Chapter 3

Jesus the Messiah:
The Life of the Minjung against Death


The power of death in the world is increasingly taking a political form. The prevailing social philosophies and political realities are dominated by a cynical perspective of history; that is, "the real power" becomes the dominant force in human history, both in the actual historical procession of events and in the understanding of fundamental philosophies of human society.

Thomas Hobbes was an ingenious social thinker who viewed human society as a jungle systematically regulated by an absolute power. The formation of such a society was supposedly based on a social contract among individuals. Surviving the threat of death is a fundamental concern in his social thought. Death or survival seems to be a fundamental issue in modern civilization as well.

Today humankind has built unimaginably deadly weapons systems. This was done by the superpowers and the medium powers in the name of security or survival against the threat of death or destruction. This is the so-called "real politics" that is rampant today, or it may be called the "balance of terror," which affects the totality of human life in the whole world today.

Death seems to have more influence over life than anything else, for it is not a mere end of life: it is a total dimension of life. Death is in life, and life is over death. This is the "dialectic" of living. This is true of social and community life as well as personal life. It is also true of life in and among nations.

It is my small task to clarify the theme of Jesus the Messiah as the life of the Minjung. In this kind of civilization or context, I would transpose the theme to the messianic living of the Minjung against death. The term "life" could mean a static concept of aliveness. Therefore, the term "living" is used as a dynamic concept. I propose to describe a social biography of the Minjung as a paradigmatic experience of modern history, and I will seek to relate some Biblical and theological themes to this social biography of the Minjung.

First, let me clarify the terms "Minjung" and "social biography." Mmjung (people) is a political concept in the Aristotelian sense. The Minjung are not known through philosophical, ideological or even scientific concepts. The Minjung are known through their own social biography, that is, their life story. The Minjung are not to be defined objectively by anyone, except perhaps by their own self- definition. However, the Minjung are known in two ways: one is by knowing the Minjung in relation to power. Minjung here are the powerless, the poor, the alienated. The other way in which the Minjung reveal themselves is through their own social biography, their own stories.

What then is a social biography? It is simply the story of the Minjung. The term "story’ here should not be understood as fictitious. It is the basic form of the Minjung’s life. It is a drama in which the antagonist (power) and the protagonist create events and sequences of events. There is no built-in victory or defeat; no fixed laws are dominant in the story. The story contains memory, vision and the wisdom of the past to create a new future, and it entertains the future vision to energize the present course of the drama. The story unfolds in interaction with the ecological environment, with socio-economic structures. Above all, however, the story contains the subjective and internal experiences of the Minjung. The emotions of anger and joy are expressed in the story.

I. The Social Biography of the Minjung:

The Story of the Korean A-Bomb Victims

The day when the atomic bomb exploded over the people in Kwangdo and Chang Ki (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was the most terrible and tragic day in human history. It was the day when World War II was fatefully decided. The end of world history became manifest in qualitative terms; for the Korean Minjung, numbering as many as 70,000 or more, suffered the "ultimate" death as far as we are able to know. In this human tragedy, 40,000 nameless people died, and up to 30,000 survived with the curse of atomic disease on their bodies and spirits and in their very being.

Who are the Korean A-bomb victims? This question has escaped our perception and thinking even when we ask the most fundamental questions of human history today. It was their story, unrelated to us. Why? Because it is the most horrible part of the horrible event, and therefore, the powers suppressed the story of those of Korean origin who were bombed. Perhaps human consciousness is incapable of grasping this historical reality of ultimate death. Certainly we have no way of telling the story of the Korean atom bomb victims in terms of their total suffering. In human history, there has never been such an experience. There is in some sense an epistemological impenetrability to the suffering experienced by the A-bombed Koreans. It is impossible to know the full story. If there is a way to know it in part, it is through their own telling of their own story of suffering. Even their own story of suffering cannot be fully known because of the inability of the victims themselves to remember those experiences. Their memories have somehow been erased.

Where was their home? Their home was not a real place where they could feel at home because they had come from the Korean rural areas where the vestiges of the Yi regime’s oppression and exploitation had made deep scars on their own and their forefathers’ lives. The Yangban (aristocrats) had ruled them for more than 500 years; but at the end of the Yi Dynasty, they rose up to overcome their burden. The story of the Korean atom bomb victims thus includes the story of the Korean Minjung under Yi Korea as well.

Their homeland, however, was taken away from them by the power of colonial Japan. They lost their motherland to the Japanese rulers and the Japanese colonial agricultural company. That was not all. They were then taken as forced labor to Japan (the hell-to-be). Some of them were forced to emigrate to find work to support their families. They worked in weapons factories, mines and other war industries. Some were women who were taken away to provide sexual services as conscripted prostitutes to the Japanese soldiers at war. They lived in the slums of those grim cities of Japan.

They lost their names, their history, their culture. They were culturally annihilated and left with no personal or historical identity. The Japanese regime of the emperor was the "divine authority" that believed itself to have the historic mission to create the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere in Asia. It was an ultrarightist, militarist regime that suppressed the people and mobilized them to become part of the world at war. The colonized Mmnjung among the Korean people had to bear the hardest part of the burden. This is a part of the story of the Korean atom bomb victims.

