In seminary I took a course called Cultural Hermeneutics team-taught by two professors. One would go on to become one of my favorite teachers and the other would become my senior thesis advisor. A close friend, at the time and now, Erica Liu, along with a handful of other Asian Americans and I sat eagerly looking through the syllabus on that first day of class. We would be introduced to African American, Latin@, African, and Asian frameworks for reading the Bible and doing theology. But…where was the section on Asian American hermeneutics? It would be an understatement to say we felt let down.
But, the professors were both very open to revising the syllabus right away and added a section including some relatively new resources by Asian American theologians. This is what made me love and respect these teachers – their willingness to listen to us, and even be changed by our stories and questions. What’s more – they gave us a platform to present as a group at the end of the semester so we could speak directly from our own contexts. We were grateful for this opportunity.
Since then for well over ten years the syllabus for the class has continued to include Asian American voices. Nevertheless, the struggle to chisel out space for Asian American histories and stories in the here and now remains very real. Everything from the impact of cultural assimilation to the insidious tenacity of orientalism to the pitting of Asian groups against one another to the problem of the continuous exportation of Western values remain as barriers to the development of authentic and genuine Asia America. What’s more is that all these are perpetuated by the institution of the church, and even more specifically, the evangelical church, not only as instruments of coercion and oppression but part of the larger power of empire and white supremacy.
“… the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct. American attitudes to American ‘greatness,’ to hierarchies of race, to the perils of ‘other’ revolutions (the American revolution being considered unique and somehow unrepeatable anywhere else in the world) have remained constant, have dictated, have obscured, the realities of empire, while apologists for overseas American interests have insisted on American innocence, doing good, fighting for freedom.” – Edward Said
Orientalism: We Aren’t Rugs
For some reason the term “oriental,” as a label for those of Asian descent continues to remain in the vernacular of US American culture whether it is the 80 year old grandmother making a side comment about the dry cleaners or the college freshmen from small town USA talking about the international student that sold her a mattress. Often, the simplest explanation is the persistence of objects and products like “oriental rugs,” which for some reason excuses this terrible throwback to marginalizing Asians and Asian descendants.
Oh, but we aren’t being racist when we use this term for rugs and food. However, the reality remains that the very essence of orientalism is present even in these seemingly innocuous remarks: It is “the perspective that these societies are static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of ‘Oriental culture’ that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.” (From good ol’ Wikipedia). Likewise, Andrea Smith echoes this in her analysis of white supremacy: “The logic of Orientalism marks certain peoples or nations as inferior and as posing a constant threat to the well-being of empire. These peoples are still seen as “civilizations”-they are not property or “disappeared”-however, they will always be imaged as permanent foreign threats to empire,” (From her chapter “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy”). What this means is that Asians, by virtue of being forever foreign, and thus a threat to US empire, they are often depersonalized and subject to emotional, spiritual, and yes, even physical violence by all of Western society.
It is the church that often feels and acts inculpable when it comes to perpetuating orientalist attitudes. Everything from Rickshaw Rally to Rick Warren shows that the undercurrent of racism remains as it manifests itself in Christian culture. And yet, the prolongation of orientalism does not simply impact Asian American identity because it is about the way race is constructed at all levels. To reiterate from the last piece: “Asian American identity development is key in understanding racialization and cultural identity, however it oftentimes gets us stuck within the subordinated subject-position in location to whiteness. It is easier to say what we are not than continue moving on to tease out what we actually embody. Part of moving forward is unlocking that subject position to understand how racial hierarchy models are not horizontal. Our experiences as Asian Americans are not comparative to non-Asian people of color, but relative in social location.”
Why do we continue to speak of the effects of orientalism? Because the experience of depersonalization – objectification, subjugation, and the basic stripping away of dignity remains as Asian Americans continue to be seen as projects and products of the Christian cultural machine. These effects are present even in the most well-intentioned communities that have committees that act like keepers of the quotas and focus on representation within institutions of whiteness and white supremacist frameworks. The vestiges of orientalism exist in the myth of Asian Americans as the model minority.
Frank Wu describes this phenomenon, writing that the phrase “You Asians are all doing well anyway” summarizes the model minority myth, which is the dominant image of Asians in the United States. As a group, besides being intelligent, gifted in math and science, polite, and hardworking, we are seen as being extremely family oriented, law abiding, and successfully entrepreneurial. Asian American historians write that this portrayal began in the mid-1960s, a time of massive racial upheaval. The term was ﬁrst used by the press to depict Japanese Americans who struggled to enter the mainstream of American life and to laud Chinese Americans for their remarkable accomplishments.
According to Helen Zia, as this new stereotype emerged on the American scene, Asian Americans became increasingly the object of “ﬂattering” media stories. After more than a century of invisibility alternating with virulent headlines that advocated eliminating or imprisoning America’s Asians, a rash of stories began to extol our virtues. Thus the model minority myth was born. This label ﬁltered into college textbooks where it further promoted this image of Asian Americans as minorities who “made it” in this “land of opportunity.”
