by nate lee
It may come as a surprise that most of the tables that line Sproul Plaza these days belong not to political groups, racial solidarity groups, or groups supporting social causes, but to Asian American Christian groups. And I bet that if you walked down Sproul on a school day and grabbed every flier that was thrust into your hands, many of them would be invitations to Bible studies, prayer meetings, and other wholesome events hosted by Christian fellowships.
I find it an ironic juxtaposition: here you have Sproul Plaza, the holy land of the Free Speech Movement and the birthplace of progressive student activism, and then you have a bunch of conservative Asian American Christian groups trying to invite you to their free BBQs.
I don’t speak about these Christian groups disrespectfully because, well, I’m on staff with one. But I am heartbroken because, in spite of our hopes to proclaim Truth, when it comes to issues that matter to the rest of the campus and the world—issues like politics, race, and justice—the Asian American Christian community has, as Martin Luther King said of the Christian church, “lagged in its concern for social justice and too often has been content to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” And in a world where the status quo continues to pull the marginalized into even greater depths of poverty and hopelessness, silence is compliance, and it is hurtful.
I believe the reason Asian American Christians are not more socially engaged is because we have internalized and co-opted the model minority myth into our theology. We have become the Moral Model Minority, silencing our distinct historical narratives and using God to validate our privilege.
Majority culture has told us that we have succeeded without any handouts, and we have responded with a resounding “Amen!” without realizing that our alliance with the dominant culture has forfeited our identity and implicitly cast an indictment on other minority groups. Many Asian American Christians, finding that their Confucian values of hard work, personal achievement, and frugality aligned with the Protestant work ethic, have in fact replaced the Gospel with the American Dream. We have interpreted our signs of material and academic prosperity as God’s blessing and have turned a pharisaic eye toward Black and Latino communities, LGBTQ communities, the poor, and the less privileged while forgetting that we were once in their shoes (and in many ways still are).
Our theology furthers this downward spiral into social oblivion. Church historian Tim Tseng calls it the “Evangelical deconstruction of Asian America” where the belief is that “our earthly identities ultimately do not matter [because] our Christian identity is our most important one.” Is it a surprise, then, that Asian American Christians are quick to dismiss their own cultural identity? Perhaps in our pursuit to, as the Bible says, “be one in Christ,” we have actually silenced our own unique stories and become cookie cutter Christians who no longer know themselves or their place in the world. Furthermore, the common Christian belief that this world is evil and passing away and that we should only be focused on some heaven in the hereafter only drives us to be more complacent toward a hurting world.
As a community, we have forgotten about our marginalized past. We have forgotten that the reason many of our ethnic churches were built was because white churches would not accept us. Our churches therefore became ethnic community centers where we could receive language training, develop job networks, and obtain positions of leadership. However, instead of continuing to identify as marginalized and expressing our faith in a way that promoted justice (like many Black and Latino churches have), we clung to our upward mobility, adopted a white Western theology, moved to the suburbs, called it God’s blessing, and began to view the world from a distance, through a privileged lens.
We must remember that the Bible was written for marginalized communities in diaspora, not for privileged folks whose greatest fear in life is failing chem. We cannot forget that Jesus was a poor refugee, that he represented a Jewish people who were oppressed by Roman imperialists, and that he led a revolution called The Way that stood in stark opposition to the status quo. But we don’t want to believe this, because to believe in this Jesus threatens our hard-earned success. So we nail him to a cross and we crucify our own identities and narratives along with him.
To be frank, I strongly believe that issues of racial, sexual, political, social, and economic injustice have spiritual roots and solutions. The Christian community hopes to be a spiritual voice in the conversation on campus about justice. In light of all this, I apologize. I am sorry for my own silence, ignorance, and apathy, for the ways that the Christian community at Cal has been a purveyor of injustice rather than a co-laborer for peace. I apologize for the ways we have judged justice movements and have looked pridefully upon the activist community.
The Asian American Christian community must reclaim its identity. We must refuse to adopt the story that American society gives us and instead tell our own distinct God-given narratives. We must see the world with new eyes and call out the ways that the dominant culture continues to prevent us from having the world that God desires: a world where there is no more violence or oppression, where relationships are made right, and where we can become whole again. We must realize that the Gospel is not just about converting individual souls for some paradise over yonder, but that it is about the restoration of all brokenness in the here and now. When we finally end our finger-pointing, we may find that we are just as much in need of conversion and salvation as those we have called “lost.” When we join each other, we will find that our liberation and restoration are wrapped up together as one. This is revival. Amen.