Even before the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, South Korea’s denizens were infamous for their religious fervor. Yet, those outside of cults rarely idolize their pastors or fathers. Many fail to find even the slightest similarity between an almighty god and your typical hoary Korean cult leader, so it is hard for most people to seriously imagine Man-hee Lee, leader of the Shincheonji Church, to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as claimed. On March 2, 60% of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases were linked to Shincheonji. The fact that a cult group is partly responsible for the nation-wide spread of coronavirus is initiating a new wave of conflict in the polarized peninsula.
Before the recent events with the Shincheonji Church of Jesus and coronavirus outbreaks in Korea, communities both online and offline disregarded Shincheonji’s claim to have over 240,000 followers. Now, not only has that figure been found to be accurate, many government officials have been linked to the religion. The cultists were not considered to be a big problem in Korea until recent events relating to the spread of the virus, when they hid their religion and slowed the government’s response to the outbreak. And their actions, going to church services with symptoms of disease or believing that prayers would cure them, showed extreme reliance on the cult’s teachings and beliefs. One can’t help but wonder about and be concerned by the extremities of their thought process and actions.
However, when we look at the individuals of the cult, they don’t seem too different from us. Not all super spreaders are cultists. Anyone can be selfish or complacent to a level where it causes harm to society. In addition, the members of Shincheonji look just like any ordinary person, nothing too extraordinary. The accounts of the Aleph cult from 20th century Japan, too, show that the members of the cult, originally, were just normal people living ordinary lives. There isn’t a specific “type” of person that’s born to be vulnerable to cult influences. Everyone can be swayed when they are not in their right mind or are heavily depressed.
So here is how it usually goes. Living in modern society, everyday failures and personal crises get to you. It happens to everyone. Usually you recover and move on. However, if you get caught in the systematic recruitment of a rising cult, before you know it, you are drawn into one of its church events. After that, you might feel welcomed by the warm support of other believers and gradually, that community can become your identity. Haruki Murakami, a renowned Japanese writer, after interviewing members of the Aleph cult, said [joining the cult] was consigning “your ego to someone else”. For most people, recovering from stress doesn’t require a messiah, but for some, this is the path they end up on. Perhaps they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time — and it’s harder to get out than you think.
I am not trying to pass on the blame from cultists, or pardon them from fault. What I am trying to deliver is the empathy we should have towards any member of society. Because there is something disturbing about the fact that anyone, with a particularly poisonous concoction of bad luck, could end up involved in a cult; it only means that we are all fragile and imperfect. We all rely on something to move forward, and for them it happened to be something unhealthy. While there is an incredible amount of hatred gathering towards Shincheonji, it isn’t the antidote we need.
Modern society needs to provide those in need an alternative better than a cult. A less harmful one. A more intricate social network that provides support and gives an emotional drive for improvement that would let them help themselves.