Monocultural multiethnicity: borg theology

In Star Trek, there were a group of aliens called the Borg.  They operated as a hive mind; a collective that adapted & assimilated thousands of species and incorporated the history, knowledge and technology of that species into itself.  Their catch phrase, “You are about to be assimilated, resistance is futile, we are the borg” was a pithy encapsulation of who and what they were.

What does this have to do with multiethnicity?  Well in some ways, the way multiethnicity is practiced looks a lot like the Borg; no matter how many new species were assimilated by the Borg, how many differing groups became a part of the collective, the Borg themselves never changed.  They became efficient,  pragmatic, and eminently adaptable, but they were also the quintessence of banality and non-existence.  What could be a vibrant integration of thousands of species became instead a horrible nightmare focused on nothing more than it’s own survival.

Well I don’t imagine that when faithful Christians push for inclusive multiethnicity they have anything like Borg assimilation in mind.  However, so much of what passes for multiethnicity is simply a lot of different looking people getting together and talking about multiethnicity while worshipping, leading, praying, and doing church like middle class White angst filled gen X-er’s.

Dpark puts in well in his comments on the fight to stay asian

“But you don’t know me. You don’t know Korean any better because of me. This multiculturalism thing is not all true. I mean the world is becoming a smaller place, and yes, there are wonderful opportunities here, but I don’t radiate my Korean-ness here and he doesn’t radiate his Hong Kong-ness here or her Pakistani-ness.”

The teacher interupted me. “But by you being here, we have a window for discussion. The possibilities are there. Even that was never possible before.”

I don’t know where my anger came from but it started to flow more freely. “A window? I know a Cuban. I don’t know what being Cuban is like. I know two African-Americans. I don’t know what being black is about. That’s not a window–that’s a peephole. When I’m here at school, you don’t know that I don’t speak English when I’m at home or what my life as a Korean is like at all. This is not multiculturalism — it’s uni-cultural with all the rest giving up what they have to have the opportunity. I’m not Korean any more, I’m just an American with a Korean face! Or at least I have to be if I want to be a part of this multicultural facade.”

Unfortunately what was true in that classroom is often true in the church.  One hard reason why may be that American culture, and consequently American Christianity, is more like the Borg than we want to admit. 

The tragedy of the Borg is that though they assimilated so many people, knowledge, technology and minds, but they did not assimilate their cultures.  The Borg remained Borg and so were never genuinely enriched by all that assimilation.  I fear the same for the American church, especially in this season of “multiethnicity.”  That all the trappings of culture will be absorbed, but the rich vibrant underpinnings that make culture real will be lost.

Chingoos / Friends

I have on my lap top background a picture of three men from my small group last year at as Thanksgiving party. These men, along with one of their wives and I formed what we called a “vision driven small group.”  We met every week, unless I was traveling or some other thing intervened.

I met these gentlemen at a prayer group meeting of Korean graduate students and faculty. They welcomed me in and asked me to lead a Bible study with them.  I gladly agreed.  I did not know how significantly they would change my life over the next several months.

 

One of them, Jinho, took it upon himself to teach me Hangul, the Korean alphabet, and the basics of Korean grammar.  Seonghwan told me about his time as a missionary in Indonesia.  Giljun and Heejung modeled for me what it was like to be young and in love.  From all of them I learned about community; something I had not truly experienced since my days as a college student at UT.  During the all too brief duration of our small group, these men became my friends.  We were not deeply intimate, and did not go out every week for drinks, but we cared for each other, prayed for each other, and were genuinely interested in one another’s lives. Leaving them was the most difficult part of leaving Knoxville. They were, and are, my friends.

 

Another friendship I developed in Knoxville was with the pastor of a church.  Pastoring a church was not what he thought it would be, and it was quite lonely for him and his wife.  The day we met for lunch he asked me, much like a shy embarrassed schoolboy, would I be his friend.  As a fellow minister I understood immediately; we needed each other.  We needed friends.

