Monday, March 27, 2017

When Asian and Asian American Women Lead

From Left: Mai Anh Le Tran, Seung Ai Yang,
Grace Kao, and Kwok Pui-lan

Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women have to overcome many obstacles in order to become leaders in their professions. First of all, they have to challenge persistent cultural stereotypes that portray Asian women as gentle, meek, and submissive. The image of a soft-spoken and compliant Asian woman does not fit the cultural expectation that leaders should be active, aggressive, and willing to take risks. API women often have to work much harder to prove ourselves and overcome negative stereotypes. 

But in many Asian communities, women who work outside the home are still expected to be responsible for their children’s care. While it may be possible for Sheryl Sandberg to “lean in” because she can afford to have a lot of help, many women simply do not have that option. In Women Don’t Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever explore the personal and societal reasons women seldom ask for what they need and deserve at home and at work. This is especially true for Asian women who are new immigrants. They are grateful when they are offered jobs and don’t ask for higher salaries or negotiate benefits, and they frequently do not even realize they can ask. They may also be passed over for promotion. API women may also be hindered by the cultural script that says you should not blow your own horn, and if you ask, then you are too demanding or pushing too hard.  

API women find it hard to take up leadership positions because there are few models and they often harbor doubt about their abilities. Studies have shown that men apply for jobs when they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, while women apply only if they meet 100 percent of them. In theological education in the US and Canada, women make up only about 30 percent of the faculty. Racial and Ethnic minority professors made up only 21 percent of the faculty, showing that seminaries and theological schools do not match the diversity of the population. Asian and Asian American faculty make up about 6 percent, and among them only a small number of women are in full professor rank. Since API women have seldom seen one of their own as a president or dean of seminaries or as a top leader in other professions, it is understandable that they are hesitant to break the glass ceiling. Very often, they are nudged by mentors and trusted friends to apply for and take up leadership posts. Lesbian and queer API women find the path to leadership tortuous for they are marginalized by both white culture and their own ethnic communities. 

Many people have hoped that when women become ordained, the church will change. But unfortunately this is not always the case. If the church’s structure, cultural ethos, and liturgy do not change, women are just performing the same roles as their male colleagues, while the patriarchal structure remains the same. Clericalism remains strong, even though we pay lip service to Reformation’s vision of priesthood of all believers. We have often heard about the idea of servant leadership, but very few leaders actually embody this.  

People sometimes argue that we need women leaders because they will bring a different leadership style, which is more collaborative than men’s. But when some women become leaders, they act as authoritatively as men do, if not even more so, in order to show they are strong and in control. API female leaders can be in a double-bind. If they are not bossy enough, they risk being seen as weak. But if they act aggressively and give out orders, people label them dragon ladies and hard to please. 

It is important to remember that successful leadership depends not only on the quality of the leader, but also on the people she works with. Women can exercise collaborative leadership if the environment allows and encourages it. I think of collaborative leadership not so much as the style of the leader, but a set of practices the leader puts in place with the help of the community, such as transparency in decision-making, open communication, clarification of roles and expectations, mutual accountability, and encouragement of new ideas and feedback. Collaborative leadership is a process, which takes time and effort, and trial and error. 

A collaborative leader enables each member of the community to feel they have ownership and a stake in the success of the whole. I was fascinated by how Tony Hsieh has created a cultural ethos at Zappos to keep his employees motivated and engaged. The employees can decorate their desks and working areas to “create their home away from home” with pictures, office toys, and colorful décor. The company empowers employees with tools to succeed, provides opportunities for continued learning, and allows employees to fulfill their higher purpose.* Indra Nooyi writing thank you notes to parents of each of her direct reports so that they could experience pride in their children also impressed me. Integrating employees’ family members is an example of wholehearted leadership and the emphasis on family is a key element of Asian culture. 

Collaborative leadership works when everything is fine, but is put to the test when conflicts among different constituencies arise. Consider the situation when the board, administration, and faculty cannot agree on the future directions of a school, or when there is a financial shortfall and the church budget has a large deficit. The leader needs to balance the needs and demands of different sectors of the community and is often caught in the middle or in the worse case, ends up as the scapegoat. 

API cultures can be sources of strengths or liabilities in handling conflicts. On the one hand, API cultures value harmony in relationships and tend to avoid conflicts. But avoiding conflicts may lead to covering up of problems, which will only get worse over time. On the other hand, API women have been caught in the middle and serve as the go between in patriarchal systems. In traditional families, they negotiate between the demands of husbands and mothers-in-law and other in-laws. There may be lessons gleaned from navigating complicated relationships. 

