You don’t speak for me!

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.

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The Politics of Hope and other Myths

I am somewhat of a political junkie. I watch cable news shows, read multiple papers, and peruse blogs. I regularly become either enraged or hopeful, despondent or encouraged about the state of our nation and our world as I track politics through the media. I have become, in my view, a somewhat savvy consumer of news and information.

I am also a Christian. I read the Bible. I pray. I worship. I read Christian books and subscribe to Christian magazines. I even preach the occasional sermon. I love the art of preaching and love to hear good preachers. In my view I have become a somewhat savvy discerner of all things good and godly (just kidding).

There are several things that continue to strike me over and again as I track this latest season of election year politics which make it difficult for me as a believer to engage as completely as I’d like in the process, though I will of course cast my vote in November.

The first is the wholesale abandonment of any true sense of a journalistic ethic of objectivity or honesty in reporting. Much of what is called “reporting” or even news is quite simply running commentary in the mold of poorly written and even more poorly edited opinion pages. It has been said that journalism is the first draft of history. I was trained as a historian and I know that the selection of materials to report and analyze has as much if not more impact on how history is read and understood as any of the “facts” that have actually occurred. In other words, the fact that so called journalists even report on certain issues and fail to report on other is itself noteworthy. Elizabeth Edwards writes a striking commentary on just this issue.

I am frankly incensed by the ways in which the media falls over itself creating “news” when no news exists, or to express preference for a candidate without expressly doing so. This is evident from such things as where a reporter position himself or herself for reporting. For example, if a journalist reporting on a campaign consistently reports from inside a rally so that the candidate and his supporters can be constantly heard in the background speechmaking and cheering, it creates in the mind of the viewer an image of excitement and inevitably presents that candidate in a favorable light. Another example is the failure of journalist to actual report or show what a candidate says or does in a speech or at an event. Instead, we hear commentary on those speeches alongside interpretations of what it means so that an undiscerning channel surfer (most viewers) will quickly get an impression of a candidate based not on what they say, but on what others say about them (i.e. He’s an elitist; she’s negative).

The second thing that strikes me is the trotting out again and again of the same themes every four years – Washington is broken, Congress is horrible, we need to change the way we do business in Washington., etc. Closely tied to this is the notion that politics should be more civil and polite – more on the order of a moderated debate between two college professors and less “rancorous.” This narrative works of course because no one admits to being “for” negativity and uncivil discourse. It is also helpful to run as an outsider who is untainted from the stain of Washington politics. However the whole thing works because it is based on wholesale and generally willful ignorance on the part of the electorate. People hate “Congress” but generally love their congressman or senator. They hate “rancor” but get pretty worked up themselves when issues like war, gay marriage, abortion, retirement, and taxes are brought up. The fact is people have serious disagreements on these issues and politics is about power. Where there is power, there will be struggle.

The third thing that strikes me, especially this year, is the constant emergence of the theme of hope and transformation. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing to hate on Sens Clinton, McCain, and Obama. No, I am writing to hate on the notion that large scale societal change or transformation needs to take place at all. It does, but not in the political sense. The challenges of our society are not explicitly political, but moral and ethical, and to my ears the candidates are not articulating a moral vision for reform or change, but a political vision. This is exactly counter to the ways in which societal transformations and reformations typically take place. The Civil Rights movement was a political movement, but it was political secondary to its moral commitments. As a Christian I am exceedingly committed to redemption and transformation, but I also know quite well that “(his) kingdom is not of this world.” Anytime the agenda of Christians becomes too tied to Earth, we very quickly lose out on heaven.

Moral visions that are tied to the election of a candidate lend themselves to political messiah-ism that is antithetical to my Christian commitments. God is God whomever is president, or even with no president at all. Christians on the right have erred greatly in the past by hoping for moral transformations coming from political changes. In this election, Christians on the left stand to make the same error in judgment.

The final observation, is that democracy is not especially Biblical. Certainly the founders were for the most part Christian, but we must remember that our nation was founded in rebellion against duly constituted and recognized (even God ordained) authority. The foundations of modern democratic government rest in the supremely liberal ideals of the French Enlightenment which were mostly anti-God and anti-church. The notion that men can rule themselves was revolutionary indeed, and democratic revolutions have almost always been imposed on societies by elite groups who felt they knew what was best for the generally conservative masses who are more inclined usually to order than the chaos of revolution.

What dreams may come….?

So this will be a bit more personal post than I customarily write, if for no other reason than the subject matter itself, that is, my dream life.

Last night, for some reason entirely beyond my cognitive ability to discern, I had a dream about meeting Eugene Cho, the two fisted blogging pastor from somewhere out west where I suspect it rains a lot. I have never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cho (Cho moksanim) except through the blogosphere. So here it is, as best I can recount it.

