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 Though much of the language and research is outdated, I’m surprised by how much I still agree with its premise.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.

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

Resource “Churches Aflame: Asian Americans and United Methodism”

Churches Aflame: Asian Americans and United Methodism (Abingdon, 1991) edited by Artemio R. Guilermo

Churches Aflame: Asian Americans and United Methodism (Abingdon, 1991) edited by Artemio R. Guilermo

December 19, 2013

Church leaders often ask me about Asian American Christian history resources. There is a growing recognition that a multi-ethnic future in North America and the North American Church cannot be shaped by our contemporary experience of race and ethnicity alone. Indeed, if Asian American Christians are to contribute substantially to Church and society, historical reference points and narratives are needed. Unfortunately, historical resources are difficult to find and narratives have yet to be developed more fully by historians of Christianity. Hopefully the day will come when professional historians can be employed to develop this work. In the meantime, I’ll keep on trying to make resources available and create forums for discussion Asian American Christian narratives.

One helpful resource is a collection of essays about Asian Americans in the United Methodist Church. Churches Aflame, published in 1991, is now out of print. The essays offer insight into the efforts of Asian American United Methodists to gain greater visibility within the denomination. Like most Protestant denominations, the United Methodists were ill-equipped to adjust to the large influx of Asian immigrants since the late 1960s, despite their prophetic voices for civil rights and the elimination of anti-Asian immigration laws. Many of the immigrants were also unprepared to face the institutional inertia when their cries for representation and culturally relevant resources went unheard. The stories of how Asian American United Methodists attempted to bridge generational, cultural, racial, and gender divides offer good lessons for the next generation of Asian American Christians. I’ve posted the official book description and table of contents below.

BACK COVER DESCRIPTION

This detailed volume of Asian American history is a colorful testimony from each writer who writes from the vantage point as an active participant in the life of the church, an observer-eyewitness, or investigative journalist. The authors depict the rise of the Asian churches and their struggles against all odds to forge a new church in the new world. This struggle often took place in a hostile environment within the United States. It was not so much a struggle against physical forces that could be vanquished, but against the subtle and malignant forces of racism, discrimination, and bigotry.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface, page 7 (Roy I. Sano)

Acknowledgement, page 9 (Charles Yrignoyen, Jr.)

Overview, page 11 (Artermio R. Guillermo)

Contributors, page 15

1. Sojourners in the Land of the Free: History of Southern Asian United Methodist Churches, page 19 (Man Singh Das)

2. Birthing of a Church: History of Formosan United Methodist Churches, page 35 (Helen Kuang Chang)

3. Trials and Triumphs: History of Korean United Methodist Churches, page 46 (Key Ray Chong and Myoung Gul Son)

4. Strangers Called to Mission: History of Chinese American United Methodist Churches, page 68 (Wilbur W.Y. Choy)

5. Gathering of the Scattered: History of Filipino American United Methodist Churches, page 91 (Artermio R. Guillermo)

6. Persecution, Alienation, and Resurrection: History of Japanese Methodist Churches, page 113 (Lester E. Suzuki)

7. Movement of Self-Empowerment: History of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists, page 135 (Jonah Chang)

CITATION

Artemio R. Guillermo, General Editor. Churches Aflame: Asian Americans and United Methodism. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991.  ISBN 0-687-08383-4

My AAAS Presentation – Part 2/3

As promised, I am posting part 2 of 3 of my presentation at the Asian American Studies Conference:  “Color-blinded by the Light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area”

I almost forgot to post this because I’m having so much fun at the Hispanic and Asian North American consultation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School [click da link]

But be warned, I mention some people by name who may not agree with my assessment. Let me say right now that my assessment does not diminish my respect for these individuals or their disciples. Okay, so we now move on another way that evangelicalism deconstructs Asian American consciousness and identity….

