It was a cold damp afternoon. My friend Jake and I were sneaking a table into the student center to set up a booth at the student organization festival sponsored by the university where we work. We decided to start a theological discussion group on campus. (I even made a sweet poster with a picture of Karl Barth on it that read, “Jesus is the answer. What’s the question?”) In addition to our theology group, Jake was starting a student union to represent the interests of the large and growing international student population on campus. At first we didn’t get much attention, so we spent our time talking theology. We discussed everything from Jake’s brief stint as a Buddhist to Paul Tillich and liberation theology. I mentioned that I was reading a book by an Asian Feminist Theologian, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, entitled, Embracing the Other and how that Grace offered a very insightful critique of the traditional liberation theology narrative. Sadly, not too many people signed up for our theology group, but Jake’s student union got a lot of attention. (I guess the wicked awesome poster of Barth wasn’t as compelling as I thought.) Maybe our predominately white upper-middle class university didn’t need another Christian group on campus, but it desperately needed a student group to represent the interests of the international student population—it needed an organization whose focus was embracing the Other.
What makes Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s book, Embracing the Other so compelling is that in it she relates her own experience of being treating as the Other. Grace talks about how her family immigrated to Canada when she was a child and the racism she experienced. She discusses the hardships that Asians and Asian Americans face, especially Asian and Asian American women, living in a predominately white society. Embracing the Other is Grace asking what theology has to say to this situation. It is her assault on institutionalized racism, xenophobia, sexism, patriarchy, white privilege, male privilege, hegemony, colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. It is no surprise that the book is in Eerdmans’ Prophetic Christianity series. Grace speaks with a prophetic voice denouncing the evils of racism and sexism present in our society today. Grace’s thesis is straightforward: “While we are living in a period of great division and conflict, God’s Spirit can bring healing and hope.” (pg. 4.)
From the outset I feel I need to say a few things about Grace’s theological presuppositions. Grace is a theological Progressive. She belongs to the Liberal theological tradition. Grace is also a feminist, so naturally she is critical of traditional gender norms, patriarchy, etc. In the book she also expounds on her more feminized understanding of God, invoking the concepts of Eros and Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov’s Sophiology. She also formulates her own unique contextualized Pneumatology in which she equates Spirit with Chi; which is nothing novel considering the same equivocation can be found in 7th century Chinese Christian literature. Some of these more progressive ideas may be off putting to conservative readers. Being a theological moderate myself, I certainly don’t agree with Grace on every theological point. All that aside, I believe that even more conservative readers will nevertheless find Embracing the Other compelling, convicting, and needful. What may be most concerning for conservative readers however, is Grace’s critique of portions of the biblical narrative. (Be forewarned, Grace spends the entire first chapter deconstructing Ezra 9-10!) However, in critiquing portions of the biblical narrative, Grace offers one of the most interesting and insightful critiques of liberation theology I have encountered. Granted, this critique is only a very small portion of the book—a few pages. Yet, it is so potent that I felt it merited an entire blogpost.
The Need for Liberation Theology in the American Context
Liberation theology was initially and continues to be birthed out of conflict and oppression. One ethnic or socioeconomic group is suppressed by another and thus seeks liberation from the other’s control. Being that religion is a prominent force in many cultures and societies, it is not surprising that the narratives of people seeking liberation draw on religious themes. However, the opposite is also true. Grace says, “Religions are famous for making distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ They intentionally or unintentionally build these walls to separate individuals into two or more groups of people.” (p. 59.) Once these distinctions are made other groups with less dominance can easily be subjugated and oppressed. While we may think of liberation theology as “third world theology,” Grace shows how relevant and needed liberation theology is in the American context. She puts forward Western imperialism as a modern example of the above phenomenon. Grace begins with an assessment and critique of Orientalism. According to Grace, it was during the period of European colonialism that the concept of Orientalism arose. Orientalism was a constructed narrative that romanticized the East and all things Eastern, while reinforcing the myth of “the ‘positional superiority’ of white, wealthy men.” (p. 63.) Thus, Grace says, “The superiority of the West over the East was the result of the larger ‘racial projects’ of imperialism. White people were presumed to be at the apex of all these hierarchies” (ibid.) This idea had a profound impact on U.S. legislation, cultural perceptions, and military involvement and intrusion into Asian countries. The result was, among others, the exploitation of Asian women including the creation of the Asian sex trade, created in part by the U.S. military.
