The chewy thoughts of a queer Christian

The Death of Sun Myung Moon – Part II: Very Charismatic

This is a reflection on the life, rather than the death, of Sun Myung Moon. Often when I hear people from outside the Unification Church commenting on Rev. Moon and his Chuch, they mention that he is ‘a very charismatic leader’. Will it survive without him?

Rev. Moon at rest

Rev. Moon at rest, 6th September 2012

First of all, I want to examine what is meant when people call him ‘very charismatic’. I think there is a confusion here. Church members will never call Rev. Moon a charismatic leader. To say that he is ‘very charismatic’ is to suggest that, perhaps, people follow him because he is charming, or that his manner is more important than his message.

Videos of Moon speaking show that he has an engaging style. What commentors fail to realise, however, is that often Moon is speaking in Korean and with a translator. Much of whatever is gained through a charismatic manner is surely lost in translation. Certain things carry through, like certitude and passion. But this is not enough to convince a person to dedicate their life, and their marriage, to such a man.

To describe him as ‘very charismatic’ is also to forget that the majority of members joined the church before they had seen, let alone met, Moon. They joined, more often than not, because they met members who taught them Moon’s teachings. Divine Principle lectures, along with the intensity of life in a church centre, were the main tools for making members back in the heyday of the 70s and 80s. This did not require exposure to Moon in any kind of direct way.

Yet despite being ‘very charismatic’, Rev. Moon is a charismatic leader in another sense. That is to say, he embodies what is known as ‘charismatic leadership’. The word ‘Charismatic’ comes from the Greek word ‘charism’, meaning ‘gift’. Thus a person who is ‘charismatic’ is ‘gifted’. This also explains ‘charismatic’ Christianity which is based on ‘the gifts of the Spirit’.

So a ‘charismatic’ leader is a person whose authority is a ‘gift’. That is to say, a charismatic leader has authority simply by virtue of who they are. They do not have authority because of their position, like the Pope, or by being elected, like a President. Rev. Moon has authority because he is Rev. Moon, because he is the Messiah. The key point about Charismatic authority is that it cannot be transferred, it cannot be given and it cannot be chosen. It just happens. And it is often a key feature of religions in their early stages.

So it is important not to mistake a very charismatic person with a charismatic leader. Charismatic authority explains the power dynamic of Rev. Moon over the members: simple charisma does not.

Will the Church endure without this charismatic authority? I think it will. The Unification Church existed in America for ten years before Moon ever arrived on American soil. It has spread worldwide in his lifetime: not without little effort on his part, but certainly beyond his immediate influence. It doesn’t need his charismatic authority, which will last beyond his death in his memory and his words. And it certainly doesn’t need his charisma.


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