Ham Sok-Hon (1901-1989): A Maverick Thinker and Pacifist
By Dr. Sung-Soo Kim
Truth & Reconciliation Commission, ROK
1. Searching for Identity under Japanese Imperialism
2. A Pacifist
3. Free from the Christo-Centric View of Christianity
4. Between and above the Left and Right
Ham was a prominent personage in Korean Protestantism, a courageous advocate of peace and a valiant fighter for democracy and the rights of the people. Born in North Korea, Ham experienced oppressive regimes under Japanese colonialism, under the Soviet military that occupied North Korea after liberation from Japan and, after fleeing to the South in 1947, again in South Korea under the autocratic regime of that time and later under the military dictatorships. Ham was originally a teacher by profession, but is known as a maverick thinker, a voice of the people and a prolific writer who spoke up on behalf of the oppressed people through his books, articles, lectures and participation in nonviolent protests despite attempts by the authorities to suppress him.
A strong advocate for freedom from all types of repression, Ham always emphasized nonviolent means. His commitment to nonviolence has earned him the name of the 'Conscience of Korea' and 'Korean Gandhi'. Ham had his share of glory and tribulations; a pacifist who admired Gandhi, he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and 1985, and as an outspoken activist he was incarcerated 9 times in total by the regimes he criticized. In this respect, Ham was an important Asian voice for human rights and nonviolence during the 20th century, despite numerous imprisonments for his beliefs. He was formally a Quaker, which is a nonsectarian Christian group, but he also concluded that all religions are one, atypical of most Christian thinkers. In 2000, Ham was selected by the Republic of Korea as a national cultural figure.
1. Searching for Identity under Japanese Imperialism
Through her colonial policy, Japan attempted to destroy Korean national identity by suppressing Korean language and culture. In 1931, as Japan took control of Manchuria in order to pursue her expansionist policy into China proper, Koreans were compelled to use the Japanese language and study a Japanized historical view of Korean history. In these circumstances, Ham endeavored to find an identity for his country, a search he considered to be deeply connected with his nation's future destiny.
Ham therefore determined to write an account of Korean history from the standpoint of the oppressed, in order to inspire his downhearted countrymen. Through his Korean History from a Biblical Perspective (which Ham later revised as Korean History from a Spiritual Perspective) Ham equated the suffering of Korea with the suffering of Jesus. Using Biblical interpretations of Korean history, Ham provided a vision for the oppressed Koreans. Having previously failed to come to terms with either their suffering or its causes, Ham's interpretation enabled Koreans to find their own identity and place within world history. Ham expounded the meaning of suffering in Korean history: "In terms of the suffering which stemmed from Christianity, I see the appearance of Christ [Suffering] in the Bible as the appearance of the one nation [the Suffering of Korea] in the world's history."1)
Using his own Biblical interpretation of Korean history, Ham provided a mission and vision not only for the oppressed Koreans under Japanese colonialism, but also for 'losers' and ordinary people everywhere. Those losers were able to find their own identity and position in world history. Ham's view centered on the significance of ordinary people in interpreting the Bible and the role the ordinary people play in world history as a `loser.' Equally, Ham stressed the 'loser' overcoming the 'winner's' strength with mildness and gentleness.
In the same way that the light is brighter as the shadow gets darker, despite the humiliating side of Korean history, Ham revealed a positive side to it. Therefore, Ham hoped that Koreans would recognize that they also had a valuable contribution to make to world history, despite their miserable situation under Japanese imperialism. By doing so, Ham broke the fixed concept of defeatism and blind fatalism within Korean history. The significance of one's identity in colonized nations cannot be over emphasized, since identity provides public-spirited direction and national purpose.
2. A Pacifist
In less than a hundred years, from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th, Korea had experienced no less than four distinct influences; Confucianism, Japanese Imperialism, Christianity and Communism. These four elements have affected the Korean peninsula forcefully and persistently. Accordingly, during this time, Korean society had to cope not only with foreign pressures but also with internal modernization. South Korea, as an anti-Communist state, and North Korea, as an anti-capitalist state, both used 'ideology' as a means of consolidating their own dictatorships.
