Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

Introducing Asian American Christian Ethics

An hourlong teleconference with

Grace Kao

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Professor Grace Kao for our January 2016 WATERtalk. Grace is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at the Claremont School of Theology. She is the co-editor of the recently published book, Introducing Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015), which informed our January discussion. Grace’s research and teaching interests include human and animal rights, religion in the American public sphere, ecofeminism, and Asian American Christianity. WATER thanks Grace for a rich hour of conversation about contemplation and spiritual callings. Q&A session followed.

I would like to introduce the emerging field of Asian American Christian Ethics. This involves talking about my work and also my colleagues’ work. This first book really was a collaborative affair, which comes from a strong sense of the power of the collective that arguably emerges from both feminist and “Asian” cultural values.

I will break the discussion into three parts:

(1) The origins of the book

(2) The content and methodology of the book – what exactly is Asian American Christian Ethics, how do people do work in this field, what are its purposes, what contributions do we scholars hope to make?

(3) Comments about the reception of the book

Part 1: The book really grew out of collaborative work in the Society for Christian Ethics. We formed a working group for Asians and Asian Americans because Ilsup Ahn, the group’s founder and the book’s co-editor, recognized that there were working groups for other racial-ethnic minorities (but none for those of persons of Asian descent) and thus wanted us to band together for solidarity and professional development. At our first official meeting, we discovered that few of us were (then) working explicitly out of our racialized identities and experiences in the US. We concluded that if we thought the construction of a new subfield, Asian American Christian ethics, was a worthy pursuit, we would need to be the ones to do it. This series of conversations began in 2008.

We understand Asian American Christian Ethics as a subfield that straddles the disciplines of Christian Ethics and Asian American Studies. Our hope is to bring insights and perspectives from our Asian American experiences, diverse as they are, to bear on the discipline of Christian Ethics and the lived practice of fellow Christians and Asian Americans. One caveat: the book is (appropriately) marketed as the first book in Asian American Christian Ethics. But as many feminists, especially scholars of color, eschew the traditional “theology” vs. “ethics” divide, many of the books of Kwok Pui-Lan, Rita Nakashima Brock, W. Anne Joh, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, and others could also arguably fall under the Asian American Christian Ethics rubric, even if they trade under the label ‘theology’.

Part 2: The purpose of this subfield is to provide a contextualized approach to Christian ethics to be relevant to Asian Americans and to help fellow Christians see that distinctive perspectives from Asian Americans can shed light on new and perennial problems. We adapted the first part of our methodology from Gale Yee (a feminist, Hebrew Bible scholar of Chinese heritage), who herself selectively appropriated W.E.B. Dubois’ four-part criteria for black theater–that it be about us, by us, for us, and near us–for Asian American biblical hermeneutics.

About us: We engage the ways in which our communities understand and practice Christian ethics. For example, why do so many Asian American Christians link upward social mobility with divine favor and blessing? How do those with internalized Confucian norms of honoring one’s parents understand the biblical commandment to honor one’s parents and what does that mean for one’s choice of marital partner (or even to marry at all), elder care, etc.? We also focus on what is required for the cultivation of virtue and the development of Asian Americans into mature moral agents. Personally as a mother of young children, I am also thinking more about ritual and the passing on practices—not simply what is good and what is right, but how to convey or inculcate that to the next generation. What, in short, is the process of developing healthy moral agency?

By us: Asian Americans represent about 6% of US population and largest group identify as Christian. That said, we are quite a heterogeneous population – different migratory paths, cultural traditions, levels of economic success, etc. So someone of Asian American heritage who writes something about Asian American Christian Ethics has not necessarily produced the Asian American Christian response. Still, just as work isn’t necessarily “feminist” by virtue of its being authored by a woman, so we don’t invariably understand work in Christian ethics produced by someone who is Asian American (according to the criteria established by the U.S. Census Bureau) as necessarily counting as Asian American Christian Ethics. Instead, insofar as the author adopts a pro-Asian American stance in content or point of view, they could be said to be doing this kind of work. Many Asian Americans actually identify more strongly with their particular ethnicity (as Vietnamese, as Korean) than with their race; many among the first generation have also talked about the process of becoming Asian American over a period of time of their being in the U.S., after they have been racialized by the wider society and/or have come to see the various advantages of joining together in mutual support for a common cause.

