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Contemporary Korean/American Evangelical Missions: Politics of Space, Gender, and Difference


This dissertation concerns the politics of space, gender, and difference with a focus on contemporary Korean evangelical Christian missions. Through a multi-sited, global ethnography of several missionary projects, I examine how overseas mission destinations are imagined, how transnational missionary networks are mobilized, and how missions actually operate on the ground. I discuss how contemporary Korean and Korean American missionary movements operate simultaneously as ambitious world-making projects and concretely localized practices, producing and reproducing multiply rendered world imaginaries by engaging in both universalistic and culturally specific sets of commitments and strategies. Rather than narrowly define proselytizing missions in terms of a religious mandate for domination and conversion, this study suggests that missions in fact seek to corroborate faithfulness in larger matters of modernity, progress, and achievement.

I argue that the history of military and geopolitical alliance between South Korea and the US has had a profound effect on Korean evangelical Christianity, and that a sense of indebtedness to American generosity heavily influences the content and form of contemporary Korean missions. A sense of Korean affinity to US hegemony is manifest in their use of racialized geographical imaginaries through which Korean missionaries articulate their place in the world. The phenomenal growth of world missions can be traced to multi-scalar strategies for church growth and expansion, and spatial logics of evangelical propagation that connect the body politic of local congregations with the geopolitics of world missions. The underground missionary networks aiding North Koreans in China employ custodial power and offer capitalist deliverance, rendering as inextricable capitalism, democracy, and Christianity. Affective encounters through short-term missions to developing nations like Uganda and Tanzania reinforce in visceral and emotional terms the link between Christian salvation and capitalist development, and empower a developmentalist understanding of the world. As such, I conclude by suggesting that contemporary evangelical missions are deeply intertwined with the secular projects of international development aid and humanitarian relief. Insofar as missions rely on a wholesale faith in capitalist development, geographical imaginations that valorize the inherent virtues of the compassionate donor, the heroic aid provider, and the devoted volunteer, evangelical missionaries perpetuate the power-laden systems of inequality that in turn rationalize a need for overseas missions, religious or humanitarian.

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