Pandemic Monitoring Without Scapegoating: Lessons from the Shincheonji Community of South Korea
An earlier version of this essay was published here, on Diresom.
On February 19, 2020, I received the first of many phone calls from the media about a new South Korean religious movement known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which was somewhat related to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. I was the only Western scholar who had studied Shincheonji, published about it, and interviewed its founder, Chairman Lee Man Hee.
In the following days, all hell broke loose. I have met many intelligent and articulated women and men who were part of the movement during my study of Shincheonji in South Korea, and I have been concerned about their health. I was horrified to come across so much inaccurate nonsense about Shincheonji in international media outlets, examples of which I have linked throughout this brief essay. Reporters who had never even heard of Shincheonji before suddenly presented themselves as amateur theologians overnight, or they simply relied on low-level Internet sources. Thus, I felt a responsibility to correct the inaccurate information that was spreading rapidly from one media outlet to the next.
Shincheonji’s theology is certainly distinctive, as it believes that some of the events described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation indeed already took place in South Korea. They also regard Chairman Man Hee Lee, who founded the movement in 1984, as the “promised pastor” who will guide humanity into the Millennium. However, its theology of the Millennium, a thousand-year kingdom without illness or death, is shared by millions of conservative Protestants and is therefore not distinctive.
Many media sources confused Shincheonji’s idea of the Millennium with its attitude toward the present world. No hospitals will be needed in the Millennium, because illnesses will disappear. However, we are not yet in the Millennium, and until we enter this glorious kingdom, we will continue to need doctors, tests, and hospitals. Some members of Shincheonji work in hospitals themselves as doctors and nurses, and it is totally false that Shincheonji’s devotees regard themselves as invulnerable to sickness or refuse modern medicine or medical tests when needed.
It is also false that Shincheonji regards illness as a sin. Like many Protestants (and Catholics), Shincheonji members believe that illness entered the world because of sin and that the Bible symbolically teaches this through the story of Adam and Eve. But this concerns humanity in general; it does not mean that each individual illness is connected to an individual sin.
Why were so many fantasies about Shincheonji believed by some Korean and international media outlets? The answer is connected with the history of South Korean Protestant Christianity, which largely resulted from the work of conservative missionaries from the West. These movements grew in the aftermath of the Korean War as arch-conservatives and fundamentalists came to comprise the majority of local Protestants. They also learned from their American counterparts how to vote as a bloc and exert a decisive influence on some politicians and the media.
Their seemingly unstoppable growth found an obstacle in Christian new religious movements, among which, according to CESNUR, Shincheonji is the fastest growing in South Korea. Rather than asking themselves why a significant number of their members were converting to Shincheonji, they explained its growth with the usual laundry list of accusations against the “cults” and tried to have it banned well before the coronavirus. They also took the law into their own hands. Parents kidnapped and detained their adult sons and daughters, and fundamentalist pastors tried to “deprogram” them and “de-convert” them from Shincheonji. South Korea’s persistence of deprogramming, a practice deemed illegal by American and European courts more than twenty years ago, attracted international condemnation when a female Shincheonji member was killed by her father in 2018 when she tried to escape the deprogrammers. In a book just published by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), a non-profit organization based in Belgium, the sad story of thousands of attempted deprogrammings of Shincheonji members is told in detail.
HRWF also teamed with my own organization, the Center for Studies on New Religions, to investigate what exactly happened with respect to Shincheonji and COVID-19. We published a white paper on Shincheonji and Coronavirus in South Korea called “Sorting Fact from Fiction.” What is certain about Shincheonji and the virus is that Patient 31, a female Shincheonji member from Daegu, was hospitalized after a minor car accident on February 7th, diagnosed with a common cold, and subsequently released to resume her normal life. Upon her release, she attended several Shincheonji services and set in motion a chain of events leading to thousands of her church’s members being infected. As her symptoms worsened, she returned to the hospital on February 18th where she tested positive for the coronavirus. Patient 31 claims that nobody told her about a possible viral infection before February 18th. She also maintains that the claim by the hospital’s doctors that she was offered the test twice before and refused ― which one can also assume to be their attempt to cover themselves and shift the blame ― is false. The doctors could have forcibly quarantined her before February 18th, but they did not do so. Within hours of learning about Patient 31’s condition, Shincheonji closed all its churches in the country.
The White Paper also goes into detail about the lists of more than 200,000 members of Shincheonji that the government requested from Shincheonji and that were handled within six days. It quotes the statement by Korean deputy minister of Health, Kim Kang-lip, that there is “no evidence that Shincheonji supplied incomplete or altered lists.” However, they did include some mistakes, which is normal for large compilations. Urged by the Mayor of Seoul, a well-known opponent of Shincheonji, the church’s premises were raided. There they seized the lists of members and compared them with those that Shincheonji had supplied. The authorities concluded that the discrepancies were minor and that Shincheonji had not been guilty of supplying incomplete or false data.
It is true that some members tried to hide their affiliation with Shincheonji in schools and workplaces, although the movement’s instructions were to cooperate with the authorities. But we should consider that in South Korea, admitting that you are a member of Shincheonji could result in job termination or even physical attacks. We have examined reports of more than 7,000 instances of discrimination against members of Shincheonji during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two female Shincheonji members “fell” from the windows of their apartments and died while “discussing” with their husbands, who were hostile to their beliefs and had a history of domestic violence accusations. These incidents are still being investigated and are cause for serious concern. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has also expressed concerns about the scapegoating of Shincheonji.
Did Shincheonji make mistakes? Yes, and Chairman Lee admitted them publicly in a press conference on March 2nd, during which he kneeled to ask for forgiveness in a typical Korean style. Shincheonji may have been slow to realize the magnitude of the problem that threatened its very existence as well as Korean public health. But these mistakes do not amount to criminal negligence, and scapegoating an unpopular movement for an epidemic is something we have already seen in history. Jews were blamed for the Black Plague epidemic in Europe in the fourteenth century, and we have seen religious groups criticized for the virus outbreak elsewhere. Certainly, religions should be monitored during epidemics; just like sport events or popular feasts, religious gatherings may create opportunities for viruses to spread. Monitoring and scapegoating, however, are very different attitudes.
Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions and the managing director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, which is the largest international center for research in new religious movements. He is the author of some 70 books on religious pluralism and religious minorities. In 2011, he served as the Representative of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Christians and members of other religions.