Seeking Asian-American Theologies

by Miriam Adeney

A group of graduate students uncover theologies
of Asian-Americans at the grassroots level.

To fail to see that my friend is Japanese American is to deny her full humanity, or the importance of her history and culture. Yet without this interview as a bridge, I never would have been bold enough to ask her for her story,” Megan observed.

As part of a graduate course at Seattle Pacific Seminary called “Asian American Theology,” Megan and other students interviewed Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino Christians in Seattle. We were seeking theology at the grassroots level, beyond scholarly readings. We talked with men and women spanning several denominations and immigrant generations. All were mature Christians with well-developed social networks. What follows are a few glimpses into their worlds. The statements selected here represent recurring themes from the interviews. While highly preliminary, we hope this research may encourage future investigations.  

Adopted into the Family
“What scripture texts are significant for you as an Asian-American?” we asked. One person shared that, “The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that salvation came to the Jews, but Gentiles were grafted into that. And it is okay to be grafted in.” Another added: “I understand adoption into God’s family better, largely because immigrants are adopted into a new culture. I felt this way coming to America and having to adapt and be adopted by another society.” Yet another explained, “I identify with Luke because he was a Gentile, and Gentiles are accepted into God’s family because Christianity is accepting of people.”

Related scripture texts mentioned were the story of Ruth; Jesus’ stories of marginal people like the good Samaritan, the woman at the well, and the woman with a flow of blood; Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek…but all are one in Christ”;  and Peter’s “aliens and strangers,” now part of the true chosen people.    

Matthew and the Book of Acts were treasured because in these books Christ commands his disciples to go to the ends of the earth. “I feel a long way from Jerusalem. My family is Japanese and the first one became a Christian in 1987. As the gospel expands, I am on one of the outer rings. And that is where the gospel is going forward now.” Coming from a different angle, another person mused, “It is a little hard to think that God’s chosen people were in the Middle East and yet at that time the most advanced civilizations were probably in China and South America.” This shows God’s sovereignty and grace, he concluded.

Exodus and Exile
Yet the sense of displacement, “going out from the secure place,” was deep. “For us, it’s the Pacific Ocean rather than the Red Sea, flying across the ocean instead of walking on the ocean floor,” said one person. Another said, “We often feel like we are in exile. When you talk to an Asian, he or she will talk about home as somewhere in Asia. Even three or four generations in, most know where their roots lie. Most African-Americans have no idea. Their home is America. They don’t refer back to the country of their ancestors. We do.”

However, the “exilic identity” is complex, said one person,

…in that we are neither Asians nor Americans. There is always a kind of sense of belonging nowhere, being a resident alien really. We live in America, but we don’t fully belong. My generation in particular (under age 35) wants to push against our exilic identity because it is so difficult and uncomfortable. We want to create our own nation in a sense, and just kind of congregate with people like ourselves to the exclusion of others. But I think that is the wrong approach. That robs the Asian-American experience of its theological value. The true beauty of our experience is its ability to testify to the importance of exilic identity. I think that exilic experience has a lot to teach the church at large.

White Privilege
A caveat is in order. Some Asian-Americans will bristle, “That’s not me!” as they read this.   When the Pew Research Center published findings on Asian-Americans in 2012, a backlash erupted. This research claimed that Asian-Americans were the fast-growing, happiest, most educated, most driven, wealthiest, and most family-oriented of any ethnic group in the U.S., including Caucasians. Forty-nine percent held a bachelor’s degree, compared with twenty-eight percent of the general population. The median income of Asian-American households was $66,000, compared to the general U.S. population median of $49,800.

But according to Asian-American critics, this report represented neither the diversity, nor the pain in their communities. Historic racial abuse, contemporary stereotyping, and continuing “white privilege” complacently exercised from positions of power all exacerbated the angst.   

