Words Matter, “Red Guards” in Hong Kong?: Revisitation of Rick Warren’s Red Guard Controversy

The Charlie Hebdo situation has everyone in the West thinking about free speech recently. Free speech can be deadly.   When Rick Warren made his little Red Guard quip a little over a year ago, or more accurately , with the picture depicting women of the Chinese Red Army, his fans zealously defended him to the point of using inflammatory and racist language (yes, these are “Christians” who told us to eat some dogs and cats. After a few months, Warren belatedly but wisely took the thread down.).  If you don’t believe in my claim of his cult-like worship by his fans, just look at the comment section of the original blog post on the event.

My buddy Justin said that we should’ve commemorated that exact date when all this kicked off, but it would’ve distracted from the HK Umbrella Movement which was a much more important event that Warren’s careless and racially insensitive post.   The post has since been eliminated.  His reluctant non-apology apology eventually progressed to a hesitant apology. While his representatives told some of us privately that “we”, the Asian-Americans, should apologize instead for dragging his name in the dirt of secular media, no one understood the consequences of his words.  We will not apologize for our criticism and no one should be laughing now.  Instead, this week’s news proves that we’ve been right all along. In fact, Warren’s tasteless joke had an ominous and even apocalyptic link to the Umbrella Movement that calls for more freedom in HK.  Warren let on more than he knew.

This week, I bring you the distressing news from Hong Kong, the land of Warren’s church plant, Saddleback HK, that HK now has its own version of the junior Red Guards (a paramilitary group of teens who attend training camps) who pledged their undying loyalty to the motherland China.  No, I didn’t get this from a tabloid outlet. I got this from HK’s prestigious local paper Ming Pao which even overseas Chinese read.  Yep, that’s it.  The situation looks more like China’s version of the Hitler’s Youth and the SS than some youth group in a mega church.  Wonder what Saddleback, or better yet, Saddleback HK, will say about THIS.  What I do know is that the silence had been deafening from both Saddleback US and Saddleback HK when their pro-democracy Christian brothers and sisters were arrested and severely beaten in the Umbrella Movement.  New jokes, anybody?

See, this blog is not about my personal feeling towards Mr. Warren. I don’t know him. For all we know, he’s probably the nicest guy you’d can ever meet.  No, this blog is about something much more serious than a Christian celebrity’s personality.  It’s about the kingdom of God and the social conscience of the church. It’s also about how words can kill!   During the controversy, mostly white Christians accused Asian-American Christians of being divisive and thins-skinned.  It’s mostly because they hardly understand another culture from another perspective.  Most of us understood what it means to suffer because our parents came from a land with foreign occupation, human rights violations and religious persecution.  Some of us, like myself, still go back there for ministerial work (and other types of work).  We already have incredibly thick skin from all those cases of suffering that most average white American has no idea about.  The thinness of our yellow skin is the least of our problem.   Also divisiveness is the least of our problem.  We’re united in suffering and live in unity with the sufferers.

What exactly is the problem? The problem is the lack of unity between the US brand of popular Christianity with the global church, and we’re spreading that brand by planting our own version of Christianity all over the place in the name of mission. THAT is the problem. Warren’s jokes typify that problem.  The very fact we think we can speak in everything and anything without understanding that our humor and our words are just that, jokes, is indeed the problem.  Our lack of introspection and circumspection, fueled by our colonial arrogance, causes the problem!  We’re such masters of bad timing that when we’re supposed to shut up, we speak and when we’re supposed to speak, we keep quiet.  This has nothing to do with political correctness.  This has everything to do with political awareness (and a genuine need for humility and human compassion).

