In discussions with communist scholars of religion in Beijing a few years ago, I found that they had a keen interest in liberation theologies, especially South Korean minjung theology, due to its social analysis and engagement. The position of the Three-Self Protestant Movement and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Organization regarding liberation theology seems to be that China is already liberated, yet the churches naturally share the option for the poor. The liberation theological project is deeply rooted in the political and societal conflicts of the twentieth century.
Minjung theology is “another child of conflict,” as I once phrased it. As a Christian response to the harsh military dictatorship of Korea in the 1980s, it opted for human rights, justice for the poor and oppressed, democratization, and peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. The rhetoric of the Cold War that never really ended in Korea demonized this emergent theology, which has been despised in the hybrid American style evangelical mainline churches in Korea and the polemic continues even till today.
Nowadays, minjung theology seems to be an inspiration for the Hong Kong protesters and their sympathizers. A Hong Kong student singing “March for the Beloved” went viral. It is a Korean protest song that commemorates the victims of the Kwangju massacre in 1980s when the Korean military violated its own people. The song was popular again in Seoul during the candle-light demonstrations of 2017 against President Park Geun-Hye, the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, Korea’s military dictator from 1961–1979. Student activists in Hong Kong posted photos from the Korean student movement of the 1980s along with photos from the 2019 demonstrations against the extradition law amendment bill.
Kwok Pui-lan compares her own memories from the Hong Kong student demonstrations of the 1970s against the colonial regime of the British and in favor of a rapprochement with mainland China with the 2019 demonstrations on the same Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. This time, the students embraced their identity as Hongkongers and saw the “one country, two systems” policy as compromised by the government. All this shows the ambiguities in which we have to do theology. Theology is always contextual, and I would add cannot avoid becoming political.
The book The Hong Kong Protests and Political Theology edited by Kwok Pui-lan and Francis Ching-wah Yip has three parts that match my contextual theology theory from an intercultural perspective. The hermeneutical circle is set into motion by an analysis of the context of the Hong Kong protests in 2019, followed by biblical and theological reflections. Generative themes from the Hong Kong context, such as state violence and uncivil responses by the protesters (Lai Tsz-him) and authoritarian capitalism (Alex Hon-ho Ip) are brought into dialogue with biblical texts such as the succession narratives of the kings of Israel (Philip P. Chia), Jesus’ crucifixion as an act of sexual(ized) violence, and the metaphor of the crucified people. Kung Lap-yan alludes to Latin American liberation theologies’ use of the concepts of the crucified people and martyrdom. These ideas can also be found in the writings of Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song and my readings of Minjung theology as a corporate theology of the cross. Jessica Hui-tung Tso gives this a gender twist when she compares Jesus’ public humiliation and being striped to a loincloth on the cross to the kind of sexualized violence perpetuated against women in the form of “rape, sexual harassment, body shaming and doctored photos” in the Hong Kong protests. While most authors focus on the agency of youth and women in the protests against the government, Francis Ching-wah Yip brings the perpetrators into the picture as subjects of theological reflection. Similar to liberation theologies’ concept of structural sin, Yip refers to Paul Tillich and his differentiation between “sin as fact” and “sin as act.” The “demonic” as Tillich phrases it allows Yip to look at the riot police as human beings who are drawn into sinful, demonic structures from which they have to be liberated as well.
The third part opens an intercultural dialogue with theologians from other conflict areas of our globalized world. Nami Kim takes the lead by comparing the June 1987 student demonstrations in South Korea that eventually led to democratization with what she saw in the media from the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations. In both cases, the students and young people got support from the society at large and the churches to protect them from state violence executed by the riot police. Kim calls for “transborder solidarity.” In this regard, she also points out that the struggle for recognizing non-Chinese foreign domestic workers should become part of the newly awakened struggle for democracy by the Hong Kong people.
Relevance for the particular context, identity based on scripture and Christian tradition, and dialogue with the Christian community worldwide are the three criteria for checks and balances for doing contextual political theology. Can minjung theology become a dialogue bridge? Probably. Different from Latin American liberation theology, minjung theology’s founding fathers decided not to apply neo-Marxist models of social analysis, such as dependency theory but turned to stories and social biography instead. They knew they had to negotiate their theological stance for the poor in the powerplay of the Cold War and the rhetoric of capitalism and communism. Being Christian did not make it any easier. In Korean churches, minjung theology is still controversial after forty years. On the one hand, churches are part of the societies they are located in and mirror them. On the other hand, churches are loyal to God and have a prophetic commitment.
Albert Sui-hung Lee raises the question, “Is dialogue in the church still feasible after the Hong Kong protests?” According to Lee, while the churches were criticized for their silence and apathy during the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement of 2014, they took on a different role in 2019. Church representatives took part in demonstrations, carrying large crosses and singing hymns. The hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” at some point even became a kind of anthem of the movement. Churches also came forward with public statements and formed small groups as go-between protesting youth and police. Their slogan “Beat us, don’t beat the kids!” may well be seen as an act of vicarious suffering. All this led to a dialogue between churches and the movement, especially the younger generation. Church officials also sought dialogue with the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. In the media, the churches were denounced as “foreign hostile forces” and destructive because of their prophetic engagement. As far as the dialogue within the churches is concerned, on the one hand progressive and conservative church leaders came closer together, while on the other hand rifts went through local congregations, where conservative Christians blamed the church’s political engagement as “poor witness” and called for separation of church and state.
Churches have time and again functioned as go-betweens in conflicts and as agents of change. The Chinese Three-Self church, similar to the church in former East Germany, tried to be church under socialism (“Kirche im Sozialismus”), embracing the given structures as the context for being church. What this means in the 21st century in a Hong Kong and Greater China in transition will have to be renegotiated in a probably painful process. Minjung theology in all its fragmentation might well be of help as a dialogue bridge in this endeavor, since different players in the game have already taken an interest in it.