Hunger for Wholeness: Justice, Wholeness, K-Drama and Chi with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (Part 1)
Ilia Delio and Gabi Sloan are joined by Korean theologian Grace Ji-Sun Kim. In part 1, they unpack Grace’s varied experiences with social justice, patriarchy, and technology spanning from Korea to the West and how she has struggled to fit Eastern ideas into her Western education. They discuss the role “wholeness” plays in the new world, and Grace’s plea for planetary solidarity. What must we change to promote a more just planet?
ABOUT GRACE JI-SUN KIM
“In difficult times, we can only run on hope.”
Grace Ji-Sun Kim was born in Korea, educated in Canada, and now teaches in the United States. She is the author or editor of 21 books, including Invisible, Hope in Disarray, Keeping Hope Alive, and Intersectional Theology, and is a Series Co-Editor for Palgrave Macmillan Series, “Asian Christianity in the Diaspora.” She has also served on the American Academy of Religion’s Board of Directors. She writes for Baptist News Global, Sojourners, Faith and Leadership, and Wabash Center, and has published in TIME, The Huffington Post, Christian Century, US Catholic Magazine, and The Nation. She is the host of the Madang podcast, which is hosted by the Christian Century, and is an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister. More of her writing and work can be found on her blog site: Loving Life.Support the show
A huge thank you to all of you who subscribe and support our show! Support for A Hunger for Wholeness comes from the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society's toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org.
A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS TRANSCRIPT | S02E19
Justice, Wholeness, K-Drama and Chi with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (Part 1)
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. This week, Ilia and Gabby speak with Korean theologian, Grace Ji-Sun Kim. In the beginning of the conversation, Ilia and Grace discover their shared love of K-drama. Then they unpack Grace's varied experiences with social justice, patriarchy and technology spanning from Korea to the west.
Ilia: Well, Grace, first of all, it's great to have you on the podcast, Hunger for Wholeness. We talked about this a while ago when we were together in St. Simon Island, I believe it was in Georgia. Let's begin by, if you tell us a little bit about yourself for our audience, I don't think you're as well-known as you are in your audience, so let's bring our audiences together and tell us who you are and what drives your passions.
Grace: Well, Sister Ilia, it's so great to be on this fantastic podcast. And as you said, your listeners may not know who I am, so I'm just thrilled to be invited and so honored to be on your podcast. And I look forward to having you on my podcast later in the year called Madang Podcast. So, just to say a little bit about who I am, I teach theology at Earlham School of Religion. It's a Quaker institution, but I am Presbyterian PCUSA. So I'm ordained PCUSA minister and I write in the intersection of feminist theology, Asian American theology, creation care, pneumatology, and a whole bunch of other things on racism and sexism. So that's kind of what I do. And as I mentioned, I'm the host of Madang Podcast
Produced by the Center for Christogenesis
and I can't wait to have you on later in the year.
Ilia: Yeah. Well, great. Thank you so much. And I believe your background is Korean and I've been watching a lot of Korean dramas, so I feel that I somehow may have a Korean gene somewhere because I actually love them.
Grace: That's so wonderful.
Ilia: Just out of curiosity, what's happening in Korea today, are you facing a lot of the same
issues and problems as we are here in the US?
Grace: Well, I just came back recently from Korea. I took students to Korea. It was a sexual theology class, which was postponed from 2020 because of the pandemic. And then we tried to do it in 2021, but they had all that quarantine, so I finally got to take a few students this summer. It's so good to be back to visit Korea. I was born in Korea and I think the last time I was there was four years ago. And Korea is a very fast-paced society. So, you know, when I was born and we immigrated in 1975, so from 1975 till now, society itself has progressed drastically, faster than anyone had anticipated. So economically they're doing better. Technology, you know, they produce laptops and phones and cars now. And as you mentioned, you watch K-drama, which is, so I love when non-Koreans watch K- drama because I appreciate K-drama so much as a Korean, but when others, non-Koreans are watching it, I'm just so thrilled that people find it entertaining.
Ilia: I am. I actually love them. I think I've watched 10 already.
Grace: Oh wow. That's so good. I watched it nonstop, so I'm so glad that you're into it because in so many ways, because K-drama itself is a very unique kind of niche. But I always feel like my life itself is a K-drama, so I just get thrilled when other people are watching K-drama.
