Grace Ji-Sun Kim is a theologian and author or editor of 21 books, most recently, Invisible. This part-biography, part-social commentary, part-letter to the church considers the voices that are missing from theology, and encourages followers of Jesus towards a ‘theology of visibility’.
Why is engaging a theology of visibility so important for the church today?
Practising a theology of visibility is an attempt at seeing anew – seeing with eyes that can finally embrace the fullness of God, the breath of the divine that is within all of us. The Justice Conference is such a wonderful conference, because we touch on these different issues – racial justice, climate justice, gender justice – ways in which so many people are made invisible.
You unpack the term ou-ri (meaning “our”), and suggest that “the Korean concept of plural possessive nouns pushes us to consider not only ourselves, care not only for ourselves, regard not only ourselves but the larger community and all of creation”. What can the western church in particular learn from this?
In Korea, where we have a very communal society, we talk about ou-ri. In the English language we say, my church, my family, my school. You don’t say that in Asia, or particularly in Korean: we say our church, our family, our school. Even if you may be a single parent, you never say, my child, you say, our child, because the whole community raises that child. Once we recognise that we’re all part of this wider society, and we all need each other, then no one is invisible. We are all part of this family of God, we are all part of the church. And it is our church. It is our family. It is our neighbourhood. Our world. And once we keep talking about our, it really shifts our focus, and helps us to work towards a theology of visibility.
Individually, our language is so limited, and that is all we have as Christians to share our experiences and our understanding of God. We are this finite being worshipping an infinite being. These concepts and these words from different places around the world are so helpful in expanding our own vocabulary, our own understanding and our hearts.
“It is through relating to others – the poor, the sick, and the outcast – that Jesus reveals himself as the liberator, reconciler, and healer, exhibiting to us not only how to be human but the value of being human. That is why we also seek the margins and places of invisibility to see how we can find God and apply God’s lessons. God is present among the invisible peoples who are seeking new ways of being in Jesus’ gospel.”
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Invisible
How do you see power and privilege intersecting with poverty? And what are the implications for Christians, particularly those who find themselves holding privilege?
People don’t just experience oppression on one level – there are different levels of oppression and they intersect to work against, so that you become less powerful. People can experience oppression on gender, race, socioeconomic class levels; and also education-wise, able-bodied or not; all these different forms of oppression intersect. When it comes to poverty, there are many factors that intersect. Thinking about poverty in the US, it’s usually women of colour who are living in poverty more than other groups. Racism, gender injustice, climate injustice – so many people are kind of pushed into poor areas, and then in those poor areas, companies can dump their pollution. All these factors come into play to increase powerlessness.
What gives you hope as you speak into these issues, and what are some practical ways that people can respond and activate a theology of visibility?
We know that white churches are dying, and that churches are growing in Asia, South America and Africa. But still, we have this white dominant voice in the church. My hope is that the whiteness will be de-centered, and that there will be multiple centres. These multiple centres coexist, and then we can share the power with those who have been disempowered in much of our society and much of our history. It’s so important to hear voices from the margins, from those who have not been privileged in Christian circles, like the African voices, and the South American voices, and the Asian voices and Central American voices. We need to hear them, because God is so alive and present in these different churches.
When we see ourselves in a position of power, it is very important to relinquish it so that those who are powerless are given a voice, given a seat at the table, and so that we can welcome one another and embrace one another, and listen to each other. God said to serve ‘the least of them’, and ‘the last shall be first’: we need to really honour these voices that have been voiceless, that have been thrown out into the outskirts of society and marginalised. We learn so much from those who have been so disenfranchised, and we need to be able to share and relinquish power. So those who have been so powerless, can be given voices.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author or editor of 21 books most recently, Spirit Life, Invisible and Hope in Disarray. Grace has spoken at The Justice Conference, and hosts the Madang podcast.