Ethnic & Inclusive

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to share at the Emerge 2007 Asian American student conference. Despite my discomfort as a Black American teaching in a context designed to challenge and affirm Asian American leadership, I was drafted to serve and teach a seminar on reaching out beyond our own ethnic community to serve others. Here is a link: ethnic-inclusive.ppt

My hope in the seminar was to highlight that care for others begins with a sense of our own self hood and value to God as ethnic persons made in the image of God.

And here is the original link..

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Reading List: The Analects by Confucius

As part of my ongoing desire to learn and testimony to my thoroughgoing nerdiness, I have put together a list of almost 20 books that I hope to read this academic year. Here is the list so far, which is certainly open to change:

City of God
by Augustine
Monologium & Proslogium by Anselm
The Cloud of Unknowing
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Institutes of the Christian Religion by Jean Calvin
Pensees by Pascal
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevskii
Orthodoxy by CK Chesterton
Dr Zhivago by Pasternak
Christian Letters to a Post Christian World by Dorothy Sayers
Madame Bovary
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Analects by Confucius
The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor
Does God Exist by Kung

So I ventured yesterday to the bookstore to end the procrastination based on the notion that I would simply order the books online, and splurged to by some books new. This is just as well. My first read is Analects by Confucius.

As a philosopher, he has arguably had the largest single impact of any person in the world except Jesus. Without ever being schooled officially in Confucian thought, many East and Southeast Asian people are influenced by his principles. I hear people regularly refer to the legacy of Confucius and wonder how many have actually read what he said. And so I am taking the plunge to read him. So far as I have read, I myself may yet embrace his philosophy, insofar of course, as it does not conflict with my covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ.

I leave you with this, “If a man is correct in his own person, then there will be obedience without orders being given, but if he is not correct in his own person, there will not be obedience even though orders are given.” (XIII.6)

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.

Where are the men?

Yesterday as I visited numerous outreach ministries in my community in preparation for a mission training project we’re developing, one question arose belatedly in my consciousness: Where are the men?

You see at every agency except one, the directors, coordinators, facilitators and usually the clients were all women. And many of the women and children served by these facilities were without men in their lives or, in some cases, found themselves in desperate circumstances because of the action or inaction of the men they had known. Children there were plenty – evidence that at some point in time men were involved, if for no other reason than to contribute their share of genetic material. But mostly, these men were absent.

In my local community as well, which could reasonably be called “the hood” men are often absent. Walking or driving the streets of my inner city neighborhood there is certainly no shortage of male bodies, but most of the children and their mothers are unattached to any male influence whatsoever. The absence of these men from the lives of their children and their “baby’s momma” leads to all kinds of dysfunction in the lives of their children, the community and the society.

Unfortunately much of the social service system in this country, in an effort to empower and support women, ends up reinforcing the things that discourage the involvement of men in the lives of their families. Men are viewed as dangerous and superfluous at worst and paychecks at best. In an international context, I have increasingly heard of development efforts that are geared towards offering micro credit to women both to empower them and to free them from economic dependency on the men. It is ironic to me that efforts are not being made to educate and empower the men to be responsible husbands and fathers.
From a strictly economic point of view, there is little incentive for such a man to stay with his family or to support them, since his wife will control the economic resources.

At one of the agencies I visited, a place working to resettle and acclimate refugees, the director made a point to emphasize how important it was to educate the women culturally. They were, she said, used to only staying home with the children and depending on their husband to provide for them. Now that they are here, they should also work and have equal say. For the refugees this is a cultural shock; for the director, it is empowerment. For me, it is disturbing. Aside from the relatively minor issue of both names being on the checkbook, why should a wife not expect her husband to provide for her and his children? Why is her staying home and only caring for the children viewed as less valuable or less empowered? More importantly, what message does this send to the men who are being stripped of their defining roles in the family: leader & breadwinner?

Even more unfortunate is the fact that the church, although generally led by men, is geared towards the needs of women and children. So there are many women and few men in the pews. This is a well recognized problem, and there have been many efforts to understand and address it, but to little effect. And as women continue to outstrip men in college and seminary enrollment, the church will likely become less and less a place where men are present and involved.

For such a time as this: the salvation of the American church

What is it the “plain gospel?” It’s the kind of question that keeps missiologists, pastors, theologians, seminarians and online pontificators busy. While this question has as many answers as it does inquisitors, I ask it primarily in the matrix of Christian faith and culture.

