I ran across your site and read through some of the posts here in the forum, and wanted to share my perspective. Like some of the other folks who've posted here, I also attended EBC for a decent amount of time. Here's my take on EBC and the Sewol disaster.
I wouldn't call EBC a cult in the same way the Unification Church or the Heaven's Gate folks were. There's nothing inherent in their doctrine that causes them to break from mainstream Christianity. The stuff around salvation has been taken out of context. The church says that salvation comes from faith and believing Jesus died for your sins, similar to most mainstream Christianity. If you were to sin afterward (e.g., tell a lie), that doesn't mean you're salvation is invalidated and you're going to Hell. Again, I think that's a pretty standard interpretation.
That said, EBC sure does have cult-ish elements that I'll describe later (suppressing dissent, feeling under threat by Satanic forces, isolating themselves).
I think the part that's makes EBC and the role of the Yoo family difficult to understand is that they are all pretty reasonable people. No one is saying crazy things like having sex with someone will lead to salvation like the Moonies, or that the world is ending and you should sell all your stuff.
The problem is with EBC as an organization. I would argue that it’s possible to have individual people making seemingly normal/reasonable decisions, but it leads collectively to an outcome that is fairly absurd… and very tragic in the case of the Sewol.Mr. Yoo and the EBC leaders are well-intentioned
I’ve met and spent time with Mr. Yoo and his sons over the years. They were actually pretty normal and reasonable people. They were not monsters, money-obsessed sociopaths, or delusional nutjobs thinking they were the Messiah. Nor do I think they were evil geniuses who had dark plans but cleverly masked them to others… frankly I don’t think they are that smart.
I believe Mr. Yoo and everyone at EBC absolutely started out being well-meaning… trying to spread a message they found in the Bible that they felt others would benefit from. Their reason for creating companies was to provide jobs to people (especially church members at a time when Korea’s economy was floundering), and making good products to improve people’s lives (like healthy foods). These are honorable motives.The problem with power
If you study dictators, one of the things you find is that they almost always start out well-meaning. They are incredibly down-to-earth, and are genuinely interested in the well-being of others. Their rise to power is almost always because they actually care about other people, and they have strong ideas about how they can help everyone be better off. They genuinely want to make the world a better place. But something happens along the way...
The same can be said for Mr. Yoo and the leaders at EBC. This is why his supporters are so adamant in defending him. He actually is trying to do the right thing and actually has honorable intentions, and this is apparent if you spend time with him.
Here is where things become interesting. Almost all human beings have a problem dealing with conflicting information and ideas. Our brains are happiest when things make sense to us, and we get uncomfortable when things challenge our world view (cognitive dissonance). This is why most Republicans prefer to watch Fox News and why most Democrats prefer the New York Times. For most of us, this breeds a certain ignorance but it isn’t that consequential… our decisions don’t really affect people’s lives.
However, for people in positions of authority, the net effect over time can be devastating. They say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I don’t think that adequately explains it. I’ve seen that power (in any amount) changes the way other people treat you and what they tell you. As your power increases, your ability to get accurate information equally diminishes. If this goes far enough and happens over a long enough period of time, your world view can become completely warped. Even though you may continue to try to “do the right thing,” your understanding of the world is so twisted that you are literally incapable of making good decisions.
I feel like this happens for dictators, celebrities, CEOs… anyone in positions of power. Think of a boss at a company who promotes people they agree with, and marginalizes people that disagree with him. Eventually, they lose their grip on reality because they don't get honest feedback--they can't understand it when their products aren't selling or their company starts underperforming. I think the same is true of celebrities, and why they all inevitably seem crazy after a few years: their reality is warped. People dismiss this behavior as "crazy" or call them "monsters," but that means we think we're better than them. We're not--they are the same as us.
From what I can tell, the only way to overcome this fate is to deliberately create checks-and-balances, and surround yourself with people willing to criticize you and tell you the unpleasant truth.Mr. Yoo and leaders at EBC have unwittingly created a culture where dissent isn't okay
While this may sound oversimplified, I have personally seen this mechanism played out at EBC. The real growth and rise of this church happened under two men: Mr. Yoo and Pastor Kwon Shin-chan. Pastor Kwon was a reserved, pious man. The two complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It was under the two of them that our church flourished. Most importantly, Pastor Kwon and Mr. Yoo acted as a check-and-balance against one another. In fact, Pastor Kwon initially opposed the creation of church-affiliated businesses. The fact that the two openly dissented and debated also made it acceptable for other people in the church to dissent and voice their differing opinions.
Unfortunately, Pastor Kwon passed away in the late '90s. From then on, there was a noticeable shift in the church to where open dissent has almost disappeared. Early on, people still tried to disagree with Mr. Yoo. But they found themselves increasingly marginalized, and those who supported Mr. Yoo’s ideas were put into more prominent roles. This was a period of tumult that saw many church members leave in exasperation.
