Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are
And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside…
As we enter full swing into another presidential primary election season, we become inundated with a number of “interesting” comments from the candidates. Some comments are enlightening and hint at the possibility of meaningful change. The more common ones seem like opportunities to lambast other candidates, while others are simply outrageous—almost sensationalistic—opinions about current trends and the general state of the country.
It’s likely you’ve heard by now about the surprising popularity of Republican candidate Donald Trump. When my father and I chatted about it, he said, “The Donald? The real estate guy?” No doubt he wasn’t the only one to receive this news with incredulity. Jon Stewart had a field day when Trump announced his candidacy. And he surely wasn’t alone.
Trump’s most telling comments were about immigrants:
Of course, Stewart seemed to relish the opportunity to engage the issues in these remarks—and as to be expected, he articulated with great humor and insight exactly what makes Trump so problematic.
But Trump is not alone in this kind of thinking. Not long after his tirade, another candidate made headlines for an offensive remark about immigration. On the same day that NBC News described the Jeb Bush debacle, blogger Phil Yu offered his take on it, as well:
Criticized for using the term “anchor babies” during a conservative radio interview last week, Florida governor Jeb Bush has doubled down, telling reporters that he does not believe the term is offensive. “Nothing about what I’ve said should be viewed as derogatory towards immigrants at all,” he said Monday in McAllen, Texas. “I think we need to take a step back and chill out a little bit.”
This is all apparently political correctness run amok.
[Bush then] clarified further, saying that he used the term “anchor babies” specifically to refer to fraud in a “specific targeted kind of case” involving mothers who travel to the U.S. only to win citizenship for their unborn children.
“Frankly, it’s more Asian people.”
Got that, folks? In case you were concerned that Jeb Bush was referring to Latinos when talking about “anchor babies” taking advantage of birthright citizenship, don’t worry—he was talking about Asians.
As a result of all this, 15-year-old Redondo Beach high school student Jason Fong created the Twitter hashtag #MyAsianAmericanStory to call out the xenophobia and racism of the term “anchor babies,” critique the term’s connection to Asian immigrants, and point out problematic general perceptions of Asian Americans. As the hashtag spread throughout the Twittersphere, people used it to highlight the everyday stories of Asians in America and dispel persistent stereotypes of Asians being in the U.S. for the purposes of having babies on American soil and/or instigating some kind of foreign invasion. #MyAsianAmericanStory tweets ranged from stories about immigrant family life to narratives about pursuing vocations considered “uncharacteristic” of the “model minority.” They offered poignant glimpses of the complicated layers of being AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) and the struggle to find anchors in American identity:
For me, this has been a continuous endeavor—not only trying to reconcile myself (and my family) to some semblance of identifying with the label “American” but also grounding myself in both “Asian” and “American” aspects of identity. And, as a person of faith, as well as Presbyterian minister, I am pressed in particular to frame the complexities of identifying as “American” in theological terms.
Christianity has often been used as an instrument of subjugation for groups of non-white people, perpetuating structures that pit “minority” groups against one another while elevating the dominant group. One case in point is the existence of second-generation Asian American faith communities that resemble traditionally white evangelical communities. Such “imitation” is interpreted by some as an example of extreme cultural assimilation, as well as a product of the “model minority” myth, which views Asians as a minority group that is successful, well-behaved, and respected. The problem is that this perception of Asians in America ignores numerous economic disparities and contributes to tensions between different groups of people of color. When Asians are seen as “the good minority” because they have adopted certain forms of Christian practice, other socio-cultural and ethnic groups may be seen as spiritually and culturally inferior. This language of exceptionalism and conversion in terms of submission further entrenches hierarchies within the Christian faith that make whiteness the top of every ladder.
The bottom line is this: As is the case elsewhere in the culture, in the church, too, whiteness is normative. Whiteness continues to be the narrative of faith. Whiteness is equated with authority, legitimacy, and even salvation.
So, it becomes increasingly urgent that we engage in contextual theologies—theologies that situate the Gospel in specific, contemporary contexts—to liberate these systems from the power of the white narrative, which reifies white culture as the whole of American culture.
But this isn’t so simple.
In the essay that she wrote for Reconstructing Christian Theology, Sharon Welch put it this way: “For whites motivated by a theological anthropology of human dignity and equality, there still remain fundamental collective structures of action, of imagination, of interpersonal relationships that thwart the work for racial justice.” There remain, that is, huge divides between theology and practice. We might speak of the Gospel imperative towards equality and equity, but to actually embody this would disrupt whole systems even within our religious institutions. Even the best intentioned among us are profoundly challenged by these structures, which we often cannot see because we are located within them.
It is a problem not only at structural levels, but at personal ones, too. I remember when people in my Christian fellowship groups in college would say to me, “But I don’t see you as Korean.” This only seemed to solidify my otherness and non-whiteness even more.
And that is where the power of story is crucial—redemptive, even.
#MyAsianAmericanStory reminds me that there isn’t solely one perspective, one story, one narrative. The Good News has numerous dimensions and facets, and when we—pastors, lay leaders, Church—provide the canvas from which we can see these stories emerge, we are all brought closer to God’s heart and the promise of God’s kingdom of love and justice. Story always makes clear the connectedness of our shared lives.
There is one, particular idea that continues to encourage me in this work. It comes from the theologian and priest Kwok Pui-Lan, who writes about diasporas as communities around the world that are redemptively disruptive to the local culture in the ways they embody different cultures. Specifically, these are spaces bubbling with potential for many exciting and fresh, syncretistic, hybrid expressions of radical, transformative solidarity. They are compelling sites in which lines and boundaries are blurred in potentially creative ways that allow for the Spirit to move and work to change the wider communities. They are places that push the definition of family, community, and church in new directions, deepening and broadening the ways we share our lives.
Pui-Lan describes, for instance, a controversy at a 1991 gathering of the World Council of Churches, when a young Korean theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung, delivered the keynote address while wearing a traditional Korean peasant costume. She began her remarks with a shamanistic ritual to call on the spirits of those who had died in the Holocaust, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Tiananmen Square, and in other sites of conflict and death. Using her academic status to subvert the traditional form of such addresses, she used music, dance, rituals, Buddhist rituals, non-Christian philosophies, and other non-conventional—and we can read “non-western” or “non-white” here—resources to “expand our understanding of the work of the spirit.”
This expansiveness becomes the root of how we approach all of life. Pui-Lan writes that “a diasporic consciousness finds similarities and differences in both familiar territories and unexpected corners.” In the same way a deep and abiding love can awaken a sense of interconnectedness and the possibility of profound help from fellow human beings, in such moments of expansiveness “one catches glimpses of oneself in a fleeting moment or in a fragment in someone else’s story.”
These stories give the lie to all of the ugly rhetoric flowing out of some political campaigns these days. Such rhetoric often suggests that Others somehow take away from our value and dignity—and this idea represents the opposite of that to which the rich diversity of human experience attests. For the plain fact is that we don’t lose ourselves in interactions with Others; instead, we come to know ourselves more deeply by knowing the stories of Others more deeply. As the Christian singer-songwriter Sara Groves puts it, such stories “add to the beauty” of our lives rather than taking anything away.
It’s these fleeting moments and fragments in the real, honest-to-God stories that make the possibility of connection and redemption all the more compelling. They are the present day flesh-and-blood stories rooted in Jesus’ own othered existence that provide richer and meaningful experiences of God’s presence. When we catch them, we find ourselves anchored in new ways to each other’s humanity and, ultimately, God’s own self.