Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015
Paperback, 184 pages, $25.00

Reviewed by Cherice Bock

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In Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, Grace Ji-Sun Kim provides a gem of feminist literature with the power to challenge, inform, and unify Christian feminists of many backgrounds. Kim focuses on the concept of hybridity, noting that each individual, culture, and religion forms a hybrid mixture of tradition, influx from other sources, family, gender, race, context, class, and personal narrative. This hybridity means that no religion or individual can claim or maintain complete “purity” of form and lineage, but our hybridity becomes an asset if we allow the “transformative Spirit of love” to guide us in new and creative directions across human history.

Drawing from her personal story as a South Korean immigrant to Canada and then the United States, Kim deftly weaves together Asian American theology, feminist theologies, postcolonial theory, biblical interpretation, and pneumatology to speak prophetically of the transformative and connecting power of the Spirit-Chi, energizing faith communities toward justice and care.

Kim spends the first several chapters setting the stage for her climactic integration of these disparate fields and traditions. Through her introduction, Kim introduces us to her personal story, as well as sketching the outline of Christian entanglement in Western civilization’s narrative of patriarchy and colonialism. She posits the Spirit as a figure within Christian tradition that cannot be contained or controlled, providing an empowering force within the Christian story with potential to lead us out of imperialistic Christendom.

Problems with An Obsession with Purity

Kim moves to a description of the account in Ezra and Nehemiah of casting foreign wives out of the post-exilic Israelite community, a negative example of an attempt to purify the godly through scapegoating a vulnerable population of women foreigners. This is in direct opposition to God’s call in much of the rest of the biblical witness to care for foreigners in our midst. She shows how this obsession with purity actually breeds fear and paranoia: rather than making the community safer, each one must fear his or her claim to belonging within the community.

In a surprising hermeneutical move, Kim brilliantly reinterprets this text in light of the story of Hosea and Gomer (a story with its own difficulties for feminist biblical scholars). She notes that, since Gomer and her offspring are considered impure and yet Hosea accepts them, this extends a possible hermeneutical framework for the acceptance of women—even foreign or “impure” women—into the community. She further develops this theme through discussion of Ruth and Rahab, who subvert the system of patriarchy and xenophobia and who are included in the heritage of David and Jesus. If the community becomes impure through the presence of foreign women and other such scapegoats, Kim concludes, “we should all be expelled from the community” (p. 26). Instead, she suggests an embrace of our hybridity, just as the stories of Ruth and Rahab indicate.

The Double Subjugation of Asian American Immigrants

Next, Kim describes the experience of Asian American immigrants, recounting a brief history of immigration from Asia to the United States, and Kim’s own experience of immigration. She highlights the experience of Asian American women, often doubly subjugated by their own culture and through the immigrant experience. Kim elucidates the connection between racism, imperialism, and patriarchy through a discussion of Asian Americans as a “model minority.” She shows how labeling Asian Americans as a “model minority” pits them against other minorities in order to hold onto their somewhat higher status—a status that depends on a hierarchy in which whites, particularly white males, continue to remain in power. Through the concept of “Orientalism,” Europeans deemed all of Asia “other”: exotic, romantic, effeminate, and therefore both desirable and conquerable. This romanticizing of the Orient plays out in war upon war between East and West, as well as in the individual lives of women caught up in the sex trade from military prostitution to sex tourism.

Liberation Theology: Some Questions

A point I will be mulling over in my own continued thought and work is her assessment of liberation theology. She rightly shows how the liberation touted by scholars in the escape from Egypt represents liberation from an oppressor and movement into the role of conquering force, decimating or subjugating the former occupants of the Promised Land. If this move from oppressed marginal entity requires a subsequent expression of the role of oppressive central figure, Kim will have none of it in her theology, and I agree. But does this, in fact, represent liberation theology?

This I will have to think about further. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire suggests that as we become conscientized to our situation as “oppressed,” we first move into a stage of identifying with the oppressor—we want to emulate the oppressor, and we want our own people to replace the oppressor in the hierarchy. But true conscientization does not occur until we move beyond that stage into solidarity with all the oppressed, recognizing the system of dehumanization in which both the oppressor and the oppressed are caught. By seeing one another as fully human, we break down this system of oppression.

The problem is, we do not see this full cycle occurring within the biblical text of the exodus and conquest. That story concludes with the Israelites becoming oppressors themselves, though they are repeatedly told to remember what it was like to be the “other,” and to therefore treat the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan with care. The biblical witness is mixed on this topic of liberation based on the story of the exodus. Therefore, I agree with Kim that it might work better to use a different story as the basis for a theology that moves beyond conquest, since that story too easily appears to legitimate expansion of empires and subjugation of “godless” people. Kim quotes Robert Warrior in Native Christians: Indigenous Voices on Religious Identity in the United States and Canada, saying, “as long as people believe in the Yahweh of deliverance, the world will not be safe from Yahweh the conqueror” (quoted in Kim, 2015, p. 71). One wonders, then: how do we move beyond the idea of God’s power delivering our enemies to us through conquest, and toward a power that liberates us all from cycles of oppression and dehumanization into true justice and freedom? Kim answers this question with her pneumatology of Spirit-Chi.

The Spirit Cannot Be Boxed In or Controlled 

While God the Father can be seen as the pinnacle of a hierarchy, interpreted to hold the status quo in divinely inspired, indefinite stasis, and God the Son can be seen as the ultimate Man and remembered as Christus Victor who conquered everything including death, God the Spirit is much harder to force into a box that will support imperialism or patriarchy. The Spirit blows where it wills. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is the same for breath, and also indicates one’s life force (ruach). Presence of spirit and breath indicates that one is alive.  This enlivening force, accessible to all, cannot be contained or controlled. We know the Spirit through experience, rather than through intellect or belief, and therefore a hierarchy cannot control one’s experience of Spirit God. This idea fits well with contextual theologies. Kim introduces us to the Spirit God present in many different religions, from the Abrahamic faiths to the religions of Africa, India, the indigenous peoples of Australia and North America, Japan, Hawaii, and China.

