OK, Human

A recent post on the cold-blooded murder of a Korean hostage by the Taliban drew a great deal of commentary. We’re on the road today, but having a free moment and online access, I thought I’d re-examine the original post in the light of some of the criticism it has received.

The tone, admittedly, was stern. It is hard to find suitable terms to express the foolishness and naiveté of the Korean mission. Some commenters objected to my assumption that the purpose of the mission was to proselytize, and I hear that the account now being given is that the hostages were on a short-term medical-services mission in support of a more permanent evangelical outpost. This distinction is trivial; the purpose of the overall project, and the very definition of evangelical Christianity, is to take the message of salvation through Christ to those who would otherwise be forever lost — in this case, in other words, to convert the Muslims of Afghanistan to Christianity. (As I mentioned in the original post, the prospects of success are negligible, especially when one considers that the penalty for apostasy in those parts is death.)

Many are placing the blame more upon the trip’s organizers than the youthful hostages themselves; for that perspective see, in particular, this thread at the Gypsy Scholar. Another blog from Korea, the Marmot’s Hole, has been covering the story as well. Read also Kevin Kim’s comments on the previous post, and at his own website. But as I have already argued, the worst that one can say about the hostages is that they were stupendously foolish and presumptuous — foolish to try to take their message to Afghanistan in the way they did, and presumptuous to assume that the intended audience would want to hear it in the first place. Neither of those should be capital offenses.

I spoke also in very severe terms about the Taliban, whom I said deserved, on the basis of their behavior, exclusion from the “circle of humanity”. This is a harsh assessment indeed, and as has been fairly pointed out by the most critical commenters, that is exactly the process that has been used throughout history to justify the most appalling genocide and atrocity. The Nazis, for example, prepared the ground for the Holocaust by referring to the Jews as less than human. So yes: I went too far in making such a characterization. But I do want to make clear that in distinction to the systematic dehumanization of the Jews by the Nazis, I criticize the Taliban not on the basis of race or ethnicity, but solely on the basis of their actions, which are, I think, beyond the norms of what present-day civilization has any reason to tolerate. The murder of helpless hostages, the slaughter of mere schoolgirls for being so audacious as to seek an education, the control by terror of the polities they overrun, the oppression of women, the sponsorship of terrorism in support of a medieval, sexually repressive, and brutal theocracy (not to mention their outrageous demolition of the majestic Buddhist statues at Bamiyan), mark them as implacable foes of all the norms of the 21st-century world. Civilization, however tolerant and morally enlightened, must always confront those who violate its fundamental principles. We incarcerate violent people, and in the severest examples put them to death; the presumption is that by their defiance of civilization’s norms they have forfeit any clam to membership. Those who would argue that the Taliban have the “right” to do as they like within their own borders†† must keep in mind that it is from within those same borders that the Taliban, acting with the full authority of the Afghan state they had usurped, effectively declared war on Western civilization in 2001, and were driven from power in response. They are fighting now to reassert the grip of their odious and unmerciful tyranny upon the Afghan people.

But are they human? Yes. They are, and given the horrors that institutionalized dehumanization of unwelcome groups has unleashed in the past, I withdraw my earlier remark. They are human indeed, and therefore morally responsible for their cruelty. And as such, a civilized world is, in my opinion, fully justified in condemning them, and in opposing them to the fullest extent of its ability.

Related content from Sphere
  1. Think of that. Attacking young girls with automatic weapons for the “crime” of going to school.
  2. †† “Nonsense upon stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham said. The idea that national sovereignty means that any vicious regime can brutalize a captive populace with impunity is, I think, deeply misguided.


  1. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I hardly think it trivial to distinguish between a proselytizing mission and a medical mission when, in your original post, you attributed to the Korean hostages a “mission to convert fundamentalist Muslims to Christianity.” An appeal to dictionary definitions doesn’t erase the simple difference between an evangelical christian and an evangelizing christian. The latter, in addition to being evangelical, act as evangelists.

    Posted July 28, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Bob – are we still arguing about this? I can’t help wondering why it is that you are pressing this point so relentlessly. Is it that you would assign some greater culpability to the missionaries if they were there to proselytize?

    The church’s mission in Afghanistan is to evangelize. The church has in place a permanent missionary. These volunteers are there in support of that mission. Apparently the church now has photos up of the volunteers “witnessing” to the locals. The whole point of the entire operation is to bring Christianity to Afghanistan.

