Ham Sǒkhǒn and Korean Nationalism


              (Vladimir Tikhonov, Oslo University, Norway)


Ham Sǒkhǒn (1901-1989) was both universal and simultaneously deeply national thinker. Basically, a hallmark of his thought was all-inclusiveness – striving to achieve a “synthesis of dynamic West with profound East” (using his own metaphor, with a strong self-Orientalising flavour), he combined Protestant religious personalism with transcendentalist, holistic understanding of the world chiefly derived from Taoist and Buddhist worldviews. Often called “Korea’s Gandhi”, Ham Sǒkhǒn – the translator of Gandhi’s autobiography into Korea and the author of several works on Gandhi’s life and ideas (Hŏ 2007, 620), very much follows Gandhi’s attitude, successfully balancing the universalist aspirations with national cultural embedment and national commitments. So far the religious aspect is being concerned, Ham and Gandhi started from two mutually opposing points – Ham, born in a Protestant family, learned about the non-Christian faiths later as a part of his personal religious quest, while Gandhi, born to a Hindu family, learned about Bible and Tolstoy in course of his education and self-education – but in the end came to a similar kind of belief into a “universal religiosity” subsuming and transcending the faith and cultural differences (Yi 2005, 405-420). While Gandhi was Ham’s closest, most central reference point on the universal, world-historical scale, his meta-religious, transcendentalist approach is somewhat unparalleled regionally, especially as long as the East Asian Christianity is concerned. Ham’s Japanese teacher, Uchimura Kanzō (1861-1930), was open-minded enough to acknowledge, for example, Confucianism and Confucianism-underpinned bushido moral code as the “rich, fertile soil” onto which the Christianity could be successfully “grafted”. He was, however, hardly prepared to accept Confucianism or Buddhism as essentially equivalent to Christianity, his syncretism boiling down, in the end, to a nationalist desire to grant certain validity to Japan’s pre-Christian past (Willcock 2006, 154-169). On the Buddhist side, China’s great modern Buddhist Taixu (1890-1947) acknowledge the importance of the Christian ethics and institutions, but considered its metaphysics inferior to Buddhism and generally superstitious and uninspiring (Reichelt 1954, 79). In this respect, in saying to a Buddhist audience that he, as a universalist, believed in the same essence of all the religions, and viewed the very act of “believing”, in the metaphysical sense”, as transcending the limitations of the concepts of “God” or “Buddha” (HSCh, 5/333), Ham largely pioneered the radically universalist syncretistic thinking in the East Asian regional context.


The same penchant towards being inclusive and accommodating marks also Ham’s attitude on the universalism-nationalism dichotomy. Being a universalist thinker remarkably free from the nationalist sentiments of the lower kind – he repeatedly stated, for example, that he distinguished between the Japanese people and their government and harboured no bitterness whatsoever towards the ordinary people of Japan, all the humiliations of the Japanese colonial time in Korea (1910-1945) notwithstanding – he was at the same time a national thinker in the matters pertaining to the understanding of history or religion. Nationalism in its profane, mundane and especially “statist” meanings – as an ideology being used by the modern states to mobilize their populations and legitimize their rule – was completely foreign and inimical to Ham. Being involved in the resistance to the dictatorships which successively ruled South Korea from 1948 through 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Ham also resisted, with no small courage, their attempts to nationalistically indoctrinate the Korean population. In one of his 1983 popular lectures, he articulated his views on the government-sponsored nationalism in the following way:


“If we would like to live as the people of this country, I think we should emphasize the universal over the national. Nationalism is no solution, and I dislike it (…). For nationalists, the nation is the highest virtue. They believe that life’s criteria lie in the nation. What is deemed beneficial to the nation is accepted, while any objections or anybody who belongs to another nation is rejected regardless of how good they may be – that is nationalism, which became so powerful from the nineteenth century onward. I dislike it, although I understand that we have to keep the national things. One has to know the roots of one’s country: the roots of my country are my roots” (Cited in: Hŏ 2007, 633).


