Embracing the Other: a theology of equality, justice, and response
As a Catholic woman pursuing a path to ordained ministry through Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP), I was recently asked to contemplate and write about “the theology” that has most marked my faith journey as it relates to RCWP values. I found my answer in Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s prophetic work: Embracing the Other: the Transformative Spirit of Love. As an Asian American feminist theologian, Kim advances from the firm ground established by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and others, and she brings a new challenge to the forefront: integrating diverse identities into a feminist perspective with greater mindfulness toward the great diversity of human and Christian experience.
Kim points out that we are often quick to reject or accept “the other” into our worldview with a presumption of what it globally means to be woman, feminist, and Christian. When we lack understanding of “the other,” (including those we presume to be like us), we risk cutting off our sisters from aspects of their being — depriving them of wholeness. Kim proposes a theology to counteract the “othering” of people that has pervaded human history, particularly as it relates to colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
In Kim’s theology of Spirit-Chi (chi meaning “energy force”), she reminds us that “the irony of our human situation is that in order to attain equality as political persons, we must stress and celebrate our differences of gender, culture, history, language, and economic class… so that all women’s voices are united as a symphony for love, justice, and peace” (140, Kim). Spirit in itself is a global force that can be harnessed to heal ourselves, recognizing we are not free while our neighbor is suffering. This speaks to me deeply because from the time I was 13, I have been seeking friendship with people far beyond my cultural identity. I have spent time with exchange students, studied abroad, lived and worked with people from all continents (except Antarctica!), and befriended many beautiful people from traditions extraordinarily different from mine. What I have learned time and again is how similar we are, and yet how meaningful our diversity is. I would never deny my Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or humanist friends the truth of their life experience in order to validate mine. That seems inhuman and unjust, and yet this is precisely what the colonial evangelization of our Catholic Christian tradition has done for centuries. When we seek to liberate ourselves as women to minister as equals in our also beautiful tradition, I find it important to celebrate our uniqueness while keenly whittling away exclusionary stereotypes that continue to enslave our “other” global sisters in oppression.
I did not find it difficult to relate Kim’s Spirit-Chi theology to RCWP values, defined as follows:
1. Equality: Women and men are created whole and holy by God; and as baptized persons women can equally represent Christ. Therefore, we can be ordained. Our ordinations are done in apostolic succession following the Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.
2. Justice: We strive to live as communities of justice, inclusivity and diversity. We renounce clericalism, racism, sexism, hetero-sexism and all forms of discrimination.
3. Accountability: As companions on the journey, we are mutually accountable to one another, to society and to creation.
4. Collegiality: Our models of governance are communitarian based on a new model of church which encourages empowerment and generous service, and rejects all forms of domination and control.
5. Prophetic Obedience: We are called by the Holy Spirit to read the signs of the times and to respond. (RCWP Vision & Mission)
The concept of Justice immediately stands out to me as a cornerstone of RCWP values in alignment with Kim’s theology of Spirit-Chi. This at the core of what I have strived for my whole life: inclusion, understanding, and respect for others. I remember when my childhood parish priest joked with our community about the protestant who asked God why there was a wall in heaven, and God shushed him and answered, “the Catholics are on the other side, and they think they’re the only ones here.” It seemed so ridiculous to me that Catholics would believe “our way” was the one and only way. I bought into other church teachings to my detriment (especially regarding human sexuality), but never this one. Recognizing the holy humanity of others regardless of race, religion, gender, or culture has always been a matter of justice to me; in fact, nothing else even makes sense. This same justice is at the absolute core of Spirit-Chi theology as well, “for the liberation of women is the liberation of all” (Kim, 85).
Equality is the second word that most deeply embodies this theology for me, though one cannot exist without the other. Kim points out that “to work toward removing these injustices, we must recognize the stranger within us all. Women and men need to be able to embrace one another amidst all the problems and difficulties created by patriarchy and oppression and to empower each other so that we can all live abundantly” (88, Kim). Women for centuries have been relegated to the status of “Other,” and even then we experience varying degrees of liberty and oppression. Where men have cast women into a silenced majority, all women have suffered together. Where men can own property but women cannot, we all suffer. Where men can be educated but women cannot, we all suffer. Where men lead but women cannot, we all suffer. Where men can get viagra but women cannot get birth control, we all suffer.