Another part of their story is that they were abandoned by the powers-that-be. The U.S. military government in Japan first classified the Koreans in Japan as a party to the victors in World War II. It changed its mind, however, because the two million Koreans would have claimed enormous damages, and accordingly, the U.S. military government revised the status of Koreans in Japan to a "special status," which meant no status at all. Suddenly the Koreans in Japan lost their very right to claim damages. The Korean A-bombed people lost their right to get any compensation for their suffering.

The Japanese government, by design or by neglect, forgot about the plight of the Korean A-bomb victims, and their stories were suppressed until the early-1970s. As for the Korean government, it was too busy rebuilding its own country and fighting the Cold War to remember the Korean A-bomb victims. Even during negotiation of the Korea-Japan normalization treaty, they were completely forgotten.

Above all though, Koreans in Japan were victims of modern military technocracy, whose deadly fruit is history’s most destructive weapon, the nuclear bomb. Modern military science and technology are behind the explosion of the bomb. The atom bomb is not just a bomb, however: it is a systemic reality that is worldwide in nature; it is the pinnacle of the giant global war machine. Those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first victims of this world’s giant "death machine."

These people were the Minjung who suffered most cruelly in World War II. The powers, the United States and Japan, fought for their own reasons, but these Koreans were cruelly innocent sufferers. It was the political and economic forces of the world that triggered the Second World War over the heads of these Korean A-bomb victims without their choice and even without their knowledge. They now shared the burden of the Cold War; they now pervaded Korean society after the worldwide war living a very, very lonely way of life.

During their sojourn in Japan, the Koreans were ethnically discriminated against by Japanese society, being absolutely segregated and despised as Chosenjin. After the atomic bomb explosion, they were virtually abandoned because of their segregation from Japanese society. They did not have relatives or friends in the bombed cities. The survivors suffered further because they had no place to go outside of the A-bombed cities, having lived in groups in the slums. Thus, they were exposed to atomic radiation for a long period of time. In life, in spirit and in body, these people existed in a condition of disease, destruction and misery that is beyond imagination.

When the Korean A-bomb survivors returned home, their hopes and expectations were totally crushed. They found no liberation at all. Hopelessness and severe loneliness filled their broken lives. Their language and customs were alien to the Korean people, who hated them for their cooperation with the Japanese and who treated them as "national traitors." They did not have any knowledge about their own disease that was caused by their exposure to the atomic bomb. Their poverty and their disease formed the most vicious cycle of life. The medical knowledge developed in Japan was not available to them. Their bodily pain, disfiguration and destruction are practically beyond description.

Because of their disease and the prejudice against this disease, they could not get married. Those who did not show signs of the disease initially and got married have had to get divorced when their symptoms appeared years later. As for their children, it is said that the atomic bomb disease is not inherited by the second generation, but strangely, the children of A-bomb victims have suffered unexplained physical illnesses.

Loss of memory is also a common phenomenon among the Korean atom bomb sufferers. Often they cannot remember their life in Japan and their direct experience of being bombed. Strangely, when they do remember, it is only expressed in the Japanese language, which in turn makes them feel ashamed.

When they do remember their experiences, their memories are most often the sorrow of losing or being robbed of their national identity; the memory of being taken away from their families as they were conscripted as forced laborers; the memories of Japanese oppression and hard labor; or the shame of being a prostitute. These memories surge up, and then a feeling of extreme sorrow, a sense of hopelessness, resignation and helplessness sets into their lives.

When they came home, they were also Minjung. They returned to Korea to find their home, but there was no home for them on earth. They were alienated almost totally from their own people in their own nation. They continue to be segregated as A-bomb victims, strangers from the darkness of outer space. This prejudice against them has pressed their excruciating pain into the marrow of their own bones and to the depth of their souls. They cannot find jobs because of their A-bomb disease. As a consequence, they have to live as beggars in many cases. In their home country, they have become the lowest part of the Korean Minjung, who are also caught in the suffering of a divided nation and in recent social and political developments.

This is the bare frame of the social biography of the Minjung who suffered through the atom bomb explosion in 1945. They were "conscripted prostitutes" to the colonial military in World War IL; they were forced laborers in the military industries of imperial Japan; they were forced migrants in search of work for survival; they were the children and families of these people.

This social biography is the story of broken lives in terms of spirit, body, community and history - the heritages of oppression and exploitation of the Yi Dynasty, the destructive power of brutal colonialism, the horror of the atomic bomb. The whole accompanying military technocracy of the atomic bomb, the matrix of world economic and political dynamics of World War II and the political process involving the United States, Japan and Korea are all directly related to the infinite and unfathomable suffering and death of the A-bombed Minjung.

II. Jesus the Messiah as the Life of the A-Bombed Minjung

It is in the context of this social biography of the Minjung that the Korean Christian koinonia is called upon to witness to Jesus Christ, the Life of the World.

