My Response to the “Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church”

I am not Asian-American.  So when I read the Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church I did not immediately rush to sign the letter.  It seemed to me impertinent to do so, not to mention presumptuous.  How can I sign a letter written from a community of which I am not a part, regardless of how strongly I feel myself to be in agreement with the sentiments expressed therein?

As I reflected further however, I thought of my children.  Well, my children are very brown — they look more ‘Black’ than ‘Asian’, but they are as fully Asian as they are Black and who are Asian-American, who understand Mandarin Chinese almost as well as English, whose kitchen pantry is filled with ‘exotic’ foods and spices used to make the yummy food that will always smell like ‘home’ to them, who, when they grow up, may be asked, depending on the setting, ‘where are you from?’,  or ‘what are you?’.  Because of how they look, they may miss some of the more egregiously negative experiences of being Asian-American, but that doesn’t change their heart.

I thought of my ministry.  The Christian fellowship I planted for Asian-Americans, the Bible study group I led for Korean graduate students, the 2nd generation English Ministry congregation I served for more the 5 years as the pulpit supply pastor and interim youth director, the Asian-American fellowship I served for several years.  I thought of their struggles and their triumphs, their fears and longings.

I thought of my Korean-American friend, the godfather of my eldest son, who feels equally at home pigging out at a soul food restaurant as at a Korean barbeque.

I thought of my wife, who really does have an answer to satisfy the curious who ask, ‘where are you from’ since she wasn’t born in the US and has lived a lot of her adult life outside of it, but who still deals with the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with her sex and ethnicity.

I thought of my colleague Kathy Khang who always seems to be in the thick of these things; pushing, advocating, pointing out — sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always with a desire to see the whole body of Christ do more and be better.  I thought of many other friends, family members, colleagues.

And then I thought again about my sons.  My beautiful, biracial, bi (multi?) cultural sons.  Of course, it is not just about them.  But the connection to family brings the abstraction of the pain and frustration and futility that so many others talk about into concrete form.  That my sons will have challenges sorting out their racial / ethnic / cultural identity I have no doubt.  After all their father is a Black American from the southern US, their mother is a 1.5 generation Chinese-American with Malay roots, and they are currently growing up in West Africa.  Of course they will have challenges.  But for their sake, and for the sake of the integrity of Christ’s witness in the world through his church, I pray these challenges and burdens will not be added to by those same brothers and sisters in the church.

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Missing Pieces

I just finished reading the very interesting IVP book Deep Church by Jim Belcher.  I’ve also been tracking a conversation, as well as contributing to the commentary on Dr. John Stackhouse’s blog.  These unrelated activities and my own interaction in rather diverse settings of life and ministry have once again stirred my thinking about several issues.

Stackhouses blog asks the question about how academia, Christian academia in particularly, and Regent specifically, become more diverse in its faculty representation.  He contends that the presence of other voices, notably women and “underrepresented” ethnic minorities necessarily enhances both the research and the teaching function of the Christian university.  He is concerned about those voices that are not at the table.

Belcher is addressing a completely different set of questions and issues.  He seeks to chart a “third way” course between what he terms the traditionalist model of church and the emerging / emergent church conversation.  He works very hard to be fair in both his critiques and affirmations of the respective weaknesses and strengths of each.

How are these two things related?

Well in some very real sense they are entirely unrelated to one another, except that they both seek to address perceived or real problems in the evangelical Christian community, and both believe that there is some real value in listening to heretofore unheard voices, whether those be women (Stackhouse’s concern) or people in various “camps” of evangelicalism (Belcher’s concern).  There is something else that unites them though, and that is the extreme lack of awareness in any meaningful sense that their entire conversation is largely irrelevant to,  unimportant to, and ignorant of the concerns of many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of believers in the United States alone who would consider themselves to be orthodox theologically and quite likely evangelical doctrinally. I speak of course of the many ethnic minority communities in the US, to say nothing of the global church.