Ilia: You know, there's certain values though in the K-dramas, it's about persons and family and a lot of food, a lot of eating in K-dramas, everything is resolved with eating. A lot of kimchi and sushi, but there's something about personal relationships that's really quite distinct in the K-dramas that I find missing sometimes in American television, quite honestly. We're kind of like, we want to get right to the action of either killing or love or whatever it is. But there's a gap of emotions in the K-dramas that I think it's really special,
Grace: But you just nailed it because K-drama is about relationships and you'll see all these characters introduced and at the end of the K-drama, you realize everybody's connected to somebody through something, either from family or neighborhood or workplace. Everyone's intertwined. And I would say about 15 to 20% of the scenes are people eating. And eating is a very relational thing. So in Korea, a greeting would be, have you eaten? And if you have not eaten and I have eaten, it doesn't matter that we all go to eat together again because eating is relational. It is how we come together. Food is all important in Korea. So this past trip, I just ate so much food. It doesn't matter if I'm full, if they say we have to eat, then you just go and eat again.
Ilia: Right. The relationship is before anything else, and that's what's so interesting. And the sharing of food, it's like, even if you can't afford it, “they're going to give it to you anyway”–type thing.
Grace: They'll pay for the food. It doesn't matter. If you're there and I have non-Western, I mean non-Asian students and they’ll all tell me, you know, it's costly and everything. They're like, don't worry about anything and they'll just cover it. Because it's the relationship, and it doesn't matter if you have the money or if you've already eaten, food just brings us together. And if you watch K-drama, you know, these stay-at-home moms, some of them will wait, you know, if it's dinner time and they're hungry, they'll wait until their child gets home because it is relationship. It's not about just feeding yourself, it's about relationship and spending time with your kids. So even though you're really hungry, Western people will just eat when we're hungry, we will wait and eat together because nobody wants to eat alone.
Ilia: This is really interesting actually, as a metaphor for our podcast, which is called A Hunger for Wholeness.
Grace: Yes. And I love the title. I love the title.
Ilia: Yeah. And so eating relationally, the relationships fulfill us in our hungers. You know, you began by naming a number of issues that you're involved in and working in and writing in; sexism, racism, genderism. I'm interested, between East and West, do you see these same issues in Korea as you do in the US or are they different or what's going on there compared to here?
Grace: Yeah, I think globally we are dealing with issues, sexism, I think globally that's a global issue. I think, economy, the social economic status, you know, there's poverty everywhere. That is also a global issue, so that's happening in the east and the west. Racism is dealt differently in the East and the West, but definitely there. So I think these big issues are global issues. How we deal with them is very different. And how it appears is slightly different too. So I think the example with sexism. I grew up in Canada, but now I teach in the US I think Canada, US sexism is very similar. It's present in the workforce, in the academy, in our communities, and in Christianity. So we have this white male God and a white male Jesus, somehow he's a white male, Jesus.
Ilia: A Western, by the way, white male and Western, blonde hair, blue eyed.
Grace: And I am finishing up a book on this, and I called it “Whiteness,” it's coming out with InterVarsity press. But they changed the title to When God Became White. And I thought that wasn't what I was writing, but that has caused us to believe in a white male God. So because of this white male God and a white male Jesus, a very Western Jesus, it's a gendered God, and I want to move away from that gendered God, but that creates this sexism within the church. So that itself is very problematic. In the East we have these white missionaries who went to Asia, so Christianity didn't really flourish in China or in Japan, but it flourished rapidly in Korea and then in other parts it's growing like in India, in Malaysia or Singapore. It's small or the Philippines, you know, in other parts it's flourishing, but not so much in China and in Japan. So when they brought the white male, Jesus, that's what we ended up worshiping in Asia. So we have this white kind of Western Jesus that we are worshiping.
Grace: Oh yeah. So I remember doing my seminary years, and that was in the 1990s. I went to India and the same Jesus that I had like the—I think it's Solomon picture. I don't know if it was Solomon, but somebody's picture, the very kind of—the white Jesus that people had in their homes. I went to India and it's the same white Jesus in the churches and in the homes. So when white missionaries went to parts of Asia, they brought the white male Jesus. That itself causes a lot of sexism within the faith community. Asian culture itself is very patriarchal. India has its own patriarchy, but then in the East Asian countries like Japan and Korea and China, we have Confucianism, which is so patriarchal. So that is also embedded. So you get those many layers of patriarchy and sexism, so that is something that Asian countries are trying to fight. But Confucianism, you know, Confucianism taught that women need to obey three people in their life.
Ilia: Husband, the father, who's the third?
