New Blog

With the resignation of David Park I have decided to discontinue this blog and start a new one.  I invite you to follow “On The Grind” at alvinsanders.net which focuses on leadership and multiethnic ministry.


Death to the Hyphen, Part Deux

The discussion with the Mission Architects doesn’t take place in a vacuum. I found this discussion online from a few years ago and wondered how much of our conversation had  political undertones. Here are a few quotes from the link:

The men who do not become Americans and nothing else
are hyphenated Americans; and there ought to be no
room for them in this country.
The man who calls himself an American citizen and who
yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen
of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in
the life of our body politic.
He has no place here; and the sooner he returns to the
land to which he feels his real heart-allegiance, the
better it will be for every good American.

“The hyphen is the leftist tool used to divide and pit groups against each other for political purpose.”

Absolutely right. It’s like welfare – when people accept it, they think it gives them power, but it just consigns them to dependency.

In some ways, the discussion with Missional Architects in Part 1 reveals one of at least two things: Americanism is a civil religion that has all the trappings of religion and elicits the vitriol once associated with the “infidel”; And secondly, I wonder if we have merely “theologized” what it means to be Christian, that by becoming followers of Christ, nothing else matters. Now I know that sounds right, but I wonder how that should be held in tension with a theology of incarnation. In other words, how do we avoid the Gnostic tendency to discard the material for some abstract, transcendent ideals? Let’s be honest, to be American is something of a socio-historical-political construction. Can the same be said of what it means to be Christian? I think for me the hyphenation helps me understand the tension of what it means to be American, and even Christian. Here was my long-winded response in the conversation. What do you think?

David Park oh wow. this is a great discussion. thanks for inviting me.

OK. let’s start by agreeing that this transcendent identity we have in Christ is the prime understanding we have in ourselves as new creations; and I would agree with you to an extent that all this hyphenated, ethnocentric, subculture stuff has no theological bearing on Christ or what it means to be a follower. That being said, this side of heaven, especially on American soil of it, I don’t think we’re getting around it anytime soon. Let me respond with two points:

The ethnic aspect of identity is not simply something minorities project; it is projected onto us as well. I need you to hear me on this. I grew up in this country, this is my native tongue, this is given name, but I will say to you unapologetically I do not consider myself anything less than a Korean/Asian American. I was spit on for it. I was beaten for it. I was kicked for it. I was ridiculed for it. And I’m no longer ashamed to be part of an ethnos that God loves and intends to bring into the kingdom. I embrace my “otherness” as a gift from God. I believe if it is stewarded well it can bring a prophetic voice to either culture, but I will say I have difficulty navigating these various identities. But Scripture is fraught with these tensions of when God puts someone of one culture into the land of another (Moses, Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Jonah, Daniel…) Furthermore, the ethnic identity aspect reflects the divisions pre-existent in the culture. In other words, there are Asian American Christians because there are Asian American churches. that’s partly the byproduct of immigrants wanting to be with their own kind, but it’s also because they were marginalized from the beginning. You are right, Joe Schimmels, there is sociological reality and theological identity, but just because the words are next to one another doesn’t mean one modifies or acts on the other; I think of it as a social location or indicator. But let me just push back and say, it’s a luxury to never have to worry about the sociological aspect of your identity.

Here’s my second point (sorry I get long-winded): it may be difficult to ground one’s ethnic identity theologically, particularly in mixed-race or adopted families, however (and you guys should appreciate this), there is a missiological aspect that is undeniably valuable and must be preserved as long as it is useful to the Spirit and missio Dei. Meaning, if I give up my ethnic/cultural identity and buy into some transcendent or generic notion of being Christian (which by the way, is extremely problematic because this is not a neutral point), then I forfeit my ability to evangelize or advocate (i.e. Esther). Going back to Jon Wymer‘s example of MLK, the reason why the distinction of African American is important to his Christianity (again, I’m using these terms in the sociological category, not in the theological one), is because his Black-ness helped him to interpret his faith properly whereas millions of non-Black Christians sat on their hands and wondered what Scriptures say about the condition of slavery. But ultimately, MLK’s witness came at a time that was critical for tying the intersection of African American and Christian together when it was being questioned as the white man’s religion. Remember that the Nation of Islam and other indigenous African religions were being touted as more authentic and less tainted by colonialism and slavery at the time. For MLK to succeed was not simply an issue of civil rights, it was critical to the mission of God to give voice through the African American church, but imagine how incredibly dismissive if MLK had said, no I don’t see myself as African American Christian, I’m just a Christian working out my faith in the complexities of being Black in America. No, the tension of incarnation is that form and function are indivisible; sociological and theological tensions within an identity are necessary in order to carry out the mission of God. Is it always required? No. Not everyone needs to be an MLK. Is it sinful to promote it? It could be. But recognize that its promotion should be for the sake of bringing others who recognize that descriptor as meaningful and influential to see that being Christian is not limited to white, middle-class, and male.

