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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Political Reception of the Bible: Korean Minjung Theological Interpretation of the Bible

Yeong Mee Lee

This presentation is an introduction to the interpretation of the Bible among minjung biblical scholars, focusing in the area of Old Testament studies. While there have been quite a number of studies on minjung theology in general, few have called special attention to the method(s) of biblical interpretation of minjung biblical scholars. I will begin with a brief historical review of minjung theology and then continue the discussion to include hermeneutical principles used by minjung biblical scholars. Finally, I will suggest from a Korean woman's perspective that minjung biblical interpretation needs to provide a life-affirming biblical metaphor in the construction of a minjung theology of liberation. A life-affirming theology would enrich and empower the minjung people, offering a creative and holistic reconstruction of faith and life within the globalization of the world community.

Introduction to Minjung Theology: A historical overview
Minjung theology is a contextual theology that was born in response to the suffering of minjung under Park Chung Hee's regime in the 1960-70s. Minjung theology was developed and refined even further during the 1980s in the midst of the struggle for democracy under Jeon Du Whan's regime. General Jeon became the President of Korea in 1980, suppressing the minjung's demonstration for democracy in Kwang Ju. At its inception, minjung theology focused on the deplorable economic and cultural conditions of minjung. As it developed, and as the context changed, later minjung theology expanded to address political and social concerns that emerged from the minjung movement for democracy in the early 1980s. During that time, minjung theology addressed political issues that concern democracy, using a material and social revolutionary approach in the construction of minjung theology for the new millennium.[1]

The Korean political environment has been subject to rapidly changing principles during the past decade. Korean society suffers from new economic, social, and cultural crises, resulting from financial crisis and the ensuing intervention of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1997-98. The pressure of the IMF on the Korean government for structural reform in the financial and corporate sectors caused President Kim Dae-jung to conform to its demands, which resulted in an sharp rise in the unemployment rate. Because of this imposed structural reform, many workers, both blue and white collar, lost their jobs; today they remain either unemployed or have had to survive through cobbling together part-time employment.[2]

Korea jumped into the global market as well. Globalization can be defined as a process of integrating all peoples and nations into one global market, driven by global capital.[3] In the process of a globalization that dominates all aspects of life,[4] the traditional understanding of minjung is no longer evident, despite the fact that the majority of jobless and contingent laborers can certainly be considered as the minjung of the globalized world. Therefore, the task of minjung theology expands even further, to include theological insight that informs the meaning of life in this globalized world.

The "Minjung" as a Hermeneutical Key of Minjung Theology

The Meaning of "Minjung" as a Hermeneutical Key for Biblical Interpretation
The term minjung was first used in academic discourse by two scholars, Ahn Byung Mu and Suh Nam Dong, in 1975. The term is used to refer to those who are marginalized from the center of society because of economic, cultural, social, and gender discrimination. Minjung theology explores the social reality of the minjung as the starting point for the formulation of Christian theology. The minjung reality does not refer to an individualistic existential framework for what describes human existence. It is a sociopolitical or socioeconomic framework. The reality of oppressive and miserable social existence creates a certain primacy over other realities, thus necessitating the act of interpretation. The collective experience of minjung, or rather the "social biography of the minjung," serves as the hermeneutical basis of minjung theology for interpreting the resources of minjung theology, such as the Bible, tradition, and history.

The Bible as a Reference for Minjung Theology
Minjung theology does not start from doctrines or the Bible itself but from the very life of minjung, sharing their struggles, pains, sufferings, aspirations, success, and failures and envisioning hope for a new heaven and earth. Therefore, the sources for minjung theology are not limited to the Bible or to Church doctrine. The minjung's life story, tradition, and history are also included. This is because Korean minjung history and traditions are rooted in the minjung understanding of God throughout history. In fact, minjung theologians consider God as a correlative term with history. Suh Nam Dong states that God is self-actualized in and through the historical process and historical events. For him, "God works through history.... History itself is God."[5] Here, history is not limited to Christian history, but includes all human history. For this reason, minjung theology discovered the presence of God within Korean history even before Christianity was introduced to Korea. The Bible is used as a reference, not as the norm, of minjung theology. And so, the hermeneutics of biblical interpretation of minjung theology begins with the minjung social context rather than the biblical texts themselves. Minjung theology is confessional in this matter.

