Saturday, September 11, 2021

God /Terror and 9/11


What is the significance of discussing Volker Kuster’s book
God /Terror: Ethics and Aesthetics in Contexts of Conflict and Reconciliation today on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11? For me the significance is that we gather to remember, to make sense, and to search for meaning.

Two unforgettable images stand out for me on this day. One is people jumping to their death from the Twin Towers on 9/11. The image speaks of terror and horror. The second image is the image of two children I saw on TV, a boy and a girl, at the Kabal airport last August, waiting and not knowing what would happen to them and their families in the US evacuation from Afghanistan. I saw terror and horror in their eyes.

On this twentieth anniversary, what have we learned as human community? What have we not learned? How might we learn anew and again? Kuster’s book helps us to remember, to look forward by looking back.

The book records Kuster’s intense dialogues with artists—painters, installers of memorials and museums, novelists, and writers—to search for meaning and to search for what is possible.

For indeed when language reaches its limits, when we are at a loss of words, we turn to the artists among us. When theodicy seems to fail, when all sorts of theological gymnastics seem to lack the power to explain, to make sense, we ask those who can see, who can still feel, who can come up with shattering beauty in the midst of terror to guide us.

The book speaks of an aesthetic turn in theology. What does it mean to turn to aesthetic to make sense of theology? In what sense is theology aesthetic? On the one hand, What is it about the aesthetic that can turn theological thought? On the other, what is it about aesthetic that theology itself may turn on it?

With numerous images, Kuster’s book is divided into two parts. The first part is “Terror, War and Violence: God Talk in the Memory of 9/11.” The second part is “Guilt, Reconciliation, Grace: God Talk in the Political Conflicts in Germany, South Korea, and South Africa.” The second part is a contrapuntal reading of the first part. The first part has a section on the “conflicting images of God”; the second juxtaposes this with “in conflict with God.” This juxtaposition reminds us of the fact that God/Terror is not only found in one locale, in 9/11, but also in pivotal moments in other histories and timelines.

The book has some of the most striking images depicting terror and horror, the absurdity of life, and tragic memories of history. The aesthetics in the book deconstructs the classical understanding of aesthetics as the study of beauty and taste. Rather, as Volker writes, “The strenuous reconstruction of the relation between aesthetic and ethics is not about an aesthetization of suffering in the sense of its glorification but about its disclosure, its treatment and the preservation of memory” (p. 73).

The book raises the question of how we can bring art in dialogue with Christian theology. Kuster challenges the boundary between the secular and the sacred. He discerns religious meanings in “secular” art and culture. The arts in the book reveal life and death. Christianity talks about suffering, healing, reconciliation, the cross, and resurrection.

But we have to avoid superimposing a Christian framework on art. We need to ask, How might art reveal and challenge us to think about and reconstruct Christian symbols in new ways.

I want to use two paintings in the book to illustrate. The South Korean artist Hong Song-Dam (b. 1955) depicts a woman’s violated body in a pool of blood in a woodcut titled “Blood and Tears 7.” Women were raped and brutally killed during the Kwangju massacre in 1980. The image of the suffering woman’s body requires us to think about why Christianity has focused on male suffering to the neglect of women’s suffering.

The other image is from Hong’s oil paintings in the series “The Twenty Days in Water” (8 pieces, 1999). The series depicts the agony of a political prisoner who is tortured. The torturers tie him on a chair and presses his head under water. After he dies, the following painting shows he has grown fins and swims with a fish forming like a yin-yang symbol. While Christians have talked about resurrection, this artwork offers another idea: metamorphosis. How might metamorphosis challenge or supplement our understanding of resurrection?

I am grateful to Kuster, whose dialogue with arts helps us remember the burden of history, the burden of memory.

·        Presented at an international panel on September 11, 2021, for the launching of the book.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Minor Feelings and Asian American Identity

I have seldom read a book that has caused me to pause so many times to reflect on my life as a racial minority in the United States. This is the reason I appreciate Minor Feelings by Korean American award-winning poet Cathy Park Hong.*

Several days ago, my spouse and I went to a supermarket to buy groceries. To space out the customers because of Covid-19, the store put red tapes 6 feet apart in the checkout lane. As my spouse lined up to pay for the groceries, the white woman in front of him demanded that he moved back several steps further to about 9 feet behind her. Did she do this because he is Asian?