For us: In one sense, the work will be affirming, with our offering of empowering and liberative insights. This might involve interrogating the external and internal pressures that many Asian Americans experience to assimilate to white or mainstream norms. However, it will also be important for Asian American Christian ethicists to admonish others in the community with prophetic critique when rebuke—not validation—is called for. For example, naming culturally particular or distinctive sins, like critiquing rampant examples of sexism and heterosexism in our churches, or the way pockets of us with high economic success are guilty of overconsumption. But work “for us” is not to be understood in an exclusive way. Almost every member of our book leveled some critique of the “model minority” myth. This myth not only glosses over the segments of the heterogeneous population that is not high-achieving but struggling with poverty, but it’s also used by white supremacists and others in the mainstream to chastise other racial/ethnic minority groups for their perceived underperformance (and so in this sense, this critique is simultaneously “for us” and “for all.”)

Near us: It is the hope that work in Asian American Christian Ethics remains connected to actual Asian Americans (i.e., beyond the fund of one’s own personal experiences). During my time at Virginia Tech, I lived in what was nicknamed “Black-less-burg,” Virginia, which is to say that remaining connected to real flesh and blood Asian Americans on a regular basis was difficult. Now in California (and for others elsewhere), these connections are more readily available. In the book, we talk about various ways people who are not geographically close to other Asian Americans can stay in contact with the larger community, so as to remain accountable to them.

Regarding the second part of our methodology, it is worth underscoring that we understand ourselves as critically appropriating the received traditions and sources of wisdom, whether from the Western Christian tradition or a variety of Asian philosophical, religious, or cultural traditions. Co-editor Ilsup Ahn has called this method “co-critical appropriation.” While several of us have found some Asian traditional concepts, values, or practices as worthy of retrieval, we don’t in principle believe that by so drawing upon these Asian traditions we are being more “authentically” Asian. We are not searching for some mythic or essentialist core of Asianness, undiluted by Western contact. We are interested in mining these and other traditions to construct something new.

How does this get fleshed out in work? In “Working Contextually and in Solidarity with Others,” (Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 31.1, 2015) I made the point that Asian Americans can and should say something about immigration, though most people think of it as a Hispanic issue. Five of the top ten countries that produce “unauthorized immigrants” are in Asia and the Asian region accounts for about 11% of the total undocumented in the U.S. From an Asian American Christian ethical perspective, however, even legal avenues that some Asians pursue may have some troubling issues that are worthy of further exploration. The phenomena of parachute kids, maternity tourism, and split-family migration raise questions about value of education and how much it is proper to sacrifice for it, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, and what family is for. I should mention that Hak Joon Lee in our book (Asian American Christian Ethics) also discusses some of these concerns.

Part 3: As for the reception of our book, we’ve been fortunate to be supported by leading scholars in the field. At the American Academy of Religion meeting in November 2015, we assembled a panel of the “who’s who” in Asian theology, who read the book and gave us their blessing, along with helpful constructive feedback. We did the same at the Society for Christian Ethics meeting in January 2016, where key senior scholars celebrated our inauguration of the subfield and one in particular (Gary Dorrien), called our book launch a “landmark” event. We were grateful to have had these platforms to introduce our work to our colleagues in these two professional societies, and are especially glad that now graduate students and scholars outside of the Society of Christian Ethics can work out of this framework with a book to guide the way.


Q: As you’re coming to Asian values in ethics, are you also working in an interfaith context to get definitions of the divine that fit?

Grace: The contributors, to a person, operate in some sort of interfaith context, whether explicitly acknowledged or not. Often the immediate or extended family has some non-Christian members. A number of us readily see how the forms of Christianity we practice have some other elements from Asian religious traditions. Some are comfortable with the word ‘syncretism’, some aren’t. For example, in a session at the Society of Christian ethics sponsored by our Working Group, two members talked about burial practices, and in particular wanting to bring back some Confucian-inspired cultural practices of washing the corpse. This is not likely a suggestion that would have come from a white American Christian who had been formed primarily or exclusively from Western canonical sources (i.e., Augustine and onwards), but it was the interfaith, intercultural consciousness that led them to offer this possibility for healing and wholeness post-death.

Q: What about the definition for the divine, the wording, with many traditions in the room?

Grace: Asian American Christian Ethics does see itself as Christian, but everyone has different notions of what it means to be Christian. So some have a high Christology, some have notions of cosmic Christ, and so forth. For example, I think of the incarnation as incarnation to all flesh (as opposed to the particularity of male or human flesh), in light of my reading in animal theology and interests in non-human animals.

