Afro-amnesia

I’ve been a Black American all my life; in fact I was born to it.  It is a genetic condition that I inherited from my parents both of whom were carriers.  In fact my whole family is comprised of Black Americans, including my youngest nephew who, despite his white mother, is also considered to be Black.

Perhaps it seems odd that I would describle myself thusly, but I wonder if such an appelation might not be appropriate given the history of my people in this land.  Black-Americans (or African-Americans if you please) are people with a strange relationship with the United States.  We are an invented ethnic group with very little live connection to our roots in Africa.  We are ethnically mixed; the slaves which were our ancestors came from widely varying peoples with different languages, customs and cultures.  We are racially mixed; most Black Americans can count a least a few non-African ancestors (usually European or native American, but sometimes east Asian).

What unites us is our shared history in this country, as minorities who have spent the better part of our history here as slaves, and then as second-class citizens.  A four hundred year history in which only 10% has been spent with any significant measure of equal rights.  Is it any wonder then that we have our share of social problems?

More to the point of this though, I believe that Black Americans suffer the effects of a socio-historical amnesia that is the result of psychic dislocation.  In other words, we are people who know no other land than America, who are uniquely shaped by the American experience, more American than many of the European immigrants who arrived here in only the last 100 years, but yet historically we are homeless. Most of us cannot trace back to a tribe, a language, or a spot on the map.  Indeed many of us are taught to disregard or even despise our African roots.

The first time I remember crying at a worship event was at Urbana 1996 when a group of students prayed to God in different languages.  I wept openly, and was surprised by my tears. I realized in that moment that I have no language other than the language of my oppressor; I cannot even talk to God but in the tongue of those who slashed the backs of my fathers and raped my mothers.  The white man made us. It is his language I speak, his clothes I wear, his customs I practice and his culture I breathe. 

This is why I grieve for those who give up so easily that which I never had the opportunity to know: a language, a culture, a people.  They do not regard the birthright they have been given, and trade it so easily for the mess of pottage that is the American dream. 

The thing I have as a Black American is a God who has carried us through.  The church has been one place where our African-ness has carried through: the drums, the dance, the shout, the testimony, the mothers of the church and the rhythm of the stomp are all things that tell me that God belongs to me too.  In early days of church, even in the Black church, these things were often rejected as being heathen and unworthy of the worship of the white man’s God.  But he’s not a household god who lives in a temple for whites only.  He is the God of every nation.  And now every church worth it’s contemporary service has drums and guitars and lifts hands and dances — that’s what happens when we did not forget.

I pray that my other brothers and sisters, those whose cultural memory can be refreshed as easily as going home to kimchi or pho, will not forget. That this 2nd generation will remind the world that God is their God too.  Let tong-sung ki-do rise again from the lips of a new generation to release the han of those living the bicultural reality of being a stranger in a strange land.  Let our Lord Christ be honored as the truong toc (eldest son/head of family) who is the quintessential model of filial piety – the son who perfectly obeys and is the ancestor par excellence.  Let the people regain their memories so that the story of God can be told.

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Ahn nyung ha se yo

To greet Koreans in Korean as a non-Korean is always a sure fire way to elicit surprise and a bit of cultural cool points.  It doesn’t matter how much I mangle the pronunciation or use the improper honorific or fail to conjugate the verb, it never fails to please at some level.

Trying to speak someone’s language is a sign of respect, especially for people whose chief aim is to assimilate as much and as quickly as possible to the dominant culture.  It indicates that you value them, or at least care enough to recognize that they are not altogether like you, and that this is a good thing.

As a Christian, trying to speak another language is a discipline of humility since it reduces my normally fluid command of language to sounding like a stammering two year old.  There’s nothing like having a 5 year old correct your grammer for deflating your ego.

In some ways, I think of Jesus as I struggle to learn another language and culture.  After all Jesus crossed the largest barrier of culture possible – from heaven to earth, in order to reach us.  Do we get as excited about his efforts to reach across that divide?  Or better yet, do we expect non-believers to assimilate before we reach them? How might our world be different if more of us were willing to struggle to learn the language of the non-Christian culture around us? How might theirs?

Neighborhood Store

Yesterday while walking back hom through my decidedly poor/working class neighborhood from the corner gas station/Subway restaurant, I was struck yet again by the disparity and incongruity of the world’s inhabited by the various people with which I had just interacted.

There were the neighborhood kids; probably pre-teens, playfully walking back from the store and tossing a football around – much like kids everywhere except these kids are due to their race, gender, and economics much more likely to end up as absentee fathers, in jail, on drugs, or generally on the bad side of society.  They weren’t being disrespectful or anything.  Just being normal kids. 

I saw myself in them from a time when I was a young Black inner city kid just hanging out and having fun on a Saturday afternoon.  I remember even then knowing that being of my race, and because of my gender, I was viewed automatically with suspicion in the world, that police were not always on your side, and that people judged me more by my appearance and my address than they did by my excellent marks in school or the fact that we were good church going people with solid values.

There were the owners/proprietors of the store who were, as per usual, not Black, but immigrants (or at least the children of immigrants) making their living by selling overpriced goods and services to a community of people that look nothing like them.  When I was in the store, I wondered internally what they thought of these people from whom they made their living and I suspected that they looked down on them; on us.  After all, I never see them, nor any of the foreign born small business owners that are abundant in Black communities throughout the country, actually living in or even near the people they sell things too. We are people from which to earn a living; not to live among. 

Ironically I found myself also wanting to disassociate myself from “them.”  “I’m not like the other Black people that come in the store,” I wanted to say. “I’m not going to be loud, or buy malt liquor, or make fun of you because of your accent.” It is painful to admit, but even more painful to feel the double consciousness of that moment, multiplied many times over when I encounter the ever present asian small business owner making money selling the things that mostly Black people buy.  Are there really ANY Black hair care stores that are NOT owned by Koreans?

The pain I feel is that of inwardly wanting to distance myself from all that is stereotypically “Black” so as to make myself palatable to those who in most cases are doing all they can to make themselves seem more “American.”  Except that Black people aren’t Americans — at least not when it comes to that.  American means “White” and they are the ones immigrants are trying to impress, not me.  Black people are people to make money from, to be appreciated from a distance because of our music and style, but not to be respected as Americans.  An overgeneralization I’m sure, but one based on my gut reactions.

For our part, Asian’s are a mystery… forever foreigners, non-entities really.  Many Blacks are indifferent towards the people that maintain their beautiful manicures, sell them the products that enable their gorgeous hair, and cook the food that replenishes the ubiquitous Chinese buffets.  They are like vending machines: they can be safely ignored, or even insulted. They are not people.

And then there is me: walking through the neighborhood. An educated Black man, a product of the inner city, but with a basic grasp of world history, economics, culture… a smattering of French and a growing knowledge of Korean.  I attend a Korean church but still like collard greens. I walk home wondering why these people, these worlds that I have somehow become a part of, are so far apart.

Diaspora Musings

Since D Park over at Next GenerAsian Church posted his comments about being diaspora people, it provoked my own thoughts, albeit ones that are much less formed than his own.

He raises the significant question of identity formation within the context of being a diaspora people, and my own comments there reference the Jewish experience of Babylon.

The idea of how our identity, culture and faith intersect is an important one for Christians to grapple with, and I believe that the Jewish people can be our teachers in this regard, particularly the OT narratives about them.  They are essentially defined by 2 events: the Exodus from Egypt when the covenant with God was fully initiated, and the exile in Babylon, which came as a consequence of the breaking of that covenant.

What is interesting to me in the second instance is the way in which they are instructed by their religious leaders (in this case the prophet Jeremiah) to make themselves fully at home in their new land, and to seek the welfare of that place.  At the same time, we read about the so-called Hebrew boys Hannaniah, Azariah, Mishael, and Daniel who resist full assimilation into the Babylonian identity while stil managing to rise high in the bureaucracy of the Babylonian Empire.

What is interesting to me, and instructive I think for us today,  is their determination to both fully engage the culture and adapt to it (after all, Daniel is the only one who is generally known by his Hebrew name), yet at the same time retain a distinct or perhaps even more refined sense of their identity as Hebrews.  Now while the parallels to the immigrant experience is not the same (after all they were resisting the temptation to worship a false god) it is perhaps not as dissimilar as it may at first appear.

They manage to come to a genuine engagement with the society and culture of Babylon so much so that Esther rises to the position of queen in the Persian Empire (a successor to Babylon) and Nehemiah becomes the chief steward of Persia.  Daniel ans his compatriots all rise to positions of prominence within Babylon, learn the Babylonian language and customs, but none of them become “sell outs.”

In some ways Daniel and his peers might be more like first generation immigrants who are uprooted and come to the US.  It makes sense that they would somehow cling to their “home” culture.  It is significant though that they chose this option in a Babylonian society that was highly assimilationist, unlike the Persians who followed them.

What do we make of Nehemiah though?  He most certainly second (or third or fourth) generation, and probably was more fluent in Persian than Hebrew.  Yet he thinks of himself very firmly as a Jew, albeit a very persian-ized one.  When the book bearing his name opens, there is no sense that he is discontent with his identity as a persian-ized Jew, and indeed when he makes the decision to go to Jerusalem, he makes clear plans to return to Susa when he’s done.

Of course as I mentioned the parallel is not perfect, but I cannot help but wonder if part of the witness of their provided by these folks is in their refusal to give up their ethnic/cultural identity and what can be learned from that.  Or put more simply, if immigrants to the US adopt wholesale American Christianity (and more broadly American culture) is the witness to Jesus that could be provided somehow diminished.  After all, if Black people in the US had adopted White Christianity, there would have been no counter to the prevailing winds of White supremacy that blew unhindered through much of the White church and society; there would have been no civil rights movement at all.

So if my Asian (and other) Christian brothers and sisters merely assimilate and ape American Christianity, is their possible prophetic role diminished? It is probably not for me to ask, but I will dare to be cheeky and raise the question of what prophetic insight is being lost to the church when Asian Christians abandon their culture in an effort to assimilate to American norms?

Future History: Part 2

So, continuing, albeit late, from my previous post…

How shall we now live given the dimensions of our culture & faith?  Increasingly I find myself drawn more and more to an essentially conservative approach to faith and life, not that I’ve ever been particularly liberal.  What I mean is that I am beginning to doubt the progressivist agenda of our age, especially the social justice wing of American evangelicalism.

It is not that I reject social justice; indeed, I believe that any reading of the gospels and the totality of holy scripture reveals a deep seated demand for justice to be implemented and to be sought after by the people of God – not just personal, but systemic.

 What I reject is the subtle substitution of such justice concerns for what might be called (and what have been called) fundamentals of the faith.  I do not think we can afford to bend out understandings of scripture to prevailing socio-cultural norms in an effort to be people of justice & mercy at the expense of holiness.

Ah holiness… that elusive word which I hear less and less of in any circle at all, but which is, to me, bedrock to our understanding of God and salvation.  God, it seems, is holy, and has the audacity to insist that we emulate him in that holiness.  Yet often social action, acts of mercy, etc., are substituted for personal holiness which, unlike the kingdom of God, is the one thing we are given sole jurisdiction over.

What do I mean?  Simply this: peace and justice in society are ultimately the purview of God who has promised that perfect peace & justice will not prevail until “the Day.”  What we have been given charge over is our own lives and bodies, which we are to purify and present spotless before the Lord.  Part of that purificaton and spotless presentation is working for peace & justice in the world and in our respective spheres of influence.

As we look towards future history, we would do well to look far enough ahead that we remember that history itself will one day draw to a close, and we will be ultimately evaluated not on the basis of how our sons & daughters remember us, but how our actions and beliefs are remembered by the chief judge.  That will certainly mean acting and believing in ways that will increasingly become unpopular and countercultural.  Just because those who have followed Jesus before us believed some things that we may not think of as being wrong, doesn’t mean that we are right.

This post may offend

I want to start by saying the obligatory declaimer that I am an American, loyal, etc. and love my country, blah blah blah….

Today on this auspicious anniversary of what has become known as “the day that the world changed” (more on that later) I was driving past the headquaters of a not to be named but quite prolific book publishing company of a major denomination and I noticed the US flag flying at half mast.  Nothing unusual there; and quite appropriate given the remembrance of the day.

Beside the US flag on another pole was the Christian flag also flying at half mast.  From my vague remembrances of civics, I know that flags of sovereign nations are to fly at the same height, symbolizing their international equality, and the flags of the respective staes fly lower than the national flag, relfecting their subordinate status in the union.  Of coure, my social studies classes didn’t cover protocol of the Christian flag.

Aside from whether or not a Christian flag should even exist, should it follow the rules of other flags? Should it be flown at half mast to mark a uniquely American event, and if it is, what does that say about the theology of those who would fly it thusly?  Did those who made the decision view it as inappropriate that the Christian flag should fly higher than the US flag on a day of remembrance?  Should the Christian flag ever fly at half mast, since we who are believing know that from the days of John the Baptist, the kingdom of God is advancing, continues to advance, and will advance until The Day?  Perhaps though the Christian flag should always be at half mast because of the pervasive un-kingdom realities that are true throughout the world, indeed in our own hearts, and not just on September 11.

Why is it that this day should be the day the world changed?  Is it because something happened to us?  The world did not change when ten’s (or was it hundreds) of thousands of people died in the tsunami.  Then again, that was a natural event.  So then why did not the world change when the embassies in E. Africa were bombed and hundreds of embassy employees working for the US died?   Perhaps because it did not happen here, and more likely because it happened to Africans.  What does it say when an event which kills hundreds or thousands elsewhere doesn’t change the world, but an event which kills thousands here is declared to signal a paradigmatic shift in “the world?”

I am troubed by this, as an American, but more significantly, as a believer.  Both the issue of the flag at half mast and the ways in which many of my brothers and sister of the faith blithely follow the line of reasoning that implies (if not outright states) that the lives of American people are more valuable, more significant, than the lives of any other people. I do not dismiss the tragic nature of the terrorist events of September 11, but neither do I support the notion that everything must now be redefined in light of those events.  As a Christian, there are two world changing days; the day of Christ’s resurrection, and the day of his return.  Until then the kingdom of God advances, and does not retreat; the flag of the kingdom of God is never half mast.  Likewise the pervasive reality of sinful brokenness that leads to terrorist attacks, economic exploitation, personal sin and public vice are reasons why every day is a day of mourning for believers until He comes.

come quickly Lord!