Ham the 'Heretic'
Syngman Rhee was an enthusiastic Christian and an elder of the Chongdong Methodist Church. Most of the Liberal Party leaders were also Christians, including Vice-President Yi Kibung. These Christian leaders promoted segregated policies in favour of Christian rather than non-Christian Koreans. Rhee even gave various privileges to Christians at the expense of non-Christians. For example, every young man had to submit to military service for three years, but exemption from military service was granted if a young man studied theology in one of the theological colleges or universities. Also most of the Christian leaders favoured the dictatorial and corrupt Rhee regime, either due to the fear of Communism or at least as long as they enjoyed the privileges it gave. The mainstream of Christian leaders failed to protest at the many repressive and unjust acts of Rhee and actively supported the Liberal Party.
Rhee even expected Christians' political collaboration, and counted on financial help from many Christian organisations. The Church maintained 'diplomatic and amicable' relations with the Liberal Party and did not protest against the injustice of the Rhee regime. Ham protested against this tendency of the Korean church saying that: "Religion exists not only for the sake of believers but more importantly, for the sake of society's members as a whole."
There was no mark of democratic belief in Rhee's approach to the system of administration. The people were there for Rhee or the Liberal Party, not Rhee or the Liberal Party for the people. Christian groups were the most pro-government organisations throughout Rhee's regime, and most of the churches were servants to political authority. Most Christians supported Rhee, and the Korean churches became forceful political allies of the Liberal Party. Christians also gave tacit consent to Rhee's political dictatorship as well as readily backing the Liberal Party with the 'dream' of making Korea a Christianised state under a Christian President. Indeed on many occasions, non-Christian Koreans regarded the Korean church in the same light as the Rhee regime or the Liberal Party. Thousands of Christians were opportunists and obedient to the Rhee regime. Dissidents came from a tiny group of Christians, such as Ham, who had vital support and popularity from the intelligentsia and students.
Owing to his bitter encounters with the despotic regime, Ham suffered the harsh intervention of Rhee's reign in his individual life and thought. Through the experience of Rhee's rule throughout the Korean War, Ham grew more critical of the Korean Church. He strongly felt that the evangelical and fundamental Christians in the Church concentrated too much on church issues and the fulfilment of religious formalities 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 in 1953, Ham proclaimed himself a 'heretic' through his poem, 'The Declaration'. This was Ham's formal announcement of his official separation from any established religious denomination:
I will be a heretic from Christianity. All the truth would not be different ultimately --- Christianity is great, but the truth is greater! I can die for the truth in the Churches. Perchance my bones can abide at the bottom of the Church tower, but my spirit will never be bound there!"
What Ham meant is that human beings are capable of apprehending the truth intuitively, without the intervention of instituted authority, but those complacent churchmen could neither understand nor tolerate Ham's 'Declaration'.
During the Korean War, apart from the 4 million deaths on both sides, 3.7 million of the population were left homeless in the South alone, and more than 100,000 children were orphaned. Approximately half a million of the population succeeded in escaping from the North to the South during the fighting. After the War, North Korea closed its borders and became one of the most despotic states in the world. No mail or telephone calls from South Korea could reach North Korea and vice versa. Before the War, ideological divisions between the two halves of Korea were basically a result of foreign imposition. But after the War, the ideological differences and mutual antagonisms between the two sides of Korea widened and deepened.
Although the War had been entered to protect a fledgling democratic republic facing a Communist attack, the assault from North Korea overwhelmed post-war South Korean leaders causing them to place a priority not on democracy and civil rights but on military defence, decrees and mandates and loyalty, but most of all anti-Communism. Subsequently through the post-war policy of Rhee and the Liberal Party, Ham suffered a number of injustices. As the War terminated, Ham returned to Seoul under the care of his friends. Although it was a time of hardship for Ham and his family, his various friends and followers cared for and helped him and his family by offering meals and accommodation. As a result, they lived a hand to mouth existence.
One of Rhee's key weapons in subverting the political system was the National Security Law (NSL). The NSL defined sedition in so vague and broad a way that the law could easily be used as a political tool by the authorities to suppress virtually any kind of opposition. A notable result of the NSL occurred in 1959, eight months before the 1960 presidential election. Cho Pongam (1898-1959), Leader of the Chinbo-dang [Progressive Party] and a popular socialist presidential candidate was executed for alleged violation of the NSL.
When Rhee entered his third term of presidential power, just after the outrageous amendment of a constitutional clause which prohibited the third term presidency, Christian leaders organised the election polling committee and actively campaigned for Rhee. When some Christian leaders did not cooperate with the mainstream of the Christian campaigners, they regarded this minority of Christian leaders as 'heretical'. In this sense, Ham was definitely a 'heretical-Christian'. It seems to me that the epoch of the First Republic could be seen as a continuous chain of conflicts between the 'ruling-Christian' Rhee and his entourage, and the so-called 'heretical-Christian', Ham and his followers.
Meanwhile the Christian churches clashed one against the other in order to gain maximum benefit from Rhee's 'most generous support'. Thus the Korean church was shown in a most shameful and disgraceful way to Korean society. Immense puhung-hoe (revival meetings) were also held and massively attended. During the 1950s, around 250 syncretic new religions with a Christian-based style of movement flourished, notably the Chondo-gwan (the Olive Tree Church) movement, revival meeting movement, kido-won (a hall of prayer) movement, and the infamous Tongil-gyo (the Unification Church) movement. Ham's close observation of South Korean society under Christian President Syngman Rhee reinforced and developed Ham's view on Christianity in Korea. It is important to understand the characteristics of the Christian-oriented movements of this time, in view of the fact that Ham's Christo-centric views fundamentally altered due to these phenomena.
