New publication: “Shifting Geographies of Proximity” in Ethnographies of U.S. Empire

Mine feels like such an old piece of writing, but I’m excited to be part of this amazing collection.

Han, JHJ. 2018. “Shifting Geographies of Proximity: Korean-led Evangelical Christian Missions and the U.S. Empire.” In Ethnographies of U.S. Empire, edited by Carole McGranahan and John Collins, 194-213. Duke University Press. Link

[Excerpt pp. 197-198]

Ethnographies of Empire book cover, 2018

While the overall criticism directed at the hostage case [Korean missionaries in Afghanistan in 2007] tended to focus on the collusion between evangelical Christianity and U.S. imperialism, several other significant questions were also posed in the process: What in the world were Korean missionaries doing in Afghanistan? Who exactly were these missionaries — variously characterized as devoted church volunteers, intrepid humanitarian aid workers, and foolhardy zealots — and what propelled them to embrace the risks and dangers of foreign missions? Arguably all evangelical missionaries seek to transform the world in one way or another by spreading the Christian Gospel, but how does the pursuit of world evangelization by this particular group of missionaries challenge or fortify the power relations of domination and subordination that underpin the project of U.S. empire? To what extent do Korean missionaries operate as proxies of the U.S. empire or assert their own neocolonial or subimperial ambitions? How do we theorize the deep linkages between the ethics of humanitarian service, imperative of religious expansion, mandate for geopolitical security, and logic of neoliberal capitalism?

I contend that the Korean-led missionary movement responded to these critical questions by reiterating evangelical missions as a secular and cosmopolitan project, and significantly, by conjuring the specter of Islam as geopolitical threat and global competitor. The hostage taking in Afghanistan thus served as a pivotal moment in religious geopolitics in the Korean context. But this story is impossible to narrate without a broader historical account of United States–Korea proximity; Korea’s evangelical vigor arguably lies in its history of indebted engagement with the American empire. Politically and theologically conservative Korean Protestantism — which constitutes the dominant mainstream and political leadership of Korean Christianity, and is especially prominent among immigrant Korean Americans in the United States — is inextricable from its Cold War collusion with religious and geopolitical-economic reaches of the American empire. This discussion of history — not as a bygone past but as an enduring present — gestures toward my contention that Korean evangelicals are producing Islamophobia as a geopolitical-religious and world orientation project. By aligning Korea with the “Free World” even as Korea reaches out to the developing world, world evangelical missions not only consolidate and reinforce existing affinities and alliances, but also engage in an ongoing calibration of distance and proximity in relation to the empire.