Western exploitation is not confined to military conflict and conquest however; it happens within our own borders as well. In the book, Grace discusses corporate exploitation of migrant workers and how it creates racial tension. Grace says, “As imperialism takes hold there is a need for more labor, especially cheap labor, which is difficult to find unless you find workers who are willing to give up their own personal identities and to work for less for the sake of their children’s future.” (p. 67.) This causes tension between local laborers and the migrant workers that often becomes racialized. As a consequence migrant workers have to form their own societies within society, or “internal colonies” as Grace calls them. I witness this same, or at least a similar, phenomenon at the university where I work. Despite attempts by the university to promote diversity and cultural awareness, among the student body international students are kept at arm’s length, so to speak. The vast majority of them are never fully integrated into the broader student culture because of their “otherness.” As a consequence, they are forced to create and operate within their own subculture.
Behind the American empire lies an ideology. Grace says, “Modern imperialism is a capitalist ideology of maximizing profits, but it also involves various forms of imposition such as one group’s language, trade, religion, economic system, and political rules on other nations, people, and land.” (p. 68.) Central to this ideology is “…the West’s ‘civilizing’ mission, which assumes the burden of social uplift of benighted races.” (ibid.) In this way, Grace says, “Imperialism is racialized.” (ibid.) This allows the oppressors to perpetuate the lie that their subjugation is in fact liberation for the disadvantaged people. It is the narrative of trickle-down economics. For instance, Grace highlights that while the cultural and political elites benefit from the current economic system, 2.7 billion people survive on less than two dollars a day. But, at least they have the two dollars, right? We can see why liberation theology is desperately needed in the American context. Grace calls for a reimagining of theology. She claims we need to look at how our theology functions to benefit the poor and marginalized among us. “Liberation theology,” Grace says, “still asks us to see how globalization has devastating effects on those who live on the underside of world capitalism.” (p.69.)
Unlike other liberation theologians—if I may use that term broadly—Grace refuses to adopt the traditional narrative of liberation-domination. Grace says, “When we examine the liberation motif commonly adopted by liberation theologians, the Exodus story, it ends with the genocide of the Canaanites and others, the occupation of the Promised Land by the Israelites. This is not a liberation story but a mass genocide and conquest story.” (p. 70.) Grace’s statement reveals the power of perspective. We do not often look at the Conquest of Canaan from the perspective of the Canaanites. It’s not surprising then that the narrative can become an “authoritative justification” for unjust acts. For instance, Grace sees this narrative operative in the European conquest of the Americas and the imposition of European cultural norms on the surviving Natives. “Furthermore,” Grace says, “there is a problem to liberation theology’s conceptualization of a delivering God. This concept understands that God delivers one people but ignores those being dominated, killed, or evicted.” (p. 71.)
Grace points out that the Exodus narrative resounds with oppressed people because it is such a powerful image. Yet, ironically it only creates more oppressed and subjugated people. Many of these subjugated people are women, whom Grace says the narrative makes objects of physical, mental, psychological, and sexual conquest. Thus, Grace suggests that we must rid ourselves of this narrative entirely. She states, “We must forego our religious inheritance and replace it with another more welcoming and loving image of God. […] These negative concepts have already caused grave damage and must not continue. It is important to find alternative ways of looking, thinking about, and reimaging God that are good for all humanity and not only for a select few rich and powerful groups of people” (ibid.) Grace points out that the narratives we adopt have crucial concrete implication for how we behave in the world.
The narrative of conquest has more than merely political ramifications however. Western Christianity has also been guilty of cultural abduction. Grace claims that White European ideology was imported to many parts of the world along with Christianity. This is problematic, as how can one tell where Christianity begins and European ideology ends? Grace says, “Liberation cannot occur until Christianity dismantles its strong Euro-American intellectual influence upon the people around the globe. Only if and when it is able to achieve this can steps be taken to work towards liberation, equality, and freedom of people.” (p. 72.)
