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.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Vocation of a Theologian in the Trump Era

I was in Greece when Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016. I was on a research trip and had just visited the Acropolis, the Agora, and the magnificent museums several days before. The fact that I was in Athens, the cradle of Western democracy, prompted me to think about the long struggle for democracy in human history and its relation to empire.

From left: Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow
Democracy is an unfinished project. On the one hand, people in many parts of the world have struggled for a democratic and participatory government that respects human freedom and dignity. Three young men in Hong Kong, where I was born, have recently been jailed for their involvement in the pro-democracy movement. But on the other hand, the spread and protection of democracy have been used by Western powers as justification for regime changes, removal of elected political leaders, and military coups. The lack of democracy has been used as a signifier of the inferiority of non-Western cultures and societies.

As a postcolonial theologian, who is deeply interested in the relationship between religion, power, and empire, the election of Trump and the chaos of the White House in the past several months demand serious theological reflection.

For some, especially in the Chinese media, the election of Trump shows the dysfunction of democracy and the unreliability of populism. But to see the election of Trump as an aberration is to miss the signs of our time. His slogan “Make America Great Again” appeals to the imperial impulse of many American people, especially working-class white men who perceive that they have lost much power. Trump had to appeal to his base and that was why he waffled in his condemnation of Neo-Nazis, KKK, and white nationalists after the rally in Charlottesville.

Trump enjoys the support of the Christian Right. Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for him and Jerry Falwell, Jr. campaigned vigorously for him and spoke on his behalf after Charlottesville. Many of us might think the Christian Right misinterprets the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was a political prisoner under the Roman Empire. But we cannot forget the complicity and lingering impact of Constantinian Christianity that has justified violence, colonialism, racism, war, and genocide in the past and the present.

Learning from Foucault, we need to ask, “Is there something in Christianity that is productive and contributive to the discourse of imperial power?” When we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and when we sing “A mighty fortress is our God” (Martin Luther), “King of Kings….Lord of Lords” (Handel’s Messiah) and “King of Glory, King of Peace” (George Herbert), what kinds of images do we have for God? What if the Christian ethos inculcates a certain attitude toward authority and power?

Christianity has had a much more ambivalent relationship with empire than we might think. From its very beginning and throughout the centuries, Christianity borrowed from, adopted to, negotiated with, and at times subverting the language of empire and status quo. As a postcolonial theologian, I see it as my vocation to study, research, and teach this complex history so that we can learn from the past, understand the present, and work collaboratively for a better future.

We need public theologians in our time, when many people, secular and religious, are looking for ways to understand what is going on and how to transform the status quo. Religious leaders and theologians such as Wu Yaozong, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosemary Radford Ruether, Desmond Tutu, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Ivone Gebara are shining examples who have spoken prophetically to the church and society.

Following their examples, we need to understand religion and power realignment in the Trump era. As a theologian of Chinese descent, I am keenly aware that the relationship between China and the United States will shape the future of the twenty-first century. We need a new political theology that goes beyond its Eurocentric roots to address the rise of Asia Pacific, especially the emergence of China as a global power.

To develop this new political theology, we have to learn more about postcolonialism and international politics. Books such as Sanjay Seth’s Postcolonial Theory and International Relations (2013), Herfried Münkler’s, Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States (2007); Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road (2013) and the anthology Legacies of Empire: Imperial Roots of the Contemporary Global Order (2015), coedited by Sandra Halperin and Ronen Palan are invaluable resources. Within the field of theology and philosophy, I continue to learn much from Enrique Dussel, especially from his acclaimed volume Politics of Liberation: A Critical World History (2011).

Colonialism and imperial expansion cannot be maintained by rational justification alone without the support of structures of feelings (Raymond Williams). Franz Fanon writes, the black man desires and wants what the white man wants. There has been an “affective turn” in the humanities and social studies, which focuses on the states of mind and body that are related to feelings and emotions. In Coming to Our Senses, Dierdra Reber investigates the roles of affect in ordering the neo-liberal global consumerist culture. The introduction of affect theory to the study of theology will open doors to understanding suffering, loss, reconciliation, healing, and other subjects. Moreover, it will help decipher habits of the hearts when people hold so steadfastly and sometimes nostalgically to theological “truths,” ecclesial practices, and devotional patterns of a bygone era.

This new political theology must speak about racial justice as well as racial reconciliation and healing. How can the US as a nation come to grips with the legacies of genocide, dispossession, and slavery? While racial and ethnic minorities may proudly declare that there will be no majority race in 2040, how can we build the infrastructures and movements necessary to help people of all races and ethnicities, genders and sexualities, to transition into this looming reality? What roles can the churches play in bringing people into fruitful dialogue across differences? What kind of theological education will equip future leaders of churches and faith communities to lead people in this transition?

