Faith and the Political Stance on the Pulpit

Having just spoken in Toronto for the city-wide conference for the Chinese churches, I received a relevant and touching note from a young man.  I won’t disclose his name as it was a private note written to me. I’ll only summarize this note.

 

He claimed that in the last three days he learned a lot. Having come from Malaysia, he came to know the faith through some Hong Kong immigrants.  Yet, in the latest episode on Occupy HK, the church has not even prayed for or shown a stance.  The lack of political stance by the church had shaken his faith.  He then thanked me for talking about the matter biblically. Hopefully, his faith would be strengthened.

 

Coming from the context of Malaysia, this note is totally understandable. Malaysian politics are volatile and often anti-Christian.  In such a society, the church needs a voice.  The same goes for HK, but when one moves to N. America, things change. In Canada, where multiculturalism allows its citizens to speak whatever language they choose (especially in the earlier times), there’s a choice of being concerned for the motherland or not.  For many, even though they still live as if they’re from the motherland, they leave much of it behind.  Only when troubles happen, they pay attention. Therein lies the problem.  They simply can’t respond or choose not to respond.

 

The church couldn’t and shouldn’t respond to every single issue, but when it comes to oppression of the weak, the church needs to have a stance because it was all over our Bible, whether it is in the teaching in the Gospels or the Law and Prophets.  Yet, many Chinese churches fail to or, worse yet, refuse to respond.  Not having a stance is still a stance because eventually society could force the church into a choice.  The very same goes for any immigrant church, such as a Hispanic church here in the US. Many church leaders know the risk. By spearheading the cause of the disadvantaged, they always run the risk of offending the powerful. The powerful gives offering to the church!  At the same time, many of them realize that the funding to help the migrant workers could cause another type of oppression against the diminishing middle class in the US that is having a tough time to make ends meet.  These are complex issues in complex times.

 

I believe our failure to stand politically is the stumbling block of our faith, and perhaps for this young man.  Finance seems to be the default or ultimate concern for many churches.  Our leaders who either choose the wrong issue (issue having nothing to do with oppression of the weak) or no issue also make a political stance to be apolitical.  In some cases, the apolitical stance eventually turns political because certain situations force us to make choices.  The problem is whether we side with the powerful or not.  When the ultimate concern of the church is about power and money, the church is dead!

 

So, I want to use this blog to thank this young man who reminds us Christian leaders of our social responsibility because our voicelessness can indeed stumble one of the little ones.  I thank this man for calling us to our conscience to engage both scripture and society so that we can affirm the fact that our faith is relevant and our church is compassionate.

Redskins Past, Present and Historical Lessons

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I’ve been reading with great interest about the debate over the name Washington Redskins. For my overseas readers, this is the team name for an American football team. As many (but not all) Native Americans started digging into this name, they have discovered that its usage is offensive because it shows a darker age of US history where genocide of the Native Americans was common. Although the ownership and defenders of the name (mostly Redskin fans) have tried to say that the name was never meant to be derogatory and in some cases, even meant to be honoring to Native Americans, many still find the name offensive to the degree that they have actively called for a name change. The honor of that name has largely been disproven by even what the original person who named the team. Meanwhile, the owner of the Redskins has threatened to sue the Native Americans for dragging his team through the mud in the first place. Even after clear evidence of the original naming was meant to shame Native Americans, ownership and a large part of its fan base would not budge. What in fact is the big deal? I mean, there’re loads of problems in our world: starving children, war on terror, Ebola etc.

 

Usually the defendant would point to the triviality of the matter of a name. There were, after all, Native American players for the Redskins, but they didn’t complain! By comparing the world’s present problems with our past trespasses that linger on in the Redskin name, we are underplaying the importance of history. If we only solve the present problems of the world without doing preventive measure, history will repeat itself.  History teaches us lessons that keep us from creating more future problems in our world. While we may not kill Native Americans any longer, do we fail to learn the lesson by aligning ourselves with oppressive governments to shore up our interest overseas while letting trespasses against human rights of “non-Americans”? All the Native American activists try to do is to bring awareness. We could do well to respect their effort and learn the lesson. Throughout the learning process about the Redskins about which I can freely admit I’m completely ignorant, we learn in more details some parts of history that has been overlooked. Such is the pursuit of all history. We should thank the Native Americans instead of suing them.  History is not a subject only based on facts, but it’s a subject with strong ethical implications. As we keep getting new facts and interpreting old ones, hopefully we become much wiser.

