How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)
I left New York City in 1994, but I still feel like a New Yorker deep down. I’ve come to appreciate the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and enjoy the local sports scene, but I still secretly root for my New York teams. However, despite the fact that I am nostalgic about my experience growing up in the Big Apple, I don’t miss the feeling of being rendered invisible or silent in a black-white community. Things are different now, but in the 1970s and 80s, Asian Americans in New York City were barely noticed in public life or media.
I also didn’t realize that I was a member of a marginalized Chinese enclave until I enrolled in college. It was there that two competing emotions caused me to reflect on my faith more critically. First, I felt ashamed of being Chinese. Not only were real Chinese New Yorkers rendered invisible, but also stereotypical images of Chinese people dominated the media (well, maybe with the exception of the late Bruce Lee–maybe). My sense of shame was exacerbated by my poor Chinese language skills, which marginalized me from many of the people in my church. Thus, I entered college with a strong desire to flee the Chinese church.
The second emotion was anger at mainstream America for its history of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans–and its complete ignorance of that history in contemporary life. In college, I learned about the horrors of slavery and racism directed towards African Americans, but I had to learn about the Asian American experience on my own. Asian American activists were harshly critical of Christianity’s complicity with these historic injustices, and I was “all ears.”
I thank God for the Chinese Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity ministry at my college. Their love and willingness to hear my shame and anger helped me heal. Their enthusiastic commitment to the gospel as the way out of personal and societal brokenness convinced me to surrender my life in service for the Kingdom of God. However, they did not have good answers for the causes of my shame and anger. They held a colorblind worldview and did not have biblical and theological resources to deal with ethnicity and race. In fact, talking about race and ethnicity was very uncomfortable for them.
However, I believe that God intended creation and humanity to relish diversity. For instance, the diversity among and within plant and animal species in creation appears to be at the core of God’s design. Also, God rescued not just one kind, but every kind of creature in Noah’s ark. Moreover, at Pentecost, God spoke to different people in their own languages. Accepting and embracing diversity gives voice and power to those who have been isolated and silenced by those who are more powerful. God intended diversity to be a good thing!
I’ve discovered, however, that many Asian American Christians today are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Many are not interested in their racial-ethnic identities because they believe that Christian identity supersedes all earthly concerns. Others have had negative experiences in Asian immigrant churches and want to leave for a mainstream American church. Still others feel that talking about one’s ethnic or Asian American experience is unbiblical and impractical for multi-ethnic ministry. They argue that emphasizing our racial-ethnic identities creates division in church and society. They also argue that we should unite on common kingdom goals, such as winning souls for Christ and correcting social injustices.
I argue that avoiding the “Asian American” question is short–sighted, dangerous, and is an idolatrous conformity to mainstream American culture. I do not mean that there is something innate in European or white American people that is idolatrous. Rather, what is idolatrous in any situation is when realities of power and privilege are masked by rhetoric that sounds appealing.
Being “colorblind” sounds appealing because it sounds like anti-discrimination language. It also appeals to the belief that Christians should be spiritual and avoid the messy sinful world of race politics. Even when multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism is held up as the ideal goal for American Christians, an unconscious “colorblind mandate”– the conformity to “white norms and privileges”–remains if the ugly realities of race are not brought to the surface.
On the contrary, our full human experience–including our bodies, our cultures, and our politics–is of concern to the God who created all things. The “colorblind mandate” ignores the messy and complex realities of human experience. In contrast, some Christians now favor the term “cultural mandate,” which means that God called us to be embedded in our cultures, transforming them according to God’s purposes. If we are to find unity of purpose, Asian American Christians (indeed, all Christians), must consider how to participate in the “cultural mandate” and be very conscious of how power and privilege operate.
In order to overcome the “colorblind mandate,” each cultural or racial group within a multi-cultural organization must be allowed to represent itself. When Asian American Christians leave their immigrant churches to join or form multicultural or mainstream churches, what do they bring with them? How do they “represent?” If they bring nothing of value from their experiences or cultures, I would argue that they’ve conformed to the “colorblind mandate,” choosing to be invisible and voiceless.
There is no doubt in my mind that the “colorblind mandate” has had a devastating impact on Asian American evangelicals. It exacerbates our intergenerational gaps, separates us from the neediest Asian Americans, and leaves us feeling worthless in both the American and global contexts. Unlike the previous generation of Asian Americans who were forced to feel inferior and made invisible, our generation has a choice but has often chosen the path of isolation and self-hatred. This is one of the reasons why Asian American Christians have such a difficult time finding unity of purpose.
So how can Asian American Christians move towards unity? Perhaps we can begin by removing “colorblind” interpretations of the bible. Here are some examples: In Luke 10:27, Jesus affirmed the two great commandments: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpretation would ignore the “as yourself” part of the command. Implicit in the “as yourself” phrase is a need to be conscious of one’s own situation and identity. Maybe Asian Americans need to understand themselves better if they are to better love their neighbors.
Another example is in Ephesians 2:14-16, where Paul declares that Jesus is the peace that broke down the wall that divides Jews from Gentiles. The key phrase is in verse 15, where Christ creates “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpreter would say, “It’s obvious that God wants to remove our cultural particularities in order to create a new and more spiritual people.” But that goes against the grain of the incarnation of God in a flesh and blood Jewish man. The new humanity is neither the erasure nor the fixation of our cultural particularities. It is the mutual transformations of our differences towards a common kingdom purpose. So rather than ignoring or rejecting our Asian American identities, we need to find ways that these identities can contribute towards the new humanity. This can take place in ethnic-specific, pan-Asian, and multi-ethnic churches.
Finally, the Great Commission is not about rescuing sinners into a “colorblind” lifeboat, but about going into the world and making disciples of all nations. This means appreciating and transforming all cultures, not assimilating them into a “colorblind” norm. The history of missions has demonstrated that the gospel can only spread if this principle is followed.
Finding unity in purpose among Asian American Christians is complex, but not impossible. It begins with removing “colorblind” interpretations of the Bible. It also involves building relationships with fellow Asian Americans intentionally and unapologetically. These steps will help Asian Americans towards the transformation of our culture for the Kingdom of God. Crucial to this mission is for Asian Americans to understand that we contribute towards the Kingdom of God not by dismissing our cultures and identities, but by becoming more conscious of who we are.
Rev. Timothy Tseng, Ph.D., is the executive director, president of the board, and consultant of Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity. He is also a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union. Formerly Associate Professor of American Religious History at the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California).