Seeing the Spirit in a New Way: The Chinese Concept of Chi

Recognizing that our words for spiritual concepts change as they encounter new cultures, and that even the spiritual concepts themselves widen in that encounter (Kim uses the word “Geist” in German as an exemplar), she encourages us to learn to see the Spirit in a new way through the lens of the Chinese concept of Chi. A life energy out of which the universe was created, it forms the basis for our perception of beauty, connectedness, and holistic peace in the same vein as the concept of shalom. Spirit-Chi expresses itself as movement: it cannot be held by the center, but dances along the margins, the in-between spaces where there is most need for love and justice. When I read Kim’s subtitle, “The Transformative Spirit of Love,” I admit I felt a bit skeptical regarding the ability for this theological interpretation to remain embodied enough to speak truth in a way that would not simply continue the dualistic problem of spirit vs. matter. But through the addition of the concept of Chi, which can only be embodied within our physical selves and which attunes us to the rest of creation, I found a pneumatology both transcendent and immanent, able to hold the vastness of time and space and the intimate specificity of our joys, shames, and fears. Bringing the notion of hybridity back into the conversation, Kim shows the necessity of the connection between matter and spirit, rather than their dichotomy. To fully learn about Spirit-Chi, however, one might also benefit from reading Kim’s earlier work, The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other (2011).

Expanding Our Understanding through Two Korean Concepts 

In the present volume, Kim also includes Korean concepts of han and jeong, first brought into the Asian feminist theological conversation by W. Anne Joh (and explored by Kim in her 2013 book, Colonialism, Han, and the Transformative Spirit).

Han refers to unnecessary suffering, especially that experienced by Korean women caught in the web of patriarchal family relationships, pitting daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law. Kim explains the submissiveness required within Korean marriage where something akin to Julia Kristeva’s understanding of the “abjection” of acute suffering occurs when the male subject asserts himself over the female other.

In the midst of this han, the transformative power of the Spirit can intercede through jeong, a “sticky” love that binds us to one another and to all creation. I found this concept of jeong to be particularly powerful, because rather than one group of oppressed people rising up against their oppressor, jeong refuses to become the oppressor. Jeong refuses to give up, refuses to be made an enemy of another oppressed person or group, and instead ties itself fiercely to another in the powerful love that claims personal humanity but does not lose sight of the humanity of the other.

Kim uses the story of Ruth and Naomi as an example of this sticky love. As Naomi experiences han through the loss of her husband and sons, Ruth’s Spirit-given jeong will not let her mother-in-law suffer alone. Kim also recognizes jeong in the actions of Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law, who holds a sticky love for her own family and culture of origin, and who remains true to her own convictions and path, just as Ruth and Naomi remain true to their paths. This concept of jeong adds the piece that so often seems missing in liberation or contextual theologies: a way for the oppressed to remain in relationship and work alongside former oppressors. Just as the Spirit forms the bond of love between Creator and Redeemer in the biblical witness, and between Christ and the Church, the same Spirit acts as the bonding agent of sticky love, binding us together in unity (Colossians 3:14).

The Power of Erotic Love

Kim also highlights the work of Rita Nakashima Brock on the power of erotic love, adding power to Kim’s understanding of the Spirit’s transformative, embracing love. Both Kim and Nakashima Brock emphasize the full nature of Eros: much broader than sexual ecstasy, Eros forms the location of our deepest passions and longings. Through these passions, Spirit-Chi breaks through into our world and our relationships in dynamic power, the “primal interrelatedness” that conceives, creates, and gives birth (Brock, quoted in Kim, 2015, p. 142). Erotic power cares deeply and fiercely, inviting vulnerability and reconciliation through passionate solidarity in the midst of han and through the expression of tenacious, open-handed jeong. The erotic Spirit-Chi draws us into the dynamic perichoresis of the Trinity and provides the courage we need to stand in the Spirit-filled margins, proclaiming prophetic truth in radical, interconnected love.

Combining Insights from Many Areas of Scholarship

This ambitious text manages to draw from the Bible, Asian religious and cultural traditions, feminist and womanist texts, liberation theology, postcolonial theory, Western imperialist history, and her own personal story, transforming it all into a piece of radical hope and spiritual power for women and men. Because it capably explains many of these areas of scholarship, the book could be a useful text for upper level college or seminary courses, and it is definitely worth the read for interested feminist scholars. The text lost the thread of her initial point regarding hybridity by the end, so she could have done more to tie all the thoughts back together before concluding. I also would have liked to hear more of Kim’s personal stories of her own experiences of the Spirit’s transformative, jeong-like sticky love in her own life, and so I look forward to meeting Grace Ji-Sun Kim at the Christian Feminism Today conference this summer, where I hope to hear more of her personal stories and experience the evident Spirit-Chi at work in her life.

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Cherice Bock
Cherice Bock teaches at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, where her areas of research and specialization include nonviolent theology, ecological theology, Quaker studies, pneumatology, feminist theology, and liberation theology. She holds an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and is currently working on a PhD in environmental studies at Antioch University New England. In addition, Cherice serves as the editor of Whole Terrain (an environmental studies journal), coordinates a community garden at George Fox University, and edits Peace Month for her denomination. You can find Cherice tending her own little patch of land, hiking and camping in her home state of Oregon, biking around town with her spouse and two sons, and enjoying home-grown fruits, veggies, and eggs. Her doctoral work will focus on the garden as metaphor and physical space for encountering God, others, and creation in order to nourish resilient communities.

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