I do not believe that either Belcher or Stackhouse is ignorant of this entirely and I am certain (or as reasonably certain as Christian charity requires) that each of them would agree that such awareness is important and that we need to do a “better job” of listening to many different believers.  In fact, I am sure they would want to invite those people into the conversation. Indeed that was part of Stackhouse’s intention.  Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fundamental point.  Belcher’s book is by, for, and about a certain strain of White, largely middle-class, usually suburban (in thinking if not in residence), approach to church.     Stackhouse is, I think, much more in touch with this but also in some ways misses the boat. His desire to diversify the academy is itself a project of great importance to the same demographic, though one slightly more liberal and open minded than the traditionalist of Belcher’s description.  Frankly as I consider the churches I’ve attended in my life, the churches my father and brother now pastor, the tens of thousands of churches like them and the many millions of believers in them, I am convinced that neither Stackhouse’s desire for diversification in sex and ethnicity, nor Belcher’s third way have anything to say to them.  Even more importantly, I am pretty sure that both groups (though not these two men in particular; I don’t know them well enough or at all to say specifically) are not necessarily open to learning from them.

I find myself in an uniquely odd category.  People with backgrounds like mine generally don’t interact either in person or through the blogosphere with people like Stackhouse or Belcher.  It is funny to hear talk about listening to different voices, especially the voice of the minority and the poor, and yet be aware that many of them don’t realize that those voices may be entirely uninterested in being a part of the conversation, and even more that the conversation itself seems pointless and irrelevant to them.  It doesn’t seem pointless and irrelevant because they have been excluded from the conversation.  Its just that most of what is being talked about doesn’t matter one whit.  Likewise it is interesting to hear discussion about “the church” while ignoring the fact that much of the global church world could care less about emergent or emerging or emergence or whatever other monikers well connected White dudes (and some Asians) who have enough money to fly around to conferences discussing what to call themselves care about.

This latter is not an unimportant point.  How amazing it is to me how many thousands of dollars are spent by these folks flying around the country and the world talking to themselves about what is important.  The irony is amazing really.

Well this post has been mostly random thoughts not terribly well put together.  Perhaps I”ll dress it up later or not

Give me neither poverty or riches…

Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

These words, so powerful and so true, should be inscribed on the heart if not the wall of every Christian, especially in the wealth and prosperity of American society. Indeed this proverb most profoundly encapsulates the very heart of what have been the most troublesome and persistent problems in our society and in the church. So much of the injustice, racism, environmental and economic exploitation that has plagued our society finds its root in a failure to be satisfied with, “the food that I need.” Scripture tells us that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and that those who desire to get rich fall into a trap and are ensnared by evil, and the Proverbs are filled with admonitions like this one against the deceitfulness, transience, and emptiness of wealth.

Despite this it seems the chief day to day preoccupation of believers (much like everyone else) is the acquisition of more and better. In fact purveyors of the much maligned prosperity gospel have built a theological house around the notion that God not only wants to meet our needs, but desires for every believer to be materially wealthy.

Prosperity preachers, maligned though they may be, are not the first or the only to promote such views. Indeed it could be said that the scorn heaped upon them by mainstream evangelicals is a bit hypocritical when one drives into the parking lot of the typical suburban evangelical church and observes the well coiffed parishioners leave half million dollar suburban homes in $40,000 SUV’s to worship in sanctuaries plush with thousands of dollars worth of carpet, and tens of thousands of dollars in the latest multimedia equipment. The rich always decry the indulgences of the poor.

Prosperity preaching is in some ways merely a continuation of what has always been latent in American evangelicalism: an equation of God’s blessing with material goods. After all the massive prosperity of the United States was built on free land (taken from natives) and free labor (taken from Africans) the use of which was often endorsed by protestant Christians.

In any event, as a observer of immigrant culture in the context of the immigrant church, this correlation has caught on quite readily. It is an unfortunately easy leap to make; the pursuit and achievement of the American dream is often perceived (if not overtly stated) to be the best way to be a good Christian. And while it is easy to see and critique it in the Asian church, it is quite apparent in other places as well. After all the Christianity they practice is the Christianity to which they were converted.

Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

Here’s to the Ordinary Christian

This post is about ordinary Christians.

Not that there is any sort of person who is ever really ordinary.

But there are ordinary Christians who simply want to follow Jesus.  They are people like so many folks at my church who prayersimply want to faithfully follow Jesus.  They don’t know anything about blogging.  They aren’t riled up about questions of what Bible translation to use, or the proper English translation of some Greek phrase, or issues of “social justice” (whatever that means).

They go to church.  They pray.  They give. They sing in the choir. They try to honor God the best way they can.

So often as a “professional Christian worker” ministering in the university context and with access to all the latest and greatest theological, eschatological, and philosophical debates and questions, it becomes very easy to grow arrogant and dismissive of those who do not.  Why is this?  Quite honestly it is because we believe that greater knowledge equates to greater spiritual maturity or spirituality.  We believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary.   Yet, if this were true, one would find the most faithful, most mature, and most biblically literate Christians among those who have the most access.  The testimony of history and indeed of scripture tells us that this is not true.

Much is said about Jesus’ ministry to the poor.  I don’t know if it is so accurate to describe his ministry in that way.  There were, to be sure, poor among his followers.  But the bulk of his followers were what we might call working class or middle class (though such classes were functionally poor in Roman society, socially they fit the description).  They were people who were lectured to by the more learned among them about the hows and whys of following the covenant.  And they too were looking for the messiah to come.  It was among the most educated classes that the greatest disputes and arguments about theology broke out.

The arguments among the teachers of the Law are much like the arguments today among the blogosphere as people debate back and forth the fine points of the law.  We split hairs over exceedingly minor interpretive issues in the Greek text which make absolutely no difference to the maturity or discipleship of Christians for example.

I grew up in a church full of everyday, ordinary Christians.  I did not have the benefit of a seminary trained clerical staff, a full time paid youth minister, a library full of books on Christian doctrine.  I had rather, faithful Christians who loved the Lord, who cared deeply about seeing that we grew up in the fear of the Lord and had a reverence for scripture.  They wanted me to be filled with Holy Spirit and to live a life pleasing to God.  They laid the foundation for my faith.  They were serious believers.  They obeyed the Bible as best they could.

I tip my hat to them.  Ordinary spirit filled saints who prayed, preached, and taught me the way of salvation with little more than a KJV Bible, a United Gospel Press Sunday school book, and a decrepit totally useless blackboard.

Somebody ought to testify

“First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life.  To the pastor, first lady, all the ministers, deacons, mothers, missionaries, saints & friends…”

I’m sorry, you must have thought I was talking about this kind of testimony:

Testimony Before Congress
Testimony Before Congress

What I really mean is quite different, and its related to my post on Things I Miss About the Black Church.

Giving a testimony in church is one of the most amazing and wonderful expressions of participatory worship you might imagine.    Each person that stands to testify gives a song, an inspiring story, shares a prayer request, exhorts the congregation,  unburdens themselves from the struggles of the week and allows the whole community of God’s people to laugh with them, cry with them, rejoice with them and yes, sometimes even roll their eyes at them.

It was funny to see the concerns of one group of folks as they prepared for a testimony service that is upcoming.  Being reformed, there is of course a great deal of course about maintaining proper order in the midst of it all.  One quote:

one testimony service in the past had been billed, at least to the worship leaders, as a “Spirit-Filled Free-for-All.” A few songs were chosen to start things up, and then … whatever. There is something exciting and spontaneous and … all right, authentic about that. I get it. I even like it. But yikes! The Spirit leads us into freedom, but is it freedom for “all”? Freedom to do anything? Does the Spirit work only in the direction of liberation from perceived stricture and structure? Surely this is appealing—especially to young people. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit also work, as in Genesis 1, in the direction of creating order from chaos? Finding true freedom only in slavery to Christ? How do we balance these two?

