Ethnicity & Incommensurability by Daniel Tan

Racial reconciliation is the buzzword of the moment. More precisely, it’s the buzzword of the Christian moment. A quick Google search returns headlines such as “Pentecostal denominations move toward race reconciliation” and “Five Steps for Racial Reconciliation on Sunday at 11am”—the Christian connotations attached to this phrase are not subtle. Let’s take a step back and develop an understanding of what it actually means before it joinssynergy and paradigm shift in my list of “Words That I Use To Seem Less Dumb”.

Reconciliation is a concept pervasive throughout the Bible. It asks us to remove an offense that causes the disruption of peace, and results in the return to harmony or the restoration of friendly relationships after a conflict. Here’s where things get sticky: racial reconciliation is not the Gospel, nor is it the central focus of it. It’s simply an application of the Word in practice, and it’s up to us to figure out the qualitative ways in which this concept is relevant to us as a multiethnic community.

Here’s where things get stickier: the manner in which we have addressed racial reconciliation has been a spectacular failure. Whether it is through a fundamental flaw in the message or a mistake in the way that message is delivered, this failure has developed a sense of apathy in our community that has stagnated the process. One of those mistakes is the way that Asian Americans have been “reconciled”. Let’s address the elephant in the room: Asian Americans hold a disproportionate share of power and influence in the Christian community.

There’s a reason why this article isn’t titled Is Pomona-Pitzer Christian Fellowship Racist?, and it’s not just that I’m a firm believer of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. It’s that the questions that we should be asking—those of the intersections between race, spirituality and identity—are so nuanced and convoluted that to even begin to answer them requires serious reflection on our individual identities. I want to note that I am phenotypically East Asian, so I can only reflect on the Asian American experience as shared by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese individuals (further references to Asian Americans refer to those of East Asian backgrounds for brevity’s sake). But I encourage everyone to look inward first when considering reconciliation, because if we are to participate in racial reconciliation, we need to recognize that the issues between racial groups are correlated with issues within our respective racial groups. Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazzsaid it best: “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.”

Let me tell you what it means to be Asian American in the Christian community in Claremont. It means feeling welcomed and “normal”. It means being able to articulate your personal views on faith and spirituality without being representative of your entire race. It means never hearing other people use the phrase “ethnic quirks” to describe your religious beliefs. If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the same language that we use to describe White privilege. As an Asian American Christian, I have the privilege to focus on my spiritual identity without worrying about the color of my skin, and the freedom to remain complacent in my understanding of race and spirituality.  I have the luxury to be blind to my color and the color of others. My fellow Asian Americans and I reap the benefits of being part of the statistical, cultural and social majority.

Asian American theology has been distorted by social factors pertaining to the myth of the model minority, which tells us that there is a negative correlation between success and maintaining ethnic identity. We found that the more we assimilate to the dominant culture, the further up in society we get. We were presented an image of a “good Christian” and it’s an image that was molded by white hands. We confused the Gospel with the American Dream, and along the way, we lost sight of who we really are. Church historian Tim Tseng calls this phenomenon the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America”, wherein our “earthly identities ultimately do not matter because our Christian identity is our most important one.” Instead of clinging to our marginalized identity and expressing our faith in a way that promotes justice (like Hispanic and Black churches), we enjoyed our social mobility, called it God’s blessing, and accepted the Eurocentric theology that we borrowed from Whites when they didn’t even want us in their churches.

We are an oppressed people, but we’ve chosen to forget that because we have been socialized to believe that brokenness is anathema. We feel that “Asian-ness” has to be perpetually constructed within our churches to preserve our place as the model minority within the racial hierarchy in America, and we constructed a unitary ideology to hang on to our wedge position as God’s “chosen people”. We’re starting to believe that our earthly identities don’t matter because they are superseded by our spiritual identities. We’re beginning to forget that Scripture speaks to marginalized communities in diaspora, not just to affluent communities in the suburbs, and that the Bible was written for Vincent Chin, not just for Jeremy Lin.

The bad news is that Asians have simultaneously erased their marginalized past and accepted the position of privilege that was “granted” to them by the dominant culture. The good news is that race relations, specifically from the perspective of those with privilege, are salvageable. If you’re not already familiar with the story of Nehemiah, take some time to read his word because he is a superb example of an individual that confronted the concept of the generational sin. He resisted the impulse to sacrifice his own Jewish ethnic identity for that of the dominant Persian culture around him. Many exiled Jews compromised their faith to minimize the importance of the temple as an excuse to remain in prosperous Persian society (despite their second-class status). Nehemiah embraced his ethnic identity despite its connotations, returned to Jerusalem in hopes of rebuilding a fragmented Jewish religion. Let’s follow Nehemiah’s path and avoid using the pretense of spiritual camaraderie to skirt the issues that are prevalent in our community. Banalities such as “I don’t see color” are absurd. “Please ignore my color”, said no minority ever. Let’s actively engage ourselves in the uncomfortable, messy conversations that entail discussions on race relations, and let’s do it the right way.

Our theology dictates that to align with heaven, we must look past earthly identities and see others as part of God’s creation. Galatians 3:28. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that our ethnicities are irrelevant in the presence of Christ. The Gospels recognize that we are a broken people—broken in our relationship with God, broken in our relationships with each other. We were given different ethnicities, but such distinctions led to divisions and social segregation. However, the Gospel is the announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God—the arrival of that new reality in which the brokenness of creation is being repaired. The call, therefore, is to listen to God and reorient our lives according to how He’s redeeming and restoring humanity. And let’s be intentional with our language: tolerance leads to disingenuous, coercive egalitarianism, but acceptance and appreciation is the first step toracial reconciliation. The Lord will guide us further.

This process requires the presence of mind to delineate the line between wanton assimilation and cultural integration. While the Bible dictates certain ultimate truths that all Christians are obliged to follow, each and every one of us has a unique relationship with God that was shaped by our inimitable experiences, which are inevitably influenced by the color of our skin. We can’t be frustrated by the differences in our theologies because they are, to a certain extent, incommensurable. That we will never know what it’s like to be of another race is not a trivialization of our experiences, but rather a recognition of our limitations as human beings and a celebration of our unique experiences as blessings from God.

Philippians 4:12. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. Paul knew how to live as a poor man and as a rich man. One would hope that he would’ve found a way to live as a Jew and as a Greek as well. We need to be able to accept our ethnicity and all the baggage that comes with it, and still find a way to live as Christ did.  And that’s not going to be easy. Feelings will be hurt, core beliefs will be shaken, and friendships will be challenged. But we’ll come out of it better people and better Christians, even if we stumble at first. And because I’m always looking for an excuse to quote Adventure Time, here are some wise words from Jake the Dog: “Sucking at something is the first step at being sorta good at something.” 

Posted on September 10, 2015 .