Dr. Eunny Lee discusses the story of Ruth the Moabite and how it relates to the immigration experience
The Department of Biblical and Religious Studies hosted this semester’s first Faith Matters lecture on Thursday. The lecture was presented by Eunny Lee, Ph.D., who discussed the Book of Ruth, and how Ruth’s experiences as an immigrant relates to many immigrants’ experiences today.
Lee began the lecture with stories about her experiences as a Korean-American immigrant. Lee explained that this hyphenated identity, as she put it, caused several issues for her growing up. She recalled a question one of her professors asked her a long time ago, “Growing up, what were the most significant challenges in your home?” That question left a lasting idea in Lee’s mind that people need to rethink their notion of home and have a broader vision of what home actually means.
According to Lee, a home is a place where people have the freedom to be. It is the root of their existence and a critical place for identity development or a safe, domestic sphere of comfort. However, Lee said a home is not always a happy place.
“[A home] can be an ambiguous place filled with tension and negotiations,” Lee said.
Along with the safe confines of a home come walls and gates to keep others out. So who is allowed in? Lee acknowledged that when this question is regarding a country, it becomes even more complicated.
With this question comes the fact that “home” is not a fixed and stable thing, but something constantly needing to be constructed and reconstructed. Lee pointed to the refugee crisis across the globe where millions of people are displaced and looking for a place to make a home.
“By virtue of my face, I will always be marked as an other,” Lee said.
Lee made a connection between the immigrant and refugee crises to the biblical story of Ruth. She pointed out how the prologue of the book starts by documenting all the characters origins before their names are stated. This, she said, shows how much emphasis was put on their origins as opposed to who they actually were.
Lee explained that the Old Testament depiction of Moab is not good; however, there is a different portrayal of Moab when Ruth is welcomed by the town of Bethlehem after moving back there with her mother-in-law, Naomi. While this is a less negative view of the foreign nation, there is still a recurring emphasis on Ruth’s Moabite identity throughout the whole book, according to Lee.
Lee discussed how Ruth’s identity was changed by becoming part of a different nation and yet she still always carried with her the roots of her past as a different ethnicity than those around her. Even when Ruth marries Boaz at the end of the book, she is constantly having to go and make a home for herself in every situation that is presented to her.
This mirrors the immigrant journey, Lee said, of having to consistently find room in a community, and even sometimes having to “be pushy and doggedly pursue it to make room for [themselves].”
Senior English major, Katie Hatzfeld, is a former student of Lee and attended the lecture.
“I have always appreciated about Dr. Lee the way that she is so masterful with the Hebrew language and is able to tease out all of these fascinating parts about the narratives that were intended in the Hebrew originally but we have lost in translation,” Hatzfeld said.
Hatzfeld also said she resonated with the “open house” concept that Lee discussed regarding immigrants and strangers coming into a community.
“I’m really passionate about [the] need to create a space and welcome and not discriminate because of fear,” Hatzfeld said.