Minjung Theology

23/07/2011 13:30

Minjung Theology



  • Ahn Byungmu
  • Jesus was a poor, oppressed minjung.


Korean Minjung Theology and It’s Future

Prof. Choong Koo Park

Methodist Theological Seminary

Seoul, Korea


Outline of the Lecture

  • Terminology
  • Three trends of Korean Theology
  • Korea Before the Christian Mission
  • The Beginning of Korean Protestantism
  • Japanese Annexation
  • Korean War
  • Emergence of Indigenous Theologies in the 70s
  • Talking about Minjung Theology
  • The Future of Korean Theology
  • Towards a Religious Liberation Ethics






  • The term Minjung is a compound word of min(民), and Jung(衆). “Min” means a subject, plain man or woman who is far from the privileged. “Jung” denotes mass, group of people. Minjung theologians utilize the term to imply the situation of minjung.  Minjung are those who have been politically oppressed, economically exploited, culturally marginalized, educationally uneducated, and religiously ignored.”
  • Equivalent to ochlos in NT, amharetz in OT


Tonghak (東學) Revolution

  • Tong(Eastern)hak(learning) Revolution was a peasant revolution initiated by the religious leader of “the Eastern Learning” in the 19th century of Korea. It was a mass resistance against corruptions of the Confucian politicians who sided with China and Japan rather than their own people. The Tonghak revolution was repressed by the government assisted by Japanese military power.



  • The term “Han” is like “blues” of black people, of the unprivileged.
  • “Han” is an accumulated, unresolved feeling of deep sadness inflicted by unjust treatment of the power have.
  • Women’s “han” is accumulated by the inhuman treatment of her husband. People’s Han is accumulated by oppression, exploitation, alienation, mistreatment…etc..
  • Minjung are so called  “han-ridden people”



  • Dan means literally “cutting” something decisively, at once.
  • Minjung theologians use the term to express the decisive resolution carried by minjung for transforming the “Han” ridden situation into humane power of love beyond hatred.
  • Could be understood as a revolutionary forgiveness (Prof. Marc Ellis)



  • The term Sung is a pivotal moral concept of Confucian thought, particularly to a Korean Confucian scholar, Yulgok.
  • Yun, the developer of Korean Indigenous theology, has adopted the term to indicate “revelation in Barthian theology” without which a theology cannot be demonstrated.



Three Trends of Korean Theology


  • Korean theology can be articulated into three trends:


  1. Imported fundamental, evangelical theology which does not recognize the particular existential and historical nature of Korean people: Conservative fundamentalists, Pentecostalists, and Pentecostalists plus are also belonging to this theological group


  1. Korean Indigenous Theology
    • Korean indigenous theology refers to the Theology of Sung(sincereity) developed by Yun, Sungbum.
    • Yun tried to integrate traditional Confucian moral philosophy into Barthian theological structure.  The result was formation of a Confucian Christianity.


  1. Minjung Theology
  • Minjung theology is also a Korean indigenous theology. Yet, in Korean context, even though it referred to Tonghak it actually dealt with the socio-politico-economic justice Issue rather than with Korean indigenous religious traditions. Thus, many consider Minjung theology is a Korean political theology.



Korea Before the Christian Mission


The last several decades of the Yi Dynasty

  • Korea was a hermit kingdom, ruled more than 500 years by the Yi Dynasty, a monarchy continued from 1392, terminated in 1910 by the Japanese colonial power.
  • During the Yi Dynasty social norms of Korean society were based on Confucian philosophy. It was not able to empower Korean people to recognize the emerging modernity as well as democratic values equipped with the basic understanding of human rights.
  • 500 years of Yi Dynasty, Korea became a nation whose leaders were ignorant of the dawning of modernity.
  • Confucian society adopted a dual structured classism: (the elite Youngban and the illiterate Sangmin(plain people) 
  • For some Confucian intellectuals Christianity was taken as a new paradigm of thought applicable to transform Korea
  • For Korean people Christianity was taken as Good News bringing information about other parts of the world
  • Christianity has brought a new vision of social  Change, from the old to a new social system


A Corrupted Confucian Society

  • Around the end of Yi dynasty, the corrupted governing system has brought a historical reaction, the Donghak peasant Revolution.
  • Tonghak revolution was the signal of the ending period of the Yi dynasty
  • Confucian society valued highly the importance of education.  There were lots of Confucian intellectuals who were dissatisfied with Confucian teachings which were taken as a status quo theory.
  • This is why the early Korean Christian leaders were mostly former Confucian intellectuals. Gradually they would like to utilize western (Christian) thought to transform Korean society.