I find their questions humorous, but understandable coming from their perspective.  What if the spirit gets out of control?  But it was the next section that made me laugh:

How do we, as a worship team, as musicians, prepare for such a service? Do we choose no songs at all ahead of time? Do we rehearse anything? Do we wait and hope for students to suggest songs that we know? Do we pray for the Spirit to move us in the moment, and move us to play the same song in the same key? What if the Spirit tells us, like that old joke has it, “Oops. You should done more planning.”

And what happens if someone’s testimony turns inappropriate? We can’t control what folks will and won’t say…

Well now that’s just part of the fun of a testimony service.  They could perhaps learn from these folks about how to manage a testimony service:

It may be perhaps difficult to understand what’s being said, but the scene in that church is pointedly NOT chaos, and there are rules of engagement that differ a bit from one church to another, but some which are commonly understood. Testimony service has a rhythm and flow all its own.  And musicians are just along for the ride.

Allow me to tell you some of these rules:

1) The testimony leader (usually an up and coming fiery preacher, or a missionary, or someone who can keep the crowd going) conducts the service.  If there aren’t a lot of people waiting to testify, you can just stand up and start, but if two or three stand up at a time, the testimony leader tells who can go first.

2) The testimony will also shut down the testimony if it goes too long or veers off into “crazy.”  They usually do this by at first saying things like, “Amen, Amen.  Praise God sister” in a calming voice.  They may also interrupt at what seems to be a pause in the testimony and make some remarks before moving on to the next person.  If its really bad they will collaborate with the organist to start a praise song to shut you down.

3) The testimony leader may take over your singing of a song if the singing is really bad

4) Your testimony should begin with giving honor to God in some way, acknowledging the leaders of the congregation and the pastor (whether present or absent) and should end with some sort of, “You all pray for me”

5) It is perfectable permissible to lead out in a song during testimony service, especially if you know the words and can sing.  but even if you don’t people will try to help you out.

6) Your testimony cannot take longer than about 3 minutes unless it is REALLY good and folks get to dancing and shouting from it.  If folks start doing this, then you are not permitted to come back at the end of the shouting session to resume your testimony unless YOU were the one dancing, and then only to give a closing.

I will close with a typical testimony that I might have heard growing up in the Universal Christian Holiness Church (yes, I know our church was the one holy catholic church)
“Praise the Lord saints! Praise the Lord saints!  To the pastor, pulpit guest, deacons, missionaries, saints and friends. Truly we give honor to God today for all that he has been to us.  Down through the years, God has been good to me.  Earlier this week I was thinking back on some times when I thought I wasn’t gonna make it.  Thought I was gonna lose my mind.  But God!  But God!  Even this week, he keeps on blessing me, in spite of all the things I’ve done.  And I thank him for it. He’s been better than good.  You know I’ve been so worried lately; so many people being laid off, and the economy is down.  But God continues to provide for me and my family.   I think about all the young people running the streets and getting into trouble, and then just this week some of my nephews stopped by the house, and they aren’t doing all that they should be doing, but God has kept them from dangers seen and unseen.  They could be out here in the streets, but God continues to have mercy.  He’s been so good, I just can’t tell it all.  Pray for me saints, as I’m traveling next week that God would give me traveling mercies.  And pray that the Lord would help me to hold on until the end.  Y’all pray my strength in the Lord.”

Does God like Girls better than Boys?

boys-problem-education-schools-vl-verticalIt seems perhaps an odd or needlessly provocative title with an exceedingly obvious answer. It is common knowledge after all that men are in better position overall than women in the world. Conventional wisdom in the enlightened evangelical circles in which I run likewise confirms that men have misinterpreted and misapplied scripture, supporting patriarchal narratives that deny women their god-given freedom. Secular sources tell us that women are subject to abuse at the hands of their “intimate partners” at shockingly high rates, that poverty afflicts women much more than men, and that educational systems discourage female educational achievement. The world is run by oppressive patriarchs and the church is its chief defender.