Each group has its own history, and most include oppression. Take the Chinese. More than five thousand people labored and many died while building the transcontinental railroad. When it was completed, the Chinese were expendable. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. In 1886, nearly all the Chinese were thrown out of Seattle. Citizens rounded them up, put them on ships, and sent them to San Francisco and other ports. Similar programs erupted elsewhere. Laws restricted citizenship, land-owning, and interracial marriage. The latter limitation contributed to the extensive development of brothels.  

Or take the Japanese. Our interviewees found that many older Japanese do not speak about the World War II internment camp experience even to their children. It was shameful. Some were taken directly from nice homes and prosperous businesses to live in horse stalls at the Washington state fairgrounds.    

How painful, then, when “Christianity always seems to somehow belong to white people or Western folks. It doesn’t feel like it is completely ours unless we fully embrace Western culture and ignore our own.” This respondent continued, “Sometimes when I go to Mexico for vacation or mission, it’s neat to see people worshipping outside of U.S. culture and remember it doesn’t belong to the Americans.”

“Actually, the Bible was written mostly in Asia,” another observed.  

“I have never seen us try to find a Jesus that didn’t look Anglo…I would love to see us try to find other expressions of God in Christ, so that Christ isn’t always this white bearded guy,” said another. Yet another: “We have seen so much hardship. We are in good shape now, but we saw previous generations struggle. We live in the hope that Christ will resolve the past.”

God and Family
How do Asian-American family and social structures reflect Christian values? And how does the Christian faith critique these patterns?

“Any time you want to explain something theological, you put it into terms of family. Even the Trinity is easy-ish to understand because it is a family relationship….You probably grew up with the extended family in your home, you are very comfortable with people of different generations in both family and church.” Grandma’s birthday may be the biggest celebration. Overall, the respondents found emphasis on family, community, and respect for elders to be biblical, contrasting this with perceived general American concern for “my rights and what I deserve, versus looking for ways to lay down my rights and privileges for the sake of another.” Family matters. “The most difficult part of the Christian faith is that one’s ancestors will not be in heaven.”  

Although young adults bend over backward to make sure that older folk are taken care of, “we are apprehensive about their unspoken expectation that they’ll move in with us when they’re older. The American side of our identity craves independence and doesn’t want to have them cramp our style.”

And sometimes it is hard to envision God as Abba, Daddy. Their own fathers may have acted like dictators. “We may need to add to our repertoire of images for God.”

Career Choice Is a Hot Button Issue
Reconciling Asian and American values hits hard in the second generation. Career choice is a hot button issue.

One person shared,

Our parents worked so hard to make a life for us. They moved to America with that dream. A lot of them had degrees and education but they opened up dry cleaners and worked long hours for the sake of their children. For a child to just say, “Oh, I want to be an artist or a musician!”—that messes with the dream.    

Another said, “You don’t have a choice. You have to be a doctor so you can take care of me,” the parent may say.”  John, a seminary student, added:

My grandpa was a chef in Chinatown for forty years, and if you know anything about chefs in Chinatown, they work inhumane hours. Every day. Even Christmas. It doesn’t matter if there is a blizzard outside. For some reason, Chinese restaurants are always open. My grandma was a seamstress. Somehow they bought a house. Every single one of the children became engineers. Now the next generation is becoming engineers. I am kind of the weird one.

Asian families tend to be frugal, but actively circulate money through the family. “Growing up, my parents didn’t have a budget, but they never overspent. They have never been in debt,” said a Japanese student. He continued:

When I was in high school, my dad got me started investing in stocks. When I went to college, my grandparents gave me money that I didn’t need because I had scholarships. They never spent money on themselves. My dad said when he discovered in college that you could put more than one slice of meat on a sandwich, it was a total paradigm shift. Now our family is sitting on a lot of money, because we never spent.

“Once money enters the family, it just kind of flows back and forth between everyone,” said a Chinese student. This flow is international for Filipinos, who work hard in order to send money back to relatives in Asia.  