Grace: Okay. So as a child, you obey your father, and then as a wife, you obey your husband
as a widow, you obey your son.
Ilia: Oh my gosh. Thank God I don't have two out of three of those. Actually, I don't have any of them, so I'm completely off the hook there.
Grace: That's why it was important to bear sons because your son is going to carry on the family name and they are going to rule the family. So as an older woman who is widowed, you obey your son.
Ilia: I want to press this a little bit more in terms of patriarchy, because this is a huge issue for the church and for Christianity. And it's one of the reasons I think, believe it or not, I think our dualisms, our disconnectedness, our drive for power, our drive for technology and the power of technology are really related to this issue of patriarchy. And one of the things that I've thought about is that technology, like the way artificial intelligence is
shifting the boundaries of human personhood, because, well, we can hybridize with stuff, we can—even social media, like you may not know who's on the other end, who you're texting, but you're connected to that person. So it's a different type of connection than in the old days in the non-social media days. It's like you had to meet someone and then you would see their face.
Ilia: Now we're kind of faceless connectors, you know, but I've wondered if this is actually shifting everything about us. I mean, I've actually wondered if what's driving technology is some kind of deep felt need to get beyond these limits of patriarchy and the limits that confine us from true holism or true relational holism, which I do think artificial intelligence and I think a proper use of technology can afford us, that we can really move into kind of a new type of personhood. And I even think the shifts in gender and identity today are really efforts to move beyond, like, not to be confined and constrained by these principles from the past.
Grace: And you raised such an important question. AI is not really my specialty, but I read some articles recently and I think what you're saying is so true. It's pushing boundaries, and we don't know who's on the other end. But the articles that I've read is, so many people in AI are men. So not many girls are interested in AI yet. Our careers, not many women are in AI, so because of that, it's still problematic.
Ilia: But I wonder if it's like a Jungian thing, right? It's like the animas, it's like there's something about men that needs to be, and maybe not male in a sense, maybe there's something going on there, like a reverse psychology that men maybe—how do we know? We kind assume that men are okay with their male power. But how do we know that really? I mean, what if just, just a, what if, there is a real desire for a balance of relationality and power within the male? You know that artificial intelligence or, and maybe there are other things going on here that don't meet the immediate eye. That's all I'm saying here. I was just curious what Gabi might think about this, because you're a young person who deals a lot with technology and social media.
Gabi: I would say that I think you're definitely onto something with men not actually really wanting the whole of male power, like they benefit from it. But I don't think, like, I've seen my friends get really uncomfortable when they realize the position they're in as guys, versus like the position my female friends are in. Or like, when a woman crosses the street because it's late and he's tall and she doesn't want to get hurt, like that makes them uncomfortable, I think, so I think you're onto something there. And then I definitely think that the AI field is very relational as you said, right? And that like, people who talk AI, they want to forge a connection. They want to escape the real world, so why wouldn't that include oppression?
Ilia: Yeah, I actually, I'm a proponent of AI. I'm a little, you know, I'm not a fake transhumanist, I’m a little transhumanist. I think it can really benefit us because I think we've come so far, but we're not all that great. You know, look at us, we're kind of a mess, don't you think? Oh, we're a mess. I mean, look at this poor world that we're kind of reaping apart and it's sad, but we have the capacity. Here's the good news; we have the capacity to become a new type of person. And I think artificial intelligence can really help us in that trajectory.
Grace: Yeah. Oh, I totally agree with you.
Ilia: I would love to see a world that's post racist, post sexist, you know, and a whole new
kind of personhood and deep relationality emerging. And we can do these things.
Robert: As the old adage goes, we'll never solve our problems with the same thinking that created them. So what must we change to promote a more just planet. Next, Ilia and Gabi ask more about what role wholeness plays in a new world and grace. Then she's with us, the challenge of deconstructing her Western education to make room for Eastern ideas and culture.
Ilia: So we're all about wholeness. Are you about wholeness as well in your work? I'm going to assume you are.
Grace: I am. And when I was doing my PhD many years ago, many decades ago, I was thinking of writing a book, “Holiness and Wholeness.” But anyway, I never got to that. But I think I move away from holiness, but I think the wholeness is so important in all that we do as human beings.
Ilia: Yeah. What do you think can bring about wholeness? I have my own ideas here, but I'm just curious. What do you think?