Maybe all this is true. It doesn’t change my question. And it doesn’t make this a cynical exercise or a step forward in reestablishing the rapidly collapsing patriarchal system.

Does God like Girls better than Boys?

It may surprise you, but this is not a new question for me. It is one I have pondered since I was a child growing up in church. Certainly I heard that the man was to be the head of the house, but that didn’t seem to hold any particular privilege to me. In fact it seemed rather punitive. When I grew up I could expect to have the responsibility of working hard to support my wife and children, make hard decisions, fix stuff when it broke, make sure no bad guys got in the house, beat them up if they did, make sure my wife had the clothes and miscellaneous fru fru that women always seemed interested in, and at some point die and leave an inheritance for her.

In exchange my wife would cook, clean, shop and watch soap operas unless something came up that prevented her from doing these things (like a sale) in which case she would just shop. I exaggerate of course, my mother did much more than that, and I was a kid so how accurate could my perspective be? In comparison to the lengthy command to husbands in Eph 3, the admonition to submit seemed like a really good deal.

More seriously though, I did wonder as a child if God liked girls better than boys. After all, there were more women than men in church. The main sins preached against seemed to be things that men do much more than women and the things that women struggled with seemed always to be related to something a man did to her. Being a good Christian seemed much more compatible with being a little girl than being a little boy. I was quite sure that Jesus wouldn’t run in church, or use chewing gum to glue the pages of the church bulletin together; things it seemed the boys wanted to do much more often than the girls. Jesus, as presented in the church, was the ideal man, which wasn’t a problem except following Jesus seemed the be the same as acting like the little white kids on tv at best, or acting like a girl at worst, either of which were pretty sure ways to have your masculinity called into question, or at least to get punched in lip and called a punk.

And you couldn’t retaliate. You were supposed to turn the other cheek.

Being a man seems to be fraught with the judgment of God. Am I being silly? Consider this:

▲On average, women outlive men in developed countries by five or more years;

▲Men have higher death rates for all fifteen of the leading causes of death (except Alzheimer’s);

▲Men are approximately 50% of the workforce but account for 93% of job related deaths;

▲Males between 20 and 24 have a seven times greater rate of suicide than their female counterparts, and overall, men commit suicide at rates three to four times greater than women;

▲Innocent males are between 1.5 to 2 times more likely than females to be assaulted;

▲Government funding for breast cancer research outpaces funding for prostate cancer research by nearly two to one even though prostate cancer and breast cancer have roughly the same caseload;

▲Death among young men due to testicular cancer in the 15-34 age group outpaces the number of deaths from breast cancer among women in the same age group, but good luck trying to remember the last time a commercial entity raised awareness about testicular cancer;

▲Victims of war — both combatants and, yes, non-combatants — are more likely to be male;

▲Responsible young men are charged considerably more for auto insurance than irresponsible young women, simply because they were born male;

▲A woman who commits the same crime as a man will receive, on average, only a fraction of the sentence; and

▲During FY 2007, 158,935 names and addresses of suspected violators of the duty to register with the Selective Service System were provided to the Department of Justice for possible investigation and prosecution for their failure to register, carrying a penalty up to five years in prison — every one of the violators was male — because young women are exempt from even registering.

As an adult and In the secular realm, men generally are held responsible for patriarchal oppression, and we all know that poverty will be eliminated by educating little girls and empowering women. Men on television are nearly always presented as buffoons needing to be taught their lesson by smart women and savvy children. Men die at younger ages than women, have generally poorer health, and are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime or to go to prison. Boys are diagnosed much more frequently with learning disabilities, or punished for bad conduct in school and far less likely to graduate. Women are outpacing men in college graduation rates in nearly every field except science and mathematics, and that they do not excel there is likewise the fault of men. In fact men are pretty much responsible for everything bad in the world from nuclear proliferation to athletes’ foot, and women… well, women are rarely ever described as being responsible for anything bad in the world at all.

Maybe God likes girls better than boys.