Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s new book, Embracing the Other, prophetically suggests a theological reconstruction of the doctrine of God—what she calls “Sprit God”—from a perspective of Asian American feminist theologian. Her methodology for this theological reconstruction stands in continuity of (Western) feminist theologians’ methodology: (1) listening to women’s neglected voices and experiences, (2) deconstructing a conventional doctrine which promotes the marginalization of women, and (3) reconstructing the doctrine in light of women’s voices and experiences.
Given this methodology, this book faithfully serves as an open space where we hear the voices of Asian American women whose lives have been racialized, orientalized, and othered in North American societies. Kim effectively utilized three stories from (1) the Bible, specifically Ezra 9, (2) Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and (3) her own life as an Asian American woman, which describes the painful experiences of Asian American women who have been treated as “the subordinate, the weak, the unclean, the fragile, and the Other” (66). Not just describing Asian American women’s pain and suffering, by drawing on critical race theory and postcolonial theory, this book presents compelling accounts of how they have been (1) racialized as a “model minority”—depicting them as self-reliant, hard-working, successful, assimilating “honorary whites”—and “perpetual foreigners” as not “real” Americans (50-52) and (2) oritentalized as the “exotic Other”—having been exploited and silenced by Western imperialists (63-66). Uncovering the ideologies of racism and Orientalism in the theological reconstruction highlights this book’s originality and important contribution to the field of feminist theology/ethics.
After describing the women’s existential plight and naming the structural sources of this pain, Kim points out limitations and/or problems of conventional theology of God: “God the Almighty Father” or “The God of the center” (116). These patriarchal and colonial images of God have coupled with sexism, racism, and colonialism/imperialism and have been unethically utilized for exploiting and dominating Asian American women by those who are bearers of the image of “God the Almighty Father” and those who stand in “the center.” In other words, this kind of doctrine of God is not appropriate and even extremely vulnerable to be misused to sustain the women’s pain and suffering. This imagined God cannot embrace the Other, specifically Asian American women.
Kim, then, prophetically imagines Sprit God as “Sprit-Chi”: given the Chinese word Chi for “life energy,” Sprit God is God who is with Asian American women in the margins, acts as the ultimate source of a life-giving energy, and empowers them to work toward shalom justice: according to Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (123, 136-139). Sprit God’s life-giving energy is what she calls “the erotic energy” or “Eros”: this power is grounded in “the relational lives of women” and is “the power of our primal interrelatedness” (for this construction, Kim draws on Rita Nakashima Brock’s account of Eros; see 142). In other words, the erotic power testifies “the interconnectedness of all beings” and encourages us to work for shalom justice “by embracing those who are pushed to the margins” (142).
I genuinely appreciate Kim’s prophetic imagination to reconstruct a theology of Spirit God from a perspective of Asian American feminist theologian. And I am trilled by a possibility of its theo-ethical implication on the empowerment of the silenced and marginalized Asian American women. Kim is keenly aware of the tragic reality that Asian American women are prone to be silent and remain in the margins given the institutionalized and systematized racism, sexism, and colonialism in American society. I argue that the painful silence of the women is, in part, attributed to the internalization of social marginalization. In other words, their social marginalization has been internalized into their souls: the sense of inferiority, self-hatred, and/or guilt (Simone Weil would name the women’s plight “affliction”: “like a red hot iron, it stamps the soul to its very depths with the scorn, the disgust, and even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement”1). The painful silence would be the mark of the internalized social marginalization. We need to break the painful silence and resist again the sense of inferiority, self-hatred, and/or guilt in order to empower the marginalized Asian American women.
I certainly believe that Kim’s theology of Sprit God and Eros would be a theological resource for the empowerment of the marginalized women. This book claims that through the erotic power, they become “less willing to accept powerlessness, despair, depression, and self-denial” (159-160). However, for me, this book does not present a thick account of how the erotic power, the power of interconnectedness, would help them to break their painful silence and resist against the internalized social marginalization. As a “longing for belonging,” eros would certainly play a role in building the beloved and reconciled community (160), but I am not sure how this power liberates the women from the tyranny of silence. If Spirit God is the ultimate source of life-giving energy, we may need to consider another dimension of life-giving energy to break the painful silence. And I contend this would be righteous anger. Drawing on a womanist thinker/activist Audre Lorde’s insight, in order to transform silence into language and action, we need anger, which is “loaded with information and energy”2: (1) anger as self-reflexive information helps us to uncover the hidden “exclusion,” “unquestioned privilege”, “radical distortions,” “ill-use,” “stereotyping,” “defensiveness,” “misnaming,” “betrayal,” and “co-optation”3; (2) anger is a “powerful source of energy serving progress and change”4 in the women’s struggle against the silence and the internalized social marginalization. And this anger has to be righteous, so that it would not be lapsed into a destructive source of hatred and violence. Though I do not present a theological account of righteous anger and its relation to divine eros, I hope this suggestion would contribute to the empowerment of Asian American women which Kim passionately strives for throughout this important book.
Won Chul Shin, PhD Student
Categories: (T) Book Review
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