Christianity and the 2016 Election. A Pre-election interview

about-photoMy good friend, Dr. Tony Wang, a fellow historian and progressive Christian Asian American, hosts a really good podcast/radio show called “I’ll Look Into It.” I was privileged to have been interviewed by him TWICE! Last November, before the elections, the two of us (Tony is an economic historian, I am a historian of religion) chatted up our thoughts about Christian (particularly evangelical) engagement in and discourse about the 2016 election. Have a listen and let me know if you think we were on target or way off the mark! Here is the link to the interview: Christianity and the 2016 Election – my interview with Dr. Tony Wang


Also highly recommended

ASIAN AMERICA: THE KEN FONG PODCAST, a weekly show that explores the cultural, artistic, historical and spiritual aspects of the Asian American community. View at this link.

The Changing Face of Evangelicalism (ASCH 2017 Roundtable)

One of the privileges of being in academia that miss is the opportunity to share my research and, hopefully, encourage a better future for society and the Christian movement. As a contributor to The Future of Evangelicalism in America (edited by Candy Brown and Mark Silk), I was invited to share a short summary and reflection at a roundtable devoted to the book this past January 7, at the American Society of Church History 2017 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. Mark Silk wrote a press release about the roundtable. Here is an overview of the roundtable program:

asch-panel-2017

My remarks about my chapter “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism” (updated Jan. 11, 2016) follow:

When I first joined this research effort, oh so many years ago, writing a chapter on the recent racial-ethnic transformation and influence on evangelicalism seemed an impossible task. But in recent years, more studies about Evangelical People of Color (I’ll call them EPOCs – hopefully never to be confused with Ewoks of Star Wars fame) have been published. So my chapter, hopefully, contributes to this growing awareness of evangelical diversity.

Of course, media attention is still drawn to white Evangelicals – especially during the recent Presidential campaign where 81% of white evangelicals were said to have voted for Donald Trump. Media attention to EPOCs remains spotty. In a Faith and Freedom Coalition post-election survey of 800 people, however, 59% of non-white evangelicals voted for Clinton and 35% for Trump.[1] A LifeWay survey conducted shortly before the elections indicated that only 15% of nonwhite evangelicals said they would vote for Donald Trump; 62% would vote for Hillary Clinton.[2]

pre-election-evangelical-survey

More recent media attention had been given to Latino evangelicals, particularly on the issue of immigration reform. The Evangelical Immigration Table and G92, for example, are recent collaborative efforts to garner evangelical voice around immigration reform and paths to citizenship. When it comes to immigration reform and the election campaign of Mr. Trump, EPOC appear to vary from white evangelicals. On issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, EPOCs are generally aligned with white evangelicals and swimming against the views of most people of color in general, but there are signs of a generational divide among EPOCs, too. For example, Deborah Jian Lee’s book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism claims that “believers of color have changed church demographics and church politics. Women are rising in the ranks. LGBT Christians are coming out and issues like global AIDS and the environment have become priorities in many Evangelical congregations. Young people are returning to evangelicalism.”

Well, maybe not – in light of recent decisions by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to request staff who support same-sex marriage to voluntarily resign. In any event, I think my thesis remains salient – namely, that “American evangelicalism, when viewed as a religious ethos rather than as an organized movement, has always been [multiracial] multicultural and multiethnic, and…will become increasingly so in the future.” (174) However, EPOCs and their concerns will continue to be marginal to mainstream white evangelicals unless adjustments in theology and practices that account for racial and cultural differences are made at both high and the grass-roots levels.[3]

Before I address these proposed adjustments that conclude my chapter in the book, I wanted to highlight the changing demography of evangelicalism based on the recent ARIS and Pew surveys. And then I reviewed the history of race and ethnicity in American Christianity.

Briefly, the surveys show that Latino and Asian American Christian affiliation with the evangelical label has increased in the last twenty years.[4]

increasting-racial-diversity-christians-pewFor Latinos this represents a shift away from Roman Catholicism, though I’m not certain if this movement is increasing. The percentage of Asian American Christian affiliation has declined overall, but that is due to the rise of immigrants from South Asia and Islamic countries. But Asian American Christian identification with mainline Protestantism has diminished as most now identify with recognizably evangelical organizations. African Americans have a more established history and remain less inclined to adopt the evangelical label despite sharing its theological and spiritual ethos.

As I alluded to earlier, the impact of the growth of EPOCs upon mainstream evangelicals will most likely be felt how well mainstream evangelicals embrace EPOC’s concerns about racial justice, economic policy, and immigration reform. I also wonder, however, that as mainstream evangelical organizations like the NAE, World Relief, and many Christian colleges begin to engage the concerns of EPOCs, might they alienate rank and file white evangelicals and repeat the white flight from mainline Protestantism in the 1970s.

Perhaps white evangelicals will not repeat history, but I was pessimistic in my chapter. Indeed, I argued that white evangelicals are even less equipped to handle the challenge of racial-ethnic diversity, in part, because of their history of defining themselves against mainline Protestantism. I have no intention of valorizing mainline Protestantism, but there is ample evidence of cross-racial and multicultural relationships in the history of mainline Protestantism. Hispanics began converting to Protestantism in the wake of the post-Mexican War annexations; Asians, after the Gold Rush; Blacks, as part of post-abolition missions to the freedmen; and Native-Americans through Christianizing missions. Thus, in the 19th century, American Protestantism was already becoming ethnically diverse.

And through the nadir of Jim Crow and scientific racism, racial reform resurfaced among mainline Protestants after the mainline-fundamentalist split. Now influenced by the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian realism, mainline churches turned traditional missions into social work and leaned on the social sciences, which led to an explicit engagement with race and the civil rights movement.

But fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals aligned with segregationist social mores and rejected the social sciences as worldly. Instead they focused on soul-winning which led them to ignore racial realities. Where fundamentalists did experience multiculturalism it was primarily through church planting and overseas missions. Ironically, this racial separation gave Hispanics and Asians the freedom to do missions more effectively leading to their rapid growth.

Given this development, one might say that the history of EPOCs is one of realignment from mainline Protestantism to evangelicalism since in the twentieth century. Certainly there were people of color who were engaged with the mainline Protestant ethos. I’d like to refer you to two recent studies tell the stories of how liberal and progressive Asian American Protestants advocated civil rights during the early and middle 20th century. Stephanie Hinnershitz’s Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900-1968 and Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Despite this, the new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia was disconnected from mainline Protestants and, instead, fueled the EPOC dominance we witness today. As history Juan Martinez quips, “Mainline churches opted for Latino civil rights; but Latinos opted for Pentecostalism.” (p 185)

So it would appear that the color-blind, but Anglo-normative, individualistic, but American nationalist gospel of white evangelicals succeeded in winning over racial-minorities despite their ignorance and antipathy towards people of color. But will mainstream evangelicalism be able to truly listen to EPOC voices in the future?

Thus my conclusions about adjustments that white evangelicals would have to make in order to fully embrace the changing face of evangelicalism:

  1. Biblical Theology in Context
  2. Recognizing Structural Racism
  3. Grappling with White Privilege and Racial Equity for Intentionally Multicultural Organizations

Mainline Protestant success among EPOCs came as they made these adjustments. But just as they started to experience multicultural success within their denominational structures, they started to experience massive decline at the grass roots – white flight to evangelicalism. Would that be repeated among white evangelicals?

