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Minjung Theology: A Korean Theology of the People

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How do you find the hope for freedom after centuries of oppression from four different world powers? What spark is there to transform the pain that you feel within and the emptiness of the world around you? Minjung theology is borne out of these questions and finds a response in a unique understanding of Christ and how to follow him faithfully.

Minjung (민중) is a word derived from the Korean pronunciation of two Chinese characters: “min” (the people) and “jung” (the masses). The combination of the two creates an image of the majority of people, the poor, the oppressed. The term originated as a descriptor in contrast to the Yangban, or ruling elite class.

Although it is similar in some respects to liberation theological movements, it is an oversimplification of the Korean context to lump in with Latin American, African, or other movements. There is less of an emphasis upon economic injustice and more attention to institutional oppression from colonial and hierarchical structures. These forms of injustice are partly due to geography, as the Korean peninsula is situated between China and Japan, and also (much more recently) politically between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Minjung theology derives from the experience of the minjung– the people who are exploited by the elite. Initially conceived as an interpretive source by leaders of the Urban Industrial Mission who volunteered for labor camps in the early 1960s, the term has taken on added significance in successive generations. A similarity to the minjung can be found in the gospels’ use of the term ὄχλος (ochlos) to refer to the crowds (of commoners, outcasts) following Jesus.

There are two distinct features of minjung theology: 한 (han) and 단 (dan).

Han is the sense of deep despair. A minjung poet, Chi-Ha Kim, describes it as “anger and sad sentiment turned inward, hardened and stuck to their hearts. Han is caused as one’s outgoingness is blocked and pressed for an extended period of time by external oppression and exploitation” (cf A. Sung Park’s, Minjung Theology). It is the pain of life and the depth of human suffering, internalized.

Dan is the gospel response to han. Dan literally means “to cut off”. It has two dimensions, the personal level of self-denial and the societal level of ending cycles of revenge against oppression (which would create new modes of oppression). It seeks transformation of injustice within, which in turn affects the community. Following Jesus is not about an eventual spiritual liberation in heaven, but concerned with the daily rejection of revenge and violence, both inward and outward.

Jesus is the exemplar and mediator of dan, as he is seen as suffering at the hands of the religious and politically elite yet does not retaliate. His death and resurrection provide the hope that dan will prevail over han. The history of the church is filled with people who patiently endured suffering as they followed Christ, which minjung theologians would see in their own tradition as well.

A value of understanding minjung theology is that we can begin to see how God is at work in the history of Korea as well as the ochlos of Israel, the barillos of Latin America, the slums of mega-cities, or the vapidness of  suburban expanse.

Ultimately, we can see that minjung theology is similar to other theologies as it interprets Christ from and within the cultural reality of its community. As a community bound by deep-rooted injustice, Christ is identified as one who shares in the suffering as well as liberates the minjung as they follow his path of discipleship.

Are there ways that you recognize han in your own life?

How does Christ identify with that struggle and lead you toward transformation (dan)?

To go deeper, check out this book and the sources listed below!
Reading Minjung Theology in the Twenty-First Century

Sources:

A. Sung Park. Minjung Theology: A Korean Contextual Theology. PDF Link.

Jung Young Lee, ed. An Emerging Theology in World Perspective: Commentary on Korean Minjung Theology

David Kwang-sun Suh. The Korean Minjung in Christ:

Michael Shepherd is the editor of GlobalTheology.org and a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. For information about contributing an article for this site, visit the Write Page.


3 Comments

  1. […] Minjung theology: “Minjung Theology: A Korean Theology of the People” by Michael […]

  2. Kyle says:

    So is it similar to a Korean version of Anabaptist non-violence and pacifism? Also, it is a widespread movement or understanding that characterizes Korean Christianity or is it an understanding that is growing right now in that culture? And, one last question: is this focused in North Korea, South Korea, or both? Thanks!

    • mchlshepherd says:

      There is not a direct comparison to Anabaptism, even though the applications may be similar.

      It is NOT widespread or a majority view among the church in Korea. There are stronger influences of Presbyterian and Pentecostal traditions in South Korea but han is a cultural reality that Christianity in Korea must address in its theologizing to effectively foster an authentic spirituality.

      An emphasis of minjung theology that its proponents assert is an “untranslatable” factor to the terminology and experience outside of Korea. Even my definitions of han and dan are enormously limited. Related to the untranslatable nature is the avoidance of comparison to other contextualized theology.

      The divide between North and South Korea is culturally arbitrary and (in the scope of history in the region) very recent. As a cultural factor, this would affect both countries but Westerners would probably ascribe more injustice to the North because their han is different than ours.

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