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.

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 2016): 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

 

Mutual Submission and Hierarchy

August 8, 2016

After my sermon last week about mutual submission as the ideal for marriage friendships, there was a question about whether I intentionally avoided Ephesians 5:23-24 because it seemed to contradict my anti-hierarchical view. Here is the passage:

23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

At face value, this passage suggests a hierarchical arrangement between husband and wives (and therefore between men and women).

Now, I was a bit miffed by the suggestion that I skipped these verses because I disagreed with them. Actually, I have an interpretation of this passage that confirms that Paul did not entirely endorse hierarchy between husbands and wives. Rather, even these verses confirm that Paul’s ideal is mutual submission. I’ll attempt to make the case in this blog.

But first, let me share an anecdote. One person who heard my sermon emailed me about her campus ministry was deeply wounded by those who insisted on a gender hierarchy. Apparently a woman was elected to be president of the campus fellowship. Those who opposed having a woman lead men left the fellowship in protest, taking half of the members with them. This is not news to me. I’ve seen so many instances of how gender hierarchists operate. This arrogant belief that the bible teaches gender hierarchy is doing more harm to the next generation of Christians (especially Asian Americans) than any other teaching in recent memory. Too many Asian American college students are drawn to campus ministries that produce irresponsible and semi-heretical biblical teachings. And the results are devastating. Asian American young adults cannot re-integrate with any church that does not reproduce their college fellowship echo-chamber. This is the closest thing to a cult that I have seen. Gender hierarchy is often a sign of authoritarian church leadership. Abusive practices are on the rise especially in churches that are authoritarian. As they say, “where there is smoke…”

That is why it is so urgent, in my mind, to have a more sound biblical approach to this issue. I cannot bear to see any of our daughters, sisters, indeed, anyone, bear the brunt of practices that stem from incorrect teachings.

In order to properly interpret wifely submission, we ought to start with the question “Does the bible teach that human relationships are hierarchical?” The answer to this question is “yes.” The bible does assume that human relationships are hierarchical.

But the better question is this: “According to Scripture, does God intend for humans to live in permanent hierarchies? Does God want caste systems?” The answer to that is clearly “no.” Please note, this does not mean that hierarchies should not exist. Clearly, there is a hierarchy between God, humans, and creation. For example, Psalm 8:4-6 (reflecting on Genesis 1:26-28) asserts:

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

Christians also submit to Jesus, our Lord and Savior (and Friend), because we believe that he is divine.

But permanent human hierarchy does not appear to be part of God’s design for humanity. The biblical authors assume that human hierarchy exist, but do not usually identify that with God’s will. Here are some examples:

1. The first time human hierarchy is introduced is AFTER THE FALL. In Genesis 3:16, God proclaims one of the consequence of human disobedience in the Garden of Eden:

16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

Prior to this, there is no indication that the woman was to be ruled by the man.

2. Slavery. In the ancient world of the bible, slavery and poverty were accepted as the cultural norm, but not considered God’s ideal design for humanity.

a. The Exodus event. God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage is the clearest indication that God opposes oppressive enslavement. Recent biblical and archeological studies suggest that the Hebrew “conquest” of the Promised Land was more likely a “freedom” movement that attempted to overthrow the Canaanite deities that perpetuated slavery and other inhumane and idolatrous practices.

b. The Jubilee year (Leviticus 25). After settling into the Promised Land, the people of Israel were to consecrate every 50th year. During the Jubilee year, all property (including Israelite slaves) were to be released, returned, or redeemed (with the exception of slaves from the “nations around you” and “temporary residents”). The poor and the foreigner are to be treated fairly. The purpose of the Jubilee year was to prevent permanent economic and social inequality from hardening into a permanent caste system, as suggested in verse 23 when God says: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.”

c. Paul also acknowledged that slavery was a major part of the Greco-Roman economy. Even though he never sought to overturn the system over slavery, he did not like it. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23, Paul writes:

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

In other words, Christ has purchased us out of human slavery to become His people. Note in verse 22, that Paul uses a “mutuality logic” to say that disciples are both freed persons and slaves. It appears that the cultural norms of master/slave is being mixed up by Paul’s “logic of mutuality” (more on this point later).

Nevertheless, Paul encourages freedom from human slavery, as seen in his letter to Philemon. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had become a believer and supported Paul during his imprisonment. When Paul sent him back to Philemon, he said:

15 Perhaps the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

But in the end, Paul encourages Christians to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” as people who are “responsible” to God. Paul also applies this principle to both the circumcised and uncircumcised (17-20) and to Christians who are married to non-believers (8-16). But he doesn’t insist that singles remain unmarried (25-40).

