Having been studying religion in all its magnificent diversity, I am now on every sort of mailing list—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Eastern Christian Orthodox. I get print and electronic publications from all these sources, as well as from some others (including a shrilly anti-American bulletin from a supposedly progressive Islamic center in Malaysia). For some time now I have been receiving Madang, a print journal published by the Korean Association of Contextual Theologians. The name of the journal is a Korean word for a place where people come to celebrate. “Contextual” in the name of the sponsoring organization means that these Protestant theologians want to do their work in the context of Korean society rather than in some abstract academic manner. This could mean almost anything, but in (precisely) the context of Korean Protestantism it signals adherence to so-called Minjung Theology, as stated in the journal’s self description. (I fervently hope that readers of this blog believe me to be incredibly cosmopolitan. Therefore, in the service of full disclosure, I must admit that I do not know Korean and am dependent on translations of key terms.)
Minjung Theology means “people theology”, but the word in Korean refers to people in the sense of those who are poor, oppressed suffering—not so incidentally, in the sense in which Marxists would use the term. Another Korean word is much used here—han—or bitter, helpless suffering. This then is a kind of theology of the cross, which has many antecedents in Christian history, but is given here a very distinctive twist. Minjung Theology originated in the 1970s, when South Korea was under a military dictatorship. Ahn Byung Mu (1922-1996) is considered the father of Minjung Theology. He studied sociology at Seoul National University, there founded the Christian Students Union. After obtaining a doctorate in Germany, Ahn returned to Korea and became very active in resistance to the dictatorship. He spent a year in prison under very harsh conditions.
Minjung Theology understands Jesus as identified with the poor and marginalized. The Kingdom of God, which he preached, is a message of liberation from oppression. Christian theology must be based on a reading of the Bible from the viewpoint of the minjung, whose consciousness gives them privileged access to social reality—an idea very close to the Marxist one about the privileged consciousness of the proletariat. The question obviously arises as to just what view of Korean reality is supposed to be disclosed by this consciousness. It is hardly surprising that this reality is defined in broadly Marxist terms: Korea has been a victim of imperialism, first Japanese, more recently American. The globalized capitalist system, imposed by American imperialism, is the root cause of minjung suffering. The empirical facts of South Korea’s economic success and the resultant move out of degrading poverty by large numbers of people are hard to deny. The emphasis therefore is not on overall poverty, but on inequality and the condition of those left behind. Social justice means a more egalitarian distribution of the benefits of growth, presumably in some version of socialism or social democracy. Again, the empirical facts about the ghastly character of the North Korean regime are also hard to deny. But the fault for the Korean war and the division of the peninsula is once again ascribed to American imperialism. Perhaps there is even the implication that the atrocities of the Northern regime are also, indirectly, caused by America. The quest for social justice is coupled with an agenda toward the North based on reconciliation and peaceful reunification. Needless to say, Minjung Theology is located on the left of the political spectrum in South Korea.
I have not been able to get a clear picture of the current status of Minjung Theology within Korean Protestantism. The latter has a long and impressive history. Under Japanese rule Christianity played an important role in providing schools free of the colonial educational system, and it thus became associated with Korean nationalism. Religious persecution by the Communists led to many Christians fleeing to the South, where Christianity became a numerous and influential presence. By 1970 Christians were some 25% of the population, with Protestants greatly outnumbering Catholics. Minjung Theology is certainly not dominant in the overall Protestant community, which is predominantly conservative. The largest denomination has been Presbyterian, though Pentecostals have grown impressively. There is a number of mega-churches, and South Korea supplies the largest number of foreign missionaries after the United States. I am sure that Minjung Theology is not what is preached in those mega-churches or by the missionaries fanning out across Asia. I strongly suspect that, contrary to its self-understanding, Minjung Theology is an intellectual rather than popular movement. This irony, though, does not imply that it is unimportant, especially as it is part of an international phenomenon of considerable scope (of which more in a moment).
Two articles in the current issue of Madang instructively express the Minjung sympathies of the journal. One article argues that Shamanism is the oldest and most important form of religion in Korea. Most scholars share this opinion. There is the further argument that Shamanism has an allegedly monotheistic dimension (possibly correct) and that this creates an affinity with Protestantism (almost certainly incorrect—except for its Pentecostal version, Protestantism is the exact opposite of the Shamanistic world of spirit possession, exorcism and miraculous healing). But this argument sets the stage for a second article, “Shaman against Empire”, by one Kim Jean Kyoung (who is also the author of a 2004 book with the wonderful title Woman and Nation: An Intercontextual Reading of the Gospel of John from a Postcolonial Feminist Perspective). Her article is evidently based on this book. The article, while hardly consonant with prevailing opinion in New Testament scholarship, can only be called ingenious. But it is certainly consonant with Minjung Theology: Jesus must be understood as a “folk shaman”. He exhorts and heals the people suffering from imperial Roman oppression. In the episodes of healing Jesus is the “colonial Other” shaking up the “colonial Self”—I do not fully understand this, but it seems that Jesus not only liberates the colonials but upsets the colonists. The article ends with an ambitious claim: “To bring a new prophetic understanding of our contemporary indigenous religions such as those in the Amazon rainforest that are being led by native shamans fighting against neo-colonial globalization and neo-liberal exploitation of resources.”
