James Cone: Encounter with Korean Theology in 1975
“Since Minjung theology is strongly influenced by the social biography of the Minjung, it is perhaps appropriate for me to give a brief personal account of my encounter with the people who are creating this theology. In May 1975, I was invited by the Korean Christian church in Japan to lead a series of seminars on the theme of “the Church struggling for the liberation of the people.” I had never been to Japan or Korea, nor any other Asian land. Furthermore, my reading knowledge of Asian history generally and Korean history in particular were almost nil. The only preparation I had was the little reading I did immediately before my departure and a few conversations I had with people regarding the political and social situation of Koreans in Japan. I did not know what to expect, and I kept asking myself why Koreans wanted a black theologian, who knew so little about their social history, to lead their seminars. What did black theology have to say to Koreans in Japan or Asians anywhere?
The cultural shock that I experienced upon my arrival in Japan is very difficult to describe. Although I had been to Africa and Latin America, neither prepared me for Asia. For the first time I was in a completely different culture, unlike Africa which I could connect with my blackness and unlike Latin America which I could connect with my western identity. After only a short time on the continent of Asia, I realized that my theological perspective would be altered significantly. While I did not know what I would change or how I would change it (I needed more time to absorb and to reflect), yet I knew that the change would relate to christology and the need to enlarge my perspective beyond its narrow western orientation. In Asia Christianity is a minority religion, and western languages are not the primary means of communication. It is one thing to read about other religions in books and quite another to experience their powerful presence first-hand on the continent of Asia. What could I say to Koreans about the gospel when I knew neither their language nor much about their social situation in Japan? I felt that I had little to say to them, and they had much to say to me. However, Koreans insisted that I tell the black story of liberation in North America as defined by the black church tradition. They told me the Korean story of enslavement by the Japanese and their struggle to reclaim their humanity. We then compared our stories, identifying the similarities and differences. Through the telling of our stories, we came to know and to love each other. It was an experience that I will never forget. I preached in Korean churches, ate in their homes; we laughed and told stories about our families, and I was transformed by the experience of being accepted by a people who knew so little about me and I about them. I began to realize much more clearly than before that God’s liberating presence is found not only in the black liberation struggle but among all people who are fighting for freedom.
It was within the context of the Korean Christian community in Japan that I first heard about a new theology emerging from the history and culture of Korean people. The most surprising thing that happened during my visit was the Korean people’s understanding and affirmation of my view of black theology. Before leaving home, I had been told by white Americans of the “conservative” nature of Korean Christianity and that my emphasis on liberation would be utterly rejected. Nothing could have been further from the truth. To be sure, I had to separate my view of liberation from the communists’ use of the term in North Korea, but that only took a few minutes of talking about the black story of liberation as defined by our songs, prayers, and sermons. When I told them about our “blues,” they told me about their “han.” When I told Koreans that my nineteenth-century slave grandparents sang spiritual songs about the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, identifying themselves with the Hebrew slaves and white slaveholders with the Egyptians, Koreans smiled and then shared with me their “slave” songs about the exodus that they created during their servitude under the Japanese in the twentieth century. The similarities between Korean and black experiences of oppression and liberation astounded me. Later, when I preached at a Korean church on the theme “God the Liberator,” I head them singing a song in Korean whose melody sounded very familiar to me. When I asked my interpreter the name of the song, he said, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” “Do the people know that that is a black spiritual?!” I asked. He gave a negative answer. Here we were engaged in a profound cultural exchange and did not even know it. The Korean people’s acceptance of the black experience created an openness in me to accept their history and culture.
The only rejection that I experience in Japan came from white missionaries and affluent Japanese Christians. Both groups claimed that there was no such thing as black theology and Korean theology. Christian theology, they contended, refers to the wrritings of Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann. I always knew when I was speaking to a Japanese audience, even though I could detect no physical differences between them and Koreans. The difference had to do with their attitude toward me and Koreans which was always arrogant and condescending. My experience with whites in the United States prepared me well for the Japanese, and white missionaries in Japan helped to insure that I would not forget racism’s true nature. The more white missionaries and Japanese Christians rejected black and Korean theologies, the more I and Koreans were determined to make theological sense out of our liberation struggles.
