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Theological Reflections on Korean American Theology and Ministry

Grace Ji-Sun Kim

This theological reflection was prepared for the Pastor Theologian consultation held in October 20-22, 2010, Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship.  This particular consultation invited 13 Korean American pastors representing generations and gender.  The theological engagement focused on the event at the 219th General Assembly held in Minneapolis that led to the defeat of the motion to create another Korean language presbytery.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim was born in South Korea and immigrated to Canada when she was five.  She grew up in London Ont., and attended a Korean Presbyterian Church (PCC).  She received her B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and then received her M.Div. from Knox College.  She then earned her Ph.D. from the Univ. of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.  Presently, Kim is an Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Moravian Theological Seminary and is the author of The Grace of Sophia (Pilgrim Press) and The Holy Spirit, Chi and the Other (Palgrave Macmillan). Kim is serving her second term on the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) ‘Racial Ethnic Minorities Committee’ and is a steering committee member on AAR’s ‘Comparative Theology Group’ and “Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching and Activism Consultation.” She sits on the editorial board for the Journal for Religion and Popular Culture and is a referee for both the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.


Introduction

Traditional Western-euro theologies have, at times, attempted yet failed to nourish the culture, experience, and context of people outside the Western world or those immigrants living in the Western world.  Such theologies fail to engage in dialogue with present pluralist, multi-cultural, and multi-religious situations of poverty, oppression, and domination and, thus remain meaningless or out of touch to many peoples.  Due to the negative consequences of colonization, it is important to find a way to decolonize, liberate, and empower its victims. In our present context, there is a need to engage in such topics so that theology will be relevant and make sense to us.  Such engagement is particularly necessary for Korean and Korean Americans living in North America.  We need to decolonize theology so that it can be free from some of the negative effects of Western thought, philosophy, and religion that have favored one race and ethnicity over another. This distance from Western thought can eventually open up doors for acceptance and equality for those who are different from the dominant Western people.  One possible way to counteract the negative effects of Western thought is to turn to the East.   Eastern ways of thinking, religion, and understanding can navigate us toward understanding the divine, particularly the spirit, in a way that will prevent domination and subordination of one people over another.  Western ways of thinking abstract universal concept from reality.  Eastern ways of thinking prefer images and symbols to concepts.  As we seek to develop a new theology and understanding of ministry, it will be necessary to understand immigration history, racism, hybridity, and hyphenated reality.

The Asian Immigration Story

Korean immigration to the United States occurred in three major waves.  Korean political exiles were living in the United States as early as 1885, but the first significant wave of immigration was to Hawaii (1903-1905).  The first wave can be described as immigrants who were concerned with the Korean political situation or interested in Christianity and the Christian churches.  This era saw the importation of many brides into North America, the birth of a second generation in the immigrant community, ethnic dormancy, rapid acculturation, and rising rates of intermarriage due to the lack of young Korean women.  The second wave was after the Korean War (1950-53) and involved a more heterogeneous group, consisting of wives of American servicemen, war orphans, and students.[1]  Many from this group were assimilated into white America due to interracial marriages and families.

The current wave, still in progress, began as a result of immigration reform through the 1965 Immigration Act[2] in the United States.  These immigrants are contending with a multitude of issues, including cultural and linguistic difference, parent-child stress, and changes in roles, especially among women.  They are also dealing with concerns such as cultural conflict in norms and values, achieving a healthy identification in a predominantly white society, and varied levels of acceptance of Korean immigrants by both the majority and other minority groups already living here.[3]  Thus, over a century and a half of Asian immigration into the U.S., racism still persists.  This racism appears overtly and covertly in many of our social and cultural contexts. 

