Diasporic Feminist Theology: Asia and Theopolitical Imagination (Fortress, 2014)

[1] Namsoon Kang is professor of world Christianity and religions at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth Texas. The book is a collection of previously published essays. Though each of the essays/chapters have their own integrity and distinctiveness, they do reinforce one another and combine to build a coherent picture of the author’s vision of today’s complex world as the imposing context for a theopolitically engaged feminist theology. The book is through and through an enterprise in setting the table for doing feminist theology in our globalized world. However, in the process, her analyses, insights, and cautions are important for the totality of the Christian witness and the theology that informs it.

[2] Kang believes that the standpoint from which to do feminist theology today is that of diaspora. As a native Korean who has left her homeland to live and work in the United States, she knows diasporic living as an existence of displacement. Yet, diaspora is also and more importantly a metaphor for the situation and life of being a feminist that entails, “…a state of being, a mode of existence in the world – to be skeptical, rigorously critical of what-is, to intentionally distance oneself from the mainstream way of thinking and practicing, to long for the world to come” (19). Positively speaking, diasporic feminist theology is committed to justice and peace for all on the margins and, in so doing promote the common good.

[4] Throughout, Kang warns against the use of binaries, such West-East and stereotypes of ethnic identity. The distinction between Asia as of the East and in contrast to the West defines Asia as non-West and de facto places the West in a position of superiority as the global standard. The politics of identity, in seeking to respect the integrity of each culture, may in fact lock cultures into an identity that vastly understates the diversity existing within. Thus, Kang points out that the image perpetuated of all Asian women as minjung, poor, ignores the fact that Asian women are also professionals, business persons, middle-class, affluent, etc. who do not fit the image of oppressed Asians. In this world of today one must think in terms of cultural hybridity. A fixed notion of cultural identity can be captive to past conditions and notions rather than appreciative of an ever-developing situation of change and the intertwining of the particular and the universal.

[5] For Kang, postcolonialism does not refer only to the historical context of Western colonialism. It is transhistorical, or universal, and postcolonial discourse along with postmodern and feminist discourse is expressive of opposition to all forms of colonial mentality of domination and control in all modes of human interaction from the personal to the corporate. In that postcolonialism is not historically located and delineated, postcolonial discourse must respect the complexity of contemporary manifestations of the colonial mentality and, again, beware of the old simplistic binaries: the West-the rest, white-color, rich-poor, right-left as ways of identifying the oppressor and the oppressed.

[6] Thus, postcolonial discourse must deconstruct these binaries and others like spirit-body, heterosexual-homosexual, abled-disabled, etc. for such binaries, which are the stock and trade of colonialism, “fixs” people in an identity that is inauthentic. By contrast: “When colonized/marginalized/oppressed people find their authentic identity …in a space of multiple, contradicting, paradoxical, hybrid positions, possibilities and potentialities, liberation as an event can take place. The metaphor of hybridity is also significant for Christianity because Christianity is grounded in the divine identity of hybridity: divine incarnation into Jesus Christ as the hybrid of both divine and human” (122-123).

[7] Postcolonial discourse also has the task of decentering ethnocentrism(Euro/US), geocentrism (global north), androcentrism and heterocentrism in the construction of theological power/knowledge (123). Postcolonial and feminist theological discourses in accord with Matthew 25:31-46 need to promote a hypersensitivity to the marginalized. Postcolonial and feminist theological discourses must affirm all regardless of circumstance and construct theological discourses that reinstate the colonized/marginalized/oppressed in the Imago Dei.

[8] Kang provides an account of postmodernism that most would see as a standard account. What is more important is her views on what the postmodern situation means for Christianity. To begin with it challenges, “anthropocentrism, ecclesiocentrism, denominationalism, clericalism, patriarchalism, androcentrism, dogmatism, and anthropomorphism in Christianity” (158). If we embrace these challenges of postmodernism’s deconstructive tendencies we can envision a theology and religion that is open and critical, prophetic and self-critical. She affirms Jürgen Moltmann’s future-oriented theology with it openness to the future and the possibilities of the new. Along with that posture is her vision for religion is “grass-roots oriented, community-based, nonhierarchical, intersubjective, and small-scale” (161). This is a vision that opposes the kyriarchal (a term borrowed from Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza indicating a more comprehensive view of oppressive forces than the patriarchy) tradition of Euro/U.S.-centric theology and practice.

[9] Kang cautions Asian feminist theology against getting trapped in its own ethnic and gender identity. Asian feminist theology should, she maintains, shift from the politics of identity to the politics of solidarity. Solidarity means recognizing the connectedness of our lives across gender, race, class, sexuality, and region and striving with the purpose of serving the common good. There follows, then, her proposal for “…a glocal feminist theology, in which one critically combines the global context and the local context to resist empires of all forms and to strengthen solidarity with the marginalized…What I envision for a glocal feminist theology is transnational, transregional, transcultural, and transreligious” (215-216).

[10] Kang also calls for a transethnic feminist theology appropriate to the realities of globalization. She notes that neoliberal economic globalization has changed to political world from first, second, and third world to a multi-polar world whose divisions are a function of the disparity between rich and poor with those most adversely affected being in the global south. Asian countries represent both those who suffer and those who are part of the problem. A transethnic feminist theology of Asia, then, would take ethnicity as a starting point but moves beyond geographic, cultural, and ethnic boundaries toward a radically ecumenical spirit. This she calls a relational and dialectical universalism that promotes shared sensibilities across all boundaries without sacrificing one’s own particularity.

[11] The final two chapters involve a discussion of Christianity and Confucianism in the Korean experience. As a prologue to this analysis, Kang criticizes those engaged in interfaith dialogue who focus primarily on similarities between religious traditions. It is her contention that we must be ready to critically identify serious differences. Only then can we find a way to transformative dialogue. In the case of the Confucian heritage in Korea, Kang is critical of the patriarchal and kyriarchal orientation of that tradition, centered as it is on the relation between father and son. She gives a brief account of how Christianity came to ascendancy in Korea. The Christian message of equality of men and women in creation and redemption was liberating for Korean women. The missionaries provided education for women in Bible schools. Though the missionaries were still operating in a patriarchal mode of thought, the women took the liberative effects of their education beyond their own domestic captivity.

[12] Notwithstanding the success of Christianity’s message, Christians in Korea have moved in her judgment to a patriarchalized religion with emphasis on what she calls the kyriarchal Pauline texts. This she styles as the “Confucianization” of Christian ethics. This development illustrates the capacity of religion to be both liberating and oppressing at one and the same time. Therefore, Kang asserts, what is needed is a Christian practice that can be an instrument of liberation. Such would be a revival of the “dangerous memory” (Johannes Baptist Metz) of the transformative role Christianity has historically played in various societies.

[13] Kang’s feminist theological agenda is clear. It is a broad agenda that sees its goals as goals for the common good and one that embraces the cause of all who find themselves marginalized or in need of liberation from new forms of colonialism, empire, etc. Kang’s consistent efforts to demonstrate that situations everywhere are more complex than is often thought cautions against falling into dangerous stereotypes of ethnic, national or regional groups is important. Social analysis is the strength of this book. It certainly provides direction for theology in general and feminist theology in particular. In terms of actual theological discourse, there is very little. Theologians and ethicists who find her analyses and proposals stimulating will have to take the next steps in formulating the Christian teaching and proclamation that correlates with the impulses of her project.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.