Friday, July 27, 2007

Two opinions on the Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan...

André Thévet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies des Hommes Illustres
"semen est sanguis Christianorum" - Tertullian

I suppose that I should have an opinion on the hostage crisis in Afghanistan.

I mean the 23 (now 22) Christian medical missionaries from South Korea captured by the Taliban and threatened with execution if South Korea doesn't withdraw its troops 'immediately' or pay a ransom, or if the Afghan government doesn't exchange 23 (now 22?) Taliban prisoners for them, or if the United States doesn't do something (probably), or if the whole world doesn't convert to Islam (eventually). As you see, I'm not absolutely clear on what the Taliban want.

Even one local police chief in Afghanistan, Khwaja Mohammad Sidiqi, acknowledges that the Taliban demands are confusing: "One says, let's exchange them for my relative, the others say let's release the women, and yet another wants a deal for money."

While the Taliban may not know what they specifically want, they do want the world to know that they are very serious. They've already killed one prisoner, the 43-year-old pastor, Bae Hyung-kyu, who was leading the group, reportedly because he "was sick and couldn't walk and was therefore shot." I don't know if that early report was accurate, but it's hardly one to counter the negative image that many already have of the Taliban.

Anyway, I suppose -- as I said -- that I should have an opinion on the hostage crisis in Afghanistan.

Actually, I have two opinions, and I've already expressed both of them ... not here at Gypsy Scholar, but over at the Marmot's Hole. My first opinion was in reaction to the spate of initial criticism blasted at the missionaries themselves by a number of commentors, who considered the missionaries stupid -- first for being Christian, second for going to a Muslim country as missionaries, and third for going to a war zone. At that time, people didn't know much about the situation and were reacting to the report in ways that sounded less like reasoned analysis and more like the results of a Rorschach Test, revealing less about the hostages than about the commentors themselves.

Here -- from the Marmot's original posting on the hostage crisis -- are my own Rorschach results:
I think that every Korean Christian heading to Muslim countries has been perfectly aware of the potential cost ever since Kim Sun-il was beheaded in Iraq three years ago.

These Christians go to do volunteer work in health and charity services as well as to witness to their faith, which is by and large a peaceful one.

When they speak to Muslims about their faith, they speak of a God who loved the world enough to take human flesh and die for humanity, and they see as their mission to live a Christlike life, which for them means living -- and possibly dying -- in the service of others.

They don’t force anyone to become a Christian -- and in fact believe that belief cannot be forced.

They are among the last individuals whom I would look down upon. (Posted July 20, 2007 at 9:31 pm)
Later, in the comments to another Marmot post, I expressed my other opinion -- the Rorschach results this time revealing my Realpolitik views:
As I told the folks in my Sunday School class, these 23 missionaries chose to express their faith by going to Afghanistan to minister to the Afghans. They knew the danger, and they took the risk. They made their choice. The Korean government should not negotiate with the Taliban over these hostages. The Taliban are murderous, violent, fundamentalist Islamist terrorists. Negotiating with them will lead to more hostage-taking -- especially hostage-taking of Koreans.

If Christian missionaries wish to witness -- in word or in deed, or both -- to Muslims, then they should not expect their own governments to pay ransoms for their release. It was said -- perhaps by Eusebius -- that the blood of the martyrs watered the seeds of the church. If that’s so, then Christians should accept the possibility of martyrdom.

That said, I do not know what these missionaries have expected, nor am I sure that anyone knows clearly since their wishes have not been expressed in any reports that I’ve read. Doubtless, their faith is on trial. Faced with death, whose thoughts wouldn’t be concentrated? -- if I may borrow a thought from Samuel Johnson. I hope that they are released unharmed -- the 22 remaining ones, at any rate -- but that should be the decision of the Taliban, and nothing more than moral pressure should be exerted, with the exception of a rescue operation if that be the decision of the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

I suspect that the Korean government has already gained the reputation as one willing to pay ransom, based on the experience of hostage-taking by Somali pirates and Nigerian rebels. Unless I’m mis-remembering what happened in such cases... (Posted July 26, 2007 at 6:29 pm)
The Western Confucian (Joshua Snyder) corrected me:
[I]t was the heretic Tertullian, God bless him, who said it: "sanguis martyrum semen christianorum." (Posted July 26, 2007 at 9:44 pm)
Thanks, Joshua. For the benefit of those whose Latin is rusty, here's what Tertullian meant to say: "The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians." I haven't located this exact quote, but Tertullian says something similar in his Apology: "semen est sanguis Christianorum" (Apologeticum (Apology) 50.13), i.e., "the blood of Christians is seed."