Friendship is something highly valued in scripture, yet strangely underrated and not discussed very much in the church circles in which I’ve been involved.  Sure, there is a lot of talk about community, the kingdom of God, and of course marriage, but very little is taught on the importance or even the need for friends.

David and Jonathan were friends, as were Elijah and Elisha.  I have to imagine that a large part of the reason God gave Aaron and Joshua to Moses was so that he could have friends. The Hebrew boys, Hannaniah, Azariah, Mishael, and Daniel were friends. Naomi and Ruth, Peter, James and John, Paul and Epaphroditus – all of them friends, and so many others I cannot remember. Most of these people were married, some were not, but all of them needed friendship.  They all needed people who became brothers and sisters to them by choice and not by birth.

 

In the church, I think we need better teaching on the value and importance of friendship. We have plenty of prayer partnerships, accountability groups, and work teams.  What we lack are friends.  People who talk about life, who get together for no reason other than that they enjoy one another’s company, who spend time goofing off just because it’s fun to do.  We need meetings without agendas, and time without a purpose. I think we need occasions were people get to develop friendships and we need a dethroning of the marriage partnership as the place of total fulfillment of human relationship.  Marriage is indeed the highest level of partnership to which we are called, and a good friendship is foundational to a good marriage, but even husbands and wives need friends, both together and separately, to give them perspective on life and on each other.   We need training on how even to be good friends and we need to make space for friendship in our lives.

 

Enoch walked with God, Abraham was considered God’s friend; Moses talked with him face to face.  And then there is Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus conducted himself as a rabbi towards his disciples.  They called him master and teacher.  They served him, listened to him, and learned from him.  But on the last night of his time with them, he told them that he did not consider them servants any longer.  He considered them friends, not servants, nor even sons, but friends.  If friendship was God’s priority, it should be ours also.


 

Afro-amnesia

I’ve been a Black American all my life; in fact I was born to it.  It is a genetic condition that I inherited from my parents both of whom were carriers.  In fact my whole family is comprised of Black Americans, including my youngest nephew who, despite his white mother, is also considered to be Black.

Perhaps it seems odd that I would describle myself thusly, but I wonder if such an appelation might not be appropriate given the history of my people in this land.  Black-Americans (or African-Americans if you please) are people with a strange relationship with the United States.  We are an invented ethnic group with very little live connection to our roots in Africa.  We are ethnically mixed; the slaves which were our ancestors came from widely varying peoples with different languages, customs and cultures.  We are racially mixed; most Black Americans can count a least a few non-African ancestors (usually European or native American, but sometimes east Asian).

What unites us is our shared history in this country, as minorities who have spent the better part of our history here as slaves, and then as second-class citizens.  A four hundred year history in which only 10% has been spent with any significant measure of equal rights.  Is it any wonder then that we have our share of social problems?

More to the point of this though, I believe that Black Americans suffer the effects of a socio-historical amnesia that is the result of psychic dislocation.  In other words, we are people who know no other land than America, who are uniquely shaped by the American experience, more American than many of the European immigrants who arrived here in only the last 100 years, but yet historically we are homeless. Most of us cannot trace back to a tribe, a language, or a spot on the map.  Indeed many of us are taught to disregard or even despise our African roots.

The first time I remember crying at a worship event was at Urbana 1996 when a group of students prayed to God in different languages.  I wept openly, and was surprised by my tears. I realized in that moment that I have no language other than the language of my oppressor; I cannot even talk to God but in the tongue of those who slashed the backs of my fathers and raped my mothers.  The white man made us. It is his language I speak, his clothes I wear, his customs I practice and his culture I breathe. 

This is why I grieve for those who give up so easily that which I never had the opportunity to know: a language, a culture, a people.  They do not regard the birthright they have been given, and trade it so easily for the mess of pottage that is the American dream. 

