Jeremy Lin, The Civil Rights Movement, & The Empowerment of Voice

I am going to make some bold statements here, that you will probably think are crazy.  But hear me out.

First, imagine something with me.  What would it have been like to be part of the Civil Rights Movement in America?  To see the Washington Monument towering above, and hear the chants of the hundreds of thousands of citizens and leaders — African American or not, Christian or not — gathering together?

What would it have been like to be on the outside, to look on with interest, wondering whether to participate or not?

And what is it like, for those looking back on it now, wishing they had done more than just observe?  For those who could have been part of something bigger than themselves?

Let me say first that I’m definitely not comparing the recent craze over Jeremy Lin to the Civil Rights Movement in terms of any of its underlying causes, like systemic racism, or the oppression and suffering of African Americans (which I could never pretend to truly understand).  I’m not drawing comparisons about any political aspect of fighting the government for equality and rights.  Jeremy Lin is a basketball player, and an entertainer — not a politician or a national leader.

But I do think it’s helpful to look to the Civil Rights Movement as another example of the empowerment and united voice of one people, that can arise in a moment in history.  I do think we can draw inspiration from it.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because I’ve been wondering:  Are we underestimating the significance of this moment in history for Asian Americans, and possibly Asian American Christians?

After all, something is going on here, that is much bigger than Jeremy Lin.  Let me try to explain.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Internet has exploded with news, articles, blogs, music, and everything you can imagine about “Linsanity.”  For those on Facebook, the top of their newsfeed has been dominated every day with topics such as “Jeremy Lin,” “New York Knicks,” and “Asian American.”  Some have found that annoying, while others can’t get enough of it.  Regardless, this topic has been in peoples’ faces, and it’s something you can’t ignore, but have to contend with — like it or not.

That is power.  One fascinating thing about the Internet and social media, is that it has given people a voice, who have not historically had a voice in the matters of our times.  Whether you live in a position of great societal power and privilege, or on the margins of society, you can make your perspective and voice known.

And Asian Americans are doing just that.  They’re writing, singing, and bringing attention to not only Jeremy Lin, but so many issues related to him, like any movement of artists should do.  They’re sharing all of these works of creation with their friends.  In short, they’re not letting people overlook the significance of this moment.  And I love it.

I love that Asian Americans, and Asian American Christians as well, are being empowered to speak up.  I love that people are passionately debating and disagreeing about these matters.

I love it because in a way, this moment is more about the response to Jeremy Lin, than it is about the guy or basketball player himself. 

Here’s another question.  When Wat Misaka played for the New York Knicks in 1947, what was the response of the Japanese American, or Asian American community?  What about when Bruce Lee made headway as a pioneer in American cinema in the 1970s?  Does anyone know or remember?

The truth is, Asian Americans were not positioned in those times to be able to mobilize, to make their voice known to the larger communities and media, or to force others to contend with who they were.  There’s been a sadness behind that void, that’s been expressed by many in our community and broader culture.  Who are we?  What do we stand for?  Is our historical silence and passivity because we’ve been oppressed, or because we don’t know the answer to these questions ourselves?

But consider what’s been happening online, in a world where power dynamics can be equalized, or turned upside down, by the will and demand of the people.  People are mobilizing in a different kind of way.  Asian Americans are using their voice in powerful ways, as they have been online for a while now.  Leaders and artists are emerging in the public eye.

This is a significant moment for us.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of conversations with Asian American Christian leaders, some of whom are contributors to Next Gener.Asian Church, and we’ve discussed our lack of ethnic or national identity.  We’ve looked with admiration to the Civil Rights Movement, at the collective passion behind nonviolent sit-ins in theaters and restaurants.  At those who stood side-by-side, backs to the wall, in the face of fire hoses and attack dogs.

At the same time, we suspected that any “movement of the people” would probably look different for Asian Americans.  Maybe it wouldn’t be as overt and visible.  Maybe it would take place in different venues, where we can be part of the same voice, though geographically separated.

Let me emphasize again: I’m not saying this moment is equal in significance to what the Civil Rights Movement meant to our African American brothers and sisters.  Their moment will forever be unique, and part of their national identity.  They endured suffering that no other race could possibly understand.  But I think there are lessons and inspirations we can draw from that event.

After all, Asian American history (and our understanding of issues) is still relatively young and immature, and there’s much for us to learn and grow.  There are far more leaders who will emerge in future generations, as the Asian American population continues to grow at high rates.  This moment could just be the beginning of greater things to come.  But that gives me hope, in what lies ahead!

In closing, let’s think back on the March on Washington in 1963.  It began at the Washington Monument, and ended at the Lincoln Memorial.  Did you know that the march failed to start on time, because its leaders were meeting with members of Congress?  Did you know that much to the leaders’ surprise, the assembled group of 250,000 began to march without them?

They weren’t waiting for anybody.  They knew they were a force to be reckoned with. 

