The Elliot Rodger tragedy and Asian American ministry

Most of the responses to the Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage have drawn necessary attention to mental illness and gun violence. Emil Guillermo, after analyzing Rodger’s “manifesto,” highlights a racial dimension that has implications for ministry in racially diverse contexts. Guillermo argues that Rodger acted largely out of disdain for his mixed-race features (he was hapa, i.e., half-Asian; his mother is Chinese).

Emil Guillermo 8-100x100See Emil Guillermo’s blog “Elliot Rodger’s manifesto shows self-hate fueled anti-Asian violence that kicked off Isla Vista rampage” (May 25, 2014)

Blaming this for his sexual frustration and relational isolation, Rodger lashed out last Friday. The Isla Vista rampage left 7 dead and 13 wounded. Three of the dead were Chinese Americans from the S.F. Bay Area (one attended a youth ministry of a Chinese church in San Jose).

I don’t want to over-analyze the racial dimensions of this tragic situation. But I believe that they have implications for ministry, especially ministry among Asian Americans. Let me begin by assuming that a racialized world will reproduce racialized subjectivities. That is to say, the way we view and value ourselves is largely determined by the way our society structures and assigns value, power, and beauty to different racial categories. Much of our self-worth depends on what we embrace from our society’s diverse perceptions about race.

Of course we don’t all think the same way about race. Many of us who grew up in an Asian ethnic “bubble” did not feel devalued until we entered the mainstream, despite the media’s tendency to present “whiteness” as the norm. Those who grew up in largely white or multiethnic settings sometimes resort to “colorblindness” to escape self-stigmatization. Others might exaggerate their race/ethnicity/culture in order to garner attention that can be, in some cases, very rewarding. Race may be deeply submerged, laying just beneath the surface, or at the core of our feelings about ourselves. But it is always present within our consciousnesses. It gives us this nagging feeling that being white (and male) is simply better. That nagging feeling is one of the ways racialization in our social structure is reproduced within us. What does this say about ministry to Asian Americans?

God’s acceptance: the Asian American evangelical gospel?

Christians believe that our identity in Christ ought to be our most distinguishing feature. We are encouraged to live each day as a public witness to our faith, as if we were standing before the face of God (corem deo). Usually this means that our Christian identity renders irrelevant all the other aspects of who we are – such as race, gender, and social status. In fact, these identities are the result of sin. Christians should overcome, not dwell on them. Ministry and mission should therefore be blind to culture, gender, and social status.

As appealing as this sounds, it misses an important reality: social inequality, not social difference, is the result of sin. When being seen as “not” white has negative ramifications for how that person is valued or treated, it is not simply racial prejudice (check out this study). This is symptomatic of a social structure that privileges whiteness. Social inequality grows out of sinful social structures. Corporate and structural sin is just as real as individual and personal sin.

But racial, gender, and economic inequality don’t exist in a worldview where structural sin is not seen. In this worldview, racialized subjectivities are not ministry concerns.

However, can one say that the God of the Bible doesn’t care about social inequality?

Many Christians believe that God cares deeply. For them, living corem deo includes bearing witness against structural sins and their consequences. Over the last twenty years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has developed a ministry strategy for overcoming the negative effects of racial inequality that Asian Americans experience. The inequality often finds expressions through self-hatred, feeling unaccepted and devalued, seeking worth through performance, and placing undue faith in meritocracy. This ministry stresses the importance of embracing Asian American culture, ethnicity, and race.

The basic gist of this ministry is this:

God created and placed us in our cultural, ethnic, and racial settings. Sin diminishes Asian social identities and favors others. Rather than rejecting or escaping them, we need to realize that our identities are not marks of worthlessness. Rather, they are gifts from God. God transforms what our world sees as insignificant into something with tremendous significance and purpose. So we don’t have to feel embarrassed or devalued. 

An example of this approach can be found in this video clip (thanks Roy Tinklenburg):

 

As you can see, the spiritual discovery happens when the Asian American believer realizes that God accepts him or her. Instead of the futile efforts of earning societal acceptance and meeting family expectations, we rest in God’s declaration that we are worthy (in view of Christ’s work on the cross). This message transposes into the Asian American context the basic Reformation and evangelical insight of sola gratia.

There is no doubt in my mind that God’s acceptance is a message Asian Americans need to hear. It is a message that rings true for multi-race people and others who are marginalized, too.