On the other hand, perhaps evangelicalism won’t repeat mainline Protestant history. Jim Wallis of Sojourners believed that the 2012 re-election of Barack Obame might have signaled “a new evangelical agenda for a new evangelical demographic.” If this is the case, then “the promise of American evangelicalism will be fulfilled only when white evangelicals are no longer hesitant to seek a multicultural and multiracial future characterized by racial equity. Although much work remains, there are promising signs that American evangelicals are willing to allocate resources to face, embrace, and shape a racially diverse future. Indeed…that future has arrived. So, too, have new opportunities to build a global and multiracial evangelical future.” (196)

Notes

[1] Todd Beamon, “Faith & Freedom Coalition Poll: 81 Percent of White Evangelicals for Trump” NewsMax (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/poll-white-evangelicals-voted/2016/11/09/id/758096/

[2] “2016 Elections Exposes Evangelical Divides” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/10/14/2016-election-exposes-evangelical-divide/

[3] This is confirmed by the results of the 2016 presidential elections, which may be leading to an even greater gap between white evangelicals and EPOCs. Carol Kuruvilla, “After Trump’s Win, White Evangelical Christians Face A Reckoning: There’s a growing divide in evangelical Christianity and it has a lot to do with race.” Huffington Post (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evangelicals-election_us_5820d931e4b0e80b02cbc86e

[4] See also Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 12, 2015) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

What if Vincent Chin was an evangelical Chinese Christian? (Expanded)

December 5, 2016

This year, there has been an increase in anti-immigrant and racist incidents across the country. President-elect Donald Trump’s election campaign, which openly courted these sentiments, has been blamed for emboldening many people to perpetrate such acts. The church that I pastor was an apparent victim of such an attack just prior to the elections. Two backward swastikas and the word “die” were etched into a window and door in the back of our building as you can see in these photos:

We have not been able to find the perpetrators. When I posted these photos on my Facebook feed, I alluded to the elections, but provided little additional commentary. Most of my Facebook friends viewed this incident as an instance of a renewed climate of racism and nativism. Many, many friends and churches offered supportive words. Some even offered to help pay to replace the windows.

Many folks at my church, however, appeared more perplexed than angered or fearful. After all, this incident could have been a mere prank rather than an overtly racist act. Our large English and Chinese sign would have made us an easy target for pranksters or white nationalists. Even after local news reported numerous anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant incidents, my members did not seem to want to talk much more about it.

I think it’s safe to say that most Asian immigrant and conservative evangelical Christians are averse to addressing explicitly the structural sin that leads to racial discrimination, the violations of civil rights, and other seemingly minor acts of intimidation. Most of us are more comfortable engaging Family Values activism and remaining satisfied with being charitable. To paraphrase sociologist Christian Smith, like most of the evangelical world, most of us Chinese Christians do not have the “theological tool kit” to understand the systemic nature of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice.

But what if more conservative Asian American evangelical Christians discovered that speaking against racial injustice, for example, is a core faith commitment? What if we learned how to break free from privatized spiritual habits? The editors at Inheritance Magazine challenged me to imagine an alternative history. So I came up with a fictionalized story of how an influential Chinese American evangelical family helped the Chinese Church in America to break their silence around racial injustice.

Because of space limitations in Inheritance Magazine, my original story was shortened considerably. So here is an expanded version. But remember, this never happened! Let me know what you think! – Tim

about-photo

Dr. Tony Yang


Update Dec. 6, 2016. Last June, fellow historian Dr. Tony Yang interviewed me to discuss racism and my Vincent Chen story in his “I’ll Look Into It” pod cast. [go to illlookintoit.org].

 

Here is the interview: 


Original Article: Timothy Tseng, “Chinese Evangelical Vincent Chin Pronounced Dead: What if Vincent Can had been an evangelical Christian?Inheritance Magazine (June 2106): 34-37

NOTE: In this story, Truman Wong, Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society and Go for Christ Missions, the narrator and his family are fictitious. The rest of the story is based on actual historical accounts.

San Francisco, California

June 20, 1982

“Why was he in a place like that?” Mom nearly shouted into the phone. “Okay, we’ll pray for him and for you. Please let us know if anything changes.”

Mom hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table. She could barely contain her agitation. “That was your aunt Lily. Cousin Vincent is in the hospital now. Very badly beaten. In a coma. Two men were arrested. They were white.”

“What happened?” Flora and I asked in unison.

“She’s not sure what happened. Vincent was at a topless club last night. We don’t know why he was beaten so badly.”

“What about his wedding? Are we still going to Detroit next week?”

“Flora!” mom was agitated. “We should be praying for Vincent!”

My sister Flora just graduated high school but had the sensitivity of a fifth grader. But she was right. Our family was planning to attend Vincent and Vikki’s wedding next week. But Vincent was in the hospital and everything was up in the air.

It’s not as if our families were very close. Mom and Vincent’s mom were not real sisters. They met at the Chinese Bible Church (CBC) of Detroit back in the early 60s before the church moved into the suburbs. Cousin Vincent had been recently adopted. Even though Uncle David was an American World War II vet, he worked all his life in Chinese laundries. Brought over from Canton province in China as a war bride, Aunt Lily also worked in laundries and restaurants. She found a support network at the church and mom became her best friend. At that time, dad and mom started the Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society (CEMS) at CBC. Years later, as CEMS grew into one of the largest Chinese para-church organizations in North America, our family moved to the Bay Area.

When CBC moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs, Lily and Vincent stopped attending. They said that the church was too far away, but I suspect that its new middle-class Mandarin-speaking professional members made it less comfortable for the working-class Cantonese-speaking Chins. But after Vincent’s dad died last year, Aunt Lily and Vincent started going to CBC again. Mom and Aunt Lily renewed their friendship. We heard that cousin Vincent was making his way into computer graphics field (whatever that was) and looking to purchase a new house.[1] His mom was planning on moving in with him and Vikki. We were especially delighted to learn that Vincent and Vikki had re-committed their lives to Christ and had started to attend the English ministry at CBC.

But for some inexplicable reason , Vincent was at a topless bar. And now everything was up in the air.

March 16, 1983

Instead of a wedding, we made the trip to Detroit for the funeral. We found out that Vincent’s friends persuaded him to have a bachelor’s party at the Fancy Pants strip club for one last fling. Such a tragic decision for a guy whose life was heading in the right direction. Everyone was glad that Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were apprehended. The good folks at CBC encouraged Lily and Vikki to forgive as they awaited the hearings. But Aunt Lily, having lost her husband and her son over the past two years, confessed that forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.

Today, however, Judge Charles Kaufman had found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. But he sentenced each of them to just three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and no jail time. No prosecuting attorney was present and neither Lily nor any witnesses were called to testify.

“Are you certain that you want to do this, Lily?” mom had been on the phone for over an hour.

“Yes! Vincent was my only son. And I cannot rest until there is justice for him! He needs to rest in peace, too. I am all alone now and really need your help.” We could tell Aunt Lily was crying bitterly as her voice shrieked over the phone.

After praying with Aunt Lily, mom and dad gathered our family for a discussion. When she shared the details of Judge Kaufmann’s ruling, we were all shocked.

Lily’s very upset. She wants to appeal the ruling,” mom said. “and she wants our support to hire legal counsel. She will ask for help from CBC and the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council.”Despite thinking that racial prejudice was behind the light sentencing, we didn’t want to entertain that thought any further. Nevertheless we decided to donate some money for Aunt Lily’s appeal.

June 5, 1983

Our family dinner conversation was tense.

“I want to go to the rally,” Flora insisted. “I’ll be safe. It’s being organized by some Asian American churches in the Bay Area.”

“Which churches?” asked dad.

“The Chinese Community Church of Berkeley, a couple of Japanese congregations, I think. I know that Chinese Presbyterian Church of San Francisco and folks from Cameron House are involved.”