The purge against pro-democracy advocates has begun after the Umbrella Movement in HK.  It’s potentially as deadly as another Cultural Revolution.  Rick Warren was a prophet, and he didn’t even know it.  Sadly, if his prophetic nonsense does come true, HK churches would have to choose between Caesar and Jesus, much like German Christians had to choose between Hitler and Christ.  Warren’s brothers and sisters in Christ would have suffered, not just being beaten for their role in the pro-democracy movement (which has already happened) but even death for their allegiance to Jesus Christ.  Words have consequences.  No one is laughing not. I guess the big mouths that make such jokes aren’t denouncing oppression against their brothers and sisters. Why? Who knows why?  Temporary humor at the expense of “the other” can result in lost lives.  Hurtful humor happening locally can often have a global scale in its disaster.  If anyone can laugh at lost lives and religious persecution, I think s/he should stop claiming to be Christian.  Think about this on the week we celebrate Martin Luther King.  All I have to say is this! Pray for HK! More importantly, pray for the social conscience of the American church.

Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo/I’m NOT Charlie Hebdo: Race and Dangerous Humor

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The recent tragic killing in Charlie Hebdo, Paris shook us all so much so that many world leaders joined together to march in support of Paris.  The now viral saying “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) fills everyone’s Facebook wall.  Meanwhile, you have people acting offended at Margaret Cho’s edgy humor at the Golden Globe.  These are related events.  Let me explain.

 

When people look at satire, they tend to have two distinct reactions. They might say that the satire offensive or perhaps non-offensive. These reactions are problematic mainly because it’s a judgment made on personal opinion. The Charlie Habdo case, or cases like The Interview, isn’t based on our personal opinion. These are public pieces gone wrong. We’re an individualistic culture with horrible blind spots. Sometimes we Americans don’t get why the world doesn’t find our humor funny. To expand to the West, sometimes people in the West don’t get why the rest of the world don’t have our sense of humor. The fact is, the problem is not merely about freedom of speech. If our freedom of speech is offensive to the rest of the world, why would they want our version of freedom of speech.   The problem comes from somewhere else.

 

In an insightful article, a writer points out that we simply don’t lampoon 9/11 or Holocaust. How about THAT for a blind spot, huh? We can make fun of Muslims or Koreans or any other people group, but God forbid if anyone makes fun of our Twin Towers or the Holocaust. Why? It is because there’s something quite sacred about those towers and the horrible Holocaust. It’s because we consider our unique American (or Jewish) experience that no one else can speak into other than those who are directly affected by the disaster. So, if anyone wants to discuss the 9/11 situation, let him or her be American.

 

The problem of the whole Charlie Hebdo, Margaret Cho and the Interview situation is singular. The problem is this question, “Who is doing the humor?” If it is the West that doesn’t hold seriously the sacredness of Islam, of course the humor is offensive. Why would it not be? It would be like someone telling a dead baby joke with reference to 9/11. I’m not condoning violence as a solution. What happened in Paris was horrible. I’m also saying that there’s something beyond “let’s stop the violence” or “I am Charlie Hebdo” here. Margaret Cho could make fun of North Korea a bit more (though I’m unsure whether that’s necessarily the best idea) because she’s Korean. She’s in THAT culture. She can make fun of racist situations because she’s a minority who is constantly reminded of her place in society. For instance, “I” can make fun of China or the communists simply because I’ve lived in Hong Kong and have taught there a number of years. I’ve had family members who experienced communism first hand. My father participated in WWII in China and so on. I UNDERSTAND the situation. The fact people asked Cho to apologize shows that people completely miss the point.

 

Now, James Franco and Seth Rogen ought to apologize. You know what? It’s because they aren’t Korean. I don’t care if they eat kimchi or have Korean friends who aren’t offended.  They were lampooning with Asian stereotypes to get his point across, and making money from it. We aren’t the punchline. If we want to have a punchline based on our own ethnicity, we’ll do it on our own term and in our own much more qualified way.  In so doing, Franco and Rogen didn’t offend Kim Jong Un. He offended all Asians, especially his fellow American aka Asian-Americans. People like Franco, Rogen and all the people who march around self-righteously as world leaders need to learn one thing. Their privileged position doesn’t qualify them to make fun of stuff they have no business making fun of, least of all in the name of free speech, simply because they haven’t earned the right to.   Humor and free speech aren’t the inalienable right of the privileged. Far from it! The privileged ought to use their position to do something more meaningful than to lampoon other cultures and cultural sore spots which they know nothing about. Whether YOU are offended is the least of OUR problem!  Sometimes, humor is not the best channel to get a message across.