The white nationalist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville were sparked by the vote to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. While we condemn white hegemony, hatred, anti-Semitism, and racism, a deeper question is how to help people face history, heal from past wounds, and reconcile with a sense of loss of identity. Maya Angelou says, History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” The test for us today is to dialogue across political ideologies and spectrum so that history can be interrogated, discussed, and reconstructed together. The statues and war monuments of the Civil War are divisive because the past wounds continue to haunt our present. If Christianity has contributed to a racial discourse that denigrated African Americans and other races in the past, theologians and religious leaders must summon theological and spiritual resources for racial justice and healing today.

The vocation of an intellectual and a theologian is to speak truth to power. We need that courage more than ever in Trump's era of alt-truth and alt-facts.

Friday, May 26, 2017

How Did I End Up in an Exhibit that Honors Luther's 95 Theses

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses. In Wittenberg, Germany, there is a National Special Exhibit on “Luther! 95 People—95 Treasures” from May to November 2017. Organized by the Luther Heritage Sites Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, the exhibit seeks to follow “the young Luther on his path to the Reformation and highlights the significance of his impact on people from the 16th century to the present day.”
Among the 95 people are Johann Sabastian Bach and Martin Luther King, Jr. The national exhibit received 4 million euros in funding from local and state sources.

How did I end up in this exhibit as I am not Lutheran and have never published anything on Luther or the 95 theses?

Thus, I was surprised when I received an email in April 2016 from Dr. Benjamin Hasselhorn, curator of the national exhibit, saying that he wanted to include me in the exhibit. He was interested in my work on the Occupy Movement, a movement which he regarded as “bringing together. . .the central tenets of Christian belief and the call for a more equitable and humane society.”

“What is the relationship between the Occupy Movement and Luther?” one may ask. Hasselhorn explained, the Occupy Movement was “the embodiment and representation of an idea that was similarly of great importance to Luther: that charity and love should stand firmly at the core of religion as opposed to an institution or the protection thereof.”

I still had doubts, for the Occupy Movement was a leaderless movement and no one single individual could represent the grassroots effort. Time magazine named “the protester” as Person of the Year in 2011, instead of choosing a particular individual.

I suggested to Dr. Hasselhorn the idea of having “the Occupiers” as one group of people to be included. I even thought of inviting friends who have participated in the Occupy Movement to send me pictures so that a slide show can be shown at the exhibit. 

But Dr. Hasselhorn explained that the exhibit wants to explore Luther’s legacy in a personal approach and it would be difficult to include the Occupy Movement as a whole as people participated in it had different orientations and faith traditions. He was interested in my approach to the Occupy Movement from a theological perspective.

With Joerg Rieger, I have written Occupy Religion: A Theology of the Multitude—the first theological reflection on the movement. I also provided comments and feedback for the editors of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, a continuation of the Occupy Central Movement 佔領中in the fall of 2014. I am a pioneer of postcolonial theology and my theological reflection on the Occupy Movement is part of my overall work.

Dr. Hasselhorn asked me for an artefact to represent the Occupy Movement. I thought of a yellow umbrella that a friend from Hong Kong gave me as a gift. Protestors used umbrellas to protect themselves against the police’s use of teargas and pepper spray. When I sent Dr. Hasselhorn pictures of the umbrella, he said it would be perfect for the exhibit. It has the words: “A dreamer, but I’m not the only one” on it!

Since I was included in the exhibit, I began to think more about the legacy of Luther and Reformation. So when the editor of the Ecumenical Review invited me to contribute an essay to a special issue that marks the 500th anniversary, I said yes. My essay “Reformation Unfinished: Economy, Inclusivity, and Authority” appeared in Ecumenical Review 69.2 (July 2017).

Martin Luther lived during the emergence of early capitalism in Europe. Max Weber has written about the relationship between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism. During the peasants’ revolt, Luther did not support the protesters and called upon the German nobility to suppress them. In our time, Luther possibly would not stay in the Occupy campsites and I don’t know if he would support the Occupiers. But he did support charity and provision for the poor. This is what the Lutherans call faith begetting charity.

Luther’s idea of priesthood of all believers was really radical in his time. He argued that the clergy and laity did not belong to two different estates. He surmised that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, except that of office and work. He wrote, “We are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.”
But full inclusivity in the church still has a long road to go. Some denominations still do not allow the ordination of women and GLBTQ persons. The feminist movement has challenged the church to accept full equality and ministry of women. The full acceptance of GLBTQ persons has been a painful and tortuous journey, leading to separation and division in some denominations. As the mainline churches experience decline in membership, the emergent church movement has called for greater participation and leadership of lay people.

Luther emphasized the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the pope and the traditions. While the Bible has been used to support liberation movements, it has also been misused as a symbol of cultural superiority. A literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible has reinforced conservative attitudes toward women and GLBTQ people.
Christian communities have to live out the vision of priesthood of all believers and develop models of interpreting scriptures and authority in participatory ways. The church needs to find new ways of being church. Do we need a new reformation? 

Monday, March 27, 2017

When Asian and Asian American Women Lead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Postcolonial Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Rich Past for a Positive Future for Theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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