The Minjung theology of Korea

Korea's Minjung theology (MT) could very well be the first instance of an Asian political theology. Although it emerged in Korea in the 1970s, it had had about a century of incubation. For MT was actually the third phase of a development that can be traced back to what the Minjung theologians refer to as Minjung Christianity (MC), which, in its turn, was a Christian appropriation of the

Minjung Movement (MM) that contested the Japanese dominance in Korea in the nineteenth century. In MT, the word "Minjung" means the conscientized "people" (corresponding to laos in the New Testament) as opposed to the "Daejung", the disoriented "masses" (ochlos in the New Testament). Thus MC as well as its theological articulation (MT) presupposes a conversion of the oppressed masses into a politically awakened people who could take their sociopolitical destiny into their own hands.

A key feature of the MM has been the notion and the role of han, a Korean expression that defies translation. It is a mixture of many things: a sense of resignation to inevitable oppression, indignation at the oppressor's inhumanity, anger with oneself for having been caught up in that hopeless situation, and a host of other emotions which are all accumulated to form a powerful source of psychological energy possessing a revolutionary potential capable of being released in a socially organized fashion. In day-to-day life, this revolutionary energy is released by individuals in small doses through rite and ritual with the aid of shamans. But the most dramatic release of collective han is the mask dance, in which prophetic humor is exercised by the Minjung against the Con-fucianist elite and the monastics of metacosmic religion (which in Korea was Buddhism), who allegedly have been siding with the oppressive regime. There are also the great community festivals (dae-dong gut) in which the collective ecstasy (shin-myung) shatters the accepted system of values in view of a new this-worldly life rather than solely of something beyond. The predominantly cosmic character of these community engagements defines their liberative potential.

Now, the genesis of MC from MM is quite understandable. First of all, in Korea Christianity was introduced not directly by Western missionaries associated with colonialist powers, as in other Asian countries, but by lay persons who had encountered indigenous Christian communities in the churches of neighboring countries. Hence the first Korean converts to (mainly Protestant) Christianity learned from the beginning not to see the Bible as the religious manual of an aggressive Westerner; for the aggressor in their case was an Asian colonizer, namely Buddhist Japan. This situation is unique in Asia. Thus Korean Christianity was not alienated from the anticolonialist agitation, unlike in many other colonized countries where the theology of the indigenous Christians evolved in confrontation with the "domination theology" of the Western Christianizers.

Furthermore, since Japanese and Chinese were hailed as the languages of the Korean literati during the Japanese occupation, the appearance of the Bible in the Korean language (printed in the Hangul script of the Koreans), thanks to certain farsighted missionaries, had an explosive effect. For, here in this sacred book, the Minjung encountered a God who was in solidarity with them and heard that God's Word of liberation in their own "despised" language, written not only in their own script rather than in that of the colonizer, but also in the folk idiom of narrative, drama, and poetry, so different from the abstract jargon used by the God of missionary catechesis elsewhere. Therefore, this sacred book of the Christians appeared to the Koreans as a charter for freedom in a context of political oppression. No wonder the colonial powers banned the books of Exodus and Daniel as potentially subversive!

Almost from its inception, therefore, Korean Christianity was a politicized faith. This is the background to the genesis of MT, which in its present form emerged around the 1970s in South Korea under a very oppressive regime of the postcolonial era. The soil in which it sprouted was the words and deeds of imprisoned and/or tortured farmers, workers, students, professors, and journalists who discovered their prophetic role by a return to the ancient (non-Christian) Korean sources of the Minjung Movement, as appropriated by the first Christians.

Today, this theology is struggling to survive in South Korea amid strong tides of fundamentalist evangelism originating especially from the United States. One development that has been noted in this context is that the dialogue between North Korean and South Korean Christians is marked by a valiant (though not altogether successful) effort to bring together the Juche philosophers among the North Korean Marxists and the Minjung theologians, against opposition from the evangelists. Juche is a non-theistic and secular surrogate of a liberationist "religion" which seems to have disowned the Marxist dogma about religion. This dialogue, which has now been going on for some time, seeks to forge an agreement between the political philosophy of Juche and the political theology of Minjung with a view to the reunification of Korea in confrontation with the military and missionary presence of the American "imperialists."

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  • Kirstie
    How minjung theology emerged?
    3 years ago

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