Racialization

In studying the concept of race, there comes a critical juncture in relationships between peoples when they come to see each other, and are seen by outsiders, as fundamentally immutably different from one another.  At such a juncture, the differences they perceive are often laid on the body and essential character of the person.  This can be called a racial moment.  At such times, the racializing move is accompanied by at least an attempt by one group to exert power over the other or to highlight its own disempowerment.   “Race” is a term that seems static and essential, while “racialize” emphasizes agency and process, an ongoing action taken to create hierarchy, to position oneself, and to create an Other.[4]  The power that one race wants to hold over another has been problematic throughout history.  It has lead to genocide, slavery, hate crimes, and much more.  In order to prevent such horrendous acts, it is important to understand the nature of the racializing and racism undergirding our society, and, by all means possible, we need to do something to prevent it.

Racism results from Westerners who racialize immigrants and make them the Other.  Thus, racialization further separate and dominate the Other.  As immigrants try to assimilate themselves into the dominant culture they experience alienation as there appears to be an invisible boundary that prevents them from becoming part of the mainstream White culture due to racialization.  In addition, the Asian immigrants who come into the United States are minoritized.  Again, the term “minoritized,” unlike “minority,” emphasizes the process of minoritizing and insists that the relative prestige of languages and cultures and the conditions of their contact are constituted in social relations of ruling in both national and international arenas.[5] “Majoritization,” the complementary term to “minoritization,” is used to indicate the positions of the culturally dominant as an outcome of historical, cultural, and economic processes whose legacies remain powerful.  The dominant cultures manipulate the minoritized for their own personal gain and benefit. The minoritized cultures live in a fragile space of uncertainty, domination, and relative powerlessness. This is a power struggle between the dominant culture and the less dominant ones. [6]   Asian immigrants living in this space need to find some source of power and empowerment to overcome the barriers that are set in place by society and the Western world.  Their fragility entails existing in a hyphenated reality; belonging in two worlds yet at the same time not belonging in either world.

Hyphenated Reality

The challenge of “hyphenated reality” lies in the hyphen itself--becoming Asian American; the realm in-between, where predetermined rules cannot fully apply.[7]  This hyphenated reality exists within the core identity of the Korean Americans whose given names are often written in hyphenated form.  It has often been cited that, among Korean Americans, the children who immigrated to North America during the 1970s and 80s are a 1.5 generation.  These children often came under the age of twelve and do not really belong to the first generation or the second generation of immigrants and thus often claim themselves as 1.5.  They often find themselves in between these two societies and try to come to terms with their hyphenated reality.

Living as a hyphenated person is to confront and defy hegemonic values on an everyday basis.   One understands both the predicament and the potency of the hyphen in assuming the between-world dilemma. The hyphenated condition certainly does not limit itself to a duality between two cultural heritages.  It actively seeks to understand one’s root and heritage and, at the same time, understand their minority sensitivities. The multidimensional desire to be both here(s) and there(s) implies a more radical ability to shuttle between frontiers and to cut across ethnic allegiances while assuming a specific and contingent legacy.[8]  The hyphenated reality becomes a fluid space where identity and self are not static and stagnant, but are in constant flux and motion.  It is a difficult space to define, but it is a reality where one finds confusion, bewilderment, subordination, and domination. The quest for this Other in us can hardly be a simple return to the past or the time-honored values of our ancestors.  As soon as we learn to be “Koreans in America” we also recognize that we can’t simply be Koreans any longer.[9]  Korean  Americans live in and straddle two spaces; belonging neither here nor there and realizing that neither the West nor the East accepts us as one of them.  This is a tragedy in itself and requires those who live in between these interstitial spaces to look for renewed sources of power and empowerment to live.

Hybridity

Post-colonial theory offers another way of addressing the problems and dynamics of our world.   It offers a way to decolonize, to liberate, and empower the victims of colonization.  In many ways, we need to decolonize theology, i.e., to free theology from Western thought, philosophy, and religion.  We need to decolonize theology from dualism and from those who have power and give it to the powerless so that they can have a voice in this global world.  Hence, there is a need for a new emerging theology which can articulate and address the new experiences of power and domination within our present world.  Rather than a strict dualism and a separation between the two concepts and ideas, postcolonial theory offers the concept of hybridity to indicate mixing rather than a strict dichotomy that dualism offers.

