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Identify Yourselves

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 Onlyfreedom 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.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

12 responses to “Identify Yourselves

  1. Josh

    whew, it seems a lot of questions have been asked about what to do with the “1.5 generation,” where we (I’m one) should go, how we should take our faith, what to do with our culture(s). But I’m disappointed to see that there aren’t as many solid answers; or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. Any help on this one?

  2. elderj

    D, this is probably the most complex thoughts I’ve seen you articulate here about these questions and issues. I resonate with the questions, particularly as I am on my own journey of understanding these issues.

  3. John

    Checkout research done by missiologists on Third Culture Kids. It’s not directly related to 1.5 and 2nd generation issues, however, you’ll find a plethora of information on the struggles missionary kids face being neither one ethnicity or another.

  4. daniel so

    David — Thanks for highlighting all of these great resources. There’s lots to consider in there. I get the feeling I’m going to be working through some of these for awhile 🙂

    I think I hear what you’re saying regarding “ethnogyny” and I love that quote you pulled at the end about the de-Europeanization of American Christianity. I wonder, though, if “ethnogyny” wouldn’t carry some of the negative connotations “androgyny” might (e.g., ambiguous, etc.).

    I’m not getting down on this terminology, though (particularly because I don’t have any alternatives to offer!). This search for appropriate terminology to capture the tension, the “both/and but not really either-ness” in which we live is important — and extremely difficult given the complex nature of these issues.

    Thanks for sharing from your journey. My understanding of faith, race, ethnicity and reconciliation is also constantly being shaped, transformed and, hopefully, redeemed.

  5. David

    Another provocative post and conversation. I appreciate Pastor Warren’s point of view but do not agree with all aspects.

    The larger question at hand is “how should a Christian engage his or her ethnicity”, regardless of whether they belong to the “ruling majority” or “oppressed, disaffected minority”. Are there general rules of engagement?

    Here are a few that I will suggest –

    1. Celebrate your ethnicity – it’s God’s design and I think we’re meant to celebrate that in fullness. If you’re in the majority, it can tricky to do so without alienating minority cultures. It means doing so in a spirit of love and unity.

    2. Celebrate the ethnicity of others around you. This is where we get to practice hospitality, love and generosity.

    3. Acknowledge that there are parts of our own ethnic culture that are God glorifying and others that are not. We need to use Scripture as the plumb line and not our cultural context. We need to stop making excuses for the negative limitations of our ethnic culture.

    4. We’re sinners saved by grace first and last. Our chief identity is not race or color, it’s as rebels rescued by an amazing Savior. I believe even if we’re among the disaffected minority, this view is firmly biblical and will serve us in engaging the “majority culture” in a fruitful way.

    I’d love to say more but I think I’ve overstayed my welcome with regard to the length of the comment so I’ll stop here.

    Grace to you

  6. gar

    Great post. I really liked your willingness to dive into some of the questions around this issue, and of course, it’s always nice to read something that I’ve written in quotes, though it tempts me toward the sin of pride. Haha.

    Still, I’m a bit disappointed that Rick Warren holds what seems to be an unsympathetic view of what it means to be a person of color AND a Christian in this country. In an ideal world, the ugliness of racism and cultural issues would never mar the Church, but even first century Christians struggled with it, right?

    After all, the Book of Acts itself tells of the struggle for Greek-Jewish Christians (such as the widows) being neglected in favor of the Hebrew-speaking Jewish widows…

  7. gar

    oops, I mean “Pastor Warren”… not Rick Warren.


  8. warren

    dear brother gar, pastor warren is hardly unsympathetic to the dual challenges of being a person of color and a christian. he is actually a pastor devoted to racial reconciliation. as Paul wrote in Romans – as far as it depends on me, live at peace with everyone. we can all decide that its time for a time or we can continue to walk the path we’re on right now. I choose the first, what about you?

  9. warren

    everysquareinch – great application points. we can celebrate our diversity while remaining united

  10. djchuang

    I love how you’ve proposed coining a new term like “Ethnogyny”, which I do think does rightly bring out the tension of how some ethno-theological perspectives seems to prioritize the transcendent-spiritual dimensions of our humanity to the obliteration of any ethnic distinctions. In so doing, this perspective does sub-consciously point to a “hatred” of ethnicity, to which the etymology of your coined term suggests.

    The irony here is that everyone who forms his/her theological/spiritual perspectives does bring their ethnic-social / historical lens to how they articulate a theology, and those who posit such a transcendent non-ethnic spiritual perspective do a dis-service to ignore and dismiss the nuances of ethnic/cultural contexts.

    I think you’re onto something here, David, with your newly coined term of “ethnogyny”. I hope this is the beginning of an acknowledgment and engagement of theology and cultures, and as you’ve rightly suggested, a “de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”.

  11. Thanks DJ! I borrowed a page from your book and thought I’d create my own word. It just seems like something you would do.

    Gar, thanks for the comment and your contribution to the post. I really like what you’re doing with the Fighting 44s.

    Warren, it sounds like you believe that some of this “racism” talk is a thing of the past, and that to dwell in it is to forfeit how we have the possibility to impact the future. Is that right?

  12. warren

    david – I didn’t mean to leave the impression that racism is something from the distant past that doesn’t exist today. We all can agree that it is perniciously prevalent today as yesterday. To dwell in it, as with any injury in our lives, can cause us to be reactive and choose one alternate path amongst the many choices. Accepting the evil of its existence, I choose to be proactive in eradicating it. Perhaps this is naive and it rests in a privilege I have that others don’t, but I believe it is our biblical mandate.

    Be well.

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