Self Hatred & the Gospel

“Koreans are stupid.”
“Koreans are too stubborn.”
“Korean people have too much drama.”
“Korean people are too prideful and cliquish.”
“Korean people like to fight about dumb stuff.”
“Koreans are too materialistic, too divisive, too petty, too…Korean!”

These comments, and others like them, have been standard fare in conversations I’ve had with people since becoming involved in Asian American ministry and a Korean Church; comments that sear, burn and bite and reinforce all the worse stereotypes of Koreans specifically and Asian Americans more broadly. If phrases like this where directed to the Black community they would be fighting words; but not now and not in this community. These comments are the words of Koreans, or more properly speaking Asian-Americans, themselves. And since I work in the context of ministry, these words come from the lips of those who love God, serve the church, and would not be caught directing such venomous words towards any other ethnic group.

In my time in ministry in and around Koreans and Korean Americans, I’ve becoming somewhat accustomed to hearing these types of sentiment expressed; accustomed, but not comfortable. And in general, the positive comments I hear about the community do not come from within it, but from those like me who are in, but not of the community. Early on in my exploration of this world, I compared this type of attitude to that which I find among Black Americans. We are indeed our own worst critics and I can with angry and vehemence decry the foolishness and sin of my own people. I indeed grieve it and I grieve the consequences it brings. So I thought it might be something similar, and indeed there is a need for self critique, a need for humility that counters our naturally sinful bent towards self promotion.

Yet this is different. For my experience in the Black community suggests that we are as ready to celebrate the beauty and grace of our ethnicity and culture as we are to critique its depravity. When asked recently by a colleague where I say the grace and beauty of God in African American culture, it was not difficult for me to recognize his handiwork and to inwardly give a quiet prayer of thanks that God did indeed make me Black, with all the joys and challenges that brings. But in another setting, when pressed by another (Asian) colleague to say what things were good and beautiful about being Asian American, my students sat silently, unable to articulate or even call to mind anything other than good food and hot Asian chicks (the group was mostly guys after all).

Over and again through the years I’ve heard the comments repeated. When I’ve mentioned that I want to learn something of Asian culture, the response is a disdainful, even disgusted, “Why?” as if everyone knows there is nothing of value there to learn. When I’ve commented about some thing which I find beautiful or intriguing, there is always a rebuttal indicating that what seems to be beautiful is really horrible and evil. And every time, I inwardly cringe, restraining myself from asking the question that threatens to escape from my lips, “Do you really hate yourself so much?” I do not ask it, because it does not seem my place. I do not ask it, because I don’t feel the freedom to comment on another man’s story.

This is no self effacing humility that comes in response to recognizing the bigness of God and the smallness of man. Nor is it countered by an equally poisonous Asian pride that exalts a caricatured stereotype of Asian-ness or Korean-ness over and above others. It is, quite simply, a sinful and disgusting disdain for God’s creation that culminates the quite sad response of my Korean American friend who said to me with a straight face and firm conviction, “I am not Korean.”

To be clear, he did not say this as an affirmation of his identity as an American citizen or in recognition of his embrace of American culture. In fact it came after a discussion in which we agreed that essentially American-ness is largely equated with being White; and he is most assuredly not White. No, it was rather a negative affirmation. It was a rejection of an identity that for him is tainted with some stain that cannot be washed away. The best that can possibly be hoped for is that the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin will as a side effect eliminate the unpleasant and unfortunate reality of his Asian ethnicity.

As a Black man, such self hatred (if it can be called that) is all the more painful given our own history in this country. Our bodies, our histories, our languages were all stolen from us, and yet, by the grace of God we refused to allow our identity to be stolen as well. It took many years to wrest the name “Black” that had been used as little more than an epitaph and make into a proud label of a proud people. It took courage to face the historical and cultural racism that made us ashamed of being associated with Africa to the point that many call themselves African American and celebrate the association with joy. It took persisting in our belief that though we were despised by men we were loved by God to craft a tradition of preaching and worship that is arguably the most distinctively recognized and emotionally stirring in Christendom. So it grieves me deeply to see my Asian brothers plunge themselves wholeheartedly into a mental and culturally slavery, to hate their image and their names, to despise their legacy and remain ignorant of the grace and beauty of who they are, and to run willy-nilly after the worship of a White Man’s god.