Female leaders attract admiration and envy from both men and women. As leaders, they are judged more harshly than their male counterparts; just ask Hillary Clinton or Carla Fiorina. This is one of the reasons API women may not want to consider leadership positions because they can’t bear to lose face and be publicly criticized. They have to develop very tough skin to deal with insidious sexism in the workplace.  Because Asian cultures place so much emphasis  on shame, API women often internalize blame and guilt when something goes wrong. It is important to separate between personal attack and rational criticism. Women leaders need to accept criticisms when they are due, but reject misogynous smears.
Rita Nakashima Brock

Many years ago my school invited Rita Nakashima Brock to speak to the community. In her talk, she warned that women need to avoid self-sabotage. For example, a woman might be under so much pressure, with one bad thing piling up on top of another, that she is just ready to snap. With no more than a slight provocation, all of the garbage built up inside would come bursting out. She advised that women need to have a metaphorical “delete” button or a “recycle bin” so that they have a place to put all that negative stuff.  

Finding a healthy way to decompress and to deal with pressure in life is vital for women leaders for the long haul. In the past, women have tended to share with their confidants to seek support. The recent impeachment of President Park Geun-hye sounds caution. Park said she leads a “lonely life” and trusted too much in her friend. Sometimes women leaders can live in a bubble in their own alternate universe, alienated from the people they serve. It is crucial to lead a balanced life and to have friends and colleagues who can offer a healthy reality check. Meditation, exercise, and yoga are good ways for renewal and relaxation. 

Women leaders stand on the shoulders of women who have gone before them. In many women’s liturgies, we recall the names of foremothers who have been influential in our lives. We know that our success is based on the work and sacrifice of many other women. Therefore, once we become leaders, let us remember to push the doors wider for women from the upcoming generation.  People sometimes ask why I spent so much time in mentoring students and junior faculty. I would tell them that I grew up in a working-class family and my parents came to Hong Kong as refugees. I would never have been where I am today if not for so many people’s encouragement and investment in me. When I first came to the US some thirty years ago, Katie Geneva Cannon and other white women mentored me. Beverly Harrison invited me to speak for the first time at the American Academy of Religion on women’s work in China. When I became one of the few Asian women theological faculty, I decided to help to make the road wider for others. 

Pacific Asian North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry was started by a group of Asian and Asian American women, with mentoring by Letty Russell and Shannon Clarkson. In 1997, the Asian and Asian American faculty in the network acknowledged our debt to Letty and Shannon for their many years of service and took over fundraising and other administrative duties from them. The same year we began the doctoral seminar to provide assistance for doctoral students to develop their dissertation proposals and to learn professional skills. Celebrating our thirtieth anniversary in 2015, Su Yon Pak and Jung Ha Kim have coedited Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders, which will come out this fall. As the coeditors wrote, “this book is yet another testimony of how the PANAAWTM movement enables women leaders to experience the nurturing and empowerment necessary to define their calling and ministry on their own terms.” I hope the book will inspire more API women to become leaders to change the church and the world.

* Mig Pascual, “Zappos: 5 Out-of-the-Box Ideas to Keep Employees Engaged,” US News, October 30, 2012,

This is a presentation made at the annual meeting of PANAAWTM on March 19, 2017 at Delaware, Ohio.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Postcolonial Eucharist