Jesus the Messiah lived bodily among the Minjung, and Jesus experienced Sheol. Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper: "This is my body, broken for you." The body is che, the foundation of the human being, and soma, the concrete stuff of life and living. It is the body of the spirit, and the spirit is in the body as the body is in the spirit. The body, which is the concrete form of the spirit, the concrete form of life and the living (che) of Jesus the Messiah, is broken for the Minjung (you). This means that the cross as the broken body and the broken life of Jesus is the same brokenness as the life of the Korean A-bomb victims. To say this more simply: In the suffering and the broken bodies of the Korean A-bombed people, we find the cross of Jesus the Messiah.

Furthermore, one traditional part of our creed is that Jesus after His death at the cross went down to Sheol. I believe there is special significance in this confession within the context of the A-bombed Minjung’s social biography. This makes Jesus’ Messianic identification with them more realistic and profound than in the cross alone. The seriousness of the death of Jesus the Messiah is amply confessed in this creed. In short, the praise of God is said to be impossible in Sheol. Indeed, the social biography of the A-bombed Minjung cannot be described in relation to thanksgiving and praise of God without making the reality of the Gospel cheap.

The death of the A-bomb victims is not just the end of their natural life. It involves all the forces of destruction, of brutal Japanese colonialism, the military technocracy of the A- bomb, the historical insensitivity of the powers, all the forces of death in the social story of the A-bomb victims and their suffering before and after the A-bomb experience.

Indeed, the death and cross of Jesus the Messiah have cosmic significance. They have got to have such a scope; otherwise, how can He be the Messiah of the Minjung in the 20th century?

What this means is that death and life is not a question of simple and natural transition between one state or span of time and another - no matter how radically this is understood. Death is the ultimate power to destroy the life and "living" of the people.

The death of the atom bomb victims is a total one: a spiritual, psychological, somatic and social-political death. The spirit is lost together with the broken body. Spiritual disintegration and demonetization is the most profound destruction of life and the ultimate death, but here it takes the form of bodily disintegration, of somatic corrosion, both individual and corporate. In political and social terms, the body of the bomb victims is so feeble and weak that their political destiny and social relations do not give them power for a fruitful life. The body of the Messiah in His person and in His ecclesia (koinonia) is truly with the body of the A-bombed people in the historical experience of destruction and death. This is not possible in human terms; it is realized in the cross and Shed of Jesus the Messiah. Messianic politics (the Kingdom) overcomes the power of death:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth disappeared, and the sea vanished, and I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared and ready, like a bride dressed to meet her husband.

"I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne: now God’s home is with humankind [Minjung]. He will live with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them, and He will be their God.

"He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared (Rev. 21:1-4)."

It would be desirable to take the vision of New Jerusalem, the new Polis of Shalom, as the overarching theological point of reference in the context of the social biography of the A-bombed Minjung.

First of all, in the new Polis of Shalom, the death, tears, grief, crying and pain of the A-bombed people will be overcome. The vision reminds us of Exodus and the Year of Jubilee. In the Exodus, the destructive power of "i despotism" (ancient Egyptian politics) was broken; and in the year of the Jubilee, all the unjust social and economic relations were righted, and the slaves were freed. The A-bombed Minjung will have a similar social and political biography. The imperial power of Japan was far worse than the Egyptian despot, and the A-bombed laborer and conscripted prostitute suffered far more than the Habiru in Egypt.

This new shalom is then possible because God lives with the people. This is the praxis of God, His life with the people, vindicating them with His justice. The life of the A-bombed people would not be possible from a human point of view; but by God’s justice, their life is vindicated, for they are His people; He dwells and shares the same abode with them.

Finally, the new Polis (body) of Shalom emerges in the koinonia of the wedding between the bride and groom after the palace of Sheol (the sea, the seat of the power of death) has disappeared. This is the overreaching vision of shalom (peace). This reminds us of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of shalom in which shalom is not the simple state of absence of war or conflict; it is the dynamic historical strength of koinonia, justice and liberation that creates the fullness of life of the people and that overcomes the power of death. This should be possible, by the grace of God, in the context of the social biography of the Korean A-bombed people.

Shalom is the making of the living of the Minjung full in spirit and whole in body. It is not a static order but a dynamic movement. Here lies, I believe, the focal point of the true peace movement in the world today.

How is it possible though to speak of the resurrection of the dead (Minjung) in the context of the social biography of the A-bombed people? The resurrection of their body? That is impossible, humanly speaking. It is not an easy task to witness to the resurrection of the dead that is based upon the Messianic Resurrection.

Here theodicy (the Justice of God) could be taken as a point of reference again. The victory of death makes the justice of God impossible and vice versa. The Korean atom bomb sufferers, in individual terms, however, could create a life for themselves in a new way in the belief that the God of justice is and will be victorious and that the body (the concrete form of life

- not, perhaps, physically at this time, but through living participation in the Messianic life of Jesus) will be resurrected. However, in this sense, this cannot easily take place outside of the body, the resurrected body of koinonia (Church) of the Messiah.