This incident reminded me of the “minor feelings” Hong describes in her book: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (p. 55).

Hong grew up in California with immigrant parents, who have worked hard so that their children would have better lives. Her book is not a coming of age story or a story about survival and self-determination. It is an honest reckoning of the psychic life of an Asian American woman struggling to gain her voice when racial identity can box one in.

Hong does not mince words when talking about Asian Americans’ habit of seeking white approval. Before reading the book, I knew that it is not easy to be a poet. But I didn’t know that a poet needs to win prizes and fellowships and be validated by (white) prestigious institutions to make a living or get a teaching position. Yet Hong is tired of writing her life script using the alphabets provided by the white world.

Her ruthless honesty makes her Asian American readers ponder the prices we have paid (or are willing to pay) to be “successful” in a white dominated world. What makes Asian Americans willing to be “the carpenter ants of the service industry, the apparatchiks of the corporate world” as Hong says? Why do we step on each other to become cogs in the money-making machine?

It is difficult to live with the ambivalence, if not self-hatred, one feels about oneself. Hong writes, “Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.” (pp. 9-10).

We are hard on other Asians: we cringe when we hear other Asians speak with an accent or make grammatical mistakes; we frown when we see an Asian woman too fat or wear a dress too short; we burn with envy when our Asian friend gets a coveted fellowship or award.

Hong is merciless in shredding the “model minority” myth. I am surprised and impressed by her willingness to air dirty laundry in the open and pay little attention to cultural taboos. Her mother beat her and her sister. Her father learned to speak in a pleasing way to his customers and clients. In graduate school, she thought writing about Asian identity is “juvenile” and uncool. While many revere the pioneering Korean American author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the author of Dictee, Hong traces the story of Cha’s rape and murder. Filial piety is a cardinal virtue for Koreans, but Hong makes no secret of the burden of having to feel indebted to one’s parents all the time.

Living with contradictions and pulled from all sides, Hong finds solace in poetry and literature. The poetic form allows her to conjure up worlds by stretching language to its limits. She introduces me to many authors I have not known before. She pays attention to how narratives illumine realities and fashion lives. In doing so, she invites theologians and religious scholars to be keenly aware of how religious narratives shape our worldviews and aid or hinder our meaning-making process.

Minor feelings is not an easy read. The book elicits many mixed feelings but does not offer any easy resolution. The best thing from reading the book is that it allows you to feel messy, less perfect, anguish, complicit, and not always in control. It is OK to have these minor feelings because relationships are so racialized and we are constantly conscripted to serve the white world. In reckoning these minor feelings, we can better comprehend the depth of precariousness of the lives of racial minorities, despite appearing successful in the eyes of the outside world. It is only then that the long process of racial empowerment and healing can begin.

*Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: Random House, 2020) Kindle edition

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Sino-American Relations

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call to look at the world we live in and the global forces that are shaping it. Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Director of the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt University, points out that the U.S. is ill-prepared to face the pandemic because we have not learned the lessons from the Great Recession in 2008 by addressing growing inequity at the hands of financial capitalism. Indeed, when the market and stock indexes reached record highs in mid-February 2020, it was difficult to forecast the market’s sharp decline and volatility because of a tiny virus that has brought the world to heel.

The pandemic shines a spotlight on issues of race and class in American society. In the early days of the pandemic, celebrities and sports stars could get tested for the virus, while ordinary people with symptoms could not. Though professionals and white-collar workers can stay at and work from home, service workers and other low-income earners cannot. Staying at home is a luxury for them. While the coronavirus does not discriminate along racial and ethnic lines, black and brown people are affected disproportionally because of poverty, ill-health, and a general lack of medical support in their communities. Additionally, Anti-Asian racial incidents are on the rise, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s labeling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

The COVID-19 pandemic spread at a time of tense Sino-American relations amidst trade wars and political and military realignments in the Asian Pacific. This tension has made global solidarity in combating the novel coronavirus more difficult and challenging. In 2003, when SARS reared its ugly head, scientists in Canada, Hong Kong, and the U.S. collaborated to hunt down the virus. But the blame game between China and the U.S. during COVID-19 has created obstacles in scientific collaborations and the procurement of necessary medical supplies and resources. The pandemic shows how much the world is interconnected, from the production of face masks to travel and migration.

