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Revisiting the Role of Korean Protestant Nationalism with Dr. Kenneth Wells

Posted by Dr. Kenneth Wells on with   Comments

Before I wrote my book, whenever anyone criticized Christian nationalists or their movements, they did so from the point of view of their critics at the time. They did not try to find out what the Protestants’ ideas were. They simply used the criticisms made by their contemporary critics as if these were accurate. This is of course a very poor historical method. So I decided I had to look carefully and in depth at what the Protestant nationalists gave as their reasons for their strategies. This had never been done when I began research on what became this book. I am happy to say that reviews of my book by Korean academics have agreed with me here: they say that no Korean writer had ever looked into the reasons Protestants had for their nationalist strategies and none had even bothered to find out whether there was such a thing as a Protestant version of nationalism.

I decided to call the Protestant version of nationalism self-reconstruction nationalism. This is a term I took from the actual words of people like Ahn Changho and Yun Chiho. Ahn Changho gave a speech in 1919 titled “reconstruction”, in which he said reconstruction was the only way to create, or construct, a new, independent Korean civilization. Reconstruction, he said, had to start with each individual.

Who can reconstruct each one of them? … Each has to reconstruct themselves…. Let us, each one of us, reconstruct ourselves…Then, we can finally have hope for reconstructing the entire nation.

Now, Ahn Changho and Yun Chiho and Cho Mansik had a spiritual meaning and reason for self-reconstruction movement. This is where I found it very difficult to explain its meaning, and to explain why it conflicted with mainstream ideas of nationalism, and why it required a different strategy than mainstream nationalism. It is a problem of historiography. Historians are not accustomed to looking for spiritual causes of actions, and usually do not even know how to recognize a spiritual position. What is a moral definition of ‘nation’ or ‘people’? What is a spiritual vision of a nation’s future?

If one has only a material idea of resistance, then it is understood only in material terms. And so when the idea of nationalist resistance comes up, it is thought it must mean physical, direct political action, armed if possible. For this reason, if anyone talks about non-violent or spiritual resistance, people immediately think it is not really resistance at all. In the case of Korean nationalist historiography, this problem is particularly severe, because a non-violent strategy is regarded as a form of collaboration. For example, when in my book I compare the strategy adopted by Cho Mansik with Gandhi’s “satyagraha”, Korean readers interpret this to mean Cho Mansik’s strategy is a type of collaboration. The reason for this is that major Korean dictionaries translate satyagraha as ‘non-violent movement.’ This translation is simply wrong. When Gandhi spoke about it in English, he called it civil resistance, and he made it clear that he considered it to be the most powerful form of resistance once could make.

But most people do not understand what satyagraha really means, because it has an essentially spiritual meaning. Gandhi was absolutely opposed to violence, because violence was anti-spiritual, it repeated the sin of the oppressor, and added fuel to the fire of human misery. This, too, was the position of Cho Mansik. But in Korea at the time, resistance that refused to use violence was regarded as “soft”, not real resistance, and an aid to Japanese oppression. This is why it is so difficult to explain to Korean readers what non-violent or non-political resistance is, and why it is so hard to convince them that the Protestant self-reconstruction movement was not simply a collaboration movement!

For this and other ideas, I believe my book is still relevant today. I would like to have had the time to revise and update the book, since it was written quite a long time ago, and perhaps I shall be able to sometime in the future. But even without revision, I believe it can still be useful, for a couple of main reasons.

First, the Protestant church in South Korea today has drifted a long way from the beliefs, lives, and behavior of the extraordinary Koreans who established Christianity as a positive, life-changing and society-changing faith. Some Christians in Korea are now rediscovering Ahn Changho. He was a truly remarkable man. He and his colleagues earnestly sought to understand and apply the doctrines and the spiritual essence of their new faith. They nurtured a profoundly spiritual understanding of why Korea had weakened to the point of having to become a colony of one of its neighbors – if it hadn’t been Japan it would have been China or Russia. They had strong belief that Korean needed spiritual renewal, and that spiritual renewal began with individual renewal, or reconstruction.

They were not materialists. But I think it is fair to claim that the South Korean Protestants in general are rather materialistic. I am quite sure that Cho Mansik and Ahn Changho would not regard Korean society today as the future Korea they strove for, and would not be happy with the priorities and attitudes and behavior of most Korean Protestants today. They would consider that today’s Korean Christianity needed self-reconstruction movement.

The second main reason why I think my book is still relevant today is that self-reconstruction nationalism continues to be almost completely misunderstood. It is misunderstood not only in Korea of course, but in most of the world, and its example is relevant to far more countries than Korea. But today we are thinking only of Korea. And in Korea there continue to be a lot of problems. It is not what Ahn Changho called a 유정한 사회(heart-ful society), it is still in many ways a 무정한 사회(heart-less society). So the content of my book does pose a challenge to Christians in Korea, and to non-Christians. If the ideas and beliefs of these early Protestant nationalists were understood, they would inspire a different strategy to address Korea’s problems. Even in relation to Korea’s national division, their example would encourage a different approach to North Koreans. Christians in the south especially would be more prepared to listen to what North Korean Christians have to say, and to learn from them. They would show them far more respect, and they would be moved to throw away their materialistic expectations of their faith. After all, Cho Mansik and Ahn Changho were north Koreans.

My book is of course only a small thing in the bigger picture, and has many failings. These shortcomings, I hope can still present an inspiring view of those who sought to relate all the personal, social, economic and political conditions of their time to the core doctrines of their faith.


Dr. Kenneth Wells book, New God New Nation is available for 15,000 KRW by calling 02-2065-0703 or by e-mailing

Tags: ahn changho, cho mansik, christian nationalists