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Book Review: Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea

Written by David Fields and Reviewed by Alan Crist

In this telling of the history and events that preceded World War II and the actions and influences that resulted in the division of Korea, David Fields reminds us of the role we have and can still play on the stage of world affairs as Americans and especially as Americans of faith. Primarily, the strong role that mainline Christian missionaries played in bringing the good news to the people of Korea and its consequences for world events even to this day.

Professor Fields’ eloquence with the English language and his clear understanding, based on extensive research and experience, of the history of Korea are a gift to this generation and those going forward as we think about our continued role and mission as this world’s most powerful democracy. I expect most people born after the end of World War II, like myself, have no real understanding of how and why Korea was divided and why we would go to war to keep it that way. Fields in Foreign Friends answers those questions in an engaging and convincing fashion.

Fields has also caused me to question our role going forward as Americans as we seek peace in this world. Are we to continue on the path of nationalism as our American mission defining our role and responsibility in this world? Have we given over the voice of Christian mission in this world from progressive mainline churches to evangelical fervor and fundamentalist leanings of mega churches and literalists proclaiming exclusivity rather than inclusivity in our caring and interaction with others? Others, that is, who do not think, act, or look like us. Fields provides examples of mainline Christian leaders speaking truth to power. Examples that, in my view, are not seen today.

There seems to be a reluctance on the part of mainline Christians to engage and or challenge our political leaders, perhaps so as not to offend or cross the line between affairs of church and state. I wonder what Bonhoeffer would say about such reluctance to challenge political leaders today. In my view, I have also seen this reluctance in our higher education leaders. You do not see the likes of John Dewey, Robert Maynard Hutchins, or Myles Horton leading the way for social and economic justice.

We need to ask ourselves, as Syngman Rhee challenges us to do, what is our American mission? How do we make the world safe for democracy, rid the world of fascism, and defeat communism? Is it still our mission to Christianize the world as the means to these ends? Fields gives us ample food for thought and direction as we seek to answer this question in 21st century America.

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