 

When talking about political correctness, history just needs to be our guide so that we can progress as a people. The same goes for the study of the Bible. How many believers ignore new data to hold on to the old-fashion religion? That too reflects the same mentality as those insisting on the Redskin name. All of us who are in ministry need to keep abreast of these things, lest we put ourselves on the wrong side of God’s justice. If we are more aware of such issues, we may begin working towards more of a just world, as my friend Grace and the Rev. Jesse Jackson write in a recent article.

 

A country or a church that doesn’t want to change will no longer progress.

Did Jesus Occupy X? The Reductionistic Hermeneutics of Evangelical Legalism

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Did Jesus occupy the temple? Did Jesus occupy the synagogue? Would Jesus occupy HK? These questions convey a larger problem of evangelical ethics from a reductionist hermeneutic. The logic goes something like this. If the Bible doesn’t tell us that we can do something, we mustn’t! So, in this blog, let me just enumerate the kind of stuff that I do everyday that the Bible has not explicitly say that I can do.

The Bible does not tell me to put on a sport coat to go to work today. So what should I do? The Bible also does not tell me to eat eggs for breakfast along with oatmeal. So what should I do? The Bible then does not tell me to get into my car to drive my little boy Ian to school today. So, what should I do? The Bible does not tell me to write a check today to my gardener? Should I write it? The Bible also does not tell me to check my mail today. Should I? The Bible does not tell me I should lift weights or hit my heavy bag today. Should I do that? The Bible then does not tell me to kiss my wife when she comes back from work. Should I do it?

The list above are completely and utterly ridiculous because they illustrate the kind of modern practices that aren’t recorded in the Bible. The above list is ethically harmless, you say.  So what?  Who’s to say what’s ethically neutral?  Who’s to say that driving my kid to school is ethically neutral?  When we start saying stuff like “Did Jesus do X? If not, I can’t do,” we are discarding the historical distance in our interpretation in favor of a yoke of bondage as heavy as that which was originally condemned by Jesus. The Bible doesn’t tell us to use our brains too. Should we?  And please, for the sake of all things sacred, stop using the cliche WWJD!

The bottom line is, stop making the biblical world our world. We must do this in our preaching and in our everyday Christian life. Most of all, stop hijacking the Bible and make it fit our agenda. Otherwise, both our hermeneutics and praxis look completely foolish to everyone else.  We’d end up like George in the caption image, taken from the Facebook page, Lad Bible.

“Is Occupy Hong Kong/Occupy Central Biblical?” AGAIN!: An “Ethical” Reflection on Luke 13.10-17

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10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13.10-17 NRSV)

I continue to follow the Hong Kong protests while writing my Chinese commentary on Luke. What I’m hearing and seeing are series of articles coming out of HK from Christian authors and pastors that probes the question, “Is Occupy HK biblical?” Both sides are trying to outdo each other in claiming biblical orthodoxy.  Some denominational heads and seminary principals all come out on this issue, trying to make a case for this or that.  One even said outright in the papers that Jesus would NOT occupy HK if he’s here by appealing the cliche WWJD.  Let’s look at what Jesus ACTUALLY did instead of proof texting or speculating on what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, shall we?  Luke 13.10-17 provides a surprising parallel in biblical principles if we read the story closely.

The author recorded one of Jesus’ grave violations of the Sabbath, leading to greater hostility by some religious leaders. It is important to say right away that Jesus and the Jewish leaders weren’t always enemies towards one another in Luke (cf. Luke 7.3-6). In this instance however, the leader of the synagogue was displeased with Jesus’ healing. In fact, Luke used the word “indignant” to describe the ruler’s feeling. The word is not often used in the NT. It denotes the anger someone feels when rules were perceived to be violated. Jesus the teacher cited Jewish practices that dealt with animals. Even though Jews in his day kept the Sabbath the best they could, they realized that certain stipulations had to be made to make allowances for just living a normal life. No one wanted to suffer loss for the animals. Aren’t humans more important than animals?

When studying the background of this passage, we must note that even in praxis, there are MANY different interpretations of the law in Judaism (Shab. 5.1-4; 7.2; 15.1-2). This is very much the starting point also with the way we live our Christian faith as well. The variation does create a problem for those of us who insist that we’re right all of the time. The fact is, we aren’t right all of the time and the opposing voice is not wrong all of the time. So which interpretation is better? The following four implications will give the answer.

