1950: The Martyred, at the outset of the Korean War

Add comment June 25th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1950, the opening salvos of the Korean War were fired … and behind North Korea’s lines, in Richard E. Kim‘s novel The Martyred, 12 imprisoned Christian pastors were on that same day executed.

This psychologically complex novel takes place months later, when United States/United Nations forces backing South Korea have surged northward, capturing Pyongyang. Here the narrator, a South Korean intelligence officer named Captain Lee, is detailed to investigate how it came to pass that these 12 were killed … and that two others with them were spared.

One of those two has gone mad from the experience. The other is suspected of abandoning God to save his life.

We discover otherwise: that in fact, Rev. Shin was spared by his jailers because they admired his firmness whereas the executed men were the ones who turned coward. Even so, Rev. Shin refuses to publicize his innocence, preferring to embrace the unjust suspicion of his faithlessness in order to elevate the so-called martyrs — in turn giving heart and faith to his congregants.

We followed the chaplain up the aisle, flanked by the congregation that still sang, standing. Only a few of the chandeliers were lighted. A cold draft chilled my bare head, though I felt the warmth of human bodies surrounding me. Halfway up the aisle, I looked up toward the altar, behind which stood the elders, Park and a few others, and Mr. Shin. Soon Colonel Chang and I were with them, facing the congregation. Mr. Shin stepped forward. The candles on the lectern flickered. The congregation sat, hushed.

“Dear brethren,” he began quietly. “You all know who I am, and I know you. I know you, yes, I know you so well that I do not hesitate to say that I belong to you and you belong to me. I am you, you are me, and we are one. And I stand here in the shadow of my inglorious past, and say to you, welcome to the house of our Lord. This house of our Lord is filled tonight, and I am out there with you and you are up here with me. We are here together as one to worship our God and praise Him. Amen.”

Scattered voices in the congregation said, “Amen.”

“I know you well, so well that I know you did not come tonight to this house of our Lord to worship Him. You came to hear me. And I shall speak to you and you shall hear me. I am you and you are me. But who am I?” He paused. “I am a sinner.”

He paused again for a long moment; then, suddenly, his powerful voice boomed. “You came to hear me, a sinner, and you shall hear me, a sinner! Open your eyes! Bare your hearts! And hear! It was I who betrayed our martyrs!” He stopped, his hands clutching the lectern, his body bent slightly forward. He had stressed “I” so strongly that the high-ceilinged interior of the church rang with a vibrating “I” in a tremulous echoing that pervaded the dim, cold air — “… I … I … ” Not a soul stirred.

He said quietly, “On the eighteenth day of June, as you all know, the Communists imprisoned fourteen ministers, and I was one of them. On the twenty-fifth day, twelve ministers were murdered. For seven days and nights, they tortured our martyrs. My dear brethren, I say to you that they tormented the flesh of your martyrs for seven days and nights. I say, ‘flesh of your martyrs,’ for they could not harm their spirits. But how did they torture your martyrs?”

To my surprise — and uneasiness — Mr. Shin, for the next twenty minutes or so, described to the congregation in the minutest detail how each ministers was tortured, one after another, all twelve of them. Mr. Hann, said Mr. Shin, collapsed after three ays and nights of torture and becme ill. At first it seemed that the silent congregation was spellbound by the blood-smeared description, but gradually it began to bestir itself, the rustling of clothes, coughing, and concentrated heavy breathing disturbed the cold air.

Suddenly a woman shrieked. Cries went up. The entire congregation stirred with agitation. Some of the elders rose to their feet. Chaplain Koh hurried over to Mr. Shin, who stood unmoved, rigidly facing the crowd.

A voice from the back shouted, “Away with you!” and another voice, “We don’t want to hear from you!”

Then a woman hissed, “You — a sinner! How dare you defile our martyrs!”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Fictional,God,History,Korea,Martyrs,Mass Executions,North Korea,Religious Figures,Torture,Wartime Executions

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