This is my interview with Dr. Cynthia Holder Rich for Ecclesio.com. It is reposted here with permission.
Editor’s Note: This week, we discuss Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s 2013 book Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit. Here, Dr. Kim answers a few questions arising from my reading of her book.
You discuss the concept of han at some length. You say that “a soul that has experienced han is not amenable to reason and even resists the consolations of faith”. What is the ministry we can offer those who have experienced han? How do we approach the reality of han theologically and ecclesiologically?
Theologians use language, terms and concepts that are available to us to help us articulate the divine and our experience of the divine. As theologians from different ethnicities and cultures write and do theological reflection, it is important to listen to their ideas and concepts as they join in the theological conversation.
As a Korean American women theologian, I use ideas and concepts that are readily available within my Asian context. One such term that Koreans use to describe their own personal experiences is the term “han”.
Han is a Korean word which is difficult to translate into English. One of the best ways for me to explain this term is to translate it as ‘unjust suffering’. We know that everyone in the world suffers. Children, women, men and elderly all suffer. For those who live in the First World, we jokingly talk about ‘First World Problems” and talk about our suffering and pain. Yes, everyone suffers and no one disputes this claim.
However, there are different levels of suffering or why people suffer. Han tries to capture a different perspective of suffering. It is the suffering caused on another person “unjustly”. It is the piercing of the heart or the agony one experiences because of someone’s actions towards them. It is suffering caused by another’s greed, selfishness, desires that it causes pain to another person.
For example, in our present modern world, we the rich have desire for goods at a cheap price. We want beautiful clothes, but want them cheap. Or we want our laptops and cell phones, but don’t want to pay a huge price for them. Our desire for more and more goods at a low cost is causing ‘han’ on those who work in factories that make our goods. The factory workers in China and Bangladesh are working 16-18 hours a day in unsafe buildings with no health benefits and for low pay. They are usually living in small quarters on the factory compounds and can visit their families only twice a year. The working conditions are unsafe and unclean. This is ‘han’. Our selfish ways of living is causing ‘unjust suffering’ upon another.
The term han makes us realize that sin is not just a vertical event that happens between us and God, but it emphasizes the horizontal relationship that sin occurs between and among us. Han convicts us that we need to take care of one another and view all humanity as brothers and sisters. It moves us to change our ways of living so that we can reduce the han of others.
You call us to be “open to indigenous forms of spirituality”. Of course, the church and the mission enterprise have often viewed such attempts as risky because of the possibility of what is called syncretism. There is also the possibility of romanticizing indigenous ritual and practice, when in fact some indigenous forms are not life-affirming. Could you unpack this a bit?
Being “open to indigenous forms of spirituality” does not mean that we need to accept everything that is indigenous. As you stated, some forms of indigenous spirituality may not be life affirming. However, understanding this premise, it is important not to dismiss indigenous forms of spirituality altogether.
There is some wisdom in examining traditions that are thousands of years old which have helped people throughout centuries in their spiritual journey and being connected to the Divine. When we are open ourselves to indigenous forms of spirituality of our foremothers and forefathers we are acknowledging our connectedness to the past and to our historical truths. We are in a way seeking the wisdom of our ancestors and how they survived within this world being in tune with their spirituality and the Divine.
Syncretism is about mixing and when we study the beginnings of Christianity, we will notice that it was not as pristine as we Christians would like to believe that it was. There was already a lot of mixing between Christianity and Greek culture and philosophy. When Christianity expanded to Europe, there was syncretism occurring between Christianity with pagan European practices.
Human beings do not live in a vacuum. We exist in culture, religion and history. All these different components of life affect us and our ways of thinking and understanding God. It is very difficult to divorce some of our cultural heritages from affecting how we practice Christianity. We can see this clearly in the development of Christianity in Western European society throughout the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Early Modern Period.
Today, as we live in a globalized world and people are continuously migrating to North America, we need to recognize that immigrants are bringing their religious and cultural heritages with them. There may be some wisdom in understanding and being open to their indigenous spirituality.
You note that the Bible is understood as a “safe” text and you name it as unsafe. Say more about what you mean here, and what good news you see in this.
In Sunday School, children are taught to believe in the Bible. We teach them the Bible stories and tell them as bed-time stories to fall asleep to or to view as some fantasy world. In this process, we also tend to clean up the Bible stories and make them work for us. We turn the stories about ‘us’ as the good ones and those who are different from us as the ‘evil’ ones.
We ‘sanitize’ many of these biblical stories to make them sound wonderful to our children. This tradition of sanitizing continues into adulthood. We continue to believe that everything in the bible affirms that we are the ‘wonderful people’ and those who are different from us are the ‘evil people’.
However, the Bible is not as ‘safe’ as we tend to make them in our churches. If we really open up the text and read the message in its entirety, we realize that the Bible is dealing with uncomfortable topics such as sexism, racism, sexuality, slavery, greed, exploitation etc., and we realize that in most cases, we are the ones who are guilty of these actions and are in need of God’s mercy.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. She is the author of 4 books, Reimagining with Christian Doctrines co-edited with Jenny Daggers (Palgrave forthcoming), Colonialism, Han and the Transformative Spirit (Palgrave Pivot), The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Pilgrim Press).