However, Ham's ideas were open-ended not only towards the Asian classical philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, but also towards traditional Christianity, the non-church movement, Quakerism, Western sciences and rationalism. The prevalent value of materialism under strong statism led Ham to view with suspicion the whole future of civilization. He saw profit as the sole purpose of capitalism and asserted that "Using scarce materials for luxurious living is one of the causes of war. In capitalist countries, where profit is the motive, expensive goods are produced rather than more essential goods because more profit is possible. In many instances, war has been waged mainly for political or economic power."2) That is why Ham was suspicious of capitalist values. He emphasized the meaninglessness or senselessness of war and violence as a means of pursuing one's national policy.
In 1942, while Ham was in prison as a 'thought criminal', he read several Buddhist Scriptures along with a variety of other Asian philosophies and reached the belief that "Buddhism and Christianity are not fundamentally different."3) In 1943, when Ham was released from prison, he began to read more of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Ham was deeply impressed by their philosophy of pacifism, and "gained conviction that all religions, in the final analysis, are one."4)
Ham considered peace among nations to be the "peremptory command" of History (God or Supreme Being). "We should pursue the way of peace. It is not a matter of possibility or our ability, it is a `peremptory command' from History. There is the way of peace or the destruction of all humanity. The way of peace only is before us."5) That is why Ham was attracted to the pacifism of Lao-tzu, and why he saw Lao-tzu as the first pacifist, claiming that "Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu stressed the futility of war and violence as instruments of national policy, recommending that peaceful solutions be found".6)
In 1958, under the Syngman Rhee regime, Ham was jailed for advocating peaceful co-existence between North and South Korea. Conflicting political beliefs produced hostile sentiments between the two Koreas. Kim Ilsung of North Korea blamed Syngman Rhee, calling him a "cunning dog of American imperialism", while Rhee cursed Kim as a "traitor and puppet of the Russians and the Chinese". At this time, in 1958, Ham criticised the two Koreas' corrupt policies through the Sasang-gye (Thinking World) magazine under the title "People Should Think for a Living":
"It can be said that Koreans are freed from Japan, but there is no real sense of freedom. A worse tragedy nowadays is that Koreans have two rulers [the United States and the Soviet Union] to serve instead of one [Japan]. Obedient to Japanese subjugation, at least families could remain together and people could come and go openly. Today, parents and children are separated in the two Koreas. Where is liberation? Where is freedom? South Korea labelled the North as Russia and China's puppet, while to North Korea the South is the United States' puppet. There are only puppets and no country. Koreans do not have a country."7)
Such criticisms were so detestable to the Rhee regime that Ham was imprisoned on the charge of violation of the National Security Law, which still exists today. In prison, at the age of 57, Ham was physically beaten by the police and a public prosecutor.
For Ham, individual human beings always existed within the wider context of society and history. Ham saw the inseparable relationship between peace and social justice: "Our ultimate aim is peace, but without social justice, bringing about peace is an impossible dream." Thus, when society was faced with political difficulties, Ham, as a pacifist, felt that historical difficulty as well. That is why he had to respond as an individual to the challenges both of society and of the historical era. In particular, when arbitrary regimes pressurized the people of Korea and himself, he could draw breath through the philosophy of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.
3. Free from the Christo-Centric View of Christianity
Through the experience of Syngman Rhee's rule throughout the Korean War, Ham grew more critical of the Korean church. Ham felt strongly felt that the evangelical and fundamental Christians in the church concentrated too much on church issues and the fulfillment of religious formalities as well as having a strong sense of exclusivism, and that they paid no regard to the predicaments and troubles of society. This view turned the evangelical and fundamental Christians against him. At last, on the 4th of July 1953, Ham proclaimed himself a `heretic' through his poem `The Declaration'. This was Ham's formal announcement of his official separation from the Korean churches: "I will be a heretic from Christianity. All the truth will not be different ultimately....Christianity is great, but the truth is greater! I can die for the truth in the churches. Perhaps my bones can abide at the bottom of the church tower, but my spirit will never be bound there!"8) Ham's Christo-centric views had fundamentally altered.
Ham emphasized the values of justice and freedom in Christianity. In this respect, in 1956, Ham wrote a satirical article, "What is Christianity going to do in Korea?" in Sasang-gye magazine. This writing concerned the increasing dogmatism of Christianity and the problematic situation of Korean Churches. Ham asserted the necessity for the restoration of Christianity from the ceremonial and `weird' to the ethical and socially just. Unquestionably the world of religion is more than ethics and common-sense, but without ethical values and common-sense religion could fall into the category of bigotry and superstitious belief. In view of this, Ham exhorted Christians to be moral and 'rational' believers.9)
4. Between and above the Left and Right
In the early 1970's, at the zenith of Park Chung-hee's dictatorship, Ham gave speeches, mobilized meetings and in particular urged the freedom of the press, considering that the press rather than religious institutions should give a moral lead in contemporary society.10) In order to promote democracy and to emphasize morality in society, on April 19 1970, the tenth anniversary of the April 19 1960 Student Revolution, Ham established a monthly magazine, the Ssial-ui Sori [Voice of the People].
