EMBRACING THE OTHER: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity). By Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. X + 182 pages.
After the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, a counter movement emerged declaring that #AllLivesMatter. Whether by design or not, the partisans of #AllLivesMatter missed the point of the earlier movement (and others like it). While we would like to believe that all lives truly matter, time has shown us that too often the majority culture fails to recognize the value of lives that differ from their own. This is why the majority culture likes to speak of a melting pot, rather than a salad bowl or similar metaphor to express American diversity. The idea of the melting pot is one of assimilation, and to assimilation is to act as much as possible as if one is white, which the majority culture assumes is normative (superior). What is true generally, is often true of the Christian community. There is the tendency to assume that the way the majority culture understands Christianity is normative as well. Thus, Christianity is understood to be a white Euro-American religion. After all, isn’t Jesus a white European male?
As a white male Christian theologian/pastor, I continue to be sensitized to the fact that over the course of centuries my gender and my ethnicity have defined what it means to be Christian. As the Christian world becomes increasingly diverse (or rather we recognize that diversity), it can be difficult to accept changing realities, which is why we would like to proclaim that all lives matter without acknowledging that a goodly number of Christians have been marginalized by those whose ethnicity and gender have given them power.
It is in this context, of my own situation in life as a white male, that I read Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s book Embracing the Other, a contribution to a larger series of books on Prophetic Christianity published by Eerdmans. I will say upfront that this was not an easy read, and at points wasn’t necessarily a very pleasant read. But, that is in large part due to my own context. What Kim does is challenge many sacrosanct beliefs and practices that are more rooted in European culture than first century Judaism. While fully embracing Trinitarian theology, she wants to push us to a more pneumatological approach, in part because the particularity of Jesus’ ethnicity and gender can become a stumbling block to a fully integrated theology.
From the very beginning of the book Kim reminds us that we all start from a particular context, and that this context will influence our theologizing. The problem faced by theologians is that for the most part theology has been written, at least the theology many of us have been reading, by white males (living and dead). Thus, we have made these figures, such as Calvin, Barth, and Moltmann, the normative voice. In response, Kim writes as a Korean-American immigrant Christian theologian. It is from this vantage point that she both critiques the patriarchialism endemic to both her own culture and traditional American Christianity, as well as the assumption of white superiority that colors our conversations. In laying out her theological vision, she challenges those forces that oppress both women and people of color. One of the keys to this work is the combination of ethnicity/race and gender. Thus, even while she embraces the work of white feminist theologians, she critiques them as well for not recognizing that they too are white and that their whiteness is reflected in their feminist reconstructions.
Early in the book she draws our attention to the role of foreign women in the biblical story as a way to enter to her own experience as a foreign woman. She notes that foreign women are rarely portrayed positively. They are usually seen as seducers of the people of God, and so in Ezra, for instance, the foreign women are to be expelled. Purity of the community depends on it. Many of the same visions of foreign women present in Scripture are present in society as a whole. Asian women are often exoticized and pictured as temptresses. She notes that during Western colonialization, Western powers would racialize indigenous people so as to subjugate them. Often they used theology to justify such actions. Whiteness became the norm, and those who differ from the norm are seen as inferior. This racializing effort explains why the immigrant experience has been different for Europeans than Asians, Hispanics, or Africans. Ethnicity/race is one component of this conversation. The other piece is gender. She combines them both in powerful ways.
In sensitizing us to these issues, Kim seeks a means by which to tear down walls and build bridges. She puts the Spirit at the center of the conversation. She espouses a Trinitarian theology, but does so from the perspective of those who have been marginalized. She understands the God-head in the light of the Spirit, speaking of Spirit God. She draws from Scripture, but she also draws from Korean concept of chi. Wanting to think in terms of justice, she draws on the idea of chi, which she notes is Chinese for “energy force.” God is the Spirit of life, but more. Indeed, God as Spirit is defined by justice. In her vision, while God dwells everywhere (all lives matter), God is especially present with “the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized, and the discarded persons of society” (p. 126). Thus, both energy and justice are present in her vision of the Spirit. By moving away from Christocentrism to an emphasis on the Spirit, she hopes that “embracing the Spirit will also help us to move beyond Christianity and open the door for further dialogue with and acceptance of people of different faith traditions and those who are different from us" (p. 9).
As noted earlier there is a strong commitment to social justice. She wants to give voice to those who have been marginalized both in society and in the church. This means rethinking our language, including words we use for love. So, while it is traditional in Christian circles to speak of agape, she believes we need to bring into the conversation the idea of eros. With Rita Nakashima Brock, she writes that “filled with the power of the erotic, we can reject all that makes us numb to the suffering, apathy, and hate of others" (p. 141). In other words, the kind of love needed here is filled with passion. It is the kind of love that connects us with each other, and enables us to embrace the cause of justice.
I will admit that I was tempted to set the book aside on several occasions. I wanted to believe that I am immune from such blindness, but as I pushed forward I realized that I’m not immune. Like many I’m content to stay within my own theological comfort zones, but that means disempowering others. She also helped me understand more fully the peculiar challenge of being an Asian American. We have as white American society dubbed Asian Americans as the model minority. We “celebrate” their accomplishments and suggest that other minorities would do well to imitate them. What this designation does is divide Asians from other people of color and reinforces the premise of white superiority. That is, if you want to be a good minority, then act white. Isn't that what we mean by assimilation?
It would behoove the church and its theologians to listen closely to voices such as Grace Kim’s. If we’re willing to do so our theologies will be enriched and the church can be more fully the church. Therefore, we should be grateful for the voice of Grace Ji-Sun Kim, even when it creates within us a significant sense of discomfort.