I understand that Grace’s interpretation of the Exodus-Joshua narrative may be too radical for more conservative readers to adopt. However, I believe it is possible to arrive at the same conclusion while still taking a more conservative hermeneutical approach. Even if the reader takes the Exodus-Joshua accounts of the Conquest of Canaan literally and believes God had a justifiable reason for either permitting or condoning the violence perpetrated against the Canaanites, by employing the Law/Gospel distinction, the reader can still conclude the narrative is inappropriate for believers to adopt as a liberation motif today. The events of Exodus-Joshua all occurred under the Dispensation of the Law. Moreover, we know that with the coming of Christ the previous dispensation ended and Christ taught a “New Law,” to borrow the language of the Church Fathers. We see that Christ forbids the kind of violence permitted under the previous dispensation when He gives His more stringent interpretation of the Law. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45, NRSV.) Likewise, in the Sermon on the Mount there are other examples where Christ sees the Mosaic Law as being morally insufficient. That is not to say that Christ saw the Law as being incorrect, only insufficient. (If this particular matter is troubling to the reader, then I suggest reviewing chapter 6 of Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God for a simple yet satisfying answer to these difficult issues.) Christ taught subversive love over and against retaliation and revolt. Sadly, the latter has been a major component of non-pacifist forms of liberation theology. Because the Exodus narratives lends itself to this violence, it cannot be adopted by Christians as Christ has given us a higher standard. So whether one accepts Grace’s deconstructionist interpretation of the narrative or takes a more conservative approach, both approaches lead us to the same conclusion that adopting the Exodus narrative as a liberation motif only perpetuates a cycle of violence that is not in accord with Christ’s teachings.
So, what is the solution? What is the narrative we must adopt to avoid falling back into this cycle of oppressed-oppressor? This is my summary of Grace’s answer: The Spirit as transformative love brings shalom and justice to the world, as reflected in the ministry of Jesus and as the Church continues to embrace the Other in the power of the Spirit. “God meets us in the margins,” Grace says. (p. 115.) God is a God of the marginalized and oppressed whoever they may be. Grace points out in the book that whenever Israel neglected the poor and the marginalized or became oppressors themselves, they were then subject to God’s judgement. Therefore, God would send the prophets to call Israel back to shalom justice. “Shalom justice,” says Grace, “is the heart and soul of the vision of Hebrew Scripture.” (p. 121.) Quoting Peter Hetzel, she says, “‘Shalom justice is rooted in a worshipful acknowledgement that God the Creator is present in all creation and is graciously working for the redemption and reconciliation of the world.’” (p. 121.) Shalom justice is further embodied in the teaching of Jesus. “As a poor Jewish peasant teacher from Nazareth,” Grace says, “Jesus’ teaching of the reign of shalom justice would have been heard as hope for the poor… While the Hebrew prophets anticipated God’s coming reign of righteousness, Jesus announced that God’s reign is here and now, and it is manifested when people treat the deepest needs of the disinherited as if they are holy.” (pp. 123-124.)
I believe this shalom justice is at the heart of the subversive love of Christ. Christ understood that revolt only feeds into the system of violence that is at the heart of empire. Christ’s teachings about turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, and carrying a Roman soldier’s pack twice as far as he would force you to, are examples of this subversive love. He knew and taught that God’s Kingdom could never be built with the things Caesar’s kingdom was. Rather, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is built when the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the homeless housed, and the prisoner visited—when the gospel of God’s love for all humanity is proclaimed. Liberation comes not by the sword, but by God’s people carrying out shalom justice in the world. Liberation comes when we open ourselves up the work of the transformative Spirit of love in our lives. Liberation comes when a guy named Jake decides to start a student group that serves the interests and needs of international students. In brief, liberation comes when we embrace the Other.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is an Asian American feminist theologian, author, blogger, and Associate Professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, IN.
Read Grace’s blog here: https://gracejisunkim.wordpress.com/
You can purchase Embracing the Other here: http://goo.gl/rD2YyK
Henry Volk is the author of the Theology in Perspective blog. He also co-hosts the Angel Repair Juice podcast. Henry received his B. Th. from Faith Theological Seminary and Christian College.