Asian Pacific American Christian history: missing or dismissed?

Presented at The Second Asian American Equipping Symposium (Feb 7-8, 2011) at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) on Feb 4, 2011

Opening Remarks

This panel presentation will introduce the theme of the symposium, namely the interrogation of the historical amnesia in church and academy regarding Asian Pacific Americans. The following questions may be addressed:

  • Why is religion (and Christianity, in particular) missing in Asian Pacific American historical studies?
  • Why is Asian Pacific America missing in the histories of American Christianity and Church History?
  • What explains the use and misuse of social sciences in the study of APA Christian history?
  • Why is understanding Asian American history, both the particular and the common, significant in constructing APA hermeneutics and identities?

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, the missing coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 serve as a backdrop to the presentation:

8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, NRSV)

How did the woman know that she was missing a coin? Don’t all the coins look the same? We don’t know, but I suspect that she felt a sense of incompleteness and disquiet that we sometimes feel: “Something is missing, I just know it!”

Among Asian American Christians, a similar sense of disquiet surrounds us. Something is amiss. Unlike the woman and God, those who notice that our stories are missing from the narrative of Christian history are few and far between.

The recent interest in global Christianity has been a welcome development. But the ignorance of the history of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is more than missing a small coin. As the story of world Christianity justifiably receives greater attention, the story of Asian Americans is still missing. Most recently, Philip Jenkins has written The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asian – and How It Died (2008). His central point is that the expansion of Christianity is not inevitable.

Nevertheless, while scholars like Jenkins, Samuel Moffett, and others are retrieving the histories of Asian Christianity – and rescuing it from mission history – the state of Asian American Christian history remains lamentable.

1.  APA Christianity is not so much missing, but dismissed in church and academy

34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:34-35, NRSV)

Jesus concludes the previous chapter with this cryptic remark that seems out of place. Yet, it resonates with many in the church and the academy. If something is irrelevant or insignificant and if it doesn’t seem to have a function, it should be thrown away. In so far as Christians reify the irrelevance of history and the academy reifies the insignificance of APA Christianity, the history of APA Christianity is likely to be dismissed.

When one compares this situation with African American or Latino histories where religion is so much a part of the fabric of these communities, it is deplorable that religion (and specifically Christianity) is rendered irrelevant to Asian American history. David Yoo has rehearsed some of the reasons for this in the first issue of Amerasia Journal dedicated to religion in Asian America. Allow me to state them a little differently.

  1. The religious academy is more attuned to religious diversity than racial diversity. Thus, Asian Americans are merely ethnic or cultural variations of religious traditions. The study of the way that race shapes different religious communities has not received much attention in this arena.
  2. Asian American studies, on the other hand, has been more focused on socio-political and economic factors than religion. One even senses a denigration of Asian American Christianity in some circles.
  3. Social scientific approaches have done a great service by opening up the scholarly conversation around actual APA Christian congregrations and organizations. But they are missing the historical richness of the APA experience – and are in danger of reifying the idea that APAs are recent immigrants.
  4. Historians of the American religious experience continue to wrestle with how to craft an inclusive narrative of American religion. Twenty years ago, Martin Marty wrote an article for Church History that summed up the then current state of American church history. He noted that there had been advances in the history of African American Christianity, but a paucity in Latino and Asian Pacific American Christianity. Today, the paucity still exists. And even though the recent emergence of the history of evangelicalism has reshaped the history of American religion, the master narrative remains stubbornly the same. The recent PBS series entitled “God in America” is a good example of how difficult it is to envision a history that is not centered on White Protestantism.
  5. The nature of historical research in APA communities is itself very challenging. Identifying sources, equipping researchers, and finding financial resources for historical research for a marginalized population is extremely daunting. As mainstream funding agencies shift further towards  postracial or multicultural assumptions, ethnic and race specific resources are drying up.
  6. It therefore behooves the APA churches themselves to support and sustain the historical study of their own communities. But these churches are themselves locked into an Evangelical “born-again” theological culture that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. Most evangelicals possess an ahistorical understanding of reality. Salvation is about conversion to a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come! Thus, the old is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West, one from which modern Christianity in its theological and institutional expressions needs to be liberated from.

