Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity), Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015.
Summary: Explores the multiple oppressions experienced by women who are Asian-American (or other) immigrants of color, and how the “Spirit-Chi” of God enables the embrace of others across ethnic and gender boundaries.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes about the experience of immigrants and women from a first person perspective. As a child, her family emigrated to Canada where she experienced racism as she was mocked and treated as the other because she was from Korea. She also experienced sexism in the strongly patriarchal church her family became a part of in their conversion to Christianity. In the introduction of this book addressing the embrace of the other, and how a re-imagined understanding of the Spirit of God can speak powerfully to the marginalization of the other, she begins with her own painful experience, and then widens the scope.
First, she turns to the foreign women of the Bible, and particularly to the foreign wives of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were “put away,” expelled as unclean so the Jewish community could purify itself, and then to Hosea as a word of hope for the importance of all women. She then considers the racial experience of Asian Americans, the “almost white” or “model minority” who are nevertheless, always “foreign,” even if they have been citizens for generations. The experience of women compounds this marginalization as they are often subordinated in both home and in ethnic congregations. Kim goes back and traces this experience through western imperialism and colonial experience down to the present. She then outlines the history of feminism, from the outliers of Rahab and Ruth in scripture, to both white feminist and global feminist theologians. It is in this context that she introduces the appeal of the spiritual experience of God to ethnic minority women that allows approaches to God that are relational, life- and other-affirming, and not shaped by Western patriarchal and discriminatory structures.
All of this lays the groundwork for Kim’s own pneumatological proposal of the Spirit-Chi of God. This at once draws on the Spirit of Shalom in scripture that sets things right and brings wholeness and connection, and the concept of “Chi” in many cultures–the life energy or spirit that inhabits us all. She believes this connection of Spirit with Chi enables a conversation across cultures and faith that allows for fundamental human connection, or embrace as we tap into the enabling power of the Spirit. She also relates this work of the Spirit to erotic live, the powerful connection between human beings, hence the subtitle of “The Transformative Spirit of Love.” For women who struggle with the “male” persons of the Trinity (although beyond gender in human terms), Spirit can be a powerful and transforming means both of engaging God and pursuing the shalom of God in the world.
Kim’s description of the experiences of racism and sexism, particularly among Asian-American women, speaks out against how both church and society oppress. To address how our pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) empowers the embrace of the other is a vital and needed area of theological work in moving beyond sentimental expressions of being “One in the Spirit” to substantive talk about oneness with the other.
The most controversial elements of this work are the association of Spirit with Chi, and the discussion of erotic love. I personally did not have difficulty with the latter, believing that the redemptive work of God extends to our most basic loves and restores them to God’s creation intent. The power of the Spirit of God to work through even our most primal and embodied affections to forge strong human bonds is not to be looked down upon, but may be foundational in many instances in growth into agape love. More troublesome was the idea of Chi-Spirit. I think there definitely is a point of contact between the biblical idea of the human spirit and concepts of “spirit” or “life force” or “energy” that is worth exploring in inter-religious conversation. It is the equation of this and the Spirit of God in singular, rather than distinctive or even complementary terms that was troubling, and could be construed as a form of pantheism. I find myself wondering whether the transformation of which she speaks need involve the regenerative and sanctifying work of the Spirit resulting from faith in the redemptive work of Christ, or simply by increasing one’s chi.
I’m hesitant in raising this as a white male, given the framing of this discussion in terms of race and gender. I think it can be reductionistic and dismissive to consign much of the church’s historic discussion of the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity to white, male, hegemonic discourse (my words, not Kim’s) without argument. This is particularly so given the involvement of Near Eastern and African Christians in the early church councils, including the Cappadocian Basil the Great who wrote one of the earliest formulations of Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit. Also, one of the most potent forces in global Christianity is Pentecostalism, where the empowering fullness of the Holy Spirit energizes mission across cultural boundaries. I was surprised that a book on the transformative work of the Spirit, empowering love for the other, does not address this vibrant movement.
In fairness, Kim has written elsewhere in greater depth on these subjects including her reimagining project relating the Spirit and Chi (visit her website for a list of her publications). I have not read those works, which may justify the assertions presented in briefer form here and answer some of the questions this book raises for me. I cannot help wondering if much of what Kim seeks to affirm in this re-imagining may be done without importing the conception of Chi into the conversation, which seems to me to blur the distinctions of Christianity and other religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I do want to affirm both her important focus on pneumatology and its importance in bringing liberation and transformation for the oppressed and power for all of us to love the other.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.