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.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in Africa

David Spurrett, Kwok Pui Lan, Charlene van der Walt,
Lilian Siwila, and Federico Settler
In May, I attended a conference on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in Africa sponsored by the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. I was invited to deliver the opening keynote address on theology, gender, and sexuality from a postcolonial perspective.

This was the first time that I had the opportunity to discuss gender and sexuality outside the North Atlantic context and I have gained a lot of insights from the experience. I am very grateful to the organizing team Professors Lilian Siwila and Charlene van der Walt and Dr. Federico Settler for their hospitality during the conference. I hope to continue to learn from my African colleagues.

South Africa is close to my heart. The first rally I participated in the US during the time when I was a graduate student in the 1980s was to protest against the apartheid government in South Africa. In a travel seminar to South Africa several years ago, I had the opportunities to visit churches, seminaries, and social agencies working for women’s rights and HIV/AIDS issues. 
         Keynoters: Kwok Pui Lan, Sinenhlanhla Ngwenya,
Cheryl Anderson, Madipoene Masenya, and Kakay Pamaran

Professor Cheryl Anderson of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary was also a speaker and she delivered a stimulating keynote address on “Intersecting Identities: Exploring Race/Gender/Sexuality Constructs in the United States Today and Their Theological Implications.” Other keynote presenters addressed the issues of “disabled sexuality,” gender and sexuality in the Philippines, and African women’s biblical hermenetics today. In addition, more than 50 papers were presented in the concurrent sessions, with presenters from South Africa and other African countries.
Although I have participated in discussion on gender and sexuality in denominational gatherings, academic institutions, and professional guilds in Asia and the US, the scope of the South African conference was most comprehensive! The papers touched on biblical interpretation, masculinity, public health, queer theology and practice, language and liturgy, ethnography, HIV/AIDS, mass media, and digital humanities.

It was delightful to meet Professor Sylvia Tamale from Uganda at the conference. She was the first female Dean of Law in Uganda and the editor of African Sexualities: A Reader. When I asked her why she took on the massive job and editing a volume of 670 pages, she said that she was tired of hearing what Westerners and outsiders have to say about sexualities in Africa. The media tends to portray African sexualities in sensational and biased ways to reinforce the colonial construct that Africa is a “dark continent.” For example, the media widely reported that Uganda passed an Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2013. But the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the Act invalid in 2014.

As an Anglican, I am particularly interested in the debates on human sexuality in the African churches and societies. The Episcopal Church in the US took a progressive stance on LGBTQ issues. In 2003 the first openly gay bishop Gene Robinson was consecrated in New Hampshire. Later, the Church resolved that the call to ministry is open to all, including transgendered persons. In 2015, the Church decided that the rite of marriage is available to all people, regardless of gender. These practices have been looked at with scorn by some African bishops, who even declared that there are no LGBTQ people in Africa!

At the conference in Pietermaritzburg, LGBTQ issues were fully included in the discussion. A particular highlight was the discussion of the politics of race, sexuality, and nation-building. Participants discussed whether the labels LGBTQ were suitable in African societies and whether there are indigenous terms. Others discussed alternative forms of sexual practices in Africa and queer Christian voices in charismatic churches. Professor Melanie Judge has published Blackwashing Homophobia: Violence and the Politics of Sexuality, Gender and Race. She examines the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class identities and the politics of violence in a postcolonial context.

We watched a documentary prepared by the “Destabilizing Heteronormativity Project,” in which civic and religious leaders talked about their work educating and supporting people to challenge heteronormativity and cisnormativity. The conference included NGO partners, such as the Gay and Lesbian Network, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, Global Interfaith LGBTQ Network, and Queers without Borders.

Since I was so stimulated by the conference, I hope a similar conference can be organized for academics, activists, and NGO partners in Asia. Questions of sex tourism, prostitution, LGBTQ rights, gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS have long been important issues in Asian feminist theology.

I returned from the conference with renewed commitment to explore further the intersection of gender, sexuality and religion from postcolonial perspectives. Future research issues and some of the resources include: constitutional rights, human rights, and sexuality (Grace Y. Kao, Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World); psychic and national trauma and gender-based violence (Nigel C. Gibson and Roberto Beneduce, Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry, and Politics), African churches, homosexuality, and US Christian Right (Kapya Kaoma, Globalizing the Culture Wars); and African postcolonial thought (Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony and Critique of Black Reason; and Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, ed., Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader). 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

March for Our Lives Atlanta

On March 24, 2018, March for Our Lives in Atlanta, Georgia, began at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum dedicated to the achievements of both the civil rights movement in the US and the worldwide human rights movement.

