Posts Tagged Black American
On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.
It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America. Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs. Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.
But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here. The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans. East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada. And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .
This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black Americans. So the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad. It is quite easy to have a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.
Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit. A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy. It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream. It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it. Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.
I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society. We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice. It has been worth it. Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it. However it has come at a cost, a high one. Are you willing to pay it?
A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power. Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it. They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about. They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding. Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God. It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.
“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.
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.
Rarely am I annoyed by something to the point of deciding to write a blog post extemporaneously, but this case will mark a departure from my previous reserve.
By now everyone who is paying even scant attention to the political campaign is aware of Rev. Wright (Sen. Obama’s pastor of twenty years). Most recently he has engaged in a number of speaking engagements in which he has spoken eloquently and passionately about his views, and expanded admirably on sound bites that had admittedly demeaned and narrowed his ministry and message. Rev. Wright is a remarkable man, and a formidable preacher; certainly now one of the best known Black preachers in America, though he had a good deal of prominence before all of this started.
Rev. Wright preaches from a distinct tradition within the larger Black gospel tradition; one that emphasizes the prophetic engagement of the church with the world. His sermons and analyses serve the function of calling needed attention to the foibles, failures, and outright dysfunctionality of the American government. The Black liberation tradition from which Wright springs is not mainstream American evangelicalism, and like much of what happens within the Black community, it is obscure in its origins and impact to the larger American psyche. Like the prophets, liberation theologies have a particular edge that lends itself to causing great offense in the hope that the people to whom the message is addressed will change their behaviors and repent. The recent spotlighting of Rev. Wright and indeed the very fact of Obama’s candidacy has allowed an opportunity for many American’s to “listen in” on a conversation that occurs within the Black community. Wright’s style, cadence, free use of Biblical passages, even his mannerisms are exceedingly common within the Black church.
I would be dishonest if I did not say that some of the things Wright has been quoted as saying are not entirely unfamiliar to me or foreign to my ears, having grown up as I did strictly within the Black church tradition. Let me also say that the kind of preaching Wright does and the ministry he advocates does bear a certain appeal. His sermons touch a deep chord with many in the Black community. Even his flirtations with universalism and his seeming embrace of Louis Farrakhan are not particularly exceptional within the context of the Black church and community. A large part of this is the simple reality that our history in America has not afforded us much luxury of distancing ourselves too far from those with whom we may vehemently disagree. The outside pressures of racism, discrimination, and poverty have created within the Black community a type of tolerance for diversity of ideas and approaches that would surprise many. It is the reason why Black churches rarely split over theological issues, but much more frequently over personality and leadership issues. It is also why many Black people will turn a willful blind eye towards practicing homosexuals in the church, or to preachers who proclaim a prosperity gospel. There is a decidedly political aspect to Black church life that means you simply don’t disrespect another recognized leader in the Black community publicly even if you think him to be a charlatan and a fraud. In this, Obama is correct; he can no more dissociate himself from Wright than he can from the Black community.
Having said all of that, I part ways significantly with Wright’s characterization of the negative press attention he’s received as being an attack on the Black church. Rev. Wright. whatever his strengths in preaching or service or even his theological persuasion, does not speak for me. I am as Black as they come, and I love the Black church. Indeed I myself am a minister of the gospel and I understand the responsibility that comes with proclamation. I would not want someone to dissect all of my sermons. Some of the early ones were probably borderline heresy. Nevertheless, Wright does not speak for me, nor does he speak for the hundreds of Black denominations, thousands of churches and millions of church-goers. Prophetic preaching is a hallmark of the Black church, but so is redemptive declarations of forgiveness. The pulpit is not the place to peddle conspiracy theories and wild eyes imaginings about the U.S. government. Furthermore it is not his place to declare or anoint himself as spokesman of the Black church in America.
