Hunger for Wholeness: Affirmative Action and Planetary Solidarity with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (Part 2)
In part 2 of their conversation, Ilia Delio, Gabi Sloan and Grace Ji-Sun Kim explore the realities of white privilege and affirmative action from Grace’s international perspective while lamenting theological language's ability to capture the deepest part of our experiences. Are global justice and wholeness within reach? What does planetary solidarity look like for the individual?
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
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Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. Last week, Ilia and Gabi spoke with theologian, Grace Ji-Sun Kim. During their conversation, Grace shared the challenge of integrating the Eastern idea of chi into dualistic Western thought. Now, to follow up, Ilia connects this Eastern concept of energy to the new physics. Then Gabi and Grace discuss the limitations of language, even theological language, for expressing the sheer depth of our human experience.
Ilia: The whole energy focus is so consonant with what we know today about reality. Quantum physics, I think, is one of our best descriptors of what the real is. And quantum physics or what some people call quantum reality is about energy feels. So we are energy all the way down; to the tiniest, teeniest little left tongue bark or whatever we are that makes up ourselves and everything else. And secondly, God is energy. I mean we made God, but as you said before, Grace, the big guy in the sky. And we're here trying to make our way back to the big guy. But in fact, God is love and what is love if it's not the energy of deep relationality, the units of energy that attracts us and draws us onward to something more than ourselves.
And so I think this holism that we can't really separate this energy of God and the energy of matter and the energy of our minds and hearts. These are all entangled fields of energy. First of all, being aware of what we are as energy, it may be one of the most important things that we do today. You're absolutely right. I think we do still separate these things into my head and my heart and my body. We think in parts, we act in parts, and therefore we are partials. We're partials that are struggling for wholeness. The other thing I think energy does for us, even in terms of God—and it's something that I'm thinking increasingly more about, is maybe God is not up there because there's no there-there; there's only here. There's the now, there's the experience of where we are. So maybe God is part and parcel of our materiality, what we call pantheism. And not just that we're in God and God is in us, as if God may be, "Oh don't get too close to me, please because I'm God and you're not." But maybe God is really like the power of everything we are. That even when everything is falling apart and life is miserable, that there's a power here in our midst within us that says, "Get up and move on again."
Grace: Yeah, I totally agree with you there. As you were speaking, I was thinking. When I talk about hematology, I bring in energy and I also bring in vibration; that everything vibrates. And when we think about the Holy Spirit or whatever you want to call the spirit, or chi. Chi is about vibration. And our whole body is just filled with energy, filled with atoms that vibrate. When we look at the biblical passages about when God created the world through vibration, through speaking, it's all vibration. So energy, vibration, God is spirit. Chi is talking about this vibration and chi is not just within ourselves, it's in all living things because all living things have this chi and this energy and this vibration. So that goes back to your parable pantheism. So it is all intertwined; what you are saying, what I'm saying is all true—or I don't know if you want to say “truth,” but we're saying the same thing, but through different words.
Ilia: Yeah. I think the other thing is here, it's the primacy of experience. Energy is about experience. When you feel energized, it's the experience of life that's felt in a more vital way. And when your energy is low, it's the experience of feeling disconnected. That's so different from language, the way language just parcels things out and puts them into little categories. And then we have to think through how these categories relate. There's something about language that I think the Western mind has built up a whole language repertoire to structure our world. And that kind of has the worded experience. Like we're so worried about conceptual concepts and categories of language and language that refers to abstract ideas and concepts. And really it's about experience. It's about the experience and the energy of our being-ness, our existence.
Grace: Yeah. I always tell my students their languages are so limiting. We cannot put some of our experiences into words, maybe beyond words or these categories that we come up with. So the more languages that we speak, the better off we may be. And I bring in Korean words and terms that are very difficult to translate into the English language because different languages focus on different things. When we think about Native Americans, they have many words for different terms that we, in the English language, may only have one word. I think being aware of our own limitations in the English language or whatever language that you’re speaking in. The Eskimos have so many words for ice or snow that we're not aware of. So I think just being aware of the limitations of our own languages and how I bring in Korean words and Asian terms into theology to help enrich. I'm not the first one to do it. German theologians brought in their own German words too.
