10-14 he wrote,
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“Called heavenward”–it’s worth us (and them) thinking about what that means.