I am not your enemy

That’s right my dear Korean American brother; yes indeed my Chinese American sister. Even though we come from different places, histories, and experiences we are more often alike than different.

Kim chi and Dim Sum are all right with me, and by the way I appreciate the fact that there really is more to you than food and anime. Yes, I know that there are things I can’t know; things that really aren’t secrets but are simply assumed when you are in your own company; things that are hard to explain to those who haven’t shared what its like to be the one or two kids in the class with squinty eyes and shiny black hair in a terribly unstylish bowl cut that your Mom gave you to save money.

I know that I don’t understand your struggle, and that it really is a struggle even though the myth of the model minority is as costly as it is based in partial truths. I know that because I am the un-model minority, and as much as I hate to admit, that myth is based in partial truth as well.

I know that I don’t know what its like to be unseen, invisible, and assumed to be either just like white people but of a strangely exotic kind of white. I know because I am all too visible, far too easily seen and assumed to be exotic in the same way that chimpanzees are.

I know that your people and my people most often meet across a counter top as you sell human hair and no-lye relaxers to me in order to finance the cost of your children’s expensive education so that they won’t have to slave away in a store for unseen countless hours. I know that my people think your people are little more than animated cash registers who we assume “speaka no Engrish” because we’re as baptized in the ignorant racialization of American society as anyone else.

I know that your parents would promise to fall over and die and disown you and faint dead away in that precise order if you married me, and that my parents would likely make some derogatory racial remark about you before getting excited about the fact that our children would likely have “good hair.”

I know that you like hip hop and rap and R & B because it expresses a part of you that seems unexpressed otherwise but that you would likely never actually venture into the hood other than to sell me some cheap Americanized Chinese food.

I am not your enemy even though there are those who would paint you as the model and inflate your egos in ungodly ways and divide our struggle so that they can keep you enslaved in your suburban middle manager-but-never-CEO lifestyles just as well as they keep us as nothing more than entertainer-athlete-criminal.

I wish White wasn’t the arbiter of all things good and glorious so that your women wouldn’t feel the need to change the eyes that I find quite alluring and enigmatic and mine wouldn’t spend so much time deciding who has good hair or not.

I happen to think samgyupsal would pair quite well with collard greens, and Kim chi jjigae with cornbread.

We are not each other’s enemy, and I wish I knew a way to bridge the gap so that we fought alongside each other against the common depravity that threatens both of our humanity.

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Gain the world, lose your…

The easy and clever thing to say would be Seoul, since this blog is a commentary on the intersection of faith and life. It would be fitting too, since questions of immigration and assimilation for Christians involve an intersection of the issues of material prosperity and living faithfully as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

America is a country founded not on a national principle of ethnic solidarity, nor even of geographic commonality. It is founded on an ideology that can be definitively traced back the European Enlightenment. Men of great wealth, extensive property, and high idealism formulated a republic loosely connected to Christian ideas, but more firmly rooted in “liberty,” whatever that means. This is encapsulated in our Declaration of Independence which affirms that men are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The expansion of the American ideal has taken more than two centuries, and can still be said to be a great unfinished experiment.

Beneath these lofty and idealistic sentiments however, lie another, baser reality which has been as fundamental to the formation of this nation, and which must be taken seriously by Christians who want to engage the culture that surrounds us. If America can be said to have any god, any national religion – it is the god of wealth. Almost every controversy, every major social and political realignment, from the Articles of Confederation to the Civil War to Civil Rights is intimately connected with a “pursuit of happiness” that has all too readily devolved into the pursuit of material and economic prosperity. It was not, contrary to what some people believe, any innate hatred of Africans that led to their enslavement by Europeans, nor was the conquest of indigenous peoples driven primarily by a messianic vision of manifest destiny. Rather both racism and manifest destiny were post facto ideologies developed to justify what is a much baser motive: greed. Free land and free labor were the foundations of the American prosperity we today enjoy. The accumulation of material good is the contemporary manifestation of that religion.

The church, not only in America, but throughout history, has contended with the very real god of Mammon . From the beginning, the apostle had to write warnings against the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself and against the association of material prosperity with God’s blessing. Ironically, I have hardly ever heard a sermon on I Timothy 6.9 about the snares that inevitably trap those who desire to be rich and who find themselves pierced through with “many sorrows.” It is perhaps too unpalatable a passage for those who have swam in these cultural waters for so long.

Part of the mythology of America is that immigrants have flocked here because it is the “land of opportunity.” Like all myths, this one is rooted in fact. America was and is a beacon of economic and even political opportunity. What is obscured in this myth is that in most cases the driving motivation has not been political, but economic, and that those who immigrated are often those with at least some means within their own countries of origin. The poorest cannot afford to escape and the wealthiest have no incentive to leave. So then the immigrants that have come to America often come with the social and cultural skills to “make it.”

What does this have to do with the gospel? If it is difficult to dethrone the god of Mammon for those of us who have been born here; it is even more difficult in the lives of those who came here to pursue Mammon’s fruit. Most contemporary immigrants do not come for the privilege of being better disciples or of worshipping God more freely than in their home countries. Indeed many do not come to worship of the living God until after they have immigrated. Immigrants come to make the best living possible for themselves and for their children.