First, the story was more about power than about mere violation of a ritual.  Jesus represents the opposing voice here.  Just because there’s an opposing voice, it doesn’t automatically allow the more powerful of us to persecute that voice. The persecutor here in the story was the powerful synagogue ruler. Jesus who had supernatural power was not as powerful socially as the synagogue ruler. In comparison to everyone, the woman who had been ill for 18 years was completely powerless. In this case, the powerless voice was the important (and, in fact, correct) one. In Luke, when the less powerful did the right thing and threatened the powerful, persecution always happened (cf. Luke 9.1-9; 13.31).  At the same time, in Luke, the interpretation that favors the weak whose dignity had been robbed by whatever ailment is the best way forward.  Jesus had shown the way.

Second, Jesus was more concerned about the human lives than a single RIGHT way of practicing one’s faith. Contrary to the popular (and somewhat antisemitic) interpretation of this passage, Jesus never argued against keeping of Sabbath.  Rather, Jesus’ concern was for the woman’s dignity. He was not concerned with how those who were in powerful position interpreted certain praxis. The statement of that synagogue ruler in Luke 13.14, ““There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” seems legitimate. Couldn’t Jesus delay his work until Monday? Sure, he could, but by healing her immediately, Jesus showed that recovery for human life and dignity wasn’t something he wanted to delay. One more day of undignified living is one more day too many.

Third, legality is NOT morality! One can be totally legal but absolutely immoral.  To the synagogue leader, Jesus’ healing was a matter of legality. To Jesus, his work was a matter of a greater morality, the law of the kingdom ethics, and the principle of human dignity. Jesus didn’t argue his case via legality at all, unlike many HK Christian leaders who are so keen to speak for the “relatively just” government.  There was no exegetical twist and turn in Jesus’ reply because no human interpretation of God’s stipulations could or should trump human dignity. Morality comes out of the granting of human dignity and not legality.

Fourth, geography is religiously contestable.  Sometimes the contesting of a place leads to broader and more intense conflicts.  Notice that Jesus’ healing here occurred specifically and intentionally at the synagogue on a Sabbath.  That’s about as controversial as it gets.  Jesus never argued about how legal this action was.  He merely used the space to demonstrate truth.  When a space becomes a place of injustice rather than justice, Jesus turned it into a place of justice.  Jesus’ action was the very demonstration of truth, but this truth was not abstract.  This truth occurred in a contested religious space.  This was was meant for keeping Sabbath. Jesus broke the Sabbath because of human dignity.

Theophilus, Luke’s reader, was a government official who probably had to deal with such ethical issues both in his work and his faith community. He stood in a powerful position. Luke’s writing was there to remind those in powerful positions and those who wanted to side with them what kingdom priorities are. The real priority here is human dignity.

When we ask “Is Occupy HK biblical?”, we focus on the method. It is as silly as saying whether wearing leather shoes or tying a silk tie is biblical. The problem is not method. So many methods are neutral. The problem is the principle behind the method. Is the principle ethical and biblical? Sometimes, asking the legalistic “Is X biblical?” is wrong, especially when human rights or dignity is at stake. Anyone who speaks for a government that uses thugs to clear a protest is espousing anti-Christian value that insults human dignity.

Occupy Hong Kong, Division, Democracy and Faith

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The Occupy Hong Kong started at the end of September, right before the national day of China on Oct 1. By now, the movement has shown dividing lines across political methods and age groups. The leaders of the original Occupy Central have taken more of a backseat while the young people who spearheaded the recent events have taken the forefront.

At the beginning, there’s great unity in supporting the young people who originally occupied the Civic Square, but soon, the united front began to show its cracks. Some are telling the three original leaders of the Occupy Central to step aside, seeing them only as old idealists who get in the way of progress. Others clamor for media attention and leadership roles. Still others begin to question methods of those who are different than they are. Some advocate for more of a street-style activism. Opposite to them are those who advocate for more of a cautious and circumspective idealism. Soon enough, there’s dissention among the ranks. To make matters worse, many don’t want Joshua Wong the young student leader to be the representative to negotiate with the government in terms of what to do because Wong doesn’t represent all interests. The HK government is also quite smart in talking to Wong, knowing full well that a single voice can’t represent the people. Here’re the observations I’ve made.