What happened then is that within about 10 years, the only people left in the church and businesses were people who were effectively Mr. Yoo’s “yes men,” or at least people who all think like he does. There aren’t any dissenters left. This is exactly the opposite of what you want as a leader.
If you ask people who would be able to veto a decision by Mr. Yoo (or now his sons), there would only be vague references to “other church leaders" or "anyone." Because of the informal way EBC is run, there is actually no clear decision making process or responsibilities. That's kind of crazy for an organization with thousands of people and millions of dollars. The church would say this is by design, that anyone is allowed to disagree and contribute to a decision. But it’s the old adage that if “it’s everyone’s responsibility, then it’s no one’s responsibility.” Also, due to the informal structure at EBC, all of the informal “church leaders” are basically appointed by Mr. Yoo and the existing church leaders who shape popular opinion. It’s funny but church members still think this informal decision-making is a good thing, that somehow that reconciles everyone’s views. It does the exact opposite, and instead consolidates power to just a few people that everyone defers to. Perversely, the leaders don't see themselves as leaders and think everyone else is holding them accountable... which they're not.
The Founding Fathers understood the problems with power when creating the US government with deliberate checks-and-balances. Abraham Lincoln understood this too when he selected a “team of rivals” for his cabinet who weren't afraid to disagree with him. Mr. Yoo and the EBC leaders don’t understand this, and as a result they’re now living in a distorted reality bubble.The EBC followers are trying to be good Christians, but they’re actually enablers of bad decisions
I feel sorry for everyone involved, including the people who are still part of EBC and their businesses. In their hearts, I know they are also trying to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, the followers at EBC have been too willing to let the church leaders go unchecked. As I said, much of the decision making is informal but people have not been nearly vocal enough at disagreeing with questionable practices from the informal leaders. When asked, they will say that they believe that “the Holy Spirit” is guiding the church so that bad decisions can’t be made. Or that they believe those who strongly oppose decisions made by church leaders are “prideful,” and that spirituality means putting your own opinions aside for the good of the group. Ultimately, it's an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for the actions of the group.
I don’t know how much of this is due to Korean culture, Christian culture, or just the personalities of the people involved. I have to believe that it’s probably elements of all three. Koreans have a very strong sense of authority and hierarchy, as well as a strong sense that self-sacrifice is noble, so I think we might be susceptible to this kind of thinking.
But in the end, it's a difficult situation for church members to object to Mr. Yoo and other church members’ decisions. Mr. Yoo eventually became the informal head of both the church and all the businesses. As a result, he wielded tremendous power in the lives of people in the church. It would be unreasonable to ask the average church member to challenge his decisions or ideas. It would have been nice if the leadership at EBC could have recognized this problem themselves, or the congregation could have successfully prodded changes. I know there were people who tried but failed.
Ultimately, the EBC church members should have done what many of us felt was our last recourse: leave. By continuing to stay and support the church at its businesses, the members of the church have been accomplices to terrible decision after terrible decision. At some point, the only thing you can do is withdraw your support. It’s like dealing with a person with a drug addiction. If you continue to give them money, they will continue to abuse drugs. You have to stop enabling them.How reality warps when you don't have checks-and-balances
So maybe by now I’ve convinced you that Mr. Yoo and the folks at EBC are not evil. If anything, they were stubborn and unwilling to listen to dissenting voices. But I understand it’s hard to make the mental leap from well-intentioned people to millionaire mogul who kills 400 people through negligence.
Here's how I see that transition having taken place, and it requires explaining the major milestones that happened at EBC and with the Yoo family. This is not an authoritative outline of what happened... but what I recall from memory and the stories I have heard. Because things are so informal at EBC, it might actually be impossible for anyone to really know the full story of what happened.
1960s and 70s - Founding
- Church is founded by Mr. Yoo and Pastor Kwon. They genuinely believe they have uncovered the meaning of life that will benefit others and are eager to share it. They aspire to create a church that is rooted in love, without hierarchy or strict rules aside from those espoused in the Bible.
- The economy in Korea is pretty bad throughout the 70s and 80s. Many of the church members are struggling to make ends meet. Mr. Yoo believes that the church members have enough talent to build their own company. His vision is a company that creates jobs and allows all the church members to work together. Pastor Kwon initially opposes this idea, but relents because the benefits outweigh the possible risks.
1980s - growth
- EBC and its businesses (Semo) thrive into the 80s and 90s. The message of love and salvation resonates powerfully with people, and the businesses allow church members to work alongside close friends and family for a cause they feel is worthwhile.