But Tertullian's insight may also be true for Islam: "sanguis martyrum semen muslimorum."

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At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have not commented on this issue anywhere yet, mainly because I wanted to find out exactly what the situation was. I suppose here is as good a place to break my silence as any.

I haven't read the post or comment thread over at the Marmot's Hole, so I'm not sure exactly what people are saying, but this at least should be made clear: most of these hostages are *not* missionaries. They are simply church volunteers who went to Afghanistan for what they thought would be what is called "short-term missions" (단기선교).

I have some knowledge of "short-term missions." When I was in high school I went on two short-term missions trips to Germany (one the year before the Wall came down, one the year after). I have also participated in two Korean short-term missions trips to Mozambique, the second time as team leader.

Short-term mission teams are there to help the missionaries who live in that particular country (only 20 of the hostages are short-termers (including the pastor who was killed), with the rest being missionaries who live in Afghanistan). For the most part they have no knowledge of the local language and very little knowledge of local customs and laws. It is up to the resident missionary to take care of the group.

This short-term team, though, never made it to the resident missionary. They were captured on one of the most dangerous routes in Afghanistan (Their missionary in Afghanistan said that they should have started their journey in the morning) before they could arrive at their destination.

At any rate, the important thing here is that most of these hostages have no particular relationship with Afghanistan. The only reason they went to Afghanistan is because their church has a missionary (or missionaries) there. They themselves are not missionaries--they likely received some training in a "missions school" or some such program that runs for a few months, but they are in fact laypersons (except, of course, the one pastor) and not ordained or trained as missionaries. They thought they would go to Afghanistan, have an interesting experience for a few weeks, and then return home to Korea.

I'm not saying that they didn't believe they were doing the work of the Lord, but let's face it--their impact on Korean missions in Afghanistan would have been fairly minor (at least when compared to the impact of long-term missionaries). Like I said, I've been there. I know what happens, and I know what it's like for everyone involved. People go on these trips as a sort of spiritual journey--and there's nothing wrong with that. I do not regret any of the short-term mission trips I went on. But short-termers come and go in the blink of an eye. To the people living in that country, it is a temporary event. The short-termers themselves may cherish the memories and experiences of their trips for the rest of their lives (as I will), but that's where most of the impact is--on the short-termers themselves, not on the people they are ministering to.

So am I saying that short-term mission trips are pointless? No. However, limited their impact on the people in that country may be, these trips can encourage and strengthen the missionaries who have to live there year round. And yes, there is some impact on the people there. Who am I to say there isn't? Maybe there are people there who will cherish their memories and experiences as much as we do. But life for these people goes on after the short-termers leave. We only have to deal with things for a few weeks, but they have to live it.

I've said all this to make a point, and the point is this: these people put themselves in unnecessary danger (more precisely, they were allowed to put themselves in unnecessary danger). They were not trained specifically to go to Afghanistan. They did not have any serious training in the language or culture. They could have gone anywhere the church had missionaries (I know of the church, and I'm sure they have missionaries elsewhere). But they chose to go to Afghanistan. Why? Their Korean missionary there (who has lived and served in Afghanistan for 10 years) has said that this incident could spell the end of Korean missions in Afghanistan--not to mention the danger the hostages themselves are in (the missionary also said that the Korean government's ability to deal with crises like this is "practically zero"). Was it really worth it?

We can talk about martyrdom all we want, but the fact is that Saemmul Church made a catastrophic error in sending its people to Afghanistan. Had the team traveled that route at the right time, they might not have been taken hostage and we wouldn't be talking about it right now, but it still would have been a foolish move.

I am praying for these believers. I am praying that they will be released safely. I am praying that they will be strong in their faith no matter what happens. But this is not what they signed up for. If it was thought that there was even the slightest chance of martyrdom, I doubt they would have been sent. A church may be able to send missionaries into dangerous regions--missionaries are trained to go to these regions and understand the risks--but to send regular laypersons into such regions is reprehensible. I do not blame the short-termers, I blame the church officials who thought this would be a good idea. Someone should have stepped up and said, "Hey, you know what? Maybe Afghanistan isn't the best place to send untrained laypersons." Now that I think about, I guess I should also pray for the church official who okayed this, because he or she is most likely in anguish right now.

So there you have it. A big jumble of thoughts that might not make sense. But I wanted to get it out. Most of the people commenting on the issue haven't experienced Korean short-term missions trips, so they might not be fully aware of what was most likely going on. I just wanted to share my point of view.

