APA Faith Matters is a periodic interview of Asian Pacific American (APA) leaders in various religious contexts. It highlights those leaders who are passionate about social justice issues that matter to APA communities and work from within their religious contexts.
Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, PhD, is the director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, a non-profit organization that works on innovative, creative strategies for social change. The group brings diverse religious leaders and organizations together to work for the common good. Dr. Brock has a compelling spiritual journey – one that began in Japan as she writes in her book, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, “in daily Buddhist and Shinto rituals in my grandparents’ house and in frequent village festivals,” and continues on in a Protestant context today, as she is a licensed minister by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Northern California and Nevada. She is vocal about a wide range of social justice issues including interreligious dialogue, reproductive choice for women, and environmental conscientiousness – a compelling voice.
How would you describe your religious background and upbringing?
My transformation from a Japanese religious person to a Christian took a decade. When I was five, my stepfather Roy Brock, a U.S. Army medic, got orders for Ft. Riley, Kansas, but the INS would not let me enter the country. My mother and I joined him on a military base on Okinawa while he spent the year working for clearance for me to go with them. I switched from Japanese to English while attending kindergarten during that year in limbo…I felt the pressure to “get saved” most intensely every August when my family visited Roy’s family in Amory, Mississippi. I heard fiery Southern Baptist revival sermons about sin, hell, and salvation through Jesus Christ. I found the blunt condemnations alienating. Such behavior was a sign of hostility or lack of intelligence in Japan, where being indirect, kind, and subtle are important as a sign of respect for others.
I got “saved” in high school. In 1966, the military sent my father to Ft. Irwin, California, in the middle of the hot, dry Mojave Desert, to train for Vietnam, a steamy land covered with jungles. When he was home between deployments, Roy moved us to Barstow, California, rather than leave us on the base. Barstow, where I attended high school, had been an hour’s bus ride from town, which made after-school activities difficult. My father served his second tour in Vietnam while we lived “on the economy,” the military term for civilian life.
Is being Asian American a part of or impact your religious perspective/experience, if so, how?
Because I experienced quite a bit of racism and sexism growing up as a Japanese immigrant in an US military family and that grounds my work for women’s rights, civil rights, and GLBT rights. My father was a veteran of WWII and Vietnam, and my work for peace is informed by that personal history.
What social/political issues are you passionate about the most?
I originally planned to write a doctoral dissertation in Buddhist – Christian dialogue. My feminist friends were Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian, and our conversations focused on analyses of sexism, views of gender, and the importance of dismantling male dominance. Through these interactions, I became increasingly troubled by the misogyny and androcentrism of Christianity, and I felt the need to explore whether it was possible for me to remain a Christian with integrity. So I focused on that question and wrote a feminist christology.
My latest project, www.conscienceinwar.org, has led to new work on moral injury in veterans, which is what I am passionate about right now.
How does your religion impact or shape your view on those issues?
My turn toward deeper explorations of Christianity presaged what became a crucial religious issue for me beginning in 1994. A Christian rightwing organization, the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) launched attacks against Christian feminist leaders. My interfaith questions began to feel less urgent than the struggles among Christians. Conflicts over the same religious legacy carried high stakes when racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, and imperialism were being justified by religious ideologies that claimed to be Christian and some women clergy lost their jobs. At the same time the Christian right was attacking my friends, I struggled to work with secular feminists and an increasingly anti-religion left, who saw religion simply as private belief. The secularists wanted no public role for progressive religious people who share their commitments to opposing theocracy and defusing the Christian right.
There are many religious borders, and the intra-religious and extra-religious borders can be far more difficult to cross than the inter-religious ones. It’s also easy to mistake difference and disagreement with a border, when there is none. It helps to know that no religion is a clear and single entity. We humans lay down new neural pathways from every meaningful social encounter, so every living tradition is a networked cluster of hybrid social movements. Staying in the struggle to traverse diverse boundaries has deepened my commitments to being Christian…
Dr. Brock is the author of Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, co-author of Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, and editor and contributor to Guide to the Perplexing: A Survival Manual for Women in Religious Studies, Setting the Table: Women in Theological Conversation, and Off the Menu: Asian and North American Asian Women’s Religion and Theology. Most recently, she co-authored Saving Paradise: How Christianity Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. More information about her can be found on Saving Paradise.