Friday, March 18, 2011

Nature in Japanese Art

Japan is situated in a major earthquake zone. The country suffers from earthquakes and natural disasters frequently. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed 70% of Tokyo and 80% of Yokohama. The death toll was 140,000. We have yet to find out the magnitude of the loss of lives and properties in the recent 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami.

I wonder if the precariousness of life is one of the reasons that Japanese artists and poets display such attention and love for nature and its beauty.

The tsunami reminded me of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, created in the 1820s. This is the first in the series of his woodblock print Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Although it depicts not a tsunami, but an open big wave of the sea, it captures the power and ferociousness of the water.

The impermanence of nature and beauty features prominently in Japanese art: ikebana (生け花 living flowers or the way of flowers), tea ceremony, and poetry.

One of the Japanese poetic forms is haiku (俳句), consisting of 17 moras, in 3 phrases of 5-7-5 moras respectively. The moras are not the equivalent of syllables, but English writers use syllables as their guide. Traditional haiku focused on aspects of the natural world.

The most famous haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). The best known of his work is “The Old Pond”

古池や 蛙飛込む 水の音

fu-ru-i-ke ya (5)
ka-wa-zu to-bi-ko-mu (7)
mi-zu no o-to (5)

Translated as

old pond . . .
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

After the tsunami last week, people wrote haiku and circulated on the Internet to express their feelings and to remember the dead. Here are a couple of them and some are taking poetic license to change the form.

Enraged Pacific
Fire, water, endless destruction
Hope and hopelessness collide

Big tsunami wave
Washing over everything
Wish it wasn't there
(Alexander Hopkins)

Unanchored ships
Tossed in chaos of
Tsunami’s raw power
(Walterrean Salley)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Praying for Japan

Watching the videos in which the cars, houses, and fishing boats were blown and carried away by the tsunami in Japan was like watching a horror movie. How could we fathom the huge loss brought by the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history? Thousands of people have died and many are still missing.

Where is God in this? And where can we find the manifestation of God’s love at moments like this?

It always seems cruel to me to find moral and religious lessons out of somebody else’s tragedy. At moments of loss and uncertainty, we rely on the ancient wisdom of people who have experienced and survived many tragedies throughout history.

I remember listening to a rabbi talking about the Holocaust many years ago. When asked, “How can the Jews believe in God after so much loss and suffering of the innocent?” The rabbi said, “We don’t know how, but as Jews, we have been questioning and demanding God for an answer for a long time.”

Throughout the Bible and especially during the exodus, the Jewish people had been calling out to God, demanding God to justify God’s own action. I found comfort and solace in that God allows us to ask these soul-searching questions.

It is not a lack of faith when we argue with God and demand God for an answer. It is precisely faith seeking understanding, a vocation for all of us who are learning and doing theology.

In the Jewish magazine Tikkun, there is a section called “Ask the Rabbi.” After the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004 killing more than 220,000, a reader asked how could God have allowed the tsunami to happen. Rabbi Michael Lerner responded: “I don’t know and there are no answers, but only responses to the question. The difference is this: an answer seeks to dissolve the question, a response recognizes the ongoing validity of the question and seeks to remain in connection with it.”

The Rabbi suggested that we should stop thinking of God as a big man in heaven deciding our fates and controlling nature. Instead, he wrote, we should understand “God as the force of healing and transformation in the universe, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being.”

Last Sunday during worship, pastors in Japan tried their best to provide solace for the frightened and anxious people. My friend the Rev. Claudia Genung Yamamoto, a pastor of the West Tokyo Union Church, focused her sermon on Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

Yesterday in my spirituality class, we used the ritual of “touching the earth” introduced by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. We bowed down, touching the ground with our foreheads, and remembered our ancestors and our spiritual teachers. We bowed and sent our loving energy to people in Japan.

After the disaster, we saw the outpouring of prayers, love, and compassion for the victims and for those who care for the injured, the sick, and people who have lost their loved ones. The orderliness and strength of people lining up for long hours for food, water, and basic necessities impresses us.

We pray for mercy that the nuclear reactors will not explode and spew a radiation crowd like the disaster in Chernobyl. We pray for strength and courage when the Japanese people need to muster their energy to rebuild their society for years to come.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Radical Love by Patrick S. Cheng

Radical love is “a love so extreme that it dissolves our existing boundaries,” writes my colleague Patrick S. Cheng in his new book Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.

While queer theory could be highly theoretical and off-putting, Cheng’s Radical Love summarizes the contributions of queer theology in the last fifty years in an accessible and readable way.

