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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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.

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.

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.

Brief Reflections on an Historic Election

Today is Election Day and I am NOT watching the returns on TV. I cast my vote during early voting and am just waiting to find out who will take the job of president for the next four years, barring any unforeseen circumstances. I am however grateful that this long election cycle has come to an end.

I have ling been an avid follower of politics and this year has been no exception. I have always voted and consider myself well informed as to the issues. I am also interested in the political game itself, and have some personal reflections on things that have happened this cycle which are somewhat disturbing to me as a believer.

Race – It must be said that racial politics have loomed exceedingly large in this election. Many people are intrigued by Obama’s campaign and the symbolic nature of electing a Black man (really bi-racial) to the White House. It seems to me though that he and his campaign have brought this issue up (along with the media) far more than his opponents, which may complicate race relations going forward. Electing a Black man as president does not magically address issues of economic disparity among the Black populace in this country.

Gender – I have for the first time in my Black life had my eyes opened to the prevalence of gender discrimination and bias on a wide scale. First against Hillary Clinton I watched and heard people disparage her campaign for reasons only tangentially related to politics, and then in more personal contexts, I have seen people justify a vote for Obama on the “issues” when he and Sen. Clinton have similar policy platforms. Some of these same people are choking over the prospect of Gov. Palin being VP due to a perceived lack of “experience” though Obama has less experience than she does. This is alongside all kinds of other slights, insults, subtle put downs and blatant stereotyping that has gone largely unreported and un-commented on by the media.

Media – the American media is the vaunted fourth branch of government and is supposed to present information so that American voters can make informed decisions about candidates. This year, people on many sides of the political spectrum and independent analysis has demonstrated a blatant disregard for journalistic integrity from the major media outlets. Gotcha journalism has replaced investigation and politicians are permitted to make randomly erroneous statements without the least challenge from the media. It was clear in 2000 and even more clear today that media are not interested in effective journalism, but in what will sell and in promoting their own biases and narratives as “fact” to the American public. This is a danger to our democracy as we are dependent upon an independent and objective media in order to effectively participate in our political system.

Finally I can say that I am fairly disappointed overall. The election season that was supposed to be above the usual political fray has been the most divisive in my memory. Irresponsible charges of racism, unreported instances of misogyny, electoral and voter fraud, sexist and racist paraphernalia have proliferated and I do not believe this will be easily mended, though I think it could have if:

– both candidates had stuck to their commitment to receive public financing, thereby reducing the role of money and the appearance of “buying” the election
– both campaigns early and often condemned and restrained irresponsible race baiting and sexism
– both campaigns gave full disclosure to their histories and associations rather than lying or seeking to explain away uncomfortable facts.
– the media recognized and reported on the reality that the election will be historic no matter who wins; it is a HUGE deal that a woman could be VP, but that has been consistently downplayed.

Minority majority

In the midst of an election campaign one of the most significant areas of interested to the general public is that of immigration. My hometown is currently embroiled in a rather (I think) inane controversy stemming from this very issue to make English the official language of city government. Having been vetoed by the former mayor, the intrepid councilman has submitted the measure to the public as an addition to the charter of the city government. It is currently held up in legalities, but I am certain that if it passes the hurdles being thrown up by the election commission and others, it will pass. It is to me extraneous legislation, since the official language of the state of Tennessee is already English, but oh well. The chamber of commerce has come out against it (it’s bad for business and makes us look like hicks) while the hicks themselves are all for it in the mistaken belief perhaps that it will force all the “fer’ners” to learn English or go home. I for one am embarrassed. Illegal immigrants of the brown type seem to be a convenient outlet for all the virulent racial hatred that is no longer publicly acceptable to vent towards Blacks. It is made easier by the fact that they are, well, illegal.

The larger issue of immigration though is one which our society is being confronted with in a much more significant way than we have had to in the last several decades. Despite the influx of Asian immigrants from the late sixties onwards, the current immigration boom is new for many, and frightening. A recent census bureau report indicates that soon the US will be “majority minority” a phrase I find particularly interesting. Interesting because it has only been fairly recently that Hispanics (or Latinos if you prefer) have been counted separately. Interesting because they are only minorities in that they are not White. The last great immigration boom, around the turn of the 20th century, saw many millions of European immigrants come to the US. There was great debate at the time over whether they would properly assimilate into what was a clearer dominant Anglo culture.

Successive waves of immigrants each dealt with the baggage if you will of not being White enough. First the Irish, then the Italians, the Poles, the Russians… all the eastern Europeans. Most of these White ethnics settled in enclaves on the east coast and upper midwest where they were accused of the same sorts of things that Hispanic immigrants are now accused of. Of course in time they assimilated, intermarried, and largely became White. Being White in America mainly meant not being Black or Yellow (no offense to my Asian American readers, just using the lingo of the times). Many people don’t realize that many of the soldiers that went to fight in WW2 spoke a language other than English at home as their first language; maybe as many as 1/3.

Nowadays now one really is focused on the many illegal Irish or even Asian immigrants in the country. No one is going door to door at Korean cleaners and checking how much under the table cash is being doled out to someone’s cousin’s sisters brother in law. Those immigrants aren’t scary, and they aren’t brown.

What should be the Christian response to the challenges of immigration? On the one hand it is easy to assert that we should be treat the foreigner and alien as neighbor, since that is what God commanded Israel. At the same time, how do we apply that principle meaningfully in a nation whose laws we are called to obey? What is our priority? And what is the true face of the immigration debate that is tearing our society up? John Lamb, a somewhat acquaintance who I’ve never officially met but admire nonetheless is doing a talk on this issue tomorrow at Vanderbilt. If anyone knows what he’s talking about, its John.