Grace: We do it to enrich and help us explain the things that are so difficult to explain; the divine and God and the energy, the vibration and all these experiences that we experience.
Ilia: Gabi, you're involved a lot in mathematics. And mathematics is a type of language that really is much more about relationships. Where do you see the problem of language in view of mathematics?
Gabi: In view of mathematics, I think math is a very logical language if you're going to look at it like a language. I mean, I don't know how well you can express things through math, but I do think that everything's clear cut. Unlike with languages, usually there's a degree of kind of ambiguity. I know when I'm trying to translate stuff—I'm studying Japanese right now. There's always layers that I can't explain in English. There's stuff that I can't figure out how to say in English. I know what it means in my head, but I can't say it with words. I think math kind of makes sense, but it's isolated because there's not really much way to express normal concepts through math, if that makes sense.
Ilia: Do you think language is limited? And do you think, like Grace, we need to borrow language from different cultures in order to really get to the richness of our experience?
Gabi: I think language is always limiting.
Grace: Yeah, I agree with you, Gabi. Language is so limiting. As we get older we may learn new words and I think words are helpful or we can create new words. But I think it's all limiting because we're just finite beings. We cannot comprehend everything in the world. We cannot comprehend the infinite energy, God or whatever you want to call the divine. So I think words are limiting, languages are limiting. But I think the more languages we have—I think the Korean language may have more adverbs or more of these types of words in the English language than we can use those kinds of words to help us expand our experiences, expand our understanding, and expand our theological language. Our theology is just so constricting because we're so worried about orthodoxy. You get all these creeds and we got to stay true to whatever the truth is. We get so worried about it. So we don't want to expand our theological language.
Ilia: I want to go back to the concept of wholeness which is really fundamental, Grace, to your work and to our work here. And think about for example, the recent decision by the US Supreme Court denying affirmative action. How do we maintain a sense of our consciousness of wholeness? How do we live in these entangled energies in the face of such political divisiveness, political conflict? What advice do you give for a lot of people struggling in the world today just to live in the vitality of the flow?
Grace: So there is so much injustice in the world. Affirmative action is one aspect of college admissions. I have three kids; one graduate of college, one just graduated this year, and one who is going to be a junior. It's not just affirmative action, there's also legacy. That deals with so many white, rich kids who get in not on their own merit, but through legacy and donors. There's so much inequality in college admission. The Supreme Court without affirmative action, college admissions can still look at last names, can look at... There's all these other things. There's so many factors. I just came back from Korea. Koreans don’t have any legacy. They think that's such a horrible thing. It's only based on college exams. So they're trying to be equal, but that itself is not equal either. But at least it's a standard college admissions exam.
Ilia: Okay, so the descendants of the Samsung generation, they don't just get an automatic into the university?
Ilia: Or any of the super real and wealthy.
Grace: So every year there's one college entrance exam date. Those who are ill, some of them leave the hospitals to write it because if you miss that one, you have to wait a whole year to do it. So there's so many inequalities in that way. But anyway, that's the standard test and then you go in. So I was there this year and Yonsei I visited, which is one of the top universities. Their children cannot get in through legacy because they think that's so unjust. You cannot allow things like that to happen. So it's basically just done through that one entrance exam. So from kindergarten until high school, everybody's preparing themselves for this college entrance exam. And I think it's done in China and also Japan and maybe India. I'm not too sure about India. But that's why this college exam is such a stressful thing.