Besides being, in essence, a continuation of Ham’s universalist ethical and religious beliefs, his anti-nationalism was also empowered and inspired by his vision – utopic and anarchist in the modern terms and Taoist in pre-modern terms – of the gradual “withering away’ of the existing national statehood and a transition to a world government, in which splitting the biggest, best armed and most dangerous Leviathan states into smaller and peaceful communities will be an essential stage. In a dialogue with Song Kidǔk in 1978, Ham stated that he considered it logical and necessary for China and USA especially to be divided into smaller units, American states becoming fully independent communities. “Hegemonism is a very bad things”, Ham commented, as it creates “idols” for the populations of the hegemonic countries and leaves the smaller states no recourse to justice. Hegemonic superpowers are essentially embodiments of collectivism, since their very existence is predicated upon sacrificing innumerable individuals. At the same time, Ham was equally uncompromising in his dealings with the nationalism of Korea, a small, victimized nation, saying that Korea did not have to stick to the colonial patterns of nationalism after the end of the Japanese colonial epoch and that idolizing “nation” and forgetting about the universal, world-wide and holistic context of the individual lives would be the gravest possible mistake (HSCh, 4/354-356). Ham’s simultaneous criticism of both superpower violence and Korea’s own nationalism was quite uncommon for 1970s-80s South Korea, where the anti-hegemonic and anti-dictatorial struggles were often inspired by the “progressive” nationalist sentiments and convictions (Koo 1999, 59-60). It was also undoubtedly inspired by Uchimura Kanzō’s criticisms of the Japanese “statist” nationalism and Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), although Ham went much further in his rejection of the modern statehood than Uchimura, whose foremost hope was to build a “good” modern state “on the foundation of justice” (Yang 2007, 378-381). Ham acknowledged the smaller Social Democratic states of western Europe, such as Sweden or Austria as more acceptable than others (Kim 2007, 245), but otherwise was not very inclined to believe in the possibility of a “good” modern statehood as such.


At the same time, Ham – as was articulated in his lecture passage cited above – firmly asserted the idea of the national “roots” of an individual. Generally, nations – and not classes, for example, - were, in Ham’s view, the “historical personalities”, the actors in the great drama teleologically leading the humanity towards deeper knowledge of God, towards the ultimate religious fulfillment. This picture of world history as “nations’ history”, the nations and their states being personalized and central actors on the world stage, might have been influenced by Uchimura’s vision of the “story of the world”, in which diverse nations were all advancing in progress by developing their particular “civilization” in diverse ways shaped, among others, by their geography. Japan’s “national individuality”, in such a picture, was characterized by its ability to “synthesize East and West”, to develop further Buddhism, already non-existent in India, and Confucianism and Christianity, declining in China and Europe respectively (Yang 2007, 376-377).  Apart from Uchimura, Ham’s understanding of nations as “individualities” shaped by their respective environment might have been influenced, as Prof. Cho Kwang suggested, by the Japanese translations of Friedrich Ratzel’s (1844-1904) works on the human geography (Cho 2003, 533-534), or even by some earlier Japanese translations of the works by the European geographical determinists, for example, by some of the popular translations of Henri Thomas Buckle’s (1821-1862) seminal History of Civilization in England (Buckle 1879; 1884). Just like for the mainstream European historians and geographers of the nineteenth century, the age of capital and nationalism, the history of the world was, for Ham, in the end, a sum of the national histories. But – in contrast to much less religiously inspired writings of Ratzel and Buckle and more in line with Uchimura’s visions of the nation and its destiny -  the national histories were meaningful for Ham only as much as the nations in question were fulfilling the assigned providential roles in the world-historical drama (HSCh, 9/235-263). And, as actor’s in God’s providential mystery, the nations are much more than simple associations of independent individuals. As late as in 1970, Ham wrote:


“First and foremost, we should understand that the nations are personalities. The nations simply cannot be just associations of individuals. They are living individuals in their own right. (….) The four billions of cells which constitute an individual, did not assembly themselves on their own to give birth to a person. The whole of an individual was born in its entirety from the beginning. It is a mystery indeed. (….) In the same way, although it looks as if individuals assembly themselves into nations, it is no more than a superficial reflection – in reality, the individuals are born out of their nations. (…) Although [in their relations to the individuals] the nations represent the ‘whole’, they do not represent the ultimate ‘whole’. Just as above – or better to say in the bottom of – individuals there are nations, there is the wholeness of humanity in the bottom of the nations. And just as the nations are not simply assemblages of the individuals, the humanity is not simply an assemblage of the nations. (….) And the humanity is not the last, ultimate ‘whole’. Beneath it there is the universe – a bigger and incomprehensible framework” (HSCh, 9/298-299).