It is dangerous not to retain unity as much as possible. It is normal for various camps to have various agenda. It is also normal for different types of people having different methods. It is however not beneficial to divide up among factions now. It’s best to put down egos and work together at this point. The reason is not only because of the strength unity can bring against the oppressors. The more important reason is the democratic ideal. In a working democracy, true tolerance of minor differences serves as the basis for dialogue. The differences do not mean that there’s no overarching principle that unites.  The real question may have to be “Under what principle are we united?”  A working democracy allows for unified principles (e.g. US Constitution) being practiced in very diverse ways. Diversity and differences of opinions do not need to be a weakness. It is the greatest strength of democracy. It is up to the protesters to come together to demonstrate that democratic ideal instead of merely paying lip service to it. How that will be accomplished remains to be seen.

The second observation I have is on leadership. With democracy, there’ll always been a search for leaders. The movement right now has prided itself on having no single leader but started by the people. While this is romantically euphoric, it is not a long-term solution, at least historically speaking (there’s no historical evidence of a movement with no leader having a long-term effect). I hope to see a multiple of leaders in the emerging movement.

From the church front though, I’m glad to see multiple leaders coming out in support for justice. This has been one of the brighter spots in the period leading up to the protest Let’s just leave aside the leaders who are still pro-government for the moment. Frankly, i’m tired of talking about them. To be honest, the church can learn a lot from the wisdom of these leaders that came out to support the protest. They not only earned the good will of the oppressed but also put their career on the line for a worthy cause. On the Worldwide Communion Sunday on the first day of the month, several church leaders were out there among the people giving communion to the believers among the protesters. Some were assisting in counseling those affected by this event.  This is a greater witness than those who continue to advocate for the oppressive government or the churches that cry “peace, peace!” when there is no peace. Finally, in her support for the protest, the church has gained a human face. In this human face, we might just see a glimpse of the face of Jesus.

Hong Kong Protest and Prioritizing Issues

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This week’s big news is the Hong Kong protest, started by a group of junior high and high school students.  Their plight and mistreatment by some policemen sparked a city-wide outrage that turned into a 200,000 strong protest.  What if you’re a minister in such a city?  What if both protesters and cops are in your congregation?

Today also marks the national day of China.  This protest is not going to go over very well at all.  For a good timeline of all that is relevant to the protest, see my friend Dr. Jonathan Tan’s blog here. The original purpose of the protest is to try to win more democratic election of the city chief and universal suffrage.  These may seem outrageous, but they are quite reasonable considering the fact that the city only recently tried to impose a minimum wage on its workers, making its workers’ rights fall far behind many developed countries.

As I’m writing, the city is still in a mess with all its main districts being occupied by protesters.  What can the people of God do in this situation?

Some have participated in various degrees.  Many have said that the solution is to generate more number of protesters and with gigantic number, neither China nor Hong Kong police would dare to do anything. In this internet age, surely China would be more cautious to how it’s going to lose credibility and financial advantage.  If we have read history careful, number has never deterred China from oppressing and even killing its people.  If we look at Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, around 100,000 students participated initially.  China generated 300,000 troops from outside Beijing to kill the students.  We still do not have a head count on how many got killed exactly in 1989.  One friend remarked that he felt very mixed about pushing the student protesters because he’s afraid of sending them to their death.  Number of protesters will only generate more number of soldiers from the government.  Losing face is more the reason why China could come down swiftly on the people.  China doesn’t want the success of this movement to become a role model for other uprisings. As for now, I’m unsure what the people of God can actually “do”, other than giving support to protesters while keeping in mind that there’re also Christian cops who’re trying to do the right thing, whatever that right thing actually means.

On the internet, I see a lot of people bashing the police, and certainly, the initial handling of the situation by the police needed a lot of help.  Some of it was disgraceful.  This doesn’t mean every single cop in the city is a thug or the enemy of freedom, evident in this clip where the cops share a humorous moment with young protesters.  We need to make a separation between the individual and the system under which he has to work.  Many are convinced that cops are only following procedures.  Some people have called for the cop with conscience to resign in protest.  However, not many mid-career policemen have the financial luxury to resign. What would they do to feed their family? They have free housing now.  If they resign, they would have to buy the impossibly expensive flats to live in.  To make matters worse, Hong Kong job market is limited for people with that kind of skill set.  No one wants his family to starve.  You simply can’t eat your ideal.