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12 thoughts on “Self Hatred & the Gospel

  1. I have long wrestled with self-hatred, but Koreans particularly, are known for their passionate extremism and uniformity in opinions. Along with self-hatred, you will run across a strong streak of pride, but I will say that strain is far more dominant in people who don’t necessarily run in “church circles”.

    I’ve run the gamut in my own personal history between self-hatred and pride and find myself wavering at times between the two. Now that I see the pervasive effects of colonialism, I don’t hate myself…but I see every good inclination has “a dark shadow” (as Karl Barth might say). So I don’t quite love myself neither. I love God and I love who he made me to be…but I’m still figuring the latter part out, especially in regards to “how” to love myself.

  2. Thanks David for problematizing my simplistic post with real data from an actual Korean American. 🙂

    I certainly have run across the streak of pride you mention, but in my opinion it is a pride that is a type of caricature than anything rooted in a sense of “sober judgement.” However I think such “race pride” is probably a needful stage for ethnic minorities to go through on the path to a more honest and godly sense of self.

  3. I really appreciate your post, ’cause as a Korean American, I seem to have run across 2 extremes. 1. Korean Americans who “hate” Koreans or Korean culture. 2. Native Koreans who think Koreans should just dominate the world because we’re obviously superior people. Or at least, everyone should eat Korean food.

    Granted, I’ve made the already extreme statements I’ve heard into hyperboles… but it illustrates my point and offers explanation to my long stint of vacillation between the two.

    And so far, this is my resolution. All cultures have their beauty and their sin – all cultures need redeeming. But maybe we’re denying ourselves (Korean Americans) the perspective Korean culture can provide in the hope and salvation of Christ? I wonder if all of the perspectives from different cultures would provide a more complete picture of the Gospel for man to understand.

    Surely, the Gospel stands on its own. But as far as our finite minds can tell, maybe we need and should want the perspectives to see it wholly, and clearly, in all of its beauty. Since it is, after all, 1 Gospel for all.

  4. I agree with David’s perspective altogether, with respect to my own life story.

    I’d also draw some differences between Asian Americans and Black Americans, especially in the context of the incredible tradition of the Black church. Decades down the line, if the Lord tarries, church historians and anthropologists will look at the Black church with the significance of the Great Awakening or the itinerant preaching movement… an amazing testimony of God’s body at work and in action.

    But a tension that exists for many Asian or Korean Americans is the tension of immigrant culture. All minorities face adversity stemming from racism or ethnic prejudice, but the immigrant culture blankets the second-generation with a heavier, more difficult gap to reconcile. Children are confronted at an early age with a language barrier to communicate with their own parents, with Western values and culture promoted at school that are counterintuitive to their home environments, etc. Therefore, shame in the Asian American culture arises not only from Eastern values attached to our immigrant families but from the dangerously dichotomous life that tears apart immigrant children.

    There is powerful space for the Gospel to operate here. The Word says that God’s glory fills the whole earth, no? I am sad to confirm that we are averse to that as a result of this self-loathing we learned from our Eastern values and from immigrant adversity. And we ought to engage that search for God’s glory as uniquely painted in diversity, with great fervor. What a glorious and infinite God we serve!

    But finally, it’s also really difficult for us to find God’s beauty in our culture because that culture itself remains largely undefined. The Black church, at least, has defined its subculture and carved its place in American society. (Such fragmentation may also lead to danger, in its own way, but that’s a different conversation.) A defined subculture is absent in the Korean American and Asian American reality. Why? 1. We’re still pretty new on the scene, and 2. Pan-Asian American subculture doesn’t make sense, because there’s not THAT much that unites Pan-Asian culture back in Asia either.

