Why Ethnic Identity and Christianity can Coexist
by steven cong
When you think of church or Christianity, an image that might immediately come to mind is that of a man with fair hair and blue eyes whom everyone worships. You might also think of conservative (mostly white) politicians, and European pilgrims
seeking asylum for their religious beliefs. For the longest time, these were the images I subconsciously associated with Christianity as I professed my faith to Christ.
It is not surprising then that for much of my life I just felt so culturally disconnected from the Christian community. After Jesus Christ was nailed to that cross, his message spread throughout the Roman Empire, and his legacy was mostly in Europe. In Asia, aside from the sporadic presence of people like the Nestorian monks during the Tang Dynasty, Christianity did not leave much of an impact until the era of European colonialism.
Asia and the missionaries were not exactly a match made in heaven (pun intended). The indigenous culture of many Asian ethnicities was condemned as “heathen” by foreign missionaries, and the absence of Christianity was part of the reason
many Asian countries were seen as barbaric. It was exactly through instances like French imperialism in Vietnam that the seeds of Christianity were sown into the fabric of various Asian cultures.
The actions of some “Christians,” however, are not always reflective of the doctrine of Christianity itself. For me, the missionaries who decided to trample upon Asian culture and impose Christianity as the standard for civility did not reflect
the spirit of the Bible. They did not love their neighbors as themselves. It is very much analogous to how President Bush inserted American imperialism into the Middle East under the guise of democratization. While it doesn’t mean that
democracy is bad, it does make democracy look bad.
So why am I a Christian? As a Chinese American, shouldn’t I be rubbing the belly of some golden Buddha and burning incense? Or, to go with the ideology of Communist China, shouldn’t I be an atheist? One’s ethnic identity does not and should not
translate directly into any specific religion. I do believe, however, that Christianity is something that can accommodate my Asian American identity. When the Eurocentric history of Christianity and its politically charged contemporary reputation are all swept aside, what remains is a religion remarkably capable of adapting to different cultures.
From its inception, Christianity was a religion catered to Jewish males. Yes, Jesus was not Aryan with fair hair and blue eyes. Instead, he was from Israel in the Middle East. However, the religion that formed around him grew to adapt the culture of the West. Elements of Christianity, such as the Ten Commandments, easily consolidated a Western culture that stressed the rule of law. Then, in America, blacks embraced the concept that all men were equal before God to pursue emancipation from slavery.
Blacks also heavily contributed to modern Christian culture through the rhythmic nature of genres like gospel music.
Wendy Hu-Au, Team Leader for the Black Campus Ministries fellowship in Berkeley, said that Christianity is like a house with many doors. If there was only one door, then only a Jewish man can be accepted by the Christian God. However, Hu-Au believes that there are numerous doors that serve the specific needs of a diverse and multicultural society. When I heard her say that at the Sunday Night Live event last semester, I realized there was a very specific door for me. If there was a door
that is specifically designed for Asian Americans, then why would I have to wholly adopt the Western culture to be Christian, like one of my former pastorshad implied? The answer is that I don’t, and nobody should be able to spiritually guilt-trip me into thinking otherwise.
So Christianity doesn’t need to be Western. But does that necessarily mean it could actually accommodate everybody? According to Erina Kim, Intervarsity fellowship staff member, some of the most popular terms used to describe Christians in a survey included “hypocritical,” “sheltered,” and “judgmental.” That does not sound like the kind of people who would tolerate those who are different, or be a GoodSamaritan when they see someone in need. Admittedly, some Christians are like that. However, is that reflective of all Christians, or more importantly, what Christianity dictates a Christian should be?
The story of Christ showed that he spent most his life in the company of people the mainstream community considered to be inadequate and failures; he appealed to the ones society had often excluded. Wait, excluded? That sounds familiar. In a way, when I reflect on the people Christ chose to represent and how Asian Americans were treated for most of American history, it just makes sense to see Christ as someone who would care about Asian Americans.
Nate Lee, a senior in Intervarsity, said, “I hope that the Asian Church in America more fully embraces its mission as a group who have been marginalized in society. Jesus came to set the oppressed free and as Asian Americans…we need to identify as people set free by Jesus. We also have to make a commitment to freeing others, getting involved in social justice rather than building up our own complacent and safe enclaves.”
I once heard a song by Asian American rapper Bambu called “Misused.” He made several derogatory references to Christianity, and I was saddened by how much his thoughts on the practice of Christianity rang true. In the song, he claimed to be a “heathen who’d rather see the present be fair than to pray to a white man on a cross instead,” and that he “used to sit in church and look at the stained glass and wonder why none of them looked like [him]. And [he] just don’t want his son to go through that kind of shit.”
For Asian American Christians not raised in ethnic enclaves, this sense of ethnic displacement due to religious affiliation is not
uncommon. Yet the story of Christ is so much more than just the narrative of one dominant culture. In fact, Christ’s story was meant for people like Bambu, and if the Asian American church wants Christianity to be accessible to theAsian American people, that fundamental belief needs to transcend common misconceptions of what Christianity is, and who it’s for.