Jeremy Lin is a person, but he is also a symbol and figure of so many things, which is part of why he’s generating such interest and discussion.  But instead of putting all our expectations and hopes on who he is, and what he does or doesn’t do, shouldn’t this be a time for us to be empowered to lead wherever we might be, as he’s doing in his setting?  Whether we’re writing, speaking up on social media, or whatever the case may be, those are our opportunities.  And so let’s keep doing that!

The march ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where there was a program of music and speakers.  When I think of that, all the articles and songs that we’ve created in the past couple of weeks come to mind.  Here are collections of articles and media that DJ Chuang and Angry Asian Man put together.

And here are some songs about Jeremy Lin: “Nick of Time” by Jin, and “Perseverance” by GOWE.

So what about you?  If you’ve heard of other articles, songs, or other pieces that you or others (especially, but not only by, Asian Americans) have written or created, but aren’t here… list the links in the comments so we can read and learn!  You can be part of what’s going on.

When Jeremy Lin scored his 38 points against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday, delivering his most impressive performance on the biggest stage of his life, Angry Asian Man blogger tweeted, “Did tonight really happen?  Or did we all just have the same amazing dream?”

Those two lines captured so much of what many of us feel.  Every game for a while, we’d hold our breath and wonder, “Will Jeremy Lin prove himself to be a one-time fluke?  Isn’t he just one bad game away from going back to the Knicks’ bench?”  Part of us can’t believe this is happening, and deep inside we fear that we’ll all wake up and it’ll be over… not just for him, but for us.

At some point, the hype will be over, and the media will move on.  The social media news feeds will be quiet and focused on other subjects.  When that happens, what will have arisen out of this all?  What will we have taken from this?  I hope it’s more than just basketball and a few video highlights.  Hopefully it’ll be a body of work, of our communal voice, that will be forever recorded in the history books of our time.  Hopefully it’ll be something that will inspire others, and that we can build upon for future generations of leaders and artists.

Who knows how significant this moment will be, when we look back?  History and time will be the judge of that.  But when all is said and done, whenever our moment comes along, I hope we will be able to say that we as a people were ready for it… and we let it move us forward in ways we couldn’t have expected or envisioned.  That seems to be the way God would work.

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Comments

  1. Margaret Yu says:

    Adrian, I think you put it into words some of the emotions of the last week for many of us in the community. I have felt that same sentiments. I think it is about our voice and never stopping to speak our voice even if it has been silenced for so long. So, this moment is key for us as Christians to steward and engage other Asian Americans in, not just Christians. Did you know that according to our missionaries overseas, that many people in the East are now quoting the Bible verses that Jeremy Lin knows. That is powerful. We need to take these realities and use it to love and share the love of Christ with other Asian or Asian Americans or others in the world.

    I have written my reflections about the Rest of the Linsanity story: the Unstoppable Voices.

    Here is the link:
    http://mfacebloggin.blogspot.com/2012/02/rest-of-linsanity-story-unstoppable.html

    Adrian, thanks for encouraging us to steward this moment in history. It is our time!

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    The pinterest page that djchuang assembled was very cool, very helpful to gain a visual of all that’s transpired. Thank you for that.

    While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the thesis in this post, I’m also a bit tired of the postmodern metanarrative that obsesses over themes of power, oppression, victimization, empowerment, blah, blah, blah.

    There’s a statement that got popularized a while back: “It’s not about you.” I find that immensely more helpful. I’m hoping that Christians, not just Asian-American Christians, look at Linsanity as an opportunity to give more Glory to God rather than focusing on the empowerment of “voiceless” Asian-Americans and Asian-American Christians.

    It’s all about HIM.

    Pax.

  3. djchuang says:

    You’ve got #LINSANE! There is no comparison between Jeremy Lin and the Civil Rights movement, though you’ve preemptively disclaimed it throughout your post here :) A very faint comparison, at best, because Asian Americans have had their civil rights movement back in the 60′s out of Berkeley from which the moniker Asian American first emerged onto the scene. While it’s an overstatement to compare Lin and Civil Rights, and then again, Jesus is known to make some hyperboles at times to make a teaching point, you’re on to something with empowerment and our freedom and ability to step it up and raise our voices as a new generation of Asian Americans. May I add that NextGenerAsianChurch.com has already been here 5 years doing just that?

  4. Adrian says:

    “Truth”: You’re right… it’s about Him. We live to bring glory to God. I agree. But are you saying that demonstrations of justice and empowerment don’t bring glory to Him, and are not what He cares about? Why do the two have to be put in opposition to each other?

    A bigger question: What is important to God? Is it just the individual sin/salvation of a person, or does He care about what happens within the context or history of a culture or country?

    In Exodus, God certainly cared about each person in slavery, but chapters 2-3 make it clear that he heard the cry of the whole people, and saw their oppression due to the Egyptians. And delivering them as a people from injustice was central to how He chose to manifest His glory. It wasn’t one or the other. The two were tied together.

