What are my ethnicity and culture worth, really?
The notion of “selling out,” as offensive as it may sound, is actually trying to name the price at which the value of one’s ethnic or cultural identity is for sale, negotiable, exchanged into a non-issue, assimilated, etc. Now, this negotiation is almost always happening to those who are immigrant / post-immigrant or otherwise minorities. The only time it doesn’t happen is when an individual (not at the collective level) decides to sell all of the stock, or that they will never assimilate. To a great extent, the latter position is only an option for the elderly immigrant where they might have the structures to support that preservation of lifestyle, be it a China Town or a Little Tokyo. The younger immigrant or children of immigrants don’t have that luxury. We are born into the negotiation. We trade stocks in identity daily. And depending where we are, what resources we have at our disposal, who befriends us, what neighborhoods we live in, and what churches we might attend – all these factors and more affect that negotiation, it affects the commerce of our very understanding of ourselves.
Some cash out early. For whatever reason, it behooves them to move on quickly. Others keep some, but feel like the stock drops every time they forget a word in the native language. Sometimes the only value it has is some familiarity with a menu at a now-even-exotic-to self restaurant. Still others may find it useful, profitable even to be both, so they start amassing stock in the new and the old. Some buy back in when they have children and want to re-capture the familiar sounds of their growing up. There seems to be so much freedom about it really, after all, this is America. We are all little capitalists of identity.
The immigrant church then mediates between two worlds, the mother land and the land of the free. In some cases, it tries to keep the value of the identity stock high simply because that is the chief characteristic that draws the gathering. At the same time, between the covers of the holy book, are alternating whispers of “remembering” and “new wineskins”; the diversity in all of creation with distinct people groups and “new creation”. It speaks of judgment against the nations and also the glory of the nations being brought in to heaven. The work of the Bible, which itself has taken on the vernacular of our mother tongue and the langauge of commerce, speaks of a different world.
One of the significant insights the immigrant church has shown me is that both sides, the foreigner and the citizen, try to keep the value of their stock high, without delving into the tension of the Gospel. Sure, we sell when identity value is low and you buy when it’s high, but either way, I feel as though we’re still far from glimpsing the new thing that is reportedly possible of happening in our midst. Possible and yet rarely visible. The Samaritans don’t leave their samaritan-ness, nor does Paul lay down his Jewishness, but it seems they both become a new and different kind of person, with other aspects remaining the same. And yet the unchanged, congenital conditions seem to be informed by a different narrative — not one that effaces the givens, but adds to them a medium in which reconciliation increases in value; a means in which love is seen as profound and not happenstance. Not by not seeing, or ignoring, but by entering into the dialogue fully aware, ready to embrace, ready to let go if need be, knowing that the stock we have is worth something, but not taking any stock from anyone else.
And if the church will not put forth a gospel that sees the value in a person’s ethnicity and culture, then how can we say we know the price of reconciliation or the costs of love? I cannot devalue someone and offer them friendship at the same time. If God has placed a value in creating it, how is it that we discount it and offer it for sale so quickly? Is it any wonder we have no idea what our worth is? or the worth of others? Ethnic immigrant churches have to name that value as does every other church in America. How are new and yet still the same? and how can we value all of it?