My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, went live Monday on Christian Feminism Today. She writes well and covers a broad range of topics of interest to Christian theologians, but you’ll have to go to the review to find out more! For that review I focused more on the book’s contribution to the feminist theology conversation, but I also wanted to comment on its usefulness for ecotheology.
Although Embracing the Other does not purport to be ecotheology, Kim does work regarding care for the environment. She’ll be leading a workshop at Earlham School of Religion‘s spirituality gathering April 27, 2016, “Justice Lives in Relationship: The Poetry & Practice of Eco-Spirituality,” regarding COP21, stewardship, and climate justice. (This looks like a great event! If you’re near Richmond, IN, sign up and then tell me how it goes!) In Embracing the Other, Kim does not address ecotheology directly, but she does write about the importance of a sense of interconnectedness in theology. She focuses on pneumatology due to the Spirit’s inability to be pinned down or boxed up, themes of import in ecotheology, especially in the work of ecofeminist theologians such as Sallie McFague (who, in fact, Kim refers to in her discussion of the Spirit, pp. 129-130).
Kim introduced me to the work of W. Anne Joh, postcolonial feminist Korean American theologian, who speaks of the Korean terms han and jeong to describe the ideas of unjust suffering and sticky love, respectively. First of all, I appreciate how Kim explains the historical precedent for utilizing terms and concepts already present in another language as Christian theology begins to interact with that culture and its language. She shows how this can expand our understanding of theological concepts and our knowledge of God, which of course cannot fit into one language or metaphor. I have yet to read Joh’s book, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology, but it looks like she goes into depth on han and jeong as pertains to the crucifixion, soteriology, and Christology. I’ll need to learn more about these concepts from her work, though Kim gave a great overview of her thought.
Second, these terms could open up a helpful conceptual framework for ecotheology, which I don’t think has been done yet. In my recent work, I’ve been struggling to explain the concept of hope and the transformation that occurs through our meaning-making without reducing suffering to a pious asceticism or glorification of poverty, and I suspect that the concept of han may provide some in-roads. Even more useful is the term jeong, which Kim describes as a sticky love that recognizes the interconnectedness between people. This kind of love refuses to become an enemy of a loved one, even when that loved one is also in some ways an oppressor. In liberation theology, I think this kind of love is something that could really help the conversation, since it’s difficult to become conscientized to one’s role as oppressed and then to figure out how to love the oppressor anyway. It can feel dehumanizing, even though the whole goal is re-humanizing the “other” and ourselves. But how do we have this kind of love? Jeong is something many of us feel, I believe, when we love our spouses, kids, parents, and others despite their faults. It’s a choice we make to love the person even while holding strong boundaries about what we will allow as acceptable behavior towards ourselves. It’s a love that refuses to give up on someone, that keeps trying to love, even in the midst of pain and suffering. Jeong can keep marriages together, if both commit to it, or I can imagine that it would also open the space for divorce when one will not commit to jeong but repeatedly oversteps boundaries of safety and care to the point where one partner must leave in order to show true love.
In ecotheology, I see jeong as a helpful concept because it is the glue that holds everything together. Kim talks about jeong as the work of the Spirit, connecting us to one another, providing the life-force, and the “passion” part of compassion. It is grace and boundary-keeping both. It provides an interconnection so deep we cannot escape it, and a framework for a network of caring relationships with all creation, not just with people. That’s where I see it really helping in the conversation about Christians’ care for the Earth. Jeong allows us to be creatures-in-relation, to hold our place squarely in the midst of the interconnected web. Within conversations about the environment, it is difficult to value human life and at the same time to value the environment. Within a Western worldview where we think of “nature” as “everything on Earth that isn’t human,” we have a hard time conceiving of pristine nature that includes us. (For more on this, see Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics, and William Cronon’s essay “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature” in Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader.)
But jeong gives us a place to fit within the interconnected ecosystem of creation, “stuck” to the rest of creation through a relationship of love, care, and life-essence itself. Jeong allows us to acknowledge our vulnerable position within this network: we need the health of the whole ecosystem in order to survive and thrive ourselves. And this vulnerability allows us to live within the space of solidarity with all of creation: its people and its animals, its plants and its networks of ecosystem services. In our role as conscious stewards of this network, we can choose to live within the flow of the Spirit’s jeong-connectedness, or we can choose to increase han, the unjust suffering under which the whole creation groans. When we try to control “nature,” similarly to what happens when we attempt to control the Spirit and tell it through whom it has our permission to speak and move, we end up squeezing all the life out of the context we’re attempting to control. Through the open-handed vulnerability that is the sticky love of jeong, we live into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world. We become part of the God-created ecosystems, finding our place through care rather than control. We find that we can most be ourselves when we allow others to be wholly other, and wholly, inexplicably, unaccountably, graciously, and intimately loved with a tenacity that refuses to be broken or manipulated. It allows for reconciliation so that we do not have to be against those who live in ways with which we disagree, but we can be conscious of the han in which we are all bound up, and love them with the sticky love of jeong, the Spirit’s interconnecting and transformative, passionate power.