The U.S. has shown itself to be slow and ill-equipped to face the COVID-19 pandemic whereas China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, having learned from the SARS and other previous epidemics, were spurred to action swiftly. Trump’s botched response and the government’s lack of preparation have been deadly. As the U.S. became the epicenter for the virus, the rush to get face masks, ventilators, and other basic medical supplies highlighted the lack of government coordination. Rapid responses to the pandemic have been hindered by a market-driven health care system, the lack of universal health care, and no provision of paid sick leave for many workers.

Many commentators have compared the Chinese communist system to the American democratic system to assess which nation is better equipped to handle the pandemic. But there is no time for finger-pointing or the blame game. Christine Loh, a former undersecretary of the environment in Hong Kong, argues that it is simplistic either to attribute China’s success in controlling the virus to authoritarianism or to blame America’s failings on democracy. She argues that the divergent ways that China and the U.S. have responded to the crisis have much more to do with resources and capacities at hand, cultural and societal values, scientific understanding, political ideologies, and their decision-making structures.

The Chinese government did not warn its citizens or the world of a likely pandemic at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Had early warnings been made, many lives would have been saved. Similarly, President Trump played down the severity of the impact of the virus until March and does not want to follow the strategies used by Asian countries to contain and mitigate the crisis. He is halting U.S. funds to the World Health Organization for 60 to 90 days, accusing the WHO of being both “China-centric” and slow in responding to the crisis.

The détente between China and the U.S. has sabotaged global efforts to combat the coronavirus. Countries should not be forced to side with one of these superpowers in order to receive help and resources. When the pandemic is over, the world will need cooperation between the two largest economies in the world for concrete actions to bring about economic recovery. The lives and livelihoods of so many people are at stake.

We cannot forget the valuable lessons we are learning from facing this pandemic: namely, that we depend on each other for survival. Without solidarity with one another and with the least among us, we will fall short in responding to the looming crisis of climate change which will devastate human lives and our habitat on a scale that is hard to imagine. We must commit ourselves to building just and sustainable world systems for we can ill afford to go back to life as usual.

* First published as a blog on the Wendland-Cook Program of Religion and Justice Website at Vanderbilt University.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why I Like Worshiping at Candler's Cannon Chapel

Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown
Worshiping at Cannon Chapel is one of the things I like most in my life as a professor at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In the past two years as a visiting professor, I have attended chapel frequently on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During the week in which we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, I listened to inspiring sermons by Baptist minister the Rev. Dr. Damon P. Williams and by the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler. They demonstrated the power of the word and deeply moving and engaging black preaching styles. Dr. Fry Brown, who belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, used Psalm 27 as her text. When she linked the suffering of African Americans to the beginning of the psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-Whom shall I fear?” she provided a new context for me to listen to the words of the Psalmist with new insights.

Bishop Karen Oliveto spoke at Candler
Then this past week, Bishop Karen Oliveto, Bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church (UMC), came to visit the school and preached about how God’s table is open to all. As the first openly gay bishop in the UMC, she asked us to think about whether the church is “united” or “untied.” Her message was especially important for our GLBTQIA students, who are pondering about their future ministry and vocation in a church that is in the process of splitting over the issue of human sexuality.

This morning Dr. Andrew L. Prevot, an African American Catholic theologian and associate professor of theology at Boston College, preached about the Beatitudes, focusing on the verse, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). He said many people think that we have to wait to go to heaven to see God. But we need to train ourselves to see God in this world. This can only be done if we can see with mercy and compassion. The message was particularly poignant, coming from Dr. Prevot who suffered from many eye problems as a child. He used to carry a card of Saint Lucy and frequently prayed for his eyesight when he was growing up.