The Chondo-gwan movement was started by Pak Taeson (1915-1992) in 1955. It was the fastest spreading and largest of the Korean syncretic religions during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a Christian syncretic movement stressing faith-healing. Until the mid or later 1960s, it seemed that the Chondo-gwan movement might exceed or even replace orthodox and mainstream Christianity. However, in the early 1970s, scandals linked with Pak Taeson and his close family led to mass abandonment of the church. Some of the accusations of financial embezzlement of church funds came from claims of ill-treatment of church labour and misuse of funds.
The Unification Church was officially set up in Seoul by Mun Sonmyong
(1920 - ) in 1954, although its roots date back to the early 1940s in north Korea. Mun ran a sect known as the Israel Church and was jailed on accusations of fornication and adultery in 1948 and 1949 in North Korea. He was released by the United Nations army in 1950 and made his way down to South Korea. After the Korean War, in 1955 Mun was jailed for gross embezzlement of finance and sexual scandals, but he was later released again. In the early 1970s, Mun moved the centre of his administration from South Korea to the United States, at which time he attached to his evangelistic efforts a campaign against Communism. In 1983 Mun was investigated on accusations of tax evasion and was sent to prison in the United States.
The kido-won movement was a broad movement rather than an organisation. It was centred around 'faith remedies', and some kido-won were so big that they kept preachers who specialised in certain ills. The patients in the kido-won were expected to donate large sums of money, which made the kido-won even bigger.
The puhung-hoe movement took over some aspects of style from the kido-won movement. Although originally the puhung-hoe was initiated in order to revive Korean Christianity through evangelical preaching, it was later identified with the 'remedy of illness' like the kido-won movement. The atmosphere of the puhung-hoe, the use of hypnotism, the style in which the revivalists talk to the sick person, the utilisation of the laying on of hands, and other peculiarities resembled Korean shamanistic customs. In this regard, Ham criticised the weird styles of such Christian-oriented movements arguing that: "The fundamental spirit of Jesus is ethical and conscientious, it is not a kind of black magic."
While Rhee continued to abuse his political powers, several newspapers suffered due to their critical views on Rhee's policies and on the Liberal Party: On 17 March 1955 Tong'a Ilbo was shut down for several months for a typographical mistake concerning the president's title; in September the Taegu Maeil Sinmun [Daily Press] was ravaged by Liberal Party-supported gangsters; and on 30 April 1959 Kyonghyang Sinmun, the most candid and critical of Seoul dailies at that time, was closed on clearly trumped-up charges.
Meanwhile, under the Christian President, the numerical size of the Korean church continued to increase throughout the 1950s. It seems Ham believed there was no way to resolve the social problem of Korea without the help of the Christians. But at the same time, from the 1950s he saw the Church Growth Movement in South Korea as a kind of sectarian collectivism rather than a religious revival. Thus, by using the historical cases of Buddhism and Confucianism, Ham warned of the Korean Christians' preoccupation with increasing numbers of the Church members whilst the quality of the church was declining:
"At the end of the Koryo dynasty, Buddhist temples increased rapidly, then both the Buddhist temple and the Koryo dynasty collapsed at the same time; at the end of the Choson dynasty, Confucian academies and temples flourished in every village, then both the Confucian academies and the Choson dynasty fell down; now the Christian churches increase rapidly in South Korea, what will collapse next?"
While the churches kept on growing, Ham rejected any kind of organised power or established institution. To Ham, any organised power or regime was a potential source of violence. This coincided with his own experience under the Japanese regime throughout the colonial period, and under the Soviet Red Army in north Korea after the Liberation of Korea. Moreover, his own government abused its people through violence under Rhee as well as later on under Generals Park and Chun. Ham commented on the philosophical contribution of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu on his spirit as follows: "Despite the contaminated politics of the last several decades, I could draw breath through my daily conversation with Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu."
It seems to me that is the reason why Ham favoured the transcendental elements of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu rather than Confucian doctrine. The essence of the philosophy of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu has a tendency to transcendentalism and respect of individual freedom from government, whereas the essence of Confucianism says that "study and the holding of [governmental] office are the twin activities inseparable from the concept of the [Confucian] gentleman." Ham also compared Confucian doctrine and the doctrine of the Pharisees in this way: "As Jesus recognised the impossibility of salvation by following the doctrine of the Pharisees, so Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu recognised the impossibility of salvation by following the Confucian doctrine."
In the meantime, seeing the problems with immorality arising from the bizarre form of some Christian-oriented movements, and the corruption of the Liberal Party, in 1955 Ham began to publish his own magazine, Malssum (Words). Through the magazine Ham publicly expressed his thoughts on the issue of religion and social problems. An example of one of Ham's writings in this period follows:
"Only one who knows the value of freedom can obey. One who obeys without knowing what freedom is, that is the same as a tamed animal. The Prodigal Son was able to obey his father sincerely, when he realised the meanings of freedom and resistance --- Only a free person can love his enemy. A slave cannot be a moralist! Without self-hood how can one love others?."
In this writing Ham emphasised the values of justice and freedom in Christianity. His fundamental argument is that one cannot think of love and obedience without justice and freedom. In other words, for Ham, the virtues of justice and freedom are a precondition before summoning the merits of love and obedience. This was Ham's counter argument against the mainstream Korean churchgoers during the 1950s, who were not much concerned about the issues of social justice and individual freedom from the political oppression of the Liberal Party. But for Ham, the issues of religion and politics are inseparable and he blended these two into one as Gandhi did. This is the reason Ham has been called the Gandhi of Korea not only by many Koreans but also by civil rights activists abroad.
Ham the 'Failure' as an Organiser Table of Contents