Book Review: Volker Küster, A Protestant Theology of Passion: Korean Minjung Theology Revisited

[1] Christian minjung theologies arose in the 1970s and 1980s in South Korea. They were articulated by a small group of Protestant pastors and intellectuals who became part and parcel of the late 20th century minjung movement—a cultural phenomenon led by artists, students, labor organizers, and intellectuals—that included a retrieval of traditional artistic forms, a democratizing movement, activism on behalf of exploited workers, and a raising of consciousness about the deep suffering of the Korean masses throughout history. The focus of these theologies was the han-ridden minjung, a term loosely translated as the “masses of people” victimized by oppressive cultural, economic, religious, and governmental systems. The touchstone for its inception was the self-immolation of the young worker-activist Chun Tae-Il in 1970. Chun protested the abuse and exploitation of thousands of Korean garment factory workers, and during a protest in which police were dispatched to attack them, he set himself on fire as the ultimate act of protest. Chun’s death became a rallying point for social change and was seen theologically as a Christ-like sacrifice.

Considine_Review_Cover_Image.jpg[2] Similar to the military dictatorships that provided the context for the Latin American theologies of liberation and the white supremacy that was the context for U.S. Black Liberation theologies Korean minjung theologies arose in the context of violence and oppression—the military dictatorships of Park Chung-Hee (1961-1979) and Chun Doo-Hwan (1979-1988). They were ​truly contextual, or local, theologies that focused upon finding Christ among the minjung. As the military dictatorships fell, a democracy slowly arose, and the Korean economy became a “tiger” economy in the 1990s, the Christian theologies of the minjung seemed irrelevant not only to their native context. They seemed to be short-lived, provincial, theologies of liberation that had run their course. Also, they did not seem to have great intercultural resonance for outsiders. Minjung theologian David Kwang-Sun Suh points out “As for dialogue with theologians outside of Korea, we declared in 1979 that Minjung theology is not for export and not for sale. For it is local theology, and we have no intention of making it universal or normative, as well as dogmatic” (xvi).

[3] Nevertheless, the question remains: did it run its course? Are minjung theologies now a mere museum exhibit or have they a future? Rev. Dr. Volker Küster, Professor of Cross-cultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University in Kampen (The Netherlands), investigates these questions in A Protestant Theology of Passion. He writes, “To many Korean contemporaries, the historical-theological project of the minjung movement appears to be a myth of times long gone. The question as to who is minjung today, still asked now and then, indicates that for many, not only has this story come to an end, but its subject seems to have gone missing” (139). In this book, Küster analyzes the context in which this theology arose, along with the break that its theologians made with Western theology, and speculates that “…the spirit of the minjung movement is still alive in the civil movements of South Korea” (139). Even though the vast majority of Korean Christians and theologians have dismissed minjung theology, Küster sees an opportunity for continued Christian theological reflection within this tradition that could speak meaningfully to the local and global context.

[4] In the foreword, David Kwang-Sun Suh points out, “I am particularly grateful to [Küster] for his ‘revisiting’ Minjung theologians from his own ‘German’ or ‘European’ perspective, while most Korean theologians and even some Minjung theologians nowadays say openly that there is nothing left to ‘revisit’ in Korean Minjung theology” (xi). Suh also describes Küster as “perhaps the only European theologian who could in some sense claim to be a Minjung theologian” (xi). Küster explores its contemporary relevance in this valuable book and points out that despite all of the contextual changes and challenges, the theologies of the minjung remain relevant but in need of further development.

[5] Küster begins with a reflection on the method of contextual and intercultural theology. Here, he provides an outline for doing contextual theology in order to help the reader better understand the starting point of the Christian theologians of the minjung. He moves on to a discussion of Korean history and subsequently to an excellent and invaluable chapter discussing and analyzing numerous works of art by various minjung artists. These works of art, which are reproduced in an appendix to the book, enable Küster to assist a cultural-outsider in gaining a better grasp on the context, concerns, ethos, and plurality that resided within the minjung movement.

[6] Küster also attends to the traditional religions of Shamanism and Tonghak/Cheondogyo. This is important because cultural outsiders often are unfamiliar with the various religious currents that have intermingled into the ethos of the minjung movement. Many may not be fully aware of the immense importance of Shamanism and Tonghak/Cheondogyo religions (more so than Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism) to the first generation minjung movement and its Christian theology.

[7] The heart of Küster’s book is a series of theological/biographical sketches of five foundational minjung theologians—Ahn Byung-Mu, Suh Nam-Dong, Hyun Young-Hak, Kim Yong-Bock, and Chung Hyun-Kyung. He provides perhaps the best introductions to their work available in English. The primary source material for these sketches is personal interviews with the theologians (except Suh, who passed away before Küster conducted the original research for this book during a trip to South Korea as he was writing his dissertation) as well as his informed reflections upon their theologies.