Just within the short span of two weeks, I have experienced preaching from four different traditions as well as gospel music, Catholic chants, and evangelical hymns. These worshiping experiences opened me to a spiritual world that is vibrating, inviting, and full of grace.

From left: Dr. Antonio Alonso, Dr. Andrew Prevot, and me
As an Anglican, I am used to following the set liturgy in the Book of Common Prayers. I have not experienced different kinds of ecumenical worship on a consistent basis. My faculty colleagues and students, led by the Rev. Dr. Khalia J. Williams, Assistant Dean of Worship and Music, have put their soul and energy in planning for these worship services. These services and the weekly evensong offered by the Episcopal and Anglican Studies at the school have enriched my spiritual life and sustained my academic pursuit. They provide a supportive and welcoming environment for me to explore the hidden face of God that has yet to be revealed.

As a theologian, I consider theology and spirituality as deeply integrated, partly because I come from a Chinese background. The neo-Confucian philosophers in the medieval period debated about the relationship between knowing and doing. I am firmly with the camp that emphasized that knowing and doing should go hand in hand. I so admired Dr. Prevot’s sermon because he demonstrated that one can combine vigorous theological thinking with the deepest longing for God.

Candler’s worship also challenges me to think about how we can live into God’s realm, embracing differences in race, language, custom, class, gender, and sexuality. It is not easy to study together; it is even harder to worship together. I, for one, can’t clap and sing and move my body. For others, it is so natural.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered the address given by Dr. Rebecca Chopp, who was once a professor at Candler and Emory University’s Provost. In her convocation address, she used the theme of abiding to talk about our faith and loyalty. Coming to seminary and divinity school, she said, provides an opportunity for us to listen to abiding of other people, and to learn to dwell in our own abiding.

Abiding means a sense of belonging and community. In our time of rootlessness and isolation, when we have to check our mobile devices so many times a day to stay “connected,” the opportunity to sing, move, worship together enables us to experience the epiphany of God’s grace.

Without drinking from the spiritual wells of our many traditions, it will be much harder to live in community, to honor difference, and to work together to change the world. Prophet Micah exhorted us “to do justice, and love mercy.” Both justice and mercy can only be nurtured by sustainable practices.* Worshiping together is one such practice to help us see each other as God’s beloved.

*I am grateful to my former student Julian Reid for this term. He mentioned this in the context of discussing how to integrate what we have learned in divinity school and in our different ministries and vocations. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Guard Your Sensory Doors

Today the yoga teacher began by saying that it is through the sensory doors that we get in touch with the world. But during today’s yoga, we wanted to guard the sensory doors intentionally.

This is the reason she doesn’t use music in her teaching, because she wants us to focus on yoga.

During the whole day, I have been thinking if I have guarded my sensory doors mindfully.

We live in a world of information overload. I do not subscribe to printed newspapers. But every day I look at the New York Times, Politico, Huff Post, World Journal (in Chinese) and sometimes South China Morning Post.

In addition, I watch videos from Hong Kong and Taiwan. During the past six months, I have been following the Hong Kong protests and sometimes spent hours watching commentaries by different KOLs (key opinion leaders). Watching the news often makes me upset, sad, and angry.

I have told my students many times about the need to protect our brains and guard our time. In Crazy Busy, Dr. Edward Hallowell says that many of us are suffering from ADT (Attention Deficit Trait). ADT are people who have difficulty staying organized, setting priorities, and managing time. As a psychiatrist who has diagnosed and treated thousands of people with ADD, he is seeing more and more people suffering from ADT.

Our culture and modern life create the environment for developing ADT. We watch TV, eat dinner, check our phone, and talk to our children at the SAME TIME during dinner.

We boast we can multitask, but this may affect our brain’s function. Dr. Hallowell writes, “as the human brain is asked to process dizzying amount of data, its ability to solve problems flexibly and creatively declines and the number of mistakes increases.”*

After I talked about Dr. Hallowell’s research in a class, a student canceled several of her social media accounts and said she needed to wean herself from spending so much time checking messages.