“Well, I’m not sure we should associate with liberal Christians. The greatest Chinese evangelists taught us to avoid them. They care too much about worldly affairs instead of preaching the gospel. That’s what John Sung concluded after his studies at Union Theological Seminary. And he was right. After the war, these Christians compromised with the Chinese Communists. Chinese evangelicals should focus on preaching the gospel and building up our churches.”

“But most of my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship friends will be there, too” Flora said. “So will many local American-born Chinese evangelicals. This isn’t about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals! It’s about speaking up for justice. And isn’t that part of the bible, too?”

Detroit’s Chinese community had gone ballistic over Judge Kaufman  and refusal to acknowledge their anger. Yes, the American auto industry was tanking, but blaming someone who looked like a Japanese person for it and then beating him to death… and then that judge’s sentence made me boil over. I was especially outraged when I learned that Kaufmann said, when questioned about the sentencing, that Ebens and Nitz “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” How could a statement like that NOT diminish the value of Vincent Chin’s life?

American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed in late March to coordinate the community outcry. Members of twenty groups in Detroit formed ACJ, including the Detroit Buddhist Church, the Chinese Community Church, and Chinese Bible Church. Their legal team appeared to have found evidence of racial discrimination when one of the dancers reported hearing Ebens making racist epithets at Vincent and his companions before the fight broke out. They sought federal civil rights investigation into the case. ACJ also mobilized many groups to raise national attention and apply public pressure for a fair sentencing. On May 9 about 1,000 marchers rallied in downtown Detroit to protest the sentences. Rallies were planned for a number of major cities, including the one upcoming in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“But I don’t see how making all this ruckus with angry rallies will help,” dad opined. “Isn  If this wasn

As the General Secretary of an important Chinese evangelical para-church organization, he was never expected to speak on a public issue. While increasing number of younger Chinese Christians were urging him to address the Vincent Chin case, he correctly ascertained that CEM’s support base would be highly critical of any venture into the social arena. Dad was feeling the pressure and seemed genuinely torn.

Foe instance, most expected the Chinese Community Church, a member of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination, to be part of ACJ’s effort, But we were taken by surprise by CBC  In fact, CBC circulated a letter to Chinese evangelicals and encouraged them to pray and seek justice for Vincent and Lily Chin. They wanted dad to write an editorial in the CEMS newsletter.

We were also surprised that the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) also took a public stance. Truman Wong wrote an editorial in the most recent issue of FACE’s quarterly newsletter, AboutFACE, that broached a public matter for first time ever. I shared with my dad this excerpt:

     Our brother in Christ, Vincent Chin, was not the perfect model of Christlikeness. But God was turning his life around. He was renewing his commitment to Jesus Christ and the Chinese Bible Church of Detroit….The God of the Bible is both forgiving and just. Out of love for him, his mother, Lily, and his fiancé, Vikki, we invite our fellow Chinese American evangelicals to speak out for justice. Even if you do not participate in upcoming rallies, please take time to study about biblical justice, to pray for a fair hearing, and send petitions to your local representatives.[2]

“Dad, please say something to all the Chinese churches.” Flora urged.

I interrupted, “God put you in a strategic position to give our churches the courage to raise up their voices. Don’t you remember George McKinney’s message at Urbana? At times, the church must speak up for what is right.”[3]

“And not just for Chinese Christians, but for everyone who suffers injustice,” Flora added. “Suffering for our faith doesn’t mean we have to remain silent. The next generation of Chinese American Christians will not want to be silenced.” Flora was making me proud. Just one year at Cal’s IV chapter and she was thinking like a prophet.

Mom looked directly at dad and finally spoke, “Stephen, I don’t think it is wise to remain silent. Our children need to know that we care about what they care about.”

“Okay. I’ll call Jeremiah and propose that CEMS and Go for Christ Missions make a joint statement.”

August 1, 1987

Today I start my first full-time pastorate at Chinese Bible Church in Detroit. It took me an extra year to finish up at Fuller Theological Seminary, but the delay was worth it. I was able to be part of some exciting developments. I’m not talking about the Vincent Chin case. That was a disaster. It started well enough. A federal investigation was opened, partly in response to the public pressure. In November 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on two counts – violating Chin’s civil rights and conspiracy – by federal grand jury. The following June, Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights, but was released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of all charges.  Then last September, a federal appeals court overturned Ebens’ conviction on a legal technicality (an attorney was accused of improperly coaching prosecution witnesses). This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice, facing intense public pressure, ordered a retrial to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Ebens was cleared of all charges in May. In last month’s civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to the estate of Vincent Chin. However, he disposed of his assets and fled the state. Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent Chin. Asian Americans are very dispirited, but new movements for racial justice – both secular and Christian – were launched.

Chinese evangelicals, in particular, have made remarkable progress. The 1983 joint statement from CEMS, Go for Christ Missions, and FACE found its way into just about every Chinese evangelical church and ministry in North America. This statement, based on the section on Social Responsibility in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, encouraged Chinese American evangelicals to more deeply explore the meaning of biblical justice and social engagement. I was one of three seminarians invited to be on a commission created to study current issues, make recommendations, and implement social justice ministry programs on behalf of the Chinese church. I believe that the commission broadened the North American Chinese evangelical church’s social concerns to include poverty, gender discrimination, and other pressing issues. After the shooting death of Greg Owyang on June 30, 1985, this commission offered reflections about violence and gun control. Truman Wong’s Chinese ministry program at Fuller Seminary and other Chinese-language seminaries incorporated the commission’s resources social justice into their curriculum. Partnerships with Asian American activist organizations were forged. Chinese evangelicals are getting a reputation for being deeply engaged with most important issues affecting Asian Americans.

The work of the commission gave overseas-born and American-born Chinese evangelicals an opportunity to work together on common issues. This ameliorated some of the inter-generational tensions within the Chinese American churches.

But not everything has turned up roses. As my dad anticipated, financial support of the groups that issued the statement shrunk. Many well-known pastors were very critical of the statement and the commission’s work. Another Chinese organization was formed to counter our public stances with politically conservative alternatives. Oh well, at least these folks are also engaging the public square.

Neverthless, I think the best thing to come out of all this was Aunt Lily’s restored faith. Yesterday she told me that she recently contemplated returning to China because she was so disgusted with the U.S. justice system’s inability to be fair to racial minorities. But after witnessing how her son’s death inspired Asian Americans and Chinese Christians to fight for justice persuaded her to stay and share her story of struggle and inspiration. Occasionally she speaks at churches and public events, but she tells me that she prefers to simply talk to young people over tea. I think Aunt Lily is becoming a symbol of the struggle! [4]

SOURCES

“Murder of Vincent Chin” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Vincent_Chin

Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010)

Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (New York, 2000) pp. 55-81

The Lausanne Covenant (1974). 5. Statement on Christian Social Responsiblity https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant
     We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead. (Acts 17:26,31; Gen. 18:25; Isa. 1:17; Psa. 45:7; Gen. 1:26,27; Jas. 3:9; Lev. 19:18; Luke 6:27,35; Jas. 2:14-26; Joh. 3:3,5; Matt. 5:20; 6:33; II Cor. 3:18; Jas. 2:20)

NOTES

[1] http://racerelations.about.com/od/historyofracerelations/a/Remembering-Vincent-Chin.htm

[2] Chinese Bible Church actually did not participate in ACJ and did not give attention to the Vincent Chin case.

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[4] The real Lily Chin returned to China in 1987.

Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future (2002)

I had almost forgotten about this article I wrote fourteen years ago. It’s difficult to find this journal article, so here it is! I re-read it after a friend reminded me. Though much of the language and research is outdated, I’m surprised by how much I still agree with its premise. I hope that this article can be helpful for thinking about race and Asian American Christian ministry!   — Tim

Full citation: Timothy Tseng, “Asian Pacific American Christianity in a Post-Ethnic Future,” American Baptist Quarterly 21, no. 3 (September 2002): 277-292 [Download PDF version here]


Once upon a time, it was obvious why Asian Pacific American congregations existed. Immigrants who could not speak English needed places where they could hear the gospel in their own languages. They needed places where they could hold on to their culture in a strange new world. They needed places of refuge from a society that clearly discriminated against foreigners and Asians. In a country that prided itself as Christian, Asian Pacific American churches before World War II were among the very few places where immigrants from Asia could find the practice of authentic Christianity. Thus, the celebration of Japanese Baptist Church’s one hundred years of ministry is an affirmation that Christ’s Gospel still has the power to stand against the corrosive forces that “water down” an American Christianity that is supposed to be both evangelistic and prophetic.

But today, it is not so easy to answer the question of whether Asian American congregations should continue to exist. Today, Asian Pacific Americans are changing so unpredictably that one commentator quipped that “the Asian American identity as we now know it may not last another generation.”[1] Nearly fifty percent of Asian Pacific Americans under age 35 are marrying non-Asians. How will the increasing numbers of interracial marriages impact Asian Pacific American congregations of the future? Will the next generation of bi-racial children identify themselves as Asian Pacific Americans or as something different? Where will they want to worship? Also, most Asian Pacific Americans are now being raised in the suburbs among Caucasians. While many may experience an awakening of Asian Pacific American consciousness in college where they encounter the Asian Pacific American label, most will probably remain ambivalent about their Asian Pacific American identities. Indeed, this may be one of the reasons why Asian Pacific American Christians are becoming the largest minority groups in evangelical campus ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade. In most of these Christian fellowships, questions of racial identity are subordinated to religious identity (though InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Asian American Christian Fellowship have become more explicit about doing ministry with the Asian Pacific American context in mind). In these campus fellowships, an Asian Pacific American Christian can be surrounded by many other Asians without feeling compelled to engage the issue of their racial identity or participate in the Asian Pacific American consciousness movements on campus![2] Furthermore, with fewer American-born Asians entering and staying in the ministry, more and more Asian Pacific American congregations are calling Caucasian pastors to shepherd their English speaking youth ministries (n.b. it is possible that there are more Caucasian pastors of Asian Pacific American congregations than Asian Pacific American pastors of predominantly Caucasian congregations). What impact will this trend have on the next generation of Asian Pacific American Christians, especially if Caucasian pastors are insensitive to the cultural and social contexts which the young people in their congregation face daily? Asian Pacific American demographics today is becoming so diverse that one wonders whether it will be possible to unite every group under the umbrella Asian Pacific American.[3]

Another reason why the future of Asian Pacific American congregations is now open to question is related to the current political climate. The current neo-conservative ideological practice of bashing affirmative action policies in favor of so-called “color-blind” policies is slowly seeping into our Asian Pacific American congregations. There is now a political climate hostile to open conversations about racial differences. At first glance, this may seem strange because there is also so much conversation about multiculturalism and respecting diversity. But what has happened with much of the conversation about multiculturalism is the impression that diversity is respected so long as no one organizes politically along ethnic or racial lines. Solutions to racial discrimination have now shifted away from the political process towards individualistic racial reconciliation projects. Racism is now no longer viewed as structural and institutional, but personal and attitudinal. In any case, because Asian Pacific Americans do not appear to “fit” into the current Black/White conversation about race, we are tempted to think that racism (institutional or otherwise) does not affect us as much. Consequently, there is little motivation to organize ourselves along racial lines. This sensibility has influenced the way Asian Pacific Americans are choosing to engage politics. Jere Takahashi notes that the Japanese American community is in a period of transition “and no longer possess the same cultural affinities and economic interests, among others, that had previously helped sustain ethnic community ties.”[4] Eric Liu confirms this when he says “more than ever before, Asian Americans are only as isolated as they want to be. They – we – do not face the levels of discrimination and hatred that demand an enclave mentality, particularly among the second generation, which, after all, provides most of the leadership for the nation-race. The choice to invent and sustain a pan-Asian identity is just that: a choice, not an imperative.”[5] Ironically, when Asian Pacific American Christians begin to see their ethnicity as merely a personal preference (symbolic ethnicity), they will less likely join ethnic churches. And many second to fifth generation Asian Pacific American Christians—who associate Asian immigrant and pan-Asian congregations with clannish outlooks—are choosing to leave the Asian Pacific American church, though it doesn’t look like they are joining predominantly Caucasian or multi-racial congregations en masse either. (One exception may be Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, which is drawing many second generation Chinese Americans. Though lauded by many Christians as a model of multi-cultural ministry, this phenomenon may reveal more about the perceptions of the younger Chinese Americans than about Redeemer Presbyterian. Perhaps these younger, upwardly mobile, Chinese American Christians [YUMCHAs] view many of the Chinese churches in the New York Metropolitan as urban-immigrant ghettos.) It may sound like a stretch, but I believe that the current political climate of racial non-recognition contributes to the perception that Asian Pacific American ethnic-racial identities are optional.

A third reason why Asian Pacific American congregations may not survive in the future is due to the disconnect between an earlier generation of Asian Pacific American theologians and the emerging younger evangelical Asian Pacific American leadership. Earlier leaders, such as Paul Nagano, Jitsuo Morikawa, Roy Sano, James Chuck, and ecumenical efforts such as PAACCE and PACTS unabashedly affirmed their Asian Pacific American identities and sought to provide biblical and theological reflections that would support Christian forms of Asian American consciousness. However, the younger evangelicals have yet to do sustained biblical-theological work that would show the need to support Asian immigrant or pan-Asian congregations. In many cases, because the theological perspectives of the older generation emerge out of experiences in mainline Protestantism, many of the younger evangelicals either hesitate to consider them or are unfamiliar with their works. Furthermore, I believe that on a “popular” level there are biblical-theological perspectives which universalize Christian identity while erasing particular identities. I will call this a “totalitarian” Christian discipleship which is rooted in a “gnostic” dualism between “spirit and flesh.” One of the consequences of such thinking is the desire to escape one’s particular identities so that one can become simply a “Christian.” “Why deal with the politics of denominational life? Why make a big deal about one’s ethnic or racial background? All that matters is being a Christian,” this theology suggests. This “popular” level theology, which I will say more about later, has greater influence on younger Asian Pacific American Christians today than the more “racial-ethnic-centered” theological views of an earlier generation of Asian Pacific American pastors.

A Postethnic View: Should Asian Pacific American Congregations Survive?

Now all these developments may actually be good. Why should any Asian Pacific American Christian feel compelled to join an Asian Pacific American congregation or care about the political goals of an Asian Pacific American consciousness? After all, “Asian American” is a politically constructed term designed to address discrimination. If Asian Pacific Americans face little discrimination in society and by the church, then individuals ought to be free to affiliate or not affiliate with Asian Pacific American organizations or churches. Historian David Hollinger has suggested that these changing social realities now require a “postethnic” perspective. A “postethnic” perspective does not mean that Americans must erase their ethnic or racial identities and assimilate into a dominant culture. However, it does call into question the rigidity and imposition of the five recognized racial power “blocs” (European-, African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native- American). Just as it was wrong to impose Anglo-conformity earlier this century, Hollinger believes that it is equally wrong to force everyone to assimilate into one of the five racial groupings. Thus, he favors a “postethnic” approach which “favors voluntary over involuntary affiliations, balances an appreciation for communities of descent with a determination to make room for new communities, and promotes solidarities of wide scope that incorporates people with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.”[6] In other words, he is arguing for individuals to freely choose how much or how little they wish to affiliate with racial, ethnic, or other identity-based groups. Eric Liu, who agrees with Hollinger, expresses it this way:

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I wish for a society without race. At bottom, I consider myself an identity libertarian. I wish for a society that treats race as an option, the way white people today are able to enjoy ethnicity as an option. As something cost-free, neutral, fluid.”[7]

African American, Native American, and Hispanic congregations may need to exist in order to sustain themselves in the face of racial discrimination. Perhaps Asian Pacific American Christians do not have to. Maybe Liu is correct when he suggests that an Asian Pacific American consciousness “was but a cocoon: something useful, something to outgrow.”[8] And maybe Asian Pacific American Christians, who seem to experience less discrimination than other racial groups, have outgrown the need for an Asian Pacific American consciousness. Therefore, the replacement of future Asian Pacific American congregations by multi-racial ones may indeed be a step in the right direction.