Therefore, the history of APA Christianity faces a double marginalization in the church and academy. The worst part of all this is the self-marginalization of our histories. Insofar as APA evangelicalism embraces this modern “discourse of death, the death of material existence” we will never find value in our experiences, our stories, and our histories. Instead, we will pursue the Orientalist strategy of “leap frogging” Asian America.

So what can we do? Beyond protesting this state of affairs, we must move towards representation in both senses of the word. Representation as a political act of empowering participation; Representation as an act of self-expression and culture making. But in both cases representation does not occur de nova, nor is it created ex nihilo. It must be grounded in history.

2.  God values the marginalized.

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV)

What does God value? Outcasts and marginalized. Here, the tax collectors and sinners are the ones who are outcast. Yet, Jesus portrays God as one who actively searches for them. This continues Jesus’ lessons in Luke 14 about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to banquets (Luke 14:13-24).

Carter begins his study with an overview of Irenaeus work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies, ca 180). I’ve always liked Irenaeus – from his name, which means peace, to the pastoral heart for the flock in his theology. Indeed, to counter the Gnostic attempt to Orientalize Jesus and his Jewish identity, Iranaeus embraces the entire historical scope of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis his theology of recapitulation. Jesus Christ is the recapitulation of Creation, Fall, and Israel. Rather than renouncing Hebrew Scripture and the history of Israel, the Gospel is its fulfillment. Thus, all are welcome – not just the spiritually enlightened elite. All, including the mulatto and hybrids.

APA Christian histories are mulatto [cf. Brian Batum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010)] and are therefore ignored, leap-frogged, and excluded. Nevertheless, our missing histories are of great value to God, just as the missing coin led the woman to light the lamp and to sweep diligently in order to find that coin. Indeed, this is the historian’s craft!

So what can we learn from the Asian American margins of the history of American Christianity? A few themes may be helpful to consider.

First, in contrast to the romanticized narrative of immigration into the American melting pot, the story APA Christianity prior to the Second World War is filled with nationalist discourse and transnational practices (e.g., Ng Poon Chew). Asian American Christians did not simply mimic white Christianity. They believed that Christian faith would empower Asians – whether in the homeland or the North American diaspora. Very early on, Asian American Christians sought to indigenize their Christian institutions vis-à-vis nationalist rhetoric. Institutional independence from denominational control was an effort to fight white supremacy, but also an attempt to redefine Asian participation in the church as a whole.

Second, the Asian American Christian story between World War II and the 1980s is also about a shift from an anti-segregationist to an anti-assimilationist posture within American society. During this time, Japanese American nisei (and other Asian Americans) initially valued integration, but when it came at the expense of their cultural identities and denominational representation they started to question how it was implemented. Thus the caucus movements were started in the 1970s. The story of caucus founders (e.g. Paul Nagano) within mainline Protestant denominations needs to be told – not only because the civil rights inspired stories are compelling, but because their experiences teach us about theology, identity, and empowerment within structural injustices.

A third theme is the story of the evangelical transpositioning of Asian American Protestantism. Whereas Asian American leaders in mainline Protestant denominations approached faith, culture, and civic engagement through the lens of the Niebuhr brothers, the evangelical renaissance among post-1965 immigrants created a different lens through which to understand APA Christianity. Of course, to call this a renaissance implies that it was all good – and after all, isn’t church growth a good thing? Unfortunately, it was not all good, in my opinion. For we see the re-inscription of hierarchical gender roles and a shift to a privatized and color-blind faith. Furthermore, the evangelical story is not all about immigrants. We must never forgot the witness of leaders as Hoover Wong, Stan Inouye, and many women evangelical leaders.

Having said this, I am still not convinced that an APA Christian history will be written any time soon. We live an an era that proclaims America to be post-racial. In this environment will the missing coin APA Christian history remain MIA? Perhaps. I’m not hopeful.

3. Fulfillment of our yearning and desire.

Nevertheless, it is my prayer that the search for APA Christian history will be received by the Church with the same spirit as that woman who found her missing coin. Note how she celebrated with her neighbors! Joy and fulfillment was the natural outcome! The search for our missing history is indeed motivated by a desire to correct injustice. But from the vantage point of faith, this is not the final destination. Joy and celebration with all God’s children, not just APA Christians, should be the ultimate goal of engaging our missing histories.

The search for our missing histories fulfills not only God’s yearning and desire to find the marginalized and lost, but the church’s missional call to invite all to the Great banquet!

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