I did not have her problems until two weeks ago. My friends were amazed when I told them that I did not have a smartphone till two years ago. I had only a flip phone. Since I sat in front of my computer all the time, I didn’t need a smartphone to check and respond to emails. I also did not want to be connected 24/7.

I finally decided to change to a smartphone because I found a phone plan that was even cheaper than my flip phone plan. I went to and bought the cheapest one (on sale for $69).

I was not addicted to my phone and did not carry it around every day. Sometimes I purposely left it at home, so that I would not be connected all the time. The cheap phone worked for me, except it could not take beautiful photos as iPhones or Samsung phones could.

During the Thanksgiving holidays, I decided to buy a nicer phone because I need to take a few videos for a project.

So, I bought a top-of-the-line Samsung phone that came out this year. And my problems began!

The screen is so nice and the images so sharp. They appeal to the eyes.

I have always wondered why my friends can respond to Facebook posts so fast. Now I know. My Facebook app shows the number of likes, comments, etc. I have received. It is so tempting to check what my friends have said.

The Outlook app and the Google mail app show the number of new messages. The YouTube app shows the number of new videos I have subscribed to. The apps in my old phone would not show these numbers.

Suddenly, I find myself checking my beautiful phone all day—a practice I had proudly avoided until two weeks ago.

As I am typing this, my phone sits right next to the laptop, smiling at me.

How can I ever do or write something seriously if I am checking my phone all day? I will be busy responding to emails, checking Facebook likes, and looking at how many steps I have taken today through another app.

Guard your sensory doors should be my inner mantra from now on. Dr. Hallowell wrote CrazyBusy after he has written a very popular article, “Why Smart People Underperform” in Harvard Business Review. At my age, I am not so concerned about underperform or overperform. But I need to protect my brain and live a fuller life. Not becoming a slave of a small device that I am attached or addicted to.

In this age when there are so many external demands, close or limit some of the sensory doors may bring sanctity or inner peace. At least a healthier brain, I hope.

p.s. I wrote this in 49 mins, including checking Dr. Hallowell’s article. I could have done it faster if I didn’t check the Facebook likes!

*Edward Hallowell, “Why Smart People Underperform,” Harvard Business Review, January 2005, 57.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Doing Yoga in Hard Times

Inspired by two best friends who did a fasting retreat to take care of their health, I went back to yoga after a long hiatus. I decided to tune up my body before I return to Atlanta to teach at Candler School of Theology in January.

The small yoga studio can accommodate 8-10 people. Yesterday’s class was quite full with 8 people. The teacher Joy (not her real name) was a middle-aged woman. 

A woman in her forties came in a few minutes before the class and had tears in her eyes. Another woman in the class apparently knew her and began talking to her. The crying woman then told the class that she was sad because she has a family member who is sick. 

On my! I didn’t come to yoga to hear family tragedies….I came here to practice.

As she apologized for her crying, one woman said, “Crying is cleansing. There’s no need to be ashamed.”

Some of the women in the group clearly knew each other and offered support.

We began by practicing different breathing exercises: three-part yoga breath, belly breathing, and breathing in through the left nostril and breathing out through the other side, etc.

This was to warm up and after 10-15 minutes, the body felt quite warm as the internal organs were massaged. You massage the organs by expanding and contracting the diaphragm.

As we continued to do different yoga poses, the teacher sometimes became chatty and there were friendly responses from the room.

I HATE to listen to banter in yoga, good-natured or otherwise. I came here to relax.

I realized others might have come to seek community, especially during the holidays, with so much to do and so much pressure.

Joy turned out to be a very good teacher. She offered some of the best comments on the pelvis I have ever heard.

While teaching one pose, she said: “Move your pelvis freely. Turn it and try to put in at a different angle.”

Then she said, women were not allowed to move our pelvises freely. Patriarchy wants to control our pelvises. Wow, so true!

Later, when we were doing the Warrior I pose, she told us to square our pelvis, so that the navel would face the wall.

She said our pelvis needs to be strong and pliable—strong so that we can stand up and pliable so that a baby can come out from the birth canal.