Sorry for the long comment.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Charles, for a lot of information. It casts some of what I know into a different light by providing a lot more evidence.

I guess that the hard thing for me lies in understanding how people could be so ignorant as not to know that this was dangerous. If those who went on this short-term mission trip didn't know this fact, then somebody was either planning the trip without asking the long-term missionaries or planning the trip but hiding the danger. Either way, that person was a fool.

Even so, I have difficulty believing that those who went could be so ignorant themselves. They could not have been unaware of what happened to Kim Sun-il in Iraq, so could they possibly have not considered the risk of dying?

Now, over at Malcolm Pollack's site, Waka Waka Waka, Kevin Kim has left a relevant comment:

"A word about Western and Korean culture: an American friend and I were talking about this crisis, and I noted that many Westerners are assuming the Koreans on the trip should have informed themselves of the very real dangers of heading over to Afghanistan. As a Westerner, it would be my first impulse to run to some references, study maps of our proposed itinerary, and learn something on my own about the culture, history, and current political situation of my destination.

But this isn't how Korean culture usually works. The trip organizers, whoever they are, are the ones primarily responsible for informing their charges of the risks involved. A lot of the blame for the current situation rests on them, because in Korea, authority and information work on a trickle-down principle. If the trip leaders had done their scary best to put the fear of God into these missionaries (if missionaries they are), it's doubtful that the group would have been quite so smiley and happy."

Kevin's comment jibes with my own experience of Korean culture and how information gets distributed, but I'm still dumbfounded to think that these short-term missionaries might not know of the danger. Some information has surely filtered in horizontally -- or at least vertically from hierarchical sources other than the church.

But even if these short-term missionaries went in ignorance, that fact should not be allowed to change the policy of the US and Afghan governments. Paying a ransom or exchanging prisoners will just reward the terrorists and encourage them to more of the same.

A rescue operation is acceptable. So are deceptive negotiations. But nothing substantive should be given to these terrorists.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:29 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

If ever there were people who belonged in a hell, I'd expect kidnappers to be among them. I completely agree that governments should not make deals for hostages. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn't been entirely consistent in that policy.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're correct, and we've probably paid a price for that inconsistency.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely with Kevin's comment. That was part of what I was trying to get across amidst all my babbling: that the people really at fault are the people who organized the trip. What it basically comes down to is this: these short-termers *trusted* those in charge to be looking out for them--when in fact they apparently weren't.

Did the short-termers themselves understand the danger? I imagine they must have had at least an inkling. But, as you know, the way it works is that people think, "Well, they wouldn't send us if there was a real danger, would they?" And so the buck gets passed on up the line, but it has to stop somewhere.

And that's really the bottom line: common sense is trampled by a hierarchy of misplaced trust.

By the way, there is no doubt that the trip was planned in conjunction with the long-term missionaries there (I know this both from experience and from the fact that the missionary I mentioned above said that he waited all night for the team to arrive). What boggles my mind, though, is the apparent lack of communication. Surely the long-term missionary told them the dangers of traveling that route. Even more mind-boggling is this: as I mentioned above, only 20 of the hostages were short-termers, which means that the rest of the group were long-termers already in Afghanistan. How could they lead the team on such a dangerous journey?

My best guess, having some experience with trips like this, is that they intended to leave in the morning, but due to the logistics of moving a large group of people unfamiliar with the locale, or perhaps to the numerous problems that can arise in a foreign country, they got a late start. They should have waited until the next day, but then "it always happens to someone else, not me" syndrome kicks in and they decide that they should leave as soon as possible, rather than as soon as safe. That's only a guess, of course.

All we can really do know is pray--pray that the kidnappers (who strike me as little more than a band of thugs) show mercy, pray that the Korean government shows wisdom, and pray that the hostages themselves show strength.

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

We can perhaps hope that the Taliban will at least show mercy to the women, but Islamists often don't do so, do they?

From my admittedly scant reading of the Islamic texts, shariah gives mujahideen the right to take captured women as 'wives' ... not a very pleasant thought as the fate of the captives.

As for your reconstruction of what may have happened, it strikes me as plausible.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

charles' comments (and I am the first to say I have no comprehension where missionary related things are concerned) have prodded me to comment on a subject I feel no real desire given the context and the delicacy of the subject to put my two cents in.

But. Charles is precisely correct. No thoroughly unprepared contingent should ever have been placed on the ground by any authority in such an environment.