But, in my opinion, it is just a first step. There are many questions that still need to be considered by Asian Americans as we minister to them. For example:

  • Now that I can accept who I am, what do I do with this knowledge? [i.e., the sanctification question]
  • What in my Asian culture needs to be redeemed? After all, God’s creation, despite being declared good originally, is still marred by sin.
  • What does social equality look like as an Asian American Christian? Does this mean fighting against any and all forms of discrimination and injustice?
  • Should I openly support Asian American causes? (e.g., APA programs in colleges or seminaries, Asian American politics or community activism, Asian American specific ministries)
  • Should I take pride in being Asian? How? (e.g., promote Asian American studies or cultural immersions)
  • How do I share this new insight to non-Asians? What role do they play in all of this?
  • Should I belong to an immigrant Asian church? Should I go to a multi-ethnic church?
  • Whichever church or ministry I join, how much of my Asian American identity should be part of conversation? How can I contribute this part of who I am?

I don’t know all the answers, but I’m eager to connect with others who are also interested in these questions.  I cannot say that the message of God’s acceptance would have prevented Elliot Rodger from slipping down the slope of self-destruction, hatred, and violence. I wonder if he and many others would have benefited from a ministry that pays as much attention to the “racial dimensions” of our contemporary life as InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries. But I’m convinced that greater attention to the questions raised by those who are invested in Asian American ministries will contribute to a better self-image,  mental health, and spiritual maturity for the Church and those to whom she is called to minister.

Add your thoughts here… (optional)

CNN Belief Blog

Editor’s Note: Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee, and author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”

By Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

On “The Daily Show” recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.

When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”

And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.

It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.

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I’m spiritual, not religious (Inheritance Magazine Article)

This article appears in Inheritance Magazine (No. 17, August 2012): 7-10. Visit: inheritancemag.com

I’m Spiritual, not religious

Young adults in America are shaping and being shaped by an emerging culture that is viewed with alarm and hope. In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons calls this culture Pluralistic, Post-modern, and Post-Christian. Christianity, however, is still the dominant North American religion. In two 2008 surveys, just over three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians. But this is a drop of about 10 percent since 1990. One might assume that the recent growth of immigration from non-Christian countries caused this decline. But the percentage of non-Christian religions in America has only increased between .5 and 1.5 percent.

Despite the numeric dominance of Christianity in America, there is sense that the Church is no longer respected or viewed as positively as it was a generation ago. This is especially true among young adults. Indeed, young adults make up the largest group that identifies itself as “not religious.” In fact, this group has grown the most of all groups in the survey (from 8.2 to 15 -16 percent).[i]

Studies also show that many who consider themselves “not religious” want to be considered “spiritual,” too. Though nebulous (and perhaps because it is nebulous), being “spiritual” is perceived to be a good thing. A person who is in touch with God, a higher power, one’s true self and feelings, or with nature is viewed more favorably than a person who is committed to a faith community or its convictions. Young adults appear to be demonstrating this with their feet. In the 2012 Millennial Values Survey of college-age adults, 25 percent reported that they were “religiously unaffiliated.” Only 11 percent indicated that they were “religiously unaffiliated” in childhood. Catholics and white mainline Protestants saw the largest net losses due to this movement away from their childhood religious affiliation. College-age young adults are also less likely than the general population to identity as white evangelical Protestant or white mainline Protestant.

Furthermore, in the same survey, only 23% believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally. 26% believe the Bible is the word of God, but that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. 37% say that the Bible is a book written by humans and is not the word of God.[ii]

Finally, the Millennial values survey indicated a negative reaction to Christianity. Christians are perceived by 84 percent of the “religiously unaffiliated” as “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” 79 percent believe that Christians are “anti-gay.” 73 percent believe Christians are “too involved with politics.” Even though 56 percent believe Christianity “has good values and principles,” 41 percent believe that Christianity “consistently shows love for other people” and only 18 percent feel that it is “relevant to your life.”

What is happening? Why is there an increasingly negative approach towards words like “religion” or “faith.” Where is this anti-religion sentiment coming from? Why does ‘being spiritual’ feel more safe, more PC? What’s the appeal, particularly for young adults and second generation Asian Americans?

