Wednesday, January 8, 2014

David Jang’s Defense

The numerous blog posts I’ve dedicated to David Jang’s community have probably made this abundantly clear, but I suppose it’s time I say it outright: I don’t trust David Jang.

It wasn’t always this way. I was thrilled back in 2011 when I heard that Olivet University was negotiating to buy my poor, defunct alma mater. I had never heard of Olivet, but I was impressed with their website, and loved their focus on using technology to evangelize the world. But an off-hand comment by one of my fellow alums made me look deeper into the school, and into the community with which it was associated; and something - it was hard to say what - didn’t quite seem right. But I didn’t start to worry until Olivet came out with a new Bethany website, in which they blatantly lied about what was happening. And then they bizarrely threatened to sue me for pointing this out, and it went downhill from there. In subsequent blog posts, I laid out my growing concerns about David Jang’s community and its growing influence amongst American Evangelicalism. This research culminated in a pair of articles in Christianity Today - co-authored with the wonderful Ted Olsen - reporting on accusations that David Jang’s community believed him to be a “second Christ”.

In my day job as a programmer, I’ve learned to depend on a concept called “code smell”. Coding is as much about aesthetics as anything else, and after many years of swearing at code, I’ve learned to use how a codebase “feels” as a rough shorthand for how reliable and well-architected it will prove to be. It’s a feeling you learn to trust.

After several years of researching David Jang’s community, I think I’ve developed a similar sense of smell. And I don’t trust David Jang. Nor do I trust his community, their practices, their websites, their avowals, or their denials. Sometimes I have very good reasons for this, sometimes reasons that I haven’t yet talked about publicly. Sometimes it’s more of a hunch or gut feeling. But the end result is the same: I’ve learned to look askance at nearly anything David Jang or his community says promoting or defending themselves.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Among the thousands of documents that I’ve received from former members, some of the more interesting are those in which David Jang attempts a defense of his community against criticisms of the sort that I’ve leveled. I’ve placed these documents in a Google Drive folder. The oldest (which I’ve called 2004a) is undated, but based on internal evidence seems to be from between 2003-2005. Two others (2008a and 2008c) are dated to August 2008; and another appears to be from c. 2008, though the precise time is uncertain. (I should note that three of the documents do not explicitly identify David Jang as the speaker, but their content leaves room for no reasonable doubt as to who was talking.)

In these sermons, David Jang responds to a variety of criticisms of his community. Some of these criticisms are, in my opinion, well-founded, but concern aspects of the group that I haven’t focused on, such as their practice of arranged group marriages (what David Jang refers to as “Holy Matrimony”).

Other criticisms appear to me to be less well-founded, such as the allegation that the group doesn’t believe in Jesus, or that Jang taught that the cross was a failure. That last is an allegation which I’ve seen frequently made by the various Asian investigations, but none of the ex-members to whom I’ve spoken confirmed it, nor have I seen any reference to it in any of the thousands of documents which these former members have provided. One possibility is that this was an interpretation -- or misinterpretation -- of Jang’s theology which gained currency only in Asia. Not being able to speak any Asian languages, I’ve been somewhat limited in my ability to independently review the primary source material in Korean, Japanese or Chinese. But in the many, many sermons of Jang’s that I’ve read, he gives abundant evidence of having a strong faith in the person and work of Jesus, and in the efficacy of the cross. I have zero quarrels with that aspect of his theology.

At other points, however, David Jang attempts to defend his community against allegations very similar to those that I have leveled, namely, that the community believed they were the 144,000 of Revelation 7, and (more worrisome) that they were being led by a “Second Coming Lord”. Those of you who’ve been keeping up with my blog should recognize both of those claims by now.

The defense which he mounts against these allegations is quite interesting, and worth examining at length.

First, David Jang effectively confirms that his group did in fact teach that they were the 144,000 of Revelation 7 (a teaching clearly reflected in the New Israel documents). In 2008a, Jang describes a conversation he had with one critic:

Then, after then, [the critic] brings out a different card, you taught New Israel. 144,000 - it's not in the Bible. Did the lecturer make this? Actually, it is written in the Bible. YD say they are 144,000. Isn't it something that you should compliment? Should we not teach that there will be election/selection of God? Should we not teach about it? They say the center of the world is Jerusalem and Moscow. All the denominations say they are the center of the world. Center of the world is China. Why do you say something like that? In that way, you lead the history. We will become 144,000 before you Jesus and we'll lead. We will become your 144,000 and we'll lead your people. Will Jesus say no? Can we do this? Jesus will of course say, do it right away. He will never say who gave you that kind of authority?