In sum (at least at this point), first, it is important to bear in mind Paul’s “mutuality logic” (see also 1 Corinthians 7:1-7) which is rooted in the belief that Christ reconciles all people equally into his inheritance as seen in Galatians 3:26-29:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This is the kingdom and gospel norm that is uncomfortable with the fallen world’s hierarchical norm. And if you need any more biblical evidence, look to Jesus himself

3. Jesus and hierarchy.

Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) praises God for introducing Jesus the Savior to Israel and the world. What exactly does Jesus’ arrival suggest about human hierarchies? Let’s look at verses 51-53:

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Jesus’ coming seems to be about “flipping the script” of human hierarchies! And Jesus himself taught the same. Look at Matthew 20:25-28 (see also Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:24-27):

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

and Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

I don’t think I need to show more biblical evidence about how the Servant King and the early church envisioned a “flipped script” about human hierarchies. But the early church also did not envision a permanent role reversal where slaves would dominate masters. And even though the earliest Christians “were together and had everything in common,” “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” and “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 2:44-45; 5:32), they did not insist on enforced equality. Elders and deacons were still appointed to serve as leaders with authority, thus, suggesting that hierarchy still existed.

It seems, therefore, that the two biggest differences between Christian hierarchies and the socio-cultural hierarchies of the time were that:
(a) church leaders were encouraged to follow Jesus’ example of servant leadership [see 1 Peter 5:1-6] and
(b) church hierarchies are mutual, not permanently fixed or unidirectional.

In sum, Jesus and his disciples bequeathed to us the priority of mutuality where we are to accept, love, serve, submit one another. This takes precedence over fixed, unidirectional human hierarchies. As a result of this vision about the New Creation of reconciliation and mutuality, many women became partners and leaders in ministry and mission.

So why did Paul and Peter say that wives should submit to their husbands and remain silent? Are they contradicting the Kingdom norms that Jesus, the early church, and even Paul himself tried to live out?

Mutuality logic, Household Codes, and bearing witness

Earlier, I argued that Paul and Jesus (and Peter) applied their vision of a “flipped hierarchy” by using the “logic of mutuality.” But Paul also wanted his followers to “remain” in their situation (1 Cor. 7:24). He seemed to be suggesting that since slavery and other earthly hierarchies would be done away with when Jesus returns shortly, it’s best to not to radically overturn the current norms. Instead, Paul wants his disciples to bear witness to Christ. Peter says it best:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)

In this chapter, Peter also wants Christians to submit to every human authority and for slaves to submit to their masters. By doing so Christians would do what is good and emulate Jesus’ example of suffering. Paul, rather than upsetting people in the Greco-Roman world with “unpalatable” Kingdom norms such as the “flipped script of hierarchy” or “mutuality,” says “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).

Therefore, Paul and Peter introduced the Greco-Roman household codes (Haustafeln) into their writings as a guideline for early Christian families to bear positive witness to their faith (Col. 3:18–4:1, but also Eph. 5:22–6: 9; 1 Tim. 2:9–15; Titus 2:2–10; 1 Pet. 2:13–3: 7). These household codes likely originated with Aristotle, but were widely adopted by Jewish and Roman families. In fact, having a male head of the family (pater familias) was legally prescribed during Paul’s time. Groups that did not follow this pattern were considered suspicious and possibly illegal. So in order to bear witness to the Greco-Roman world, Christians did not want to be viewed as destructive to the family values of that society.

But Paul (and Peter) did not simply conform to the cultural norms of their day. The Greco-Roman family codes stated that the husband has legal privilege over his wife, children, and slaves. Wives, children, and slaves were required to submit to the head of the family. The haustafein did not include a mutual command for the male. But when Paul and Peter added a code for the male head of the household, they introduce the logic of mutuality to the family.

Let’s examine Ephesians 5:21-28.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

When viewed as a whole, the pattern of wifely submission is coupled with the pattern of husband love. The wife’s section is an importation of the Greco-Roman household code that is dressed up with an analogy to Jesus and the church. But when paired with the husband’s section on servant leadership, Paul addresses another aspect of our relationship to Christ – namely, that Christ loved and died for us so that we, the Church, may be made holy and blameless. Seen together, this appears to be a case for mutual submission that doesn’t directly challenge the Greco-Roman household code.

According to Rachel Held Evans,

“Such a relationship could only be characterized by humility and respect, with both partners imitating Christ, who time and again voluntarily placed himself in a position of submission.
“Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. For those who follow Jesus, authority should be surrendered—and shared— willingly, with the humility and love of Jesus…or else we miss the once radical teaching that slaves and masters, parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, healthy and sick, should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/mutuality-household-codes

While not a radical change, Paul transformed a politically and economically based idea of family into one that is based on the love of Jesus Christ.

So what happens when Christians import our God, family, country hierarchies (our cultural norms) into the bible today? What happens when we take the household codes out of the larger biblical context and focus only on woman’s subordination? Simple: we create communities that looks more like the Roman Empire than Kingdom of God. Mutual submission and mutual love is the better way.


For Further Study

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