Perhaps all this is a reaction to the political activities of the so-called Religious Right. After all, most young adults favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry and keeping abortions legal. More likely, this “spiritual, not religious” attitude is the culmination of a growing individualism and anti-institutionalism since the 1960s. In his classic study, Habits of the Heart (1985), sociologist Robert Bellah observed that a personal worldview that he called “Sheilaism” was on the rise. “Sheila” was raised in the Christian church. But rather than embracing those beliefs in adulthood, she created her own spirituality out of different religions and pursued a satisfying life without institutional religion. For more than a generation, the fastest growing population has been the tribe of “Sheilaism” – the church of “spiritual, but not religious.”[iii]

An unconnected and individualistic spirituality is nothing new. The belief that faith is an individual and private affair has been deeply embedded in American culture through its history. Many would rightly argue that this type of spirituality has led to greater tolerance for diversity and individual freedom. Nevertheless, the recent rise of “Sheilaism,” especially among young adults, has not been greeted with universal acclaim. And it’s not just advocates of organized religion who have raised much of the alarm.

Spiritual, but not responsible

Social scientists such as Robert D. Putnam, warn that the increased individualism and privatization is causing “the collapse of social capital” in American society.[iv] Television and the Internet are blamed for keeping people home rather than participating in community life. Fewer Americans participate in traditional community activities such as bowling leagues, local political clubs, or neighborhood churches. Without vibrant participation in community and public life, Putnam (and Bellah) fear a weakening of democracy that could undermine the health of American institutions.

In Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (2011), a team of sociologists led by Christian Smith argue that many young people today face five major problems: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. “The idea that today’s emerging adults are as a generation leading a new wave of renewed civic-mindedness and political involvement is sheer fiction,” says Smith.[v]

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, concurred in her two studies, Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic (coauthored with W. Keith Campbell). In a recent article in The Atlantic, Twenge says that “Millennials were less likely than Boomers and even GenXers to say they thought about social problems, to be interested in politics and government, to contact public officials, or to work for a political campaign. They were less likely to say they trusted the government to do what’s right, and less likely to say they were interested in government and current events.”[vi]

These troubles cannot be blamed on the poor individual decisions of young adults alone. They are deeply rooted in the mainstream American culture that young adults have “largely inherited rather than created.” According to Smith, failures in education, consumer capitalism, hyper-individualism, postmodern moral relativism, and other aspects of American culture all contribute to the difficult situation facing young adults.

In sum, these scholars argue that the “spiritual, but not religious” attitude may actually harm American society. By rejecting institutions such as religion and government, this attitude encourages withdrawal from social engagement and responsibility, and, possibility the loss of compassion for others.

Getting Religion: the Key to Responsible Spirituality?

If not for Christianity as an organized religion, the idea that spirituality applies only to personal well-being and not family life, community, social issues, and politics might have been the norm in American culture. For good and ill, the Christian church’s historic proclivity to engage (some would say interfere with or impose its values and beliefs on) politics and culture has contributed to a vibrant democracy.  Its moral values have empowered people to reform and transform society.

Given the current Pluralist, Postmodern, Post-Christian situation, Gabe Lyons invites Christians to engage this landscape in a more positive, creative, and hopeful manner. Instead of getting offended, withdrawing, or protesting the changes, Christians ought to see our contemporary situation as an opportunity to renew our mission to North America.

“From the standpoint of the public good,” according to James Reichley, “the most important service churches offer to secular life in a free society is to nurture moral values that help humanize capitalism and give direction to democracy.”[vii]

Given the decline in mainstream American churches, the time may be ripe for Asian American Christian Young Adults to renew our mission to North America. God may be calling us to counter the hyper-individualistic spirituality so prevalent among our peers. And the way to do that may be to build up our churches rather than be consumers of spirituality. It may be time to finally get religion!


[i] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) (Hartford, CT: Trinity College ISSSC, 2009); The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008,” http://www.religions.pewforum.org; Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) . See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[ii]  2012 Millennial Values Survey. A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials (Public Religion Research Institute, April 19, 2012). http://publicreligion.org/research/2012/04/millennial-values-survey-2012/

[iii] Bellah, Habits of the Heart. See also http://www.robertbellah.com.

[iv] Robert B. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[v] Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 224.

[vi] Jean Twenge, “Millennials: The Greatest Generation or the Most Narcissistic?” The Atlantic (May 2, 2012). Accessed at

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/millennials-the-greatest-generation-or-the-most-narcissistic/256638/

[vii] A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life (Washington, D.D.: The Brookings Institute, 1985), page 359.

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

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