B. Fundamentalist Gnosticism (intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy)

Earlier I had mentioned that evangelicalism is far more porous and fragmented than what is usually portrayed in the media. This is especially true for theological reflection. But one particular strand that has blossomed over the last twenty years has attracted many second-generation Asian American evangelicals. Its representative voices are not unified, but are very strident in their confidence in the absolute correctness of their theology and biblical interpretation. Among these I would count superstars teachers/preachers such as John MacArthur and John Piper (locally Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church). To a lesser extent the Gospel Coalition can fit under this canopy of what some have labeled neo-Calvinism or, more pejoratively, neo-fundamentalism. Personally, I would label this theological expression a form of fundamentalist Gnosticism – a kind of teaching that rejects personal, social, cultural, and historical contexts even more aggressively than does the iconoclastic tradition.

The emergence of fundamentalist Gnosticism parallels, and can be seen as a reaction to the increased ethnic and religious diversity and rise of postmodernist thought and sentiments in late Twentieth Century United States. Since the 1980s many “younger evangelicals” have sought to adjust their inherited evangelicalism to the changing culture. This birthed a broad and diverse “emergent Christianity” movement whose most identifiable representative is Brian McLaren. Most emergent Christians express discomfort with the Christian Right’s political aims, are egalitarian with regards to gender, and seek to reform what they perceive to be culturally irrelevant practices in neo-evangelicalism.

A powerful cadre of preacher/teachers mentioned earlier responded to the emergents and other perceived drift from evangelical truth, by organizing teaching platforms to defend orthodoxy against cultural accommodation and theological error. Their teachings offer absolute dogmatic certitude within a perceived airtight logical system. They have attracted a sizable following of largely evangelical young men who came of age in the late 1990s and later. And, I argue, they represent a contemporary form of gnosticism.

Fundamentalist Gnostics are locked into an intellectual system that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. The sole source of authority is the Bible, usually read through the lens of neo-Calvinism. They usually claim a literal, ahistorical, non-cultural way of interpreting the Bible. Giving historical and cultural contexts any authority in biblical interpretation would be a concession to the “world’s way of thinking.”  If salvation is about conversion to a new creation, it means that the old must pass away – or at very least, be rendered irrelevant to faith. Thus, history and the contemporary world is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. After all, in order to think about race, one must allow social science and theory to have authoritative claims to truth.

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. And it lies beneath the Fundamentalist absolutism of these preacher-teachers who are popular among so many young adults today.

Why do these teachers attract Asian American evangelicals? Most of the Asian ethnic churches that younger Asian American evangelicals grew up in are family-oriented communities. They therefore do not invest heavily into intense theological teaching. Younger Asian Americans, after some exposure to these teachers, begin to perceive their ethnic home churches to be inferior or sub-Christian enclaves. When interviewed, they often describe their churches as culture-bound ethnic social clubs with shallow (or non-existent) Christian teaching. Indeed, many young adults become avowedly hostile to any cultural “seepage” into their belief structure and seek to join churches where a purer gospel is preached, a more passionate spiritual worship is experienced, and a tight and fervent community of faith is found. Asian American evangelicals claim that none of these attributes characterizes the Asian immigrant congregations that they grew up in.

The practical effects of Asian American evangelical attraction to fundamentalist gnosis is to be completely severed from any discussion that legitimizes Asian American identity. To “transform” culture means erasing it in favor of a more truthful Christian belief system. In the Bay Area, there are numerous incidents of Asian American disciples of John MacArthur who have caused division in Asian American congregations because of their insistence of promoting their particular brand of gospel truth. Rather than attempting to understand or listen to Asian American contexts, they seek to eradicate its presence. So in these cases, fundamentalist gnosticism does more than deconstruct Asian American identity and culture, it replaces it with a worldview that believes itself to be superior to human culture.

Fundamentalist gnosticism has many different forms, so I am not making a blanket assessment. But it has the potential to lead to abusive practices as any dogmatic ideology can do. For the purposes of this paper, I argue that this evangelical intellectual style renders it almost impossible to think about Asian American identity and culture. Later in this paper, I will discuss some ways that Asian American evangelicals have been able to or can respond to the excesses of this way of thinking.

