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.

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About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come. View all posts by David Park

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