    Anyway, I’m not blaming the missionaries for anything other than a carelessness and disregard for the consequences of their actions that rises to the level of downright stupidity. The extent to which these hostages have actually opened their mouths to preach is really not the issue here.

    Posted July 28, 2007 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    The reason I press the point relentlessly is simple, and it has nothing to do with assigning blame. Assuming that all evangelical christians are ipso facto evangelists of one stripe or another is wrong. It’s the sort of error I’d expect from the Taliban, who are so certain of their own grasp of the truth that they can’t be bothered with nuances.

    Posted July 28, 2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Goodness! I’ve always thought that I was quite attentive to nuances of meaning, and it’s certainly something I consider important, even if I fail occasionally. I’m hurt that you would compare me to the Taliban in that way, as I’ve always valued your comments here, and I only want the truth; the opinions I’ve expressed are only reflective of my current understanding in pursuit of that goal. If I’m mistaken about any of it, I am sincerely interested — not being snarky here — to learn where I’m in error.

    So let me make clear what I think it means to be an “evangelical Christian”. My understanding is that the essential quality of evangelical Christianity — that which makes it “evangelism” rather than something else — is the importance not only of living according to the teaching of Christ, but also of taking that teaching to those who have not already accepted it, in order that they may be saved also. In this way one gives the greatest possible gift, that of eternal salvation through Christ.

    Now I realize, of course, that in an evangelical church, there may be those who actually “evangelize” — that is, those who actually preach Christ’s message to those who would otherwise be beyond salvation — and those who might play other, supporting roles. But the ultimate mission of an evangelical church is to spread Christ’s teaching, and those members of its flock who do the work of the church in any capacity, whether it be by actually “witnessing” or some other effort, are all pulling together toward that same goal, the highest calling of all. Of course, one might be an unaffiliated evangelical Christian, who doesn’t evangelize at all, but it does seem to me that if the core idea of evangelism is the importance of spreading the teaching for the sake of the salvation of others, then to the extent one isn’t participating in that project in some way, one is not living up to what it means to be “evangelical” in the first place.

    That’s about as clearly as I can put it. What am I missing here?

    Posted July 28, 2007 at 10:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    Bob and Malcolm,

    I can see both points of view here. As a Presbyterian who has done work for the homeless through our church’s outreach program, I can speak to this issue.

    My home church in northern Virginia was among the first to cooperate with Mitch Snyder, one of the most famous advocates for the homeless, back in the 1980s. We helped establish United Community Ministries (UCM), a program that continues to this day, and we were involved with Route One Corridor Housing (R1CH, pronounced “rich”), an organization devoted to creating shelters for the homeless.

    UCM is overtly evangelical in its thrust, but R1CH is not. As a high schooler, I and the rest of my youth group did work for R1CH at the largest (at that time, the only) shelter on Route One in NoVA, but not once did we proselytize. We were there simply to serve the needs of the folks who came in off the street, to provide clothing, bedding, and food where we could, and to sort contributions from the community. UCM and R1CH overlap in their aims, and UCM did (and does) help provide canned food and other supplies for R1CH. But while UCM has always harbored the “ulterior” motive of evangelism, this aspect of UCM never spilled over into work for R1CH. The latter program is simply about aid, not at all about proselytizing, and no one at the R1CH shelter has ever explicitly witnessed to the Lord; they simply perform what Christians call “good works.”

    A program called Agape, which started up at our church in the early 2000s to help the mentally and emotionally disturbed in our community, is based physically at our church and is, unsurprisingly, modeled on a congregational template: people who join Agape are invited to participate in various activities, including evening worship. No one is obliged to engage in the overtly Christian parts of the program, but strangely enough, many of the people who come there end up joining all the same. This may sound weird, but Agape members include people from other religions who find comfort in the sense of community and ritual. These folks are never asked to abandon their home faith.

    Our assistant pastor has done an excellent job of managing this program, and membership has grown to the point where many people say that Agape has become, effectively, a second congregation. Some Agape members actually step out of Agape and join our “regular” congregation, just to attend regular worship, join the choir, etc. Sometimes they leave Agape completely and officially become regular members. Regular congregation members, meanwhile, routinely volunteer to help out with Agape meetings, so there is a lot of cross-pollination between our two communities.