C. Evangelical consumerism:

The iconoclastic impulse and fundamentalist gnosticism are two important factors that lead to the deconstruction of Asian American identity and consciousness. But I believe that the most powerful factor is evangelical consumerism.

In the Bay Area, Roman Catholicism represents the largest and most dominant expression of Christianity. Mainline Protestantism has declined precipitously. Among Protestants in general, evangelicals now dominate numerically – but not politically (e.g., the largest Presbyterian congregations are seceding from the S.F. Presbytery in large part, because of the Presbytery’s willingness to allow ministers to conduct same sex marriages). But evangelicals are also relatively marginalized from mainstream Bay Area culture, for they offer no unified public voice. Some participate in conservative family values activism, but most prefer to avoid this form of public engagement. The most common form of public engagement is in the religious marketplace where evangelicals tirelessly place their “spiritual products.” Such products include packaged DVDs and curriculum of “platformed” authors such as John Ortberg, Chip Ingram, and others. Churches (especially mega-churches) are branded carefully and marketed heavily. Indeed, superstar speakers and brand name congregations attract spiritual consumers. This has been the main focus of Bay Area evangelicals for now.

Asian American evangelicals, raised in upper middle-class and well-educated families, are drawn to what they perceive to be quality brands. Drawing her data from the 2008 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS), Janelle Wong notes that “Asian Americans who identify as born again Christians are more than twice as likely to report graduating from college than any other group. There is a substantial income gap between Asian Americans who identify as born again and other groups as well. Approximately 25 percent evangelical Asian Americans claims that their annual household income consists of $100,000 or more, compared to about 10 to 15 percent of other groups. White evangelicals are the group most likely to own their homes (88%), followed by Asian American (73%), Latino (69%) and black (64%) evangelicals.”[5]

This certainly characterizes many younger Asian American evangelicals in the Bay Area. To extend the data further, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, in her book, Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs (Stanford University Press, 2005) examined the consumerist behavior of second generation Asian Americans. She suggested that these Asian Americans exert social citizenship through material consumption. They felt compelled to remind others of their legitimate existence in the United States by demonstrating a form of conspicuous consumption.

This may indeed translate into religious consumption. More than one respondent I spoke to shared this sentiment (to paraphrase): “City Church in San Francisco [a protégé of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City with a very large percentage of Asian Americans] is like Stanford, the Chinese immigrant church like is a community college.”

****

So what do you think? Look for part three where I will assess the evangelical empire and discuss Asian American evangelical reconstructive efforts.

NOTE:

[5] Janelle S. Wong, “Evangelical Asian Americans and Latinos: Reshaping the Right?” (Paper presented at the Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences Immigration Seminar, April 30, 2012), p. 12.

My presentation at AAAS: Color-blinded by the Light (or why Evangelicals don’t get race). Part 1

I finally have found some time to blog! I hope I can do so regularly.

I’d like to begin by sharing my presentation at the 2013 Association of Asian American Studies Meeting in Seattle on April 20. This was for the “Empire and Asian American Religions: approaching religion in ethnic studies” panel organized by Justin Tse.

I’m not a card-carrying member of the AAAS, just a critical consumer of the scholarship. As a university-based professional society, it has always been difficult for theological educators and pastors like myself to gain a foothold. Nevertheless, there is some good to commend to the Christian community.

So, here is the first part of the presentation, “Color-blinded by the light: The American Evangelical Empire and the Deconstruction of Asian American Racial Identity in the San Francisco Bay Area.” I’ve revised it for greater clarity, so it’s not exactly what I verbally presented.

Introduction

Recent informal surveys of Asian American evangelical young adults reveal greater antipathy towards their racial and ethnic identities than other Asian Americans. I need to qualify this point. First, I am talking about English-speaking, 1.5 or more generation who are more acculturated to the United States than immigrant Asian Americans. Second, this statement does not necessarily suggest that evangelical millennials are less interested in their racial and ethnic identities than non-religious Asian American millennials. After all, in a time when there is great confusion over racial identity and racism, it should be no surprise that race is perceived as having declining significance. So Asian American evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity may be more symptomatic than exceptional of a prevalent post-racial ethos.