There's so many things, but I think this legacy is a huge injustice because it's basically white rich kids who get in through the legacy program because many of us immigrants—I studied in Canada so I don't have the legacy. So anyway, affirmative action, that part is problematic because as an Asian American, we talk about model minority. So model minority came about in the 1960s by white sociologists who came up with this fabulous term that they thought was so fabulous and they placed it upon Asian Americans. So Asian Americans suddenly overnight became these model minorities. And it was to state to the Native Americans, the African Americans, the Hispanic, the Latin-x community that if only you work just as hard as Asian Americans, you will go to the top schools, you'll become rich, you will have great jobs, you will be wonderful citizens of America.
So that's a myth because not all of us get to the top schools, not all of us are rich. Those who are living in poverty are Asian Americans. If you just go to Flushing in LA, people are living in these rundown apartments; families living with shared bathrooms and shared kitchen areas. So we're not all rich, we're not all doing well, we're not having these fabulous jobs. So it's a myth, but this myth was put into place to pit Asian Americans against other people. That's what this whole thing is and it still stays in place even now in 2023; this model minority myth. And so if you have people of color fighting, the only people that benefit are the white people. It's this whole problem of white supremacy so it's racism being played at. And having pit us against each other and now with the Supreme Court justice getting rid of affirmative action, it's this whole model minority. It's just now the people of color are being pitted against each other and then now white people will benefit from this end of the day. So there's a lot of things moving towards, but that's just one aspect. And to say that, "Oh, all Asian Americans wanted to get rid of affirmative action" is not the truth.
I saw the statistics for the voting Asian Americans. I think 60% were against getting rid of affirmative action. It was a 40% split or something—46. Now the narrative is all Asian Americans were, "Oh, let's get rid of affirmative action, et cetera." Because it was a few Korean Americans who brought this issue up because they get into the top schools, to Harvard, et cetera. But the reality is 60% of Asian Americans were not for it. But it can be problematic on so many levels.
Robert: Next, Ilia and Gabi go deeper into their personal experiences of white privilege and its legacy. And finally, Ilia asks Grace more about her intersectional work on planetary solidarity and whether global justice and wholeness is within reach.
Ilia: I am so grateful first of all, for the wealth of the richness of the Korean culture and the beauty of the Asian culture, which I've always wanted to—Actually, my original dream was to go to China, but that didn't work.
Grace: Let's go together. I've never been to China, so let's go together.
Ilia: That would be awesome. I was in Taiwan one year and I love the culture. There's such a gentleness, so I'm so grateful for what finally has emerged here in terms of the richness. But I guess I never thought about being privileged as a white person because it's the type of thing where you are born into this stuff and it just seems like—I thought in my New Jersey neighborhood everyone was Italian-American and everyone was Catholic. So it was shocking to me to find out that my next door neighbor was Protestant and like, "Oh my God, there could be Koreans and Hindus in the world. Are you kidding? Seriously? And they live in New Jersey?" It just seemed so incredible. So I think one thing this has been a wakeup call for white people for sure because it's like, "What? Doesn't everyone experience what I experience?" And the answer is, "No, not at all." We do have to just be conscious of where we are and who we are and the beauty of its more than what we are. Gabi, I'm just curious. In your own place of life, have you thought about race and your own position of things?
Gabi: A lot actually. I feel like there's definitely this thing where people in a position of privilege have this tendency to ignore the privilege they have. It's not something that's comfortable to think about that I'm getting treated better than other people because of the way I look or that kind of thing. A term I heard the other day was the “oppression olympics” where it's like people will be like, "Who's in a worse position than who? Who's in a worse position than who?" And the only people who are benefiting from that are the people who are on the top who don't have to worry about it because they're not in a bad position. They say to the people below them, "Oh, but he has it worse or she has it worse." And the answer is, it doesn't matter who has it worse because no one should have it worse. The real issue is the people who are on the top and are allowing this to happen. As someone in a position of privilege, I feel that I have to talk about it. I have to make an effort because it's ridiculous that I should be treated any better because of the way I look.
Ilia: Now, oppression. I have to remember that one.