 

Many readers of this blog are ministers or at least Christians.  I would say that this issue applies to Christian leaders who preach.  Where does humor fit in pulpit ministries?  I would say to stay away from humor we aren’t qualify to use.  When we use lampooning humor, we always risk causing unnecessary offense.  I believe we need to get away from the free speech fundamentalism of being Americans.  As kingdom citizens, we need to be careful of our freedom, lest our freedom becomes a stumbling block to our true message.  For so many of us, we worship humor.  We think humor is as important as the Virgin Birth.  Sometimes, not having a sense of humor in a sermon is not the worst offense.  The worst offense is having the wrong humor. The damage would be irreparable.

 

Count me out!  I’m not Charlie Hebdo. Anyone else who doesn’t want to be is fine by me, though we should all grieve for the victims of the shooting much like we should grieve for victims in the killing of Boko Haram or Central African Republic.

Relearning the Basics

I was going to write about pulpit communication, but I’m going to write about soccer first.

The other day I was playing soccer against some guys who play NCAA division one.  These guys were running all over the pitch on us. I had the task of defending against one of them. I kept hearing from my French teammate, urging me to jump in to try to get the ball from one of the players. I was very hesitant because I was afraid he would dribble past me again and make me look like a fool. My French teammate who’s a better player kept nagging me throughout the game. So, I finally got fed up and told him why I didn’t dive in to get the ball. After all, I’m fifty years old and my speed is long gone.   My French teammate explained to me that if I were to jockey (standing more sideways) the player, I would do better. Of course, I had this knee jerk reaction to tell him off, but cooler head prevailed. He was right. I should’ve jockeyed instead of squaring up against the opposing player. That would’ve kept the other guy from making me look like a fool.

Having played soccer for a while, I should’ve known this very basic defensive move, but it’s so easy to forget the basics.  I’m thankful to my French friend who reminded me of what I lost.   What am I saying? Many of us have spoken in different settings and denominations through the years. We’ve risen in ranks in our denomination or church.  We take for granted that we’re effective communicators. In short, we’ve arrived.  Whenever someone gives us advice, whether that someone is better or worse than we are, our automatic reaction is very much like my knee-jerk reaction. The fact is, a lot of times, we could’ve forgotten the basics along the way. Before our knees jerk, it’s probably best to pause and reflect. Maybe we need to relearn our basics.  It’s never too late if we have a humble heart, a listening ear, and a closed mouth.

Stop Preaching the “Gospel” Already!

A friend asks an interesting question, “How can someone go to a church for this long and still not become a Christian? He’s heard the gospel for so long.” Just to give some background, this church he’s talking about is his home church where the preacher hardly ever stays with the text when he preaches and he’s done it for years.

 

My initial challenging question to him is, “What is ‘gospel’?” In many of our congregations, the gospel follows the familiar plot of “believe in Jesus, get a better life, and go to heaven.” At best, this is a half-truth. At worst, this is a myth. If my friend’s friend has been going to church for years and hearing only this, no wonder he can’t believe. The fact is, many pulpits work this half-true plot into almost every single sermon, no matter the sermon is about creation or new heaven and new earth. The end result is a kind of tired and cliché sermon for years. How can anyone believe in something so irrelevant?

 

My encouragement to all those who preach out there is this. If you want people to understand the faith in a holistic manner, then you need to preach as if YOU understand the faith in a holistic manner. This means that we have to do our homework and understand what scripture really says instead of inserting what we want it to say. This means that we’ll have to snap out of our comfort zone in our old-fashion exegesis and dive into areas we don’t really enjoy or feel comfortable with. While the gospel can be simple for salvation, it can also be complex. Human beings are complex. We simply can’t assume that the same plot impacts every listener the same way. Different and varied plots of the Bible have something for everyone. If we learn to communication that variation, I bet both believers and unbelievers in the congregation will learn to appreciate the Bible much more.  In other words, stop preaching the “gospel” already, and replace it with the real thing!