As a historic fact we acknowledge that a large body of what has come down to us in the Christian tradition was formed in the context of the evangelization of Europe. It took significant work to translate a Middle Eastern desert Messiah into the context of a hill and dale European world. The questions that are answered by the systematic theologians studied around the world are the questions largely of European believers in a European context addressing European realities. This is not to suggest that our systematic theologies are somehow untrue, but simply that they may be inadequate to the task of carrying the “plain gospel” to the ends of the earth.

As the locus of the church shifts significantly from North and West to East and South, believers in other parts of the world are unlikely to remain content regurgitating what they’ve received as gospel truth. Despite the fervor with which we defend our systems, Calvinism, Arminianism, and every other –ism is not the gospel, and frankly are not the only authentic ways of understanding or even conceptualizing the gospel. Whatever view we hold, we ought to hold with a healthy dose of humility. God in his grace has made us joint heirs with Christ, and that is something of which none can boast.

In any event, I believe that ethnic minority Christians have a unique opportunity to do theology in a new way. As people who are both thoroughly Americanized but also distinctly “other” there may be some unique theological purposes that God wants to work out through our communities. How this might take place I do not know. In Europe the revitalization of European Christianity is in the hands of those who are not of European extraction. And if we would be honest, despite all the shifting of deck chairs in Evangelicalism, there are not markedly more people following Jesus – especially among White Americans.

Non-White students now comprise fully 40% of students involved in groups like InterVarsity. It may well be that we, like Esther, have been called for such a time as this; that the salvation of the American church lies with us. This revitalization cannot happen however if we simply continue to unthinkingly parrot the systems, ways of being church, and worship structures that have dominated the American landscape.

I don’t have to go to church with you…

“I don’t need to go to church with you”

These words, quoted second hand by David Park of another mutual friend, aptly summarize the feelings I, and many Black Americans have about the whole multiethnic conversation. We often hear quoted the words that 11AM Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. These words, provocative though they may be, are probably untrue. After all, most of us are not in interracial marriages and our closest friends generally tend to be people who are most like us – ethnically, economically, and educationally. Many people view this as problematic, especially in the ethnic dimensions. I have come to a place – full circle really – where this type of self segregation in the context of the church is not terribly troubling to me.

That I say this is perhaps surprising to some who know me, given my commitment to multiethnicity and racial reconciliation. However, as I said to my friend David – most Black people are not running around in angst about the fact that their churches don’t have white people in attendance. Frankly, interacting with Whites is something as minorities that doesn’t strike us as particularly ground breaking. Our world is filled with people who are ethnically and in some ways culturally different than we are. We know how to interact with Whites and do so without difficulty. In fact, we’ve grown up together in this country – mutually shaping and being shaped by the other.

Why then has multiethnicity become such a watchword in so many places and churches – not least bit among Asian Americans? There are of course, theological considerations. The church as envisioned by scripture is a multiethnic community, a place where the distinction of Jew & Gentile, bond & free are not barriers to participation in the grace of God. Of course the multitude of churches of varying ethnicities throughout the world and across the American landscape is ample testimony that ethnic considerations are no longer barriers to being Christian, as they might possibly have been in Ephesus or Corinth. In addition, the church is multiethnic. The diversity or uniformity of any particular local congregation says nothing about the overall diversity of the body of Christ – which is arguably the most ethnically, culturally, and economically heterogeneous group in the world. Besides, the lack of diversity in other dimensions in local churches (i.e. the disproportionate number of women, economic uniformity, etc.) seems not to draw the same degree of ire.

I submit that at least two important factors are at play – one of which I’ve mentioned already, in this current fascination with multiethnicity.

One is the idea that my local congregation is somehow the body of Christ. This is not an often mentioned issue, but it is implicit in many people’s understanding. If it isn’t reflected before my eyes with the people among whom I worship, then it somehow isn’t happening in the body of Christ.

The second is more troubling, and that is the insidious and quite evil notion that minorities are somehow legitimated in their Christianity by their acceptance by Whites. The presence of Whites in an “ethnic” congregation, as quite often happens in the English Ministry of immigrant churches, or in traditionally Black churches does not serve to render these groups adequately “multiethnic” even if Whites are present in some number. Rather (and I admit to numerous exceptions) it is when minorities join White congregations that multiethnicity is said to be occurring.

When Whites gather together to worship, they are not said to be gathering in ethnic enclaves, even if their worship services are 99% White, led entirely by Whites and conducted in a way that is culturally relevant to Whites. They are said to be simply worshipping. The same does not hold true for others. Is it possible that many minorities are simply uncomfortable being around “themselves” in any intentional way, and the presence of Whites, or the status of being a minority in a substantially White context is a salve to a conscience too easily seared with the heat of a latent self hatred?