Archive for category gospel
In response to my recent post, Disputing About the Body, one my friends commented, “you cannot separate theology from history.” I wholeheartedly agree. If theology can be characterised as ‘faith seeking understanding’, history is the study of that which has come to shape both the faith and the understanding of the one who is seeking it. Both the historical and theological enterprise are shaping and defining endeavours and the one necessarily includes the other. The historian who refuses to account for God loses the thread of meaning that ties all of history together and this results in its own perversions. History takes its full meaning only within the framework of Gods’ action in the affairs of men. For the moment however I will confine myself to the theological side of things. The theologian who fails to come to terms with his history, and the history of his community cannot truly do theology. The term ‘his history’ is key here, because the theologizing task is not a disinterested study of whys and wherefores, but is an intensely personal endeavour wherein man and God stand, as it were, face to face in dialogue; a dialogue that necessarily includes all that is in, of, and about the past of the theologian. It is an ongoing engagement and not an antiseptic analysis. In fact, theology without this history collapses into ultimately meaningless philosophy; a fate I suspect far too often befalls both students and faculty of theology schools.
When the separation of theology from history is translated into preaching, pastoring, and liturgy, it begets all manner of deformities of practice and ultimately fails to address the real essence of the human person in his socio-historical, cultural and spiritual reality. It is this failure that I term, ‘theo-cultural amnesia’; a term by which I intend to capture the notion that Gods’ action in the particular affairs of this that or the other cultural group has been forgotten. This theo-cultural amnesia is particularly potent in religious communities that have, through choice or force, been alienated from their theological and historical heritage. Such alienation occurred by choice in the case of American Evangelicalism, which is at least part of the reason for its current crisis, for Americans generally, in seeking to carve out their own way and new identity, have always disdained and dishonoured history. Consequently the American church has been simultaneously innovative and faddish (which is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing), and is now increasingly becoming irrelevant to the population at large.
This alienation has been particularly pronounced in the Black American church which has, because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, been more or less forcibly cut off from its pre-American roots. While there is an exceedingly rich legacy of theological engagement with the cultural realities of Black life in America, much of that legacy is handicapped by the lack of a pre-slavery historical consciousness on the part of Black peoples. This is not to say that pre-slavery (i.e. African) cultural modes were entirely extinguished by slavery and racial oppression. Certainly not. There is still a substantial, though often unacknowledged and even unconscious, continuation of African cultural ‘DNA’ within the practices of the Black church. What I mean to suggest is that most of the formal theologizing of the Black church is dominated by the discourses arising from the social, economic, and political consequences of slavery and post-slavery America. This is true to a lesser extent in other post-colonial contexts where, at least from a Euro-Western perspective, the prime contributions to theology are ‘Liberationist’, a term that implicates the realities of colonial and neo-colonial political and economic systems. However valuable this contribution to the global theological conversation, it is necessarily deficient because it is still theology done in the context of modern, Euro-Western frames of reference, albeit negative ones and does not deal effectively enough with the divine-human engagement prior to the European encounter.
The Black American case is worse though, for while Asian, African, and South American theologians still have access in most cases to their pre-European theo-cultural experience, Black Americans are almost entirely cut off from their own pre-slavery history. Efforts to revive that connection have been limited mostly to secular academics and thus of little theological consequence. Others, seeing Euro-Western Christianity as complicit in the destruction of African peoples and cultures, have rejected Christianity entirely as inimical to the interests of Black peoples and a barrier to cultural reconnection and have consequently embraced other religious / spiritual practices perceived to be more compatible with their Black identity. Still others, the vast majority in fact, ignore the need for exploration of the connection, instead clinging to a very ‘Bible focused’ theology with roots no deeper than the modern era while continuing to half-embarrassedly retain some pre-slavery African derived and influenced cultural practices. In other words, we’ll shout, jump, and dance, but lack the theological language and historical self-consciousness or cultural confidence to talk about it. Those who attempt to do so often fail embarrassingly.
I will add that a similar dynamic seems to obtain within the Asian American church which is dominated by a very conservative Protestant theology that has left little room for extensive engagement with the history of the divine-human encounter in the Asian past, except to reject it as ungodly and idolatrous. Unlike the Black church however, the existence and continual engagement with broad, diverse, and well established non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions means that the Asian American church cannot as easily import Asian cultural practices into the church without seeming to threaten compromise of the faith itself. When the demands of culture do intrude, as with certain holiday observances, the ‘culture’ is forced to stand alone, and separated from its full religious and philosophical foundations – such dichotomization itself a modern Euro-Western phenomenon foreign to Asian cultural consciousness. So while the Black church exists in a theological universe where the Black man as homo-religiosus did not exist prior to slavery, the Asian American church lives with her religious past locked shamefully away as one would an elderly racist relative – invited to join the family during the holidays but forbidden from talking about certain topics.