Hurt People Hurt People: Sitting with the Traumatized in the Post-Umbrella and Post-Ferguson Era

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“Would anyone want to stab an enemy with such force as to leave his own hand in the wound and be unable to recover himself from the blow? But such a weapon is anger; it is hard to draw back.” Seneca (De Ira 2.35.1)

 

The Ferguson protests have demonstrated vast differences in worldview between blacks and whites in the US. The Garner case in NYC sure didn’t help. Two camps emerge.  The Christian church is no exception. The first camp, composed mostly of whites and Asians, says that rioting is always wrong. The second camp, composed mostly of blacks and other minorities, says that the whites do not understand the largely unjust treatment of blacks in this country especially in certain cities. Whether Michael Brown did this or that cannot be ascertained right now due to the complex and mixed reports coming out of Ferguson but the damage is done.

 

Let’s fly over to HK, the place where the Umbrella Movement had taken place and has finally ended for now. The injustice was very blatant there by many involved with the government or the police force. Many had shed blood over there as they seek justice and more freedom. All of this was painful to watch. Since I’m a lot more involved with HK, I’m beginning to learn more about Ferguson and the American blacks through HK.

 

Since I won’t get to HK until the movement was over, I really couldn’t be there to support it, but there hasn’t been a time when I thought, “What’s the point? What people need is to have a violent revolution in order to achieve democracy.” South Africa was a one-off. Both the US and France got their independence through a bloody revolution. Why not HK? I’m not here to discuss whether bloody revolution is the right means to democracy. That’s another book or two in Christian ethics. I’m here only to discuss the sentiment. I was angry and frustrated.

 

Below are some lessons I’ve learned from HK that also transfer to cases like Ferguson.

 

It is easy to talk about non-violence and anger when one isn’t involved. The fact is, those who aren’t involved intimately with events really haven’t earned the right to tell those involved how they should feel. I find many who say that the Ferguson protesters should behave this or that we have never been involved with cases of discrimination and even if they did, they were involved in cases where they were the privileged within the system of power rather than underprivileged and outside the system of power. It’s easy to be the moral armchair quarterback.

 

Imagine an enraged teenage boy who’s used to physical expression of his emotions. In frustration, he punches the wall. Unfortunately, the wall becomes the object he damages. Does that mean this kid is always bad and the summary of his character is the hole in the wall? Of course not, but those who have had teens know exactly what I’m talking about (just in case anyone wonders about my boys. They do not punch walls). The same goes for those who work with youths. I’ve seen perfectly sane kids from a church where I used to pastor do this. These are generally good kids, but when I get a call from the family (sometimes quite dysfunctional families) about this or that, I walk into holey walls and falling doors. Imagine a perfectly normal community having been discriminated and abused to the point of rage, much like this normally good child. You have Ferguson. I’m not saying all the rioters were like this normally good kid. Some weren’t, but certainly some upright citizens also did illogical things because of their rage.

 

One of the saddest stories I saw in the riot was this black woman who lost her cake shop from rioters. The good news is that someone had bothered to raise money for her. Instead of celebrating a good ending to the sad story, many of my white friends point out almost gleefully, “Look! Black on black crime.” Wait just a minute! If we look at the analogy above, the door or the wall is innocent, but it just happens to get in the way of an enraged teenage boy. While we can’t condone crime of any kind by any race against any other race or its own race, the dynamics are about the same. The shop of this black woman was like that door or the wall. It had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at that time. Rage is not rational. Neither is rage racially discerning but still, many victims of racism who are normally upstanding citizens are now hitting doors and walls.

 

Why do people feel angry? There’re two reasons based on what I’ve seen in HK and perhaps some of that applies to Ferguson and the racial situation. First, people feel hopeless and that’s why they contemplate the violent option. Second, people feel like no one is hearing what they’re saying. When discussing with my HK friends who contemplate the violent option, I hear their anger and hopelessness from the repeated government abuse and deliberate ignoring of their plea for justice.

 

Before we sit on our moral soapbox, I think it’s important to just shut up and look at the bigger picture. The crime that precedes the crime is the issue. The violent crime itself is just a smaller part of the picture. Sure, we can condemn violence and I often do, but that is not the big picture.