As discussed earlier: In order to truly reject the model minority myth, Asian Americans need to decenter whiteness in racial justice activism. It is more helpful to understand that despite these “positive” stereotypes of Asian Americans they have only been created to juxtapose the negative stereotypes attributed to Black people. Positive stereotypes were created to justify the logics of racism, by attributing success of a minority group to cultural factors…Asian American stereotypes are a result of white imagination, and black stereotypes being one manifestation of the afterlife of slavery; a way to blame Black people for their own struggles rather than understanding how the state has embedded anti-blackness into the very foundation of the U.S.
The harder question – how does this implicate our church communities?
Missionary Position: Saving Our Souls
Erica Liu, campus pastor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote a paper on the context of second generation Asian American ministries while she was a seminary student. According to her research what was happening in the U.S. was an extension of what was happening abroad in the countries of origin of many Asian Americans. “Evangelicals hit Asians on both sides of the Pacific Ocean as they proselytized the Asians.” All of it was couched in the language of mission – salvation and conversion. But, there wasn’t just a religious agenda, there was a cultural one, too.
…Christian missionaries went abroad to bring the gospel to Asians. After cheap labor became unnecessary, anti-Asian sentiment became more intense and laws were passed by the U.S. government which not only discriminated against Asian Americans but prevented Asian immigrants from entering. However, this did not deter the missionaries as they created societies which sent them into China, Korea, and Taiwan. The impact that these missionaries had upon later Asian immigrants is discussed by Rudy Busto as he reiterates the work of Karl Fung:
These conservative evangelical immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, Fung observes, came out of a history of intense conservative Christian foreign mission work and were strongly attached to the “absolute authority and clear direction” of evangelicalism in the wake of massive social upheaval after the communist takeover of China in 1949 ((Busto, Rudy V. “The Gospel According to the Model Minority?: Hazarding an Interpretation of Asian American Evangelical College Students.” Amerasia Journal (Vol. 22, No. 1), edited by Russell C. Leong. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California at Los Angeles, 1996, 136.)
The double-pronged missionary work abroad and in the US reinforced this evangelical culture – the music, the Jesus-language and just-prayers, and narrow theological view of humanity and God. In the US the impact of evangelicalism on Asian Americans served to essentially “white-wash” the communities so that their ministries mimicked white evangelical communities to a tee. This forces us to question whether or not becoming Christian is synonymous to becoming white.
Liu goes on: “Chang states, At Yale, the Campus Crusade for Christ, which was 100 percent white in the ‘80s, is now 90 percent Asian. The InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Stanford has become almost totally Asian, while at Harvard it is increasingly common to spot t-shirts proudly emblazoned with “The Asian Awakening.” On many campuses, Asian Christian gatherings have even become a standard part of the undergraduate social experience. Not only have evangelical groups succeeded in bringing Asian Americans in their fold, but they have made them into one of their strongest groups of evangelizers. Chang notes that, “Asian American students have become the targets of choice for Christian missionaries of all stripes.” IVCF hosts a mission conference every three years called Urbana which focuses on encouraging college students to become missionaries and evangelizers. When it started in 1946 there were few Asian American students in attendance, but in 2000, 5067 Asian students (26.9% of the total) were counted. The success which evangelical Christianity has had amongst Asian American college students can be seen by the sheer number of Asian Christian associations which exist on campuses (for instance, Berkeley has 64 according to Chang).”
In other words, conversion is a tool of exceptionalism.
The myth of exceptionalism is certainly present in evangelical communities. Asian Americans are expected not only to be extremely biblically literate, but leaders, and within Asian American evangelical communities this is present in the hierarchy of roles especially rooted in gender. Whatever the successes the colonialistic perspective is that Asian Americans are a successful project. We make institutions look good. We make churches look good. We make America look good. We bring surface level diversity within a multiculturalist project.
Whether the conversion happens here or abroad it is analogous to (religious) colonization. I am influenced by Frantz Fanon, a postcolonial revolutionary and psychologist whose racialized identity began with a conception of himself as French as he had grown up in the French colony of Martinique until he moved to France and discovered that he was not seen as French but as black. It was the language that had larger implications for his consciousness: “To speak … means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (Black Skin White Masks 17). Likewise, evangelicalism has required a specific language and to “speak” it gives the Christian follower a sense of belonging. When the Asian American enters into a predominantly white Christian evangelical community where her legitimacy is questioned she can only prove herself by proficiently speaking the language.