If the hyphenation bothers you, when it comes to ethnic folk at least, just know that when I use it, I don’t care how you see me. I care about how Japanese Americans see me, and African Americans and Chinese Americans. When it comes to people groups with whom I have maximum capacity for reconciliation and mission, or even fellow Korean Americans who have never worked with a White denomination, that is why I represent. It’s not more important to me than being Christian, to me it just happens to be my greatest asset. Shoot, you’ve seen me in person Joe, I don’t have any other assets! :)

Sorry for being verbose. But I had to get it off my chest.


Death to the Hyphen, Part 1

A great conversation on the Missional Architects’ Facebook group was had last week regarding hyphenated-identities and our Christian identity. Ironically it related to some of the hype that Jeremy Lin generated because he was being characterized as an “Asian American Christian.”

Here was an initial comment by Joe Schimmels:

Joe Schimmels I was hoping for a cape crusader to save me from my ignorance. Let’s take Lin for example. Do we celebrate that he is an Asian-American who is a Christian (and that is pretty cool what he is doing and cool for the Asian community re: NBA). Or is he an Asian-American Christian as if we really need to give additional characteristics (and these can be divisive) to the new creation which supersedes any identity that I may have. In other words, how do we avoid the 1 Cor 3 scandal by honoring the Eph 2 reality?

  • I think I am trying to distinguish two categories here. One category is how we describe people: “He is Asian” or “German”, etc. The language is descriptive. The Bible does this in Acts 6: The Grecian widows were overlooked in food distribution. Luke is merely describing them. The other category is identity. Our identity is now CHRISTian. And you can’t add, tag, improve or modify this. This transcends everything which is what Paul addresses in Eph 2:11-22.
  •  So I think it is fair to describe Lin as Asian American who is a Christian but he cannot be categorically an Asian-American Christian as his identity.
     Jon Wymer I don’t buy the hyphenated thing period. Not taking anything away from the richness or significance of being African-American, Chinese-American, etc. As a white guy, I honestly feel sometimes like everybody is more valuable than me but I can deal with that in light of the righting of historical wrongs. We are a richer society for being a minority society.
    If I get what Joe is saying, I agree. There is no such thing as a hyphenated Christian. Meaning, in terms of Christianity I’m not saying there as being such a thing as “Chinese-American Christian.” In terms of being a Christian, shouldn’t Jeremy Lin be a model for all including young Christians of every ethnicity/race? I guess the way I see it is Jeremy Lin is both Chinese-American and Christian. Not to take away from either.
    It might help to think about this in terms of somebody like MLK. Would we herald him as an African-American Christian? That just puts me in categorical places that don’t make any sense. I would argue that he was an African-American who actively worked out Christianity in a complex and unjust racial context. He was Christian and he was African-American, but African-American is not an appropriate modifier for Christian. You are Christian or not, and that precludes every other modifier by it’s very nature.
    And so I jumped in…with a very verbose answer. But let me know what you think about this part of the conversation first. Peace.

People As Symbols

One word. #Linsanity.

Two words. Unexpected #Linspiration.

Three words. Asian American baller.

And after a week of media hoopla and six games’ worth heroics, we don’t really know him. Ethan Sherwood calls him boring. And now I get it. Jeremy is just a symbol. My Asian American brothers at Next Gener.Asian Church are going absolutely bonkers about him, asking what does #linsanity say about Asian American Male Sexuality and how this moment relates to the Civil Rights Movement, etc. But we’re looking at the projection, the image of the man, more than the man himself.