The Bible appears to favor this, too. Paul says in Ephesians 2:14-15 that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” In Gal. 3:26-28 “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In the Acts of the Apostles, it appears that Paul’s efforts to welcome the Gentiles into the church without imposing Jewish customs upon them further suggest that our racial and ethnic identities need to be subordinated (or relativized) in order for us to partake of a new identity in Christ.

Does this suggest that the ideal Christian congregation should be color-blind or race-neutral? Shouldn’t we all be integrating our congregations so that they can become as culturally diverse as possible? Should we therefore eliminate the “Asian Ministries” desk at Valley Forge and the Asian American Baptist Caucus? After all, these ways of acting upon our racial differences look like “affirmative action” programs (depending on one’s vantage point, such programs could also be viewed as “evangelistic outreach” to people who are disproportionately unchurched!). In a “postethnic” future which calls into question rigid racial boundaries, can racially-based churches, mission programs, and caucuses survive? Should they? If “postethnicity” is viewed positively, then should we work towards the dissolution of distinctly Asian Pacific American congregations? Should we aspire to become multi-racial and demonstrate racial reconciliation in our congregations?

Prophetic Witnesses: An Asian Pacific American Christian Future

I believe that Asian Pacific American congregations have a future as viable Christian communities despite or even because of this “postethnic” challenge. Most Asian Pacific American congregations will not dissolve or evolve into multi-racial churches, though I believe that there will be more and more pan-Asian congregations patterned after our very own Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Most Asian Pacific American Christians will not join non-Asian Pacific American congregations. But unless the ambivalence about staying in an Asian Pacific American context is addressed biblically, theologically, sociologically, and pastorally, Asian Pacific American congregations will not effectively reach the more

than ninety percent unchurched Asian Pacific Americans. Indeed, the only persons addressing this ambivalence about Asian Pacific American identity are activists, scholars, and artists who seek to awaken Asian Pacific American consciousness for the sake of empowering the communities for social change.[9] In the following, I hope to articulate some ways of thinking biblically-theologically and sociologically in a manner which would value the “postethnic” resistance to imposing “racial bloc” identities upon Asian Pacific Americans. At the same time, I will suggest that a “postethnic” approach gives us the freedom to organize our congregations, missions, and caucuses along racial-ethnic lines—if done for the right reasons.

Biblical-Theological Foundation

Overcoming Distorted Readings of Paul: Perhaps the most creative theologian today who is addressing the issues of identity and difference is Yale Divinity School Professor, Miroslav Volf (formerly at Fuller Theological Seminary). While we were working on a theology project together a few years ago, he introduced our workgroup to his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. In the first chapter, he addresses biblical scholar Paul Boyarin’s argument that Paul’s desire to embrace Gentiles caused him to devalue the Jewish Law so much that he was willing to erase all ethnic and cultural particularities in order to build up the universal Church of Christ.[10] According to Boyarin, Paul believes that we must break free from our particularities—whether they be race, class, or gender—in order to fully experience the grace that God provides. Thus, as the passages in Galatians and Ephesians seem to imply, becoming a Christian means partaking in a community that is not bound to any human culture because Christ was not bound to any human culture.

Boyarin’s reading of Paul is very similar to a “popular” theology which finds itself in liberal, evangelical, and even “new age” thought. He views Paul as a “gnostic,” or one so influenced by a Hellenist (specifically Platonic or Neoplatonic) mindset. In other words, Paul’s goal in welcoming Gentiles into the Church is to bring all peoples of the earth into a spiritual realm and escape the fleshly world. If Jewish history or customs were obstacles, then simply do away with them! After all, just as Christ was able to overcome flesh in his resurrection, Christians should also be liberated from the human bondage of culture. How often have I heard people suggest that becoming a Christian exempts them from dealing with the “blood and mud” of human politics and culture?

Volf argues that Boyarin has misread Paul. Some portions of Paul’s writings show that certain Jewish practices needed to be done away with for the sake of Christ, but this does not mean that Paul wanted to escape all human particularities. Paul did not envision a “disincarnate transcendence, but the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ” who has “a body that has suffered on the cross.” Volf continues: “In subsequent centuries Christian theologians have arguably made the particularity of Christ’s body the foundation of the reinterpretation of platonic tradition. As Augustine puts it, he discovered in the Neoplatonists that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ but did not find there that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ (Confessions VII, 9). The grounding of unity and universality in the scandalous particularity of the suffering body of God’s Messiah is what makes Paul’s thought structurally so profoundly different” from Boyarin’s view.[11]

Thus, the “scandal of particularity” makes it impossible for Christians to read Paul in a “gnostic” or Platonic way. Our ethnic and racial identities may not be rigid and fixed, but they are still part of who we are as humans, created by God. In the crucifixion, God demonstrates that He cares for our particularities. In the incarnation, God reveals his suffering love for his Creation. Throughout Scripture and the “orthodox” Christian tradition, God the Redeemer is identified as God the Creator. Therefore, we are to honor our earthly particularities as gifts of the Creator even as we worship only the Giver. Our ethnic and racial identities have intrinsic value to God. Thus, we would be mistaken to exchange our earthbound particularities for a distorted interpretation of Paul. We would be mistaken to think that heaven or the Church is a place where our particularities are erased or dissolved.

The Mission of “Resident Aliens”: Another theological perspective that can be misinterpreted is that represented by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. In their now classic Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, they argue that the Church of Christ is as much a sociological reality as nation states and ethnic groups. It is a culture formed by the biblical witness and Christian tradition, thus, should be respected as a counter-cultural community; one that is in, but not of this world. Consequently, the Church should not compromise its identity to support any political or worldly agendas. The great sin of the Church, they argue, has been its captivity to the “world’s” agenda—what they call “Constantinianism.”[12] This results in allowing the world to define the role, function, and mission of the church. For example, in the minds of most people in our society, the church is supposed to uphold a culture’s morality system or social service to the poor. Furthermore, Christians are to keep their religion a private matter so that they do not challenge society’s status quo. The church, they argue must avoid “Constantinianism” by returning to its New Testament roots.

This, I believe, is a fundamentally sound argument. As an American Baptist, this theology resonates with me. However, it can also be misinterpreted. Some think that if the Christian community has its own distinct biblically-shaped culture, then all other particularities ought to be erased. Others think that issues of race relations are part of the “world’s agenda” so they ought not be brought into the church. In response to the first distortion, I refer the above section about misreading Paul. In addition, none of these theologians would say that Christian identity erases all other identities. To suggest this is to incorporate the methods of “identity imperialism” or “totalitarianism” into the church. All of these theologians would say that different people express Christian identity in diverse ways, but the biblical narrative is what holds all Christians together.