    I mention all this to show there are shades of gray when it comes to evangelism, mission, and so on. I can understand where Bob in coming from in his desire to make distinctions among the various types of Christian service, aid, etc. At the same time, I think Malcolm has a point insofar as the Taliban (and others) would indeed NOT see things this way: it’s very easy, and reasonable, to lump all missionaries together and call them all proselytizers, even if that is not actually the case.

    Further, I would say that Korean missionaries are often more fervent about their beliefs and the need to spread them than many missionaries from other countries. While I’ve never had any problems in my classes with overzealous Christian students, a walk through downtown Seoul is enough to make you realize that many churches here use the “hard sell” to get their evangelical message across. This is in stark contrast to my own denomination, i.e., mainline American Presbyterianism, which is by many accounts a “dreary” and “boring” faith. We are jokingly referred to as “God’s Frozen Chosen.” Worship service is often “high Church” in style, with staid, plodding hymns and a fairly relaxed outlook on life, not at all like many of the strongly evangelical or fundamentalist churches preaching fire and brimstone.

    One reason for Christian fervor in Korea is simply a function of culture: Koreans are passionate folk and can really latch on to a movement Another reason for such fervor is that Christianity is competing with Buddhism, which has very deep roots in Korean society; this competition creates what one of my profs calls “boundary issues,” i.e., issues of self-definition in order to distinguish the in-group from the out-group (as opposed to claiming “we’re all fundamentally the same”). A third reason is that the various Korean churches are in competition with each other on Korean soil — kind of a strange thought, but not surprising if we take seriously the idea that churches try to increase their own membership as a function of the Great Commission. A fourth reason is that Christianity is closely associated with Korea’s struggle for independence from the Japanese, for it was primarily the Church that kept Korean literacy alive (the Japanese generally forced Koreans to speak Japanese) and actively participated in resistance activities. All of this is to say that Christianity is, today, a major part of the psychic landscape in Korea.

    To be clear, I don’t agree with the missionary impulse. Of the two major forms of Christian witness, I prefer “passive” witness to “active” witness, i.e., I prefer Christians who show their faith through good works and not through preaching and attempts at converting others. It’s much like the distinction between “talking to” and “talking at” a person. “Talking to” is far less obnoxious.

    [NB: Theologian Paul Knitter refers to passive witness as “the confessional approach”: at most, a believer simply talks about what he believes and goes no further; after confessing his belief, he is obliged to listen to the other’s confession. No pressure is applied. Knitter believes this approach is more appropriate for interreligious dialogue than more aggressive stances. How realistic this is is another matter.]

    So all in all, I think both of you are making reasonable points, and they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. I don’t know Bob’s intentions, but pointing out the similarity between Malcolm’s and the Taliban’s reasoning doesn’t strike me as insulting: on the contrary, Malcolm is hitting on the fact that that line of thinking isn’t far-fetched at all. One doesn’t have to be Taliban to reach Malcolm’s conclusions. At the same time, it’s true that many Christians do good works without the intent to proselytize at all, but simply out of a sense of charity, and this distinction is important insofar as we Westerners prefer to think in terms of individuals and not engage in guilt by association (something Koreans are prone to do).

    We should probably focus on what exactly the Korean group in Afghanistan is doing (I’m aware that there has already been some focus on that in this discussion; may it continue!), and I’m still not sure we have a clear picture of the role of each of the 23 (now 22) hostages. Apparently, it has been confirmed that the man who was killed was indeed a pastor, and as Brian pointed out in his comment in the other thread, he is being lionized as a martyr by some Korean Christians. But if Charles (in his comment at Gypsy Scholar) is correct, then it’s likely that many of the remaining 22 people had little to no idea what they were getting into, and may not have intended to perform any active witness at all.

    I want to thank both of you for following this story with such concern. I think we can at least agree that we are all gravely concerned for these people, no matter our evaluation of their intentions and their smarts.


    Posted July 29, 2007 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says

    Robert Koehler, owner of The Marmot’s Hole, writes a bit on, among other things, the issue of Korean Christian fervor.


    Posted July 29, 2007 at 12:52 am | Permalink
  7. Kevin Kim says

    Correction: the writer of that post wasn’t Koehler himself, but a guest blogger going by the handle “mins0306.”


    Posted July 29, 2007 at 1:04 am | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m sorry if my comparing your reasoning to that of the Taliban caused offense. It was a clumsy attempt to suggest that disregard for the kind of distinction I’ve been pushing could play some small part in creating situations like what’s happening to the Korean hostages. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that you share the Taliban’s lust for the blood of those who think differently than you do. So… What Kevin said.

