Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feminist Professors Are Not Secluded Monks

In his column “Professors, We Need You!” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof charges that most university professors “just don’t matter in today’s great debates” and admonishes them not to cloister themselves “like medieval monks.”

Many academics and others took offense at what he has written. A Twitter hashtag

#engagedacademics sprung up and many have posted opposing views.

That Kristof imagines the professors who isolate themselves from the real world as “medieval monks” betrays his bias that the professors to whom he is addressing and the public intellectuals he longs to see are male (and possibly white)!

Kristof is an award-winning columnist who has written on sexual violence against women globally, human rights issues, and Chinese politics. Yet, he has overlooked that feminist professors have engaged in political struggles for decades and many have used Twitter and other social media to spread our ideas and further our causes.

Gwendolyn Beetham, an adjunct professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Brooklyn College, responds that Kristof has failed to take women and marginalizedgroups’ concern about public engagement seriously. Women’s voices are routinely neglected and those who dare to enter public debates are shunned or even threatened. Professor Brittney Cooper, an African American scholar, was physically threatened while speaking in a forum in New York and British classicist Mary Beard was threatened with rape and having her home bombed via Twitter.

The mainstream media marginalizes scholars in the field of feminism and religion. In debates such as the provision of contraceptives in health insurance, the future of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, and gender violence associated with religion, we seldom hear the voices of feminist intellectuals in the mass media. Male scholars, conservative TV and radio hosts, and religious leaders have the large microphones.

Kristof has overlooked that many professors in religion who are women of color are closely related to their communities and have worked tirelessly to effect social change. The late Mujerista theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz is one shining example. She was very involved in the Women’s Ordination movement in the Catholic Church and she interviewed grassroots Latinas and included their voices in her ethical analysis. A new group “Women of Color Scholarship, Teaching, and Activism” has been formed at the American Academy of Religion to discuss challenges to women of color who want to be engaged scholars.

Many have pointed out that Kristof has only looked at publications such as the New York Times or the New Yorker when he laments the diminishing presence of public intellectuals. Had he looked wider, he might has noticed that feminist scholars, including those in religion, are actively blogging, tweeting, uploading pictures and videos in Instagram and Google Plus, and using other forms of social media. We have written op-eds and blogged on Huffington Post, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Studies in Religion, Religion Dispatches, Patheos, Center for American Progress, and other websites. Some of us post videos or appear in YouTube and have personal blogs. I have started a blog several years ago to share my ideas about postcolonialism and religion and to connect with my readers.

Kristof notes the pressure on academics to publish peer-reviewed articles and books. But he does not mention the underclass of adjuncts who earn $2,000 to $3,000 per class and can hardly make ends meet. According to the Coalition on Academic Workforce, adjuncts earn on average $21,600, while tenure-track positions averaged $66,000 a year. Some labor groups estimate that adjunct faculty make up to 75 percent of higher education positions. Women make up 61 percent ofadjunct faculty, according to the Coalition.

The scarcity of jobs in the field of religion and the growing use of adjuncts have made many feminist professors wonder whether they should encourage their bright female students to pursue a PhD. Some are concerned whether to encourage their PhD students to do research in feminism and religion, for fear that this will further narrow their marketability. Several trade presses in religion are publishing mostly textbooks and there are fewer venues for feminist religious scholarship.

I am convinced that the world needs feminist work in religion more than ever. The generation of feminist scholars in religion before us faced ridicule, censorship, and loss of employment when they charted a new territory and started a new field. They have laid a solid foundation for us to build on. It is important for us to discuss how the field will flourish and how feminist professors can continue their work as engaged intellectuals and help the upcoming generation.  
This article is cross-posted on Feminism and Religion.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Acu-yoga: Synergy of Shiatsu, Acupuncture, and Yoga

Yoga postures can activate energy centers of the body called chakras. Shiatsu and acupuncture can revitalize the body and clear blockages through activating particular points along the meridians on the body.

