When your son asks you in the time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the LORD our God has commanded you?” Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of
Egypt with a mighty hand. Deuteronomy 6.20-21
This scripture, so ancient and yet so timely, speaks to me volumes about something I have contemplating lately: the place of ancestry in understanding my identity both spiritually and naturally. Recently I had the opportunity to do some research on my family lineage through the website Ancestry.com. I was able, because of some family stories that I knew and names with which I was familiar, to trace back to the 1870 census on both sides of my family. Prior to that, the names disappear because during the 1860 census my forefathers were not people but property. Any hope I have of identifying them beyond that point diminishes rapidly. I could, if I were a serious researcher, perhaps track back to a particular plantation, look at slave schedules, and research the slave owners – all of which would be very difficult to do. My lineage disappears because of one simple reality: we were slaves.
This is no shock but it does pain me. To see the name of my great-great grandfather who could neither read nor write nor properly identify the year of his birth, and to know that he was during his childhood merely a means of production to increase someone else’s wealth is no easy thing. To know also that for years afterwards his descendents lived on the margins of society, never enjoying the full rights of citizenship until the years just prior to my own birth is likewise no easy thing. The beauty and the pain of my research is that I and my forefathers are in some sense inextricably linked together. It is un-American in many ways to say this, because the American identity is intimately bound up with forging a new identity, unencumbered by the past or by the obligations which family and culture may impose. Yet it is true and is, in my view, much more biblical.
In the scripture cited above, the answer given through the ages to the children of Israel about the laws and the festivals and the commandments of God was rooted in an always accessible historical event in which the past and present collide; “We were slaves.” This is no mere rhetorical device, but was a reminder to every generation that no matter how far back the events of the Exodus recede, they too were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt and God delivered them from his hand. In the same way I can look down my family tree and say that we were slaves in Mississippi; we were slaves in Kentucky; we were slaves, but the LORD delivered us. This historical memory was an integral part of the Jewish identity and to the identity of Blacks in the
United States and in both cases was closely aligned with their understanding of what it means to be the people of God. Although the connections to this history are less viscerally obvious in the contemporary Black church, the feeling of it, the essence is still evident, particularly in the music and worship legacy. Indeed one of the most celebrated aspects of Black church is the music which is at once traditional and contemporary, technically complex and improvisational, and characterized by both strong vocal leadership and congregational participation. It involves the whole of a person – body and soul, and requires, yes even demands the full engagement of the congregation for it to really be done at all. More to my point however, it emerges out of the full context of the Black American identity as people who can say, “we were slaves.” In some sense every person is invited to make the song or the worship experiences their own; to interpret it afresh and realize its applicability in their own lives.
Here then is the question and the dilemma I face every Sunday at church as I worship with my Korean American brothers and sisters: how does worship that emerges out of the full experience of the Korean and Korean American identity look? More broadly: how does the historical reality of God’s working in and through Asian and Asian American people show itself in the liturgical practice of Asian and Asian American congregations? Many times the worship I hear (and not just in the Asian context to be sure) seems disconnected from the history, culture and identity of the people who sing it. It is not that Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin is sung that is the problem. In fact one of the things that I’ve often seen done by Black worship leaders is to take songs they’ve heard in White worship contexts and sing them in such a way that though technically similar are radically different. They make it their own. The problem is rather that the goal is to imitate as closely as possible the style and technique of the White worship leader with little thought or effort given to making it uniquely Korean or Chinese or whatever. All too often worship (and church in general) in the Asian American context is simply, “a bad system poorly imitated,” rather than being an authentic expression of the good news made known through the identity and history of Asian people. My prayer is that I can one day soon come to church and hear good Korean American gospel music… something with a lot of seoul!