 

We should bring back a faith dimension to this discussion. When I watch a lot of my white and Asian evangelical Christian friends respond to Ferguson, I frankly feel very disappointed. We get a combination of condemnation and pontification in the guise of “Look, violent blacks. WE don’t do violence around here. It’s so unchristian.” When we’re in a faith community, in a time such as this, our job is to listen to the anger and the hurt. When I get a call on a teen beating down his own door, I don’t go there to say, “You, stop that crap! Don’t you know that Jesus wouldn’t approve?” If I did that, all communication channels will be closed for future pastoral care. What we need, in the post-Umbrella and post-Ferguson world is a faith community that will listen to the voice of the angry sufferer. Hurt can lead to anger, and anger can lead to further injury to the innocent whether the innocent comes in form of another black shop owner or a decent white police trying to do his or her job. We can’t heal a world of the hurt when we’re on our soapbox. In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt and anger, hearing and not pontificating can begin the healing process.  Hurt, anger, hatred, and eventual violence hurt everyone involved.  It’s time to get our faith community EQ to fall in line with our so-orthodox doctrines or all we’ll have left will be rules and regulations with our dead morality.

The Prophetic Mode and the Pastoral Hat

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“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye… and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

Sermon by Jeremiah Wright shortly after 911, 2001

Jeremiah Wright is a name some of us are familiar with. He was involved in the middle of a firestorm after 911. He was also known as President Obama’s preacher.  I’m writing both in context of recent preaching about the HK protests and also within the Asian-North American community. While the issues are different, they are equally divisive as the political issues of 2001. I know it’s funny coming from me because I’ve also had my fiery moments on the pulpit, but I hope this case will help preachers everywhere become aware of the pastoral moments even in their prophetic mode.

 

Now, many years later and raw emotions have died down, Wright isn’t altogether wrong. We know for a fact that many of the weapons used against us were originally supplied through a US pipeline to combat Russian colonialism in Afghanistan. However, when the great evil empire the USSR disintegrated, another enemy surfaced. USA became the enemy. Without going to much into whether all of Wright’s thesis is indeed proven right, I like to think about the preaching lesson we can learn from Wright. The following lessons are important.

 

Lesson One: Prophetic mode in preaching is dangerous.

 

Every pastor is a public personality, no matter how small a parish or church s/he is. The words, once they get out, take on a life of their own. Like any mode of speech, the prophetic mode is open to the interpreters. When these words are taken apart, they are quite open to misunderstanding. Without context of worship and the entire context of the church life, those words on paper become as dangerous to the readers as they are to the preacher.

 

Lesson Two: Timing is almost everything.

 

Wright took a lot of flak for his remarks, even if he’s completely right. Why? The timing of his sermon probably wasn’t best. If we take his sermon and make it a historical lesson about being careful whom you use politically one hundred years from now, I’m sure its historical interpretation gets high marks. No less important than the venerable church historian Martin Marty gives Wright credit for being contextual to its time and his church ministry. Many preaching and theology professors have also come out later in support of Wright’s work. Not so on that fateful year 2001. That year was particularly vivid for me because after the 911 event, I took two overseas flight, both of them for work. I can tell you that I had the pick of seating on those empty flights. Flying for business was good, but the feeling of getting on the plane and hugging my loved ones before I left couldn’t be worse. I have friends who lost loved ones in the plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. I have relatives working near the Pentagon. I have a friend who saw the plane crashing into the Twin Towers. I just wasn’t ready to hear any historical lesson. You can tell me a historical lesson on Columbus’ horrendous dealing with the Native Americans in Hispaniola but not so much about US foreign policy. The timing of Wright’s sermon wasn’t the best. Timing is the factor that brings impact.

 

Lesson Three: Every sermon has a human face.

 

When we preach as public figures, we have to understand that the public act of preaching is directed towards human beings. In the 911 event, human emotions were still quite raw. The Americans collectively weren’t open to discuss foreign policy just yet. As a safe bet, every time there’s a disaster, we should refrain from preaching moralistic sermons no matter how right we are. After all, people aren’t always logical. There’re other emotions in the human psyche as well. We have to consider all the other modes of preaching besides the prophetic when preaching. The prophetic mode is probably not suited right after a disaster.

