"A Prophet is not Welcome in His Own Land"
To return to Ham's activities during the 1950s; in 1956, through the well known monthly magazine Sasang-gye, Ham began to publish his diverse thoughts, in particular on the role of Christianity within society. Sasang-gye was the most influential journal at that time for social issues. Chang Chunha (1918-1975) who was Chief Editor of Sasang-gye, had been the secretary of Kim Ku in the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. Chang was also a member of the Korean Independence Army in Manchuria during the Japanese colonial period. When Kim Ku returned to south Korea in 1945 from China proper Chang escorted him. In April 1953, during the last phase of the Korean War in Pusan, Chang established the monthly Sasang-gye as an intellectual magazine which would influence the intellectual development of Koreans during the post-Korean War era. It lasted until 1966, when Park Chunghee permanently closed the magazine. Due to his contribution to the promotion of both freedom of the press and democracy in South Korea, in August 1962 Chang was awarded the Magsaysay Press Prize by the Philippines Government.
Although Chang had been familiar with the name of Ham Sokhon since his childhood, Chang only met Ham in the mid-1950s. As Chief Editor of the monthly magazine, it was Chang who urged Ham to write his criticism of South Korea's socio-political situation in Sasang-gye. Chang sensed Ham wanted to say something to his nation: "I felt I must impel this old gentleman [Ham]." At last in January 1956, Ham began to write satirical articles, "What is Christianity going to do in Korea?" in Sasang-gye. This writing concerned the increasing dogmatism of Korean Christianity and the problematic situations of Korean Churches. Ham asserted the necessity for the restoration of Korean Christianity from the ceremonial and 'weird' to the ethical and prophetical one. Unquestionably the world of religion is more than ethics and common-sense, but without ethical value and common-sense philosophy, religion could fall into the circle of bigotry and superstitious belief. Ham exhorted Korean Christians to be moral and 'rational' believers.
Chang noted that due to Ham's writing, "What is Christianity going to do in Korea?" Sasang-gye became a best-seller magazine among South Korean intellectuals at that time, selling more than one hundred thousand copies throughout South Korea. Later Chang was reminded of his first impression of Ham: "At first sight, Ham looked rather countrified and timid, yet a neatly handsome old man. I was astonished how this meek and bashful looking old gentleman could produce such stormy, spirited and vigorous writing!" Thanks to Ham's contribution as a nation-wide 'journalist', in May 1956, four months after his first public writing in South Korea, Ham's followers raised funds and bought a small house for him. At the age of fifty-five, for the first time in his life, Ham was able to have his own home.
Ham's satirical writing on Christianity in connection with Rhee's regime added to his fame among the South Korean intelligentsia and students on a national level. Ham became a well-known national figure as a satirist and 'a journalist'. On the other hand, Ham was heavily criticised by conservative Christians and associates of the Liberal Party. They even labelled Ham a 'slanderous man' and 'pro-Communist'. While Ham's popularity increased among the intelligentsia and students, so did the antagonism of the conservative Christian leaders, who regarded him as a threat to their authority and vested interests. They also believed that the Christian beliefs which he taught were misguided.
Regardless of the intense cavilling from conservative Christians, Sasang-gye became a significant vehicle for Ham to deliver his views to the public. Ham tried to sow the seed of a free-democratic spirit in his fellow people by referring to the cataclysm of Korean history. The political climate within the Korean peninsula meant its people were prepared to be silent regarding outside conditions:
"Korean history is a dumb show and pantomime. Korean people neither have a mouth nor facial expression. As human beings, they must have a mouth, yet they have lived with their mouth closed. As a race, they must have feelings, yet they have been tongue-tied. Don't they have anything to say? Yes they have numerous indescribable stories! However, they never think to express themselves."
In Ham's view, the history of the Korean people is a history of reticence and obedience. Hence, Ham encouraged freedom of expression to the people of Korea as one of their 'unalienable rights'.
Meanwhile, having experienced the regime of Syngman Rhee and the Liberal Party, Ham had a deep suspicion of the institutionalised Korean church, seeing it as extension of Rhee's political machine. Ham showed his determination and will for the 'pursuit of the truth' rather than confining his search strictly to institutionalised religion. Ham saw Christianity, as a religion not only for the privileged classes but also for the oppressed and the underprivileged. Ham's view on established religion is quite clear: "Religion is to save humankind, not to cooperate in bearing down on it to exploit it. But when religion established itself as an institution, it became entwined with the high and mighty and its role is a reaction against the progress of history. --- [In fact] true religion grows under persecution." Through this writing Ham gave comfort and praise for the people who were left out from the religious institutions, in particular from the Korean churches.