Political Use of the Bible: Minjung Theological Interpretation of the Bible
The Bible is used to seek the meaning of minjung's life and struggle. Minjung theologians employ a sociopolitical method of reading biblical texts, examining the social reality of minjung behind particular texts. Another method is to create a confluence of a biblical text with a minjung experience of history, crafting a source for minjung theological construction. Using these methods, minjung biblical interpretation comprises three stages of interpretation. The first stage is to review the background of the Korean minjung using the Old Testament as a historical basis. The similarities between biblical history and Korean history are clearly made evident. The second stage purports to clarify the position of today's minjung by using the insight that Old Testament history provides. The third stage works to suggest the hermeneutical and practical task for minjung and their supporters.[6]

Minjung theological interpretation of the Bible travels in three directions that overlap, but are distinct in their destination. The first is to seek the presence of minjung in the bible. This is focused on the study of the social reality of Habiru in Exodus and Ochlos in Mark. The second direction highlights a biblical paradigm of minjung movement in the Bible. Liberation events such as the Exodus, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, imply the significance of theological interpretation of liberation for the oppressed, the poor, or the dominated. The third avenue focuses on reading the whole Bible from minjung perspective, rather than finding a "canon within the canon."[7]

The Presence of Minjung in the Bible
Minjung biblical scholars look for the voice and story of the minjung in the Bible. Immediately, the idea of the "Habiru" or Hebrew in the Exodus, the outcasts from the dominant social system, rises to the surface. These Habiru or Hebrews are identified with Korean minjung because, like the Hebrews, minjung suffered for years under the domination of ruthless governments and foreign oppressors.[8]

The distinct contribution of the minjung biblical theologian is to highlight the subjectivity of Hebrews in the text as it is clear in Korean history. In Exodus 3, God commands Moses to confront the Pharaoh with God's will to bring God's people to the mountain of God. In other words, before God offers deliverance, the Hebrew people had to confront the pharaohs of the world. In confrontation with the oppressor, they would realize that it was Pharaoh who had infringed upon their rights.[9] In this biblical story, minjung theologians do not see Moses as a hero but a representative of minjung. In this construct, God is considered as "an immanent force." In other words, God "lives along with minjung, is immanent within minjung, and is equal to minjung."[10]

God in Exodus is also a political force. God in the Exodus narrative stands on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden and will fight for them. Yet God is not the sole actor in the movement of liberation; he is the principal actor who invites the oppressed to be a partner in the process of liberation. People are offered the opportunity to assist in the restoration of their own rights, which have been infringed upon.

The emphasis of minjung's subjectivity should not overlook the passivity of minjung at the same time because minjung can be the obstacles of their own liberation. In the Exodus narrative, distrust in the God of liberation is stated not only by Pharaoh but also by the majority of Hebrew minjung. In addition, the motif of complaining/ murmuring in the wilderness demonstrates the passivity of minjung, highlighting their weakness in a crisis. The awakened minjung who actually responded to the call of God shows the subjectivity of history.

The Exodus: A Biblical Paradigm of the Minjung Movement of Liberation
One of the tasks of the minjung biblical scholar is to find ample evidence of the minjung movement of liberation in the Bible. Moon Hee-suk and others offer the Exodus narrative as the primary example of the minjung movement of liberation. The Exodus is the paradigm of the minjung movement that most closely parallels the current Korean minjung's context. Minjung theology highlights the sociopolitical or socioeconomic dimension of the Exodus narrative, rather than abstracting it to a spiritual and personal dimension.

Biblical stories have their full meaning when they are re-embodied in and through the minjung's own praxis of current sociopolitical liberation. Minjung themselves become the bridge connecting the hermeneutical gap between the liberating events of the Bible and events of today. The context or the nature of minjung's social reality is different from what is perceived as the norm. However, the minjung experience or belief in a God who delivered the oppressed from social and political bondage in biblical times will inform and invite the Korean minjung into the Bible, believing the same God will deliver the oppressed in the present as well. The confession and belief that God who stands on the side of Hebrew slaves will stand on the side of the oppressed minjung fills a special gap between the Bible and the life of today's minjung. The story of Hebrew minjung's experience in Exodus provides insight and hope to Korean minjung who are suffering. It is not the situation or the reality of minjung that compares two different groups of minjung in two different times and cultures. Rather, it is God who delivers the oppressed in the past and present and minjung's experience that encounters God in history as the liberator. The past experience provides hope for the present; the present experience confirms the God of the past, creating a unity of past and present, history and reality. Thus, in a socioeconomic or sociopolitical sense, the biblical liberating events are clear paradigms for God's intervention in history, and such intervention takes place in the socioeconomic arena today.

