This post, Changing Church: Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim, was originally posted in Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton‘s website. I am deeply thankful to Dr. Aldredge-Clanton’s interest in my book, The Grace of Sophia and her time to interview me. Please do check out her website for more columns and insightful information.
Published: June 29, 2013
Every woman in North America has experienced the life of powerlessness to some degree, but visible minority women experience it in greater intensity. Sophia can help transform this life. Korean North American women need to hold onto this promise and hope as they respond to the grace of divine Sophia, who will unconditionally accept and love them.
This book addresses Korean North American women specifically, but also offers empowerment and hope to all who suffer from sexism, racism, and/or classism. Dr. Kim analyzes racism and sexism In North American culture and patriarchy in Korean society, drawing from multifaith understandings of Wisdom (Sophia) to provide a liberating Christology.
“Korean North American women have been silenced and subordinated for too long,” Dr. Kim writes. “They have endured hardships through their Confucian heritage and also from their immigrant lifestyles. Torn between two different cultures, they do not seem to fit in comfortably anywhere. To make matters worse, the church has rarely helped these women to become liberated. Instead, the church has reinforced their subordinate status by perpetuating notions of a masculine divinity.
The imagery for God needs to expand to include more liberative metaphors from the Christian faith tradition. Female images of God are essential for maintaining the fullness of the image of God and for the promotion of equality between women and men. For a liberative understanding of God, Korean North American women need to break away from the present patriarchal framework and move to a more inclusive understanding of God and of Jesus Christ. . . . Sophia Christology may serve as a meaningful and liberative way forward for Korean North American women’s Christology, particularly because of the wisdom tradition of Korean women’s own religious and cultural roots.”
Born in South Korea, Grace Ji-Sun Kim immigrated to Canada at the age of five. Religion has always played an important part in her life. In Korea, her parents followed the Buddhist tradition. Soon after immigrating to Canada, her entire family converted to Christianity and became members of a Korean Presbyterian church.
In the Preface to The Grace of Sophia, she writes: “Our membership in a Korean church kept our Korean heritage alive. The church plays an important role in the lives of immigrants, as it becomes a haven away from the problems and difficulties of living in a foreign world. . . . at church I learned Korean language, history, and music. The church is an essential gathering place where Korean immigrants experience likeness, similarity, and bonding. On the other hand, the church is an institution that also perpetuates patriarchal and oppressive teachings. My Christian upbringing made me question why I was experiencing racism from the wider society and oppression from the patriarchal Korean society.”
In part, Grace’s personal experiences of injustice led her to write The Grace of Sophia. Growing up in Canada, Grace experienced classism as well as racism and sexism. Her family lived in a small apartment while her school friends lived in large homes. In addition to enduring poor living conditions, Grace had her first experience with racism when she was in kindergarten. Classmates teased her about the way she looked, talked, and dressed, and they called her hurtful names. She acknowledges that she has experienced racism and sexism throughout her life.
Grace draws from these experiences in her prophetic work for others who suffer oppression. Her teaching and research center on giving a voice to the marginalized and those on the underside of history. She earned her Master of Divinity degree from Knox College and her Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Toronto. She has served on the faculty of Knox College and is currently an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Dr. Kim is the author of three books and over fifty journal articles, book chapters, and book reviews. She is working on a biblical commentary on First and Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah for the Westminster John Knox Press series Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.An ordained minister of word and sacrament within the PC (USA) denomination, Rev. Kim sees the church as a community of believers who “need to work together to get a better understanding of the Divine whom we worship and are in relationship with.” She believes in changing the church not only for her generation but also for the next generation. Rev. Kim and her husband, Dr. Perry Y.C. Lee who is a mathematics professor at Kutztown University, have three children: Theo, Elisabeth and Joshua.