The Beginning of Korean Protestantism


  • At the end of Yi Dynasty, in 1884 two American missionaries arrived in Korea: Appenzeller, a Methodist and a Presbyterian, Underwood who were largely inspired by the 19th century American revival movement . The first theological education for nurturing ministers set forth 1887. Latter it was named Methodist Theological Seminary.
  • The major private universities in Korea were founded by American missionaries.  Some American missionaries were totally ignorant about Asian religions and the religious foundation of Korean people. Thus, they asked Korean people to keep what they were taught to anathematize their own religious culture.


Japanese Annexation (1910-1945)

  • Japanese annexation was taken as the punishment of God by Korean Christians
  • Therefore in 1907, Korean peninsula was struck by a repenting revival movement like a huge holy Spirit flame from Pyungyang to the whole nation
  • Korean Christianity led by missionaried was more apolitically, dehistoricized.
  • However the Japanese invasion brought Korean intellectuals desperate feelings.
  •  During the Japanese domination (1910-1945) Korean Christian leaders dedicated their life to Korean Independent Movement peaked at March 1st Movement in 1919.
  • During  the 36 years Japanese colonial domination, Korea was brutally  raped, in terms of its subjectivity, exploited its natural resources as well as mental foundations of Korean people.
  • During Japanese annexation foreign missionaries taught Korean people a- political gospel. This was the major reason why most missionaries who had taught only spiritual concern without having historical consciousness of Korean people were not welcomed after national independence in 1945.
  • Due to the a-historical gospel, there were huge gab between western Christian teachings and indigenous interpretation of the gospel.
  • 1940s Theological Education was largely  handed over to indigenous scholars: indigenous theological debate was initiated in order to get mutual understandings between traditional religions and Christianity.
  • After liberated from Japanese colonial power, America and Russia divided Korea into two. Each took one and began to form their puppet government.


Korean War (1950-53)

  • Korean war broke when Korean people was not ready to get know so called the cold war.
  • More than 4 million people were killed during the war.
  • Koreans fought against Korean brothers without knowing “why.”



After War Dictators came


  • The first President Lee was totally monitored and back uped by Americans.
  • In 1962, student revolution overthrown the dictator.
  • In 1963, a military cue took place and General Park got power and dominated until his assassination in 1980.
  • In 1967 Korean national income was $74
  • Park’s son like general Chun took over the power.



1975. Christian Declaration for Democratization of Korea


  • In 1975, dictator park have Congress pass a Marshal Law in order to limit human basic rights.
  • Christian scholar and leaders declared a declaration against the will of dictator Park.
  • A Methodist young fabric worker burned himself protesting the low wage policy.
  • A dozen of Christian scholars were expelled from their university to the street.


General Park Chunghee



Emergence of Minjung Theology


  • Among the expelled scholars there were some theologians who began to reflect the unjust reality.
  • They were expelled to be incarnated into the minjung reality, and forced to find the suffering minjung
  • They found the traditional theology have kept silence at the minjung’s suffering.
  • Suh Namdong, Ahn Byungmu were the theologian who began to critically reflect on the role of Christian theology, and found that Christian thought has ignored minjung and their suffering.
  • A Catholic poet, Kim Chiha, began to accuse of the corruption of the military dictatorship as well as the churches which have lost the true Jesus. He ispired Suh Namdong very deeply by remembering the Tonghak revolution.
  • Suh’s famous article:  “conflux of two stories” in which he argued that the minjung tradition of Korean history (Tonghak) and the biblical tradition of liberation are confluent in minjung.
  • Ahn Byungmu, argued that Jesus in Galillea was ochlos (the powerless) equivalent with minjung.
  • So minjung became the subject of their theology. They have epistemological privilege to discern injustice


  • Jesus was a poor, oppressed minjung.