Nevertheless Asian Americans are gaining notoriety within evangelical circles because of their increased presence within White dominant evangelical organizations. Asian Americans have a higher participation rate in predominantly White evangelicals organizations than Latino/Hispanics or African Americans. Their representation in college campus ministries has increased markedly.

For example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship reports that 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years. Sociologist Jerry Park notes that when compared with Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group.[1] Also, of the 15,800 who attended Urbana 2009, 3,849 (24.4%) delegates were of Asian or South Asian descent.[2] I’ve heard that it was close to 40% at the most recent convention, Urbana 2012.

Another example: In the San Francisco Bay Area, anecdotal evidence suggests that more second-or-later generation Asian Americans participate in White or multi-ethnic mega-churches than in ethnic-specific or pan-ethnic Asian congregations. Perhaps up to 40 percent worship at City Church in San Francisco, about 1,000 at Abundant Life, and sizable percentages of several large congregations.

Where Asian American evangelicals worship is another small indicator of their antipathy towards their Asian American racial-ethnic identity. Few express concern or interests in issues that Asian American communities face.

A generational change?

This contrasts sharply with an earlier generation of Bay Area Asian American Protestants. Raised in historically mainline Protestant Chinatown and Japanese churches, these Asian Americans were inspired by the Civil Rights movement to bring about social justice in both church and society. They more clearly articulated racial identification and solidarity as vehicles for bringing about racial justice. And they were rooted in a theological tradition that encouraged faith in public life.

Within their denominations, these church leaders formed Asian American caucuses in the 1970s. They pressed for greater representation and resources within the historic denominations. The first Asian American theological center, the now defunct Pacific and Asian Center for Theology and Strategy (PACTS) was organized at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 1972.[3] A generation of Asian American theologians flourished within mainline Protestant seminaries.[4] Leaders such as Roy Sano, Paul Nagano, Lloyd Wake, Jitsui Morikawa, and others brought Asian American consciousness to the forefront of Protestantism.

Many Asian American activists also grew up in these churches, including political leaders such as Representative Mike Honda and Former Washington State Governor and U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke. The Redress movement enlisted among its leaders several Japanese American clergymen from these churches. Indeed, many of the founders of Asian American Studies and the Asian American movement were themselves connected to an Asian American mainline Protestant church at some point (e.g., Ling Chi Wang, Russell Leong).

But today’s Asian American evangelicals have a very different worldview, especially with regards to racial identity. As Russell Jeung suggests in Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (Rutgers University Press, 2004), pastors of evangelical Asian American churches tend to focus on a common lifestyle rather than racially identity in their ministry. Racial identity is not necessarily something to be embraced – especially if they do not want to alienate the Asian American members or potential non-Asian American members. On the other hand, pastors of mainline Protestant Asian American churches are more open to celebrating ethnic and racial identities by more consciously incorporating customs into the community life.

In this paper, I will argue that the dominance of an evangelical intellectual-cultural ethos (ideology would be too strong) within American Protestantism is the leading factor for the current Deconstruction of Asian American identity. I will then suggest that a small, but emergent strand of younger Asian American evangelical leaders are offering a possible reconstructive effort.

The American Evangelical Empire

Janelle Wong and Jane Iwamura noted that among conservative Asian American Christians, “social factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class are sublimated to a dominating theological ideology that holds sway over the agency of their members.” [Source: Wong, Janelle S., and Jane Naomi Iwamura. 2007. “The Moral Minority: Race, Religion, and Conservative Politics in Asian America.” In Religion and Social Justice for Immigrants, edited by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press]

In general, this is a true statement. It reflects the power of the Evangelical “Empire” among Asian Americans. But I’d like to unpack that a bit by suggesting that this dominant theological ideology (or intellectual-cultural ethos) is much more diverse and fragmented than may be suggested. Furthermore, another factor – namely evangelical consumerism – may play a larger role in deconstructing Asian American identity among Asian American evangelicalism than theology alone. Finally, evangelicalism is undergoing a rapid racial transformation as evident by their participation in the Evangelical Roundtable on Immigration Reform.

