Blame and Also Suffering: Sin and the Korean Concept of Han in Seeking Salvation



Photo of Busan Gamcheon Culture Village, South Korea  featuring brightly coloured houses along a hillside/mountainside.
Photo by Valentin,

The word “sin” carries so much baggage for most of us that it can fail to be useful in our quest for spiritual wholeness in self and world. For many it is irrelevant, an attempt to create needless guilt and therefore the need for forgiveness. It has even been harmful, teaching generations of children that they are bad at the core, and often that they only escape divine punishment by being subservient, unquestioning rule-followers for the hierarchy of the household, school, church, employer, state, or less obvious social structures that they might find themselves in. Salvation from this perspective appears to come by stating belief in Christ, but in actuality comes through achieving higher positions of power in the hierarchy, and so being relieved of the weight of so much obedience and supposed tendency to “sin” – that is, tendency to be discontent, rebellious, or despairing.

The idea that despair is a sin (written about by theologian Jürgen Moltmann) is often quoted by people of faith. To demand just wages and conditions in work situations; to end a crushing situation by leaving one’s spouse; to self-medicate using prescribed or unprescribed drugs; to steal food when hungry from those who have plenty; even to end deep suffering through suicide – these have been called sin. This is an understanding of sin in which those who are suffering carry the burden of the world’s, the home’s, the society’s sin; in which the consequences of suffering or the means to survive it are called sin. Salvation’s results, then, would be seen as fitting into our circumstances without struggle or complaint.

Theologian Andrew Sung Park, a Korean American and Methodist, has expanded such an incomplete and manipulated understanding of sin and salvation by bringing into discussion of these the Korean concept of han. Han, he says, is the result of suffering great injustice, helplessness, or abandonment; it is what happens to a person or a people’s heart when circumstances result in bitterness, despair, or a desire for revenge, and the heart remains stuck with the feelings unresolved (19). Han, according to Park, is a destruction of the self’s organizing centre, and often continues cycles of violence or other oppression (18).

From within the perspective of Minjung theology (Korean liberation theology), Sung Park names han as a defining characteristic of the Korean people, as a consequence of their long history of suffering invasion and control by Japan, China, Russia, and to an extent the United States. But han is also experienced on an individual and family level. “Sin is of the oppressor,” Park states in The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin, “han is of the oppressed” (69).

Written by Park in 1993, The Wounded Heart of God draws on a cultural understanding of han much older than the current concept of trauma, which has been developed to explain the great damage resulting when a sufferer’s supports and their own ability to deal with harm are overwhelmed. Like the bitter waters of Marah in Exodus (Ex 15:22-27), han needs treatment, care and help (20).

Regarding identifying the responses of those who suffer in our society as sin, Park says that whether personally or over generations, “A character trait which has been developed by the infringement of outside forces cannot be called sin. It is instead han, the seat of the wound of victims. … When the sinful propensities of parents [or a generation or societal culture] are transmitted to their children, it is not sin, but rather han which they inherit.” The unfairness of this, he states, “is the very structure of han.” Our need is for salvation from more than our own sin, but also from our suffering and its bitter fruit.

“In order to analyze the problem of human evil, sin and han must be discussed and treated together. … Christian salvation (wholeness) encompasses the reality of sin and han interwoven…” (70). While some of us have more power and use it, whether or not we are aware of it, to do harm, Park sees the experience of sin and han in the lives of most, if not all, people: “the complex entanglement of sin and han in the reality of life” (70). It would benefit us to make room for both in our understanding of sin, repentance, confession, and salvation. By putting all our focus on who can be blamed, on sin and sinners, we miss both the people and the awareness which would invite salvation – the healing and wholeness that Christ brings, in the best of our faith tradition – to our relationships and world.

In short, Park tells us, Jesus saves sinners, Jesus saves victims, Jesus comes to restore the

whole: the whole of our selves, our part in God’s interrelated world, all creatures and earth together. We are then freed to know repentance as larger than ourselves and our own wrongdoing, as involving learning through relationship, hearing the struggles and stories of others, and understanding our own wrongdoing in the context of the whole.

Then sinner and sinned-against, oppressor and oppressed, the combination of these that we are, can receive the same promise God made in Ezekiel to the people of Israel as they were being renewed in repentance from sin: “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. … I will put my spirit within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” In this way we are open to letting han resolve, open to experiencing salvation in its wholeness.

The season of Lent is a time set aside for prayerful self-reflection, for repentance, for seeking ways of doing right in relationship to others, and for seeking depth in our lives in Christ.

When we take time for confession, we don’t need to compartmentalize aspects of ourselves; we don’t even need to identify who is to blame for all aspects of our brokenness. Confession can be an offering of our whole selves to God, a bringing of our tangled mess into the openness of God’s healing light. We bring our sin and our han to God, that we might learn and grow, see where we need change in ourselves, see where we are hurt; that we might in our relationships, communities, and world seek not so much to assign blame but to end harm and grow well together; that we might know the immensity and completeness of the salvation offered by our faith.


  • Gwen McAllister

    Gwen McAllister is Rector of St. Matthew’s, Winnipeg, a grad of the Centre for Christian Studies, and an alumnus of the Student Christian Movement. She lives in Winnipeg’s West End with her child, Keith, where they tend their cats, plants, and yard birds.

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