While traveling as a college student, I learned shiatsu, an ancient form of bodywork, from a Japanese friend. I practice yoga and have used acupuncture to relieve body pain. So when I heard about a workshop called Acu-yoga led by a yoga teacher and a shiatsu practitioner and acupuncturist, I was excited to learn more about how these ancient systems intersect.

This afternoon I attended the Acu-yoga workshop at a yoga studio at Boston’s famous Newbury Street. About two dozen people, mostly young women and men, paid the $45 fee to attend this special workshop. It was cold outside, with temperature around 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Karma, the yoga teacher, began the workshop with gentle breathing exercises. She especially asked us to breathe into the belly and the back where the kidneys are located. Karma has long blond hair, a slim body, and a gentle voice, which is very soothing.

After several minutes of breathing, Zoe, who practices shiatsu and acupuncture, explained the location of the Bladder meridian. She asked us to form a fist and use the knuckle on the thumb to press on the space between the eyebrows. From there, we would use the knuckle to lightly knock along the meridian up the center of the forehead, across the head, and reaching down the back of the head to the sides of the spinal column. She said the meridian continues along the bottom to the back of the legs and all the way to the pinky toes.


As I was doing this, my body became more alive and I became more aware.

Zoe then explained the location of the Kidney meridian and demonstrated how to press on the relevant points. She said that the Bladder and Kidney meridians are especially important during winter time. The bladder regulates the nervous system, stores and excretes fluids, and balances the spirit. The kidney is a primary source of vitality and energy of the body and its energy can be drawn during times of stress.

Afterward, Karma led us through a series of yoga exercises that focused on the yang side—the active side. While we were doing this, she and Zoe would go around the room and use the technique of shiatsu to gently press on the students’ bodies. For example, Karma pressed along the sides of my spinal column when I was in the Child pose. Some time later, when I was doing the Downward Facing Dog, Zoe would come and press on my right leg and ankle.  

This was the first time that I had shiatsu applied when I was doing yoga. Since I had acupressure and massage before, I was not sensitive to people touching me. I would continue to hold the posture, while they worked on my body. The sensation from the body was quite different from that when I was lying on the massage table when a massage therapist worked on me. 

The yoga sequence then focused on the yin side—the passive and receiving side. There was much less stretching and bending. We had to hold our breath longer for each posture to allow our body open more. At the end of the yoga practice, Karma told us to find a comfortable position for savasana (the Corpse post) because we would lie in that position for a long time.  

Zoe and another acupuncturist went around and inserted needles on our bodies. Students could opt out if they wanted to. I had a needle inserted near my left eyebrow, and needles on both my hands and ankles. Afterward I rested for about ten minutes and felt very relaxed. 

I breathed in and breathed out following the chanting music that the instructors have selected. As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I remembered the blessings in my life—a loving family, a four-month-old cute granddaughter, colleagues I have worked with for a long time, and students and junior scholars I have had the privilege to mentor. . . . 

I had come to this workshop with curiosity and I left, quite unexpectedly, full of thanksgiving and gratitude.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Why Yoga

My first encounter with yoga was at the Episcopal Divinity School more than ten years ago. A talented teacher Anna taught the class and it was free. I learned some basic yoga poses and most of all I learned the breath (prana) and the pose (asana) needed to go together. Anna was very gentle with us as we had different body sizes and shapes. At middle age, Anna has a lean body with a strong core. I used to enjoy watching her shift from pose to pose with ease and grace.

I know I need to do more strengthening exercises to keep my body strong. I have been going to a gym near Harvard Square for the past few years. It has a section for weight training and machines for strengthening the muscles. Needless to say, very few women frequent this area. Occasionally there is one woman pumping iron, usually half of my age. Asian women? Not one except me!

While pumping iron is good for the bones, I want to increase flexibility as well. This is where yoga comes in.

The most basic and widely known yoga position—Downward Facing Dog—is good for so many things. According to Yoga U Online, “Downward Facing Dog gently builds muscles in the shoulders, arms, and abdominal region, as well as along the back and down the thighs and calves. In addition, the pose stretches and decongests the spinal column, a vital function which promotes the free flow of energy and nerve information between the body and brain.”