More than 30,000 people took part in the march in Atlanta, joining marchers in 800 cities in the US and around the world. The people took to the streets to support a student-initiated movement to change gun laws and end gun violence in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting that took the lives of 17 students and adults.

At the Atlanta rally, teenage students took to the podium to read poetry, sing songs, and call the protesters to action. Congressman John Lewis, who was a young man when he joined the civil rights movement, was impressed by the students leading the protest. He addressed the crowd and said, “It is amazing. It reminds me of the early days of the civil movement.”

I have never seen so many elementary and high school students marching in a rally before. They carried signs that said, “#Enough,” “Not one more,” “Loving arms, not fire arms!” One particular sign captured my attention: it said thoughts and prayers are not enough, and we need policy and change.

The rally was a site for civic education. A father near me brought his two small children, who carried signs made by themselves. The family began shouting, “NRA, go away.” As we passed by a booth for voter registration, a father told his teenage daughters, “I had registered to vote. As soon as you can vote, you will register too.”

At a time when the NRA lobby is so strong, and the Congress refuses to pass common sense gun laws, students across the country marched out of their classrooms on March 14 and took part in the national protest on March 24. Naomi Wadler, the 11-year-old fifth-grader, said at the rally in Washington. D.C, “I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.” Emma González, 18, one of the most prominent of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivor-activists, asked us to remember the lives of students cut short. When adults fail to protect them, children across the nation stand up. When politicians refuse to act, students march literally for their lives!

Marching down Martin Luther King Dr
March for Our Lives took place the day before this year’s Palm Sunday. As students were marching in the nation’s capital, I was reminded of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem. Jesus entered the city from the east side, riding a donkey and cheered by his followers. This was a peasant procession and Jesus came from the village of Nazareth. On the west side, there was another imperial procession. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria, entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers. Pilate’s march displayed imperial power and Roman imperial theology.*

Jesus’ procession was a protest march, an anti-imperial march! Many church leaders preach about the religious significance of Palm Sunday, but completely overlook or choose to forget the politics of Jesus’ march.

On Palm Sunday, I participated in a worship service with more than 2,000 people in a big church in downtown Atlanta. Most of the worshippers were African Americans. In his sermon, the preacher said that Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly as a different kind of king, not like the kings in the world. Jesus entered Jerusalem to fight for us, to fight for forgiveness. He did not mention the socio-political background of Jesus’ march, nor did he refer to the march that took place not far from his church the day before. He did not say a word about a march against gun violence, which disproportionately affects the African American community.

Jesus’ march and the unfolding events of the Holy Week must be seen in the larger context of political and religious terror. In The Cross in Contexts, Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb reminds us that “Jesus was not only a victim of state terror but also of religious terror.” This was because Jesus was not sentenced to death under Roman law alone, but also as a blasphemer, for he dared to challenge religious authorities. Jesus died because of religious terrorism. The cross, Raheb says, “becomes the ultimate critique of state and religious violence.”

Today, following Jesus means to confront imperial power of our time, and to oppose racism, sexism, heterosexism, bigotry, anti-immigration, xenophobia, and capitalist greed. It means engaging in non-violent resistance, pursuing justice, and working with our religious neighbors to foster peace. It means protecting the young and bequeathing our children a better world.

The children are marching for their lives! Are we marching with them or not?  

* Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-5.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Translating Global Feminism

Kwok Pui Lan and Rola Sleiman (right)
Two weeks ago, I was at the University of Edinburgh attending a conference titled “Women in the World Church” co-sponsored by the University and the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council. Several international students and special guests were invited to speak about the situation of women in their church and society. Sara from Iran spoke about the difficulties of women exercising leadership in the church and in the Muslim community. Jessie from Nigeria talked about gender violence, child marriage and abuse, and HIV/AIDS. She also reminded us that women are not just victims of oppression, but are also agents of social change who seek to be co-creators with God. Cadida from Hong Kong said that the first woman was ordained in Hong Kong as early as 1944, and, as a younger woman, she has not experienced much gender oppression. At the conference, I also met the first woman ordained in the Middle East. She is the Rev. Rola Sleiman from Lebanon, and she worked in the church for eight years before she was ordained. Her ordination was a joyful event that her Muslim friends also attended. 

As I listened to the stories about women’s struggles, agency, and ministries in many parts of the world, I thought of the topic, “translating global feminism.” How do we understand and conceptualize the diverse expressions of feminism in these different settings? The word “translation” comes from Latin, meaning “to transfer.” Do we have an original version of feminism, which is transferred or transported to other cultures and rendered into local languages and idioms?  

Many women in the two-thirds world do not want to be associated with the term “feminism” because the word is often used to describe Western, middle-class, white women’s movement. Global feminism, for them, may not be a blessing but can instead be a superimposition of Western values and lifestyles. Because of the hegemony of Western power, globalization often means Westernization. And globalization in the past decades has contributed to the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds, making women’s lives harder and more restricted than before.  