Then as if catching herself, she said not every woman is a mother, but the belly is the seat of creativity. We may not give birth to babies, but we can give births to new things. We can all be creative in our lives.

As we were doing the baby pose, Joy asked us to relax all parts of the body. She said much of unresolved emotions are stored in the pelvis (in addition to other areas of the body). Contemplative exercises allow us to get in touch with the still body, beneath the thinking and feeling bodies, so that we can get in touch with these unresolved emotions.

This was such a good reminder for me, a teacher of spirituality.

Joy told the group to listen to our bodies. Listen to what the body was telling you today. We could modify the poses to accommodate our needs.

The body is not supposed to suffer because of doing yoga. Instead, yoga is to ease suffering in the future.

After doing yoga for an hour and 15 minutes, I felt my body was more relaxed and my joints more flexible.

As we concluded the practice, Joy asked us to dedicate the practice to ourselves or to someone else. I dedicated it to my brother. Joy said the usual saying: “May all beings be protected. May all beings be free of suffering…..”

When we said namaste, I was grateful to the company of yogis who practiced with me.

The woman who cried at the beginning stayed behind and apologized to Joy for crying and disturbing the class.

I walked up to her and consoled her, “I met you for the first time. But when you shared your story, I felt honored to be invited to be part of your community. There are times in our lives that we need even strangers for support…”

Then out of the blue, I began telling her that I have a brother who is going to have surgery for a brain tumor the following week. . .and started crying.

She embraced me and tried to offer some kind words.

As I walked back home, I thought what a wonderful yoga class I had. My feelings for the crying woman has softened during the short span of the class.

Doing yoga together is to create community—whether we chat during the class or not. The silent assembled bodies, the rhythm of the movements, and the commitment to support each other in our practice are gestures of building community.

The holidays are hard times. People may not have loved ones to share the holidays with. People may hate the big family dinners, for they have little in common with their relatives and don’t know what to say to them. People may have loved ones who have died and can’t share the joy of the season. 

Do something during the hard times. We can choose to do something to ease suffering in the future. I am glad that I went to yoga that morning.

Traci C. West’s Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality

More than ten years ago, Traci West, other religious scholars, and I participated in a group to discuss the intersection of postcolonialism, womanism, and queer studies. I am glad to see that West includes all these perspectives in her book Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence. West has written about and fought against violence against African American women for a long time. Based on her encounters with activists and scholars in Ghana, Brazil, and South Africa, West broadens the conversation in her newest book to include Africana wisdom on ending anti-black racism and gender-based violence.

The book recounts West’s visit to Cape Coast and Elmina in Ghana, where slaves were kept before they were loaded as human cargo onto ships bound for Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The slave trade was an integral part of European colonial expansion, and anti-black racism played a key role in it. Comparable to what Paul Gilroy has done in The Black Atlantic, West attempts to suture broken memories of Africans separated by oceans. Her account of Africana activism and resistance in four countries represents a countermemory to the global myths of progress and modernity, and a subversive description of neoliberal capitalism, which targets and sacrifices black female bodies. It documents how Africana activists and scholars have fought against colonial legacy, anti-black racism, and heteropatriarchy across the continents.

Postcolonial scholars have been concerned about representation of the Other in knowledge production. In the Introduction, West discusses her decolonizing method, which includes interweaving narratives with theoretical analyses, paying attention to reason and emotions, and being open to uncertainties and messiness. What impresses me most is her refusal to produce “objective” ethnographic data of the countries she has visited. She insists on keeping the border between the researcher and native informant fluid by presenting portraits of “intercultural dynamics in motion” (20). West  tells us her reactions on visiting the Candomblé temple in Salvador, Brazil, her uneasiness about her host’s suspicion of her intention, and her discomfort in gazing at black male prisoners. Her account shifts back and forth between gender violence in the US and foreign contexts. This juxtaposition prevents her readers from objectifying other peoples and demonizing their cultures as if gender-based violence is uncommon in the US.
Her decolonizing method requires utmost honesty and self-reflexivity. West has devoted her professional career to the study of gender-based violence and especially intimate violence. This is a topic that not many have chosen to focus on, because it is hard and emotionally taxing. West does not want to objectify the victim-survivors or invite a kind of voyeurism into their suffering. Yet her narratives successfully portray the gravity of violence, and its cost to the human body and soul. West admits that she has unresolved questions and reveals her “vulnerabilities that include uncertainties, hopes, blunders, awakenings, and commitments” (17). In those poignant moments when West caught herself reflecting on her cultural biases and class and heterosexual privileges, she invites her readers to unlearn their habituated ways of being and be self-reflective in entering another cultural world. The book is beautifully written. For example, West narrates the affective experience she had while she sang “We glorify your name” in a ritual of remembrance, rode in a bus with common people in Brazil, and dipped her toes in the cold ocean after a long day of listening. The book engages not only the readers’ intellect, but also elicits emotional resonance.