- EBC starts ruffling feathers with other churches. EBC has fostered an incredibly devout congregation, and an attitude of superiority exists where other churches are disparaged for not being “true believers” and existing for social, rather than spiritual, reasons. Other churches feel slighted and ridicule EBC’s beliefs and practices. EBC starts to feel persecuted and disconnected to the broader Christian community.
1990s - tumult
- The Odaeyang scandal shocks the church. I suspect no one, or maybe only a few people, know the truth of what really happened. But this has a powerful effect on the church congregation. They interpret this as a sign that Satanic forces are at work against the church, as the Bible had warned.
- Mr. Yoo is sent to jail for embezzlement. The church believes that Mr. Yoo’s jailing was not due to embezzlement but due to the Odaeyang scandal and is further evidence of persecution against the church. I’m not actually sure where this perception comes from… I think it might be because Mr. Yoo’s “crime” was a fairly petty offense that the government over-zealously prosecuted and distorted elements of the truth. Regardless, Mr. Yoo and the church sees this as further evidence that forces are at work against them.
- The 1997 Asian financial crisis causes Semo to go into bankruptcy. Many families lose their jobs and much of their assets that were tied into Semo.
- Mr. Yoo rebuilds the church-owned businesses, but is now more paranoid. This may be why he rebuilt his empire using a web of organizations, to shield them from persecution as well as make it more robust against bankruptcy (this is purely my guess).
- Pastor Kwon passes away. A critical part of the check-and-balance in EBC’s decision making is now missing.
- A period of tumult occurs within EBC where pastors and church leaders find that they have no way to reconcile their viewpoints. Mr. Yoo becomes suspicious of their motives, feeling that they are trying to take advantage of Pastor Kwon’s death to further their own agendas. Mr. Yoo, now very paranoid that forces are at work against the church, intentionally or unintentionally marginalizes dissenting viewpoints. Many leaders leave the church in exasperation.
- With no checks-or-balances in place, EBC starts a road down a series of questionable decisions.
- Significant amounts of property is bought around the world. The rationale is that these properties will serve as meeting centers for evangelizing, or for creating healthy products.
- Church sermons begin to bias towards topics that Mr. Yoo finds personally relevant. This includes an emphasis on health, and the focus of church-owned businesses moves from jobs and good products to health.
- The focus of church activities moves away from evangelizing to almost totally insular activities of health management and self-care. Church members relocate toward newly purchased church properties, most of which are in more remote areas. This causes further isolation of the church congregation from society at large.
- Focus of church leadership is taken up by business affairs. The church’s business ventures include a sheep farm in Canada, an organic farm in California, a steakhouse in California, a line of enema devices, green tea products, high end chocolates, and more. All business activities are justified as being for the benefit of church members, or indirectly supporting evangelism.
- Mr. Yoo steps down from active church and business leadership. His youngest son, HK, becomes the lead pastor. It’s not a role he wants initially because he feels unfit for the role, but many church leaders urge him to take the role, especially his mother. Mr. Yoo states in public that he had no desire for HK to become the church’s leader and it was a communal decision of the church… if he believes this, it suggests he doesn’t understand or is unwilling to admit the informal forces at work, especially that of his wife, in bringing his son into power.
- Eventually, almost all critical-thinking members leave EBC. This leaves just an organization of people who are willing to carry out orders dutifully.
What likely happened in the managing of the Sewol
- EBC and its businesses continue to operate. The informal nature of EBC leadership and business connections make it nearly impossible to say what is a “church” decision vs. a “business” decision, or what is church money vs. business money.
- I have to assume the Yoo family thinks the money they make from their businesses is actually “their money.” I don’t know how else they can justify extravagant expenses while there are church members struggling to make ends meet. They don’t realize that nearly all of the people working at these companies don’t view their jobs as a normal job, and instead are sacrificing on behalf of the church. Nor do they realize that a substantial portion of the money used in their businesses is coming from church members who see it as their duty to invest in these companies and to buy their products.
I’m guessing that all the EBC members working at Chonghaejin and on the Sewol knew that things weren’t totally kosher. But at the same time, they were battling powerful psychological forces that made them unwilling to voice their concerns. If they did voice concerns, that message was probably softened as it traveled up the leadership chain so that those at the top didn’t even hear it. This is a pattern that exists in so many disasters, for instance the Challenger shuttle disaster.
I’m also guessing that the people at Chonghaejin were incredibly understaffed and couldn’t possibly attend to all the details of running a ferry safely, but they kept doing the best they could out of duty to the church. And because decisions are distributed, no single person saw the big picture and realized exactly how much danger they were putting their passengers in. Each individual person probably thought that their rule-bending or skipped detail would be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. None of them probably imagined a tragedy like this would result from their collective actions.
I feel truly sad for everyone involved... definitely those who were on-board the Sewol and their families, but also everyone from EBC as well as the Yoos.