In the past two weeks, I have gone to a yoga center near Harvard three times a week to practice vinyasa yoga. I have learned from teachers with different teaching styles. Lucie combines meditation with yoga and after her classes, I felt so relaxed and renewed each time. I almost went to sleep during savasana (corpse pose) at the end.

Many teachers would not want to correct students’ poses or touch students’ bodies. This may discourage the students or cause embarrassment. But Mickey would and he is amazing. He will come near you and demonstrate how he wants your pelvis to turn or the muscles of your leg lengthen. I know much more about fine tuning the muscles and about alignment because of his coaching.

Some of the classes are much more vigorous than the classes I have attended at my school. It is like I am suddenly promoted to college from grade school. Most of the yogis are younger, who are college or university students. But I have no time to compare myself to them, since I am so busy just trying to follow what the teacher is saying.

After one of these vigorous classes, I felt so happy and energized. Exercise is good for the brain. I now believe it. When we exercise, our brains release the chemical endorphins. According to Web MD, “These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. . . . Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body.” Exercise is good for you if you have depression or winter blues.

During the holidays, I have so many things to do. I am not talking about buying Christmas presents, but grading papers, preparing for the January term, finishing a paper long overdue, and thinking about a book I have started in the summer. It sounds ambitious. It also means working for long hours at the computer and potential neck and shoulder pain. Doing yoga is great!

This morning I went to yoga class. As we spread our legs wide apart and bent forward and lowered the head, the teacher asked us to empty everything we didn’t want. After yoga my mind became clear. On the way home, I had so many ideas about a chapter of my book. It was as if I had the outline of the whole chapter worked out. After lunch, I typed out the chapter outline and was very pleased with it. It made me feel great.

I will continue to go to yoga several times a week for a while and see how it goes. I have signed up for a “New Year’s Day Cleanse” yoga workshop. I have had health issues in 2013. My hope is that I will become healthier in 2014. I wish you a happy and healthy 2014.

This blog is not meant to give medical advice. Please consult your doctor before you start an exercise program.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Religion, Theology, and Class

Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence edited by Jeorg Rieger has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book wants to re-emphasize class as a critical category in theology and ethics, because people tend to focus more on gender, race, and sexuality issues in North America. Divided into three parts, the book presents new definitions of class, situates religion and class in the context of early Christianity and the United States, and examines the relation between class, poverty, gender and race. 

Gary J. Dorrien, Stephanie Mitchem, Santiago H. Slabodsky, Susan B. Thistlethwaite, and I reviewed the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 24, 2013 at Baltimore, Maryland. My review used a postcolonial perspective to examine the contribution of the book.

Postcolonial theorists have criticized the limits of the concept of class in classical Marxist theory, based as it was on the development of industrialized and capitalist societies. It is less useful to study pre-industrialized societies and other forms of oppression in society. They have also pointed out the Orientalist biases in Marxist writings.

In this book, the contributors seek to bring the concept of class up to date in the context of global capitalism. The nuanced and pluralistic approach is most helpful and it points to the difficulties of formulating a generally accepted theory of class. Less is said in the book, however, about the vision or shape of an alternative global economic system and the role religion and theology will take part in it.

While the poor are often mentioned, they are discussed in the context of Marxist or other theories. The Occupy Movement is mentioned in several chapters and offered as a clear example of people rising against the transnational capitalist class. In addition, Vítor Westhelle speaks briefly about the transgression and resistance of migrant people, while Pamela K. Brubaker refers to the factory workers in Mexico, who struggle to live out according to the values of sustenance economy in relation to transnational production. Toward the end of her chapter, Brubaker also mentions Vandana Shiva’s work on sustenance economy and nature’s economy to contest the dominant market economy.

Corey D. B. Walker’s chapter presents a sustained reflection on class from a subaltern perspective by offering an account of “thinking blackness” in the work of black religious scholars and theologians. He challenges us to work for “a categorical infusion of an/other logic the opens up onto new and that in/forms novel conceptual intelligibility as well as the orientation of human life.” Walker finds Walter Mignolo’s concept of “colonial difference” and Anibal Quijano’s concept of “coloniality of power” valuable for his project.