Q: How are feminist approaches to divine played out in Asian American contexts in which you work? Are there trends or backlashes we should be working with?

Grace: The trend in Asian American Christian communities is toward (1) denominational autonomy and (2) evangelicalism. The problem here is that insofar as the majority of Asian American Christians are evangelical, they pretty much follow white evangelicalism in using patriarchal language and imagery. Though Asian American feminist Christians are leveling those critiques, Rita Nakashima Brock for example, we’re not necessarily seeing these feminist insights make their way into these evangelical churches, or if so, they’re not necessarily translating well to concrete practices on the ground.

Q: Would your colleagues tend to include a feminist critique of language and imagery in their methodology as they would presumably include an antiracist critique?

Grace: There’s something fantastic about our work in Asian American Christian Ethics coming “late.” Take black liberation theology. There was the first wave of James Cone and others, and then you needed womanist critique of that male-dominated language. Or in feminist thought and activism more broadly, first came the gender analysis, then the class analysis, then race, and now post-colonial analysis, and so forth. Because we’ve seen these moves in other contextualized approaches, many of us are already anti-racist, post-colonial, feminist, anti-heterosexist. I hope readers will see that this consciousness is already infused in the chapters of this book. And where it is absent, I hope others will draw our attention to our oversight.

Q: Wondering about the book Zionism Unsettled: A Congregational Study Guide (Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, (U.S.A.). Is Claremont addressing that and is it being influenced by the feminist tradition?

Grace: As a school, Claremont has not made any sort of statement or divestments. We do have strong working interreligious relationships with a number of non-Christian organizations including the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA). You should know, however, that the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) recently passed a resolution in 2013—in fact, the first scholarly association to have done so–calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in light of Palestinian suffering. When news of this resolution hit the press, I know many people were scratching their heads, wondering why on earth Asian Americans would care about Israel/Palestine. But you see, Asian American Studies actually emerged in the 60’s in what was known as the “third world strike” and was tied to a critique of racism and colonialism. In that solo-authored piece I mentioned earlier, W. Anne Joh and Nami Kim wrote their lead essay in part about the complicity of Christians in the suffering of Palestinians. I know we all share the conviction that it is important to learn how to critique Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic. As a Christian, I have to always be mindful of the legacy of anti-Semitism.

Q: Are translation from one language to another or certain differences in terminology ever an issue in your work?

Grace: While a number of us selectively appropriate Asian cultural concepts, we shouldn’t take that to mean that they are more authentically Asian than perhaps their Western counterparts. Some leave concepts untranslated, though then not everyone outside of that context knows what to do with those (untranslated) terms. Many are familiar with the concept of yin and yang, for example, but others argue that you can get the same or similar idea with the Hegelian dialectics, and so one is not necessarily better than another. We are struggling through how one appropriates concepts for particular audiences and purposes.

Q: What kind of rituals would you pass to your children?

Grace: There’s a first birthday celebration in Korean culture (though I’m not Korean), which can become a huge deal, one that rivals a bat mitzvah or a wedding in terms of formality, preparation, and cost. I see in that commemoration the community coming together to welcome a new member of the family. The origin is that it wasn’t always the case that babies made it to their first year. There’s a ritual within that grand celebration where a series of objects are placed in front of the child and whatever the child selects is believed to foretell the child’s fate. There is important work to be done as to how this selection may or may not impact the child’s life (e.g., in terms of how the child is subsequently treated by others). Another example of ritual but this time more “low” than “high” is that many Asian churches share a common meal after the worship service and the cost of it is just part of the church’s operating expense. This is where real community formation happens, sharing of struggles, hopes, and dreams. And it’s not surprising that we Asians and Asian Americans in the Society of Christian Ethics keep this tradition alive—one of the highlights of our annual meeting is not simply our meeting together formally in sessions, but our building of relationships and sharing of our lives more informally over a common meal.

Q: Do you have any new projects or new articles you’re working on?

Grace: I’m really interested in moral repair and forgiveness and reconciliation literature. I want to look at cases of historical injustices committed against Asian Americans for which the US government has either officially apologized or expressed “regret” to the particular Asian American community. I’m interested in analyzing these using feminist reconciliation and moral repair language to look at these resolutions and their effectiveness (or not) in healing.

WATER thanks Grace Kao and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will February 10, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Joanna Brooks on the topic “Mormon Feminism: The Forty Years We Celebrate, The Forty Years Ahead.” All are welcome. Find out more about Joanna and register here.