  •  Ahn Byungmu



Claims of Minjung Theology


  • God sides with minjung
  • Taking Partiality for minjung is a praxis for Christian faith
  • Minjung plays a messianic role, transforming this world into more humane and just  one.
  • Minjung’s Han should be resolved by reinstalling justice
  • We have to be saved by minjung
  • Minjung is the subject of history
  • Theologies produced, since Augustine,  by orthodox theologians are to be a theology for the oppressor, not for minjung
  • Minjung are the God’s people whose voices are revealing the will of God
  • Minjung theology had taken the Korean historical context like the Bible that reveals the will or commandment of God
  • Minjung plays a messianic role by which Christians are urged to do what God wants them to do: theology of witness, theology of the Jesus event
  • Jesus event is repeated in history...



Structure of Minjung Christology


  • Jesus-> secularized christology -> christology in the presence -> the kerygmatic Jesus is present in minjung’s life and suffering -> Jesus is suffering God
  • There are some different views: Suh Namdong tended to understand Jesus as our Lord, savior even though Jesus is a minjung, but Ahn Byungmu liked to accept that minjung is Jesus as well as Jesus was a minjung. So here comes out a theology of the “Jesus event”


It’s Political Ethic

  • Minjung’s suffering reveals the evil nature of the ruling class or power
  • Prophetic and critical testimony should be carried out
  • By criticizing liberal capitalist spirit led by dictatorship Minjung theologians tended to idealize  the system of a socialist democratic society
  • Yet it was not a programmed vision...


Democratization of nation

  • It is a process of returning power to minjung because the power originally came out from minjung
  • Minjng theologians tended to interpret the poverty of minjung as a result of political oppression, not in terms of social-scientific languages
  • Therefore they were not able to criticize the exploitation process of economics via multi-national cooperation, diplomatic oppression



Central Features of Minjung Theology from the 70s to 90s


In the 1970s

  • Minjung theologians became to be conscious of the barbarian nature of the  military dictatorship
  • Their praxis was a prophetic testimony to reveal God’s love and suffering in minjung
  • The results were: A theology of witness or a story-telling theology in a form of a theology of “Jesus event” emerges


In the 1980s

  • Minjung theologians conscious of bigger dictator tried to criticize the colonial, capitalistic interests oriented  powers which had supported the dictators
  • Against global dictatorship, empire, Anti-America movement was formed
  • Transforming society towards a humane, independent, democratic society


1980. 5. 18

  • Pictures of Kwangju Revolt
  • During several days 118 Korean civilians were killed by their own military power


Changed context

  • Globally the hope for a socialist democracy was faded away in historical horizon because of the fall of the eastern socialist societies
  • Nationally the military dictatorship was faded behind of history and Korea stepped in democratization process
  • Economic growth led by dictatorship was successful to enhance the quality of Korean people’s life


In the 90s

  • Criticizing the anti-democratic, and anti-global monopoly, anti-colonialism
  • Fought against small dictators
  • Cultural criticism of capitalist society
  • Minjung theologians are trying redefine the concept of minjung, for the prevailed suffering of minjung was relatively minimized in Korean society
  • Minjung became minority
  • A theology of citizen was proposed...



Critiques of Minjung Theology


Lack of religious dimension

  • Should a theology be a political theology without concerning the religious need of the Least? 
  • Is it not possible to have a political theology which provides a good foundation to meet the religious need of minjung?
  • Minjung theology has been too much politicized to consider the religious need of minjung


Minjung Messianism?

  • Minjung theologians have too much devalued western theologies. For the reason they forgot the lessons of the historical debates on human nature.
  • What about the desire of minjung? Is a minjung excluded from the temptations of evil and sinful desire, greed?
  • Didn’t minjung theologians idealized minjung too much?


Is minjung the subject of history forever?

  • If that claim is right, then why are minjung theologians try to recently redefine the subject of history?
  • Could minjung theology be expired in the process of history, particularly when a society overcome poverty and rude misuse of power?
  • Could Minjung never be participants in politics? Politics is not to be understood simply “ruling”.