As we and others have wrestled with what it means to form an authentic Asian American theology one of the places to which we’ve looked has been the developed of an authentic Black voice in liturgy, theology and preaching. As a participant in that ongoing conversation, I believe it is important to remember that any authentic Biblical theology must be first rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the sacred text of scripture and then at how that revelation speaks into and reinterprets our particular context. It is likewise important to recall that the kingdom of God is a kingdom not of this world, and that the vagaries of politics and government are not to be overly feared, sanctified, or vilified. They are what they are, and they will perish when he who will come shall come.
What is it the “plain gospel?” It’s the kind of question that keeps missiologists, pastors, theologians, seminarians and online pontificators busy. While this question has as many answers as it does inquisitors, I ask it primarily in the matrix of Christian faith and culture.
As a historic fact we acknowledge that a large body of what has come down to us in the Christian tradition was formed in the context of the evangelization of Europe. It took significant work to translate a Middle Eastern desert Messiah into the context of a hill and dale European world. The questions that are answered by the systematic theologians studied around the world are the questions largely of European believers in a European context addressing European realities. This is not to suggest that our systematic theologies are somehow untrue, but simply that they may be inadequate to the task of carrying the “plain gospel” to the ends of the earth.
As the locus of the church shifts significantly from North and West to East and South, believers in other parts of the world are unlikely to remain content regurgitating what they’ve received as gospel truth. Despite the fervor with which we defend our systems, Calvinism, Arminianism, and every other –ism is not the gospel, and frankly are not the only authentic ways of understanding or even conceptualizing the gospel. Whatever view we hold, we ought to hold with a healthy dose of humility. God in his grace has made us joint heirs with Christ, and that is something of which none can boast.
In any event, I believe that ethnic minority Christians have a unique opportunity to do theology in a new way. As people who are both thoroughly Americanized but also distinctly “other” there may be some unique theological purposes that God wants to work out through our communities. How this might take place I do not know. In Europe the revitalization of European Christianity is in the hands of those who are not of European extraction. And if we would be honest, despite all the shifting of deck chairs in Evangelicalism, there are not markedly more people following Jesus – especially among White Americans.
Non-White students now comprise fully 40% of students involved in groups like InterVarsity. It may well be that we, like Esther, have been called for such a time as this; that the salvation of the American church lies with us. This revitalization cannot happen however if we simply continue to unthinkingly parrot the systems, ways of being church, and worship structures that have dominated the American landscape.
That’s right my dear Korean American brother; yes indeed my Chinese American sister. Even though we come from different places, histories, and experiences we are more often alike than different.
Kim chi and Dim Sum are all right with me, and by the way I appreciate the fact that there really is more to you than food and anime. Yes, I know that there are things I can’t know; things that really aren’t secrets but are simply assumed when you are in your own company; things that are hard to explain to those who haven’t shared what its like to be the one or two kids in the class with squinty eyes and shiny black hair in a terribly unstylish bowl cut that your Mom gave you to save money.
I know that I don’t understand your struggle, and that it really is a struggle even though the myth of the model minority is as costly as it is based in partial truths. I know that because I am the un-model minority, and as much as I hate to admit, that myth is based in partial truth as well.
I know that I don’t know what its like to be unseen, invisible, and assumed to be either just like white people but of a strangely exotic kind of white. I know because I am all too visible, far too easily seen and assumed to be exotic in the same way that chimpanzees are.
I know that your people and my people most often meet across a counter top as you sell human hair and no-lye relaxers to me in order to finance the cost of your children’s expensive education so that they won’t have to slave away in a store for unseen countless hours. I know that my people think your people are little more than animated cash registers who we assume “speaka no Engrish” because we’re as baptized in the ignorant racialization of American society as anyone else.
I know that your parents would promise to fall over and die and disown you and faint dead away in that precise order if you married me, and that my parents would likely make some derogatory racial remark about you before getting excited about the fact that our children would likely have “good hair.”
I know that you like hip hop and rap and R & B because it expresses a part of you that seems unexpressed otherwise but that you would likely never actually venture into the hood other than to sell me some cheap Americanized Chinese food.
I am not your enemy even though there are those who would paint you as the model and inflate your egos in ungodly ways and divide our struggle so that they can keep you enslaved in your suburban middle manager-but-never-CEO lifestyles just as well as they keep us as nothing more than entertainer-athlete-criminal.
I wish White wasn’t the arbiter of all things good and glorious so that your women wouldn’t feel the need to change the eyes that I find quite alluring and enigmatic and mine wouldn’t spend so much time deciding who has good hair or not.
I happen to think samgyupsal would pair quite well with collard greens, and Kim chi jjigae with cornbread.
We are not each other’s enemy, and I wish I knew a way to bridge the gap so that we fought alongside each other against the common depravity that threatens both of our humanity.
“I don’t need to go to church with you”
These words, quoted second hand by David Park of another mutual friend, aptly summarize the feelings I, and many Black Americans have about the whole multiethnic conversation. We often hear quoted the words that 11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. These words, provocative though they may be, are probably untrue. After all, most of us are not in interracial marriages and our closest friends generally tend to be people who are most like us – ethnically, economically, and educationally. Many people view this as problematic, especially in the ethnic dimensions. I have come to a place – full circle really – where this type of self segregation in the context of the church is not terribly troubling to me.
That I say this is perhaps surprising to some who know me, given my commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. However, as I said to my friend David – most Black people are not running around in angst about the fact that their churches don’t have white people in attendance. Frankly, interacting with Whites is something as minorities that doesn’t strike us as particularly ground breaking. Our world is filled with people who are ethnically and in some ways culturally different than we are. We know how to interact with Whites and do so without difficulty. In fact, we’ve grown up together in this country – mutually shaping and being shaped by the other.
Why then has multiethnicity become such a watchword in so many places and churches – not least bit among Asian Americans? There are of course, theological considerations. The church as envisioned by scripture is a multiethnic community, a place where the distinction of Jew & Gentile, bond & free are not barriers to participation in the grace of God. Of course the multitude of churches of varying ethnicities throughout the world and across the American landscape is ample testimony that ethnic considerations are no longer barriers to being Christian, as they might possibly have been in Ephesus or Corinth. In addition, the church is multiethnic. The diversity or uniformity of any particular local congregation says nothing about the overall diversity of the body of Christ – which is arguably the most ethnically, culturally, and economically heterogeneous group in the world. Besides, the lack of diversity in other dimensions in local churches (i.e. the disproportionate number of women, economic uniformity, etc.) seems not to draw the same degree of ire.
I submit that at least two important factors are at play – one of which I’ve mentioned already, in this current fascination with multiethnicity.
One is the idea that my local congregation is somehow the body of Christ. This is not an often mentioned issue, but it is implicit in many people’s understanding. If it isn’t reflected before my eyes with the people among whom I worship, then it somehow isn’t happening in the body of Christ.
The second is more troubling, and that is the insidious and quite evil notion that minorities are somehow legitimated in their Christianity by their acceptance by Whites. The presence of Whites in an “ethnic” congregation, as quite often happens in the English Ministry of immigrant churches, or in traditionally Black churches does not serve to render these groups adequately “multiethnic” even if Whites are present in some number. Rather (and I admit to numerous exceptions) it is when minorities join White congregations that multiethnicity is said to be occurring.
When Whites gather together to worship, they are not said to be gathering in ethnic enclaves, even if their worship services are 99% White, led entirely by Whites and conducted in a way that is culturally relevant to Whites. They are said to be simply worshipping. The same does not hold true for others. Is it possible that many minorities are simply uncomfortable being around “themselves” in any intentional way, and the presence of Whites, or the status of being a minority in a substantially White context is a salve to a conscience too easily seared with the heat of a latent self hatred?