In the American individualistic, consumerist culture, spirituality has often been described in private, personal, and transcendental terms. In contrast, West grounds her discussion of defiant spirituality in activism, especially in combating violence against black LGBTQI persons in South Africa. This defiant spirituality is communal, embodied, antiracial, interreligious, and practice-based. It is a spirituality that “accentuate[s] the human-life enhancing and connectivity” (194) against death-dealing forces that condone violence against black women. It involves challenging existing cultural myths and Christian misogyny and homophobia, crossing identity borders, organizing collective action, and forming alliances. Defiance spirituality is not timid or meek but involves faith-based confrontation of white racist realities and of the hypocrisy of faith communities when religious rhetoric does not match action. Using the ritual of remembrance at the Cape Town Free Gender group as an example, West shows the importance of creating space to grieve and to remember.

The conclusion has a thought-provoking title “Hope as a Process.” Hope is often described as a state: whether you are hopeful or hopeless. Hope in Christianity is associated with time—the final eschaton. “Hope as a process” signals contingency without secure promise, directionality without assured outcome. For West, this hope is found not only in those nurtured by religious symbols and faith, but also in secular activists working for justice. She argues that “defiant Africana spirituality and Africana hope are interdependent” (227). This is because “Africana spirituality births Africana hope for solidarity in ending gender violence, which in turn fosters a solidarity within which hope can be found” (227). Africana defiant spirituality involves antiracist commitments, countercultural courage, and forging alliance within the politics of intercultural dynamics. West concludes that learning defiantly with Africana activist leaders from diverse settings has given rise to hope. She describes this learning metaphorically as a blackening process, which repudiates the denigration of blackness by white Christianity and colonialist thought. I want to add that this blackening process also involves seeing the complexity and contradiction in any given situation. It chastises us not to find an easy solution by resorting to naïve hopefulness or romanticized hope. It has the humility to admit as Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know as also I am known.” (I Cor. 13:12, KJV).

As I was reading this book in the past months, the news of the Hong Kong protests occupied my mind as I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. I pondered about the relation between civil disobedience and defiant spirituality. During her short visits to each of the three countries, West talked to leaders, participated in meetings, and visited sacred and historical sites. She did not have a chance to observe mass protests and describe defiant spirituality manifested in the “assembled bodies” (Judith Butler) of mass demonstration. In her examples of changing the marital rape laws in Ghana, combating sex-trafficking in Brazil, and challenging discrimination against LGBTQI persons in South Africa, I wonder why kinds of mass action was needed. The protests in Hong Kong were largely peaceful in the beginning, but with increased police brutality, some of the protesters have turned radical and violent. I have been thinking about the limits of defiance. In The Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil, Candice Delmas says we do not only have the duty to obey the laws, but the duty to justice, and “the duty of justice demands resisting injustice, bettering institutions, and frustrating wrongs, and it supports principled disobedience in the process. Given our less-than-ideal polities, obeying the law is neither the sole, nor necessarily the most important, of our political obligations” (106) During the civil rights movement in the US and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, protesters used different strategies, some were violent. I need to think more about the ethics of social actions and the principles of non-violence to effect social changes.

*This blog is based on a paper presented at a panel to review the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 24, 2019 at San Diego, CA.