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:

Book review of Scott Zesch, _The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871_ (2012).

Cross posting a book review. – Tim Tseng

H-ETHNIC REVIEW

Scott Zesch. The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. New York Oxford University Press, 2012. Illustrations. xii + 283 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975876-0.

Reviewed by Sharon Sekhon (The Studio for Southern California History, University of California-Fullerton)

Published on H-Ethnic (March, 2013) Commissioned by Amy J. Johnson

Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War is an important study about the October 24, 1871, killing of eighteen Chinese men and boys, an event that gave Los Angeles its first international notoriety. In relaying this history, Zesch weaves together the stories and storytelling of this tragic event. Historians have long grappled with nineteenth-century Chinese California but have done so in ways that have privileged a top down and/or institutional approach, relying on the scant historical record: legislation, court records, and public documents. Immigration historians, influenced by Robert Park’s Chicago School of Sociology, have used assimilation as the model from which to measure a success driven narrative of the Chinese experience. Other historians have focused on the possibility or impossibility of the Chinese to ever be considered “American” by dominant nineteenth-century society. More recent histories have included a global consideration of immigration in addition to local networks of support. In this continuum, very little has been written on the Chinese Massacre, and it has been presented as an extension of an Anglo-centered story. The Chinese undoubtedly were victims of a xenophobic and anti-Christian society that exploited their labor and them as political foes when it suited. And the public violence exacted against the Chinese served as immediate and long-term lessons to Chinese immigrants’ place in Los Angeles hierarchy.

Zesch, an independent scholar, drops any attempts at integrating these tidy narratives into a larger historiography. He provides the messy and often contradictory details that make history compelling and perhaps more accessible to our own chaotic lives. Concerned with how cultures clash in different historical contexts, Zesch has authored several significant histories including fictional accounts as well as the acclaimed history of his great-great-great uncle in he Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier (2004). The Chinatown War is a direct and intimate look into one of the most horrific instances of mob violence in Los Angeles history with a focus on the human agents; the complicated series of events during the riots; and the role of Los Angeles’ law enforcement before, during, and after the massacre. Not only does Zesch aptly put this event into its proper contexts, but he also demonstrates the diverse responses by Los Angelenos to the Chinese. Whenever possible, Zesch uses the testimony and writings of the Chinese to share their hitherto unshared point of view. This book is a recovery project that gathers new information on the years leading up to the 1871 event and subsequent court cases.

The Chinatown War is organized into two sections. Part 1 explores the foundations of Chinese life in Los Angeles, documenting the reasons individuals came to California; the lawlessness in the area, the societies and institutions that the Chinese formed to navigate and prosper in such a hostile environment; and the much-publicized differences between the Chinese and the rest of the population. Part 2 builds on the foundations established in part 1 to show how these factors shaped the events leading up to the Chinese Massacre. Zesch breaks new ground in sharing not only the details of the night, but also the events leading up to October 24 that were three years in the making; the massacre was one in a series of hate crimes against the Chinese. As the book’s title conveys, that day was brutal in a war on the Chinese and not an isolated event. Sources include court records, newspaper accounts, and memoirs from Anglo-American “pioneers” from the mid- to late nineteenth century. Zesch shows that much of the vitriolic rhetoric against the Chinese in local newspapers was reprinted from publications in San Francisco and northern California, home to the nativist Workingmen’s Party.

Missing from Zesch’s investigation is an in-depth analysis of the sources. The author undoubtedly provides a critical lens to all of the content and discusses the impermanence of the Chinese from historical memory. However, a more thorough examination of the motivations behind the local presses and memoirs would substantiate this telling of the Chinese experience in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

This book is rich with reproduced source material. Included are advertisements, photographs, drawings, and maps from local archives, such as the Huntington Library and the Seaver Center for Western History Research. Zesch’s informative captions provide a visual materiality to the detailed history. For example, included is a nondescript black-and-white photograph from the Seaver Center with the following caption: “This 1869 photograph shows Commercial Street from its T-intersection with Main Street, looking east toward Herman Heinsch’s two-storied saddle and harness shop (which was replaced by the present-day Federal Building). Three Chinese were hanged from a wagon parked on the south (right) side of the street”. The Chinatown War situates its subjects geographically whenever possible, and provides information on the site of an event in relationship to its current location.

While the entire book is captivating, chapter 4, “Daughters of the Sun and Moon,” on the wretched lives of Chinese women is especially illuminating. It provides an unflinching look at Los Angeles’ seen and public Chinese women and extrapolates on the lives of hidden married Chinese women. Zesch demonstrates how the conditions for human trafficking and treatment of Chinese women left some of them continually brutalized and dying alone, destitute in back alleys.

