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?