Based on what I’ve said above, what am I saying?  First, as people of God, we have to realize that certain principles are important.  The church should not get the priorities wrong by insisting that human rights are an issue that we can stay neutral on.  There’re many false prophets within church leadership right now that insist that the principles behind the protest are negotiable and neutral, and that we need to accept all opinions, no matter how ridiculously non-Christian such opinions are.  The protest is essentially about human rights.  Human rights are not negotiable.  Second, as people of God, we don’t only deal with principles and ideals; we deal with people.  When people are involved, things get messy.  What do you do with the parent of a protester if violence is used? What do you do with the cop who only wants to feed his family?  These are hard questions. From my observation thus far, I think sometimes the church gets it wrong.  She often takes the black and white principles and turns them into neutral issues, while she takes the messy issues and makes them neatly black and white.  A wise person balances between principles and people.

With principles, there’re many different ways to uphold them, but the principles remain the same.  With people, lives are at stake.  It is easy to point finger when OUR lives are not at stake.  By learning to empathize and listen, the church may have a more human face.  By learning to practice principles, the church can regain societal respectability. At the end, we can be sure of one thing.  Human governments are terribly imperfect. As Christians, we can’t put our entire trust in a better system. Our hope is always futuristic.  Although our duty is to participate in this worldly system, ultimately, the system, even in its improved form, can’t save us.  We do not give up however in doing what we can while we can to make this place better for the sake of everyone.  As ministers who speak on the pulpit, we need to get these priorities straight.

The Who and Hearing God’s Voice

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I’ve been following the Who on and off from my childhood until now. I’m not a big fan, but I find their music interesting. I love some but not others. I ran across an interesting recent memoir written by their ingenious guitar smashing Pete Townsend. You can read about his interview here.  One thing struck me more than a few other things is that Pete Townsend said that he had always heard music in his head and just couldn’t keep from writing them down.

Over human existence, geniuses have always claimed that they hear this and that voice in their heads in their creative process. Trouble is, mental wards are also full of people claiming to have heard voices. Some have to take medication to keep such voices away. What separates the genius from the mental patient? This question has its relevance for preachers.

Preaching is subjective. My friend Prof. Thomas Long had said once that if you preach to 1000 people, you may get 1000 different interpretations of your sermon. You simply can’t control how they receive the message. To make matters worse, most of us claim that we heard it from the Lord. Many of us have written up sermons based on some wild voices we heard in our heads at one time or another, probably with much regret upon later reflection.

I do not suggest suppressing those moments of ingenuity. I think creativity needs to be part of preaching. I would suggest however that we need to control such voices instead of letting them run wild in our ministry and baptizing such voices with words like “unction.” Those of us who make it a regular practice to keep updated on the research of others on biblical studies and theology are probably at less risk of completely going off the deep end because “God’s voice,” as it were, needs verification. In all honesty, most of us are not bold enough to claim in public that we have heard God’s voice “for sure.” We can get close, if we pay close attention all the time as to what the learned community is saying about the biblical text we’re preaching. Combine that with our parish experience, we’ll have a harnessed ingenuity worthy of moving away from madness and a little closer to the divine. That’s about all I can suggest for now, but hopefully this will help us to study a little harder not just rely on some quick-fix church growth book or some “ten easy keys to preach better” but really go into the depth of all divine truths.

When Women Are Also Human Beings: Preaching the Inclusive Sermon

I was in conversation with one of my female colleagues and as usual, I, as a man, always learn something. This time we discussed the gender sensitive sermon. This colleague recounts how one very famous biblical scholar came to her seminary and addressed the students on sexual ethics. In his presentation, he talked about how men could be tempted in the ministry and the best way to prevent falling into temptation. Certainly, there was some good advice along the way FOR THE MEN. But what about for women?

The way many of us men in ministry often deal with the topics has two hidden assumptions. These assumptions need to be exposed not because we’re trying to be PC. That’s really besides the point. The reason why we expose the assumptions is simple. There’re also women sitting in our congregation when they had to bear with our MANLY sermons.

First, by talking about temptation this way, we can sometimes make the woman the temptress. While sexual misconduct receives much attention among clergies, the woman should not bear the blame. Her role in the body of Christ is not the temptress. Sure, there are women like that but by and large, we simply can’t assume that. Even if we don’t assume that, we must be careful in our articulation because as the Chinese often say, it takes two coins to make noise. We simply can’t put the blame square on the woman as if every woman congregation member is trying to sleep with us. We aren’t that sexy.