What would a postcolonial Eucharist look like? How would it break down the hierarchal setup of traditional Eucharistic services? How would we use the sacred space? What would we use for the hymns? What should be the preaching style?
Today at the St. John’s Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School (EDS), we had the opportunity to try out a Eucharistic liturgy written by Dr. Michael N. Jagessar, the former Moderator of the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Jagessar was one of the speakers at the “Challenging the Church: Postcolonial Practice of Ministry” conference held at EDS in November, 2014. In his presentation on postcolonial liturgy, he referenced a liturgy that he has written. After the conference, we had many requests to have a copy of the liturgy and it was posted on the school’s website.
The invitation of the liturgy says, “Welcome to the table with no corners. LOVE calls us—friend or stranger, saint or sinner. God’s table is the meeting place of generosity and abundance.” To honor this, we used a round table as the altar. The Bible and the bread and wine were carried and placed on the round table during the singing of the first hymn. As we sat in a circle surrounding the altar, we were reminded of Letty M. Russell’s vision of the church in the round.
When I tried to find an image of the Last Supper with a round table for the service bulletin, I found out it was not an easy task, for most of the images have a rectangular table. Fortunately I was able to find one painted by the well-known Japanese artist Sadeo Watanabe (1913-1996).
We opened the service with Fred Kaan’s hymn:
            The church is like a round table, a table that is round.
            It has no sides or corners, no first or last, no honours;
            Here people are in oneness and love together bound.
We included a Japanese hymn* with a Japanese student singing the first verse, and all joined for the following verses. Two students from Burma sang a beautiful hymn from their country, “Jesus Is My Friend.” The closing hymn was a Chinese hymn of blessing.
The scriptural readings were read by a Malaysian student in Malay and a student from the Bahamas in Portuguese. The Lord’s Prayer was recited in participants’ mother tongues.
Instead of a sermon from the pulpit, the liturgy called for a “table conversation” following the scriptural readings. The assumption was that all have truth and wisdom to share to benefit the whole Body of God. We divided into groups of two and three to have these table conversations. After the small group discussion, we invited participants to share insights with the whole group.
During the Communion, we passed the bread and wine among the people sitting in a circle. The Communion hymn was one of my favorites: “My God, And Is Thy Table Spread.”
            My God, Thou table is now spread,
            Thy cup with love doth overflow;
Be all your children thither led,
And let them thy sweet mercy know.
Michael Jagessar’s presentation at the EDS conference provided a theological rationale for his liturgy of the round table. He has further developed it as a chapter of the book Postcolonial Practice of Ministry coedited by former EDS professor Stephen Burns and me. Jagessar situates the Eucharist in the cultural discourse of eating, drinking, and table habits, and in such a way connects Eucharist with what we do in our daily lives and in community. He uses the metaphor of Pelau, a Trinidad meal with mixed ingredients that can be cooked in different ethnic styles, and invites us to rethink Eucharist as an open table that welcomes ambiguity, creolization, and the encounter of multiple identities.
When examining different Eucharistic theologies, he asks us to ponder what kind of table habits—rules of eating and drinking and conversations—are encouraged. Colonial table habits tend to reinforce the colonial class structure, such that those on the lower rung of society would be excluded or made to feel unwelcome. In contrast, Jagessar points out that Jesus’ table ministry welcomed all kinds of people, pushed social hierarchy and boundaries, and created new spaces in the interest of God’s kingdom. In our postcolonial world in which cultures collide and peoples comingle, the Eucharist should not be a ritual to safeguard doctrinal and cultural purity, but a symbolic act that welcomes hybridity, difference, and liminality.  

Jagessar also finds the metaphor of the third or in-between space helpful in understanding the mystery of the sacrament of Eucharist. In the exchange in the in-between space of the table, he says, the spirit is at work “to produce mutual inconveniencing, transformation, and new creation with regard to identities and belonging.”  

I hope the church will be bold enough to try out different styles of postcolonial Eucharist because the postcolonial church is not a cozy and secure place reinforcing the status quo and what we already know. It is a messy, in-between space such that God’s grace, beyond human understanding, can be made known.**

* The Japanese hymn was "Sekai no tomo to te tsunagi!" (Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather) and the English version can be found in many hymnals.

** The last four paragraphs are taken and adapted from my “Epilogue” in Postcolonial Practice of Ministry (Lexington Press, 2016).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Rich Past for a Positive Future for Theology

with Professor John Cobb
As an Asian postcolonial feminist theologian, my relationship to the Christian past is multifaceted and ambivalent. My reading of the Bible and the long theological tradition is never a “natural” reading, arising out of a living tradition that shaped my culture. For example, I wondered how the terms ousia and hypostases in the debates on Trinity could be translated into Chinese and whether there would be equivalent concepts in Chinese philosophy. 

So why do we have to study the Christian past? Sometimes my students put this even more bluntly, “Why do we have to study the dead white guys?” 

We study the past because we want to learn different models of how theologians addressed social, political, and ecclesiastical issues of their time. Take for instance, this year we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses. The questions that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Münster raised for the church and wider public remain with us to this day, such as, the source of authority, the shape of liturgy and the meaning of sacraments, the visible and invisible church, the relation between the two kingdoms, and the relation between the established church and radical reform impulses.  

A highly relevant question for today might be “How can the Church be reformed so that it might respond to the challenges of the Trump era?” Although the Chinese may not have an event equivalent to the Reformation, the Reformation provided a mirror through which to look at the relation between religion, politics, and power at a watershed moment of the early development of capitalism and modernity. 