The Chinatown War is an ideal candidate for educators teaching courses on Los Angeles and the history of the West, as well as general surveys on the nineteenth century, sociology, and American studies. While the book uses Los Angeles as its example, the lessons drawn from this case study are applicable to a nation that continues to struggle with immigration, controlled networks of information, and its history.

Citation: Sharon Sekhon. Review of Zesch, Scott, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. H-Ethnic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2013.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37048

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

What the U.S. elections are saying to Asian American evangelicals

More than 73% of the Asian Americans who voted chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney last Tuesday. This was 11% more than the 2008 elections. Some pundits speculate that the high percentage of non-Christians among Asian Americans may have been turned off by the Christian rhetoric within the GOP. This argument doesn’t really work since African Americans and Hispanics are predominantly Christian and voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Others suggested that communitarian values of the Democratic Party were more attractive than the Republican virtue of individualism.

What does the election results say to Asian American Christian leaders – especially the evangelicals who urged a return to traditional family values? Shall these leaders join the chorus of conservative Christians who are now denouncing America? As an Asian American evangelical who has strong sympathies with progressive politics, I will not gloat. Actually, I hope that my brothers (mostly) and sisters who have allied themselves with conservative politics will not give up. I hope they will continue to inspire our communities to engage politics and contribute to the common good.

But I also hope that they are open to what I believe the elections are saying to them. Here are a couple of thoughts. I’d very much like to hear others.

1. Many Asian American evangelicals are seriously out of touch with Asian Americans, other minorities, women, and the working class.

Let’s resist the temptation to call Obama supporters “takers” and “dependents” as some conservatives are doing. Asian American evangelical leaders who uncritically embraced the religious right have not paid enough attention to what is happening in their own communities. Instead, I hope that they’ll actually listen to what Asian Americans and other member of the Obama coalition are saying. Paying as much attention to Asian American studies scholars as to James Dobson would be a helpful first step. Most Asian Americans live in diverse urban metropolitan regions. There are so many opportunities to meet and learn from the people in these regions. It’s as if Jesus has sent Asian American evangelicals into the highways and by-ways of life to deliver invitations to his welcoming banquet where new friendships can be formed. This is an opportunity to really listen to the hearts of people!

2. Many Asian American evangelicals must broaden the social issues they advocate

It is time to acknowledge that their fellow Asian Americans (including many who are in their pews) are far more sophisticated than many evangelical leaders give them credit for. Despite the poor economy and despite the embrace of abortion rights and same sex marriage in the Democratic platform, racial minorities that are largely Christian still voted for Obama. I believe that the politics of white resentment was a major reason that Asian American and the other racial minority voters swung to Obama. Asian Americans were well aware of the racial undertones uttered by many Republicans. The GOP’s “little tent” strategy of appeasing the shrinking conservative white male base finally collapsed as racial minorities, young people, and women chose Obama’s vision of a more inclusive America. Few elections in recent history have highlighted the important of social justice for the marginalized as this one. Thus, Asian American evangelicals leaders must broaden their range of concerns or risk not only alienating the wider Asian American community, but intensifying the “silent exodus” from their own congregations. They will gain a more comprehensive life-affirming biblical vision for social engagement when they broaden the social issues they espouse.

Going forward, I hope that Asian American evangelical leaders will reject the rhetoric of scapegoating and demonization. I hope they will show greater civility and compassion to those who are different or disagreeable. I hope they will acknowledge their own history of being scapegoated – and as they explore this history, I hope they will discover that it is better to safeguard civil and religious liberties and social justice for all than to curtail the liberties of a few. What do you think?

The Young Adult Black Hole

Published in Inheritance Magazine #13 (Sept/Oct 2011)

Young Adults and the American Church

It is becoming a well-established fact: young adults are vanishing from the American Church. Recent surveys indicate that emergent Americans who identify themselves as Christians today have declined sharply over the past twenty years (see figures 1 and 2 below). [1] Even White evangelicals, who have usually retained a higher percentage of young adults than mainline Protestants or Catholic, are experiencing a decline of this treasured cohort. But even though many more young adults say that they are not affiliated with any religion it doesn’t mean that they are rejecting spirituality. In fact, we are witnessing the spectacular growth of emergents who claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.”

Figure 1: Distance from organized religion today

Distance from Organized religion Emerging Adults Other Adults
Attend church weekly or more 15% (20 plus)30% (30 plus) 40% (older adults)
Not members of a church 35% 19% (all adults)
Belong to no religious tradition 20% 14% (all adults)
“Secular” or “somewhat secular” 23% 15% (ages 25-64)10% (over 64)

* * * * *

Figure 2: Comparing Church attendance (1970s and today)

Church attendance of Americans under 45 1970s Today
Attend weekly or more 31% 25%
Never attend 14% 20%

 

Some speculate that the conservative politics of many Christians may be turning off and tuning out the emergents, who are generally more liberal. Others think that the increase in privatization and consumerism in recent years has made the culture of young adults less interested in participating in organized communities. Rather, communities are formed to cater to the needs and desires of the young adult. Whatever the cause, the Church in America is facing one its greatest challenges.