The question of whether issues of “race relations” are worldly matters foreign to the church is a more difficult one to address. Few people today, I think, will deny that the involvement of Christians in the Civil Rights movement was an expression of Christian faith and mission. In fact, I would argue that the struggle for human rights and social justice is not a “worldly” matter which the church should avoid. Rather, these concerns are central to the biblical narrative. The central thrust of Scripture reveals a God who is very much concerned with redeeming a world fallen into and crushed down by sin. God is very much concerned about both the perpetrators and victims of sin. God wants to see the original intentions of Creation fulfilled in the coming Kingdom. Moreover, in Scripture, God has always chosen a people to be the messengers of the promise of redemption in Jesus, the Messiah. Christians are to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant to be a “blessing to the world” through both personal evangelism and social justice efforts. Thus, conversations about race relations and social justice are not foreign to the biblical witness at all. If anything, what is amiss among those who think race relations is alien to the Church, is a truncated understanding of the biblical mission of the Church.

Furthermore, a distorted understanding of the history of American Christianity also creates a feeling of distance from talk about social justice and race relations. I suggest that one read Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage to get a sense of how central social justice was to nineteenth-century evangelicalism. The first abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and social reform activists were evangelicals who were converted by evangelists like Charles Finney.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Christians to address matters related to race and racism. Once we are allowed to talk about the historical realities of race and racism in our congregations, we can then address the serious questions concerning whether it is legitimate to organize Asian Pacific American ministries and congregations along racial lines.

Assessing the Impact of Anti-Asian Racism

In my research on Chinese Protestantism in North America, I interviewed many Chinese pastors about their faith journeys and worldviews. Two questions I asked always caused my interviewees to hesitate: (1) why should we minister exclusively to Chinese people? (2) did or would you ever consider serving in a non-Chinese congregation? The overwhelming majority of the responses were couched in the language of personal call or pragmatic explanations. Respondents said they would not consider shepherding non-Chinese congregations because they were called to serve the Chinese. Moreover, the rationale for ministering exclusively to Chinese people was due to the practical need for pastors who understood the language and culture. Undoubtedly, these pastors were called to serve in Chinese (in some cases, pan-Asian) churches. However, one would expect God to call many more Chinese to pastor non-Chinese churches if we were truly becoming a postethnic society. Perhaps God is calling many Asian Pacific Americans to pastor non-Asian congregations, but God’s people are not hearing the call?

What this point illustrates is that race and racism is still alive and continues to affect Asian Pacific American Christians. The inability or unwillingness of the Chinese pastors to talk about their ministry in terms of racial discrimination also shows that many of our Asian Pacific American Christian leaders have yet to wrestle with or value the historical experience and contemporary reality of Asian Pacific Americans. Nevertheless, the lack of engagement on the part of our Asian Pacific American Christian leaders with race and racism is understandable, though not, in my opinion, justifiable. Two underlying sociological assumptions appear to be dominate in the way Asian Pacific American Christian leaders talk about the Asian Pacific American community and the future of Asian Pacific American congregations. Both emerge from social scientific theories that equate the experiences of Asian Pacific Americans with those of European immigrants earlier this century. The first assumption is that the type of “discrimination” Asians experience is more like the kind experienced by European immigrants than the kind experienced by African Americans. This discrimination will eventually disappear as Asian Pacific Americans assimilate into American society. Which leads to the second assumption: namely, that Asian Pacific Americans will assimilate just as the European immigrants assimilated. Thus, there seems to be a widespread belief even among Asian Pacific American Christians that if immigration from Asia ceases, there will no longer be need for Asian language congregations. Therefore, the Asian Pacific American churches are only temporary. Eventually their children will join the mainstream churches. In other words, “assimilationist” sociologists took the European immigrant experience and transposed them on African and Asian Americans.

However, these assumptions are questionable precisely because they do not take into consideration the fact that Asian Pacific Americans are not treated like European immigrants—nor are they treated like African Americans. Mia Tuan’s important study of third through fifth generation Chinese and Japanese in California demonstrates this point. In her recent book, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, Tuan discovers that, unlike second and third generation European immigrants, Asian Pacific Americans, who otherwise have achieved high educational and professional status or have been raised in America, cannot easily integrate into white mainstream America, despite media portraits of Asian Pacific Americans as “model minorities.” Like middle or upper class African Americans, their physical features—something Asian Pacific Americans and African Americans cannot control—are still obstacles for full integration. Furthermore, unlike African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans cannot avoid the tinge of “foreignness.” Therefore, despite the fact that middle class, third through fifth generation Asian Pacific Americans, like children of European immigrants, have acquired some degree of freedom to chose their ethnic identities in private, they do not have this freedom in public. In other words, contrary to Eric Liu’s belief (along with many Asian Pacific American Christians), “white privilege” continues to create a climate of anti-Asian racism in this country. Tuan concludes:

I am skeptical that within a few generations Asian-Americans would automatically be absorbed into the mainstream. Generations of highly acculturated Asian ethnics who speak without an accent have lived in this country, and yet most white Americans have not heard of or ever really seen them. They are America’s invisible citizenry, the accountants who do our taxes, engineers who safeguard our infrastructures, and pharmacists who fill our prescriptions. Nevertheless, over the years they have continued to be treated and seen as other.”[13]

Like “assimilationist” sociologists, “postethnic” advocates exhibit the same unwillingness to address the problem of racism. What the “postethnic” perspective does not take seriously is that the “ethnic options” which children of European immigrants possess is a “white privilege” people of color do not have. Therefore, while it is comforting to know that many racial boundaries are blurring and people feel freer to marry across racial lines, I am concerned that this will give the impression that “racism” is no longer a problem in society and in our churches.

On the other hand, unlike those who would talk about a “colorblind” society, the “postethnic” perspective respects the right and freedom of people to organize along race lines. Instead of expecting people naturally to “fit into” one of the five “racial blocs,” race-based organizations now must work harder and more consciously at recruiting volunteers to support their causes. They must also respect the right of individuals not to join their organizations. But, most importantly, they must recognize that they cannot make their “race” their ultimate concern. The “postethnic” perspective reminds Asian Pacific American Christians that our ultimate value is not to be placed in our racial identities, but in the God who transcends, yet is deeply concerned about, all cultures.

I recognize how uncomfortable it is to talk about these points in a setting where we want to affirm a Christian fellowship of love. And believe me, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of the “beloved community” is at the core of my Christian beliefs. However, it seems that in our conversation about the future of Asian Pacific American Christianity we need to “speak the truth in love.” It is difficult to talk about “white privilege” in an Asian Pacific American congregation when many of our members have married Caucasians. It is uncomfortable to talk about experiencing anti-Asian discrimination in the presence of our Caucasian brothers and sisters in Christ. The easiest thing to do is to ignore both terms or to subordinate our concerns as Asian Pacific Americans under a race-neutral banner. The second easiest thing to do is to “solve the problem” by talking about “racial reconciliation”—though in the minds of most Christians, the races that seem to need to reconcile the most are Blacks and Whites, not Asians and Whites (Asian-Black racial reconciliation is even further off the radar). The third easiest thing to do would be to accept the views of scholars of assimilation and allow our Asian Pacific American congregations to become other than Asian Pacific American.

However, despite the discomfort of confronting “white privilege” and addressing the discrimination that the Asian Pacific American members in our congregations face, I believe that it is our responsibility as Asian Pacific American Christians to deal with it. Unless we speak openly of “white privilege” and “racism” we will not be able to discern the difference between idolatry and the Gospel of Christ. Furthermore, we do the Caucasian and bi-racial members of our congregations a disservice by shielding from them the real pains Asian Pacific Americans experience in North American society. But if we truly wish to repudiate the idolatry of “white privilege” I am convinced that we in North America dare not neglect the spiritual discipline of reflecting on Christ’s identification with the historical and contemporary “racial suffering.” The idolatry of racism and “white privilege” hurts everyone, including Caucasian sisters and brothers in Christ. We, therefore, dare not study the Bible or do theological reflection without taking into consideration the historical context in which we live today. If we take these contexts seriously, we will be able to develop frameworks for thinking creatively about the future of not just Asian Pacific American Christianity, but also of all Christianity in the United States.