Rev. Kim states: “As we think about our children, it is imperative not only to write about the problems of racism, but also talk about them so we can work toward eliminating racism. In addition, as we also work towards a more equal society for both men and women, we also need to talk about male privilege, supremacy, and structural ‘isms.’”In a blog article for Feminist Studies in Religion Grace writes: “Much of my personal life intersects with race, religion, and gender issues. In some ways the word intersects is too gentle. Perhaps collide better captures what occurs in my life as an Asian North American woman theologian, writer, minister, and mother. As I try to engage in theological dialogue, living in community with the dominant, unfamiliar culture, and raise my kids with concerns on how to be just in this world, I realize that the lives of all people, especially people of color, collide and clash with others on the critical issues of race, religion, and gender” (May 29, 2013).
Rev. Dr. Kim believes that we need inclusive images of the Divine in order to create a more equal and just society. “If we are to work for social justice and peace, we need to work towards the inclusion of all people,” she states. “This includes people of different ethnicities, gender, sexuality, etc. If our spirituality includes only a masculine understanding of the Divine, this is problematic. Therefore to be inclusive of all people, it is important to include and embrace the feminine divine images. These feminine divine images are already present in our biblical and Christian tradition. Therefore we are not presenting anything new; we are retrieving and incorporating them into our present theology.”
Inclusive language for the Divine is vital to bringing justice and equality in church and society, Rev. Kim believes. “Language forms our thoughts. If language restricts or limits our understanding of the Divine and each other, then it needs to be changed or reexamined. Using feminine language for the Divine isn’t something new but rather has existed and is already part of our tradition. Therefore it is more of a retrieval and an embrace of our tradition which was already in place 2000 years ago.”
Because of her belief in the importance of language, Dr. Kim requires all her seminary students to use inclusive language for humanity. She also pushes them to use inclusive language for divinity. But she meets resistance from her students and from her church to changing language to include biblical female names for the Divine.One of the biblical female divine images Rev. Kim finds especially empowering is Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek).
“Sophia Christology provides hope and empowerment for those who have suffered sexism, racism and classism as it provides a more inclusive understanding of the Divine which embraces all people. We are limited in our understanding of the Divine. Furthermore, there is a mystery when it comes to the Divine. Therefore, understanding our own limitedness and the mystery that surrounds the Divine, we should move forward and not neglect the powerful images which exist and are part of our Christian tradition. We need to welcome these images as they are powerful andlife-giving. God is both male and female, and we need to try to grasp this understanding. As I struggle with my own experiences of sexism within society and the church, it is important to understand that God is both feminine and masculine.”
Another biblical female divine image that Rev. Dr. Kim finds empowering is the Spirit. In her second book, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other, she explores the female dimension of the Spirit. This book examines the notion of the Spirit as understood in Eastern traditions and religions, as well as in Christianity, in order to widen the scope of theological discourse to include Others and embrace them on common ground.
In her third book, Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit, Dr. Kim also focuses on the image of the Spirit and expands her prophetic work to include caring for Earth. This book demonstrates how colonialism, globalization, and consumerism have devastated large parts of our world and how inspiration for work toward a safer, sustainable planet can come from the transformative Spirit who gives, sustains, and empowers all life.
Rev. Kim believes that multicultural, as well as female, divine names and images are changing the church. “These multicultural names and images are opening up the church and making us realize that it is the universal church and not just a European church.”Multicultural female names and images for Deity will help change not only the church but also the wider culture, Dr. Kim asserts.
“Our society is heavily entrenched in patriarchy. Patriarchy has been devastating as it continues to subordinate and subjugate women in all aspects of society. One way to overcome this patriarchal culture is to move towards understanding the Divine as feminine. This movement will help society realize that women and men are equal and need to be treated equally in all aspects of life.”
Grace experiences many struggles and challenges in working to change church and society. She says that her “inspiration comes from other women who are in solidarity” with her “in the struggle to fight against patriarchy and patriarchal understandings of the Divine.”
Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim articulates a powerful, hopeful vision for the future of the church. “My vision is that the church will understand and embrace the Feminine Divine in all aspects of the life of the church.” Embracing biblical female imagery and language for the Divine will contribute to the “reign of God which receives all people as equal regardless of class, age, ethnicity, or gender.”
For more of Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s prophetic, creative work, see https://gracejisunkim.wordpress.com/.