Without learning from the past, we impoverish ourselves because we are left with the tyranny of the present. We can easily lose hope and fall prey to cynicism and despair. This is especially important in the United States because historical literacy is low and people seek immediate relevance. Facebook and social media outlets can make us obsessed with the immediate present. Learning from history allows us to maintain a certain distance and to have a broader perspective when examining our present time. 

Given that we have such a long and rich theological tradition and so many theological giants before us, there is also the danger of the tyranny of the past. We might become so immersed and inculturated into certain modes of theological thinking, patterns of argument, and the common vocabularies of a certain theological tradition and our minds be so colonized that we are unable to see the horizon beyond or dare to take the road less traveled. 

Theological innovations often begin by posting radical questions to the past. The feminist theological movement wrestled with the validity of past tradition. Mary Daly argued that the Christian tradition is so sexist that it is irredeemable, while Letty Russell spoke of a usable past. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza offered a revisionist history of Christian origin, and Rosemary Radford Ruether recovered the lost voices of Christian women in history. 

Many theologians who have found their cultures and traditions left out from the dominant theological tradition have recovered their histories through the use of slave narratives, alternative archives, oral history, literature, and myths and stories to create a colorful tapestry of theologies. Today, theology is a global enterprise and we must pay attention to the global contexts shaping human lives and our theological imagination. Theology is contextual, but our contexts are deeply intertwined today. We need to find ways to educate ourselves about how others are developing theologies to respond to common concerns of our time. This must be a sustained and deliberate effort and not something to do only when we have time. 

I wish I knew when I began to study theology that this would be a life-long vocation with many twists and no easy answers. Our work is harder because, unlike Luther and the reformers who stood in the vanguard of the intellectuals of their time, we as contemporary theologians have to defend our existence in the academy and larger society. When Christian theology is in a defensive posture, the marginal voices within it could be even more marginalized or suppressed. A danger for theological movements is that they become reactionary or ossified over time and fail to respond to new challenges. There is often much excitement when a theological movement begins, but as it becomes institutionalized or domesticated, it needs new reformers and discussants to keep it alive and on the cutting-edge.  

Facing the future, theologians have important roles to play in the Trump era. Latin American theologians reminded us that we must distinguish between the worship of God and the worship of idols. When people are mesmerized by populist claims such as “Make America Great Again” and the representation of the President as pseudo-Messiah, theologians must challenge idolatry and alternative facts. In the battle for truth, we stand on the shoulders of giants such as Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Y. T. Wu, Oscar Romero, Mercy Oduyoye, Tissa Balasuriya, Desmond Tutu, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ivone Gebara, and others. When the country begins to look inward, we need theologians and leaders of faith communities who are cosmopolitan in theological outlook, astute about world politics, and have a deep sense of American multiracial and multicultural history.  

We must develop a culture of resistance in the churches and rid ourselves of Constantinian Christianity in order to see clearly the life and ministry of a postcolonial Jesus. Americans have not been comfortable seeing the connections between empire and Christianity. Middle-class American Christianity has so successfully adapted to the individualistic culture that religion has often become a private affair.  

The Christian message of sin, atonement, justification, and salvation has been thoroughly individualized, if not psychologized, such that they have relatively little social import. We look at Jesus as primarily a religious figure, separated from the highly politicized and volatile situation of his time, an era filled with periodic popular revolts and protests against Roman colonial rule. We must recover that the Jesus movement was a resistance movement against Pax Romana. Jesus was not a passive religious leader, but took an uncompromising stance against the Roman Empire and its client Judean and Galilean rulers. Jesus’ revolutionary message is relevant to our time more than ever as we struggle against pax Americana. 

Do I think theology will have a positive future? My answer is yes. When I began to study theology in the early 1970s, Gustavo Gutierrez has published A Theology for Liberation Theology for a few years. Mary Daly has not published Beyond God the Father. As a doctoral student, I witnessed the development of Womanist theology, Mujerista and Latina theology, Asian American feminist theology, and gay and lesbian theology. Today we have such a plurality of voices arising from racial and ethnic communities in the U.S. and from faith communities around the world.

In the 1960s, some of the avant garde theologians launched a series of books with the title “New Frontiers in Theology” and their aim was to facilitate “discussions among Continental and American theologians” and the discussants were all male. Here at this conference, we have such diversity of theological voices, and this should give us hope for a positive and more inclusive future. 

(Presented at the “New Frontiers in Theology” Conference at Claremont School of Theology on February 17, 2017)

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.