I’ll be honest, my views of my ethnicity as it relates to my faith in Jesus Christ have evolved over the course of processing my thoughts on this blog, and I believe I’m still learning and have a long way to go.
In my defense, it is not a simple matter and many a doctoral dissertation has been written on this collision between identity, faith, and culture. There are so many factors involved especially when you look over the course of history and the interactions of the various people groups involved.
As Pastor Warren brought up some interesting issues in his comments here and on his latest blog post, I feel like it’s good to find myself back in that place of recalibration and checking the plumbline. I’ve asked these questions of myself before. And because it’s true that “religion can play a significant part in affecting a young Asian American’s ethnic identity”, I think it’s always good to ask why God made me an Asian American and as nskripchun duly asks, “What’s an Asian American Christian to do?” Check out this well-articulated snippet:
Too often there’s the claim that recognizing our Asian-ness is a “distraction” from focusing on our Christianity when the reality is this: There are those within the Christian community who mistake conformity with white American cultural norms (English Only… freedom versus tyranny, anyone?) with conformity to the life Jesus Christ called us to – a life of sacrifice, love, hope, and TRUTH.
God granted Asian American Christians their Asian identity for a good reason… and it’s not solely for starring in poorly written skits. The Asian American Christian community could do better to realize that and not be ashamed of being “yellow.”
And read an excerpt from this abstract to see how complex identity formation can be when the dynamics of power and privilege are applied.
Mennonites have historically operated within an ethnicity framework, emphasizing their Swiss-Germanic ethnic roots, but de-emphasizing their racial identity as a white church. Involvement with African Americans forced white individuals and the broader church to adopt a racial framework perspective and consider the implications of historical racism and contemporary racial inequality. In contrast, white Mennonite outreach to Asian immigrants was primarily situated within an ethnicity framework in which traditional Mennonites could emphasize diverse ethnic cultures while avoiding the more difficult issues of power and privilege that accompany a racial framework. [emphasis mine] This was accomplished through a process of universalizing religious identity while at the same time particularizing ethnic identity and de-emphasizing racial identity. Despite the focus of the Mennonite church on an ethnicity framework, race continues to matter in two important areas: (1) People of color still perceive the Mennonite identity as a constraint to their full inclusion in the Mennonite community and (2) congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. Thus, Mennonites have not sufficiently universalized their religious identity to free it from the exclusiveness of ethnic and racial particularities. [emphasis mine]
Furthermore, an interesting Dana Takagi paper cites this Frantz Fanon quote, “History teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism”, which I think is exactly the sentiment which adds a degree of difficulty to the identity crisis that many Asian Americans face before and after becoming Christian.
This quote comes from a great InterVarsity paper (doc) (html)that discusses the theology behind ethnic-specific fellowships, but notice the consistent self-image problem that takes place among Asian American Christians in the following excerpt:
Being made in the image of God, our race and ethnicity is good. God deemed it so. This goodness needs to be affirmed in who we are as a part of creation. Unfortunately, for many Asian Americans, understanding the reality of this goodness is a struggle. Raised in a dominant white majority culture, Asian American responses can often take the form of culture rejection and attempted assimilation into the mainstream, or personal shame regarding ethnic inferiority. In my years of working with college students, my heart continually breaks over the many Asian Americans who distance themselves from their ethnic heritage or have asked the question, “Did God make a mistake in creating me differently as an Asian? Why do I feel inferior?”
Here’s another paper that echoes that thought…but with a rather different twist that perhaps with Christ as the focus of the identity, one could extrapolate (as I’ve sometimes concluded on this blog,) that there might be a good retrieval and celebration of culture, not as stumbling block, but as bridge.
In ethnically or racially homogenous campus ministries where most Asian Americans are clustered, Asian Americans can take their ethnicity for granted. Their race is a “non-issue”; they don’t need to worry about it. In his study of Chinese American and Korean American evangelicals, Anthony Alumkal (2002) finds that Asian Americans retreat into evangelical campus fellowships as an act of self preservation in a racially hostile setting. Rudy V. Busto (1996) similarly argues that Asian Americans find refuge in evangelicalism on the “increasingly racialized college campus where Asian American students are imaged as competitive, overrepresented and culturally monolithic…” (37). Examining the reorganization of Chinese and Japanese American congregations around a new pan-ethnic Asian American identity, Russell Jeung (2000) adds that contemporary evangelicalism gives Asian Americans a chance to escape the undesirable aspects of their racial status by adopting an alternative identity, by making Christianity the locus of their identity. [emphasis mine] Ethnic and racial distinctions are thus transcended through a relationship with God. Asian Americans can turn to many of the ethnically or racially homogeneous evangelical fellowships to escape a society where “race” continues to matter.
One insight that the above article states is that often whites take flight when fellowships begin to diversify: “They leave in search of their own racially homogenous campus ministry where they can remain the majority, where they don’t have to “deal with diversity.” This is what happened at several IVCF chapters.” To mix my metaphors: It looks like the tables have turned on the light switch.
But here’s an important wrinkle I’ve found to be true in my personal life and in the context of my life in church, living and wrestling between two cultures is a good thing. If I might make up a new word here, ethnogyny — borrowing from androgyny, to describe a condition of being neither one ethnicity or another, is a good tension in which to engage our faith and identity. And, if I might be so bold, could add to the next turn of the kaleidoscope in American Christianity. Curiously enough, this sociologist states from his research the following, “This means that the new immigrants represent not the de-Christianization of American society but the de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
Perhaps the diversity and the spectrum of God’s Kingdom is stretching now even as we work to identify ourselves.