So what are the consequences? If, as Kwame Bediako (of blessed memory) says, conversion entails the ‘turning to Christ and turning over to Christ of all that is in us, about us, and round about us that has shaped us when Jesus meets us so that the elements of our cultural identity are brought within the orbit of discipleship’, then the conversion of Black Americans and Asian Americans may be said to be incomplete insofar as those churches live with an unconverted past. The past cannot be turned over to Christ if that past is locked away as a relic of a shameful non-Christian past or if it is defined only in terms of the realities of slavery and post-slavery America. It is no wonder then that Black churches and Asian American churches, while thriving in so many ways, have such struggles. They exist theologically, without any history separable from the European encounter, thus leaving them adrift and consequently subject to the varied currents of contemporary culture and unable to effectively engage the onslaughts of post-modernity, ghetto nihilism, materialism, and cultural decay among others. This is, as I’ve said, not unique to them for we see the same thing in the broader American church except in that case there seems to be a lack of awareness that there is anything in the past that needs converting. The recognition that conversion is an ongoing process seems to be a lesson too frequently applied by Western theologians only to individuals and not to cultures, at least not to their own – as if the whole fabric of Euro-Western history and culture is intrinsically Christian and has thus already been turned to Christ.
Practically speaking all of this leaves the church weaker than it might otherwise be. To renew our strength it is necessary to seek for the old paths, to inquire more diligently into what it means that God… in ages past spoke to our ancestors through prophets, and that he speaks now to us through Christ. What was the human – divine conversation and what does that conversation mean for us today? Who were we, who are we, and where are we going? If the Black church and the Asian American church in particular are to effectively fulfil their mandate of the declaration of the gospel, we cannot afford to ignore our histories and the lessons our ancestors have passed to us.
Ladies and gentlemen, a blast from the past
A while ago I wrote about the theology of friendship, or rather the lack thereof in the contemporary church. Recently a conversation with a dear Korean brother sparked some additional thoughts about friendship.
He mentioned that he thought, until he came to the U.S. very recently, that the idea of friendship was universal, and that in Korea to say that you are someone’s friend is to be entirely devoted to them. A friend would share the last piece of bread or even underwear (his words not mine) if need be. As we talked about this over dinner, my American born Korean friends and I shared with him a bit about how friendship works in the U.S. and I compared the type of friendship he described as being closer to what we say about family – about our brothers and sisters. He responded with disdainful amazement. Family, he said, is not your choice, and therefore does not carry the same weight as friendship.
This interaction could be easily chalked up to cultural differences, and indeed it is. Many Africans are surprised by the American idea of setting an appointment with a friend, and would think nothing of walking hand in hand with a friend of the same sex down the street. There is, however, more to it than just difference in cultures and there is perhaps something that can be learned theologically from the way different groups conceptualize friendship.
In Jesus’ last address to his disciples before his crucifixion he says pointedly, “I no longer call you friends, because I have told you everything.” Before this however he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” To my western American ears, this sounds absolutely antithetical to my understanding of what a friend is. To place friendship and obedience in the same sentence seems almost heretical. In fact friends are usually those people who pointedly DON’T tell us what to do and to whom we have no obligation to obey. The greatest love, Jesus says, is demonstrated when a man lays down his life for his friends. I would venture to say that this goes far beyond sharing underwear.
The question that naturally arises is whether Jesus’ words apply only to the unique nature of his relationship to the disciples or if they are more broadly applicable to friendship. Indeed I believe this is the presupposition most of us bring to the text. Yet there is nothing in the text that directly states that this is his assumption, and throughout scripture we find friendship elevated to a high position as in the case of David and Jonathan.
What are we to do with this? It seems to me that friendship is one place where American culture has departed far from the way it is understood in scripture. This is itself is not inherently problematic, because scripture was written in a certain cultural context with assumptions that are not immediately transferable to the American situation. However, by demoting friendship, or rather elevating other relationships, like marriage, we have placed more burden on the institution of marriage than it was intended to support. Single people are thereby consigned to the margins of church life and either pitied for their status (women) or held in suspicion (men). Is there a way in which non-marital emotionally intimate relationship, i.e. friendship, can be restored to a proper place in Christian understanding and practice? If such a understanding of friendship could be restored it might provide an option for those persons that are commanded by scripture to live in abstinence, and yet who yearn for emotional intimacy which is denied them by the current ways relationships are handled within the church.