Conflicting political beliefs produced hostile sentiments between the two Koreas. Kim Ilsung 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 August 1958, Ham criticised the two Koreas' corrupt policies through the Sasang-gye magazine under the title "People Should Think for a Living":
"It can be said that Koreans are freed from Japan, but there is no freeing in any actual feeling. 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 and to North Korea the South is the United States' puppet. There are only puppets and no country. Koreans do not have a country."
Such criticisms were so detestable to the Rhee regime that they determined to imprison Ham. Consequently, in 1958, Ham was imprisoned on the charge of violation of the National Security Law. In the prison, at the age of 57, Ham was physically beaten by police. Ironically this time Ham had not been put in prison by the Japanese or the Soviets, but by his fellow countrymen in 'liberated' South Korea. Hereafter, Ham became a political 'refugee' even in his own 'democratic' country. However, Ham's only 'crime' were his candid remarks in regard to the post-war disarray, corruption and escalating enmity between North and South Korea. Having not found any sign of Communistic tendencies in Ham, the police released him within a month from the prison.
Since Ham always tried to be on the side of the weak and oppressed, during Rhee's presidency Ham's Christo-centric or Biblically based world views gradually but dramatically changed into more universal and humanitarian views. Christian belief was no longer for Ham the one true religion nor the Bible the whole truth. His new view reflected in his book as a more humanitarian, cosmopolitan and universal outlook:
"In 1961, when I was preparing a third edition of my book [Korean History from a Biblical Perspective] to meet the mounting demand, I revised the book fundamentally. Christianity was no longer for me the one true religion nor the Bible the whole truth. My view was altered by the development of a more cosmopolitan and scientific view of the world --- When I changed the title of my book from a Biblical Perspective to a Spiritual Perspective I thought deeply. I knew that it would be a source of trouble and would bring a furious response from mainstream Christians. But now I cannot think only about Christians. Now I have to equally think about the so-called 'unbelievers' as much as Christians."
Compared with the 1930s and 1950s, in the 1960s Ham's view of the history of Korea and the world changed profoundly. As Ham anticipated, conservative Christians accused him of being a "T'arak-han Ingan [fallen man]". Nevertheless Ham came to re-define the fundamental Christian message, he wrote: "The purpose [of Christianity] is not to go to heaven. Rather, it is to have the world of God come on earth before going to heaven. That is what Christianity is. As scholarship is useless until it is applied to real life, so a religion is useless as long as it has no bearing on living history."
Ham's view was not generally accepted until the next decade among Korean churchgoers. Later it became more widespread with the emergence of Minjung theology. Despite this Ham never thought of becoming a leader involved in his country's politics on a national level. Indeed, until the first military coup of 1961, Ham was not an active political figure for democracy in Korea, for he tended to cultivate an inner spirituality as a religious thinker and writer, rather than directly participating as socio-political activist. It is arguable that Ham's earlier attitude seems to contradict his sense of social concern.
Eventually Ham began to view Christianity as one of many religions, rather than possessing the sole truth. He became convinced that truth could be achieved through various other religions. In this regard, Ham illustrated the close resemblance of belief between Taoism and Christianity, by citing passages from the Tao-te Ching (T) and the Bible (B):
T: "Gaze at it, there is nothing to see. It is called the formless. Heed it, there is nothing to hear. It is called the soundless. Grasp it, there is nothing to hold on to. It is called the immaterial. We cannot inquire into these three [Ways]." (Chapter.14)
B: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door [Way], because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to." (Luke 13:24)
Although the above excerpts from the Tao-te Ching and Bible can be seen as separate and distinct, in Ham's view, the meaning is similar - that it is very difficult to discern and find the way (the truth). Through the Tao-te Ching and Bible, Ham also saw reaching the ultimate truth through 'a way' as an almost impossible task. This is because the ultimate truth or the Tao is ceaselessly in motion and neither temporal nor spatial. Nevertheless this non-spatiality and non-temporality in some ways offers the possibility of broadness. This is the reason Ham believed that ultimate truth could be achieved through various religions (ways). Yet mankind tries to reach the ultimate truth through a fixed way and a systematised religious doctrine. It seem to me that the doctrine of the established Church was the product of a specific era, that is the hierarchical society of the Medieval Age. But now the time was overdue, the notion of Christian doctrine needed to be changed or replaced by a more liberal and egalitarian way as a reflection of today's society.
