Choi: ‘Lend voice to the voiceless’ to perceive mystery from the margins

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Jin Young Choi, assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, speaks to the Chautauqua audience Thursday at the Hall of Philosophy.

Jin Young Choi is not a policy expert on immigration. She’s not in charge of any organization relevant to immigration, and it’s not even her field of study. Yet she’s just as qualified to speak on the matter at Chautauqua than anyone. Why? Because she’s an immigrant herself.

A professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Choi delivered her lecture, “Mother Tongue is My Refuge,” Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy. Her presentation hinged on her combination of personal perspective as an immigrant and years of scholarship in religion. To Choi, language is a means by which groups establish dominance and maintain superior rank.

Intertwining her own experiences as well as alternative viewpoints on classic Bible verses, Choi argued that, while language can be a tool of submission, it can also be a tool of empowerment and pride for minority groups.

Choi has lived as a resident alien in America for the past 11 years and is currently working on becoming a U.S. citizen. She detailed some sobering experiences of mistreatment and alienation from society. As a resident alien living in Kentucky, her driver’s license, which was issued by the state, did not qualify as a valid form of identification. Having forgotten her passport at home, she was denied service of alcohol for her inability to prove her legal age.

“I had to swallow tears instead of drinking wine,” she said.

Despite feeling consistently treated as an outsider, Choi continued her studies. She said she applied for a Ph.D. with research into the Bible from a feminine and Asian perspective.

Her professor’s response: “I’m not sure.”

Undeterred, Choi carried on with her studies and eventually earned the degree. Two weeks from now, she has a book coming out titled Postcolonial Discipleship of Embodiment: An Asian and Asian American Feminist Reading of the Gospel.

“Yes, I’ve done what my professor had not been sure about,” Choi said. “I brought my Asian female perspective to reading biblical text, not to intend to ‘exotify’ my work, but to engage with Western biblical scholarship and expand its horizons and adding a new voice from the horizons.”

Sharing a piece from the book, Choi told the story from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus cures a man’s deafness and speech impediment by rubbing spit in the man’s mouth and penetrating his ear with his finger. In her view, the man’s speech impediment is only an impediment to the dominant culture that deems it as such. She described the passage as carrying themes of heteronormativity and societal acceptance.

She also noted that, although the passage says the man is cured, he never speaks in the parable. She interpreted this as indicative of the marginalization of certain minority groups. Choi said the silence does not negate their significance.

“Silence does not mean ignorance or anomaly,” Choi said. “The absence of a record in history does not indicate that there was no event.”

She continued talking about how her accent is perceived as being of a “broken tongue,” but such is only a judgment. To her, it’s a badge of pride and a testament to the duality of her identity.

“The broken tongue not only represents the split identity of the linguistic and feminist other, but also there’s testimony to the agency, resistance and connectivity of Asian women and men in the U.S.,” Choi said.

In closing, Choi reiterated the importance of listening and empowering the voices from the margins. According to her, it’s hearing from those with different journeys in life that reveals all of life’s spiritual mysteries.

“When we lend voice to the voiceless and recognize that they have humanity and agency, we may be able to perceive the presence of mystery in the midst of our life together,” she said. “This mystery may not be known, but when we invite those strangers, that mystery shows its face to us and we will finally embody the mystery of life together.”