Thursday, October 27, 2011

Liberation and Theology : Old Friends who hardly meet anymore?

Published in the Fiji Times: Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, October 26, 2011

One of the courses I am taking is a seminar on the History of the Israelite Religion.

This is not a study of the history of the Old Testament of the Bible or Jewish Pentateuch, rather it is a scientific study of the development of the Israelite people and their religion from pre-Israelite culture and religion to the shape of Israelite religion after the exile.

It is challenging, as we are required to approach this topic that is so close to our heart from an academic perspective - asking questions that cannot be answered by faith responses but by archeological and textual evidence including from outside the scriptures.

At the same time it is extremely interesting as we are exposed to the theories that help us fill in the gaps about the origins and development of not just the Israelites, but also what is at the foundation level of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion.

One of the authors I am reading, Rainer Albertz, based on historical analysis, proposes that the early Israelites of the "Exodus" were not an ethnic group but "a detachment of prisoners-of-war, of ethnically differing origin," conscripted (not unlike indentured labour) to undertake the massive building projects in Egypt at that time.

The identification of the Exodus group is as Hebrew or hap/biru - an economically assimilated but socially declassed group of foreign conscripts, whose solidarity had been undermined by state measures.

In the light of this Albertz argues that the origin of Yahweh (and as a result Israelite) religion is "indissolubly connected with the process of the liberation of the Exodus group."

God, or Yahweh, is experienced for the first time by the Exodus group, the ethnically diverse and oppressed Hebrews or hap/biru as a God of Liberation, who will lead them to freedom.

For most Christians and even some church leaders, the terms "Liberation" and "Theology" are often only come together in the minds of radicals who seek to upset the status quo.

Liberation Theology is often seen as radical theology - on the fringe of doctrine and teachings. However, according to Albertz, the first major act of God for the Hebrews, the early Israelites was the act of liberation from an oppressive social, economic, political and even religious system.

This means that Liberation and Theology are friends who hardly meet. However, when they do meet, amazing things happen.

In South Korea, Liberation Theology was an essential element in Minjung theology which focuses on a politically oppressed people (minjung), given hope by biblical history and promise, to strive for their liberation in a messianic kingdom where Jesus the suffering servant is lord.

Other liberation theologies include, Dalit theology in India which, like American black theology, is a subjugated minority, the outcastes (the dalits), to which the promise of God comes, in their conflict with an oppressive majority.

Black theology draws especially on the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to legitimate black people's fight for freedom.

According to Wikipedia, 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 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 reflects the quest for liberation of the poor of Korea. The word minjung means the masses of people, as opposed to those who are in power and who oppress them in various ways. Minjung theology arose when Korea was rapidly industrializing itself.

Many of the rural poor were attracted to the cities as industrial labour.

They had poor wages and miserable living conditions.

The rich industrialists who exploited them were supported by the political regime which was supported by military power.

The minjung experience is characterized by han, which is a feeling of resentment, repressed anger and helplessness. Han is countered by dan which is the experience of the divine in us which leads us to transform ourselves and the world through liberative action.

This drive for liberation finds expression symbolically in satyrical mask dances, known as mudang.

These dances help not only in releasing the tensions of han, but also in achieving a certain self-transcendence that makes one's response to the oppressive situation not a gesture of revenge but constructive and creative action.

Reading the Bible, the Minjung discover Jesus who becomes one with the minjung of his day - the sinners, publicans and prostitutes - in order to free them, assuring them of God's preferential love. Unlike Moses, who only led the people, Jesus becomes one with the people.

As the Minjung become aware of the presence and action of God in their midst, they also perceive God's action in their history. The history of the Korean people has been a history of oppression by foreign or local political power.

But the people have always revolted against their oppressors. The story of these successive struggles for liberation is read as a Minjung history of salvation, which inspires and encourages them in their present struggle.

It is interesting to note that these struggles have not always been 'Christian' struggles. However, particular attention is devoted to the period of Japanese colonization, during which the Bible was considered a subversive book and the circulation of the books of Exodus and Daniel were forbidden.

The Minjung refuse the political salvations of the colonizers, of the marxists and of the capitalists.

They also reject the other-worldly salvations offered by certain types of Buddhism and Christianity. Their own vision of the future is eschatological, rooted in history and yet transcending it. Minjung theology is noted for its rootedness in and inclusive vision of its history. (Source:

Some thoughts for reflection, with love from the Soul of Asia. May the Divine Light shine within you and from you this Diwali.

* Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: (Facebook/Twitter).