So what is “queer”? This term was used in a derogatory way, but has been reappropriated as a neutral or positive term since the late 1980s. Cheng defines “queer” in an inclusive manner: as an umbrella term that refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex people and their allies; as a label that embraces transgressive actions against societal norms, with respect to sexuality and gender identity; and as a term used to subvert and erase boundaries especially in queer theory.

After tracing the genealogy of queer theology, the book proceeds to discuss the three persons of the Trinity, following the framework of ancient creeds. God is the sending forth of radical love, Christ can be seen as the recovery of radical love, and the Holy Spirit as the return of radical love.

Following queer, poststructuralist, and postcolonial theorists, Cheng questions the rigid boundaries such as the East and the West, homosexual and heterosexual, male and female, and divine and human. He argues that Christian theology is a queer enterprise, destabilizing all kinds of fixed binary categories.

Queer theologians insist that gender identity and sexuality are social constructs, and these constructs are often deployed to provide sanctions for the status quo. To “queer” is to challenge “common sense” and to render what is hidden, transparent.

For example, the Roman Catholic Church has used Natural Law to justify its arguments in favor of heterosexuality and procreation. But biologist Bruce Bagemihl in his book Biological Exuberance shows that hundreds of animal species engage in homosexual, bisexual, and transgender behavior.

While feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether has questioned, “Can a male savior save women?” queer theologians go a step further to queer the gender and sexual identity of Jesus.

Jesus, as the embodiment of radical love, crosses sexual boundaries. Nancy Wilson and others have shown that Jesus was sexually attracted to both men and women: Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, the beloved disciple in John, and the nude young man in Mark 14:51-52. The late queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid portrays a Bi/Christ that challenges our fixation on binaries.

I suspect many readers will find the portrayal of Jesus crossing gender boundaries even more challenging. Virginia Mollenkott writes about the intersex Jesus Christ, that Jesus has two X chromosomes (from Mary), yet phenotypically male. Justin Tanis suggests that Jesus’ life experience parallel that of many transgender people.

Furthermore, Elizabeth Stuart argues that the body of Christ is the church, which consists of a multitude of genders sexualities. Baptism and Eucharist reveal that gender and sexual identities are not of ultimate concern.

The book might remind some readers of the “boundary war” among feminists in the mid-1990s. While feminists such as Marie Fortune argued for clear boundaries in their work against sexual abuses in the church and workplace, Carter Heyward decried that rigid boundaries could also betray us and reinforce hierarchical relationships.

In Cheng’s book, binary distinctions and hierarchical constructs are overcome because of radical love. Sexual abuses and oppressions of all kinds are clearly contradictory to radical love. But love without justice is blind. I would like to see more discussions on how to protect radical love and how to differentiate radical love from love that goes awry, and from abuses that masquerade as love.

One of the strengths of the book is that it touches on all major doctrines of Christian theology: revelation, trinity, creation, sin, atonement, church, saints, sacraments, and eschatology (the last things). It showcases the breadth of the theological output of queer theologians. The book includes further study questions and a lengthy bibliography. It will be a very good resource to be used in the classroom and in church and small groups.

I hope that the publication of Cheng’s book will stimulate more discussions on queer theology among the younger generation, especially among the racial and ethnic minorities. Although Cheng has included racial and ethnic minority authors, their voices are often drown by those of white authors’. I hope that more work will be available that explores the intersectionality of gender, race, class, sexuality in our changing world politics.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Preparing Students for the Pacific Century

“How do we as theological educators prepare students for the Pacific Century?” I asked the faculty of Brite Divinity School at the Texas Christian University at Forth Worth, Texas. The twenty-first century has been dubbed the Pacific Century. While politicians, economists, and social scientists pay a lot of attention to the rise of China and India, what do we need to do to prepare students to be future ministers and civic leaders?

I spent two days with the faculty and students of Brite Divinity School and the Department of Religion of Texas Christian University at the invitation of the Asian (Korean) Church Studies Program. The animated discussion on transnationalism and theology in the Asia-Pacific prompted me to think more about the question I have raised.

Many theological schools in the United States have not positioned themselves to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. Currently we have three major geopolitical blocs shaping the future of the world: North America, the European Union, and Asia-Pacific. But our theological curriculum is very outdated, leaving the Asia-Pacific largely out of its scope.

There are historical and social reasons why theological schools have not caught up with the shifting geopolitics:

· The limitation of disciplinary boundary. Faculties are trained in specific fields, and some do not think Asia-Pacific matters in their field and should be included in their syllabus.

· Theological faculties are ill equipped. Many of the current theological educators do not feel equipped or prepared to talk about the Asia-Pacific, with its complexities and diversity.

· Asian and Asian American faculties feel marginalized. Tokenism is still an important problem. The one or two Asian or Asian American members of the faculty feel that they are the “designated” experts, called upon to manage diversity and to interpret Asia from Japan all the way to India!