Asian American emergents and the “renewal” of American Christianity

Though racial-ethnic Christian communities also face similar challenges, young adult engagement in church life is still relatively high when compared to the wider American Church. In fact, the significant presence of younger Asian Americans in thriving non-African American urban churches and in many campus ministries can be interpreted as a sign that God is using Asian Americans to revitalize (White) American Christianity. Asian American presence in previously White ministries legitimizes a multi-ethnic vision as do Asian American ministries that reject being identified as Asian American.

But these developments can also be a sign that Asian American churches have no future. The “Silent Exodus” will continue as generations of young adults who remain Christians leave their immigrant churches for White or multi-ethnic churches. From the perspective of immigrant Asian churches (who should also be considered Americans), the wider American church can be viewed as a Black Hole, a parasite, or a vampire that sucks the young life out their congregation’s families.

I have very little sympathy for immigrant churches that drive their young adults out because of insensitive leadership, authoritarian parenting, or uncaring coworkers. These churches don’t deserve their children.

But for the churches that have made a concerted effort to build intergenerational and multicultural faith communities (by the way, immigrant churches may be more multicultural than most multiethnic churches because they have to navigate language diversity), the revitalization of American Christianity seems to come at a great cost to them. The way American Christians treat the immigrant (and refugee) church is a test of our capacity to love the foreigner among us. Thus, the struggles and concerns of immigrant churches should matter to all Christians.

Furthermore, the fate of those who embark on the “Silent Exodus” should also matter. Do Asian American Christians in non-Asian ministries have any role other than increasing multi-ethnicity? Are their unique needs cared for? Are their contributions and gifts valued?

The bottom line: Can the American church truly be renewed if immigrant churches are dismissed and “exodused” Asian Americans are only valued as window dressing?

Raising these questions begs a deeper question: Why do Asian American Christian young adults leave immigrant or pan-Asian churches? I’d like to suggest a few reasons. Since I believe that immigrant and pan-Asian churches are to be valued as important members of the American Church, their desire to retain young adults must be taken seriously. So I’ll close with a few recommendations for these ministries.

The “Silent Exodus” or the “Babylonian Captivity”?

The usual reasons given for young adult flight from racial-ethnic churches center on four narratives. First, the culture of immigrant churches is incompatible with the Americanized young adult. It is too “Asian,” too foreign. Second, assimilation and integration into American culture is desirable, more compatible, and inevitable. Third, many Christians believe that multiethnic congregations are more biblical, therefore, morally superior to racialized churches. Hence, there is, among many evangelicals today, a race to become multi-ethnic – often at the expense of immigrant and pan-Asian churches. Fourth, underlying most evangelical conviction is that our earthly identities ultimately do not matter. Our Christian identity is the most important. Even in many multi-ethnic evangelical churches, the goal is to shed, not affirm, our earthly identities.

Together, these narratives create what I call the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America.” I’m not saying that evangelicalism intentionally seeks to destroy Asian Americans. But Asians and Asian Americans who have their faith shaped by evangelicalism usually think that being Asian American is irrelevant. So this is how the evangelical sub-culture “deconstructs” Asian America (and other earthly identities).

Now perhaps Asian America should be deconstructed. Perhaps there should be no “ethnic” churches. Perhaps all Asian Americans should join the “silent exodus.” But these narratives sound suspiciously like “cultural captivity” to the “American dream” rather than entry into the Promised Land. Indeed, the American dream is the secular version of these four narratives. Immigrants are too foreign to matter. Their children can integrate and succeed. Together they create a multi-ethnic America where ethnic identities are less important than American identity.

Given these narratives, is it any wonder that Asian Americans prefer to leave their ethnic ghettos behind? Leaving the ethnic immigrant or pan-Asian church is equivalent to moving up in the world.

I won’t suggest very loudly that Jesus’ incarnation moves in the opposite direction. Nor do I blame Asian American young adults for wanting to pursue the American-Evangelical dream. But I do believe that these narratives powerfully shape all Americans. They create social scripts that ensure that the American norm is colored White despite the reality that there will no longer be a racial majority in the United States by 2040. It’s easier to conform to these social scripts than to change them or write new ones. That is why the “silent Exodus” will continue in the foreseeable future.