Note that Jang doesn’t deny that the group taught this. Rather, he tries to downplay its significance, saying in effect that it is OK because every denomination does this (though that is hardly the case). And besides, he continues, when we actually do lead all of Christianity, Jesus is hardly going to complain that we did such a good job for him. As a defense of a rather problematic ecclesiology, Jang’s response doesn’t really work: but it does provide additional confirmation of what other sources and documents had already made clear, that he knew about the “New Israel” teachings, and affirmed them, at least in their broad outlines.

But while a screwy ecclesiology can be dangerous, it isn’t really heretical - though it is worth noting that the only groups I’m aware of that that have claimed to be the 144,000 are all groups that have departed from Christian orthodoxy (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses). On the other hand, the second charge, that of believing in the advent of a “second Christ” or “Second Coming Christ” or “Second Coming Lord” would, I believe, raise orthodox eyebrows semper, ubique et ab omnibus. (And of course, it is the “New Israel” teaching that provides the context for the “second Christ” teaching, because the second Christ will both bring into being and be acclaimed by this 144,000.)

In the case of this second allegation, it is the specifics of what David Jang denies and what he does not that is the most interesting. In 2008a, Jang responds to the charge by repeatedly denying that he has ever used the phrase “second coming lord”:

I've never even used this word once, second coming lord. If there is any record, bring it out.  I graduated from this famous theological seminary, but then enemies, they sent spies and they stole our notebooks and things like that. Secretly, they said, he is the second coming lord. It's very comical.

And again:

They said we don't believe in Jesus and regard Christ as failure, therefore, we believe in me, in pastor. So a second or third Christ must come out. That's why they believe in me.  We said, we don't believe in the second coming lord; we don’t believe in this term.  There was a great fight. So they said, we don't believe in Jesus or the cross and Pastor is the second coming Lord. Is this Christianity? Do we belong to Christianity? Some people say they want to meet us and identify whether we are Christian or not. We are! Are we not? Why don't you guys answer? If they say something like this, I was almost about to faint.

And again:

Why do you attack me? Then you guys say, we are similar to the Unification Church, but what kind of relationship do we have with them? We have no relationship at all! They don't believe in Jesus or the cross! They believe in the Second Coming Lord, but we believe in Jesus and the cross and we don't even use this word, second coming lord.

And again:

So I sent the legal document to the three people. I am not the second coming lord. You should know this. I sent the legal document to them.

His insistence upon denying the precise phrase “second coming lord” is worth noting, and it relates to what I’ll call “denial smell”. Read his words carefully (doing your best to work around the awkward translations, which aren’t his fault). Neither in these documents, nor in any of the other denials that I’ve seen from him around this time period, does he actually deny that the group taught that they were to expect a “second Christ” or “second Messiah”. He denies that the group uses the phrase “second coming lord”, and he denies that he ever taught that he was the Christ, but (so far as I’ve seen) he does not deny that he or others taught about a generic “second Christ”, nor does he deny that others have taught that this is who he was. Taken by themselves, these omissions are quite possibly innocent; but in the larger context, possibly not. Like I said, denial smell.

This emphasis on the exact phrase is interesting, because as it turns out, the language that members of the group used about Jang seems to have varied quite a bit: the most common terms I’ve seen are actually “King” (or “King David” or “the great King”) rather than “Christ”, though I’ve also seen  “Christ David”, “the head of the Church”, or “the one who is to come”. The only places I’ve seen the specific phrase “second coming Christ” or “second coming Lord” in primary sources originating with Jang’s community (as opposed to his critics) is in a series of documents that came from one particular Chinese source; in comparable places in the English-language documents, the phrase “second Christ” or “second Messiah” is usually used. So in the absence of further evidence, I’m perfectly willing to grant that David Jang is speaking the truth when he insists that he has never used the phrase “second coming lord”. Whether that denial is adequate is another matter.

At least one reason for questioning its adequacy is that David Jang basically does affirm that his group assigns to him a position and an authority that ought to make any Christian leader nervous. In 2004a, Jang quotes a critic who, in a meeting with another senior leader, made the following accusation: “It seems you guys believe in your pastor more than Jesus.” Jang continues the story:

Then this one senior member said, what's wrong with it? Their eyes became so big. This is it. That senior member said, because our pastor believes in Jesus so well, I can go to Jesus through him when I follow Jesus. My pastor and Jesus are one. Do you know in Catholicism, they say the pope is like a king. He has a big crown, a big robe, fine linen and this cane. When you are a phd, you wear this robe and it's very difficult to walk. You are very holy and majestic because you're like a king. They put on a really high hat. It's like 50 centimeters higher. They look so tall. Big cross. I'm the delegate of the authority of Christ on earth, he said. But then they don't criticize them or regard them as ugly.