    In the case of Jeremy Lin, you say that you hope AA Christians (and Christians in general) use this as an opportunity to give glory to God, rather than focusing on empowerment of Asian American Christians. But again, why do the two have to be mutually exclusive? The empowerment of people isn’t always just a self-serving, God-less thing… I’m seeing lots of Asian American Christians begin to share about their faith in bolder and richer ways, since they’ve been empowered to use their voice. Faith deepens culture, and culture enriches faith. That’s kind of the idea behind this blog, to explore how the two can make each other stronger.

    I agree that people from certain camps can obsess over the themes you mentioned, but I’ve found that to be more the case in secular contexts. I think things like power and oppression are actually extremely UNDER-discussed in Christian contexts. But I don’t know much about your own experience or background, and what you’ve seen.

    Thoughts?

  5. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Thoughts?

    First, you make some good arguments Adrian. Thanks for making them.

    Second, since you brought it up, with regards to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960′s and Reverend Martin Luther King, did God receive more glory during and from the Civil Rights movement than did Rev. Martin Luther King? Maybe an unanswerable question.

    Anyways, I don’t think Asian-American Christians should have been waiting, if they ever did, for Jeremy Lin and Linsanity, to feel “empowered” to speak the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission to a fallen world.

  6. adrianpei says:

    Always enjoy a good discussion, thanks for engaging. Yes, I’m not sure who received more glory during the Civil Rights Movement… to be sure, it wouldn’t have been right for people to worship MLK, and that’s the temptation I see for today’s situation with Christian athletes getting high profiles like Tebow and Jeremy Lin. It makes me uncomfortable to hear phrases like, “What Would Tebow Do?” That’s why I think we need to be more focused on speaking up and leading, than on putting all our expectations and hopes on them, and what they do or not. So I think you’re right, in the sense that if we’re just waiting for others before we lead, that’s not empowerment and that’s not living out what God has called us to do.

    But even if we’re all leading and speaking up in our every day lives, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same as what we’re seeing today in all the conversation about Lin. I think there are some moments where some kind of bigger event happens, that generates an unusual amount of discussion. That’s why even though the comparison isn’t great, the Civil Rights Movement was one of the most obvious big moments that people gathered around in ethnic minority history in America. And it’s interesting to think: what are the moments in Asian American history? Even though we shouldn’t wait around for them, they can be defining moments that help create greater awareness, and I think that God can use for His glory.

  7. Auberry Lane says:

    Adrian, you are not crazy. I’ve thought about this a lot recently. I just found this website a few days ago and am reading through different contributors. Husband & I just moved to a Cali town where it’s 50% white, 50% Latino. Boom, the ethnic identity issues hit me again. Our church is all white with 3 Asians (other than us), all of which have married white spouses. I have a 4mo old son now, and I’m constantly thinking, what kind of culture am I going to pass down to him? It’s impossible to pass down Asian culture to the next gen without being around other AAs because our values rely so much around family & community. So we may move again. I digress.
    I’ve always admired the Civil Rights Movement, particularly Dr King, as I’ve read many of his writings, speeches from my Berkeley days. I can’t help but compare- there is a horrible tragic lack of identity/culture in the AA (AsianAm) community, and most AA people don’t care. Why is it that the AA church, instead of empowering us as a people, uses spirituality to keep us quiet & compliant? I posted yesterday a reply to Mr Jeung’s post on the idolatry of supporting Jeremy Lin– in which I feel he completely misplaces spirituality and fails to see the bigger picture that Lin represents, for all AA people. We desperately need AA leaders in our community, role models, people that our children can look up to. Otherwise, they (like us) will grow up reading/learning about white & black leaders, all of whom grew up in a completely different cultural context than us. And we’ll lose more and more of who God made us to be. There is a greater thing at stake here. If you get a chance, let me know your thoughts on my reply to Dr Jeung.

  8. Adrian says:

    Auberry, so glad you found this website and thanks for sharing some of your background! It’s interesting how being a minority (or in diverse environments) brings awareness to identity issues, isn’t it? That’s also been the case for me. And you’re right on, about how important these identity issues are, not only on a personal / individual level, but corporately… and as a culture. And unfortunately, so much in the church has pressured us toward compliance and assimilation. I think some of that is due to the immigrant background of just wanting to fit in and “not make waves”, and part of it may also be the relatively young history of AAs in this country… after all, we are still forming a great sense of who we are, and what we stand for. Maybe there are other reasons that you have seen, as well… I’d love to hear, if so.

    I think with all the tragedy of being somewhat undefined, however, there’s opportunity, and that excites me. It especially excites me that we as Asian American Christians can lead in some of these conversations and discussions, among Asian Americans and culture as a whole… which is why I’m grateful for the existence of this team blog. Isn’t that a neat picture, and appropriate: that we are fighting for the dignity of our stories, values, and history, because we believe they have an equal and valuable part in God’s history in the world (which ethno-centric history books simply can’t grasp)? As you said so well, if we don’t care for these things, or shy away from these conversations, we lose more and more of who God made us to be.

    Anyway, thanks for such a thoughtful response, and honestly, just knowing there are people out there like you who care about these things, gives me hope. Looking forward to dialoguing with you more here or elsewhere.

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