Many of us are used to thinking there’s a right way and a wrong way in politics and that we should take advantage of every opportunity to make our points—but what do we do when people are fighting for the same thing but have decidedly different strategies growing out of different worldviews?
A rift over how to help oppressed North Koreans displays the differences. On one side are Peter Sohn and Sam Kim, who head the Korean Church Coalition for North Korea Freedom (KCC), “a prayer movement being guided by the Holy Spirit.” The KCC has sponsored many prayer vigils and some protests, but as a representative of 2,500 Korean-American churches it is uncomfortable with political pressure tactics.
Kim says the KCC’s role is to spread awareness and mobilize fellow Christians to speak up about the North Korean issue: “KCC is absolutely about doing it in a peaceful, prayerful, and non-confrontational manner by showing the numbers. … We just open our hearts, we allow the Lord to lead us, and He leads us and shows us the direction He has for us.”
At one recent KCC-organized event, for example, about 100 students rallied near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., met with members of Congress, and held a prayer vigil in front of the Chinese Embassy. “That D.C. event played a crucial, crucial part in getting the word out and getting the members of Congress to stand with us,” Kim said. “Everybody, except Horowitz.”
Horowitz—one of Washington’s legendary human-rights advocates, Michael J. Horowitz—is known as “the Jew who saves Christians.” He is one of the loudest human-rights advocates for Christians in Washington, so much so that he was mistakenly proclaimed one of the “Top 10 Most Influential Christians of the Year” in 1997 by a Southern Baptist magazine.
Horowitz still recalls what his grandfather, who came to the United States a century ago from Eastern Europe, told him: “Michael, never ever forget. America is the blessed land. And you have the responsibility to help others have the blessings we have in America.”
When it comes to human rights, things are black and white for Horowitz. He sees America as a superpower nation responsible to press for human equality and democracy and to discipline delinquent nations. He believes it’s the responsibility of American religious leaders to push their congregants to pressure U.S. politicians to pressure dictators.
People who work alongside Horowitz often witness him pounding fists and raising octaves to push a strategy he is convinced is right. It’s often hard to get a word in during a conversation with Horowitz, because he just raises his voice. Recently, he raised his voice when I asked him about the KCC: “Their practice of Christianity is all talk. What are they praying for is the question? Are they praying for God to do their work? Are they praying for courage to do the work God has placed upon them?”
Last August, during the heat of the presidential campaign, when both the Obama and the Romney camps saw Virginia as a crucial swing state, Horowitz sent Sohn and Kim a draft letter addressed to both presidential candidates. It asked the candidates to pledge support for North Korean freedom in exchange for thousands of Korean-American votes in Virginia.
Horowitz wanted the KCC to get Virginia’s many Korean-American church pastors to sign the letter. His accompanying email hopped with exclamation marks, calling this opportunity “Exciting! Amazing! Historic!” But Kim did not respond in kind, and wrote that Sohn was traveling to Thailand to talk with 300 Southeast Asia missionaries about North Korea.
Over the next several weeks, the Horowitz plan died. In November, after the Obama victory, Horowitz screamed to me about Sohn: “In Thailand! It’s unbelievable to me! It’s sinful! I don’t know what good it’s likely to do to talk to pastors in Thailand!” And then he paused, and continued, “It allows Pastor Sohn to feel good.”
Horowitz sent me reams of complaining emails and blistered my ear in a lengthy interview, but Sohn and Kim were more reticent. At one point Kim declined an interview, emailing that he expected to continue working with Horowitz in the future as a friend, but didn’t think it appropriate to talk about his relationship with him. Earlier, in a phone conversation Kim and I had before the incident, he called Horowitz a “sweetheart” with “one of the greatest hearts. … He has a lot of great ideas that I really respect, but also at the same time, are they really right for a church organization to do? His idea is a little bit like, ‘This is what I feel, this is my way and this is what needs to be done.’ He has his own agenda.”
For all the strife, Horowitz said as a Jew, “When I’m with the Koreans, I feel at home.” Both communities endured defeat and tragedy, he said, yet found strength and courage to bounce back stronger and dedicated.
But an emphasis on prayer is not good enough or fast enough. For every prayer vigil held, Horowitz sees minutes ticking while North Koreans waste away: “These kids would take a trip to D.C., the church community will look good, nobody would listen to them, and nothing ever happened!” he yelled, the last word scraping hoarse.
As a veteran of the Soviet Jewry movement and the fight against South African apartheid who also helped pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the Sudan Peace Act, and the North Korea Human Rights Act, Horowitz believes his strategies are tried and true.
Horowitz also remembers the heavy price of passivity. He remembers asking his father, who was a leader at a synagogue, what he did when the Jews in Europe were being persecuted during World War II. His father’s answer didn’t satisfy him. Today he says, “When North Korea finally becomes free, will your generation be able to look at the next generation in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I did all that I could’? If your answer is no, you have to be very careful. I say to every young Korean: Will your children respect you?”
But was it really his expert policy strategies that crumbled the Soviet Union and South African apartheid? Horowitz might say yes, but a lot of Christians were praying too.