Chuseok is a harvest festival, similar to Thanksgiving, which involves family reunions, eating, and in some households, ancestor worship rites. Ancient Koreans did not know the one true God who was to be thanked, and as in many other cultures, they turned to developing other spiritual identities (see Rom. 1, Acts 17), and instead gave thanks to the spirits of their ancestors. Nowadays, Korean Christians use this opportunity to thank God for family and divine blessings. Christian families hold memorials instead of ancestor rites, to express thanks to God and to remember the deceased.
But some Christians find themselves caught up in family conflict, when their non-believing families insist on their participation in ancestor worship. How believers in non-believing families are to respond is difficult, and sometimes controversial. For Asians, familial piety and relationships are especially important, and a Christian does not want to be a poor witness by violating this, but at the same time, wants to remain faithful to God. [Disclaimer: Admittedly, I’m not an expert on Korean culture, so I consulted with a Korean seminary professor on some of these points.]
Ancestor worship developed out of Confucianism (which emphasized honoring ancestors, but did not regard them as spirits to be worshiped) and shamanism, which holds that ancestor spirits and other spirits must be honored or appeased, lest they become upset. So families make food offerings to the ancestors, bow to them at household altars and grave sites, and pray to their ancestors. Eating the food offered is not so problematic, as mature Christians recognize that such spirits are not real (see Rom. 14). We would not want to offer food to spirits, but most Christians would not have a problem with eating it out of thanksgiving and respect for deceased relatives.
Bowing is more problematic and controversial. Many Christians refuse to bow, as to them this represents idol worship, due to its shamanistic origins, or would involve darker forces in the spiritual realms. But some Christians feel that it is okay to bow simply out of respect, not worship (and not the full body bow), or to simply pray instead, as appropriate signs of thankfulness and filial piety. However, this is a sensitive issue for some, especially since Korean Christians were martyred under Japanese colonial rule for refusing to bow in worship of the Japanese emperor. In short, this is controversial, so it’s best to say that we are discouraged from bowing in veneration to ancestors.
Praying to ancestral spirits, though, is not possible. Believers can only pray to God, not to spirits, not even imaginary ones. Instead, in respect to the family, a believer could offer a visibly Christian prayer – a thanksgiving and memorial prayer to God – and maintain one’s witness and obedience to God. Likewise, as I once heard a Chinese pastor explain, Christians at a Buddhist funeral for family members could appropriately pray an ostensibly Christian prayer to God, instead of a Buddhist prayer.
Some general considerations from Rom. 14 can guide our behavior in these more controversial areas, for the sake of our faithfulness and witness. Whatever we decide, we must be able to do so with a clean conscience – avoiding something if it feels morally uncomfortable. We are to maintain an attitude of humility and respect toward the family, and doing whatever possible to convey such attitudes (it may be best to clarify your feelings with family members beforehand, and to seek support and advice from mature Christians). We also must consider our witness. Would our behavior confuse non-believers, or less mature believers, about our faith and loyalty to God? If they believe those spirits or forces exist, would they get the impression that it’s okay for a Christian to engage in worshiping spirits? Most of all, in such situations we need to pray for wisdom about what to do, and seek God’s presence and power in the midst of spiritual conflicts with unbelieving relatives.
[Originally published in OEM church newsletter, Fall 2009.]