I choose to give thanks.
God is good. His mercies endure… they persist… they sustain… they nourish… they create space for human frailty to be redeemed… they transform… they admonish… they renew… they bless… they are the lifeblood of every believer and the unseen sustainer of those who do not… they wash… they clarify… they challenge… they illumine… they clean away the accumulated detritus of a ill-lived life.. they are enough… they are more than enough.. they are what I need.. they elude me through my own stubborn indifference… they pursue me with unrelenting fervor.
That is what I’m grateful for.
“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”
So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference. The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.” Praise God for such a vision! And praise God for the organizers of this event. Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event. Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”
The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids. Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference. These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music. They will surge and sing. They will cry and commit. And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).
The faces on the stage matter. If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band. These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.
They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy. It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was). The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone. The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.
Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse? Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material? Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?
Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves. Call it FUBU for White people.
The truth is, the faces do matter. And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think. Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters. Think I’m wrong? Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself. You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important. Call it the incarnation experience. You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.
It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.
This post is about ordinary Christians.
Not that there is any sort of person who is ever really ordinary.
But there are ordinary Christians who simply want to follow Jesus. They are people like so many folks at my church who simply want to faithfully follow Jesus. They don’t know anything about blogging. They aren’t riled up about questions of what Bible translation to use, or the proper English translation of some Greek phrase, or issues of “social justice” (whatever that means).
They go to church. They pray. They give. They sing in the choir. They try to honor God the best way they can.
So often as a “professional Christian worker” ministering in the university context and with access to all the latest and greatest theological, eschatological, and philosophical debates and questions, it becomes very easy to grow arrogant and dismissive of those who do not. Why is this? Quite honestly it is because we believe that greater knowledge equates to greater spiritual maturity or spirituality. We believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary. Yet, if this were true, one would find the most faithful, most mature, and most biblically literate Christians among those who have the most access. The testimony of history and indeed of scripture tells us that this is not true.
Much is said about Jesus’ ministry to the poor. I don’t know if it is so accurate to describe his ministry in that way. There were, to be sure, poor among his followers. But the bulk of his followers were what we might call working class or middle class (though such classes were functionally poor in Roman society, socially they fit the description). They were people who were lectured to by the more learned among them about the hows and whys of following the covenant. And they too were looking for the messiah to come. It was among the most educated classes that the greatest disputes and arguments about theology broke out.
The arguments among the teachers of the Law are much like the arguments today among the blogosphere as people debate back and forth the fine points of the law. We split hairs over exceedingly minor interpretive issues in the Greek text which make absolutely no difference to the maturity or discipleship of Christians for example.
I grew up in a church full of everyday, ordinary Christians. I did not have the benefit of a seminary trained clerical staff, a full time paid youth minister, a library full of books on Christian doctrine. I had rather, faithful Christians who loved the Lord, who cared deeply about seeing that we grew up in the fear of the Lord and had a reverence for scripture. They wanted me to be filled with Holy Spirit and to live a life pleasing to God. They laid the foundation for my faith. They were serious believers. They obeyed the Bible as best they could.
I tip my hat to them. Ordinary spirit filled saints who prayed, preached, and taught me the way of salvation with little more than a KJV Bible, a United Gospel Press Sunday school book, and a decrepit totally useless blackboard.
Higher education in the United States and indeed throughout the so-called “West” is dominated by multiculturalism, with the “hard” sciences, professional schools, and business schools being somewhat the exception. It is an unquestioned assumption within the storied halls of our most elite and least elite colleges and universities that the dominant narrative of Western culture is insufficient to educate students. Their biases, assumptions, and worldviews must be challenged, deconstructed and hopefully re-assembled into something resembling coherence.
Concurrent with these assumptions has come a rejection of what had been the core content of a “liberal” education – namely becoming conversant with the thoughts, ideas, and stories of Western culture (i.e. dead White men) and a departure from what had been the intent of such an education (the discovery of ‘truth’). Heretofore marginalized voices (women, minorities) are given privileged status as a consequence of their having been deemed historically oppressed. In history especially (my field), the European explorers, philosophers and missionaries of old have been transformed into apostles of intolerance, genocide, and unremitting oppression. Simply put, dead White guys are out of fashion and truth as a governing or transcendent concept is not even really talked about.
Of course this shift represents a major challenge for Christians in the academy since we follow a religion that both makes transcendent governing truth claims and whose most significant theologians happen to have been mostly dead White guys. It doesn’t help that the “West” is popularly associated with Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity did indeed originate in the Near East, its most famous early theologians (Augustine and Tertullian) were Africans, and the Christian legacy of India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is far older than that of Ireland. It follows easily that the worst crimes of the western world are laid at the feet of the theology, practice, and indeed even the existence of the Christian faith.
