Further Reflections on a Historic Election

A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.

Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.

As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.

My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.

By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.

Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.

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Minority majority

In the midst of an election campaign one of the most significant areas of interested to the general public is that of immigration. My hometown is currently embroiled in a rather (I think) inane controversy stemming from this very issue to make English the official language of city government. Having been vetoed by the former mayor, the intrepid councilman has submitted the measure to the public as an addition to the charter of the city government. It is currently held up in legalities, but I am certain that if it passes the hurdles being thrown up by the election commission and others, it will pass. It is to me extraneous legislation, since the official language of the state of Tennessee is already English, but oh well. The chamber of commerce has come out against it (it’s bad for business and makes us look like hicks) while the hicks themselves are all for it in the mistaken belief perhaps that it will force all the “fer’ners” to learn English or go home. I for one am embarrassed. Illegal immigrants of the brown type seem to be a convenient outlet for all the virulent racial hatred that is no longer publicly acceptable to vent towards Blacks. It is made easier by the fact that they are, well, illegal.

The larger issue of immigration though is one which our society is being confronted with in a much more significant way than we have had to in the last several decades. Despite the influx of Asian immigrants from the late sixties onwards, the current immigration boom is new for many, and frightening. A recent census bureau report indicates that soon the US will be “majority minority” a phrase I find particularly interesting. Interesting because it has only been fairly recently that Hispanics (or Latinos if you prefer) have been counted separately. Interesting because they are only minorities in that they are not White. The last great immigration boom, around the turn of the 20th century, saw many millions of European immigrants come to the US. There was great debate at the time over whether they would properly assimilate into what was a clearer dominant Anglo culture.

Successive waves of immigrants each dealt with the baggage if you will of not being White enough. First the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, the Russians… all the eastern Europeans. Most of these White ethnics settled in enclaves on the east coast and upper midwest where they were accused of the same sorts of things that Hispanic immigrants are now accused of. Of course in time they assimilated, intermarried, and largely became White. Being White in America mainly meant not being Black or Yellow (no offense to my Asian American readers, just using the lingo of the times). Many people don’t realize that many of the soldiers that went to fight in WW2 spoke a language other than English at home as their first language; maybe as many as 1/3.

Nowadays now one really is focused on the many illegal Irish or even Asian immigrants in the country. No one is going door to door at Korean cleaners and checking how much under the table cash is being doled out to someone’s cousin’s sisters brother in law. Those immigrants aren’t scary, and they aren’t brown.

What should be the Christian response to the challenges of immigration? On the one hand it is easy to assert that we should be treat the foreigner and alien as neighbor, since that is what God commanded Israel. At the same time, how do we apply that principle meaningfully in a nation whose laws we are called to obey? What is our priority? And what is the true face of the immigration debate that is tearing our society up? John Lamb, a somewhat acquaintance who I’ve never officially met but admire nonetheless is doing a talk on this issue tomorrow at Vanderbilt. If anyone knows what he’s talking about, its John.

Can I be myself?

On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.

I was the soloist.

Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.

Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.

What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.

In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.

The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.

Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.

Post-mission Mission

I write this post from a nice comfortable guest bedroom in the home of a friend in Gentilly, a suburb of Paris, France. Just a few days ago I was in Ghana on mission, doing all the things that short term missionaries do, and some that they don’t (like discussing with our ministry partners what kind of woman I need so he can find me a wife). Now I am relaxing in Paris for the next several days – almost 10 full days before I return to my normal life and responsibilities. Hence the blogging hiatus since late May. Thanks Wayne for checking in on a brother.

As I rode the train from Amsterdam to Paris yesterday, I began my process of debriefing my summer experiences in mission. Anyone who has gone on missions knows, or should know, that how you re-enter your home country is as important a part of the trip as anything else you do. I debated, given my tiredness, if I was perhaps foolish to set aside quite so much time for recovery and “vacation.” There are lots of other things I could and maybe even should be doing. And I miss the students who were part of the team. But I also know that rest is important, and I have no choice now, since my plane tickets are already purchased. So I am stuck here until time to leave, and I have no agenda. I will see what I want to see and there may be many things I do not see. My priority is rest and refreshment in the Lord’s presence here in the capital city of the eldest daughter of the church.

In Amsterdam and subsequently on the train to Paris, I had many uncollected and random thoughts as I tried to piece together my experiences and my surroundings. Some observations…

The first observation, a recollection really, is just how big Dutch people are. I mean, they are just really tall and big people. I am six feet tall and easily at many points was the shortest person in the crowd. There were many women who were taller than me. It makes me wonder what the heck they’re feeding them.

The second is that Europe is far more diverse than America. The world was present on the train and in the Metro station – people of varied nationalities and cultures mixing and intermixing. There are lots of mixed race children around.

The third and easily the only really disturbing one is that for all the wealth and luxury of Europe (and it is indeed wealthy and luxurious – have you looked at the dollar/Euro exchange rate lately?) it is a spiritual and communally desolate place compared to Ghana. The reality of spiritual oppression in some communities in Ghana were idol worship is practiced is nothing compared to the oppression of a godless and unarticulated spiritual depravity that stalks the land here. I do not mean to suggest that God is absent; He is never absent. And amazingly I met someone on the train who quite likely is Christian, as he explicitly asked me about attending the Hillsong – Paris church after I told him I had come from Ghana on missions. He also mentioned that some of his American friends were coming to do church planting in Paris. No, the gospel is alive and well, and the kingdom is steadily advancing in quiet and not so quiet ways. But in just this short stay, the words of I Timothy seem even more prescient to me, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.” More thoughts on this later, but can it be that the very wealth of nations is a spiritual placebo, plastering over our spiritual destitution with the appearance of security?

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?

The Joint

Today we celebrated the festival of the resurrection. It is, or at least should be, the most holy and high holiday of the year, much more important than the festival of the incarnation (Christmas). In preparation for the day, I read a couple of books in defense of the Christian faith and also read through the four gospel accounts. As is customary our church had a combined service in which all segments of the church participated; children, youth, English congregation, and KM. I briefly debated whether I should participate in the service or if I should take the opportunity to visit a church out of my own Black Pentecostal tradition (i.e. my father’s church). I decided, after praying and experiencing the Lord’s conviction, to go to my church – the Korean Presbyterian one.

The service was, of course, longer than is typical; nearly three hours altogether, with 3 sermons, two performances by the youth, and a full fledged cantata orchestrated by the KM choir. My upbringing in the Pentecostal church put me in better stead than many of my co-parishioners from the English speaking congregation who were unable to endure such a lengthy service. Did I mention we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper and had a baptism?

As I sat in worship singing along to the cantata in my broken Korean watching as a silent video of “The Passion of the Christ” played on the overhead, I had ample time to reflect on such question as the evidence of the resurrection. As I sang, and read the English translation, as I took my bread and cup, bowed my head in prayer, celebrated the baptism (though I disagree with the method) of new Christians, I had lots of time to allow what I experienced to sink in.

It is Christ that is the center of the resurrection event. Perhaps that is why “Easter” has never quite caught on as a holiday – we are decidedly on the sidelines in the celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead. There are no gifts given, no special songs, and no customary foods. There is merely the reality that a man, once dead, was made alive again by the power of God. That truth, that sacred reality is what made it possible nay even enjoyable to worship with these Korean folks. I marveled that in English, in Korean, in Twi, in French, in Swahili, in Farsi, in languages unknown to me – the Lord Jesus Christ is praised. I marveled that this day, above all other days, is a day that levels the field – placing us all at the foot of the cross and yet also elevates each of us, making us more truly man, more authentically woman, more fully Black, more completely Chinese than any other day. Today is a day of grace, wherein God demonstrates his mercy and exonerates his son, forever banishing the fearful specter of death, hell, and the grave.

What does this have to do with my decision to go to the Korean church instead of my Dad’s church? Simply this; the resurrection is the thing that even makes it possible for me to have that choice. For all the failings of “the church” in general and of my church specifically, it is the creation of this special day. Despite the complaint of our generation about how often out of touch or irrelevant the church can be, the wonderful gift of God is that we can be the church, and that I am indeed family with these Korean believers and with believers all over the world. In no other place or way is such a thing possible. Indeed, had I been anywhere else in the world on this day and see that this gospel, this obscure faith that by all human measurements should have been snuffed out, started as it was by illiterate men and poor women, is not a gospel confined to a people, a language or a place. I thought to myself, the privilege of being called a son of God is worth the very minor inconvenience of worshipping in a language not my own.

This realization makes me wonder if the bridge between generations in the Asian American Church can be built by beginning at the ground floor of our joint inheritance as sons of God and heirs of the promise. Unfortunately, I suspect that many are much more ready to build those bridges outside of the community rather than within it.

Missions & Mission

I am attending a missions conference for one of the churches that supports my work with students. The conference is quite the “deal” with the entire congregation mobilized to welcome, support, care for, and encourage their “partners” in ministry. This morning I heard a wonderful sermon on John 3:16 about how we are all sent, and that wherever we are is the ends of the earth to someone else.

It is such a great gift to be in a place and among people who see that what missionaries, both here and throughout the world, is a valuable and critical component of the mission of God. I am thrilled that this congregation takes so seriously the work of caring for missionaries beyond simply sending a check every month, although that too is important.

This stands in sharp contrast to the many conversations I’ve had through the years with potential donors and supporters of ministry, some of whom are not quite sure what we do, or if what we do is valuable, or even worse, view us as competitors to the ministry of the “church” what ever that means. I sure people don’t mean anything by the sometimes harsh comments they make to or about missionaries, but as someone who depends on the provision of God through the generosity of his people, it isn’t easy to hear from someone that they “cannot afford to give” when I supervise college educated people who make less than $20,000 a year. Even harder to hear is the critiques often lodged against missionaries or pastors for their “extravagant lifestyles” when the lifestyles of the average church member is not allowed to ever be evaluated for its closeness to Biblical norms.

Nevertheless, I am not writing this primarily as a rant against the some time stinginess of the church, but rather to raise the question of how “missions” and the “mission” of the church go together. Most of the financial resources of the church go mainly to creating programs designed to care for the needs of the congregation with missions and outreach receiving whatever might happen to be left over. In some ways this would be fine if members were mobilized towards active mission, whether on their jobs or in their neighborhood, or wherever. However, in most cases, mission giving ends up being nothing more than a salve to the conscience of believers who know that they are to be generous, yet cannot bring themselves to sacrifice the comfort of padded pews and the latest high tech multimedia to give to some missionary somewhere. Besides, aren’t missionaries and pastors supposed to be poor?

What is the mission of the church and how is it connected to “missions?” Are they separate things, united only by their common name? Is the mission of the church accomplished through writing the monthly check or by doing the occasional inner city (read poor people that don’t look like us) service project? What about all those people hell bound and dying who look to all appearances that the don’t need the Lord? Are they not an appropriate target for missions? What do you guys think?