I was attracted to Korean theology because I liked Korean people. Like blacks, they had a history of suffering and had developed a culture that enabled them not to be determined by it. Like blacks, Koreans are a passionate people. They cry and laugh. They feel life at its depths and refuse to define reality in primarily rational terms.
I was also impressed by Korean lay people’s ability to think theologically. Unlike some of their pastors who had been influenced too much by their study of and with Japanese and white theologians, Korean lay people use their common sense in their exegesis of the scripture. They read the Bible as a series of stories about what God has done to protect the little ones in extreme situations of oppression. They related the biblical stories to the Korean story of oppression under the Japanese and concluded that the God of Moses and of Jesus was present with them, sustaining them in their struggle to keep their identity.
Listening to Korean lay people tell their stories of struggle reminded me of how black theology was created. It did not start among professional black theologians who were teaching in seminaries and universities. Like whites, most professional black theologians rejected the very idea of a black theology until they realized that it would help secure their teaching posts in white seminaries and universities. Black theology began in the context of the civil rights and black power movements, largely defined by the ministries of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. It was during my participating in the black liberation struggle, in dialogue with laity and clergy, that the idea of a black theology became clear to me. I concluded that black theology had to be a theology of black people who were struggling to make sense of the gospel in their fight for freedom. Were not Koreans making the same point in their affirmations of the need for a unique Korean theology?
After nearly three weeks with Koreans in Japan, I took a flight to Seoul, Korea. In Seoul, I met many of the writers in their volume. Suh Kwang-sun David invited me to Korea, and Hyun Young-hak met me at the airport and served as my interpreter during my stay. Both introduced me to other Korean theologians and informed me of their struggle for democracy and human rights. The infamous “Presidential Emergency Measure No. 9” had just been issued (May 13, 1975), which allowed the police to arrest and imprison any person who criticized the Park regime. I met several persons who had been dismissed from their teaching posts in the universities, many of whom were later imprisoned.
Since the universities had only been recently opened, my sponsors thought it wise not to hold my lecture in that context. I thought it best not to lecture at all because of the risks involved. Furthermore, what could I say to Koreans in a situation of political repression. I knew even less about Koreans in their own country than about Koreans in Japan. But despite the political risks and my lack of knowledge, everyone insisted that I speak. The lecture was held at the YMCA, and nearly half the audience were KCIA agents. Terribly anxious about the political dangers, especially for Koreans attending the lecture, I decided to lecture on the theme of “God the Liberator as Found in the Black Slave Songs in North America.” Apparently the KCIA angents did not detect the double meanings in the spiritual and in my message, because no one was arrested. No questions were permitted following the lecture, and we closed with the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”
I remained in South Korea for nearly a week, listening to many of the writers in this volume discuss Korean theology. Since I did not know much about Korean history and culture, I found it difficult to understand much of what they were advocating. The ethos of political repression was so dominant that they often found themselves speaking to each other in their own language, of which I understood nothing. They kept apologizing to me, but I tried to assure them that I was not troubled by not being able to understand. On one occasion given my honor, one professor present had just received his “retirement” notice, and much of the time was spent “being with him,” and other professors discussed when they too would receive their notice or be taken to prison.
It was in the context of Korean Christians’ struggle for democracy and human rights that I first head them speak about a new Korean theology. Although I had heard Koreans in Japan talk in a similar fashion, it was among Koreans in their own country where I saw an outline of it begin to be developed. They kept emphasizing the idea of “people as the subject of history,” but not in a Marxist definition of the proletariat or of history. My western education had not prepared me for the creative insights of Korean theologians. But the black experience of oppression helped me to be open to new and unfamiliar voices. Korean theologians were patient with my slow understanding and assured me that I was making progress. My difficult was with the language and the terms they used to express their theology. It was easy to associate the idea of the “people” with the “proletariat,” but they assured me that what they meant by “people” could not be reduced to the Marxist idea of the working class. What they mean by people cannot be translated into English, they claimed. In Korean the word has a complex meaning that can only be understood in the context of Korean history and culture. I left South Korean with the determination to learn more about the history and culture that was giving birth to a new theology.”
James H. Cone, “preface”, in Minjung Theology: People as the Subjects of History, Edited by the Commission on Theological Concerns of the Christian Conference of Asia, p. x-xiv