Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, Voice of the Martyrs Korea President, authors this special 8-part series on Kim Kyo Shin, one of the greatest martyrs in Korean Christian history whose voice needs to be heard today more than ever, by Korea and the world.
Kim Kyo Shin’s life and experience of church had many parallels with that of Uchimura Kanzo. Just as Uchimura Kanzo had left his home country, Kim Kyo Shin left Korea—at age 19, in 1918, staying for eight years and returning to Korea in 1927 (Hwang, 2012, 81). Like Uchimura Kanzo, Kim Kyo Shin grew up with a strong Confucian influence, placing his quest to become a good man at the center of his life; however, he was frustrated with his continual moral shortcomings (Hwang, 2012, 81).
During his stay in Japan he heard the gospel in the form of the Sermon on the Mount, from a missionary in Tokyo in 1820 who subsequently gave him a copy of the New Testament. Reading it daily, he was encouraged to learn a new understanding that transformed his life. Unlike what he learned in Confucianism, human beings were not good; but unlike Confucianism, where moral striving enabled perfection, the Christian gospel emphasized the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Thus, he did not give up on his quest for goodness but instead found a path toward fulfillment of it through the Christian faith (Hwang, 2012, 83). He embraced Christianity over Confucianism in the belief that he could become a good man ten years sooner as a Christian (Kim, 2012, 167).
Kim Kyo Shin joined a local church in Japan, but after an initial period of personally satisfying moral progress he was greatly troubled to see the pastor forced out of the church by the congregation in what he perceived as petty factionalism. (Hwang, 2012, 84). He had become a Christian because of his commitment to goodness, but now what he experienced in the church was “ugliness, unrighteousness, conspiracy, and falsehood” (Hwang, 2012, 85). He was disillusioned with the church but did not give up on the Christian faith. Ultimately he came to hear a lecture by Uchimura Kanzo in 1920. It was the first of many: He attended Uchimura Kanzo’s lectures for faithfully for the next seven years (Hwang, 2012, 85).
It is important to see the difference in how Kim Kyo Shin encountered Christianity compared to other Koreans. Many Koreans saw America as a model nation and concluded that Christianity had made it so; therefore, they reasoned that Korea should adopt Christianity in order to become a successful nation. But Kim Kyo Shin was led to Christianity by his desire to become a better man. By following the way of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, he personally experienced the transforming power of Christ. He concluded that Christianity could transform not only himself but his nation—something that he believed Confucianism had been unable to do (Hwang, 2012, 84). Thus, he did not come to faith through an Americanized form of Christianity but instead through the Sermon on the Mount as the path for personal and national transformation, and he did not subsequently convert to an Americanized form.
Importantly, he did not believe that transformation required American culture plus the gospel. From Uchimura Kanzo he learned the idea that God had a special purpose for his nation. Uchimura Kanzo had written in his diary back in 1886:
Much impressed by the thought that God’s providence must be in my nation…. God does not want our national characters attained by the discipline of twenty centuries to be wholly supplanted by American and European ideas. The beauty of Christianity is that it can sanctify all the peculiar traits that God gave to each nation. A blessed and encouraging thought that J- too is God’s nation (Wells, 2001, 157).
For Kim Kyo Shin, requiring that American culture be inserted into the gospel equation that connected Christ to Chosun meant that the truth would never come fully to Korea (Wells, 2001, 159). He believed that not only individuals have souls, but nations do as well. He believed it was his calling not only to convert individuals but to convert this national soul (Wells, 2001, 159).
So it should not be understood that Kim Kyo Shin rejected the Korean church and its customs but rather that he simply never accepted them. Instead, he sought to find the authentic national soul that he believed would emerge through Korea’s embrace of the Bible and, with it, its destiny. For this purpose he returned to Korea and began to undertake here what he had seen Uchimura Kanzo carry out in Japan: A magazine, a Bible study, and a Confucian approach to Christian learning that he, like Uchimura Kanzo, believed to be more appropriate to his own national culture (Hwang, 2012, 64). In 1933 he published a book on the Sermon on the Mount, which communicated his belief that Christianity was intended to transform character, not engage the adherent in ritual (Kim, 2012, 167). His goal in all of this was to use biblical truth to guide an “eternal, immortal Korea” into God’s providential plan for the nation (Wells, 2001, 160).
Kim Kyo Shin believed that the Bible, not the church, was the “only one basis for Christian identity.” He was not trying to get Koreans to join the Non Church Movement instead of the church. He was trying to get them to think always at a national level; the church and its various denominations were like a false ultimate to him (Wells, 2001, 159). He also considered secular nationalism and civic activism to be false ultimates as well. The “true” Christian mission was “establishing individual and national life on the sure foundations of scripture knowledge” (Wells, 2001, 165).
With this goal in mind, Kim Kyo Shin encouraged Koreans to reject ritualism, institutionalism, and clericalism as external to the Christian faith and to Korea and thus inherently divisive and distracting (Hwang, 2012, 27). He challenged Christians to study the Bible for themselves, for the sake of achieving moral perfection by means of the Holy Spirit.
Next in Part VI of this special series on Kim Kyo Shin: His Christian Life And Death.
Hwang, S.C. 2012. A theological analysis of the Non-Church Movement in Korea with a special reference to the formation of its spirituality. Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham.
Kim, J.C. 2012. Recollection of Kyo-Shin Kim. BibleKorea.net. Accessed November 30, 2015 at http://www.biblekorea.net/articles/Recollection_of_Kyo-shin_Kim.doc.
Wells, K.M. 2001. Providence and power: Korean Protestant responses to Japanese imperialism. In Reading Asia: New research in Asian studies, ed. F.H. Huskin and D. van der Meij. London: Routledge Curzon, 154-172.