 

If I were to summarize all that I have said above, what lesson can we learn from Wright’s sermon? The prophetic mode should always be seasoned and harnessed by the pastoral hat. Our pastoral hat demands that we try to understand human beings as complex emotional beings that need more than admonition to get on the way of the gospel. We have to always consider many different modes and moods simply because we’re dealing with humans.

Race and the Art of Listening: a Response to Prof. Greg Carey

This blog is a reflection on something I’ve been pondering ever since reading my friend Prof. Greg Carey’s post for the Wabash Center, a place supporting teaching professionals in religion endowed by the famous Lily Foundation.  In this post, Greg addresses the issue of teaching as a white professor in a racially and culturally diverse classroom setting.  Greg is probably one of the most tolerant and openminded individual person you will ever meet.  That’s why his story touches me in a unique way.  This is the story he told.

My friend Chuck Melchert took a significant risk once when we were playing a round of golf together. Chuck retired after serving as Dean of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and he knows more about teaching than just about anybody I know. He also sits in on my classes from time to time.

LN2012Can I tell you something?” Chuck asked. “When African American students in your class speak from their experience, you almost always follow up by explaining why you understand what they’re talking about.”

Chuck’s words were hard to hear because they were true. In that moment he had confronted me with my anxious desire to prove that when it comes to matters of race, I get it. I speak of an “anxious desire” because my behavior happens almost automatically. Indeed, I was not conscious of it until Chuck named it. Now that it’s out in the open, I have the chance to change my behavior. Yet even now I feel – and act upon – that impulse to prove that I’m one of the “good guys.” This anxiety, born of a well-intentioned desire to demonstrate cultural competence, creates all kinds of problems in the classroom. 

For starters, I must congratulate Greg for his humility to admit to this experience because it is not a pleasant experience.  The lack of consciousness Greg brings up probably happens more often than many realize.  I find throughout the years of living as a racial minority in the US that I’m quite often on the receiving end of such unconscious  but well-meaning desire to be one of the “good guys”.  When I was a kid, I often get comments like “Wow, Hong Kong?  I love sushi.”  Lest anyone thinks that such a presumptuous comment is uncommon, my kids now sometimes get the same kind of comments in PROGRESSIVE NORTHWEST OF THE US.  Behind such ignorant comment  lie the desire to identify with the racial minority without first understanding the proper grid of interpretation.  Sushi is not Chinese food!  Chinese food is not all that defines my culture, and so on.

I find through the years that I get along best with those who would just listen without assuming ANY knowledge of my experience or my culture or what my rank is in light of their dominant culture.  The more they try to listen to my experience, the more they will figure out how that experience can enrich their own experience as Americans.  I think that’s the point Greg is making.  Be quick to listen but very slow to speak.  Greg teaches us that he, even as a well-educated and openminded person, doesn’t have to get everything.  He doesn’t have the privilege of all knowledge (no one does!), not even in front of his students.  Knowledge about other people’s experience and culture is “out there” and not “in me”.  No one owns that knowledge completely, but by listening, we all can learn a little something from one another and gain a bit more of that knowledge.  What Greg is saying is that it takes acknowledgement of one’s own privileged position and disowning that power to really “get it.”  How does this apply to the reality of academia and church setting?

In academia, it is amazing how often many western academics (especially the more liberal or openminded ones) use words like “colonize” or “imperial” as their paradigm of interpretation without ever citing works by the colonized (aka postcolonial literature).  I’m not even talking about theory here. I’m talking about practice of western academics. I always laugh because almost none of such academics had ever lived UNDER colonized and imperial conditions.  It’s like me learning karate from a book without attending a dojo.  It just doesn’t happen in the real world.  Even if they cite the works by the colonized, they privilege the western perspective as the canonized perspective.  Some do a little better by citing formerly colonized people who write in English like Edward Said or Homi Bhabha.  Others like Scot McKnight try to sit with the colonized to study the Bible together to learn from them.  Still others, such as NT scholar Jeff Staley, are heavily involved with non-white groups in their own scholarship.  For many, this is the end game, but I suggest that this is only the start of a more in-depth and serious study about race, colonialism and scripture.