From my earlier and continuing observation of todays blog and from some efforts to more clearly ascertain a clear understanding of this situation: this kidnapping might more precisely be labelled an effort toward extortion, ie a means to effect not a strictly Taliban nor terrorist inspired (religious related) effort to "make a point."

Afghanistan travel is always perilous. Ransom is: to compare with the US, a commodity that might be on the DOW.

From some gleanings it would seem that NATO teams are not especially concentrated in this particular region. But given the wider context (one mustn't ever disregard) sending any group into Afghanistan between any two points, allowing for a "buffer zone" from which that group might continue on their particular mission shows that someone, somewhere dropped the ball.

Jessica too is completely correct in her assessment. Recall the '80s: Reagan appears on TV says, "we have not traded arms for hostages", (Iran-Contra machinations) 38 days later, "it turns out I was 'wrong.'

Were this a "mission" I felt qualified to assign culpability upon and therefore judgement, my comment would be phrased differently. I appreciate charles for his.


At 3:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK. The details are still unclear, as you note, and the 'Taliban' group holding the hostages might itself be a freelance group. If so, that might make things simpler since these 'Taliban fighters' might be less willing to die for their 'cause' and might therefore be more easily pressured by implicit threats.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This situation is just an extreme case of a rather typical situation: Amateur-NGOs (including rogue missionaries) getting in the way of those who really can do useful work for the locals in crisis areas because they feel the urge to "do something" (and because it "feels good", too). This sort of engagement has a place in project-work in more benign development contexts, but not in disaster relief, basic reconstruction or war-zone settings. Even under ideal circumstances (i.e. not being kidnapped and/or beheaded) what difference would these people have made? Built walls for a hospital? Held the hand of a dying orphan? Super. The Afghans can certainly do that themselves, and do. Instead, these love-thy-neighbor-tourists drain the resources of those who really can make a difference, give the place an even worse name than it already - and deservedly so - has, and give everybody a great propaganda opportunity. Including, unfortunately, those "moderate taliban" who will probably appear within the next days, free the hostages from the "thugs", and release them amid international appause for their humanitarian spirit.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I did notice protests by local villagers demanding that the hostages be released. The 'Taliban' holding the missionaries captive could just as well be another village, I suppose -- in which case the real Taliban could actually step in and have a propaganda coup.

But there is that dead hostage...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:05 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I was going to comment until I realized I had already commented.

Uh, OK... moving on, now...


At 5:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

And an excellent, insightful comment it was, too...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Separating the tactical from the strategic in any situational occurence such as the one presently discussed, given the situation, always poses a problem for the commentor.

Should one be this way or the other? Should the commentor be judged cold, or caring, aloof or engaged? Shall it be the narrow or the wider context? Should any judgement be made?

Erdai makes a very valid point. It is all well and good to minister to the sick and dying, perhaps to build a wall for a new hospital wing. But to do so when shrapnel is winging its way to unintended recipients, and the stretcher bearer must be replaced by eight carrying both he and the previously wounded: what sense is this. Whether the pungent odor of cordite is wafting by concussive or gentle breezes is not the time for missionary zeal.

We, or at least I have trouble revealing to ourselves the most effecacious time to bring in the healers of the soul. It seems that the conquistadores brought them to merely chronicle a genocide.

Lust for any thing is quenched at some point. Bloodlust too. And when the clear and present danger to the noncoms, at least for the oblivious, becomes obvious...

Then, only then send in the uninitiated.


At 6:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you're probably right, but missionaries will go where they believe that God is leading them. I just hope that they can keep the sacred distinct from the profane and not rely upon the world to rescue them from circumstances where they insisted on finding themselves.

Of course, if Charles is right, then these 'missionaries' are perhaps now wishing that they'd been 'missed-orneries' -- i.e., difficult Christians who refuse to go.

Bad pun, but the pressure is on, and this blog is experimental...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:50 AM, Blogger David C. Innes said...

Sober thoughts on this matter. Like you, I have no doubt that they "counted the cost." It's not like a mission trip to Mexico. This draws attention to the heroic faith of these lay Christians. The seed of the church indeed, regardless of who first said it. I have linked to it from my own blog,

At 6:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, D.C. Innes. I guess that we'll eventually learn if these Koreans did indeed count the cost. Some bloggers with experience in Korea have suggested that these individuals might not have counted the cost seriously enough. Having lived here in Korea for years myself, I can understand some doubts. We'll see...

Jeffery Hodges

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