The Christian concept of individual worth has found expression in a lengthy struggle for human rights and democracy in Korea. In recent years, this struggle has taken the form of Minjung theology. Minjung theology is based on the "image of God" concept expressed in Genesis 1:26–27, but also incorporates the traditional Korean feeling of han, a word that has no exact English translation, but that denotes a sense of inconsolable pain and utter helplessness. Minjung theology depicts commoners in Korean history as the rightful masters of their own destiny. Two of the country's best known political leaders, Kim Young-sam, a Presbyterian, and Kim Dae-jung, a Roman Catholic, subscribe to Minjung theology. Both men spent decades opposing military governments in South Korea and were frequently imprisoned as a result, and both also served terms as President of the Republic after democracy was restored in 1988.
One manifestation of Minjung theology in the final years of the Park Chung-hee regime (1961–1979) was the rise of several Christian social missions, such as the Catholic Farmers Movement and the Protestant Urban Industrial Mission, which campaigned for better wages and working conditions for laborers. The military government imprisoned many of their leaders because it considered the movement a threat to social stability, and their struggle coincided with a period of unrest which culminated in the assassination of President Park on 26 October 1979,.
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Minjung 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".
It is part of a wider Asian theological ferment, but it was not designed for export. It "is firmly rooted in a particular situation, and growing out of the struggles of Christians who embrace their own history as well as the universal message of the Bible."
Minjung theology began with Ahn Byung Mu in 1970s. He is often considered the "father" of minjung theology. Minjung, which means the "people" in the communist sense of the proletariat, is made up of people who are ostracized by the larger community.
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“Only men of moral and mental force, of a patriotic regard for the relationship of the two races, can be of real service as ministers in the South. Less theology and more of human brotherhood, less declamation and more common sense and love for truth, must be the qualifications of the new ministry that shall yet save the race from the evils of false teaching.”
—Fannie Barrier Williams (18551944)