[8] He focuses his sketch of each thinker/activist upon his or her most enduring contributions to minjung theology. Küster devotes the most space to Ahn Byung-mu and Suh Nam-Dong. This is because “many consider these two to be the grand old men of Minjung theology” (79). Regarding Ahn, Küster highlights his studies in Germany, his break with Western theological concerns, and the importance of Ahn’s biblical scholarship that demonstrated the relationship between the ochlos (undesirable, motley crowd or “socially uprooted people”) and Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. This insight provided the foundation for pastors and theologians to seek Jesus among the Korean minjung and claim Jesus’ presence with them. Regarding Suh, Küster highlights his work as the “systematic alter ego of the exegetically-oriented Ahn Byung-Mu” (79) in bringing the message of Jesus together with Korean culture with an emphasis on the problem of unwarranted suffering. Küster includes an illuminating discussion of the influence of the poet Kim Chi-Ha on Suh’s theology and in particular upon how Suh accounted for the difference between sinning and being sinned-against. Küster then moves to Hyun Young-Hak’s critical retrieval of the mask dance and his articulation of a theology of holy fools for Christ, and then to Kim Yong-Bock’s work on the historical character of minjung theology. He concludes his overview with a discussion of the work of Chung Hyun-Kyung, who contributed one of the most forceful critiques of minjung theology—its disinterest with sexism and patriarchy. Chung pointed out that women were the minjung within the minjung, the most han-ridden of a han-filled people and therefore must be privileged subjects within minjung theologies. The mosaic of Küster’s brief sketches of these theologians clearly depict the life situations, ideas, and actions that led to the development of minjung theology.

[9] Küster then returns to his guiding question: does minjung theology have a future? He observes that “Though the first generation Minjung theologians were ahead of the minjung culture movement and later used artistic resources, nowadays most of the small group of [Korean] progressive theologians has lost contact with secular intellectuals and artists. Whereas the latter have responded to the contextual changes in a variety of ways, theological reflection on these matters is still very limited. While there is at least some reaction from theologians to the socio-economic impact of globalization and empire, the cultural religious side is neglected” (139-140).

[10] Küster thinks that minjung theology does indeed have a future. In order to speculate where the future may reside, Küster revisits the artists discussed in Chapter Two and examines the continued development of their work as the minjung movement subsided. He finds a turn in their artwork to recounting memories of suffering and to hopes for reconciliation, to showing ordinary life and expressing ecological concerns, and a turning away from Christianity and towards the religious motifs of Buddhism, Cheondogyo, and Shamanism. Küster points out that during the same time period, the original minjung theologians attempted to rearticulate the fundamental theme of their theologies to focus upon salim (life) and ki (energy of life) rather than han (abyss of pain and suffering).

[11] These developments, however, have not necessarily led to a revitalization and rethinking of minjung theology for the current context. But they hold great potential for doing so. To quote Küster at length,

To be sure, Minjung theology was more public theology than church theology, but it brought a lot of recognition to the Christian faith in Korea. As stated before, nowadays, both theology and the church have become alienated by public discourse. According to the few progressive theologians, a passionate theology of life could induce a ‘new reformation’ and break the isolation. If the term Minjung theology should gain acceptance as umbrella term for such emerging theologies then it will nevertheless carry a quite different connotation. Once confined to the experience of the Korean people, now its scope would be glocal. Minjung theology then would simply become the brand name of a Korean-made theology (148-149).

[12] There are many reasons why I would highly recommend this book. It is impeccably researched, theologically subtle, cogently argued, and provides an excellent entryway into minjung theology. It may be helpful, however, to make two minor observations that will assist readers in assessing the suitability of this book to ministerial settings. First, this work has its roots in Küster’s dissertation and as such its primary audience is more academic and less pastoral. Küster’s primary audience is not necessarily people in the pews or those ministering to them. Whereas an earlier book, the impressive The Many Faces of Jesus Christ (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), was more easily accessible and immediately useful for pastors and laypeople, along with seminarians, graduates students, and academics, Protestant Theology of Passion has a different purpose.

[13] A second observation is that Küster’s intercultural examination of minjung theology primarily focuses upon the reception and frequent dismissal of minjung theology by German academics. Küster is a European contextual theologian and as such is most concerned with the serious theological engagement (and lack thereof) of Korean minjung theology within his own context. And rightly so. But for an American audience, it is important to acknowledge that Küster is focusing upon his own context rather than ours. He is a true contextual theologian and as such is not compelled to make this work connect explicitly with the U.S. context (although theologians in the U.S. should read this book).

[14] In sum, A Protestant Theology of Passion is a valuable addition to theological scholarship and for understanding the inception, development, and future of minjung theology. The target audience may be narrow but it deserves to be broader. Küster’s book could easily become the standard entryway to the study of minjung theology by cultural outsiders.

Kevin Considine

Kevin Considine is Assistant Professor of Theology at Calumet College of St. Joseph (Whiting, IN). He is the author of Salvation for the Sinned-Against: ‘Han’ and Schillebeeckx in Intercultural Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015). His research has been published in Black Theology: An International Journal, Horizons, New Theology Review, and Tijdschrift voor Theologie (online).