Ki Joo Choi grew up in an immigrant family immersed in religion.
Weekdays were spent attending Catholic schools, and entire weekends worshipping with his family at their Korean American Protestant church.
But as Choi grew up, he noticed that the faith which informed his life seemed to have far less importance in the outside world.
“That disconnect was downright puzzling to me,” he says. “That probably propelled my interest in theology more than anything else.”
His search for answers led to his calling as a theologian, with a focus on the liberating themes of scripture.
This fall, Choi joined the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary as the Kyung-Chik Han Chair in Asian American Theology, bringing to the role an overarching concern with racial and social justice. His 2019 book, Disciplined by Race: Theological Ethics and the Problem of Asian American Identity, articulated an emerging Asian American theological perspective while exploring the searing impact of white racism.
“I see Asian American theology as a sibling discourse to Latinx, Black, Womanist, Queer, and feminist theologies,” Choi says. “Just like its siblings, Asian American theology can speak from the experience of oppression, violence, and marginalization as it seeks the liberation of societies and peoples.”
The topic is timely. Asian Americans had the fastest growth rate among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States between 2000 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2060, their population is projected to rise to 35.8 million.
But, Choi says, Asian Americans are still coming to terms with the trauma of their own history, especially the long shadow of white racism stretching from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1940s to the surge of violent attacks during the pandemic, starting in 2020.
“Violence and racism against Asian Americans have always been there, but it has been magnified and amplified in the past few years,” Choi says. “Because of that, Asian American theology has become even more relevant as a form of liberation theology.”
As a professor, he hopes to advance Asian American theology as a moral, spiritual, and intellectual tradition that can nourish the greater church. He also wants to support and mentor the growing number of Asian American seminarians and prepare all students for ministry in an increasingly diverse, fast-changing society.
Formerly the chair of the religion department at Seton Hall University, Choi also brings expertise in an array of other topics, including ecumenical moral theology, peace studies, the ethics of Jonathan Edwards, art and aesthetic theory, and medical humanities. He is currently serving as co-editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics.
He was four years old when his parents emigrated from South Korea to Southern California, and in middle school when the family moved to New York City. As a student at a Franciscan-run high school in Queens, theology was one of his favorite classes.
“We explored questions of God's existence and whether the Bible was the literal truth or truth in some other sense,” he recalls. “All of these were captivating questions for me growing up.”
He continued pursuing deep theological questions throughout his university studies. After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University, Choi received his MDiv from Yale Divinity School, where he was exposed to a wide diversity of thought within the Christian tradition. He then studied with the noted ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill at Boston College, where he earned his PhD, with a focus on theological and social ethics.
Although he studied exhaustively and had strong mentors, Choi likes to point out that his focus on social justice is rooted in scripture.
“I don’t know how you can read the Gospels without seeing that the primary concern is with the outcast, and the oppressed,” Choi says. “So, for me, as a matter of Christian responsibility, that has to be front and center of how we think about our lives as Christians, how we do theology, and how we think about the role of the church in the world.”