· Not sufficient Asian or Asian American students. In some theological schools, Asian students, usually Koreans, make up a significant percentage of the student body. But there is a lack of students from other Asian countries to embody the diversity that is Asia. In other schools, Asian or Asian American students represent only a tiny minority of the student population.

· The Asian “ethnic” churches are seen to be conservative. In the debate of issues such as homosexuality in U.S.A. and Canada, Asian “ethnic” churches are perceived to be conservative. Progressive seminaries find it hard to build relations with these churches.

While I do not want to underestimate these barriers, I want to argue that theological schools need to be forward-looking.
· Teaching for a changing world. Preparing students for the twenty-first century does not simply mean including Asia-Pacific in the curriculum. It means broadening students’ worldview to include a global perspective. Students need to know about the formation of “Chinamerica” and its impact on the world and especially on poorer countries.

· Broadening the definition of theological competency. Some schools have included globalization in its requirements. This is a good first step. But it is not enough to ask students to take courses to fulfill this requirement, while the “traditional disciplines” remain largely unchanged. I would like to see global concerns included across the curriculum, in worship and liturgy, as well as in the culture of the school.

· Retooling and diversifying the faculty. Theological schools need to provide resources and incentives for faculty to re-imagine how their fields address the twenty-first century. It is also not enough to have a few tokens of racial and ethnic minorities or international professors to be the spokespersons and champions of diversity.

· The “silent” Asian students in the classroom. Some Asian students do not speak up in class because of language barriers and their socialization process. Instead of treating them as second-class citizens in the classroom, how can faculty and students engage in meaningful conversations about multicultural pedagogy? A useful resource is a report on Asian and Asian American pedagogy and teaching materials offered by a research team.

· Religious diversity. We must help students understand the challenges of religious pluralism and the religious actors in international politics in the global era. I recommend Thomas Banchoff’s Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics.

· Beware of learning opportunities in the community. Theological schools should encourage students to take advantage of learning opportunities about the Asia-Pacific offered by universities and the community. Strategic alliance with Asian and Asian American religious and civic leaders can be fostered.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Womanist Pedagogy

American schools are as segregated as before Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. How can we help to create space in the classroom such that issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality can be discussed?

Three African American professors discussed the vision and concerns of womanist pedagogy at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion this morning in Dallas, Texas. “Womanism” is a term used by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose to describe the perspective and experiences of African American women.

Professor Keri Day, Director of Black Church Studies at Brite Divinity School at the Texas Christianity University, spoke of moral imagination as a form of moral action. At a time when white male Eurocentric knowing is still the norm in many schools, she called attention to the ways imagination can contribute “to evoke new worlds,” as Toni Morrison has said. She used the work of Paulo Freire to discuss consciousness raising and critical awareness of the complexity of the world.

Engaging the work of Michel Foucault, Professor M. Francyne Huckaby of College of Education of the same university, spoke of creative chaos and seducing power in liberating pedagogy. Foucault has talked about the technology of the self and governmentality of power. Dr. Huckaby emphasized that within relation of power, there is also the relation of vulnerability. Power is never final or total. Womanist pedagogy can help students understand the underside of power and use it creatively for social change.

Professor Melanie L. Harris cited the work of her colleague Jack Hill to discuss teaching for diversity.* Hill offers several pedagogical steps, including: (1)acknowledge your own social location, (2) deal with resistance, (3) dismantle “safe spaces of niceness” in order to promote transformation, (4) deal with conflict with an ethic of care, and (5) share power as a way of creating a communal context of learning.

In her response to Hill’s work, Dr. Harris discussed her use of womanist pedagogy in the classroom, adopting the critical insights of Katie G. Cannon, Marcia Riggs, and Emilie Townes. Cannon, a pioneer in womanist ethics, stresses the dismantling of outmoded and conventional knowledge and demystifying racist and sexist ideologies. Riggs models the commitment to theory and praxis in her book Plenty Good Room. Emilie Townes uses Toni Morrison’s metaphor of womanist “dancing mind” to describe the sacred moment of learning between teacher and student.

In the discussion following the panel, participants raised the question of how might people of other social locations learn from the womanist approach. A white participant wants to use some of the critical insights in negotiating differences in her predominantly black church.

A black male student asked how male professionals might support the work of womanists. One of the panelists responded that it is important for black male professors to continue to lift up the voices of womanists, and not just learn about them when they are writing their dissertations.

A black woman who graduated from divinity school and is teaching in public school asked if the womanist scholars are bringing their pedagogy to the black church and community. It is often a challenge to be a scholar and activist at the same time. Dr. Day's Black Church Studies program seeks to bridge the gap between academia and the black church community.