Multilayered “organic” unity, with myriads of cells in the bottom and divinely created Universe above was the totalizing framework for Ham’s worldview – and nations took important place in this cosmic hierarchy, representing there the quintessential human collectives, with their particular individualities and providential destinies. What were the socio-political and cultural implications of this grandiose vision? For one thing, the primacy of the nation among all imaginable human collectives implied that strong, independent national consciousness was needed – and for Ham, a good example of the miracles such consciousness might make, was the Phoenix-like revival of post-war Japan, as compared with the division of Korea, with due to the “lack of independent national strength”, was manipulated by the occupying superpowers. To end the situation in which two rival Koreas were subordinated to their superpower patrons, Ham called for building up of an “independent national subjectivity”, which was for him a prerequisite for any meaningful “participation in the world history” in the quality of one unified “national personality” (HSCh, 9/300-301). Aside from Ham’s rejection of South Korean dictatorial state’s “statist” claims to absolute and blind loyalty of its citizenry, another big difference between Ham’s vision of Korean “national ego” and the nationalist ideology of South Korea’s successive dictatorial regimes was the pan-Korean nature of Ham’s “nation” – Ham viewed Korea’s division as a sinful action by foreign occupiers and Korea’s own self-interested political classes (HSCh, 9/395) and called for a restoration of national unity through a popular and religious movement from below underpinned by the sentiments of collective repentance and forgiveness (HSCh, 3/177-193). Utopist as it might be, Ham’s pan-Korean national vision could not be co-opted into the official nationalism of the South Korean state, and thus provided various popular movements of the 1970s and 1980s with a very important and effective ideological resource for anti-governmental, anti-state resistance.    


Ham’s Korean nationalism was not “statist”. Ham actually regarded the state as a “necessary evil”, fundamentally opposed militarism and even encouraged his disciples to reject the military duty and go to prison instead (“militant pacifism”: HSCh, 4/73)). However, Ham understood nation-states as main actors in history, and thus could not remain uninterested in their fate. Not being a professional politician, he remained a politically aware and engaged citizen for the most part of his adult life, striving to help the Korean nation to fulfill what he considered its mission. While the role of the Jews was to give birth to Messiah, the role of the Koreans was to show to the world by their suffering the perils of militarism and imperialism, and to develop the new religious wisdom while being victimized by foreign imperialists and Korea’s own unjust rulers. And Korea not doing its role was ruthlessly criticized by Ham, “this old whore” being his favored metaphor when he spoke on his own land.


If Ham’s teachings are to be defined as “nationalist”, it is culturalist, pacifist, religious and highly “regional” nationalism of a non-statist kind – Ham’s “national Christianity” meant an open Christian faith compatible with two great regional East Asian traditions, Buddhism and Taoism, and especially with the pacifist tendencies of the Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. Actually, the example of Ham shows to us  the diversity of the possible variations of nationalism, and the ability of non-Western, anti-hegemonic nationalisms to function – at least, in certain historical period and under certain conditions – as resistance ideologies compatible also pacifism and avowed internationalism and universalism in religion and social philosophy. Socio-politically, Ham admired “small, peaceful and egalitarian” states of Scandinavia – “progressive states”, as much as the state can be a vehicle of progress at all. But, while being progressively oriented and remarkably anti-militarist, Ham’s philosophy was still basically national – he believed that “national goals” should take precedence over the class or personal goals, for example, and accepted the struggle of the majority of ssial (plain people, people’s masses) against the ruling minorities but not the class conflicts among the “people”. In Ham’s thought, Korea’s modern tradition of “people’s” (minjung) nationalism reached its climax, largely articulating, in a religious way, the sentiments and demands of the middle class and working class alliance comprising the anti-dictatorship movement of the 1960s-1970s.   




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