The cost of that decision is paid not only by the parents who leave comfort and familiarity for what is all too often years of sacrifice. The cost is also paid by their children who are bequeathed an inheritance of a twilight ethnicity and an irrelevant gospel that seems utterly abstracted from the challenges they face day by day.

Reared by parents who prioritize material success over gospel adherence and assimilation for the sake of such prosperity over the value of culture, is it any wonder then that many 2nd generation find themselves also worshipping at the altar of Mammon while experiencing an existential and spiritual void that remains unmet by the culturally neutered gospel to which they’ve been exposed? How can they worship a god who is dis-incarnated – removed from their lives and experience, and irrelevant to their concerns? A Jesus who does not sympathize with the issues faced by latch-key kids with distant parents who demands academic success or at least the façade of social propriety seems less a mighty savior and more a Confucian tyrant dressed up in Western garb.

The Scylla of an irrelevant gospel is met on the other side by an equally ravenous Charybdis that threatens to shipwreck the faith and life of those who ply the waters of this existence. It is the monster of un-ethnicity, a ethnic reality that is affirmed in one place, declared unimportant in another, and altogether ignored in the church, which should be the one place where the totality of our humanity must be confronted and reformed in the image of Christ.

So then over and again the wealth obtained through great sacrifice and worthy effort often issues forth in the destruction of those things held most sacred by all cultures and particularly by Christians. Relationship with God through Christ becomes less important than relationship with “stuff” through VISA. The sharing of hearth and table, the places across which identity and culture are transmitted becomes less important than simply being “a person” distinguished only by the shape of ones eyes, the color of ones skin, and the brand name of the label of the designer purse. All else of history, legacy, story, and culture are sacrificed to Mammon. Gaining the world and losing what matters most.

The Jesus I Always Knew

One of the images of Jesus that permeated my childhood understanding of the gospel story – conveyed powerfully in sermon and in song – was of the man of sufferings, acquainted with our sorrow and our grief. Not only that, but the often explicitly stated idea was (as an old song says), “He didn’t have to do it, but he did.”

Jesus was the locus of our affections, the object of our adoration, the one to whom all our loyalty was due. To deny him was understood primarily in terms of incredulous ingratitude. After all, who else has loved us as he did? And even more, he didn’t do it because he was our parent or anything like that. He did it just because he wanted to. This was (and is) a compelling image. Certainly it is not the only one, but it is powerful. Even now I often think of sin as being disloyal to one who has been so loyal – so faithful – to me.

Why is this theme emphasized so often in the Black tradition? Why is the idea of a suffering savior so powerful? I don’t have a full answer, but I suspect it has to do with the unjust nature of his suffering. For a people whose very identity has been forged in suffering and who have experienced over and again state sanctioned injustice – such a savior is in many ways the only one who can make sense of that suffering. That is why so many times in my youth the preacher reminded us that Jesus was marched, “from judgment hall to judgment hall,” and that they, “whipped him all night long.” Not only that, but Jesus “hadn’t done nobody wrong,” and he “never said a mumbling word,” against those who treated him thusly.

At so many levels then, this Jesus by his life and example speaks to Black people who were unjustly stolen from our homeland, made to suffer under horrendous conditions, had our dignity and humanity systematically denied, and even after we were “freed” continued to suffer innumerable assaults on our dignity until this present day. Jesus knows what that is like.

In the last few weeks as I’ve moved back and forth between the “Black church” and “Korean church” worlds that I occupy, this issue of gospel contextualization has come up again in powerful ways. By the way, if you want to induce a small measure of Christian schizophrenia try leaving a Korean Presbyterian church service and going directly to a Black Pentecostal church service. Warning: be prepared for more than a little dissonance (to put it mildly – but more on this in another post).

I see plainly and from my own experience how Jesus is made real (incarnated) in the Black church experience, but who is the Jesus of the Korean church? I am reasonably sure that 1st generation Korean Christians have made Jesus real in their lives and experience, but I wonder how deeply that has happened for the 2nd generation. Clearly the language and images of Jesus are not exclusive to any people group, but what images and understandings of Jesus and of the gospel have the greatest resonance for this group?

If the way Jesus is presented is always as the oldest son who got things right and against whom you are always being compared by your parents (Jesus healed the sick, so you should be a doctor. Jesus was such a good student he impressed his teachers in Jerusalem; why can’t you be like him?). If this is how Jesus is known, then he is merely a stand in guilt inducing figure reinforcing the most challenging aspects of the Asian parent-child relationship. On the other hand if the gospel is presently mostly in terms of forsaking everything to follow Jesus, even family relationships, then it ends up calling 2nd gens entirely away from some of those things that make them Korean.

What is needed is not a new Jesus, but a new way of making the gospel real to the challenges and opportunities of the 2nd generation that makes sense of their reality and calls them into radical relationship with the Lord. It is up to them to write the lyrics of the Lords song in the strange in between reality in which they find themselves. The gospel can never be borrowed, but it must always be made ones own – and not in an individual sense only – but in community.