Second, by talking exclusively about the male minister, we can assume that no woman is qualified to minister. This is simply not true. In this day and age, if you want to be inclusive of ALL believers of the Body of Christ, female ministers are a fact and not some kind of politically correct fiction. If we want to address ministry as a whole, we must assume that female ministers also have to deal with the problem of sexual ethics. I wonder if the said speaker had ever researched the female side of the equation and see things from a woman’s point of view. It is a necessary step because we have female listeners.

I’m sure you can tell me more about other gender-biased assumptions. I’m pretty sure I have my own blind spots and biases. The most important thing is not that we go with a PC language. The most important issue pastorally is to find out how the women in our faith community think and receive our messages. We must listen more with our two ears and speak less with our one mouth. The art of listening is the way to broader influence.

One Word Study Per Sermon

It is ironic that in an age where electronic tools are so readily available that word study occupies such a small place on the pulpit. Instead, we have sermon after sermon of storytelling from beginning to end. Some sermons are so full of stories that we can hardly figure out what their main point is.

I have made it my discipline to share at least one word study per sermon so that I can educate the audience. This is a great discipline to keep me in the word and keep me disciplined in the original languages. Furthermore, the pastor should never neglect his duty to educate. When it comes to storytelling, I’m a bit of a contrarian to the current trend. I much prefer to find one word study that needs an illustration and illustrate the heck out of it so that people can get the right impression about the message.

What should I do to look for such words to illustrate? I would look for any theologically significant word that contributes to the overall sermon text. If I were to preach on the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6, I would illustrate what it means to have a “hallowed name”. The name of YHWH means is related to the Hebrew “He will be”. I would talk about how a great person is so far removed from us that when his name is mentioned, people would just go “wow.” So, I’ll have to look for a story that conveys that idea.

Let me qualify by saying what I’m not proposing. I’m not proposing that we share the word study straight from our study to the pulpit by pronouncing the Greek and Hebrew word, followed by a quick and dirty translation exercise right at the sermon with a discussion of what scholars think about the translation possibilities. Of course, you can do that if you want to use the pulpit to perform insomnia therapy.

What I’m saying is that we can very well work on some stories that illustrate. The stories are the means to helping people grasp the concept of such words. We shouldn’t tell stories just to tell stories. We should see stories are vehicle for rhetorical effect and education.

Try finding one word to illustrate and see how it works out. Let me know if you have any question about how to do this via my Facebook page.  I’m sure the audience will appreciate the effort. Remember, word studies are not merely for passing your Greek and Hebrew classes. They’re part of “God’s word”.

“Why don’t YOU say something?” — a Question for the Perpetual Foreigner

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When ISIS started killing all the religious group, one of the favorite questions people ask is, “Why don’t the Muslims here and abroad say something?” I can’t answer for all of them, but I’ve seen some Muslims answering here and abroad. For me, most people who ask that question are Christians. So, I wish to devote this blog to such a question because after all, people of the Christian faith needs to understand exactly what they’re asking when they say stuff like this and the implications of such a question in broader global politics and Christian faith.

To start with, the deeper part of that question is that somehow someone is obligated to speak up. Says who? I’m going to discuss in this blog that silence does not necessarily equal to complicity. In fact, sometimes, there’re many legitimate reasons for silence. We do need to examine this question, “Why don’t YOU speak up?” and we need to put the questioner to critical inquisition because the issues run very deep within such a question that many of my fellow Americans are simply not aware of.

When asking such questions, questioners do not realize that many immigrants have their own unimaginably and unspeakable tragic narratives. Many are victims of political circumstances. After all, we can’t choose where we’re born. For some reason, people don’t tell a rape victim that it is an obligation to say something about rape, but they force political victims to do what rape victims aren’t obligated to do. So, why do people somehow expect Middle Eastern immigrants to the West to say something? I think I know the reason. Most Americans have no idea what it means to escape to another country only with their lives and not much else. Most Americans have never experienced having their families raped and slaughtered and their properties razed. And most of all, America has never been occupied by a hostile force. Sure, some of us who are more progressive have READ, watched the nightly news or a movie about it, but reading or the big screen doesn’t make it part of our realistic experience. Our lack of experience allows us to sit on our high horses and our soapboxes to address the rest who have the misfortunate of having the above experiences. As one of my buddies observed, most Arab-American just want to carry on with their lives without having to think about what happened to their homeland or their families. They don’t want to see the rerun of their trauma, whether on big screen or in public announcement. Perhaps, that’s why they don’t want to say anything. Perhaps, we can learn empathy to overcome our warped judgment.