The thing I have as a Black American is a God who has carried us through.  The church has been one place where our African-ness has carried through: the drums, the dance, the shout, the testimony, the mothers of the church and the rhythm of the stomp are all things that tell me that God belongs to me too.  In early days of church, even in the Black church, these things were often rejected as being heathen and unworthy of the worship of the white man’s God.  But he’s not a household god who lives in a temple for whites only.  He is the God of every nation.  And now every church worth it’s contemporary service has drums and guitars and lifts hands and dances — that’s what happens when we did not forget.

I pray that my other brothers and sisters, those whose cultural memory can be refreshed as easily as going home to kimchi or pho, will not forget. That this 2nd generation will remind the world that God is their God too.  Let tong-sung ki-do rise again from the lips of a new generation to release the han of those living the bicultural reality of being a stranger in a strange land.  Let our Lord Christ be honored as the truong toc (eldest son/head of family) who is the quintessential model of filial piety – the son who perfectly obeys and is the ancestor par excellence.  Let the people regain their memories so that the story of God can be told.

Ahn nyung ha se yo

To greet Koreans in Korean as a non-Korean is always a sure fire way to elicit surprise and a bit of cultural cool points.  It doesn’t matter how much I mangle the pronunciation or use the improper honorific or fail to conjugate the verb, it never fails to please at some level.

Trying to speak someone’s language is a sign of respect, especially for people whose chief aim is to assimilate as much and as quickly as possible to the dominant culture.  It indicates that you value them, or at least care enough to recognize that they are not altogether like you, and that this is a good thing.

As a Christian, trying to speak another language is a discipline of humility since it reduces my normally fluid command of language to sounding like a stammering two year old.  There’s nothing like having a 5 year old correct your grammer for deflating your ego.

In some ways, I think of Jesus as I struggle to learn another language and culture.  After all Jesus crossed the largest barrier of culture possible – from heaven to earth, in order to reach us.  Do we get as excited about his efforts to reach across that divide?  Or better yet, do we expect non-believers to assimilate before we reach them? How might our world be different if more of us were willing to struggle to learn the language of the non-Christian culture around us? How might theirs?

Neighborhood Store

Yesterday while walking back hom through my decidedly poor/working class neighborhood from the corner gas station/Subway restaurant, I was struck yet again by the disparity and incongruity of the world’s inhabited by the various people with which I had just interacted.

There were the neighborhood kids; probably pre-teens, playfully walking back from the store and tossing a football around – much like kids everywhere except these kids are due to their race, gender, and economics much more likely to end up as absentee fathers, in jail, on drugs, or generally on the bad side of society.  They weren’t being disrespectful or anything.  Just being normal kids. 

I saw myself in them from a time when I was a young Black inner city kid just hanging out and having fun on a Saturday afternoon.  I remember even then knowing that being of my race, and because of my gender, I was viewed automatically with suspicion in the world, that police were not always on your side, and that people judged me more by my appearance and my address than they did by my excellent marks in school or the fact that we were good church going people with solid values.

There were the owners/proprietors of the store who were, as per usual, not Black, but immigrants (or at least the children of immigrants) making their living by selling overpriced goods and services to a community of people that look nothing like them.  When I was in the store, I wondered internally what they thought of these people from whom they made their living and I suspected that they looked down on them; on us.  After all, I never see them, nor any of the foreign born small business owners that are abundant in Black communities throughout the country, actually living in or even near the people they sell things too. We are people from which to earn a living; not to live among. 

Ironically I found myself also wanting to disassociate myself from “them.”  “I’m not like the other Black people that come in the store,” I wanted to say. “I’m not going to be loud, or buy malt liquor, or make fun of you because of your accent.” It is painful to admit, but even more painful to feel the double consciousness of that moment, multiplied many times over when I encounter the ever present asian small business owner making money selling the things that mostly Black people buy.  Are there really ANY Black hair care stores that are NOT owned by Koreans?

The pain I feel is that of inwardly wanting to distance myself from all that is stereotypically “Black” so as to make myself palatable to those who in most cases are doing all they can to make themselves seem more “American.”  Except that Black people aren’t Americans — at least not when it comes to that.  American means “White” and they are the ones immigrants are trying to impress, not me.  Black people are people to make money from, to be appreciated from a distance because of our music and style, but not to be respected as Americans.  An overgeneralization I’m sure, but one based on my gut reactions.