Being a Prophetic Community of Faith

Having laid down the biblical-theological foundations for recognizing the necessity of Asian Pacific American congregations to exist, having suggested that our analysis of the Asian Pacific American situation is deficient unless we account for the persistence of anti-Asian racism in North American society, what can we say about the future of Asian Pacific American congregations? Why should the Asian Pacific American church continue, whether in the form of ethnic immigrant churches or pan-Asian congregations?

I want to propose that the existence and mission of Asian Pacific American Christianity is to be a prophetic witness against the idolatries of racism and “white privilege” in North American society and churches. In this sense, the Asian Pacific American church stands in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, which calls Israel to accountability for its sins. Stated more positively, Asian Pacific American Christianity is a prophetic community of faith that will help guide American Christianity towards the global, multi-racial, multi-lingual, and yet-to-be-realized Reign of God in Christ. In this sense, the Asian Pacific American church stands within Christ’s “Great Commission” that was inaugurated at Pentecost. But in order for the Asian Pacific American church to be a prophetic community of faith, there must be awakened within it a Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness. Our older generation called it an Asian American theology of liberation, though as an evangelical, I prefer to see it as an Asian Pacific American consciousness which sees our Christian faith in a new light—one that affirms Asian Pacific Americans. Otherwise, we will uncritically imbibe theological perspectives from popular, liberal, conservative, and “new age” sources that will only create greater self-contempt (what Dr. Ken Fong calls “Asian American self-hatred”). What can a Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness look like? Here are some very perfunctory ideas.

1. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness seeks to organize Christian Asian Pacific Americans along racial lines as a prophetic critique against the idolatries of racism and as a proclamation of the truly worldwide reign of Christ. Therefore, Asian Pacific American Christians do not form congregations, organizations, or caucuses to separate from the rest of the Church. Rather, they organize to free our brothers and sisters in Christ from the Euro-American cultural captivity of the Gospel.

2. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness recognizes that racism in society and the American church are obstacles for the advancement of the Gospel among Asian Pacific American communities. Hence, the existence of Asian Pacific American Christians emphasizes that reaching Asian Pacific Americans for Christ is a priority for the American church.

3. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness critically assesses secular Asian Pacific American movements and consciousness raising. While recognizing the truths found in Asian American studies, it will also critique distortions or uninformed perceptions of religion.

4. A Christian Asian Pacific American consciousness shall always embrace non-Asian Pacific Americans with love, though it will have as its priority developing Christian Asian Pacific American leaders for the Church and the world. This is a priority that Christian Asian Pacific Americans expect non-Asian Pacific Americans to understand.

Conclusion

Racial separation is clearly offensive to God. However, so is racial injustice or privileging. In North America, the only justification for maintaining racially separate congregations is the recognition of the historical and contemporary reality of racism and white racial privileging—a sin that permeates our society, our denomination, our congregations, and each of us individually. Even in a “postethnic America,” there needs to be a voice that speaks to this and points to the Reign of God. I believe God is calling Asian Pacific American Christians for such as time as this—to question the assumptions of our society (such as the “model minority”) and to show the way to the future of Christianity in North America.

Notes

[1] Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (New York: Random House, 1998), 82.

[2] David Cho, “Asian Americans’ changing face of Christianity on campus, ” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Feb. 2, 1999): Rl, 4; Rudy Busto, “The Gospel According to the Model Minority? Hazarding an Interpretation of Asian American Evangelical College Students, “Amerasia JournaI 22: 1 (1996): 133-147.

[3] See Yen Le Espiritu, Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[4] Jere Takahashi, Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997): 206.

[5] Eric Liu, 78.

[6] David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), 3.

[7] Eric Liu, 65.

[8] Eric Liu, 83.

[9] William Wei, The Asian American Movement, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

[10] Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley, 1994).

[11] Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN:Abingdon Press, 1996): 47.

[12] This view was originally inspired by the Anabaptist John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus and George Lindbeck’s narrative theology and continues in Rodney Clapp, A Particular People (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996).

[13] Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), 159.

Backsliding into Fundamentalism and the Promise of Asian American Historical Theology (Part 3 of “Color-Blinded by the Light”)

Wow! It’s been so long since I picked up on my promised three-part reflection about the “American Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area” I wasn’t satisfied with this part of my AAAS presentation, but never had a chance to get back to writing. So this blog entry can serve as sort of a part 3A.

isaac-forum-nor-cal-2016This will be a summary of the presentation I gave at the ISAAC Forum Nor Cal on Sept. 27, 2016. The goals of the Forum was to explore the future of Asian American Christianity. What needs to be given up and changed? What will be retained? So here’s my take:

Asian American Christians are backsliding into fundamentalism.

This statement, of course, reveals my affinity for “progressive” evangelicalism. What most people don’t know is that I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and almost gave up on my faith when I could no longer stand its judgmental and controlling attitudes. Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship rescued me by demonstrating that one could be an evangelical while engaging intellectual questions honestly, respecting (and befriending) those who disagreed, and participating in a grace-filled and grateful community.

Later, I discovered that I had quite a few Asian American evangelical peers who shared a similar journey. Many, like Louis Lee (who we are honoring) felt called to build Asian American evangelical solidarity in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But today, I’m pessimistic about Asian American Christianity’s future. We face a vanishing sense of Asian American Christian solidarity and cooperation.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of Asian American Christian solidarity – among these are

  • the rise and dominance of immigrant Asians in our churches who do not identify with the racial struggles of Asian Americans and other racial minorities;
  • the power that the “model minority” and “assimilative multicultural” narratives have to draw Asian Americans away from the “niche” or “ghetto” identifications.

But in this presentation I want to focus on a third factor that is especially acute among Asian American evangelicals, namely…

The Backslide into Fundamentalism

In the last ten years, many of my colleagues and I have noticed the rise of fundamentalist attitudes among the younger  Asian American evangelical leaders. As a young evangelical historian, I used to think that the Fundamentalist movement had one positive virtue: it saved American Christianity from a closed-system modernism by protecting the authority of Scripture and the supernaturalism of five fundamentalist doctrines. But these days, I’m less convinced of this. Fundamentalism replaced a vibrant 19th century evangelical world view with a Gnostic and Manichean view of the cosmos. It also locked epistemology into an outdated “common sense” philosophy (the “self-evident” argument). See Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994). Also, recent studies are revealing the close ties between fundamentalist (later, evangelical) and corporate leaders to create the current evangelical empire that is closely allied to the Religious Right. See Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate American Invented Christian America (New York, 2015) and Timothy E. W. Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Evangelicals have attempted to dig themselves out of fundamentalism since the mid-twentieth century. See George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1988) and Molly Worthen’s  Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2016). Instead, the current scene has become increasingly polarized. A revival of fundamentalist-like evangelicals have been pitted against progressive evangelicals.