Theologians employ the postcolonial concept of hybridity as a way of accounting for the complicated political agency of the ‘subaltern’ subject.  This concept emerged out of the postcolonial experience to describe the ways in which subaltern subjects sometimes both embrace and confront the ‘master’s tools’ when constructing a new postcolonial identity.[10]   For Korean and Korean Americans, it is even more crucial to develop a theology that will address racism as well as their hyphenated and multicultural reality.  An examination of chi will work towards a deeper and new understanding of the body and spirit.  A chi pneumatology will have positive implications for justice and harmony and help counteract suffering in our world.  A way of perceiving the divine is necessary to prevent the Othering of Korean Americans.  Religion has always been a source for dominating the Other.  This needs to be prevented and Korean Americans can help develop a theology which is liberating and empowering.

A possible step to removing racism is to understand the Other and understand the commonalities and similarities which are found between people of different cultures, histories and religions.  There are many religious people around the world who share some commonalities among their belief systems.  One such religious commonality is the Spirit.  For our contemporary world to survive, it is necessary to adopt a more harmonious understanding of the Spirit and move away from the destructive powers of dualism, racism and racialization.

Implications for Korean American Churches

My paper has several implications for Korean American Churches as it is calls and urges us to retrieve our own religious cultural heritages and integrate them with our Euro-Christian practices.  It is possible that we no longer have to ignore our rich Korean religious, social and cultural history, but rather embrace them and retrieve from them as we continue to seek what it means to be Korean Americans and what imagine what the Korean American Church in North America is to be.

There is a clear distinct character of Korean American churches from the white dominant Presbyterian churches here in North America.  We need to find ways to continue to build the church up which will be authentic to our true Korean American selves. Is it merely the difference in what we eat/speak or is it beyond these outside tangible differences?  If we continue to ignore or displace our own Korean religious, cultural heritages, we could be perhaps discarding something invaluable to our growth as a Korean American church in North America.

This also has implications for the Korean American women in our churches.  Korean American women’s roles within the church need to be encouraged, fostered and nurtured.  Their leadership, ordination as elders/deacons/ministers need to be cultivated and multiplied.  In order for this occur, it is important to retrieve within our rich history (I propose retrieving ‘wisdom’ and ‘spirit’ from our religious traditions) and hybridize them with our new-found religious practices.  The new ways of theologizing will move towards a more inclusive and holistic understanding of women in the church and of Korean American churches within the larger church body.  The Korean American church has a large task ahead and it will be through loving conversations, theological reflections and mutual understandings that it can work towards  uniting and building up the body of Christ.


[1] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, The Grace of Sophia:  A Korean North American Women’s Christology  (Cleveland:  Pilgrim Press, 2002), 63.

[2] Harry H.L. Kitano & Roger Daniels,  Asian Americans:  Emerging Minorities,  Second Edition  (New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1988), 113.

 [3] Kitano & Daniels,  Asian Americans, 113, 116, 118.

[4] Spickard,  Almost All Aliens, 19.

[5] Arun Mukherjee, Alok Mukherjee and Barbara Godard, “Translating Minoritized Cultures: Issues of Caste, Class and Gender”,  Postcolonial Text, 2(2006): 1.

[6] Grace Ji-Sun Kim,  “What Forms Us: Multiculturalism, the Other and Theology” in Feminist Theology

With A Canadian Accent:  Canadian Perspectives on Contextual Theology, edited by Mary Ann Beavis,

Elaine Guillemin & Barbara Pell (Ottawa: Novalis, 2008), 82.

[7]Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red, (New York:  Routledge, 1991), 157.

[8]Trinh, When the Moon Waxes Red, 159.

[9]Trinh, When the Moon Waxes Red, 160.

[10] Serene Jones & Paul Lakeland, ed.  Constructive Theology:  A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), 156.

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  • Great! Send it out to the trustees. That trustee asked that the faculty do that when we were at lunch on Wed. by Ray on 04/14/2011 at 11:22 a.m.

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