Enter: multiculturalism and the gospel of relativism. According to an article in First Thingsthe task of
a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade
The article continues:
All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true.
And so it is that Christians hold as profoundly and universally true the very thing that sticks in the craw of post-modern cultural relativists. Thus Christian students, albeit thoroughly unversed and ill prepared to “give an answer for the hope that lies within them”, they are nonetheless adherents of a gospel that declares that truth does indeed exist; truth about God, the meaning of life, the condition of man, and man himself. Further, they hold to the notion that these truths are not culturally bound, nor limited by time, but are always and in every place profoundly and fundamentally true.
It is true though that the lens of multiculturalism has brought a needed corrective to the myopia of the Christian church in the United States. It is perhaps a function of our relative isolation from people of different languages and ethnicity that the universality and thus the infinite translatability of the Christian religion has been lost on us. It is a good thing that churches are wrestling with questions of multi-ethnicity and culture. We must be careful though as we wrestle not to adopt the singularly unChristian, dare I say anti-Christian academy that reflexively dismisses the achievements of Christian civilization while highlighting its sins and lionizing those presumed to be victims.
It is no small thing that it is only in the Christian west that human freedom as a concept rooted in the Biblical view of all people being made in God’s image bore the fruit of eliminating slavery, or that women have enjoyed the relative equality of status that they do. When the West failed, it is perhaps not the failure of Christianity, but only an indication that the Christianization of society did not go far enough.
As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.
It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.
One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.
I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.
I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?
A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.
Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.
As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.
My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.
On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.
By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.
Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.
In the midst of an election campaign one of the most significant areas of interested to the general public is that of immigration. My hometown is currently embroiled in a rather (I think) inane controversy stemming from this very issue to make English the official language of city government. Having been vetoed by the former mayor, the intrepid councilman has submitted the measure to the public as an addition to the charter of the city government. It is currently held up in legalities, but I am certain that if it passes the hurdles being thrown up by the election commission and others, it will pass. It is to me extraneous legislation, since the official language of the state of Tennessee is already English, but oh well. The chamber of commerce has come out against it (it’s bad for business and makes us look like hicks) while the hicks themselves are all for it in the mistaken belief perhaps that it will force all the “fer’ners” to learn English or go home. I for one am embarrassed. Illegal immigrants of the brown type seem to be a convenient outlet for all the virulent racial hatred that is no longer publicly acceptable to vent towards Blacks. It is made easier by the fact that they are, well, illegal.
The larger issue of immigration though is one which our society is being confronted with in a much more significant way than we have had to in the last several decades. Despite the influx of Asian immigrants from the late sixties onwards, the current immigration boom is new for many, and frightening. A recent census bureau report indicates that soon the US will be “majority minority” a phrase I find particularly interesting. Interesting because it has only been fairly recently that Hispanics (or Latinos if you prefer) have been counted separately. Interesting because they are only minorities in that they are not White. The last great immigration boom, around the turn of the 20th century, saw many millions of European immigrants come to the US. There was great debate at the time over whether they would properly assimilate into what was a clearer dominant Anglo culture.
Successive waves of immigrants each dealt with the baggage if you will of not being White enough. First the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, the Russians… all the eastern Europeans. Most of these White ethnics settled in enclaves on the east coast and upper midwest where they were accused of the same sorts of things that Hispanic immigrants are now accused of. Of course in time they assimilated, intermarried, and largely became White. Being White in America mainly meant not being Black or Yellow (no offense to my Asian American readers, just using the lingo of the times). Many people don’t realize that many of the soldiers that went to fight in WW2 spoke a language other than English at home as their first language; maybe as many as 1/3.
Nowadays now one really is focused on the many illegal Irish or even Asian immigrants in the country. No one is going door to door at Korean cleaners and checking how much under the table cash is being doled out to someone’s cousin’s sisters brother in law. Those immigrants aren’t scary, and they aren’t brown.
What should be the Christian response to the challenges of immigration? On the one hand it is easy to assert that we should be treat the foreigner and alien as neighbor, since that is what God commanded Israel. At the same time, how do we apply that principle meaningfully in a nation whose laws we are called to obey? What is our priority? And what is the true face of the immigration debate that is tearing our society up? John Lamb, a somewhat acquaintance who I’ve never officially met but admire nonetheless is doing a talk on this issue tomorrow at Vanderbilt. If anyone knows what he’s talking about, its John.
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.