I think the western academia can do so much better than the present situation with colonial perspectives.  There’s a simple and very glaring (but not at all obvious) problem when westerners talk about colonialism: the complete ignoring or ignorance of non-western sources.  The real colonized voices never even surface!  The ignorance of non-western sources is troubling because many of us who lived under colonized condition feel like that this lack of seriousness about other global perspectives decidedly privileges the western perspective and “we” (those who hold non-western perspectives) are merely the means to “their” gaining more power and prestige.  By appealing just enough to colonial literature, many such western academics will make themselves look progressively respectable without ever really changing their assumptions.  This in turn lands them lucrative tenure jobs and causes them to be “experts” in the field.  Moreover, if they really want to read the Bible in a colonial or political manner, perhaps they ought to learn the language of the colonized.  For example, how can anyone talk about colonialism under British rule without being able to read Afrikaans, Chinese or  Devanagari script etc. ?  Furthermore, how can anyone use a colonial paradigm from stuff written in English when some of the more grounded discussions are in Chinese or other non-western languages?  After all, South Africa, China and India have had a long history of being colonized while the US has never even been occupied by a foreign force (well, ok, if you really want to count your cousins the Brits as occupiers, so be it, but still).  We don’t see poststructuralist western scholars use Foucault without reading French, do we? But that’s precisely what westerners do with postcolonial methods.  In fact, they also do that in many Chinese studies department here in the US.  It’s no secret that most US non-Chinese PhD holders in Chinese literature can only read the Chinese of the text in which they received their PhD.  For the rest of “Chinese studies”, they rely on translated English versions.  I bet a huge number of them can’t even read the paper.  This spectacle will continue to plague our western academia, even many of the more “liberal and openminded” academics.  What we need are not advocates for us little people whose agenda make them money and create more privilege for them.  Far from it!  What we need is to be treated with equal or even superior partners in this dialogue on Christianity.  Notice I don’t even use “global Christianity” because that’s only a term used by the privileged west that needs to remind the ignorant that Christianity is “global.”  Yes, Christianity IS global, though it was rooted in Judaism. None of that, of course, is obvious to those who use that term.

The total privileging of western perspective will remain an impasse because most western scholars (and even some global South scholars) consider everything not written in western languages worthless, even though such civilizations have longer cultural history than the west.  We would never expect Chinese students of English literature to do academic journal articles purely based on Chinese sources.  Neither would we expect Chinese students who use western paradigm to interpret their own society not to consult western sources IN THEIR ORIGINAL LANGUAGES AND CULTURES, but this is precisely the way western academics do in colonial and political reading of the Bible (though, to their credit, at least they read Greek and Hebrew fluently).  Unless people who are humble and openminded overcome this impasse, this assumed western superiority and privilege will fail to address real colonial reading of the Bible. I’m not optimistic.

How does this fit with church ministry?  It fits so many contexts.  Whenever I talk with many (not all of course, but why do I even need to qualify that remark? It’s mostly because many would be offended just because I mention a fact, thinking they themselves are mirrored in this fact) white ministers and academics about ministry or professional opportunities, they would automatically tell me, “Oh yeah, let me put you in touch with our church’s Chinese ministry or mission department … can you teach a course in Chinese for us for the immigrants who can’t read English? How about go to China with us to train up THEIR leadership over THERE.” Well, how about assume NOTHING?  How about not just speak for me or assume you know better than I do what I’m qualified and not qualified to do?

Behind such well-meaning replies are two assumptions. First, no matter what strengths and weaknesses I possess, I should always work with “my people” in that corner over there in the Asian ghetto (I’m not saying my working with Asians put the Asians in the ghetto but that I’m being “ghettoized” to the peripheral project they consider the “mission field” (aka Asian ghetto)). I’m not saying that working with “my people” is a lesser calling. Far from it.  It’s always a privilege to work with one’s own ethnicity or any group, but the assumption that I can ONLY work with my own ethnicity and nowhere else is a big and erroneous assumption; some of us minorities must have such low EQ and cultural competency that we can’t work with anyone other than “our own.”  Second, those who tell us to work with our “own people” also assume that there’s nothing they can learn from me or any immigrant who can speak fluent English and educated in the west.  Maybe my multilingual ability and global travels actually count against me. Somehow the extra cultural dimension and global experience are a minus rather than a big plus, all simply because of skin color and prejudices.  Turn that around to a non-hyphenated American (I mean, “real” American) and many people will say, “Wow, isn’t he talented?  He can speak many different languages and had lived all over the place.”  See the problem? Assumed incompetence is the worst kind of prejudice built into a system of subtle (sometimes) upper class racism.