The prophetic woman, as described by Kim, is the one who exercises her own choices, and by extension shines the light of opportunity for other women around her to do the same. In the book of Ruth, traditional interpretations often reflect that Ruth chose the god of Israel over the Moabite’s god, Chemosh, by remaining faithful to Naomi. They vilify Orpah for returning to her homeland. “Clearly,” Ruth is displaying loyalty and wisdom by choosing the “right” God. Kim points out that through the juxtaposition of these two characters, Ruth and Orpah together reflect the ability to freely make their own choices about their future. They can return to their families, or they can stay with Naomi — though Naomi urges them to go back to their homes because she has nothing to offer them in her own homeland. With this context in mind, Ruth sets an example of control over her destiny and courage to walk in the direction of an unknown future as a foreigner.
Grounded in the source of her own truth, Ruth chose to remain with Naomi and forge a future together, and from that choice, she became mother to the line of descendants who would include David and Jesus. While we cannot really say Ruth had “equality” in her time, she took action out of a sense of self-worth and self-determination that gave her more self-agency than other women of her time. Her choices changed the course of biblical history. As her descendent, Jesus would one day prophetically lead Jews and gentiles alike in the pursuit of equality and spiritual liberation. To me, priesthood is an embodiment and extension of that prophetic ministry.
That segues into prophetic obedience, “called by the Holy Spirit to read the signs of the times and to respond” (RCWP). Kim’s theology of Spirit-Chi teaches that “our source of love and life, Spirit God, heals the world between women and men, blacks and whites, and every shade in between. As vessels of the Spirit, we bear prophetic witness to Spirit God, embodying shalom in and for the whole community of creation” (Kim, 115). The spirit of this theology calls us the meet God in the margins, just as Jesus did. It contrasts traditional theologies that have long taught that God holds the center and “reaches out” to those at the margins with masculine constructions of a he-god at the core. Marcella Althaus-Reed states, “What we call the discourses of the centre are just the edited texts of the rich and powerful, hegemonically organizing people’s lifestyles with promises of salvation which exclude, for instance, economic salvation” (quoted in Kim, 118). When societal margins are deprived of power and the center is deprived of diversity, we are critically injured as a people.
The alternative Kim proposes is to operate from a theology of Spirit-chi focused on “shalom justice.” We can meet God in the margins without sacrificing to the patriarchal construct of center. One at the margins can become empowered by centering in one’s own chi-energy for stability while challenging the societal constructs (from any direction) that oppress us. Our prophetic obedience, then, requires us to use that energy to make liberating choices for ourselves and others. The RCWP movement clearly embodies such prophetic witness. As each woman ordained through RCWP has made a choice to stand in her own God-grounded truth and claimed her equality in ministry, she has cleared the way for others to follow. She has demonstrated a choice (like Ruth) that her neighbors may have never seen as a choice before. Through this act and others, lives are intertwined, and the call of prophetic obedience compels us to move forward on behalf of all our sisters on this planet in pursuit of shalom and justice. After all, without the exercises of equality and prophetic obedience, there would be no justice.
One of the things I would most expect from myself in priesthood would be the continued pursuit of interfaith initiatives and exposure for others to diversity. As Kim also concludes in her theological work, this is critical to the health of our multicultural communities. She states, [in an] “increasingly multiethnic, post-Christian North America, Spirit God will help the church to understand and revitalize its role and purpose, and will strengthen its position in society for the good of all” (Kim, 10). My husband is Jewish, and while attending temple services is lovely and enriching — balm for my soul, even, I am Catholic. One of the most wonderful things about participating in the Indianapolis Hebrew Community has been that they embrace and respect my commitment to my faith tradition. Catholicism is deeply rooted in my heart. I have grown up on Gospel, and even if the theologies and practice of our reform Jewish brothers and sisters are a joy and comfort to me, I’m a Catholic girl who longs to see greater healing in her own tradition. I want to be part of a Catholic future that is enthralled and enriched by the diversity of our neighboring “others” and does not have to deny validity of other heritages in order to lift up our own.
Our country currently lives in fear of the “other,” and it is tearing us apart. Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s theology speaks to me because it gives voice to what I’ve long felt as my call to lead by “embracing the other.” The RCWP core values speak to me because they embody the necessary elements of equality and pursuit of justice through prophetic obedience, with accountability and collegiality as critical structures, to enable that pursuit.
Kim, Grace Ji-Sun. Embracing the Other: the Transformative Spirit of Love. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
“About RCWP.” Roman Catholic Women Priests, RCWP,