Note that Jang appears to quote with approval this senior member’s affirmation that “My pastor and Jesus are one.” His defense of that claim is to compare himself to the Pope: since Catholics believe the Pope exercises the authority of Christ on earth, he basically says, why are you complaining about my followers when they do something similar? That is a defense which ought to appeal neither to Catholics (who believe the Pope to be unique in this regard) nor to Protestants (who don’t believe that about anyone). But more than that, the logic of the comparison only works if Jang saw himself as standing in a relationship with Christ that was almost - or perhaps absolutely - without peer. (I have also been told that he continues to use this analogy when explaining his role to insiders.)

The other thing that should make folks approach Jang’s denials with a “hermeneutic of suspicion” is that he explicitly encourages his listeners to lie about their beliefs. In 2008b, Jang is discussing Prov. 26:4-5, and describes a confrontation between some critics and one of Jang’s followers. The question at issue was whether he had attended a specific church - my guess is that the reference is to the Unification Church, but I don’t know that for sure. The follower had denied attending this church, but eventually changed his story. Jang defends the initial lie this way:

Did you go to that church? No, I didn't. But they were fighting and they thought we were winning. Then this person answered different and said I did go to that church. Then the enemies responded that you said before you didn't go to that church but now you said you went, so you are a liar. This person was  confused. But then I said you did something good. I showed him this verse. [Prov. 26:4-5]. So to the person who said this church is bad, you can say you didn't go to that church. But if a person thinks the church is good then you can say you went to the church. What does this mean? If you have this evil motive of fabricating and making up and criticize then you can say that I didn't go to that church you think of. But I did go to the church that taught me faith, Christ, the precious blood - I went to that church. Then this person suddenly gained strength and speaks well. I went to that church but I didn't go to that church.

In other words, if you’re dealing with critics who are asking with malicious motives, Jang says, it’s OK to lie to them.

With that in mind, it’s worth reading this particular denial offered by Jang in 2008 to one of the Asian investigating committees:

I give praises for the grace of Jesus Christ. By the grace of Jesus Christ, I accepted Jesus as my one and only Savior, and since I was forgiven of my sins, I have never abandoned faith in Jesus Christ. Also, I have never preached any other gospel other than that of Jesus Christ. Furthermore I have never taught that I am Christ. I clearly confess that there is no other way than through Jesus Christ to receive salvation and gain freedom.

This denial is more direct and succinct than the ones offered privately to his own community, and also more general. Among other things, it doesn’t perseverate on any specific term, and says specifically, “I have never taught that I am Christ”. Nevertheless, if one is inclined to be suspicious, you’ll note that in between its affirmations and denials, there’s still an awful lot of wiggle room - denial smell again. Look at it this way: every statement in that paragraph is perfectly consistent with the concerns that I’ve raised in my recent blog posts. Even if you assume that every conclusion I’ve drawn about Jang’s group is true, that paragraph above would be technically accurate - as technically accurate as it would be misleading.

Now, all that was back in 2008, and I don’t believe David Jang would offer precisely the same defense today. After the Christianity Today articles in 2012, the evidence became overwhelming that at least some members of his community had in fact believed that he was a second Christ. And from what I understand, from talking both to former members of Jang’s community and to other researchers, David Jang and his leadership have more recently begun to offer up a limited acknowledgement that some very small number of people in the group did in fact believe that he was a “second Christ”, though he has disavowed any responsibility for those beliefs. The explanation that he and other leaders are offering for this, I am told, is that it was a small and isolated problem, the result of some enthusiastic missionaries misreading some of the group’s eschatology lessons. Tracy Davis’ quote in the New York Times is emblematic of this: “People somehow insinuated that though no one explicitly told them”. I’ve been told by former members that internally he blamed the confusion on Borah Lin, whom he accused of teaching eschatology incorrectly. There are also a couple of videos of a Korean press conference in which Jang apparently addresses the question. I haven’t found an English translation of what he says, but I’m told that he simultaneously acknowledges and minimizes the problem.

Not having access to direct quotes from Jang, I can’t say with any certainty exactly what truth there is in this cluster of new explanations, though I can make a few comments. On the one hand, it is quite possible - indeed, it is virtually certain - that members were confused by the teachings they received. In the ambiguity and secrecy surrounding this belief, and in the absence of a public creed, they assumed David Jang to be even more significant than their leaders had told them. The lessons, for instance, for all their insinuations, never claim that David Jang is divine in any Chalcedonian sense; and yet it’s quite clear that some members prayed to him, worshiped him, believed that they could communicate spiritually with him, and even thought of him as God incarnate. Others thought of him as a “second Jesus”, which is almost certainly not what Borah Lin and other leaders had in mind, as the key concept in the lessons is Christ - a title - rather than Jesus - a name.