This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says the time for “YOU” to speak is NOW? Who gets to dictate to the “YOU” when the right time is? Let’s face it, bad timing has plagued not just recent political history, but also a lot of missionary history. When one group decides that it’s the RIGHT TIME, it does not automatically mean that it is the right time. Even if the group is the majority, historical timing is not democratic. I wonder if it ever occurred to those questioners that being so ignorant of the culture they’re criticizing (for the most part) that somehow they think that they’ve got the timing down, thus giving them the right to tell American Muslims WHEN to say something. The very same can apply to any activism. Silence is not necessarily non-participation. Sometimes, people just need to take the time to think. In most cases I’ve seen, those who are most ignorant of the things they criticize tend to speak the quickest and loudest. Ignorance creates simplistic interpretation. Reality is NEVER simple.

This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says “YOU” represents the entire group? I will talk more about the “YOU” as a group later, but I’m speaking of the individual “YOU” here. People often assume that an individual within a group has this obligation to speak just because that individual is part of the group. This is funny because as a society of rugged individualism, we often push that aside in favor of group think when we think about OTHERS who are different from us. “Oh the Chinese all think like … You know them Japanese, they think like … Oh, the darn Muslims, they are all like … Why don’t YOU speak up?” Who says an individual represents a whole group? This is the burden of every foreigner who immigrated here. S/he is somehow obligated to speak for the whole group for some strange reason. This obligation never lands on REAL Americans because you know, we REAL Americans are so ruggedly individualistic. This is stupid! When someone says to me, “YOU are Asian (or Muslim or Hindu or Martian). Say something.” Says who? My opinion does NOT represent all Asians or Asian Americans, even though I might occupy a certain position in the public sphere. No Asian American would automatically assume that my opinion is representative of the group, no matter how many books I write. It is precisely at this stage when things go badly wrong. Due to our silence on whatever issue at the moment, the questioner would choose to speak for us by saying with authoritative pronouncement, “Oh, the X group is silent.” Sorry, no one gets to speak for me or for us or for another group. This god-like complex has to go.

This brings us to another deeper problem. Who says “YOU” aren’t speaking? A lot of times, many such questioners are not in on the right conversations. The assumption that no one is speaking just because mainstream media selectively report opinions and voices is completely misinformed. The real issue is, why are people who dominate the voices not hearing the conversation? The reason is simple. Many such people don’t bother to understand the group they’re questioning. I often ask people this same question, “How many Muslims do you know?” A lot of times, I get blank stares. So, how many? Let me get this straight then. We can draw conclusion from never having to make personal contact with a group we’re criticizing. If I criticize any group like that without even making contact with numerous members, I’d be called a bigot. The questioner is often a bigot.

This brings us to another deeper problem. The “YOU” in such a question often means “YOU the foreigner” versus “we the TRUE Americans.” The very fact “YOU” have to speak up says that YOU really are part of THEM (i.e. the Muslims or Chinese or Koreans or whatever group) and not part of “US”. This line of logic is very deeply ingrained in both our society and our faith communities. In a more subtle Christian form, it goes something like this, “Hey, look! There’re some Chinese visiting our (primarily white) church. Why don’t YOU talk to them?” The YOU can take on so many different meanings with so much rhetorical force. Most of us who immigrated would certainly wish to be JUST American. We’re also reminded by our well-meaning (but much misguided friends) that we should not be the “hyphenated American,” but how can we not be when the collective YOU (or the racist “YOU PEOPLE”) is so often used to put us together as a group? YOUR PEOPLE should sort this out! So, we’re only allowed to be the hyphenated American not of our choice but out of the prejudicial convenience of our racist inquisitors? Where’s the freedom that people speak so fondly of? Next time someone put that guilty “Look, there’re some Chinese visiting our church. Why don’t you talk to them?” question to me again, I’m going to ask a different (but probably MORE Christian and definitely MORE missional) question, “Why don’t YOU talk to them? You don’t care about visitors to our church?” I would say more times than not, generally Americans and specifically Christians should make friends with someone who speaks a different language and come from a different culture instead of hanging about our uniform holy huddle. It’d be a growing experience.

So, before you ask that question, “Why didn’t YOU say something?” next time, think of the reason and impact of that question. Most of us are unaware of the harmful impact from our silly and careless questions. In the complex world of questions, there’re many answers. The above is just a list for some of those answers. Freedom of choice also includes silence.

 

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