Ham had defined Jesus as Ssial11) and also referred to the common people and `the ruled’ as Ssial. The phrase `the ruled’ did not indicate private citizen. The word for private citizen could be traced to the era of feudalism. However, Ham did not choose the word `national’ or `people,’ words that are used in a democratic era. The ｅxpression `national citizen’ placed individuals on the right wing of society, while the word `people’ designated individuals on the left wing. The same word `people,’ in political circles, changed its original meaning because left wing `people’ and right wing `nationals’ could not conduct political action through dialogue and peaceful means. Instead, they killed and massacred one another through violence and warfare. Both the left and the right wings were unfit to be part of the political circle. The left and right wings were divided and fought wars against one another on the Korean peninsula. That is why Ham began to use a new word, Ssial, instead of the left wing word 'people' or the right wing word 'national.'
The word Ssial has two parts in Korean. The first part 'Ssi' is the Korean word for 'seed,' and the second part `al,’ the Korean word for 'egg.' This implies that the Ssial is a seed and egg for an upcoming new civilization. Despite the fact that he lived constantly under dictatorial regimes, Ham always advocated the principle of non-violence and 'malice toward none' to his fellow people. As a result, some radical dissidents regarded Ham's policy of non-violence as 'too moderate' to eliminate the totalitarian regimes. Yet in the view of autocratic rulers and conservative Christians, Ham was `too political' and `too interventionist in political matters to be a Christian.' 12)
In the world today, and particularly on the Korean peninsula, it seems that a common thought might be "the end justifies the means." Not only Syngman Rhee, but also Kim Ilsung and Park Chunghee have often been seen as men of 'success' in public judgement even to the present time. Compared with Park Chunghee's image of nationhood (authoritarian power, strong economy, anti-Communism) or Kim Ilsung's image of Juche (self-reliance), Ham's ideals of pacifism and his goal of religious-political freedom for humanity can be seen as hopelessly `idealistic', not suited to solving the problems of realpolitik or of Korea itself.
Possibly Park's simplistic belief could be more appropriate than Ham's ideal in the law of the jungle of human history. As Park once said, "In human life, economics precedes politics or culture." It is indeed arguable that people must eat before anything else. However, at the same time the Bible says that "Man cannot live by bread alone." As Jonathan Dale averred, "Can there be any doubt but that the world needs to hear the voice of other values than those of success, power and wealth?"13)
While Syngman Rhee, Park Chunghee, Chun Doohwan and Kim Ilsung were considered by some to be 'heroes' on account of their successful political indoctrination of the people and successful economic policies respectively, Ham can be considered a moral hero.14) Ham was not a dextrous politician, but was a moral man and eternal visionary.
Both Confucius and Mencius assume that the nature of man is originally good. At the same time, they admit that this wicked world is full of temptations to corrupt man's goodness. Christianity, while based on a concept of original sin, also stresses the temptations of this world. Chuang-tzu noted that in this world good men are few and far between, while the bad are numerous. Ham was "a moral man in an immoral society."15)
Everyone is born an idealist, but as they grow many of them lose their `natural piety' when faced with the real world, the world of "War against All"16). only a few good people maintain their ideals and dreams, regardless of the harsh conditions of the outside world. Certainly Ham was one of them.
Ham was more of a humanitarian figure in the modern history of Korea than a political one. Ham was a `failure' politically; in the end, democracy (however imperfect) in South Korea came about as the result of political action, and one might argue that Ham's refusal to engage in the messy business of politics limited his influence, or was even an abandonment of responsibility. However, the conscience of humanity, or moral influence, has more value than politics, as Jesus showed clearly to humankind. Ham used to be called the `conscience of Korea.' Ham achieved what is one of the most difficult things in this world, to be a truly conscientious leader despite corrupt surroundings.
The mottos of Lao-tzu and Jesus are suitable in summarising the essence of Ham's life and thought: "To the good, I show goodness; to those who are not good, I also show goodness."17) "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."18)
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