A mysterious man stands on a platform, and tens of thousands of people all dressed in the same outfits praise him. Even when the man speaks impolitely and shouts at them, the audience cries out "Amen!" and the people bow their heads like sinners. The audience is comprised of people from young children who accompany their parents to elders, and all of them seem to forget why they are here. The religious sect leader says, "I don't like money, but it’s the will of God." He collects large sums of money from his followers. Outsiders will look at this as nonsense, but the followers have their devoted trust. Without a doubt, the audience believes he will lead them to Heaven.
Cults and sin
Religion has had both a direct and indirect influence on human life for a long time. Religion centers on the belief that one can attain spiritual stability against absolute or supernatural powers. In other words, there is always a sense of morality and enlightenment. The more recognized religions of the world are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. However, these larger religions have fought against pseudo-religions for a very long time. Recently, conflicts and problems surrounding pseudo-religions have been raised in Korea. A pseudo-religion is a general religion that is based on one of the more accepted religions, but it is not based on the essentials of the religion, unlike larger religions. Cults or false religions are called "Saibi" in Korean, and while they seem to be based on a true religion, they are completely different. Most pseudo-religions are offshoots of Christianity, and some of the more known ones are Mormonism, Scientology, and Peoples Temple of the Disciplines of Christ, which is notorious for its mass suicides. As followers of these types of religions grow, so does their power, and they have begun to appear in Korea.
Christian pseudo-religions first appeared in 1923 in Korea. Since then a number of heresy cult leaders began to appear. Their growth has been continuous throughout the years, and there are now several of these religious groups well-established in Korea, such as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Currently, the cult group of Shincheonji, founded by Lee Manhee, is under investigation for its constant brainwashing and exploitation of the congregation. Most cult groups have a leader who adapts scripture to match their person interpretation and emphasizes their own doctrines. A cult leader is often lead by a person who desires financial and private benefits in the name of religion. The Constitution of the Republic of Korea guarantees freedom of religion for all people, but now with knowledge of a series of incidents such assault, intimidation, and embezzlement coming from this Shincheonji, the government must step in and punish criminals. How does a pseudo-religion group or cult expand its power, and what problems result because of this excessive power?
Do you know 'Do'(道)?
Pseudo-religions rely on members recruiting more members. In the past, it was quite common to be tricked by the question, while walking along the sidewalk, 'Do you know 'Do'?' This question enabled them to speak with strangers. Members would also talk to people they met on topics that would interest them such as teaching, self-development, counseling, personality types, surveys, cultural activities at cultural centers, performances, clubs, university clubs, and so on. More than the rest of the population, university students would most often be approached by members of Shincheonji. Followers of Shincheonji formed groups on campus and engaged in evangelistic work to recruit new young adults. Followers were also often frequently seen on or near Sookmyung Women's University. It was a regular occurrence to see followers of Shincheonji gather at Exit 10 of Sookmyung Women's University Station during peak student traffic times. Bang Suyeon, Department of English Language & Literature '19, said, "On my way home from school, I was asked to attend a seminar by some of the Shincheonji believers. It was a scary experience." The members are also known for offering special tutoring sessions for first-year students during university exam periods and during orientation period. Many Sookmyungians may be given the contact number of a stranger who invited her to a Bible study session while on the way to school on the admissions essay examination day for Sookmyung Women's University. Lee Soojung, Wonkwang University '19, said "On my way to school for orientation, I got lost. Someone asked me to complete a survey and tried to get me to attend service at a Shincheonji place of worship." This shows the various ways how Shincheonji recruits their members.
Their membership recruitment has not been secretive. Followers often ask for people's personal phone numbers and other personal information. With this information, they create a group chat room on Telegram and then share the identities of newly targeted recruits. Age, gender, residence, school, character, and personal way of recruiting, and even the person’s future goals are shared with others. It has been discovered that the cult formed a special task force called the "Jeondo Special Forces (mission group of Shincheonji)” to manage the collection and sharing of information. C, who headed one of those task groups, said, "We mainly target young adults through the suggestions of activities aimed at the younger generation. We typically excluded the elderly. Those suffering from mental illnesses or depression were also excluded from our evangelistic recruitment work."1) In other words, members had an elaborate system of attracting others to the cult. Enticing activities attracted the attention of younger adults and they fell into the trap. Often suggestions of receiving counseling or completing surveys were their way of indirectly teaching the doctrine of Shincheonji. Members would start with Bible studying, and they would introduce the object to the Bible and slowly draws them into a pseudo-religion.
Those attended one of the activities by members are educated to become believers in Shincheonji. The activities are all about the Bible as interpreted by the Shincheonji leader. Members have students choose their own time, generally three to four times a week, to visit educational centers, and spend the entire time being brainwashed into believing and spreading the doctrine of Shincheonji. While they trick students by saying the activities are free, in actuality, students must pay about 70,000 won, which members claim covers the cost of copying materials. Full initiation into the cult takes just over half a year. Once started, people continue, and they take a test at the end of the education course activity. Over time, people become brainwashed from their instructors and fully believe that Shincheonji is a legitimate religion, and that its leader Lee Manhee was sent by Jesus. A said, "I was a robot. I did everything I was told to do there. I used to work only to preach to others, and I used very clever doctrine to make my pitch work," on CBS's <People of Shincheonji>. This shows that Shincheonji had a very well established and effective method of brainwashing people. It was very well organized and detailed, so once caught, it is hard to escape from Shincheonji.