Lao-tzu was Chinese and Jesus was a Jew living in different times in different worlds with entirely different cultural contexts, yet their teachings are amazingly and correspondingly similar. As an example of this, let me review some of close resemblance of Lao-tzu (L) and Jesus (J) in approaching the ultimate truth as follows:
L: "Can you make your strength unitary and achieve that softness that makes you like a little child?" (Ch.10) J: "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)
L: "To the good I am good; to the non-good I am also good." (Ch.49)
J: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)
L: "The big and strong will be laid low; the soft and tender will be lifted up." (Ch.76)
J: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
In this respect, it is not surprising that Ham spoke of his universal view regarding the essence of the major religions in the East Asia and the West as follows: "Ancient people personified God. Our period of history has tended to do likewise. In the future this may change. We should think of the Spirit of God as impersonal as does Confucius with Jen [Benevolence], Lao-tzu with Tao and Hinduism with Brahman. As our awareness becomes greater, thought may transcend the individual." It seems to me that Ham perceived the concept of God not only as a personified being but also as a transcendental being. Similarly Ham considered that Agape and Logos of Christianity was seen by Lao-tzu as the Way, by Confucius as Benevolence, and by Gautama Buddha as Void.
In Ham's words the impersonal God or transcendental being may be seen in various ways: faith, life, dynamic vitality, will, the original nature, spiritualisation, desire to be perfect, and returning to eternity. Lao-tzu also wrote that the highest and the ultimate [God] is beyond personality, and even beyond any observable and definable existence. In view of this I cannot disregard Ham's leanings toward religious Universalism. Christianity teaches a personified God who personally cares for His creation. Ham commented on the concept of the personified God as follows: "We used to hear that a grand fatherly type figure sat on the throne of the Kingdom of heaven. Today we believe that God has no form. As a result, it is difficult for many to comprehend God but the Cross in the life of Jesus is quite specific. The study of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu provides us little that is so specific." Despite his attempt to re-think the spirit of Jesus through philosophical Taoism and its interpretation of God, Ham was severely criticised by traditionalist church leaders and they utterly disregarded his view.
They recognised Ham's views both as being too East Asian and as too universalistic. In their view, Christianity should be Christo-centric and the soul of humanity can be saved only through the God of Christianity and nothing else. As a result, church leaders labelled Ham as a 'heretic' and shunned him. In particular, the orthodox church leaders, like a Catholic, Father Yun Hyongjung, criticised Ham's views stating: "He has forsaken the Cross, he doesn't pray, he is too Oriental [East Asian]." Ham explained why he held the so-called 'heretical' views as a Christian:
"I do not deny the Cross. I only say that the Cross is not for us to simply adore and behold from a distance, rather we must strive to bear the Cross in our bodies. I do not neglect prayer. I only maintain that public prayer is all too often no more than a formality and the self-flattery of men and thus we should avoid public prayer as far as possible. --- I am prepared to fight with conviction against the rejection of things Oriental [East Asian] by the Church. This is because most of the opposition to Confucianism and Buddhism is done only on the basis of narrow denominationalism without any understanding of their real meaning."
Ham saw the Cross as an immanent value and the most meaningful kind of prayer not a prayer through the mouth but through the way one lives one's life. Hence he viewed public prayer and the emphasis on the value of the Cross as a pretentious gesture for form's sake.
Ham's views on the scientific outlook of Christianity and the world were influenced earlier by H.G.Wells' The Outline of History, and later consolidated by Teilhard de Chardin's (1881-1965) book, The Phenomenon of Man. Although many celebrated Western thinkers believed that when science advanced, religion had to retreat, Teilhard constantly tried to create a synthesis between his Christian vision and the evolutionary perspectives of contemporary science. In Teilhard's view evolution is a cosmic, conscious process in which the matter energy that constitutes the universe has successively developed toward escalating complexity and spirituality.
Teilhard believed that the elements of primal chaos were originally in limitless multiplicity. In his view, the evolution did not culminate in human beings as individuals, but rather proceeds as humankind interconnect in societies. He saw the universe becoming increasingly 'hominized', humanity increasingly converging or moving toward the 'higher pole' of all evolution, which Teilhard calls the Omega Point. For Teilhard, the Omega Point in the direction of which evolution is constantly inclined is the Creator, who along with His attractive power presents direction to and accommodates a goal for progressive evolutionary integration, toward Himself.
Teilhard's views, which combine science, philosophy, and Christian mysticism appealed to non-Conformist intellectuals but were rejected by the orthodox Catholic church. Teilhard also held that Church doctrine is prone to be affirmed in phrases of a too static and dichotomous world-outlook, creating too rarely connections between universe, history, humankind's salvation, and the Creator's supernatural grace.
The aspect of Teilhard's thinking which appealed to Ham was his poly-dimensional view of the world and the universe. Ham enjoyed Teilhard's writing in particular when he wanted to contemplate the future of humanity rather than its past. It interesting to note that Teilhard encountered reservations and objections from within the Roman Catholic Church and from the Jesuit order, of which he was a member, on account of the originality of his theories.
Ham the 'Sinner' Table of Contents