The backslide to fundamentalism, I believe, is the greatest cause for pessimism about the future of Asian American Christian solidarity. I’m probably overstating this, but consider the following suppressive practices that appear to be on the rise:

  1. Suppression of cooperation: The legacy of Louis Lee and his generation was to build pan-Asian cooperation. Today, we witness a resurgence of “separated silos” centered around the teachings of (White) evangelical preaching “giants.” Pan-Asian cooperation across theological or brand differences are rarely seen anymore. So branded (or brain-washed?) are they, that they can no longer worship outside the environment that they’ve been drawn to – usually while in college.
  2. Suppression of intellectual integrity: We are seeing the rise of ecclesial echo chambers of absolute certitude. Young people can no longer hear anything other than one perspective, right or wrong. In many of the settings, there is no nuance of biblical or theological interpretation. I believe we are returning to what Mark Noll called the “The Intellectual Disaster of Fundamentalism.” Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.
  3. Suppression of women leadership: Earlier, egalitarian and some complementarian Christians encouraged women with leadership or teaching gifts to lead and teach. Everyone, male and female, was encouraged to do all they can to proclaim the gospel since reaching the lost was the highest priority. But now we are witnessing the actual practice of suppressing women in leadership in campus ministries and churches. The fundamentalist suppression of women leaders in the early 20th century has renewed itself among many Asian American evangelicals today under the debatable idea that female subordination is a core doctrine of faith. See Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale University Press, 1996).
  4. Suppression of Asian American identity: In a fundamentalist (and conservative evangelical) ethos, culture, ethnicity, and race are irrelevant  – if not idolatrous. Doctrinal truth is emphasized while all things created and material are trivialized. A color-blind Christianity makes it impossible for Asian Americans to reflect on their own social location and cultural contexts (as I have argued earlier).

So where does our help come from? What can Asian American Christians who are trapped in this new fundamentalist echo chamber do?

The Promise of Historical Theology

We need a new cadre of Asian American Christian leaders who learn from history. Recently, there has been interest in doing evangelical theology and ministry in the contemporary Asian American contexts. But, like systematic theology, these efforts tend to isolate the contemporary experience from the past. They also rely too heavily on sociology. Because conversation partners are contemporaries who share so much in common, little can be done to change the echo chamber effect of fundamentalism. In his recent book, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (2011), Mark Noll proposes to rebuild the evangelical “mind” with greater attention to the historical sources of Christian thought rather than on a broken fundamentalist foundation. I argue that this approach would also benefit Asian American evangelicals as we look to the future. Allow me to illustrate with three Asian American Christian historical examples…

Jee Gam photo.pngJee Gam [Chu Jin] (1849-1910)

In 1895 Jee Gam was the first Chinese American ordained as a Congregationalist minister, though he was still unable to become a U.S. citizen. From the very beginning, Jee Gam used his influence and access to Protestant resources (newspapers, journals, mission boards, church networks) to fight for Chinese American political rights. In speeches, sermons, private letters, and public writings, he championed Chinese American suffrage and combated Chinese exclusion, passed in 1882 by the federal government.

Jee Gam based his arguments for political rights on a vision of Christianity that emphasized egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. In an era when many Americans believed that the Chinese were too heathenish to genuinely convert to Christianity, Jee Gam insisted on the religion’s inclusivity. “I am a Chinaman and a Christian,” he wrote in 1892. “I am not any less Chinese for being a follower of Christ…. I am in some sense also an American, for I have lived in America almost twice as long as in China.” He went on to call Chinese exclusion “un-American, barbarous and inhuman. It is unchristian, for it is contrary to the teaching of Christ.” From http://relwest.blogspot.com/2012/06/jee-gam-and-chinese-american-religious.html

I highlight Jee Gam because even though we would recognize him as an evangelical, his commitment to speaking out for racial justice would be unfamiliar to many of us today. He identified with an abolitionist interpretation of Scripture and faith which valued the dignity of all humans created in God’s image – in this life. Most fundamentalists and evangelicals today have unconsciously adopted a slave owner hermeneutic. This approach stresses saving souls for heaven and keeping the status quo in worldly affairs. Learning about the history of biblical interpretation can help us break free from the fundamentalist echo chamber. See Larry R. Morrison, “The Religious Defense of American Slavery Before 1830,” The Journal of Religious Thought, Fall 1980/Winter 1981 (Vol. 37 Issue 2) pp 16-29.

Mabel Lee Metro Baptist 1923 sm

Mabel Lee, a newly minted Ph.D. (Metropolitan Baptists, 1923)

Mabel Lee (1896-1966)

Mabel Lee was a pastor’s kid. Her father, Lee To, had been the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission in New York’s Chinatown since 1904. Born in Canton in 1896, Mabel accompanied her father to the United States and studied in American public schools. She enrolled in Barnard College and graduated in 1916. She then earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1921. Her dissertation was published later that year. In addition to her father’s evangelical piety, she also shared his zeal to engage the social problems of the Chinese community in New York and overseas. During her college years, she integrated her devotion to faith, the reconstruction of China, and woman’s suffrage. From https://timtseng.net/2013/12/12/asian-american-legacy-dr-mabel-lee/

I think Mabel Lee could be considered evangelical, though she lived during a time when a liberal theology was dominant in the U.S. She definitely was not a fundamentalist. Her fundamentalist peers were campaigning to remove women from church leadership. But before the rise of fundamentalism, there was a very strong woman’s missionary movement. In many Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal denominations, women were ordained pastors. So historically, however the bible was interpreted, women like Mabel Lee were accepted as leaders in churches until fundamentalism emerged.

Hideo Hashimoto 1955

unknown, “Hideo Hashimoto,” Lewis & Clark Digital Collections, accessed October 23, 2013, http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/items/show/7264

Hideo Hashimoto (1911-2003)

Finally, I’d like to share about Hideo Hashimoto, a Methodist pastor and professor. Hashimoto graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and then from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He served several pastorates, including one in a temporary church he helped establish in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. After receiving his doctor of theology degree from Pacific School of Religion, he joined the faculty of Lewis & Clark. He taught in the Department of Religious Studies from 1949 until his retirement in 1976.

Hashimoto’s mom died in Hiroshima when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb. As a pastor and professor, he was known as a “great peace lover and activist… an energetic social activist up to his death.” He advocated for civil rights, pacifism, and nuclear disarmament.

From http://legacy.lclark.edu/dept/chron/profsmournedw04.html

Also https://timtseng.net/2013/10/23/asian-american-legacy-hideo-hashimoto/

I mention Hideo because he was influenced by the mainline Protestant tradition of social engagement. As a pacifist, Hashimoto didn’t completely agree with Reinhold Neibuhr, but respected theological realism deeply. The neo-orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century proved helpful after the trauma of the Japanese American internment camps and the loss of his mother from a nuclear bomb. Looking at the life and thought Asian Americans in the mainline Protestant tradition can provide Asian American Christians guidance for public engagement – guidance that I believe is sorely lacking among Asian American evangelicals today.

Smithsonial African American Museum.jpgSmithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Let me conclude by noting that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last Saturday (9/24/16) in Washington DC. One of the lessons of the Civil Rights movement was that African-Americans have a history that should not be ignored or erased. When President Obama was elected, many pundits, including many white evangelicals, quickly declared that the United States was, at last, a post-racial nation. But, as we have seen in the recent shootings of African-Americans, we are far from being post-racial or multi-cultural.

In any event, what would a post-racial church or multi-cultural society look like? Does it mean forgetting and erasing Blacks from American history? Does it mean erasing the different Asian American ethnicities from our collective memories? Does it mean that Asian American Christians have no history in the history of Christianity? One of the first historians of the African American experience, Carter G. Woodson, said that “If a race has no history, it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

Likewise, so long as Asian American Christians remain in the echo chamber of an ahistorical theology, culture, and community so pervasive among fundamentalism, we too stand in danger of being exterminated.

On the other hand, if we put resources into integrating Asian American Christian history into our faith, preaching, ministries, and communities, we may have a future. And we will have something to contribute to Worldwide Christianity and God’s kingdom.

Again, I’m pessimistic and pray that God will help me overcome my lack of faith.

“History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” — James Baldwin

 

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