Edward P. Antonio’s important essay on “Black Theology and Postcolonial Discourse” in the Cambridge Companion to Black Theology has brought to my attention the often unexplored overlapping concerns of black and postcolonial theologies and possibilities for mutual learning.

Joerg Rieger
I would like to see the following areas articulated in future discussion about religion, theology, and class. Postcolonial theorists discuss the intimate relationship between the colonizers and the colonized, such as mutual inscription, collaboration, attraction, and repulsion. The book often presents stark contrast between the rich and the poor and toward the end, Rieger says that dualism is necessary to articulate the realities of class struggle. But class in today’s global capitalism must be seen as more fluid and multifaceted, and indeed in relational terms.

While the exploitation by the transnational capitalist elites should be criticized, we need to investigate the role of the poor and the middle class in collaborating with or sustaining the global economic system. This is not to blame the victims, but to see how global capitalism interpellates different kinds of subjects through its ideologies and practices. Without articulating how and why the poor are absorbed, coopted, and bought into the system and become the instrument of their own oppression, we cannot see through the maze to propose alternatives and mobilize resistance.

I hope that gender and sexuality will feature more prominently in future discussion of religion, theology, and class. Except for Brubaker’s chapter, other chapters have either left these categories out or mentioned them only in passing. The work of Marcella Althaus-Reid has convincingly shown the intersection between heterosexism and colonialism and empire building. We need to investigate for example how gender is racialized and has a class dimension, how race is genderized, and inflected by class, and how class intersects with race and gender especially in the consumerist culture.

Finally, I would like to see contributions from China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe as their move from Communism to adopting capitalist measures will offer another perspective to look at how religion and theology is inflected by class and economic injustice in these rapidly changing societies.  I hope the publication of the book and this panel will stimulate further interdisciplinary research and conversation.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

European Women in Theological Research

The Dresden train station where mass deomonstration
 took place in October 1989
The 15th international conference of the European Society of Women in Theological Research took place from August 28 to September 1, 2013 in Dresden, Germany. About 180 women from 16 countries attended the conference with the theme “New Horizons: Resistance and Visions.”

This was the first time that I had visited a city in the former East Germany. I looked forward to learning about the revolution of 1989 that changed the Eastern Bloc. We were shown a documentary about the mass demonstration in October of 1989. The former mayor of Dresden, a local priest, and others who had participated in the demonstration came to share their experience with us. They talked about the contribution of the Women for Peace movement and the roles of the churches in providing a space for people to discuss social reform.

The outcome of the demonstration in East Germany was drastically different from what happened at Tiananmen Square in Beijing earlier in the year, when the Chinese military crushed the students and demonstrators. The demonstration in Dresden was largely peaceful and the police had dialogues with leaders of the people. In November, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Cold War era.

Joerg Rieger, Kwok Pui Lan, Ulrike Auga
from Germany and Teresa Forcades i Vila from Spain
Joerg Rieger and I spoke on “Occupy Heaven: Are God, Religion, and Politics beyond Rescue?” at a public forum during the conference. We were asked to speak about the Occupy Movement and the theological issues it had raised, based on our book Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude.

This was the third time that I have attended a conference of the Society and I noticed several important changes. Spanish has become an official language of the Society, together with German and English. About 20 women from Spain attended the conference and their participation was significant. A sizeable group came from Eastern European countries, including Croatia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Czech Republic, and Hungary.

In the past, women in Western Europe dominated in the meeting. The leaders of the Society have worked hard to include women from Southern and Eastern Europe. Younger researchers and graduate students were also given space to present their research.

The conference had three sub-themes: postcolonialism, post-secularism, and queer visions. I was glad to see that postcolonial and queer issues have been taken up seriously in the discussion, which I have not seen so much in previous meetings. Musa Dube from Botswana was invited to speak about postcolonial feminist interpretation of the Bible, while Mayra Rivera Rivera from Harvard Divinity School spoke about the key challenges for theologies of the body in the twenty-first century. Janet Jakobsen from Columbia University used the example of domestic work to illustrate the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality in thinking about new economies and solidarities.