On the other hand, it’s not really plausible to claim that the problem (in either its confused or semi-official capacities) was isolated, either geographically or organizationally. The evidence I’ve laid out in my last three posts indicates more-or-less conclusively that the belief was present from the lowest to the highest members of the group, was spread across at least four continents, and continued for many years. Several people have told me that every member of their particular local branches believed Jang to be the Christ, and this in an organization which emphasized communication and control. (As David Jang once said, rather memorably, “We know all things together, so in Pusan in Korea, when someone farts, everyone in Seoul knows.”) And quite a number of folks have told me that they had sent David Jang letters or emails in which they laid out their belief in him as the Christ. All this taken together makes it hard to believe that this teaching was was happening entirely without Jang’s connivance.

And there, we get to the heart of the matter. The heart of Jang’s defense seems to be that he didn’t know that any of this was happening. Even with my doubts, I can’t say precisely what David Jang knew or when he knew it, so for the moment, let’s grant this explanation in its rough outlines. Given that, what I would really like to know is how Jang reacted when he became aware of what his followers were saying about him. I have heard from several sources that he scolded those who believed he was Christ, and there’s no doubt that by 2006 he had put a stop to the teaching of the history lessons. But again, there’s that denial smell. For even with that acknowledged, there’s little evidence that David Jang ever mounted a firm, vigorous and decisive response to the undoubted presence of heterodox beliefs in his group. If I’m wrong, and if David Jang did actually mount such a campaign, he could do a great deal to re-establish his credibility by talking openly and honestly about what happened. Rather than minimizing and misleading, attacking and suing, he could allow a free and transparent investigation into the the history of his community’s beliefs and practices, including access to the group’s email and document archives. Until that happens, I confess that I have a hard time taking much that he says on this topic at face value.

For comparison purposes, try to imagine that you were a Christian leader who heard credible reports of such beliefs in your organization. Can you imagine that your response would be other than white-hot and immediate? Imagine what you would say: “I’ve heard that some of you are spreading the idea that I’m some sort of Christ or King or what-not. That is not true, you should all know better, it’s not just heretical, it’s blasphemous, it’s evil and filthy, and if I hear anything more about it, you’re out the door, because I won’t have anything to do with that kind of nonsense. And you’re all going to march out of here right now and make sure everybody knows exactly that. Have I made myself clear?” And would you not then go out of your way to lay the teachings, their causes, and your response open to the outside world? And then publicly and repeatedly repent of any behaviors or teachings that had led to the error? And be immensely grateful to any external or internal critic who had helped to identify what was going on? Would you not do this, if for no other reason than to save your own soul, so that it wouldn’t be smirched with such a foul blasphemy when you one day stood before your Lord?

Do I need to bother to point out that this is not exactly how David Jang has reacted? Instead, his response was first to deny the allegations completely and cover them up; and when that became untenable, to minimize them. And throughout, he or members of his community have viciously attacked his critics, and have repeatedly threatened legal action (and repeatedly carried through on their threats) against even the mildest criticism. I am not aware of a single critic or former member who has gone public who has not been threatened with a lawsuit: my sources have very good reasons for wishing to remain anonymous. Last year, Ted Olsen and I were each threatened with lawsuits, and the Christian Post published an article about me that could reasonably be described as libelous. Other critics have been subjected to vicious public attacks. (Quite wonderfully, several, including yours truly, have been accused of being in cahoots with the North Koreans. I’m not making that up.) Numerous Korean and Japanese Christian news organizations have been sued. Other journalists or newspapers investigating Jang’s community have also been threatened, and I know at least one English-language journalist that was thus bullied into staying quiet.

As Jang says in 2008a:

So now, we should sue them and after the trials, we have to punish them. We have many organizations so if they compensate, they should compensate a lot. After one is over, another organization will sue them again so all their lives they will be sued… So from here, there, in Japan, you have to sue them with laws. Then they will be silent.

Or in 2008b:

So why are these guys saying this? We should just sue them and get it over it.

Or in 2008c:

They have this faithfulness that what they're doing is correct. They are in the limit of 666. When they challnege and attack us, we have to settle it well and attack back and think of them are amalekites and then you have to follow them until the end and kill all of them.

This is not how a responsible Christian leader behaves.

And that is why I do not trust David Jang.

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