Grace: That's used within model minority when we are—the whole of model minority is to pit us against each other. Then that “oppression olympics” always comes up. “Who got oppressed more? Who suffered more here in the US? The enslavement history, the genocide history, the entered worker history?” There's so much history of racism. How can you put one above the other? We have been oppressed in so many different ways and levels. We have been murdered and killed in the name of whiteness and et cetera.
Ilia: Let's ask this realistically. A Hunger for Wholeness—do you think as a planetary community, we could one day look toward true wholeness as a community? Where in other words, we're a human community—we may not be human, of course. Let's just put it “personal community.” So I'd like to just make sure that we have that technology piece there. But do you really think that planetary justice where actually a deep sense of care, compassion, mutuality, respect, forgiveness, and a peaceful coexistence. Do you think this is really pie in the sky or do you really think this is within our reach, even if it's a long-term reach? I want to ask Grace first, then I'll ask you Gabi, because I'd be curious as to the spectrum of answers.
Grace: For me, it's something that we should all strive for. So it shouldn't be this pie in the sky, "Oh, it's up there, so let's not achieve it." I think that is like the gospel message. One of my co-edited books is called Planetary Solidarity for climate justice work. I think if we don't have this planetary solidarity with all of creation, we're on a road to destruction. So I think that's something that we need to work on every day. This gender justice, this racial justice, economic justice, this climate justice issue, they all intersect. They're all interrelated. And if we don't work for this wholeness, we will end up destroying the planet. If the planet is gone we cannot live here. There is no place right now for us to go. So it is something that we desperately need to work on every day as people living on earth, as politicians, as students, as workers, as faith communities. It's something that we really need to strive for. I think that is the Christian calling to work to fullness. Because the other end is destruction of the planet.
Ilia: Planetary solidarity, I like that term a lot. Gabi, what are your thoughts here?
Gabi: I think that a perfect society is probably not a plausible goal, but I don't think that that should keep us from working towards it. I think that we should act as though a perfect union is within our grasp by going towards it as quickly as we can because we need to aim for it. Even if it's impossible or implausible, we need to get as close as we can because frankly we are destroying ourselves when we're not.
Ilia: Yeah, I agree with both of you. Actually, I think we have infinite potential within us. I don't think we even know our own capacity to create a new world. So even the idea like, "No, that's pie in the sky or no, we'll never reach that. That's perfection." I'm saying I think if you imagine it, you create it, it'll be a reality. And I think we have the capacity to create a new world. We have the means within us. I do think we have infinite potential. It's not just finite potential. It's not like, "Oh well I'm just limited because I live in Washington DC and I'm constantly fighting the government." I'm like, "Please, we are what the world becomes. There's no world out there. We are the world and it's becoming."
So I think we have to get our heads around that. And this is where I think it goes back and agrees to your interest in coming to the chi, the energies that drive us. Because if we keep having this disconnected mindset like, "God is going to save us or there's going to be some apocalyptic finality and we'll all be swept up and..." We will destroy the world and we are the apocalypse as well. But I also think one of the things that we are really focused at in our Center for Christogenesis is the core energy of love; love as our deepest reality. In other words, a love that is irresistible, it is unitive, it is indestructible. No matter how hard you try to destroy everything, love will not only survive, it will continue to grow.
And I think that that is what the name God is. Is that power of indestructible love, invincible love, the love that will bring us forward. Love is a great thing because when people fall in love, they don't just stay where they are. They're like, "Oh, it's so nice that we're in love." They're always dreaming and planning. A whole new life is coming out and they're like, "What can we do together? Where are we going to move?" Like creating a new feeling. So it's dreamy. It's very imaginative, it's very earthly worldliness. And I'm like, "We have that power of love to dream and imagine." And I think this whole idea of, "Oh my gosh, we're so many races. What are we going to do?" And I'm like, “Celebrate, maybe." That beauty of love—isn’t that wonderful that there's just like 10,000 million languages and people and faces. It's like, "This is the beauty of life and I can't believe we want to homogenize it into a vanilla milkshake." It's all flat and one colored. But it is just like, "Why would we want to do something that dumb?" But we do because I think we're fearful of what the richness of life could look like. I think we fear ourselves. We fear our own power to really become something new; a new type of person for a new type of planet. I love that term planetary solidarity. I want to check that book out, Grace.