Dresden was heavily bombed in WWII.
The Church of Our Lady was rebuilt and reopened in 2005
In addition to the plenaries, there were many panels. Two papers were of particular interest to me. Aurica Nutt of Germany presented a paper on queer ecologies and Christian theologies. Drawing from queer ecologies, she discussed why Christian theologies must analyze their discrimination against “unnatural behavior” and against the environment. An interesting point is how queer animals challenge us to think about “nature” and “queerness” differently.

Niki Papageorgiou and Angeliki Ziaka from Greece presented a paper on “Postcolonial Feminist Theological Discourse: Muslim and Christian Interactions.” They talked about the important work done by Islamic feminists on reinterpretation of Qur’an and Shari’a and why feminist theology and reinterpretation of religion could contribute to postcolonial political discourse. They also identified the similarities and differences of Muslim and Christian feminist movements.

European women in theological research face many difficulties and challenges. Jobs are scarce and many with doctorates cannot find teaching positions and have to work in churches and organizations. There seems to be a serious “backlash” or re-traditionalizing of religious traditions. Feminist theologians are increasingly under more pressure. During the conference, participants identified strategies and ways to support one another.

One of the goals I had in going to Dresden was to learn more about changes of women’s lives in Eastern Europe. I bought two books to help me understand the transformation after 1989. Gendering Post-Socialist Transition examines the effects of social and political changes on relationships between women and men, gender roles and representations, and normative discourses about femininity and masculinity in eleven countries in Central- and South Eastern Europe.

Gender and Religion in Central and Eastern Europe contributes to our understanding of theoretical and empirical approaches to the study of gender and religion in post-communist societies. In the United States, we do not have many opportunities learning from women in post-socialist countries. I hope to learn more about the transformation of women’s lives in Central and Eastern Europe in the future. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Asian Theological Summer Institute

“How can one develop a theological voice?” asked one of the participants at the Asian Theological Summer Institute.

“It is a lifelong process,” I replied.

The Asian Theological Summer Institute (ATSI), funded through the Luce Foundation, offered a four-day seminar for Asian and Asian American doctoral students at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) in the last week of May.

Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar, Luther D. Reed Professor of Systematic Theology at LTSP, saw the need to offer such a mentoring program because Asian and Asian American doctoral students often do not have the help and support of an Asian professor at their schools. The students came to present their dissertation proposals and work in progress and received feedback from a group of professors in different theological fields.

Just as in any art, developing your individual and unique voice in theological scholarship and style requires much learning, practice, coaching, and responding to feedback. But in many theological schools, Asian and Asian American doctoral students do not find the coaching they need to develop their scholarship and the community of discourse to try out new ideas.

Even though a student’s supervisor may be supportive, he or she may not know the social and cultural context of the student sufficiently well to give informed feedback. Worse, some professors treat the student as a “native informant”—the one to educate them about the particular culture or community.

One of the recurrent feedback from ATSI participants is that their work has been taken very seriously at the seminar. They do not need to explain their culture to people who have little knowledge about Asian and Asian American culture and history. The discussion can therefore move further along to explore the theological issues involved in the dissertation and the different theories and theological traditions to address them.

Developing your theological voice requires a lot of confidence in yourself. You need to have the courage to speak your mind, disagree with what has been said, offer a viewpoint that has not been tried, and/or suggest fresh new ideas.

Many educational systems in Asia are good at impacting knowledge, but not so good at encouraging students to challenge established authorities and to think for themselves. Thus when the Asian students come to the US to attend graduate schools, they often find the academic culture demanding and difficult to adjust to.

A dissertation needs to make some original contribution to the field. Where does that originality come from? Would it come from questions and issues arising from an Asian and Asian American context? Would it come from seeing a misfit of an established body of theories when applied to a new situation? Would it come from constructing new knowledge based on qualitative research? Would it come from developing new models that are culturally specific?

