I read Helen Lee’s latest blog for Ed Stetzer in CT. You may enjoy reading the full blog in order to understand how my blog relates to hers. In her blog she talks about many people of color, especially recent immigrant families and their descendants, are made to feel like the perpetual foreigner even though they are fully American. She specifically talks about the need to exercise more cultural sensitivity or cultural intelligence to navigate an increasing changing demographics of the evangelical faith.
Helen’s blog starts with a story about her kid who thinks that that he is not American enough to have girls like him. Another Asian kid told me, “The girls in my class think I’m hot, but a few of them think that my eyes are a little small. Of course my eyes are small. I’m Asian, man. What were they thinking?” This kid has the opposite problem of Helen Lee’s kid who thought that he was not “American enough” to be liked by girls. This kid was not even considered Asian. These situations are two sides of the coin, aren’t they? One is self-conscious about his race while the other faces a strange kind of color-blindedness. However, there are more serious problems in this world than teenagers having dates.
There are additional problems, as our recent Halloween costume controversies point out. Many costumes were stereotypical or worse, racist and sexist. Sure, stereotypes have aspects of truth in it. Some may even be mildly flattering, but they reduce the person to “brainy Asian” or “kung fu fighter Bruce Lee”. Of course, there’s just simply no excuse for racism (e.g. “we are niggers on Halloween” by painting our faces black.)
I quite appreciate Helen’s experience which happens to be my experience here as well. However I’m not as comfortable with the word “culture” to describe this nebulous catch-all “thing” out there that we can conveniently pull up whenever racially tense issues arise. I prefer to frame this kind of experience differently to offer some perspectives. I take two major angles when I look at the issue.
First, I wish to look at the issue not from cultural intelligence (because it’s so nebulous) but from the perspective of the melting pot. This is a deliberately secular angle, deliberately taken from the point of view of being a US citizen. We’ve been taught that we are a melting pot since childhood. Sure, many may prefer other more appropriate metaphors such as mosaic or kaleidoscope but the melting pot is still a dominate narrative of our country. The trouble with the pot is that the ingredients are changing. The pot presupposes that we all brought something quite different from our “motherland” (whether it’s Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico or China etc.), unless we’re Native Americans. As the immigration pattern changes, the flavor that comes out of the pot will change. The real issue is whether we will create a pot that represents the kind of society we wish to have by being inclusive and tolerant of each others background or whether we will insist that certain ingredients will never be included no matter how tasty this ingredient is. It’s like insisting on not having tomato sauce for pasta in the Old World simply because tomatoes are from the New World (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read any book on history of food). Many people are still eating dry and tasteless pasta and calling it gourmet. In order for the pot to work, assimilation may be required from incoming ingredients but accommodation must also come from within the pot. For some, the pot is so hopeless that perhaps chucking out the old pot for a new pot may be in order because many scholars on race have already pointed out that certain non-European races (e.g. blacks and Asians) look so different that assimilation into the primarily European-race narrative proves impossible.
Now that I’ve looked at the situation from the perspective of a secular citizen, let me bring in the Christian perspective. One thing struck me when I keep hearing and reading about the shifting of demographics when today’s minority may become tomorrow’s majority in evangelicalism. The language often smacks of secular pragmatism, built purely on numbers that come from effective outreach. I’m not totally comfortable with such a model simply because it breeds a kind of pragmatism of “whatever it takes” to make it work. Christianity is not merely about “let’s convert more by doing this or that.” Jesus used different vocabulary when he described his followers. One major metaphor he used was the “kingdom.” The vision of Jesus’ kingdom was so grand that multiculturalism became the norm less than two decades after his death and resurrection (e.g. Acts 1.8; 8.26-40; Acts 10-11). The progress of the church ought to inform our pragmatic minds that the kingdom was first and foremost about representing the vision of the king. Its mission is merely the outworking of that vision, and that vision is multicultural. Jesus also talked about discipleship. In order to become a good disciple, the student has to follow the instruction of the teacher. If the church is a discipleship community, it needs to represent the teaching of its teacher. This representation does not have to happen in a faraway place like Hong Kong, China, or Africa. It can happen right where we are in a multicultural society in the US.
At the end of the day, our faith is not about being multicultural in order to get more converts, though Paul did talk a little bit about that (e.g. 1 Cor. 9.20). Numerical growth is only the byproduct and not the main essence. At the end of the day, our faith IS multicultural with no culture (including many variations of the white culture here in the US) dominating over the kingdom vision. If mission starts at home in our multicultural society, why is the evangelical church still treating the race and culture issue like it’s the white elephant in the room instead of actively dealing with it? The final question people may have to ask is, What kind of church do I want? But when asking such a question, the answer should somehow relates to the biblical question, What kind of church does God want? The answer may prove uncomfortable.