Minjung Theology without minjung?

  • In the 70s of Korea, it was possible to side with minjung, for they were really oppressed, exploited, and alienated. At that time the national income was under $ 200.
  • After the 90s, the national income of Korean people grew up to $ 20,000. Korea became a country which run lots of multi-national cooperation. 
  • The situation is radically changed.  Minjung in the 70s is no more existing. Now, minjung are product of structural evil.
  • Doing theology for minjung theology, not minjung could be a theological cosmetic surgery of the original minjung theological thought.


Was minjung church or theology sucessful to get minjung?

  • Even if minjung theologians have developed a theology of minjung, minjung did not welcome their theology. The majority of minjung went to pentecostal churches, not to minjung church.  Is this a betrayal of minjung?  If we admit that minjung is the subject of history, then the topos of historical subjectivity might be the place where the majority of minjung resides.
  • Why minjung are pond of visiting pentecostalist plus churches?   I presume the reason is that they want to be more than suffering minjung although minjung theologians praise them as the subject of history, messiahs. It was too romantic to see the reality of them.
  • One of my criticism to minjung theology is that it lacks of a sound understanding of minjung’s religious and human need. I believe that each minjung has desires to be fully human, not to be a poor, an oppressed. They do not want to remain minjung as minjung theologians expected.


The Future of Minjung Theology

  • Since it was founded on a classism of the oppressed minjung and the ruling, oppressing class, it tended to be easily turn out as an ideology for partiality, which made minjung theology no more viable when the clear classism faded away.
  • I assume that doing minjung theology without minjung is not a minjung theology.


Destiny of a genitive theology

  • A genitive theology should be only applied to a certain situation from which it emerged.
  • If minjung theologians are doing theology honestly, they have to admit the expiration of minjung theology in Korea. This is why some minjung theologians would like to develop a citizen theology as an extension of the minjung theology in the 70s.
  • However, minjung theology is a spiritual flame that could be transmitted to other place where poverty, oppression, destruct human dignity and violation of human rights prevail.


Liberation of minjung from minjung theology

  • The term liberation reminds me of the first claim made by the first generation of minjung theology that Korean Christianity  should be liberated from the western system of dogmatics.
  • Korean theologies should move to another horizon of theology beyond minjung theology in the past by letting go minjung on their own way to be fully human.


What possibilities are there?

  • We need a theology in which not only minjung but also the others could be empowered to build peace and justice, not a confrontation model, but a model rooted in a deep sense of unity. Anselm Min, of the School of Theology at Claremont, has proposed “a theology for solidarity.”
  • So I am convinced that religious and mystic experiences should be seriously reconsidered or taken account more intensively to formulate “a theology of compassion.”


Two Possible Sinarios

  • If Pentecostalists would like to transform themselves by accepting the socio-politico-economic healing as divine healing like Christoph Blumhardt, it could be a way to take.
  • There could be a reversal case, only If minjung theologians could see the importance of the power of the holy spirit to transform not only the structural evils but also minjung themselves.


The dream the first minjung theologians had

  • Was to liberate minjung from inhuman situation of life. If it was not possible, minjung had to suffer. Now in Korean context, minjung are not considered majority as the first minjung theologians experienced. This means that we need a theology for the Least. We should help minjung to be no more than minjung. This is why Suh once said minjung theology would not exist someday. Minjung Theology itself is not important when minjung disappears.





  • Theology can serve society. The subject of theology should be a god-talking which will never be stopped. Minjung can never be the subject of a theology, for they are temporally situated.
  • Theology can serve minjung by promoting a more humane and just society. Korean minjung theology was viable when Korean society was in need of it.  It should transform itself in the new context of Korean society.
  • One of the theological wisdoms is that there is something temporal in human history.



A Buddhist Story


  • You need a boat to cross over a river.
  • If you have crossed the river, it is a time to forget and abandon the boat.
  •  As long as you are attached to the boat, you will forget your own way. 
  • Let the boat be useful for the next comer who will be in need of it.


The End
Thank You All