Symbols are really important. Every movement and memory has symbols associated with it. They become the post-it flags to the whole of the event. For instance, if I said, Reformation, your mind retrieves several symbols: a picture of Martin Luther with portly cheeks with a muffin top hat; John Calvin with a thin, gaunt face and magician’s beard, etc.

These buzzwords, clippings, and images help us remember significant parts of history. And they can change, but usually they are significant because they are not only significant in retrospect, they are significant now, in the present. And the funny thing is that people aren’t always aware of what is symbolically important in the now. We think we know, but we’re not sure. Some things get left behind or forgotten by the masses, but remembered by only a certain few. Sound familiar?

The Christian movement as a post-Judaic/post-rabbinical phenomenon was a blip. Remembered and propagated only by a few, one of the elements of telling the story was making sure there were tangible symbols to the faith. The crucifix; baptism; eucharist, fish, and shepherds, etc. These were all ways of distinguishing it from Judaism because the symbols were different.

You have to know how important these symbols are and what they mean in order to understand how to hold their gravity in the present. Which is why the council of Jerusalem was important. That’s why Chalcedon was important. I wonder if these symbols have a limited effectiveness date. Not to say that baptism has limited effect (as a symbol), but in a pluralistic society that idolizes individualism and esoteric communities, I have to ask if traditional symbols are simply losing their effect because they contain less meaning. But I digress.

Here’s my point: Who and what are the symbols for Christian reconciliation in our midst? Jeremy Lin is on one hand, just a basketball player, who’s had a number of good games for an undrafted player. But the dimensions of Lin being Asian American and Christian have made him a symbol with some would say, missional and reconciliation capacity. In other words, suddenly the symbol has power that the man himself doesn’t have. People are impressed by the humility, determination, and even the faith of Jeremy Lin. The symbol at this point has the capacity to become an icon. And those that are partial to that symbol, meaning Asian Americans, 3rd string ballers, Ivy Leaguers, etc. suddenly can see where Lin’s life might be pointing and to whom.

This is why you need to look at yourself in symbolic terms. This is why your church, my church being monocultural, monoethnic, or whatever, it symbolizes something and you need to know what. It conveys a message that either supports or subverts what I say or how I live. People are not just people or projects or problems. Their lives are symbols. This is why photography and the visual arts matter, because sometimes we see in those symbols and in those images something far deeper and meaningful.

Christian reconciliation needs to be aware of the symbols we project. How much of it is co-opted by merely people of goodwill? What does it say when our churches are homogenous and seeking only to grow in a particular class or political persuasion or theological bastion? What does it mean when we keep our local neighborhoods at arm’s length? And if we are discovering so much about how shocked the League is about Jeremy Lin and how he persevered rather than wither away on someone’s bench, what does that say when we are a culture unfamiliar with perseverance and anonymity?

Four words: Knowing. God. Live. Differently.


Was the Civil Rights Movement for Me?

I know this sounds like a strange question, but I have to ask because I wasn’t there, I’m not Black, and I don’t know if it applies to me or people like me.

I ask because I’ve heard White people (love y’all, I really do) ask too. And here’s the thing, was the American Revolution for me? Was the Second World War for me? Was the Protestant Reformation for me? I know it sounds funny, because well, first of all, it sounds sooooo egocentric. It’s like asking my parents, so when you two got married, it was for me?

Not really, would be the answer. Right? My parents didn’t get married for me. They might have wanted children in the abstract sense, but I’m sure they got a whole lot more than they bargained for when they got me (and yes, that is dripping with sarcasm (and guilt! – love you, Mom!) Interesting. I’ve never used nested parentheses in any other form of writing. I wonder if I’ll have to like do like weird grammatical tricks for this sentence to make sense, remember FOIL method?)

In any case, if it’s true in the microcosm of my parents, then it must be true that while some of the intention was that I would have a ‘better’ life because of those things that were fought for–those events, wars, and movements were for principles and ideals greater than any one person, including me. But at the same time, there is probably more to the movement than it bargained for. And again, as anecdotal evidence, I would like to offer that at times I feel absent or displaced from the effects of the movement. Who is the “we” in “We shall overcome”? Am I a part of that “we”?