Interpretation of the Bible as a Whole from the Minjung Perspective
While other biblical scholars find paradigms of the minjung movement of liberation in the Bible, Kim Jeong Joon reads the whole Old Testament from minjung perspective.[11] He sees the Bible as a book of the Israelites' confession of God who saves them throughout history. Under the great influence of a German scholar, Gerhard von Rad, Kim starts his interpretation with the ancient Credo (Deut 26:5-9) which at its core is the Exodus event. From the Exodus event, he examines Deuteronomist history, the Prophets, and Psalms and Wisdom Literature.

Kim criticizes Gerhard von Rad for the fact that while von Rad revealed the tradition and nature of the Israelites' ancient confession, he did not pay attention to who confessed the Credo. The confession cannot exist without a confessor. Thus, Kim Jeong Joon emphasizes the social reality of those who confess the credo in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. They are those who "wander," "are politically oppressed," and "suffered with overloaded labor" and thus "out cried." The motivation of God's salvation history is, in fact, the social reality of minjung, the outcasts, the oppressed, and the exploited.

Despite the fact that it is a history of powerful Israelite Kings, the Deuteronomist history connects with the social reality of minjung as seen in the story of the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:12-16) and in the story of Naboth's vineyard. These stories emphasize the fulfillment of justice in the life of the minjung. Kim identifies the social reality of minjung by using terms that refer to the people who are the main concern of the Hebrew prophets. Terms such as the "needy" (`ebony; Amos 2:6, 4:1, 5:12, 8:4, and elsewhere), the "poor" (dalim; Amos 2:7, 4:1, 5:11, 8:6), and the "afflicted" (`anawim; 2:7, 8:4) in Amos are examples. Kim interprets the prophet Amos as the advocate for minjung's human right and for economic justice.

Kim also purports that the Psalms are songs and poems that originally emerged from the life of minjung or people from the grass roots, which were later adapted to worship. For example, he sees the psalms of lamentation as the exclamation of minjung that expresses their sorrow, agony, and grief. In examining the psalms of lamentation, he demonstrates that the categories of suffering fall into four areas: poverty, political oppression, victims of social sin, and physical and psychological pain.

Finally, Kim Jeong Joon suggests reading the book of Job as minjung literature rather than as a book of the rich or book of theodicy. For him, Job represents those who are entirely and suddenly deprived of their life without reason. Job's suffering is the suffering of minjung. Kim perceives that Proverbs include not only the life wisdom and morals of the rulers, but also sayings, riddles, and proverbs that have been derived from minjung's daily life. He also points out that the book of Proverbs considers poverty not simply as a result of oppression, but also as a result of laziness or foolishness. Kim also sees the possibilities of using the book of Proverbs as a guide book for the life of minjung after they are able to recover their human rights. Thus, he concludes that wisdom literature can be a positive biblical resource for minjung life, expanding the concerns of minjung theology.

Kim Jeong Joon's view on wisdom literature is distinctive and insightful in explaining the life of minjung in the era of globalization that experiences sudden financial collapse and abandonment by the family. One must note that, even more than ever, transnational capital, in the form of transnational corporations and speculative financial capital, has seeped and encroached into the life of the people, causing impoverishment at unprecedented levels. The suffering of Minjung is now multi-dimensional.

Conclusion: Minjung Theological Interpretation of the Bible in the Era of Globalization

Challenges of Globalization:
Globalization and the global market drive people against life, causing them to live in despair. Traditional contradictions between classes, races, genders, and other conflicts are not only intensified but become violent. National social welfare and security systems are being dismantled in the process of the global marketization, and they are being integrated into the market. If minjung movements have been struggling for social justice, they now struggle for social rights and life at all levels and in all places. The task of liberation movements is how to strive for peace and security for life in the cosmos.

In seeking peace and security in life, we must search for authentic religious teachings for life that is just and peaceful. The search for the meaning of life becomes the central focus of theology in the era of globalization. The vision of a good and full life, the transformation of the conditions of life, or rather of death, for a new, just, and peaceful life, and the ways to celebrate the feast of life together are the concerns of biblical minjung hermeneutics. I believe that the task of biblical interpretation in minjung theology is to find biblical references for articulating a vision of life, analyzing the conditions of life, and developing praxis for life. In other words, the focus needs to be to liberate life from the forces of death and the forces of destruction in the context of globalization. Theology involves the vision and imagination of life.

Finding a Life-Affirming and Empowering Theological Motif in the Bible:
The social reality of minjung in the era of globalization requires biblical studies of minjung theology to seek biblical metaphors or motifs that affirm life. The emphasis of the liberating forces of God as a warrior or a revolutionary figure who delivers the oppressed from trouble is powerful and dynamic. Yet the understanding is also destructive and violent.

