Oriented Toward Justice and Hope
A Feature Review of
Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2015.
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Reviewed by David Swanson
In Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes consciously and unapologetically from her social and historic location: a Korean woman, an immigrant to Canada, familiar with gender and racial prejudice even when enveloped in the subtle model-minority and honorific white myths so prevalent in North American society. In doing theology from such specific ground Kim implicitly, and occasionally directly, undermines the concept of a hyphen-less theology, as though feminist-theology, liberation-theology, and others were different somehow than some sort of neutral, orthodox theology. This particular foundation is not the primary focus of Kim’s book, but it is necessary for the work she does in these pages.
This theological work is directed toward “the liberation of Asian American women, who are doubly bound by the racism and patriarchy of Western society and the cultural expectations of their own culture. That culture expects women to be quiet, subordinate, and submissive.” To do this Kim spends her first three chapters looking closely at the experiences of women. She begins by looking at the complicated and often tragic experiences of foreign women in the Old Testament. She then examines the long history of Asian American women who immigrated to North America and particularly how their bodies and experiences were racialized in their new countries. She includes in this history the role of han, the Korean concept of unjust suffering, the “opposite of grace.” Identifying experiences as unjust allows immigrant women to resist the sexist and racist assumptions of their new societies. In the third chapter Kim looks at how women are treated as “the other”, both in the Bible and throughout distinct cultural contexts. Here, and in other chapters, she looks at Ezra 9 and the troubling mandate for Jewish men to expel their foreign wives. She challenges the colonizing view that would accept such action uncritically, asking the reader to instead “identify how our comrades in faith have made aliens of our brothers and sisters of other lands and cultures.”
In her final three chapters, Kim articulates a way forward beyond a colonized and divisive theology. The strength of the book shines especially bright in these chapters as we are invited to imagine ways of thinking about God and the beloved community from Kim’s particularity. She borrows from the Asian concept of Chi to “imagine God [in a way] that captures energies of divine love that are the divine essence and permeate the community of creation.” The goal of this reimagining project is a way of pursuing justice for all that, unlike so many theological expressions, does not privilege some at the expense of others. While affirming the historic understanding of the triune God, Kim leans heavily into the Biblical narratives of the Holy Spirit, from the Old Testament ruach to the Pentecost expereicne of the early church. Spirit God, in Kim’s language, subverts the colonized and systematized structures that have kept Asian American women and others from full participation in the family of God.
It is the power of Spirit God that allows Kim to be hopeful, despite so much evidence of injustice and oppression toward those who look like her. There is much to lament in these pages – particularly for those like this reviewer, whose gender and race have made me the beneficiary of systems that have damaged so many others. Yet even with this pain, Embracing the Other is oriented toward justice and hope. According to the author, “This is a liberating theology not only for Asian Americans who have experienced racism, prejudice, and subordination, but for all people who deal with estrangement in their own unique ways.” This is a gracious posture by Kim and is evidence that such clearly identified particularities – gender, race, and migration – are ultimately hospitable to those of us with very different starting points.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com