When we talk about the United States of America, is that a “we”? Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m part of that country. I was always reminded growing up that I wasn’t American. When I learn about the Korean War, who am I in that discussion? What shall I say?

I think some of the racial tensions in the country today are around these gaps in “we.” It’s really about “me.” Even if “you” and “me” would be able to relate to one another, I’m not sure how we get to “we” any more.

Korean and African American communities in Dallas, Texas look like they’re on the war path. Some recent headlines: “Black-Korean Tensions Flare in Dallas”; “African Americans in Dallas Target Korean Businesses”;  But here’s an interesting excerpt from this article: “Dallas mayor tries to calm South Dallas dispute between blacks, Korean-Americans”:

Ted Kim, vice president of the Korean Society of Dallas, stressed that Korean-Americans weren’t so unlike African-Americans. “We have a very similar narrative,” he said. Kim told stories of foreigners occupying Korea, taking over its culture and cities, and forcing Koreans to learn another language. Like black slaves in America, Koreans have also seen the worst in humankind, he said. “We don’t know how similar we are,” Kim said. “If we were able to start sharing our stories with one another, we would find there is so much we can build on and find respect.”

In a passionate speech, Muhammad directly addressed the South Dallas incident and said the protests weren’t based on hate. He also spoke about black history and the ongoing struggles in black communities.“As a Korean people, you will never understand what we desire as black people as long as you don’t understand what happened to us,” he said. “We have been systemically destroyed.”

Muhammad criticized the way media stories have portrayed the South Dallas protests. He said people have incorrectly asked why the protesters dislike Asian-American businesses. “The better question is whether the Asian community targeted the black community to exploit it,” he said. “It is clear our community is under siege.”

Muhammad said American history shows that Italians, Indians, Arabs and other ethnicities have moved businesses into black communities to steal opportunities from them.“I believe everyone has benefited to the downfall of black people,” he said. “You are now just the next person in a line of people who have come to the black community and taken advantage of people who have been destroyed in this country.”

Kyrie eleison~ Lord, have mercy. Your cross was for me and for all of us. Make us a “we”.


You Speak English So Well

Person A says to Person B – “You speak English so well.”

This sentence and what it communicates can be very different depending on A and B. In other words (Marshall McLuhan), “the medium is the message”.

If Person A is an exchange student learning English from an American voice actor, person B. Then the statement comes off with a true air of respect. The statement acknowledges the command of the language and the speaker’s ability to enunciate and form the various sounds of the English language with such fluidity and competence. It is an affirmation.

If A is a native speaker saying this to B, a student of the English language, it could be a recognition of the hard work that goes into learning English not just as written, but spoken language. It acknowledges  English is a difficult language to learn and that B speaks it very well – as a student? relative to a native speaker? compared to other students? as opposed to another language? You speak English better than I had expected? OK, there is some ambiguity here.

If A is a White American and B is a Asian American, then what does that communicate? Well, it could be that A assumed that B was not a native speaker. Or that A knew something about B that would beforehand that would have indicated  B perhaps had a problem that would inhibit an ability to speak English well. And I suppose with the various waves of immigration to this country, it is probably not so easy to discern an Asian from an Asian American. How would you know visually someone should or would speak English well? This is where the intent and purpose of the statement cannot help but be lost.

But the statement, again depending on who the speakers are, can convey an expectation that wasn’t met, even if pleasant. And that statement divulges something about the way we look at each other. And in some cases and in some uses, it shows how we look down or up to one another.

What about this one – Wow. You’re really good at basketball!

That’s the one Jeremy Lin is facing right now. The first Asian American in 60 years to play in the NBA is getting some major minutes while playing for the New York Knicks. And the surprise here, again, while pleasant, belies that sense of dismissal and what Tim Dalrymple reprises as “The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations.” The opening line of Dalrymple’s wonderful post, “Sometimes compliments are the worst insults.”