    Posted July 29, 2007 at 9:08 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says


    Thanks. I realize these discussions can heat up rapidly, and things often look harsher in writing than they would seem in the flow of face-to-face conversation.

    Kevin, thanks very much for taking the time to write such a detailed response, for your insights into the specific character of Korean Christianity, and also for that post at your own site about the zero-sum struggle between Christianity and Islam in places like Afghanistan.

    Really, my focus has been on understanding what is meant by the specific term “evangelical” in distinction to other aspects of Christian faith. I have to say that I still understand the term to connote the importance of sharing the Good News with others.

    I realize that one can also teach Christian values by the example of good works and a moral life, but (and we get into some finer distinctions of religious doctrine here) is that enough? Is it not necessary explicitly to explain that we must accept Christ in order to be saved? If one teaches through example or good works only, without passing on that essential part of the message, then from an evangelist’s view, I would have thought that one has failed to assure the salvation of those whom one is trying to teach. Were it otherwise, all those who live the right sort of life, even those who never hear the message of salvation through Christ, would still be saved, as would those who hear the message, do not accept Christ as their Saviour, but who nevertheless live lives of perfect conformance to Christ’s teachings of love and mercy.

    I realize also that another important aspect of evangelism is a conscious personal conversion, a voluntary reaffirmation of one’s acceptance of Christ as Saviour. But this is also a feature of Baptism, and other “born again” beliefs, and while it is an important prerequisite, I can’t see how it is enough to give the word “evangelism” a distinct meaning of its own.

    So Kevin and Bob: what do you think it means to be an “evangelical Christian”? To be specific, what is it about “evangelical” Christians that is different from other sorts of Christians? This is the nub of the question I am trying to answer here.

    Posted July 29, 2007 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  10. bob koepp says

    Malcolm –
    I, too, understand the term ‘evangelical’ to connote “the importance of sharing the Good News with others.” I think that for evangelicals, this is not only “important,” but a religious duty. That leaves open whether it’s a perfect or imperfect duty; where it fits in the constellation of other religious values and duties; etc., etc. I don’t think one needs to be obsessed about spreading the word in order to wear the label ‘evangelical.’

    Posted July 30, 2007 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  11. Kevin Kim says

    Malcolm, the term “evangelical Christian” actually refers to a particular subset of Christianity. I’ve got a good book on the subject (Fundamentalisms Observed) with an interesting explanation, but I need to read the relevant section and break the info down into manageable parts. (Or I might blog about this topic myself.)

    The term “evangelical” has several meanings, of course, just as the term “church” does (esp. when the word is capitalized or left in lower case). This raises the risk of folks talking past each other.


    Posted August 2, 2007 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Thanks all.

    Kevin, I’d be very interested to see such a post. My own impression of what “evangelical” means goes all the way back to my boyhood (in the early Pliocene), when a family friend who was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Princeton (where I grew up) – and was also the chaplain of Princeton University – explained it to me in the terms I described above.

    Posted August 2, 2007 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  13. William says

    Hi, I’m also trying to learn what on earth these Koreans have got themselves into. Without passing any judgment on the articles nor their subjects, here are a bunch of links to articles on their (mis-)adventure which I have found so far (I’ve tried to fix any broken link – sorry for inconvenience caused):

    Video of Koreans at work in Afghanistan

    For the one, the original English text is at the bottom

    From International Herald Tribune of UK

    From Time

    Also from Time – 11 webpages long

    From Der Spiegel of Germany

    From Asia Times

    From the Telegraph of UK

    Also from the Telegraph of UK

    From The Daily Mail of UK

    From Chosun Ilbo of South Korea

    From the Turkish Press

    From “The Ledger”

    From “The Spec”

    From “NPR”

    From Christians Today, based on Reuters’ reportage

    From Crosswalk

    Posted August 13, 2007 at 3:02 am | Permalink
  14. William says

    Final correction (I hope – sorry, guys):

    From International Herald Tribune of UK

    Posted August 13, 2007 at 3:07 am | Permalink
  15. William says

    The first half of this clip is reportedly on the group of actual Korean hostages, recorded as they first arrived in Afghanistan. I also see these shots in our newscasts, and they were also attributed to the group of captives.

    Posted August 14, 2007 at 4:30 am | Permalink