What Fanon’s analysis of race, colonialism and orientalism gives us is the psychological effects of subjugation through language. The internalization of culture and power relationships through language has a deeper effect on the colonized mind, and it is the more subtle and insidious structure of language that binds those outside the dominant group. For Asian American women there is the double bondage of race and gender that creates a unique experience of oppression. The evangelical language of submission is reinforced by continuous sexualization – both overtly and implicitly – of Asian American women, and even in those communities that profess to be progressive and open, the biggest transgressions often seem to be when there is an attempt to broaden conversations but this meant stepping out of the expectation of being quiet, submissive, and amicable. Ultimately, evangelical language and culture ends up being the opposite of redemptive and transformative – it dehumanizes – but not only those in “minority” groups, it dilutes the humanity of those in the dominant group, too.
“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time…But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Asian American Assimilation: Are We White Enough?
What is it about evangelicalism that historically seems to attract Asian Americans? Theories range from ties to Confucian culture to the space given to be emotive to the ease in which Asians were able to conform to wider American culture.
Whether it is joining a white evangelical ministry or being part of an Asian American evangelical community the end result is the same. It is the steadfast reality that to become acceptable to the dominant group the requirement is assimilation, and assimilation means not only consuming but also being appropriated by white culture. Asian Americans being appropriated by white culture ranges from everything including being a buffer to other “minority” groups. Julia Carrie Wong wrote a stellar piece about complicity and what that does to boost whiteness:
For the past 50 years, Asian-Americans have been the so-called model minority — the minority group held up by politicians and the media to demonstrate the potential for success for people who aren’t white. It is no coincidence that this narrative arose alongside the black power movement in the 1960s. Asian-American success over time became a rhetorical bludgeon used to deny the real and ongoing effects of institutional racism and white supremacy on African-Americans. Ronald Reagan, for example, called Asian-Americans “exemplars of hope and inspiration” while denouncing black women on welfare. The existence of Asian-Americans was a way to deny the significance of whiteness and the hardship of exclusion from it.
When Asian American communities mirror the existence and influence of evangelical communities without constructive critique, and deny the way that this is also an instrument for the power of the white narrative, they end up reifying white culture. Whiteness is the narrative. Whiteness is the normative. Whiteness becomes equated with authority, legitimacy, and even salvation. Wong asks compellingly: “The truth is, no one really knows what a society that does not privilege whiteness would look like in the U.S.; we haven’t seen it yet. How might we build such an alternative structure?”
This is where the Killjoy Prophets comes in as one bearer of possibility and hope. By centering those voices that are considered the least of these – the voices of women of color – we open ourselves to new ways of being and relating to one another. Judith Butler, philosopher and gender theorist, speaks to categories of identity around gender and sex, but really to humanity when she writes: “We can only rearticulate or resignify the basic categories of…being human…to the extent we submit ourselves to a process of cultural translation…it is a process of yielding our most fundamental categories, that is seeing how and why they break up. It is crucial to recognize the notion of human will only be built over time in and by the process of cultural translation…it will constitute a loss, a disorientation, but one in which the human stands a chance of coming into being anew,” (From Undoing Gender).
Women of color theologians continue to push me towards pneumatological expressions of doctrine and faith expression. This ongoing dialogue -“the process of inculturation is one of integration, in the sense of an integration of the Christian faith and life into a given culture and also an integration of a new expression of the Christian experience in the Church,” – it is rooted in a posture towards the movement of the Holy Spirit, who seeks to connect and integrate, and make whole. To integrate and make oneself literally a person of integrity, a whole person, means openness and engagement of the fluid and ever-changing nature of culture. It results in an intentional incorporation of other cultures with the attitude that they will help us understand our own stories even amidst conflict and differences.
Similarly, in The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other, Kim describes these new creations in terms of hybridity, which “becomes a form of resistance as it eliminates the dualistic and hierarchical constructions of cultures and illustrates that cultures grow and are dependent on constantly borrowing from each other and affecting one another. Hybridity becomes an important tool for liberation.”(Grace Ji-Sun, Kim, Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 96.) In scripture, this is expressed in pneumatological terms as well: “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I would go further to say that hybridity is not only a tool for liberation, but also an expression of liberation.
The way hybridity operates is by shifting “the conceptualization of identity because identity is no longer a stable reference point. It creates a new paradigm in which liminality, instability, impurity, movement, and fluidity inform the formation of identities,” (Grace Ji-Sun, Kim, Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011, 96). The nebulous nature of this paradigm echoes Judith Butler and is also an expression of the Spirit, and while a lack of structure produces unknown vulnerabilities and may seem terrifying to many, it is a doorway to a new way of being as inspired by the Divine through God’s Spirit.
Even as this is written, I’m mindful of the celebration of Reformation Sunday, and the reformers and prophets of old associated with the Protestant church. It seems fitting that the foundation of my own faith tradition is rooted in a legacy of protesters for that is part of the etymology of Protestantism. My prayer is that we will continue boldly in this decolonization project, and as Marlon Bailey reiterates over and over – intervene in white settler colonialist discourse through knowledge production by being self-reflexive and honest about our own complicity in oppression but not end simply with new discourses. Mobilize, organize, and make that change even if one conversation at a time.
By Mihee Kim-Kort, Emily Rice, Suey Park