A. Iconoclasm

First, let me begin with “iconoclasm,” a key concept that helps explain evangelical antipathy towards race and ethnicity. Iconoclasm is an impulse to topple cultural images (idols) for the sake of pure religious devotion. In order to worship God alone, all human activities, including culture, intellectual endeavors, and politics are relativized or devalued. Iconoclasm is particularly useful for opposing perceived oppressive power, but the flip side is its desire to destroy human cultural endeavor and breed anti-intellectualism and dogmatism. The origins of political revolution can be traced to Protestant iconoclasm, as can the so-called “prophetic” tradition of speaking “truth to power.” Thus it is important to note that both evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism have inherited an iconoclastic vision.

In this sense, mainline Protestant Asian American activism of the 1970s draws its inspiration more from this “prophetic/iconoclastic” tradition than Marx. The Christian Right does the same thing by calling America away from its idols. Though this tradition is not always front and center within Protestant and evangelical churches, it has a strong appeal and is mobilized for public engagement.

Evangelicals appeal to iconoclasm (anti-idolatry) in its critique of culture. When Asian American evangelicals assert that “I’m a Christian first, and an Asian American second” or “my ethnic identity has nothing to do with the gospel,” they are surfacing iconoclasm. And even though many Asian American evangelicals are highly educated, they tend to reject any critical reading of the bible and their inherited theology because such readings are considered idolatrous or worldly.

Even among evangelicals who are pushing for multi-ethnic ministries, iconoclasm tends to devalue ethnicity and, ironically, reproduce White dominance. In the Bay Area, where the population of White evangelicalism is experiencing some decline, conscious efforts are being made to recruit Asians (and to a lesser extent, Latinos) into predominantly White evangelical congregations. Yet the top leaders in these churches remain White male pastors, for most part. Theological institutions like Western and Fuller Seminary’s Northern California regional campuses have a significant Asian student population, but their faculty and administrative leaders are predominantly White men. (The only possible exception may be in evangelical campus ministries at local colleges like U.C. Berkeley where the leadership is much more balanced racially or have become Asian dominant.)

Let’s call this phenomenon a “color-blind multi-ethnicity.” For the most part, multi-ethnicity does not include clear affirmation of Asian American ethnic or racial identity. In other words, the American evangelical empire insists or assumes “racial non-recognition” or, at its best, promotes a “colorless” multi-ethnicity, i.e., an ahistorical and “gnostic” reading of multi-ethnicity.

But the question may then be asked: “Why did mainline Protestants embrace multiculturalism and anti-racism if they also shared an iconoclastic heritage?” The answer, in part, lies in the fact that while mainline Protestants may have devalued culture, they still sought to transform it. They therefore leapt into debates in the public square armed with intellectual weapons such as sociology, anthropology and economic analysis. Indeed, a fundamental assumption in the Social Gospel tradition is that social structures needed to be evangelized as well as individuals. Thus, mainline Protestants both supported and used social sciences to advance reform. In the mid-twentieth century, they embraced racial integration and, later (albeit less enthusiastically), multiculturalism.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, inherited a fundamentalist approach to the social sciences, the Social Gospel, and structural sin – namely, they rejected it completely. Therefore, the intellectual and cultural ethos of evangelicalism was highly resistant to “human-centered” sciences and could not engage any discussion about ethnic or racial identity. I will say more about this in my next post. But it is suffice to say, that by exorcising the demons of social science, fundamentalists have allowed an even more dangerous demon to enter its household – namely, a gnosticism characterized by intellectual absolutism and moral hierarchy.

NOTE:

%d bloggers like this: