Building Monuments out of Memories: Why I said I was ‘over’ MLK Day

During the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, the people grumbled against the Lord (as usual).  To punish them, God sent a plague of fiery serpents among the people.  The people cried out to God in repentance and at God’s command as a remedy for the plague, Moses made a bronze serpent.  The serpent was to be lifted up on a pole, and those who would look on it would live (and that’s where we get the song Look and Live from).  It is quite the story; full of theological significance.

Much later, 2 Kings 18.4 records an obscure event related to this same bronze serpent.  It is of the destruction by King Hezekiah of the bronze serpent that Moses had made.  You see the people had been burning incense to the serpent – worshipping it, and it had become a distraction and a distortion of the whole event in their history.  Instead of the bronze serpent being a reminder to them of how far they had come, of their sins and need for repentance, of their dependency on God, it had become nothing more than another object of false worship: a monument to a memory.

It was in this vein that I made comments that I was ‘over’ MLK Day.

Please, don’t get me wrong (and I know some of you will anyway).  I have a deep appreciation for the price paid by many during and after the Civil Rights movement, exemplified by Rev. King.  I remember the stories my parents told of going to school in under resourced, segregated schools.  My family was the first Black family to move into an all-white, working class (to put it nicely) neighbourhood in the late 1960’s in the south.  Let that sink in.

They bought a house.

In an all-white, lower working class neighbourhood.

In the south.

In 1969.

My mother walked my elder brother through angry crowds of not-too-pleased white neighbours to kindergarten that was only just beginning to be integrated.

Our neighbours children broke into our house, stole our video camera and shot movies of themselves insulting the ‘n*ggers’ that lived next door to them. …. Next door.

They never reported it to the police because…why bother?  They would still be living next door to them and why ask for more trouble.

When we moved from there, we moved again to be the first Black family in an all-White (slightly better-off) neighbourhood.  We lived there for 30 years.  The neighbours, being mostly of the ‘decent church-going Southern White folk’ were a far sight better than the ‘po white trash’ we left behind.  They were the kind of folks who loaned eggs and sugar to each other over the back fence.  Miss Woodard, (who said she never married because her fiancé found out she couldn’t cook) would say to her friends on the phone while she was keeping an eye on us after school before Mom got home from work, “the little coloured boys from next door are here.” She is the first person I remember taking me to McDonalds.  Mr Bradshaw confided to my father about the mental decline of his wife who would ask him again and again, “Les, you want some coffee?” while never bringing him any. And Miss McCarty, who loved her dogs, baked excellent cakes, gave me overripe bananas anytime she saw me because I once told her I liked them (I was just being polite), and who asked my sister every year to come over and help her turn her mattress (or some such chores).  Mrs Louellen brought us a batch of brownies when my Momma passed away. We were probably the first Black family any of them had ever had close contact with and likely the first White people my parents learned to have a measure of trust with.  They’ve all died now; maybe I’ll meet them in heaven.

Meanwhile my mother was finding “A N*gger Application for Employment” placed on her desk where she worked at a school in an ‘upper class’ neighbourhood across the street from Vanderbilt University.

My father was dealing with the small and large slights of racism day in and day out on the job.

And we (the kids) were learning to navigate a post-civil rights world where dirty snot nosed stringy haired White kids somehow though they were better than us because of skin color.  Where police found a reason to roll up and surround 3 young teenaged boys with 5 squad cars playing basketball at night in the park… 100 yards from my home.  And where in first grade at my upper middle class school in the middle of White suburbia, the teacher managed to find a way to isolate the only two Black children in class – one of whom (me) was always being sent to the office because he already worked through all the workbooks for the class, and read all the assigned materials.  Yeah… I was punished for being too smart.

Flash forward to university and you find me chairing the MLK committee, planning the march, speaking at the MLK Day program (because the vaunted ‘Civil Rights veteran showed up late’).  You’ll find me defending soul food being served in the cafeteria, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in one weekend because I want to read the book before I see the movie, and coordinating the university’s Kwanzaa programme.

And now?  20 years onward, I look at the celebration of MLK Day and I see what King Hezekiah saw.  I see a memory, in this case the person of Rev. King, being made into a monument.  I see people making speeches, planning marches, posting inspirational quotes.

And in a few weeks, there will be another young Black man shot dead.  Someone else a victim of police brutality.  Another stereotyped movie with a shallow script and shallower acting.  Another 1000 Black children born out of wedlock or aborted in the womb. Another twerking video.

It’s as if the whole point has been forgotten.  And I wonder… did my dad skip school to go to a Civil Right march so that getting educated and speaking proper English can be considered “ack-in’ White”?  Did Rosa Parks sit down on a bus so that we can watch videos of Black people fighting on the bus?  How many more speeches will it take before we stop talking about White racism and deal with the huge crime problem in many of our communities?

That’s why I’m ‘over it’.  Not because I don’t love and appreciate the history but because I do appreciate it so much.  I have 2 young boys – who will soon be men.  They need to know this history, so that they grow up to stand up as men on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them. So that they don’t waste the lesson by using it as an excuse for failing to excel.  So that they don’t show up telling me some stories about how they couldn’t keep from getting in a fight because they needed to keep it real.

I’m done with talking about the dream and I refuse to make a monument out of a memory.

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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.

The Faces on the Stage

“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”

So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference.  The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.”  Praise God for such a vision!  And praise God for the organizers of this event.  Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event.  Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”

The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids.  Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference.  These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music.  They will surge and sing.  They will cry and commit.  And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).

The faces on the stage matter.  If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band.  These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.

They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy.  It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was).  The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone.  The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse?  Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material?  Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?

Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves.  Call it FUBU for White people.

The truth is, the faces do matter.  And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think.  Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters.  Think I’m wrong?  Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself.  You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important.  Call it the incarnation experience.  You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.

It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.

The massive irresponsibility of my blogging absence explained

I don’t have very many readers to this blog, and likely have far fewer now that I’ve neglected to update in nearly 3 months (or is it 4?), but those few readers ought to know that I have not been entirely unaware or absent from blogdom.

Indeed, as St. Jude would say, I have had every intention of writing, but have often found myself at odds with myself over the content that I want to communicate. It is rather difficult at times for me to put into words the concerns that I have had and to clearly lay out some of the recent thoughts I have had about various topics political, theological, ecclesiological, and otherwise. So… just as a way of whetting (or perhaps dampening) the appetite, here are a few things I’m thinking of writing on:

Are ALL Asian American Christians sellouts
(a response to the post at nextegenerasianchurch)

Further thoughts on women in ministry leadership (an exploration of history, hermeneutics, and sociopolitical considerations)

Black Asian dialogue (just wanting to know if we have anything to teach each other)

Are there any other suggestions?? Asian Christians and homosexuality? Preaching in the Asian church? Am I a sellout for going to an Asian church?

Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

Diversity = Asian & Gay?

Maybe I’m exaggerating here; actually, I’m certain that I’m exaggerating. Hyperbole is sometimes useful to illustrate a subtler point. And there is a point to this post, obscure though it may be. The point is simply this:

It seems to me when people talk about living in a “diverse” city, or having “diverse” friends, or being in a church that welcomes “diversity,” what they’re really saying is Gay people and/or Asian people with perhaps a sprinkling of Middle Easterners or Eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure. What they don’t mean is Black Americans, or White people from the south, or Hispanics (the “work in your yard, sit in the back of the pickup truck” kind of Hispanics don’t count in terms of diversity, only the “wow, can you teach me salsa dancing” kind do).

Okay… I’m and evil wrong person for using these exaggerated stereotypes. But how wrong is it really? To discuss diversity one metric to possibly use would be the raw percentages of non-Whites (since Whites / Euro-Americans are dominant in the US) in a city. The higher the percentage, the more “diverse” the place; this is a simple measure, right? Given that metric, the state of Mississippi would be considered one of the most diverse in the nation since it has a non-White population of nearly 50% or more. Except that most of those non-Whites are Blacks, and they don’t count towards the idea of diversity, unless there are some Asians and gay people in the mix and the Black people aren’t too low brow.

So perhaps that metric isn’t a good one. Maybe it is better to analyze diversity based on residential housing patterns. A diverse city would have many different ethnic groups living there. Thus, Chicago or L.A. are very diverse cities, right? Except that Chicago is notoriously residentially segregated, at least most of the Black people are. And there are many White ethnic enclaves throughout the city as well.

Is that diverse or not? Does being able to find good “ethnic” food count as being diverse, even though usually what counts as “ethnic” are various Asian cuisines with the occasional nod to Ethiopian and Mediterranean/Middle eastern dishes.

What if someone is Asian and grew up in the south, and their favorite foods are grits and turnip greens? Does that count as suitably “diverse?”

What does any of this have to do with anything, and what does it all have to do with the church, and Christianity, which is after all the topic of this blog? Actually, I’m not sure. It’s just that I wonder how much the much touted “diversity” we talk about in our society is really just a proxy for saying “Wow, there are Asian people here, and Asian people are the currently ‘cool’ ethnicity, so yay!!” It is kind of like the way people say “urban” when they really mean Black.

Are you a coward? Am I?

The Attorney General of the United States apparently thinks so.

After having elected a bi-racial president of the United States, had two supreme court justices who are Black, two Black Secretary’s of State, we apparently are not doing enough, or are simply cowards. Because we are largely segregated in our social life and church life, we are therefore cowards.

The issue of race seems to never go away and even as I think through the intersection of faith and life, I am also very aware of how race is often used as a bludgeon to end rather than begin conversation.