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.

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.

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