This is what gives people who challenge the stereotypes and media projections a chip on their shoulder. It’s what makes tokens tired and women resentful.

Here’s a lesson: Don’t assume the stereotype – Question it first. Remember that some compliments reveal that you think of yourself as the judge, not just an observer or participant.


The Elephant in the Room

Thank you Pastor Bryan Loritts of Fellowship Memphis for calling a spade a spade.   In this video clip he comments on the ridiculous blogosphere response of some African American ministers who protested the appearance of TD Jakes in The Elephant Room.  Granted that Rev. Jakes has some controversial theological views (one of which he reaffirmed his reversal while making his appearance), but the amount of vitriol thrown Jakes way by some was ridiculous and quite frankly bordered on sin.  Newsflash to the haters – we all have some theological heresy in our belief system because theology (the study of God) is a human endeavor.   I applaud both James MacDonald to not bowing to the pressure and Bryan for calling people out who needed to be called out.


Radical vs. American Dream

David Platt’s book, Radical, begs the question of how to be Christian in America or perhaps in other words, how to be American in Christ.

I think this might be the most difficult thing to Christians and church leaders to reconcile. Can we separate the call of Christ and the incredibly strong pull of the American Dream?

A thought came to me the other day that following Jesus has brought me to the brink – it brought into light all my inadequacies, weaknesses, fears of failure, disappointing people, compromising my kids’ future, all of it. I am at times, seized with terror about what it means to be a Christian, not just believe in Jesus and his work on the cross, but in the daily mundane decisions to submit my life to him. What kind of bed should I buy? Where should I live? What school should I go to? How much do we give? How much do we save? Where do the kids go to school? And on and on we go about trying to be faithful. And it’s not easy. In some ways, these are some of the more difficult questions of discipleship.

But the other night I saw on TV, the Winter X Games where young men and women defied gravity and overcame a totally different set of fears snowboarding and skiing doing stunts and tricks that clearly required a hardshell helmet.

Then it occurred to me that the American Dream often encourages people to overcome their fears for things that don’t matter. To perform a front flip in a snowmobile – something that had never been done in history – I concede must be incredibly difficult, but in light of the neighborhood, of this week even means very little. That we would run away from the intimacy in our marriages in favor of meeting sales quotas for a heavily taxed salary to pay for a house that is entirely too big for a family that can’t weather the storm but would save our face in a board meeting. Most of our lives are still stuck in what Thoreau called “quiet desperation.” We escape into addictions, hobbies, distractions, and even extreme lifestyles all the while refusing to face our greatest fears – knowing ourselves. No helmet required.

Platt is quick to point out that even most churches waste a lot of their resources, preoccupations, and time into activities that have nothing to do with the pursuit of the Christ-like life. Which means, if I might be so bold, that we cannot even reconcile the paradox of being Christian in America today. I walk around with a firm sense of my hypocrisy realizing that I can’t be radical without this awareness. Reconciliation begins when you have a sense of the cost of complacency and are willing to do the hard work of investing time in the ordinary fears of the everyday.


Elements of Reconciliation – Listening

Read a tweet this morning from @mattgallion, “The humility built into community is the recognition of incompleteness, not of partial incorrectness. – @pagitt

In trying to develop a series on the Elements of Reconciliation (The first one in no particular order, is memory), I’ve been reading more about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and been very convicted by the fact that listening is a key component to healing.

The basic concept of the Truth and Reconciliation is that amnesty is granted when perpetrators and victims confess their crimes and losses before the other and they must listen to one another fully. The perpetrators disclose fully their acts of violence, even to the gory details. The victims and survivors listen. Then the victims talk about their grief and pain, the perpetrators listen. Then after the hearings, amnesty is granted by the commission.

One of the reasons why reconciliation doesn’t happen in Christian America is that we listen to caricatures and we speak as caricatures. People who have been victims and are victims don’t have the space/freedom/choice to speak and those who carry these crimes out don’t speak either. Or worse, we speak into these huge amplification systems of media and fear mongering (sometimes even the church participates in this one) that keep us from really listening to what is happening.

