Tag Archives: identity

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.

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.

I Love You CCDA, But We Gotta Talk

Now let me start off with a word of ignorance: I haven’t been around that long when it comes to Christian Community Development Association. I’ve been to the last three national conferences, been a part of a workshop panel, presented a workshop myself, worked a booth there, and been a part of a couple of soirees in the various cities. But yeah I admit it, I’ve only been to three. And let me also say that I “get” it. I like it and I admire it and I want more of it, but I gotta come clean, I do have a little beef with CCDA. I’m not a hater, but I got a few issues.

First off, I admire John Perkins and think he’s a great and godly man, but from the first year I showed up at national conference, I sensed a strong push to mythologize the man and his legacy. It sounded slightly cultish in the beginning and still feels weird when Coach talks about John Perkins the boy who vowed to love his White bullies and when others talk about his story as part of their own plenary talks – John Perkins this and John Perkins that. (Ironically, Perkins doesn’t talk about himself that much, but everyone around him seems to be rehearsing eulogies already).  Now I understand he’s important and integral to the Christian understanding of community development, particularly in evangelical circles. I get that he survived the Civil Rights movement and he’s from Mississippi, I get that, but the projection of the man for some reason makes me feel as though we are forgetting a whole host of other people who have given their lives for the work of reconciliation. We need not make a cult of Perkins just because there is this warped reflex in American culture to plaster someone’s face on a movement and to push the man into the realm of myth. This is dangerous to the movement in my point of view. Mythology about work that is profoundly incarnational and incapable of commodification makes the myth itself (and the object of that myth) a commodity. In other words, John Perkins the man and legend, becomes an idol, whom we all adore but rarely seek to aspire – similar to a Mother Teresa. We make them saints so we can remain pedestrians. Instead of being a path for practitioners to walk through, the myth becomes a sort of ceiling. Granted, I know that much of the ado about Perkins was because he was stepping down from responsibilities and intentionally lowering his profile, but as believers, I think we aren’t doing the movement any favors by wearing Perkins’ visage on our t-shirts and writing premature hagiographies. JP ain’t no JC, I know he knows that but do we?

Second, for as much diversity as the CCDA national conference has, which is awesome by the way. I’m still surprised by the fact that as long as the conference has been running, I only see the tips of the ethnic icebergs. What I mean by that is I feel like the minorities or even the majority represented there are in some cases the “early adopters” (to borrow language from the tech world). You say, of course, these are the people at the front lines of community development! But I say, this is a movement about 30 years old and it’s still only speaking to the periphery of ethnic consciousness? At some point, and maybe we’re getting close to that tipping point, if the tail is really substantive in what it is claiming, it begins to wag the dog. But I don’t see that yet. I don’t see people who are staunchly entrenched in Black identity (for instance, Jeremiah Wright’s crowd) being swayed by CCDA folk. And one of my personal heroes, Soong Chan Rah, I love the man and what he has to say, but he isn’t quite speaking from the heart of Asian American Christianity. Oh no, this is where the fragmentation of even American Christendom renders the potential influence of something like CCDA marginal or ineffective because while I believe in the groundswell of young, socially aware evangelicals, we have yet to really move the needle in our own communities. Which means to me that Christians talk big when no one else is around, but we don’t have as much impact as we dream of having when it comes to diversity as a whole.

Now I know I sound like a hater, but I’m not. These are just the impressions of a relative neophyte. I stand to be corrected, but hear me out. I love CCDA. I rep CCDA. I just gotta get it off my chest.

In terms of solutions, I would like to see John Perkins’ myth be more open to imitation as opposed to flattery. I know that’s hard to convey at the national conference level. Obviously, Perkins arguably is to CCDA what Steve Jobs has been to Apple, but that succession, that formation needs to happen and be more apparent soon. At the same time, there needs to be a deconstruction of Christian celebrity that runs counter to our culture’s bent to idolize him and even others like him. We need to somehow be able to platform failure and celebrate difficulty and pain with the same gusto as we platform success. We need to be able to see dysfunction and not look away — as Christ did with the woman at the well, as Christ did with Zaccheus; we need to stop looking at wonderful outcomes as always being caused by amazing people. Wonderful outcomes are caused by a wonderful God with ordinary, obedient, and faithful people. John Perkins is a giant in the faith, but God is fine with a John Doe too and CCDA needs express that sentiment, not just imply it. And then, we need to do some more soul-searching when it comes to tackling the subject of ethnic identity and its part in mission. The tension of black/white history in this country is still palpable and it brings power to the redemptive narrative that plays out in CCDA, but the various dimensions — Native American v. White; Asian American v. Black; Latino v. White. These dimensions need a more honest appraisal of how to shake the centers of solidarity within each ethnic enclave. I know that sounds ludicrous in a post-racial society and certainly race isn’t the only dimension, but it gives us a ready-made handle in which to approach communities without leaving the movement to some ethos of “random acts of kindness.” Intentional reconciliation should imply that we have a good grip on our self-awareness and identity. In other words, the more diverse a setting is, the more clear we have to be about what we are bringing to the table. CCDA has that potential but sometimes we are more about the work outside than the work inside. It’s natural of course, to work to meet the needs — but we also have to match our actions with reflection.