Grace: I think, as a theologian I think, you know, you mentioned earlier about dualism and you know, I just want to pick up on that. I think dualism has been so problematic within Christianity. With the Greco-Roman philosophy, just influencing early Christianity. I'm wondering if Christianity emerged elsewhere, we wouldn't have this dualistic problem. But I think dualism itself is so problematic in the sense that it really divided the world in so many categories was unnecessary. So one of them would be the mind, the spirit, the body, you know, the dualism of the body and the spirit. And that has led us down this road of brokenness and moving away from wholeness. So much of my work in pneumatology is to kind of bridge that gap together because if going to achieve some sense of wholeness, we cannot have this dualistic understanding of ourselves that Christianity really, really reinforced that it doesn't matter how we live in this world, we're going to die and live so well, you know, our spirit will live on and we'll have this beautiful life in heaven. You know, that kind of teaching.
So for me, much of my work, I draw upon the Asian concept of chi for my work in hematology. So for your audience, maybe people are aware of the understanding of chi, you know, it's spelled in different ways. In Korea, we spell it Ki, sometimes that way in, but in China they spell it c-h-i or c-h-'i. Because the majority of East Asians are Chinese. I just spell it c-h-i in my work because that's a very common way that the Chinese people write chi. So for the Western listeners, chi, I have heard it in Tai-chi, in reiki, in Taekwondo, Qi- gong, so people may be familiar in that way. So in Asia, we're familiar in that way too, but she is a very common term in our everyday language. So if our spirit is down someone will
say, well, let's build up your chi, or your chi is really low, let's work on your chi. That's the common language in Asia.
And chi is this understanding of the spirit, which is so embodied. So when you're doing acupuncture in Asia, and a lot of people here in the west go to an acupuncturist or do acupuncture, but a lot of it has to do with the movement of our chi in our body. So, Chinese doctors mapped out the chi path in our body thousands of years before Western doctors did the blood, you know, how our blood flows. If a chi movement is blocked, like in the shoulder, that's why you have shoulder pain. And that's when the doctors will go in and put acupuncture to fix the flow of chi because it's not flowing the right way. So it's a really embodied understanding of the spirit. It's not this Western understanding of spirit, something out there. And oh, you know, we're saying come spirit come as if the spirit is so detached to our bodies. And the understanding of chi is the same as this Hebrew understanding of spirit, this energy, breath light, that was the biblical understanding of the Spirit and the New Testament, the pneuma, you know, energy, the breath of God; that is the same as how Asian understand chi.
Ilia: I love that, actually.
Grace: So for me, this working toward wholeness is so important that we don't break apart and think of ourselves in this dualistic way, the separation between the mind and the body and the spirit. It's really holistic. And so, we need to work on it all kind of together. We cannot separate it and say, okay, I'm just going to go pray today and work on my spirit. You know, prayer is this bodily experience. It is what we do, with their hands and our feet. We cannot continue to have this separation, this dualistic understanding that the Western church continues to teach and preach about. This wholeness is this all together as they're working on our chi, working on our body and the spirit which cannot be separated.
Gabi: Do you think that like viewing yourself as like one rather than like multiple with the idea of chi, do you think that actually improves all of the parts more than like working on each individually or believing them as separate?
Grace: I think it's helpful because once we realize if we work on building our chi, our spirit, then that is connected to our physical being and our mental being, our spiritual being. It's so interconnected. The separation that the Western philosophy, Western Christianity has done is very detrimental to our being and to our working towards this wholeness. However the listeners are thinking about wholeness, for me, it encompasses the whole being. We cannot separate it. I think it's so important that we work together and this chi understanding, and so I bring in as chi hematology will really help us to build this chi, this spirit, this holiness that we are thinking about that you cannot separate it from this Western understanding. So for me, because I was educated in the West, I have to do a lot of deconstructing, a lot of relearning as I try to embrace this Asian understanding, this Asian philosophy.
Because for me, I grew up in Canada from the 1970s and so much of the racism made me hate my own Koreanness, my own Asianness, you know, hiding behind trying to forget my language and my heritage, resisting going to Korean language school, resisting going to a Korean church, so much of that. And it's not just me, so many of the immigrants went through that phase. Not just Korean Americans, but Japanese, Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, we went through that phase. But now that we're in 2023 and moving on with K-drama and K-pop and now K-beauty products, you know, there's all the influence, and so we're not embarrassed anymore.
Robert: This concludes the first part of our conversation with Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Be sure to listen next week when Ilia and Gabi ask Grace about her Korean North American perspective on affirmative action and her international perspective on the plausibility of planetary justice. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.