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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).