The shadow behind the light of freedom
The problem with pseudo-religions on individuals has already been reported several times in the news. The main problem is the requirement to completely follow the leader. They also capitalize on the minds of members’ fear of death through the preaching of the apocalypse and the promise of eternal life. The leader then claims they will be saved through monetary offertory and property donations. One example is the "Church of God" project that attracted the public’s attention in 2016. They said, "There is no point in accumulating wealth on this land. Those who donate heavily will be saved and go to Heaven." As a result, they have accumulated more than 4 trillion won in assets and bought more than 90 buildings as of 2016. One woman who left the church said, "They made me feel like I should donate even the cost of a snack. Those who publicly donated huge amounts of money were praised in public, and this created a feeling among members that I, also, need to donate more."2) It is clear that they stakeholders repeatedly and meticulously brainwashed believers into offering money often. Giving money is not the only issue. Shincheonji is also notorious for "grooming sex crimes". That is, the perpetrator gains deep trust from their victims by creating psychological dependency before committing the crime. The disheartening result is that victims do not recognize themselves as being victims. As a result, it is hard to prosecute criminals because on the surface it appears as those the sexual act was consensual. So it is difficult to escape once a person has been designated a target. Using psychological measures, Shincheonji members destroy individual lives.
The biggest problem with individuals is that they bring Shincheonji doctrine to home. In one case, a spouse discovered their partner was a Shincheonji member and demanded a divorce. Shincheonji acknowledged this happening as being a frequent occurrence, and said, "There has been an increase in the number of church members who are persecuted at home and at work because they believe in Shincheonji doctrine. More than 4,000 cases have been reported in the religious body." On the other hand, there have also been cases in which the believer is brainwashed and demands a divorce. For instance, in Gangwon province, a woman brainwashed by her pseudo-religion would often attend religious activities and refused to return home, she left all the household chores and childcare to her husband. The husband asked if she had joined a pseudo-religion, but the angry woman simply ran out of the home in another fellow believer's car. The wife never did return.3) Believers do not see their faith as being a pseudo-religion, and those that do come to realize that they have been brainwashed often have no escape as it is too late. In one extreme case, known as the 'human meat dumpling' incident in Brazil, the criminal killed a woman and chopped her up and sold her as dumplings. The suspects were pseudo-religionists claiming to have heard the words of God. They said, "I was told to remove bad women from the world. To clear one’s soul, we need women." This and other cases make it clear that pseudo-religions need to be regulated, so that they don’t steal from people and don’t teach false doctrines.
The damage is not limited to the home, but affects the entire society. Today, a cult is at the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Korea, and it has brought a national disaster. Statistics reveal that 90% of the nation's confirmed cases are concentrated in Daegu and the direct result of the spread of mass infection at the Shincheonji in Daegu. There have also been some other disturbing incidents such as leaving hospitals without fully disclosing their movements. In addition, Shincheonji refused to disclose its list of followers and continued worship services despite the controversy, showing an uncooperative attitude toward the government's demands. Lee Manhee said, "We are victims, too. Please stop blaming Shincheonji. We are actively cooperating to end the situation." Lee has often complained about injustice. Even though Lee voiced these words, he continued his inappropriate behavior; for instance, he gave the police a false list of believers. This behavior shows Shincheonji's perception of the present situation and their usual words and actions. These obstructions of justice have led to other incidents. Lee was discovered to be issuing donation receipts to believers across the country so they could use them as year-end tax deductions. Because of these accusations, he will likely be brought up on charges of "fudging and evading taxes." Prosecutors, though, found no crime committed in the issuing of donation receipts. Therefore, he has no fault here, so he was cleared of charges on that account.4) The fact that the cult may issue donation receipts that the government will accept shows that the cult has moved to the status of authentic religious group. There is a need to see thought if Shincheonji should protected under the name 'freedom of religion'.
Don't be sure I'm not
Religion is one of the form of human spirituality. However, anyone ruled by a human-made culture will live with clouded judgment. Following others blindly and distorting one's idea will make the religion you follow to be false. Instead of following the words of fellow believers, look around and judge for yourself. People need to wake up and discern for themselves so that human relationships are not harmed. Only then will people all live a healthy daily life with proper religious activities.
1) Kim Jia, "If You Can't Do Your Quota...Mission Objective of Shincheonji", Joongang Ilbo, March 6, 2020
2) Choi Yuri, "Church of God, a Fraud Group Seeking the Property of Believers.", Newsnjoy, July 27, 2017
3) Park Jungmin, "Injuries From Blocking the Wife's Runaway Car...", Nocutnews, March 17, 2020
4) Yeom Jaejoong & Hong Joonpyo, "Fast Growth Through Tax Evasion by Sincheonji Run Through the Prosecution and Police.", Jeseilbo, March 16, 2020
Jung Kim Hyeseung / Society Section Editor
Oh Hwang Junhee / Society Section Editor