Grace: Yeah, can use it too. It's better than volume. I did re-edited volumes on gender justice and church doctrine, so that was the third one. And it's a global one. So we have African voices and Asian voices, South American and European and North American.
Ilia: Fantastic really. Yes, for example, I have a student who's from Africa from Togo and he's writing on process theology in Ubuntu. When I learned about Ubuntu I was like, "Wow, it's beautiful." I mean, it's a relational matrix of life where even personal identity is really part and parcel of the whole. And I'm like, "Oh my god, how did we allow this little Western thing to just rise up and like this little dominant thing." I think that goes back to bad religion basically. We said, "We have the truth. If you don't follow this, you're going to know where." It hasn't been helpful. So I think good religion goes for a healthy way of life. Bad religion makes for not so good stuff.
Grace: I think that Ubuntu is so important and Asians have a very similar concept too. When I spoke in Africa and different parts of the world, Africans also have another word for chi; so they have their own word. In India, they have their own word too but it's the same concept. I find that so interesting. And also in South America too. So when I talk about chi to different people around the world, they have their own word, but the same concept. And I feel like this universal understanding of spirit that is moving people and is within them, I just find that so comforting. We are all one people living different lives and different languages and different flavors of food that make this world so beautiful and that we can all work together and become this planetary solidarity and work for wholeness.
Ilia: Yeah. It reminds me of David Bohm's idea. We appear separate, we appear independent, but in our cosmic roots, we're all part of the one cosmic process.
Gabi: I think we separate ourselves into things like the mind, the body, the soul as separate things. Then we separate the human race into little groups based on things that people can't control. And then we divide them further and we divide, we divide, we divide and we are really just one creation. There isn't a clear dividing line anywhere that isn't made up in my opinion. The same diversity that we're like, "Oh this is so beautiful in other species." When we see it in our own species, we divide it and we say, "No, no, no. It's not the human race. There's Caucasians and then there's Africans and then..." We need to stop dividing ourselves into little pieces and start seeing ourselves as creation.
Ilia: You said something very interesting and I think Grace was saying the same thing. That's where you started. We divide ourselves; body, mind, spirit, and then we divide the races or we divide one another into groups. That is so interesting insofar as we have allowed ourselves to be captivated by division, when our true reality is unitive, which goes back to what you're both saying in terms of that oneness or union of that energy or relational energy. Wow, that is amazing. Grace, what are your final thoughts here or final parting words of wisdom to us this afternoon?
Grace: I don't know if I have any words of wisdom, but it has been such a joy to talk with you and Gabi on this podcast. I think having these rich conversations only helps us in the long run because I think learning from each other, from different people, from different generations and people of different backgrounds, it's just so helpful. It really opens our eyes and our minds. You're all connected as human beings. We are all one humankind and we need to love—you're focused on love—And that is missing so much because of these barriers of political barriers, these racial ethnic barriers, these gender and sexuality barriers. There's so many barriers that are preventing us from loving one another. If we really understand the energy, chi, and the vibration that is within all of creation—It's not limited just to human beings, then I think that will really move us and push us and vibrate us to work for social justice, to work for climate justice, racial justice, gender justice, sexuality justice, and that we can really work for this wholeness that all of us are talking about here today. So I'm just grateful for your platform and for your podcast and how you invest to share. So I'm just grateful for this time. Thank you so much.
Ilia: Thank you so much, Grace, and thank you Gabi for your great insights. Thank you, Robert, for attentively being with us. Let's make sure we leave without a consciousness of divisiveness and with the energy of unity. Blessings and peace.
Robert: This concludes our discussion with Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Next week, join us as we welcome comparative religion scholar and artist, Patrick Beldio. A special thanks to our partners at The Fetzer Institute. As always, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.