Another relevant ministry context is the pastoral office.  The impulse to address everything and anything is built into many of us who are used to speaking in public.  This impulse is especially strong among some church leaders.  The art of listening is important, based on what Greg just shared in his story.  By listening, we don’t assume that our perspective is the only perspective in the world.  In fact, we may not even have the right perspective.  That is a hard pill to swallow, but swallow we must.  By not judging the person or even addressing the issue immediately, many of the church leaders (and I’m not just talking about pastors) can learn so much.  The mind simply can’t open when the mouth will not shut.

Ferguson and the Language We Use

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There isn’t a lot Ferguson can be thankful for in this Thanksgiving season.  In fact, many have lost their shops due to rioting.  I’m not going to speak on justice for Michael Brown because I do not feel qualified to address police procedures and the pain in that community.  I’m neither a member of the police force nor a member of the community. All I can say is that I pray nightly for this very broken community so that somehow peace and order can be restored.  What I can share is only out of my own experience as a minority.

 

As I browse my Facebook, I begin to see various words being used to describe the situation and the people involved. Of great interest to me are the words “savages” or “animals” to describe young black men who rioted.  I notice also that some of my black friends take great offense at the terms while most of my white friends didn’t really care either way but gave those terms non-racist definitions.  In this situation, I have to side with my black friends simply because those were the same terms slave traders used to dehumanized their subjects.  In the infamous Willie Lynch letter delivered in the 1700’s, the blacks were “uncivilized savage n_____s” who needed breaking in.  Comparison of slaves to animals and properties goes as far back as Aristotle and beyond.  These words are pregnant with venom.  Their impact on a person is decidedly negative, thus creating yet more unnecessary tension between whites and blacks.  The dictionary definition is simply not enough without understanding of some of the historical contexts in which such words were used.  Words can heal, but words can also kill with their impact.  The intent may not be racist, but the impact could very well be.

 

During my discussion on race in an old event last year around this time regarding the way Rick Warren handled Asians both here and abroad, I have learned an excellent lesson from a black brother.  Let’s call him Brother T.  One day, I was having a chat with Brother T just to get his take on the whole race issue and my critique of Rick Warren’s Red Guard meme.  He was a gracious, godly and supportive friend.  He listened and gave me his opinion, but one thing from that conversation stood out for me.  I shared with him a statement I was going to write in my blog, “Perhaps Rick Warren (and many white Christians) didn’t take us seriously because we Asians are just too passive.  If the same thing happened in the black community, riots would have broken out.”  By “riots”, of course, I was using the term in a metaphorical sense.  After all, who riots over racially offensive memes?  My brother gently looked over the statement and made a simple correction, “I would say, the black community would’ve marched.”  Now, there’s a huge rhetorical difference between rioting and marching.  Rioting evokes crazy people doing damage to properties and lives.  Marching evokes Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m grateful that I’ve consulted my friend before I put up the blog.  I sure don’t want to give off the wrong message.  I’m also grateful for his graciously calling out the unintentionally racist hyperbole I used for the impact I never intended.  After all, words matter because all words are used within (and not apart from) historical context.  In fact, you don’t even have to be racist to use metaphors and words that are racially charged.  It helps to have those impacted by such words help us and give us guidance or correction.

 

So, before we have a fruitful conversation about race, we must first think about the word picture behind what we say.  We must also form communities of friends where people from diverse culture and speak to each other honestly and graciously.  Words and their rhetorical impact are often one of the reasons for misunderstanding, anger and even hatred. We must use words wisely.

 

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.

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