I believe that the presentation of God as creator is an alternative and more fitting image of God in the era of globalization. The motif of creation should not be seen as ancillary to redemption or the backdrop for redemption, but rather as a motif in its own right, as exhibited particularly by Second Isaiah and the Priestly Writer.[12]

For example, the creation motif in Second Isaiah is introduced through birth imagery. The figure of a travailing woman is used to describe divine creative action in the book. Also, Isaiah 45:9-10 utilizes the figures of a potter and a begetting father to illustrate the creating action of God.

Deuteronomy 32:18 employs the image of a travailing woman to refer to the first formation of Israel as the people of God:

XXXXYou were unmindful of the Rock that bore you
You forgot the God who gave you birth

In each line, the words of birth, yld and Hyl, describe the divine action of creation or salvation as giving birth to Israel. God's action in the parallel line is exclusively maternal because the verb Hyl elsewhere in the Bible takes only a feminine subject.[13] As the childbirth imagery here refers to the first formation of Israel as the people of God, the same imagery is used to describe the restoration of the people of God in Isaiah 66:7-9. Isaiah 66:7-9 is more radical than the previous presentation of the first birth of Israel because it is not God but Zion who gives birth to the people; radically, God simply and strongly plays a midwife. At the same time, the text clarifies that it is God who ultimately makes the birth possible.

The description of creation through the birth metaphor is insightful to the construction of minjung theology. First, the creator God, like a woman in labor, does not appear as a removed, omniscient, all-controlling super power, but as a creative source of life. God endures labor pains in order to bring forth a new people,[14] rather than supervising the life of people from above. Here, God is seen as the imminent force in the life of minjung, a creative, present power. Second, the understanding of creation through a birth metaphor is related to salvation, a labor of new life. The divine behavior of creation "like a woman in labor" indicates neither panic nor fear, but rather God's powerful behavior and its awesome effects. God endures birthpangs in order to bring forth new hope and life.[15] Third, the understanding of creation through the birth metaphor does not present the suffering of minjung as miserable or hopeless, but it perceives the suffering of minjung as hopeful, connecting to a creative power within it. . The suffering will eventually be transformed into joy because God who suffers with the people is the God of new creation. Fourth, the understanding of creation through the birth metaphor depicts salvation and creation not as a one-time event, but as a continual process of which the goal is to create a new heaven and earth in the present reality. As a mother continues nurturing her just-born baby until she grows up and knows how to share that love with others, God and humans continue to take care of the new creation until humanity is able to recover wholeness and mutuality in this world. God is the meaning of life when God is encountered in the midst of the life and suffering of minjung, as seen in the whirlwind of Job 38.

Yeong Mee Lee, Hanshin University, Korea

1. Choi, Hyung Mook, Korean Social-revolutionary Movement and Christian Theology (Nadan, 1992).

2. Currently, in Korea, non-standard, temporary, or part-time workers occupy 55% of the whole work force. In Korea, the flexibility of labor is so high that most of the population is exposed to the threat of unemployment and poverty. Re-cited from Kwon, Jin-Kwan, "Contextual Theology and Theological Education: Korea," David Kwang-sun Suh et. Al. eds. Charting the Future of Theology and Theological Education in Asian Contexts (ISPCK, 2004), 87

3. Kim Yong Bock, "Globalization: Challenge to the People's Movement."

4. Kim Yong Bock, "An Asian Proposal for the Future Directions of Theological Curricula in the Context of Globalization", David Kwang-sun Suh et al., eds., Charting the Future of Theology and Theological Education in Asian Contexts (ISPCK, 2004), 249.

5. Suh Nam Dong, In Search of Minjung Theology (Seoul: Hangilsa, 1983), 171

6. Moon Hee Seok, A Korean Minjung Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Orbis Books, 1985), x.

7. Examples here are provided exclusively from Old Testament studies.

8. Moon Hee Seok, 7.

9. Ibid., 6-7.

10. Nam Dong Suh, In Search of Minjung Theology, 79.

11. Kim Jeong Joon, "References of Old Testament for Minjung Theology," Theological Thought 21(1979): 5-32.

12. Preman Niles, "Introduction," in CTC-CCA, ed., Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History (Orbis Books, 1981), 4.

13. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (OBT; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 63.

14. L.L. Bronner, "Gynomorphic Imagery in Exilic Isaiah (40-66)," Dor le Dor 12 (1983-84): 77.

15. Ibid.

16. See further, Yeong Mee Lee, Understanding of Salvation in the Book of Isaiah (Seoul: Malgunulim, 2004).

Citation: Yeong Mee Lee, " A Political Reception of the Bible: Korean Minjung Theological Interpretation of the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2005]. Online:


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