The Seoul mayor is suing a religious cult of personality for murder, because their congregation was a hotbed for the spread of coronavirus in South Korea.
“Contributing to the exponential rise in cases was the city of Daegu, and specifically, the secretive religious group called Shincheonji, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Sunday morning, the group accounted for almost 60% of all cases in the country, with most of them centered in Daegu.”
“The mayor accused Lee and others of evading tests for the virus and for failing to take adequate measures to get members of the group to work with health authorities in preventing transmission of the infection. Park also alleged that the Shincheonji provided false information that obstructed the work of the health authorities.”
“The religious group denied allegations that its members hid their attendance at worship service and carried out missionary work in secret.”
“‘The General Assembly Headquarters of Shincheonji Church called for an immediate ban on all meetings, worship gatherings and access to its churches throughout Korea after it was confirmed that a believer in Shincheonji’s Daegu church had been infected with COVID-19 (‘Patient 31′) on 18th of Feb,’ the group said in a statement.”
When I first read this, I was scandalized because it seems extreme to blame them for murder. Sure, it sounds negligent, but murder?
However, it is a civil suit rather than a criminal suit, so it’s not like they’re going to go to prison. It’s also hard to evaluate the legal system of another. That’s not to say I’m a hard line cultural relativist or something, but maybe this type of lawsuit is commonplace and pedestrian in South Korea.
I do want to use this lawsuit as an opportunity to delve into the Shincheonji Church, because I think learning more about it might illuminate why this lawsuit is taking place.
Shincheonji is a new religious movement church that started in the 80s. Members of the church believe their leader, Lee Man-hee, is the second coming of Christ.
Personally, I try to avoid calling religious groups like this a cult. Of course, “cult” in a traditional, value-neutral sense really just means a regional and localized religious belief. But it also has a lot of negative ideological baggage.
However, there are a couple traits of Shincheonji that make me feel comfortable calling it a cult, even with the negative connotation.
For one, as mentioned, Lee Man-hee claims to be the second coming of Christ. Especially with Christian metaphysics, where Jesus is literally God manifest in flesh, this makes his claim more cultish than if he had just said he was a prophet or something.
The other element is Lee Man-hee claims to have a privileged, esoteric understanding of the Bible that no one else has. He believes it’s written in metaphorical signifiers, and only he can discern the signified subjects.
Both of these things are definitely cult-like enough for me to identify it as a cult. In the UK, the Church of England and several Anglican congregations warned their members to avoid Shincheonji. Christians in eastern India warned the same thing.
This doesn’t exactly explain anything, but it does illuminate why the broader societal perspective regarding Shincheonji would be negative enough to pursue a lawsuit against them.
The coronavirus spread from the Shincheonji Church is pretty well-documented and easily traced. Approximately 60% of coronavirus cases in South Korea stem directly from the church.