*Jack A. Hill, “Fighting the Elephant in the Room: Ethical Reflections on White Privilege and Other Systems of Advantage in the Teaching of Religion,” Teaching Theology and Religion 12, no. 1 (2009): 3-12. Followed by responses by Melanie L. Harris and Hjamil A. Martínez-Vázquez.

Friday, March 4, 2011

War on Women in America

The Texas House of Representatives approved a measure yesterday, which will require women seeking an abortion to first get an ultrasound. They would view the sonogram, hear an explanation of the image and listen to the heartbeat, if it is audible.

Texas is one of the several states in which additional restrictions on abortion are being considered. The Republican Party is waging a war against American women and trying to curtail four decades of women’s progress.

The civil war in Libya, the soaring gas prices, and a possible government shutdown in Washington might have gotten most of the people’s attention. But women must be vigilant to protect their rights.

Since the Republicans have become the majority in the House of Representatives and gained many seats in state elections, they are trying to push a wide range of agenda that targets women. The Republican effort, if successful, would:

· Redefine rape to make it more difficult for victims to get justice
· Slash health-care funding
· Further restrict access to family planning and birth control
· Lower pay and benefits in predominantly female professions.

For a time, the American economy was so bad that politicians had to focus on jobs and the revival of the economy. Now the Republicans, especially the conservatives, want to resume the cultural war.

The House has passed a bill to cut federal funding for family-planning services. They want to eliminate the program called Title X, which has provided millions of women with preventive care since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed it into law. Furthermore, they want to stop all federal funds from supporting care through Planned Parenthood’s more than 800 health centers across the country.

The House resolution will also slash funding for international family planning and reproductive health care. It would also reimpose the global “gag” rule, which restricts federal money to any group that even mentions abortion. President Bush has imposed such restrictions when he ascended to power. President Obama has lifted it, but the Republicans want to reimpose it.
The Republican bill also cuts funding for prenatal health care for low-income women and for children’s health programs.

But women’s groups have begun to take action and speak out. The Democratic Women’s Working Group and the National Organization of Women have called the Republican measures anti-women. The Republican Majority for Choice also starts a campaign to restore Title X.

The church and faith communities must stand in solidarity with poor and low-income women to ensure that all will receive adequate health care. We must speak out now, otherwise the conservatives will be emboldened to push their ideological agenda.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Postcolonial Conversations in Canada

St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Canada, invited me to be their speaker for their Winter Refresher 2011. St. Andrew’s is a theological school of the United Church of Canada, formed in 1925 by the amalgamation of the Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterians. The Winter Refresher brought alumni, clergy, and lay leaders together for three days of worship, lectures, and discussions.

St. Andrew’s has a special place in my heart because my first theology professor Dr. Paul Newman became a professor of theology at St. Andrew’s after he returned from Hong Kong as a missionary.

I have never been to Saskatoon before and I know that it is cold. When I left Boston, the temperature was 27 degree (F). I checked the weather forecast for Saskatoon, and saw the temperature would drop to -17 degree (F) at night during my stay! Though the weather was harsh and unwelcoming, the warm hospitality of the people at St. Andrew’s made my visit very enjoyable.

Canada is a settler country and postcolonial conversations center on the painful history between the white settlers and the First Nation peoples. The First Nations’ peoples make up about 2.23% of the Canadian population.

The United Church of Canada, a progressive denomination in Canada, has apologized to the First Nations’ peoples for the church’s role in imposing European values. In 1998, the Church apologized for its complicity in the Indian residential schools system. The residential schools separated children from their families and many cases of sexual and physical abuse occurred in these schools.

In a panel during the Winter Refresher, Professor Geraldine Balzer of the University of Saskatchewan spoke about the importance of narratives in shaping our identity. She urged Canadians to revisit and re-tell their stories of origin and to recognize the sense of loss of the people of the First Nations. In recent years, First Nations peoples have moved to reclaim some of the indigenous names of their places. Geography and land shape their culture and sense of belonging.

The United Church of Canada in the last decade has expressed great concern over the impact of Empire and economic globalization. The report “Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire” in 2006 analyzed the complicity of the church in empire and called the church to repentance and action. From 2009 to 2011, the church’s mission theme is “Living for the Earth: Choosing Creation over Empire.”

I had the opportunity of meeting some of the students who had studied my work. Some of them are preparing for diaconal ministry in the church. They are trained in Christian education and ministry for justice. We discussed issues such as hermeneutics of suspicion, interfaith dialogue, the emergent church, Christian identity in the modern world, the politics of multiple identities, and the postcolonial Jesus.

I enjoyed the music and worship and have made many new friends, since people came as far as Victoria and New Brunswick. It was an invigorating experience and I got to know more about the United Church of Canada.