    In a conversation I had with David once, he mentioned that the Black church did not stumble into their defined culture, but took intentional efforts to define this culture in its formative stages. I wonder if this intentional defining and exploration of Asian and Korean American Christianity is the trail that needs to be blazed.

  5. ana….

    what a thorough post, and one that highlights both the challenge and the opportunity before us. I partially agree with David that the Black church did not stumble into its defined culture, but I will add that it was not entirely seamless nor always intentional. In the Black church tradition that was (and is to a lesser extent) a constant tug of war to define that culture. There were many who flatly rejected any “African” influences as being wholly pagan, ungodly, unredeemable, and not suited for worship, including the use of drums. Others embraced these things and incorporated them into worship, or, finding themselves excluded from sacred space, became the progenitors of jazz, R&B, rock ‘n roll, soul, and hiphop. It has only been in recent years that many of the former have become accepting of the latter, and still only in measure. The division also reflected clear class lines in the Black community, with the more staid, reserved churches largely the domain of the educated and fair skinned.

    In any event, the post civil rights era was in many ways the time when contemporary Black culture, in the sense of owning and celebrating our “Blackness” was born. This was indeed intentional, and happened simultaneously across class lines and in churches. Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud became a kind of rallying cry against the self hatred that had mostly defined our self image to that point. Such a cry though had to take in what was beautiful and what was horrible about our reality and be cognizant of the sin in our culture.

    I would love to see my (Asian) brothers and sisters come to a point where they can embrace both the ugly and the beautiful without feeling like a traitor either to their Lord or to their heritage. For now, I will settle for getting rid of all the pictures of white Jesus! That would be a good start.

  6. How timely of a post, as I’ve been reconsidering how my Korean-American heritage has shaped my walk with God. I had been struggling with how easily I find myself to enter into a holy or secular lifestyle depending on my setting. And I was reminded how easily I could enter into a korean or twinkie lifestyle depending on my setting. And I was just wondering if that dichotomy in my korean-americanness had anything to do with my holy/secular struggle.

    But to talk a little more about this hatred of self (I was definitely more in this camp than the Korean Pride camp)…. There’s always a struggle to view one’s culture from the lens of the gospel vs the lens of the American culture that we’re steeped in. I think the less I view my culture, my past, my life through my self-centered, hedonistic, consumerist American lens, the more I hate my past. the more I hate my heritage.
    And so, I have to challenge myself to stop viewing myself through that lens.

    that said, I’m still determined to never return to a Korean Church… we’ll see where that goes.

    and as an another aside, I think my Chinese-American friends are a lot better adjusted. (I’d say the same for the Japanese-American folks as well). While a vast majority of Korean-Americans are 1st-2nd generation (mostly 1.5ish), many of my Chinese American friends are onto their 3rd and 4th generations. And with parents who have gone through the rough transition, they are able to grow up in both cultures a little more easily, and with wiser guidance.

  7. Elderj — Thanks for saying these important words, and with such love & grace. You can count me in as another Asian American who has long struggled with identity and shame (though, these days I am much more comfortable in my own skin).

    Until I read your words here, I didn’t realize how much self-hated is in our “critiques” of Asian American church and culture. Often, it comes under the guise of spiritual sounding words about “depravity” and “sin” — but it really just boils down to self-hatred. And denying the image of God in ourselves or others is the opposite of the Gospel.

    The Korean American church is sick with negativity, finger-pointing and blame (I say this with sadness, not anger). The first gen looks down on the irresponsible second gen, the second gen looks down on the irrelevant first, and the 1.5 gen feels hostility and isolation from both. All of this on top of the inherent struggle with honor and shame.

    Thank you for calling us out. Self-hatred, bloated pride — it all comes from the same place. For all the “sky is falling talk” about the future of the Korean American church, and all of the thinking about church models and ministry programs to stop the silent exodus, in the end I think this might be a much more important discussion.

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