Narco Saints’ Drug-Dealing Pastor

Daniel Jung

There is a unique sense of discomfort that occurs when the Holy Spirit convicts you of some sort of sinful behavior. A holy rebuke. Narco Saints, a recent Korean-language crime series that’s available on Netflix, exhorts you to lean into that discomfort.

The great 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote that the Holy Spirit “comes on purpose to convince men of sin, to make them feel that they are guilty, greatly guilty— so guilty that they are lost, and ruined, and undone.” In other words, holy discomfort. Narco Saints is a constant reminder of this sort of discomfort that comes from the Spirit’s conviction.

Based on a true story, Narco Saints centers on Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo), a businessman who moves to the South American country of Suriname to capitalize on a burgeoning skate-fish industry. Unbeknownst to Kang, his contact in Suriname also has connections with an underground drug-trafficking ring. After their business fails, Kang is approached by National Intelligence Service agent Choi Chang-ho (Park Hae-soo), who convinces him to leverage his drug contacts and go undercover to infiltrate the Surinamese drug empire run by Jeon Yo-hwan . . . that is, Reverend Jeon Yo-hwan (Hwang Jung-min). Yes, in Narco Saints, the illegal drug trade is ruled by a preacher of the Word, his associate pastor is his muscle, and his congregants are his cocaine mules.

As I was watching the details of this K-drama play out, with Pastor Jeon’s church used as a vehicle of exploitation and abuse, I felt discomforted. Throughout the six-episode series, the discomfort comes when the sacrilegious is egregiously syncretized with the sacred. We see this syncretization when one of the church’s deaconesses gives the other female congregants handfuls of plastic bags filled with cocaine and says, “Here, you will each swallow 10 of these. Remember, this is God calling you to help build his kingdom.” We see this syncretization when the Korean words for reverend and assistant pastor—moksanim and jundosanim, respectively—are used in context with heroin smuggling and murder. These are hallowed titles in Korean church culture. I thought to myself, “Wow. I was a jundosanim for four years, and after my ordination, I’ve been a moksanim now for the last five.” Hearing this all in my Korean church context brought about so much discomfort.

In one particularly jarring scene, we see a fully robed Pastor Jeon, after preaching to a chorus of “Hallelujahs!,” exhorting his church, “You are my little sheep. Come forth and be cleansed by him.” His followers then proceed to the table of the Lord’s Supper one by one. As they are given a communion wine cup, the camera cuts to a closeup of each congregant consuming the meth-laced blood of Christ, all while a familiar hymnal tune is played on the organ, along with an eerie, not-so-familiar hint of a violin solo. It’s a well-crafted scene that makes the viewer extremely uncomfortable.

Narco Saints is a reminder of the discomfort that comes from the Spirit’s conviction.

I was immediately reminded of the jarring discomfort King David must have felt when the prophet Nathan convicted him of his adultery and murder in 2 Samuel 12. This communion scene, to me, felt like an indictment on the state of megachurch culture in Korea. Having grown up in a Korean church, I can attest that Hwang Jung-min nails his performance as Pastor Jeon, especially while he preaches. The cadence, the zeal and fervor of the vocal intonations, the gyrations, the mannerisms—even the spittle. He captures it all in a way that takes me back to the days of listening to sermons in Korean while sitting on my father’s lap, my feet dangling over his knees. In real life, the drug kingpin of Suriname was in the oil business. By turning him into a pastor overseeing a Korean church, I believe the creators of Narco Saints meant to comment on the state of corruption and exploitation in a few of the disgraced megachurches in Korea. As if to say, “You are all little sheep.”

As bleak as that may seem, there is a Christian imperative embedded within the series’ narrative, one that might even elicit a bit of hope. (Spoilers ahead.) We find out in the end that Pastor Jeon’s right-hand man, assistant pastor/jundosanim Byeon (Jo Woo-jin) is a double agent for the National Intelligence Service. After Pastor Jeon’s congregants find out that he is a spy, they label him “Judas.” This reminded me of the notion that in dysfunctional families, the one who brings attention to the dysfunction is seen as the troublemaker—the Judas.

Perhaps Narco Saints serves as an uncomfortable reminder that although we are cognizant of the fact that we serve in imperfect church settings (though perhaps not to the point of drug smuggling and murder), we have a duty to continue to speak the gospel truth to those who may need to hear it the most.

Topics: TV