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.


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.


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The Transformation of the Joyful

Originally posted in the Canaan English Ministry blog on April 20, 2012

Dear Canaan EM’ers and friends,

“If God accepts us just as we are, why can’t she do the same?” My friend confided with me some of his recent struggles with his wife. After ten years of marriage and two kids, there was plenty of dissatisfaction and unfulfilled expectations to go around.

Certainly one of the key lessons for any relationship (with one’s spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, or even with fellow believers) is accepting and loving each other unconditionally – just as Christ did for us (Romans 15:7).

But alone, this is an incomplete lesson. Relationships become healthy when each person is committed to changing and growing. For Christians, this means a commitment to become more like Jesus. “To this you were called,” says Peter, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (I Peter 2:21, NIV, see also I John 2:6)

How does a person stay committed to growing and changing? The Apostle Paul’s answer is found in Romans 12. The first two verses are most critical:

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

First, believers stay committed to change and growth by staying focused on worshiping God. True and proper worship means regularly offering one’s body as a living sacrifice. Worshiping God is not a theory or a feeling. It requires that we physically give ourselves to God. That is why singing out loud is so important. So is attending worship services, fellowships, and study groups. In order to truly worship God, our bodies must be physically set apart from our everyday routines (i.e., holy) and presented before God. All this physical activity protect us from becoming isolated and sedentary, the two surest way to avoid change.

Second, believers stay committed to change and growth by allowing our minds to be renewed. This is more than acquiring knowledge. It means asking ourselves regularly “have I been conforming to the pattern of this world more than to Jesus?” Is my behavior towards my loved ones and my fellow believers more like Jesus’ way of relating to people? In fact, the rest of Romans 12 is a guideline for how to live like transformed Christians. It is difficult to be honest with ourselves, so we need each other as well as mentors and spiritual leaders to hold up a mirror of accountability to our faces regularly.

One caveat. In many relationships, your spouse (or significant other) may not be the best person to serve as your accountability partner – especially if both of you have not fully committed your relationship to Jesus Christ. Of course, it would be ideal if the couple mutually helps each other grow. But this can only happen when both are equally committed to changing. If not, prepare yourself for many years of frustration. If you are in a relationship of unequal commitment to change, then find another brother or sister to be your mirror. Also, it is probably not wise to insist that your partner change. Ask God to change your spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend – and yourself!

In sum, joyful Christians are all about transformation. Grateful for God’s saving grace, they restlessly yearn to tell the world how Christ changed their lives. They have a burning zeal to follow Jesus’ footsteps. They are hungry for bible and theological study. They are passionate about missions and social justice. They are committed to building up the church. They never have to be asked to serve. They bear fruit because they simply can’t contain their joy. Indeed, their lives overflow with God’s grace and love.

I pray that God will raise up a large company of joyful believers in our English ministry this year. To witness this would encourage and bless me more than anything else I can think of! And I’m sure that you’ll feel the same when you are surrounded by people who are committed to transformation!

See you Sunday!

Tim Tseng , Ph.D. 曾 祥 雨
Pastor of English Ministries

The Conspiracy of the Joyful

Originally posted in the Canaan English Ministry blog on March 30, 2012

Dear Canaan EM’ers and friends,

Have you ever wondered why certain people seem to be able to serve Christ sacrificially without complaint? I’m sure you know who they are. Personal struggles and life difficulties cannot deter these people from leading worship and bible studies. Family responsibilities present no obstacle, for these people are always eager to disciple and mentor others, invite people to their homes, serve on church committees, and participate in social justice causes or missionary activities.These folks are realists. They know that sin, evil, and suffering are real. They are aware of the dangers of burn out. But these do not extinguish their desire to build up the community of believers, serve God, and maintain positive attitudes. What is their secret? Are they part of some conspiracy of joy?

Well, it’s not really a conspiracy. Christians who display such joy and dedication have captured the true meaning of the cross. They know that the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor 1:23), so most people don’t quite get it. They know that behind the suffering and death of Jesus Christ is the door to true contentment and fulfillment. They know that by sharing in Christ’s suffering and death, they will share in his resurrection and abundant life. But why do so few Christians display this effervescent joy?

Jesus’ Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24) explains why few participate in the conspiracy of joy. All the special guests invited to a great banquet made excuses for not coming. “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it,” said one. “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out,” said another. “I just got married, so I can’t come,” said a third guest.

Did these guests simply not understand that they were invited to an incredibly joyous event? Why were the ordinary affairs of life more important to them?

Though this parable is usually interpreted to describe salvation, it applies to those of us who have been long-time church goers, too. Especially to those of us who have lost our passion. The parable asks us whether the ordinary affairs of our life have become more important than the banquet of God’s kingdom. If so, how did this happen? How did we lose our desire to taste Christ’s joy?

There is an answer in the parable of the sower. Jesus said of the seed that was tossed among the thorns that “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word” and make the seed unfruitful (Mark 4:19). Simply put, when the worries and affairs of this life become our priority, they choke God’s word in our lives. So, naturally, we lose joy. We lose the excitement of being invited to a great feast.

There are times when we should learn how to build strong marriages, how to raise our children, how to advance our careers, how to improve our lives. But none of these “how to” studies are substitutes for meditating, reflecting on, and studying God’s word. After all, healthy marriages, families, careers, and lifestyles are built on the foundation of Christ-like character. And we cannot become like Christ unless we submit to his word (i.e., become his disciples). Submitting to his word means taking the bible seriously. To take the bible seriously means NOT making the bible more palatable, relevant, or entertaining to us. It is about aligning ourselves to Jesus’ vision in the scriptures even if it doesn’t always seem to make sense; even if it stands in judgment against us.

But the bible’s good news is that we have received God’s grace and are invited to follow Jesus even though we did not deserve it. I dare say that no one can participate in the conspiracy of joy without thankfully recognizing this truth each day.

This Palm Sunday, let us not be mere by-standers who watch Jesus ride by. Let us accept his invitation to follow him, to join his great banquet, and to be transformed into his likeness!

See you Sunday!

Tim Tseng , Ph.D. 曾 祥 雨
Pastor of English Ministries

Asian American Ministry and the Deconstruction of Asian American Christianity (Webinar)

This webinar was held on Oct 26, 2011.
My appreciations to Judson Press and the Rev. Florence Li (American Baptist Churches, USA) for sponsoring it.
Like many churches in North America today, Asian American churches are experiencing the loss of their young adults. The new “Silent Exodus” is also about the erasure of Asian American identity and history within American Christianity. Will being Asian American matter in a “post-racial” generation? What does the deconstruction of Asian American Christianity mean for ministry to Asian Americans? What can Christians do to respond to this crisis? Join presenter Dr. Timothy Tseng as he explores and addresses these critical issues.
The webinar can be downloaded here
To view other webinars sponsored by Judson Press go to:
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