For our part, Asian’s are a mystery… forever foreigners, non-entities really.  Many Blacks are indifferent towards the people that maintain their beautiful manicures, sell them the products that enable their gorgeous hair, and cook the food that replenishes the ubiquitous Chinese buffets.  They are like vending machines: they can be safely ignored, or even insulted. They are not people.

And then there is me: walking through the neighborhood. An educated Black man, a product of the inner city, but with a basic grasp of world history, economics, culture… a smattering of French and a growing knowledge of Korean.  I attend a Korean church but still like collard greens. I walk home wondering why these people, these worlds that I have somehow become a part of, are so far apart.

Diaspora Musings

Since D Park over at Next GenerAsian Church posted his comments about being diaspora people, it provoked my own thoughts, albeit ones that are much less formed than his own.

He raises the significant question of identity formation within the context of being a diaspora people, and my own comments there reference the Jewish experience of Babylon.

The idea of how our identity, culture and faith intersect is an important one for Christians to grapple with, and I believe that the Jewish people can be our teachers in this regard, particularly the OT narratives about them.  They are essentially defined by 2 events: the Exodus from Egypt when the covenant with God was fully initiated, and the exile in Babylon, which came as a consequence of the breaking of that covenant.

What is interesting to me in the second instance is the way in which they are instructed by their religious leaders (in this case the prophet Jeremiah) to make themselves fully at home in their new land, and to seek the welfare of that place.  At the same time, we read about the so-called Hebrew boys Hannaniah, Azariah, Mishael, and Daniel who resist full assimilation into the Babylonian identity while stil managing to rise high in the bureaucracy of the Babylonian Empire.

What is interesting to me, and instructive I think for us today,  is their determination to both fully engage the culture and adapt to it (after all, Daniel is the only one who is generally known by his Hebrew name), yet at the same time retain a distinct or perhaps even more refined sense of their identity as Hebrews.  Now while the parallels to the immigrant experience is not the same (after all they were resisting the temptation to worship a false god) it is perhaps not as dissimilar as it may at first appear.

They manage to come to a genuine engagement with the society and culture of Babylon so much so that Esther rises to the position of queen in the Persian Empire (a successor to Babylon) and Nehemiah becomes the chief steward of Persia.  Daniel ans his compatriots all rise to positions of prominence within Babylon, learn the Babylonian language and customs, but none of them become “sell outs.”

In some ways Daniel and his peers might be more like first generation immigrants who are uprooted and come to the US.  It makes sense that they would somehow cling to their “home” culture.  It is significant though that they chose this option in a Babylonian society that was highly assimilationist, unlike the Persians who followed them.

What do we make of Nehemiah though?  He most certainly second (or third or fourth) generation, and probably was more fluent in Persian than Hebrew.  Yet he thinks of himself very firmly as a Jew, albeit a very persian-ized one.  When the book bearing his name opens, there is no sense that he is discontent with his identity as a persian-ized Jew, and indeed when he makes the decision to go to Jerusalem, he makes clear plans to return to Susa when he’s done.

Of course as I mentioned the parallel is not perfect, but I cannot help but wonder if part of the witness of their provided by these folks is in their refusal to give up their ethnic/cultural identity and what can be learned from that.  Or put more simply, if immigrants to the US adopt wholesale American Christianity (and more broadly American culture) is the witness to Jesus that could be provided somehow diminished.  After all, if Black people in the US had adopted White Christianity, there would have been no counter to the prevailing winds of White supremacy that blew unhindered through much of the White church and society; there would have been no civil rights movement at all.

So if my Asian (and other) Christian brothers and sisters merely assimilate and ape American Christianity, is their possible prophetic role diminished? It is probably not for me to ask, but I will dare to be cheeky and raise the question of what prophetic insight is being lost to the church when Asian Christians abandon their culture in an effort to assimilate to American norms?