Case in point, do you know any “illegal” (the preferred term is undocumented, btw) immigrants? Have you ever asked them if they pay anything for their hospital visit? Have you ever asked them how long it takes to get citizenship? Have you ever heard their story? Did you listen, really listen?

Or do you know the stories of the people struggling with their sexual identity and sexuality? Have you heard their stories and how painful their journey has been? How they would have given anything to be “normal”? How many of them have trouble reconciling with their faith in God because of the tempest of emotions, morals, and ethics they wrestle with on a daily, if not hourly, minutely basis? Have you listened?

Don’t get me wrong…I know that ultimately it is important to align our lives to God’s answers and God’s story. Yeah, I get that. I’m just saying you can’t just say that and not listen. Christians don’t have a very good reputation when it comes to listening. Christians are more likely to roll their eyes at words like racial reconciliation and oppression. We are so tired of taking the blame, I suppose. It can feel like there are all kinds of things that we as American Christians can be faulted for on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, that we just begin to get tired and defensive. But I think as followers of Christ we don’t have a choice. How can we expect people to really hear the gospel of Jesus Christ if we aren’t willing to listen to their story? If we don’t ourselves cultivate our own stories?

Our “hearing” is directly related to our obedience; the Hebrew word for “hear” is synonymous with the word, “obey”. I think in the work of reconciliation, to “listen” is also closely related to “hearing.” If we’re not hearing the stories of our brothers and sisters who live at the margins, who are disenfranchised, who are suffering and feel slighted, does it not also bring up questions of our ability to obey? I don’t know, maybe that’s a stretch, but I am convinced that listening is more important in the work of reconciliation than speaking, even. What do you think?


The Macro-Problem of Helping Others

Sometimes you can use Scripture to interpret Scripture and it can be very enlightening, but other times you can’t.

Case in point, Matthew 26:11 – “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me”; cross-reference with this the previous chapter, Matthew 25, where Jesus describes separating the sheep from the goats, here v. 37-40 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

So we go from a transitive property of “least of these” = Jesus; to the statement that poor are ever-present, but differentiated from the real presence of Jesus. And I can resolve it by simply acknowledging that Jesus is distinguishing his presence in flesh, versus his presence through the poor. I get that.

But hopefully you sense my internal tension when it comes to how to care for, live, and help others. The hungry, stranger, poor and sick may not always equal the actual presence of Christ.

And even if you wanted to say the two are equivalent without question and qualification, I think there are some real problems there that still avoid the responsibility of thought and compassion. And I say that because I think compassion requires responsibility. Random acts of kindness are just random, not necessarily kindness. I’ve said that before, and I maintain that stance. Here’s an example of a problem that arises if you equate the poor to Christ unconditionally: if you provide for the poor to the point that they are no longer poor (again, a fairly indefinite demarcation), then do they lose their Christ-like status? When someone who was sick recovers, then are they no longer Christ? Also, if the poor are the presence of Christ, do we have an investment in perpetuating their condition so that Christ would be present? That’s ridiculous, right? Exactly my point.

The problem becomes more complex when you think about the larger economic system we participate in as churches and individual consumers/producers in the West. Everything becomes distant and disembodied, so that even our generosity and charity is separate from direct relationship with us. In other words, I can give money to a child on the other side of the globe, but have very little control and influence to what is actually happening. My act of kindness is disembodied, which means I didn’t do the least of these, I just gave off some of my disposable income and in some sense, maintained that which I perhaps consider less disposable – my time, comfort, personal space, routine, etc. Does that still qualify as kindness to the least of these?

These days, charity and help from Christian circles is under scrutiny. I’ve mentioned the books, Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts before, and I think we really have to question the ways in which we are still complicit with not only how we give, but how we consume. Because in a capitalist economic system, our consumption is being moralized, which somehow leads us to want to either increase our consumption or selectively bear the burden so that others might be able to partake. But still we help in part, but not the whole. There is something that deeply departs from a theology of incarnation if our charity continues to be unaccompanied by embodiment, responsibility, and relationship.

I know this is a bit outside the purview of Christian thinking, and filled with liberalist thinking, but the critique that Slavoj Zizek offers here by saying that charity is problematic can still be applied to help us think through what it means to give and give faithfully. What do you think?