Most of the responses to the Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage have drawn necessary attention to mental illness and gun violence. Emil Guillermo, after analyzing Rodger’s “manifesto,” highlights a racial dimension that has implications for ministry in racially diverse contexts. Guillermo argues that Rodger acted largely out of disdain for his mixed-race features (he was hapa, i.e., half-Asian; his mother is Chinese).
See Emil Guillermo’s blog “Elliot Rodger’s manifesto shows self-hate fueled anti-Asian violence that kicked off Isla Vista rampage” (May 25, 2014)
Blaming this for his sexual frustration and relational isolation, Rodger lashed out last Friday. The Isla Vista rampage left 7 dead and 13 wounded. Three of the dead were Chinese Americans from the S.F. Bay Area (one attended a youth ministry of a Chinese church in San Jose).
I don’t want to over-analyze the racial dimensions of this tragic situation. But I believe that they have implications for ministry, especially ministry among Asian Americans. Let me begin by assuming that a racialized world will reproduce racialized subjectivities. That is to say, the way we view and value ourselves is largely determined by the way our society structures and assigns value, power, and beauty to different racial categories. Much of our self-worth depends on what we embrace from our society’s diverse perceptions about race.
Of course we don’t all think the same way about race. Many of us who grew up in an Asian ethnic “bubble” did not feel devalued until we entered the mainstream, despite the media’s tendency to present “whiteness” as the norm. Those who grew up in largely white or multiethnic settings sometimes resort to “colorblindness” to escape self-stigmatization. Others might exaggerate their race/ethnicity/culture in order to garner attention that can be, in some cases, very rewarding. Race may be deeply submerged, laying just beneath the surface, or at the core of our feelings about ourselves. But it is always present within our consciousnesses. It gives us this nagging feeling that being white (and male) is simply better. That nagging feeling is one of the ways racialization in our social structure is reproduced within us. What does this say about ministry to Asian Americans?
God’s acceptance: the Asian American evangelical gospel?
Christians believe that our identity in Christ ought to be our most distinguishing feature. We are encouraged to live each day as a public witness to our faith, as if we were standing before the face of God (corem deo). Usually this means that our Christian identity renders irrelevant all the other aspects of who we are – such as race, gender, and social status. In fact, these identities are the result of sin. Christians should overcome, not dwell on them. Ministry and mission should therefore be blind to culture, gender, and social status.
As appealing as this sounds, it misses an important reality: social inequality, not social difference, is the result of sin. When being seen as “not” white has negative ramifications for how that person is valued or treated, it is not simply racial prejudice (check out this study). This is symptomatic of a social structure that privileges whiteness. Social inequality grows out of sinful social structures. Corporate and structural sin is just as real as individual and personal sin.
But racial, gender, and economic inequality don’t exist in a worldview where structural sin is not seen. In this worldview, racialized subjectivities are not ministry concerns.
However, can one say that the God of the Bible doesn’t care about social inequality?
Many Christians believe that God cares deeply. For them, living corem deo includes bearing witness against structural sins and their consequences. Over the last twenty years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has developed a ministry strategy for overcoming the negative effects of racial inequality that Asian Americans experience. The inequality often finds expressions through self-hatred, feeling unaccepted and devalued, seeking worth through performance, and placing undue faith in meritocracy. This ministry stresses the importance of embracing Asian American culture, ethnicity, and race.
The basic gist of this ministry is this:
God created and placed us in our cultural, ethnic, and racial settings. Sin diminishes Asian social identities and favors others. Rather than rejecting or escaping them, we need to realize that our identities are not marks of worthlessness. Rather, they are gifts from God. God transforms what our world sees as insignificant into something with tremendous significance and purpose. So we don’t have to feel embarrassed or devalued.
An example of this approach can be found in this video clip (thanks Roy Tinklenburg):
As you can see, the spiritual discovery happens when the Asian American believer realizes that God accepts him or her. Instead of the futile efforts of earning societal acceptance and meeting family expectations, we rest in God’s declaration that we are worthy (in view of Christ’s work on the cross). This message transposes into the Asian American context the basic Reformation and evangelical insight of sola gratia.
There is no doubt in my mind that God’s acceptance is a message Asian Americans need to hear. It is a message that rings true for multi-race people and others who are marginalized, too.
But, in my opinion, it is just a first step. There are many questions that still need to be considered by Asian Americans as we minister to them. For example:
- Now that I can accept who I am, what do I do with this knowledge? [i.e., the sanctification question]
- What in my Asian culture needs to be redeemed? After all, God’s creation, despite being declared good originally, is still marred by sin.
- What does social equality look like as an Asian American Christian? Does this mean fighting against any and all forms of discrimination and injustice?
- Should I openly support Asian American causes? (e.g., APA programs in colleges or seminaries, Asian American politics or community activism, Asian American specific ministries)
- Should I take pride in being Asian? How? (e.g., promote Asian American studies or cultural immersions)
- How do I share this new insight to non-Asians? What role do they play in all of this?
- Should I belong to an immigrant Asian church? Should I go to a multi-ethnic church?
- Whichever church or ministry I join, how much of my Asian American identity should be part of conversation? How can I contribute this part of who I am?
I don’t know all the answers, but I’m eager to connect with others who are also interested in these questions. I cannot say that the message of God’s acceptance would have prevented Elliot Rodger from slipping down the slope of self-destruction, hatred, and violence. I wonder if he and many others would have benefited from a ministry that pays as much attention to the “racial dimensions” of our contemporary life as InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries. But I’m convinced that greater attention to the questions raised by those who are invested in Asian American ministries will contribute to a better self-image, mental health, and spiritual maturity for the Church and those to whom she is called to minister.