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Growing up, Doctor Kenneth Wells was no stranger to Asia.
Doctor Wells’ maternal grandparents were missionaries to China from 1912 to 1934 and, when they returned to New Zealand, opened his mind to a world beyond his own. He even learned some Chinese characters from them. In high school, Doctor Wells travelled to Korea on an 11-month student exchange program. When he returned and entered university, Doctor Wells took classes in Japanese and Asian history (on account of there being no Korean language courses!).
One of the things Doctor Wells found in his studies was that Korea was filled with mysteries. Why, for example, was Korea one of the only Asian countries in which Christianity not only took root, but also flourished? Understandably, then, Doctor Wells dedicated his Master’s thesis to studying Korean nationalism during the time of the Japanese occupation. Even there, however, Doctor Wells found a new puzzle.
A surprising amount of Protestants were involved in the nationalist movements during the time of the Japanese occupation. Even more surprising was the amount of impact these Protestants had on the movements—especially since Protestants were, at most, 3% of the Korean population at that time. In addition, as Doctor Wells began to further study this phenomenon, he discovered that the very tie between Protestantism and nationalism was, in and of itself, a puzzle.
Christianity is intrinsically universal; it owes no allegiance to any state or government. 1 Corinthians 12:12, for example, does not say there is a Korean body, an American body, a Russian body or et cetera. It explicitly states that we are all one body. The Nicene Creed also explains that there is one apostolic and catholic church—there aren’t several. Limiting Christianity to one nation, as is nationalism’s wont, is problematic. Given this, we should expect to see Korean Protestants during the Japanese occupational period opposing nationalism—and yet we see them doing the exact opposite. Why?
During his studies, Doctor Wells discovered that Korean Protestants directly shaped one form of nationalism, a form which Doctor Wells translated as “self-reconstruction nationalism.” Of course, Korean Protestants were involved in several different forms of nationalism. Self-reconstruction nationalism, however, was developed by Korean Protestants exclusively, which makes it a good example from which to study the relationship between Protestantism and nationalism.
Self-reconstruction nationalism’s founder was the political activist and thinker, Yun Chi-ho, and its most ardent campaigner was the beloved An Chang-ho. This form of nationalism emerged at a time when strict Japanese Colonial laws restricted Koreans from meaningful political position or business operation. Despite Korean interest in modernization, the Japanese refused to listen, and instead used Korea as an agricultural support for Japan. As Doctor Wells writes in his book, New God, New Nation:
“…[A]lthough rice output in Korea almost doubled between 1910 and 1938, export of rice to Japan in the same period rose twenty-fold, accounting for 40 per cent of Korea’s annual yield. Korean rice consumption, on the other hand, declined by almost half.” (Wells, New God New Nation, 157)
Koreans, then, were painfully aware of a lack of national identity. The question of the day was, “What is the Korean nation and how can it be achieved?” Self-reconstruction nationalism was the Korean Protestant’s attempt to answer this question.
Central to self-reconstruction nationalism was the belief that the new nation could only take form when each individual took responsibility for repenting and then reshaping their own person. An believed, for example, that
“…reality was everywhere concentric and that change therefore commenced at the centre of perception – that is, in the human spirit – working outwards until all else was transformed.” (Wells, New God New Nation, 193)
In other words, the creation of a new nation is contingent upon the progress and reform of its people. As An wrote, “If the soil is bad, no matter how good the seed, it is still bad.” If the people are still sinful, how can the new nation be any better?
Self-reconstruction nationalists didn’t just talk about this reformation, however, they lived it. Yun was the first to institute a model community where this self-reformation took place. An and Cho Man-Sik soon followed Yun’s example and created their own communities. In these communities, Yun, An, and Cho emphasized the importance of self-responsibility and civic morality. One was responsible for correcting his own character and uplifting the community as a whole. Yun went as far as to interpret this responsibility to the community as Christian stewardship.
Self-reconstruction nationalists were also key players in the development of a Korean economy. During the genesis of the movement, the Korean economy was suffering from a Korean propensity to purchase Japanese products over Korean ones. Cho took charge in establishing the Korean Products Promotion Society, a group which aimed to build up the Korean economy by convincing Korean consumers to purchase Korean products.
One thing that Doctor Wells discovered, however, is that self-reconstruction Protestantism in particular is not given its due credit by modern thinkers. Many thinkers look back and criticize the movement without taking the time to understand it.
“If you take the time to study it, you’ll see that the self-reconstruction movement was actually quite extraordinary,” Doctor Wells says. “Protestants in this movement developed high caliber answers to the question of what the doctrines of Christianity meant during their time and their answers are quite thorough.”
Self-reconstruction nationalism offered a view of the world, which, while focused on the things of this world, focused primarily on the good things of the life to come and not on the material things of the present. Despite the obvious paradox, this movement offered a way to balance the universal church and the nation; the individual and the society; heavenly focus and earthly charity.
Although Koreans today are inclined to criticize the self-reconstruction nationalists, we must be careful. There is nothing inherently wrong with criticism—criticism is both necessary and beneficial. However, criticism must be accurately informed. Often, we are tempted to criticize movements like self-reconstruction nationalism because they are unable to answer their critics today. This is why Doctor Wells ended his conference on this note:
“I hope,” Doctor Wells said, “my book at least allows early Christians to answer back.”