The Emergence and Development of Minjung Theology in Korea

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The people’s theology emerged in the 1970s from the experience of South Korean Christians in the struggle for social justice. It is a people’s theology, and, according to its authors, “a development of the political hermeneutics of the Gospel in terms of the Korean reality“. In the 1970s, a handful of theologians and lay leaders became involved in the struggle of the ‘Minjung’ (the oppressed) for justice and freedom. As their involvement on behalf of the Minjung intensified, the Korean government dismissed them from their universities and seminaries. Having lost their teaching jobs, they chose to participate more actively in Minjung movements. They chanted with laborers staging sit-in strikes, demonstrated with student in the streets, and cried with the families of prisoners arrested through political suppression.

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When these Christians committed themselves to Minjung movements, they were forced to reflect upon their Christian discipleship in basement interrogation rooms, trials, court-martial tribunals, prosecutors’ accusations and working out their own defense. Out of these in-depth human experiences and deep reflection on Christian values, Minjung theology was born. They reflected on their Christian commitment in prison cells; in their letters from prison to families and friends, in their readings of books sent by friends all over the world, in their unemployment, in their stay at home under house-arrest, while subject to a twenty-four-hour watch over their activities. Minjung is thus a term which grew out of Christian experiences in the political struggle for justice. This theology is an accumulation and articulation of theological reflections. It is a theology of the oppressed in the Korean political situation, a theological response to the oppressors, and it is a response of the oppressed to the Korean church and its mission. Being borne out of reflective questions, a unique understanding of Christ and how to faithfully follow Him is found. In other words in their quest to get answers they constructed a local theology presenting Christ that is suffering with them. Although the Korean nation has suffered for a long time; within the nation, the Minjung have suffered more. Ahn Byung-Mu stated that in Korean history, the Minjung had been veiled and overshadowed by the nation’s thirst for development. The Minjung denotes the multitudes and ordinary people who are in a position of being governed and sometimes being oppressed by the powerful. 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. This is derived from the experience of the Minjung – the people who are exploited by the elite. Korean theologians link the Minjung to the gospels’ use of the term ὄχλος (ochlos) to refer to the crowds (of commoners, outcasts) following Jesus.

Han can be defined as “a feeling of helpless suffering and oppression.” It can be translated as “a feeling of unresolved resentment against unjustifiable suffering.” Or, it is “a deep awareness of the contradictions in a situation and of the unjust treatment meted out to the people or a person by the powerful. The feeling of Han is not just a one-time psychological response to a situation but is an accumulation of such feelings and experiences.” Dan is a soteriological term in Minjung theology and 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 and the Minjung

There are two different opinions on the central theme in Minjung theology. Suh Nam-Dong says that the central theme of Minjung theology should not be Jesus but the Minjung while Ahn Byung-Mu says that the central theme should be both Jesus and the Minjung because they are inseparable. Suh asserts that the oppressed were not a channel to help our understanding of Jesus, but rather Jesus was the channel to help our understanding of the oppressed. Jesus’ cries and suffering represent those of the people’s. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve the people. Jesus was concerned about the people more than he was concerned about himself. Therefore, the central theme of Minjung theology for Suh is the Minjung. Ahn asserts that Jesus and the people cannot be understood separately. To develop his theory, Ahn analyzed the title ‘Son of Man’; found that in the book of Daniel, it originally connotes a collective expression. The title, ‘Son of Man’ refers to Jesus in the New Testament. Hence, Ahn does not separate Jesus from the people. In fact, Jesus was one with the people. Without Jesus, we cannot understand them. Without the people, we cannot understand Jesus fully. We are able to find the true identity of Jesus and of the people only in their relation to each other. Thus, Ahn’s contribution to Minjung theology is ‘Jesus and the Minjung’.


Minjung theology is not primarily concerned about the Korean Christians in particular, but the oppressed Korean Minjung in general. This theology specifically discovers the deep-seated feeling of Han in the Minjung and endeavours to transform it through Dan. Dan means to cut off ‘the vicious circle of the Minjung’s Han by exorcizing the evil spirit of revenge against the oppressive rulers from the Han-ridden hearts of the Minjung (self-denial) and by transforming the Han into the power of revolution for establishing a God’s nation. The destiny of Minjung theology is, however, not to be a theology of church dogmatics but a theology for the oppressed Minjung, of the oppressed Minjung, and by the oppressed Minjung. Minjung theology has the goal of contributing to the Minjung in their efforts at becoming the subjects in history, thus it participates in the liberating actions of the Minjung. In reality, however, the Minjung are mostly inactive and kept in the bondage of everyday survival games. The Minjung are closely watched and controlled in a very subtle but inhuman manner by the institutions of liberal democracy. Minjung theology aims at their liberation from such oppressive conditions and helps them to become the subjects of history and the carriers of substantial democracy where the Minjung are participatory actors and decide on both the destiny of their own lives and that of the society as a whole. Minjung theology is therefore a theology of liberation, and a construct of the oppressed multitudes through a ‘deliberate’ process of conscientization causing a contextualized rereading of the gospel with an intention to eliminate Han through Dan. In other words it was a realized attempt to change the course of Korean history turning the once perceived objects into subjects of history. Not interpreting the Bible in light of Korean reality but rather, bringing to light their suffering experience in line with the Gospel. The Minjung suffers not on the authority of the Bible but it is through the Gospel that there is hope for freedom from their plight. By identifying the Minjung of Korea with the ‘ochlos’ in Mark, Ahn thus shows the Minjung that Christ suffers with His people and is the hope to freedom.

Minjung theology’s development in Korea as an indigenous theology of liberation is a genuine response to the Holy Spirit in Asia’s fastest growing Christian population, though not without its problematic elements and critics. Bretzke’s article reflects on the inculturation of Minjung theology in terms of a five-stage framework suggested by the Pentecost account in Acts 2. The development of Minjung theology is a good example to follow to develop our own inculturated theology fit to the context of how we identify ourselves with God in Malaysia. Before we seek to know God or share about Him, we must first explore what is our understanding about Him and to establish how best can we relate that to the people.

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