In the dream, I and Eugene are walking through what appears to be conference center of some kind, but which really looks like a student center on a college campus. As we walk I am explaining to him something about this “event” that we are apparently both a part of and which I am evidently in charge of coordinating. While walking through we pass by a number of rooms in which various student gospel choirs are preparing themselves for a concert. We also passed by one of my current student who I recognized only from the back of his head, as he was busy studying. Then (this is really weird) we passed by Wayne Park, who I have also never met, but who is sitting with his laptop typing something. Eugene greets him, and I am surprised they know each other, but say nothing as I remember that they do indeed know one another. All the time we’re walking, I keep thinking to myself, “Eugene is a lot shorter than I thought he would be,” and “wow, his hair is really interesting.”

We finally arrive at “the room” where Eugene’s presentation is to take place. It is a very nice room set up amphitheater style with large red very modern sofa type seating arranged in a semi-circle. Eugene comments that it is just like his church, but I am confused because I thought his church met in some other kind of space, but again I say nothing. Of course I’ve never seen his church either. He leaves the room to go get some “equipment,” and I again wonder why he isn’t taller than I thought he would be. My last thought before waking? I really like this room.

Questions that arise from this weirdness:
Why the heck am I dreaming about Eugene Cho? I’ve never even met the man… what the heck?
Why is Wayne Park in my dream? Again… never met him… no idea what’s going on here…
What is the significance of red sofas (come to think of it, there was lots of red in my dream)?
Why is Cho-mksnm hair so interesting?
Is it really interesting, or did I just make that up?
Is there some hidden gospel message in this dream?

Any dream interpreters out there wanna take a shot at this?

Unquenchable Thirst

Thanks to Wayne Park and also to David over at Nextgenerasianchurch for spurring my re-engagement with the questions of the integration of faith and culture, particularly in the context of the Asian American church; a community which by God’s grace I have grown to love.

Most Sundays I don’t think much about the challenges and joys of being part of a 2nd generation ministry at a Korean church. I have been there long enough that I feel mostly comfortable being the Black person in attendance. I’ve learned a few things along the way; enough that I avoid the most egregious breaches of cultural protocol. Yesterday, however, presented what may be the beginning of a new season of challenge for me and for my community; the challenge of authenticity and vulnerability.

The initial presenting issue was the Bible study I teach. Yesterday’s lesson covered Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans, which raised all kinds of issues of racism and prejudice — for the 2nd week in a row. It was singularly uncomfortable for me to ask the question “Who are your Samaritans?” or as I suggested, “Samaritans are the people your parents would fall over and have a heart attack if you married.” Now this phrase in itself isn’t hard to say, but it is hard to say or talk about when you are the one Black guy in a church full of Koreans. Race just isn’t something we like to discuss, and as hard as it is between Black and White, I think it is harder between 2 ethnic “minority” communities with their own brand of prejudice towards one another. How does a Black man bring up the prejudices of the church community when he stands inside, and yet apart from that community? How can those listening be honest about their own prejudices or those of their family when doing so might very well hurt my feelings? It is a question of how vulnerable we dare be with a topic that rarely rears its head and in a place where vulnerability is not prized.

Which brings me to the second catalyst and the inspiration for the title of this post. In cell group last night as we discussed the fact that God saves us due to no merit of our own, the leader asked what is a very simple question: “Why do we behave as though we have to earn God’s grace?” A simple question, to be sure, but profound. There was some sharing; the giving of “right answers.” And then I shared, and as I did, I found myself surprised by my own emotion. “It is my pride,” I said, “that keeps me from receiving his grace. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs grace. I want to be better than I am.” Our conversation went to another level of authenticity and realness. There was, to me, a palpable change in our willingness to talk honestly, authentically.

On the way home I was struck by the thread that ties these incidents together. There is an unquenched thirst for honesty, vulnerability and authenticity in my community. But there is likewise a stark fear, tinged with a shameful pride, that prevents us from going deeper. We long for more, but are ashamed of our longing. We desire to be deeper, but know how shallow we are. In other communities these issues manifest in other ways, but in ours, and I suspect in other Asian circles, it shows up as complaint, and angst, self loathing and blame. The first generation blames the second and the second blames the first and they all blame themselves secretly while outwardly pretending that everything is well, and if not well, then at least we are prosperous and financially stable. We’re out of the garden and everyone knows it, but no one knows the way back, and the grace that is on offer from God seems to be salt in our wounds because it serves to remind us of just how fallen we are.

Is it possible for us to ever move past our desire to repay our parents by attending the best schools and marrying the right person and getting the right job? Can we ever stop trying to repay our Father by the endless cycle of striving failure repentance and recommitment that has gone on so long that we cease trying altogether. Can we ever get to the place where we do not fear to admit our thirst and so have it quenched by the one who is himself that fount of living water?