These are questions that beginning Asian and Asian American Asian scholars often ask about. In To Open Minds, Howard E. Gardner, an expert of multiple intelligences, compares Chinese and Western approaches of nurturing creativity, using learning Chinese painting as an example. He says that in China, one needs to spend years to master the techniques and imitate the great artists before developing one’s style. In sharp contrast, the American system values too much individuality and personal expression, sometimes at the expense of basic skills and training. He says that a balance between the two approaches will be beneficial.

The ATSI, now in its seventh year, has provided the space for more than 130 budding scholars to listen to themselves and others, to hone their academic skills, and to sharpen their theological thinking in a supportive environment. They have been encouraged to take the beginning steps, however tentative, to develop a life-long pursuit of scholarship and nurture a theological voice that is distinctly their own.
I wish I had such a seminar when I began. It has been a privilege to be able to accompany many of these students and play a small part in their journeys.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Anglican Women on Church and Mission

The Anglican Communion is in crisis. The battle over homosexuality, with its intense media coverage, threatens to rip the Church apart. The debates on women bishops in the Church of England caused anger and frustrations among female clergy and their supporters. Some conservative Anglican bishops and their followers have formed a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, chastising the Church as having gone astray from true biblical teaching. These controversies epitomize the challenges facing the Communion and touch on fundamental issues such as the crisis of Anglican identity, the nature of authority and provincial autonomy, contrasting views on biblical interpretation, and ecumenical relations with other churches. The tenor of the debates is also influenced by the shift of Christian demographics from the global North to the global South. If the contentious issue of women’s ordination did not break the Anglican Church apart in the 1970s, some are less optimistic that the Communion can weather the present storm and find ways to remain together.

Yet even as gender and sexuality issues remain at the heart of these debates, voices of women from the Communion have not been clearly heard or appreciated. Media coverage and church pronouncements tend to focus on the opinions of bishops, as if they could represent the range of diversity within the member churches, or of spokespersons of various Anglican networks and agencies, who are mostly male and clergy. The voices of lay people and women are marginalized, even though women make up the majority of many churches. This groundbreaking volume attempts to fill this gap by inviting female church leaders, scholars, and theological educators from across the Communion to share their reflections on the Anglican Church and its mission. An anthology such as this makes a unique contribution because there are very few substantial works by women from different parts of the Communion. It is even rarer for the majority of the book’s authors to have grown up in the global South, bringing with them the rich textures and multilayered experiences of the Anglican Church.

The book originated at a conference for Anglican female theological educators at Canterbury, United Kingdom, in the spring of 2009. The women gathered became very conscious of the fact that we had few women leading theological schools in the Anglican Communion. Although there are several books on Anglican women’s history, mission, and struggles for leadership, they are mostly limited to a single country and do not cover the Communion as a whole. Judith A. Berling, Jenny Te Paa, and I decided to coedit this book to broaden the conversation.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one provides Anglican historical and theological perspective on the Church. Contributors include Ellen K. Wondra, Jane Shaw, Wendy Fletcher, Jenny Te Paa, and I. We discuss the transition from a colonial church to a global Communion, the problems of authority, the debates on sexuality, women's struggle for ordination, and women’s leadership development in the Communion. 

Part two focuses on Anglican women and God’s mission. Gulner E. Francis-Dehqani, Cordelia Moyse, Esther M. Mombo, Denise M. Ackermann, Clara Luz Ajo Lázaro, and Judy Berinai are the contributors. The chapters discuss the involvement of women in the Church Mission Society in Iran, the work of the Mothers’ Union, the Church’s involvement in poverty alleviation in Africa, the Church and the HIV and AIDS pandemic, cultural diversity and women’s spirituality within the Communion, and women witnessing Christ in a Muslim context. 

We hope that this book will promote dialogue and scholarship on women in the Communion. We are very grateful to those faithful Anglican women who have gone before us, and we hope that women in the upcoming generation will be given greater responsibilities and leadership opportunities in the Church.

*Adapted from Anglican Women on Church and Mission © 2013 the Church Publishing Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY.