Christians politics

It strikes me as demeaning rather than flattering that political candidates so obviously fall over themselves to pander to the opinions of religious conservatives every election cycle. It is even more pathetic that we Christians go out of our way to invite such pandering and have become rather embarrassingly self congratulatory that we’ve final found issues “worthy” of being taken seriously enough to merit the attention of the presumptive nominees of the two major political parties in the US. Is it not obvious that evangelical interest in issues of poverty, justice, and environmental stewardship (none of which are new concerns for Christians, despite rhetoric to the contrary) is merely being used as a wedge to garner votes and that political elites both “conservative” and “liberal” have no interest in serious engagement with the intellectual and moral foundations of these ideas?

In many ways Christians in the US have become like the proverbial “easy” girl in high school who mistook her popularity with the boys with genuine interest rather than recognizing that her phone number was inscribed on the walls of every ill scrubbed toilet stall, “for a good time call…”. Cheap perfume and dime store flowers seem to be enough to win the affections of Christians in the US.

Having failed to take advantage of the “dial a date” availability of the evangelical vote for some time, the Democratic party conceded such votes to the Republican Party with a kind of attitude reminiscent of the high school know-it-all who claims to have read all the best sex technique books, but can’t get a date to save his life. He was above all of that; and besides who wanted to be part of the in crowd with all the popular kids when it was much more fun to join the chess club, play dungeons and dragons and hang out with the nerdy girls who wore peasant skirts and refused to shave.

Now like that same teen awakening from his adolescent slumber, the Democrats too have ditched the glasses for contacts, gotten a decent haircut, and learned to talk Christian-ese with flattering intonations of “faith” and “justice” and “God.” And like any desperately insecure girl, Christians fall for it all over again, lured by false promises and false hope.

Are we so easily impressed; so easily bought and sold by a political system that is primarily concerned with the preservation of its own power, and is decidedly and firmly not interested in the things of God and of the kingdom? Issues of “faith” have been all over this election, but not because of any substantive interest in the foundational issues of greatest concern to Christians. It has rather been a parade of pandering; a veritable side show of contortionist politics that would put the most flexible circus performer to shame. And we take much of it as complimentary; flattering ourselves to believe that this most recent shift shows that Evangelicals and other Christians don’t “belong” to the Republican Party and likewise that issues of “faith” and “morality” are not the exclusive preserve of the religious right. We borrow the language of a secular media and tell ourselves that we’ve “grown up” and matured despite the fact that Christian thought is nearly two millenia older than the republic itself.

I believe that we fail to recognize that the more Christians twist themselves to accommodate to the societal status quo – either through aggressive power politics of the last twenty years, or so called “subversive” hyper-contextualization that removes from the gospel all of its prickly and unpleasant rough edges (like the uniqueness of Jesus and the full weight of human sin) – the more we lose our witness. Even more, we will rapidly fall into the trap of those who “follow worthless things and became worthless themselves.” It is, in the end, against demonic principalities that desire nothing more than to keep millions stumbling in the dark without the light of Christ. Like those of ancient Israel, in our desire to be “like the other nations” that is, like unbelievers, we will readily trade our divine inheritance for something much more pragmatic and modern, or in our case, post-modern.

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There Goes the Neighborhood

Today I saw something that confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for a while… my neighborhood is changing.

I’ve been seeing the signs here and there, but bravely have tried to ignore them in hopes that perhaps I was wrong. You know how it is; just little things: A white woman walking her dog, a young Asian guy driving a late model Honda down the street, a Volvo parked inconspicuously in a driveway while the young, vaguely hippie looking homeowners enjoyed a drink on the front porch. All of these things were signs that I’ve been trying valiantly to ignore.

But what I saw today was something I could not ignore nor misinterpret, despite all my efforts. There he was in all his trendy splendor – a young white guy, casually dressed in the kind of clothes that look like they’re from Wal-Mart but you know are really from Banana Republic… sitting at the edge of his walkway, innocently, unobtrusively, and completely naturally – playing a guitar. There he sat, in front of an appropriately trendy Craftsman style home, barefoot, and playing his guitar in the calm of a late afternoon as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

My neighborhood is officially trendy.

White folks drinking wine on the front porch I could ignore; the White woman walking her dog was harder to rationalize, but still I made the effort. But this, this cannot be denied or explained away. It is only in trendy urban neighborhoods that White guys play guitars while sitting out in front of their houses I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it so quickly.

Before I know it, there will be coffee shops with bearded baristas and black rimmed glasses wearing Mac users. The ubiquitous loud young Black girls with too much saunter and not quite enough jeans to cover their shape will be replaced by svelte looking people who ::gasp:: jog!!

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. There goes the neighborhood.

We already knew how to sing, we only needed to know the words

Singing, like worship, is an expression of the human soul that is universal in scope and yet as diverse as the myriad people that populates the globe. People every where and throughout history have puts words to music in order to somehow articulate their inmost thoughts and feelings. Music is like art, or poetry; it gives voice to the inexpressible in a way that actually communicates transcendentally. Is it any wonder then that almost every religion in the world incorporates music in its expression of worship to God?

When the holocaust of American slavery met the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, an entire culture of Black church that is as unique and diverse as the Black people who inhabit it was born. What a glorious multifaceted expression it is. This expression is made all the more glorious by the fact that it reflects the authentic African-ness of a people living in America. It was not that these Africans did not know how to worship, or were somehow deficit in their ability to relate to the transcendent reality of God as over against their European subjugators and would be interpreters of scripture. They simply lacked the language and understanding of the good news of Jesus.

When they received this gospel (though not the first Africans to do so) they “ate the meat and spat out the bones” of a gospel that said they were less than human and worthy of nothing more than to be vessels of dishonor in the White man’s house. They refused to bow in worship at the altar of the White man’s god.

Instead these Africans in America contextualized the gospel message and found a savior in Jesus as well as heroes in Moses, the Hebrew boys, and Esther. They reinvented and rearranged traditional hymnody and gave birth to both gospel music and its cousin, contemporary Christian music. They took the art of preaching and combined it with the traditions of African storytellers to create a synthesis of that is envied and copied to this day. These Africans in America already knew how to sing; the coming of the gospel merely gave them the words.

If this is true in the Black American experience, is there any less reason for it to be true within the Asian American experience? It seems that there remains complex and insidious stronghold of neocolonialism deeply ingrained in the Asian America psyche that resists any true effort to contextualize the gospel within their own communities. Perhaps I am speaking out of school, so to speak, that is, outside of my range of experience or level of trust. If so, I implore your forgiveness.

Nevertheless, I marvel that on the one hand Asian Americans are some of the most gifted, highly educated, and creative people in evangelical Christendom today, and yet “with hands high and hearts abandoned” the gospel that is preached and sung sounds remarkably exactly like that heard in any White suburban church. Asians clearly know how to sing; there is no lack of cultural creativity within Asian and Asian American communities. And the words of the gospel are accessible and present to all, Asians and Asian Americans together. Can there be a generation raised up who would be willing to integrate these powerful realities into something that can speak in a lovingly prophetic way to multiple generations of Asian Americans and invite them into the choir? Oh Lord God would you be so gracious as to raise up people who will indeed seek to be faithful to you in this generation; a generation who will sing the Lord’s song with their own melody but with your words?

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..

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.

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 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.