But global feminism needs not be conceived as a top-down, pre-packaged movement translated from elsewhere. It can also refer to a global women’s movement built from the ground up. There are, in fact, many feminisms, each of which is locally and contextually defined by women themselves. Feminism in Iran, for example, would look very different from feminism in Hong Kong. Instead of taking Western feminism as the blueprint, women in Nigeria may have more to learn from women’s struggles in Lebanon. The global feminist movement can be characterized as multilingual and pluriphonic: spoken in different accents, and open to a continued process of creolization.  

Unfortunately, many of us in the United States have the disadvantage of living and operating in a monolingual culture, while the majority of the world lives in bilingual or multilingual societies. Living in a superpower, we are not required to acquire other tongues, either literally or metaphorically. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says that we should regard our privilege as our loss. The challenge for us is how to understand the multilingual and multicultural expressions of so many different feminisms so that we can be ethical subjects in an increasingly interconnected world. This is especially pertinent for me, as I am now teaching a course on Feminist Theologies in the Global South and have been involved in translating and editing women’s theologies from other parts of the world. 

In her article “The Politics of Translation,”* Spivak writes that “the task of the feminist translator is to consider language as a clue to the workings of gendered agency.” Spivak argues that in order to do a good translation, we have to pay attention to rhetoricity, logic, and silence of the text. I want to borrow her insights to talk about translating global feminism. In order to understand feminism as it is manifested in different parts of the world, we have to learn how women use language and rhetoric to construct meaning and make sense of their world. For example, African feminist theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye speaks of a mothering God. We have to understand that the word “mothering” has rich meanings in the African familial system, and the nurturing role is a crucial one in the face of poverty and life and death in the continent. The challenge for us is that we often do not know enough of the cultural and social worlds of these women, and hence only come to know their feminist politics and theology superficially. We hear the words, but don’t really understand their rhetoricity. In our liberal academy, we often say that we want to be in solidarity with other women in their struggles. But without learning other women’s languages and their meaning-making processes, such solidarity could be at a very superficial level. 

To be a good translator of global feminism, we need to pay attention to what Spivak calls “the relationship between the social logic, social reasonableness, and the disruptiveness of fuguration in social practice.” I once heard a Muslim feminist ask, “why it is OK for a woman to be both a Christian and a feminist, but a Muslim woman must give up her religion to become a feminist?” The American mass media has created a social logic that Islam and feminism are incompatible. We are bombarded with stereotypical images of Middle Eastern women wearing the hijab, symbolizing their modesty and subordination. The hijab, as portrayed in the media, serves as a marker of cultural difference and female submission. Yet, in her book A Quiet Revolution, Harvard professor Leila Ahmed shows that some Muslim women in the United States have purposely put on the hijab after September 11. In the midst of the “war on terrorism,” wearing the hijab can be a sign of solidarity with the Muslim community, and a gesture of defiance. By doing this, Muslim women are claiming their agency and their subjecthood, challenging the invisibility of the Muslim community in America. Without knowing the history of wearing the hijab and understanding the hijab as a multivalent symbol, we will miss these women’s social cues and superimpose our own social logic onto them. 

The most difficult part in translating global feminism is how to deal with women’s silence. Spivak famously asked the question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Here we have to ask questions such as “Who are the women who are given the power to speak?” “How have the lives of the gendered subaltern been represented?” “Under what conditions do women in the majority world enter into the knowledge system of Western academy?” “Even if poor and marginalized women have spoken, do we understand their rhetoric and logic?” “In translating women’s work from another culture into a dominant European language, what compromises have been made to render it intelligible?”

In American culture, we often associate speaking with being active and taking part, and associate silence with being passive and disengaged. But this is not the case in other cultures, especially in East Asia. In Enfolding Silence, Bret Esaki offers a multilayered reading of silence in the experiences of Japanese Americans, facing racism and oppression. In the classroom, I have often encountered international women students who remain quiet and silent. When I ask a question, these students have to translate my words and meanings into their cultural context, and when they come up with a comment or an answer, the discussion may have moved on. I do not assume that their silence means they are not interested in the class. Rather, it reminds me of my need to think about other channels of communication and different modes of participation so that these students can share. 

Translating global feminism is not easy because it often reveals our ignorance, indifference, and impatience. So my question to you is “What kind of risk-taking are you prepared to take in order to enter the social and cultural worlds of other women and, by doing so, be transformed into agents of social change?” 

*Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine, 

(Paper presented at a panel on “Translating Global Feminism” at Emory University, October 2, 2017.)