Of course, negative experiences in immigrant or pan-Asian churches will exacerbate the “silent Exodus,” but even healthy churches won’t stem the flow. Insofar as evangelicalism is captive to the American Dream, insofar as Asian Americans are captive to the evangelical deconstruction of Asian America, there is no future for Asian American Christianity. Immigrant and pan-Asian churches will never be able to develop sustainable young adult ministries. Indeed, unless we prayerfully rely on the creative work of the Holy Spirit, these social scripts are much too pervasive and powerful for us to change.

Here is an example of its power. Imagine what it will be like to dine at Christ’s great banquet when his kingdom finally reigns. Who will be seated at that banquet? Will it not be a great cloud of witnesses from every nation and every race? Who would you want to sit next to (someone else will be seated at Jesus’ side, so you probably can’t sit next to him right away)? Augustine? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Billy Graham? All the male heroes of Western Christianity? Would you want to meet the Asian and Asian American heroes? Would you know who they are? If not, why? Isn’t this because of the Christian social script that we’ve inherited? We’re conditioned to think that only certain people are representative of Christianity – and that doesn’t usually include Asian Americans.

Creating counter narratives

But I believe that God is alive. Surprising things can and will happen. We can counter these narratives by creating alternative or counter narratives. These new narratives can capture the attention of Asian American young adults and, possibly, move their hearts towards embracing immigrant and pan-Asian Christian faith communities. I suggest three ways create counter narratives:

1. Re-envision the Asian American Christian role in the new global reality: church leaders need to capture a biblical vision of God’s redemption of all nations and peoples that includes ethnic and racial minorities. Asian Americans should not be fully identified with the dominant American culture or with Asia. They are stewards of a unique set of gifts from God (Asian American cultures, ethnicities, histories, etc.) and will be asked to demonstrate how they have multiplied their “talents.”

2. Retrieve and retell Asian American Christian stories: churches and wealthier Christians could fund research in the study of Asian American Christianity. Insist that seminaries and universities hire specialists in the area. Create scholarships that encourage such research. By retrieving stories from the past and present, a treasure trove of resources will be available to help churches tell Asian American stories. Don’t let Asian American Christian young adults grow up with no knowledge of their unique story and gifts for the wider church and the world.

3. Redeem representation: Embrace the reality that immigrant and pan-Asian churches need to encourage greater Asian American representation in the mainstream American church. Don’t simply consume what is offered by the mainstream – rather insist that Asian American voices be heard in major conferences and events. This also means promoting and advocating for Asian American speakers and leaders who understand and embrace immigrant and pan-Asian ministries. The other meaning of representation is the creation of new ways of being Asian American and Christian in our worship, literature, and arts. Churches and wealthier Christians can fund artists to articulate traditional and contemporary expressions and forms. It is not enough to protest the way mainstream culture defines and stereotypes Asian Americans. Asian Americans must create their own representations.

Multi-ethnic churches can also participate in this creative activity, but immigrant and pan-Asian churches are more deeply rooted in the Asian American experience so have a greater advantage.

In the end, the only way to stem the deconstruction of Asian America is to re-construct Asian American Christianity again and again – in new forms and expressions. Like other emergents, Asian American Christian young adults are attracted to opportunities to create. So, let us assume that immigrant and pan-Asian churches have created healthy intergenerational cultures and are responsive to the “Five Cries of Asian American Christian Young Adults.” These churches can then become “culture making” laboratories and carve out space for creating counter narratives. There may yet be hope for Asian American Young Adults!

REFERENCES

  • 60 Minutes. (2008, May). “The millennials are coming!” www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=3486473n
  • Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Brooks, David. (2001). “The Organization Kid.” Atlantic Monthly. www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks
  • Changing Sea: The changing spirituality of emerging adult project. http://www.changingsea.org/
  • Cooper, Marianne. (2008). The inequality of security: Winners and losers in the risk society. Human Relations, 61 (9): 1229–1258.
  • Crouch, Andy (2008). Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
  • Edgell, Penny (2005). Religion and family in a changing society: The transformation of linked institutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Park, Lisa Sun-Hee (2005). Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs Stanford University Press.
  • PewResearchCenter (Feb. 2010). “Religion among the Millennials: Less Religiously Active Than Older Americans, But Fairly Traditional in Other Ways.”  http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=510
  • Smith, Christian, with Patricia Snell (2009). Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, and Hilary Davidson. (2011) Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Timothy Tseng (2011). “Five Cries of Asian American Young Adults” contact author or view at https://timtseng.net/2011/03/07/five-cries-of-asian-american-christian-young-adults-resource/.
  • Robert Wuthnow (2007). After the baby boomers: How Twenty- and Thirtysomethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[1] Penny Edgell, Religion and Family in a Changing Society: The Transformation of Linked Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

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