Perhaps there is historic justice in this vision of Korean ideas inspiring people in the interior of Brazil, for these ideas originated in Latin America, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. The term Liberation Theology was coined by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Catholic priest, in a 1972 book with that title. But a number of individuals in other Latin American countries, including Brazil, contributed to the formation of this school of thought. Theology was supposed to be undertaken from the perspective of the poor and it was also supposed to lead to practical activity to achieve social justice. The political instrument for the latter were the so-called “base communities”, which had the educational goal of “raising the consciousness” of the masses, in order to mobilize against the forces exploiting and oppressing them. Needless to say, these forces were identified with capitalism and imperialism, the “root causes” of the poverty of the Third World. True liberation would lead to socialism. Some believed that this goal could be achieved by political activism, others (probably a minority) believed in violent revolution. In any case, there was enormous sympathy with the Cuban revolution and then with the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. For a while it looked as if the movement unleashed by Liberation Theology was the wave of the future in the Catholic world. The wave, if it ever was that, was turned back by Pope John Paul II, whose experiences in Poland made him immune to any quasi-Marxist interpretations of reality. He systematically appointed conservative bishops throughout Latin America who opposed the movement. Today Liberation Theology in the region is anything but the wave of the future.
I don’t know exactly the channels by which Latin American liberationism was transmitted to Korea and morphed into Minjung Theology. It was very much part of the cultural revolution of the so-called Sixties, bestowing Christian baptism on the dynamic package of leftist utopianism. (Irony again: Despite its venomous anti-Americanism, the first visible manifestation of this ideology occurred in the Free Speech movement in Berkeley in the early 1960s—an anti-Americanism originally made in the USA.) In America itself and subsequently in Europe, there was plenty of theological offspring—Black Theology, Feminist Theology, Gay Theology, Environmental Theology. In another Asian country, India, there appeared Dalit Theology (the adjective is the now preferred term for what used to be called Untouchables). The same themes appear throughout: The epistemological assumption that the oppressed have a privileged access to reality. The practice of “consciousness raising”, both for the oppressed themselves and for converts from the oppressing classes. The Christian Gospel legitimates and requires action against the oppressors (though the precise nature of this action is differently described). The designated victims of course vary—inhabitants of Brazilian favelas (or jungles), the minjung in Korea, African-Americans and (rather less plausibly) middle-class white women, and so on. But the oppressors tend to be the same—the agents and institutions of global capitalism, supported by American imperialism and its local allies.
Christian liberationism can be criticized both theologically and empirically. Theologically, it politicizes the Gospel in a way that deviates sharply from the New Testament—the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus and the early church was not a political program. (One does not have to be a Christian believer to say this—a Jewish, a Buddhist, or an atheist historian can come to the same conclusion.) Empirically, there are problems with the diagnosis, the recommended therapy, and the consequences for churches that espouse the liberationist agenda. The diagnosis of contemporary society in quasi-Marxist terms is essentially false. The therapy of action toward socialism is illusionary—it does not lead to the desired goals. And churches that define their mission in political terms make themselves obsolete, since the political goals can be achieved without all this theological baggage. (That, by the way, also goes for churches with a rightist rather than leftist agenda—but that is a case not at issue here, though it is particularly important in the United States.)
In 1968 CELAM, the Catholic Conference of Latin American Bishops met in Medellin, Colombia. Among other things, it proclaimed a principle which has since then become a mainstay of Catholic social thought: The “preferential option for the poor” (“la opcion preferencial para los pobres”). This phrase can be taken apart. There is, first of all, a whiff of patronizing in the formula: It is a preference for the poor, not of the poor—a preference, that is, of those who are not themselves poor. But I don’t think that there was a patronizing intent, so I will not pursue this. There is then the theological assumption that Jesus had a particular concern for the poor and those on the margin of society, an assumption strongly supported by the New Testament. There is furthermore the ethical assumption that a society should be morally judged by the way it treats its weaker members—this is an assumption that is eminently plausible, though it cannot be empirically falsified. All of this, in 1968, was strongly influenced by the nascent Liberation Theology. But then there was the implication by many in Latin America and elsewhere that, therefore, socialism was the way to go. “Preferential option for the poor”—one can agree with the phrase. But then one must ask: What is good for the poor? One thing is clear: Socialism is not. Wherever large masses of the poor have been moved out of degrading misery into a decent level of material life, it has been in the context of a capitalist economy (lately, ironically, even in China).
In 1969 I met Sergio Mendes Arceo, the Catholic bishop of Cuernavaca, in Mexico. He was a very impressive man, with a passionate commitment to the poor. He was also a courageous man. In 1968, when the Mexican military fired into a peaceful crowd of protestors in Mexico City, Mendes Arceo was the only bishop who denounced this action from the pulpit. He was even then opposed to the church’s taking any specific political stand. When we met, he startled me with his view of the church’s relation to politics. He said: “The church must never bless. It can only condemn”. The next year Mendes Arceo changed his mind. He returned from the Medellin bishops’ conference, convinced that the church should embrace socialism. In an interview with a journalist he said: “There is no other way out.” (“No hay otra salida.”) He was wrong.