Yet money can be an idol. “There is a lot of showboating,” explained one person. Some thought this intensified when American values replaced Asian traditions, skewing both economic and relational values. “American culture is thriving, but in the wrong direction. It seems like the media is pushing our youth to embrace things that would not glorify God….Love in American culture is focused on the wrong kind of love.”

Education: The Only Way You Can Make It
One person shared,

My dad always told me when I was growing up, “You don’t have the family connections that Americans have, you don’t have the financial resources, and we can’t teach you what you need to know. So you need to go and learn it at school.” My father always told me that was my only way to make it in America.

“You can’t get the land, but you can get the degree”: That was the motto when land-ownership was restricted. One person shared, “There has always been the expectation that we are going to be among the elite in education.” However, when there is conflict between school and church for money, time, or status, the church tends to lose out. One person said,

Pursuing knowledge as a value is something that is encouraged in both Asian culture and Christian faith. Loving God with our minds is important. Yet Paul reminds us that God has chosen the foolish to confound the wise. We must be clear on what is most important and pursue it in a balanced way.

Does Confucius Matter?
Most interviewees didn’t know much about Asian religions or how these might connect with their Christian faith, and didn’t care. Weddings, funerals, parties, and other celebrations are valued because they reinforce the family and the community. These are the times you get together with good food, gala color, and joyful noise. Yet few respondents had thought about how to integrate their faith with the celebrations. If they tried at all, the effort had a negative tone as they attempted to avoid syncretism in areas like ancestor worship.   

A few observed that Confucius taught the value of honest, diligent work, as the book of Proverbs does. Taoism teaches balance, moderation, and self-control. Buddhism reminds us that suffering is pervasive, and calls us to slow down from our fast-paced American life. One Japanese pastor said these religions raise important questions:

The theological themes of emptying, total sacrifice, and endurance should be big, given Asian suffering, the Buddhist emphases, the Pietist missionaries, and Japanese values. They probably were big a generation or two ago. But it’s harder when the church parking lot is full of Mercedes and BMWs.

Only one person could connect an Asian story or proverb with the Christian faith. In the story, a teacher walked into a pond. A student followed. Suddenly, the teacher grabbed his student and held him under water while the young man thrashed. “When you want truth as much as you want air to breathe, you’ll find it,” counseled the teacher. This illustrates Jeremiah 29:13: “You shall seek me, and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.” The proverb “You can cover your eyes, but the sky is still there” illustrates the omnipresence of God.

For Shame
Whether acknowledged or not, Confucianism strongly affects attitudes toward community, work, and education. And Confucianism crashes into grace.  

For Chinese: “Grace is a tough concept. The idea of receiving something for nothing is difficult for many Chinese-Americans. We are dutiful Christians, but we often have trouble accepting the emotional ‘heart’ side of a relationship with God.”

For Koreans: “Grasping the idea that Christ loves them, that the Christian faith is not about duty and works, but is an expression of God’s love for us and God’s power working through us—this is the most difficult part of the faith for young Koreans.”

For all: “The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is not emphasized (outside of Pentecostal churches) because our community sees ourselves as being fully capable of pulling ourselves up. It is hard for us to imagine a need for the Holy Spirit. We like to think of ourselves as being in control.”

But when we fall short, as inevitably we do, shame and self-loathing may recur, followed by cover-ups to save face. “We need teaching about false humility, passive aggression, openness/transparency, and speaking up,” said one person.

Reaching Out
Through university fellowships, students reach out. “Asian-Americans who are not Christians will have a hard time hearing and receiving the gospel message from a white person, or a black person, or a Latino person. It is just much easier to hear it from another Asian-American,” shared one person.

Others minister to the elderly. “In the 1980s, my mom spearheaded the first Japanese nursing home in Seattle,” said one. Others have created Mandarin-language worship services for restaurant workers. These are not on Sunday, because that is the workers’ busy day. Still others focus on mainland Chinese who will return to high positions. Most support mission work in Asia, and some are directly involved.

But the insularity of Asian-American fellowships is critiqued. “We are an Asian -American church,” said one respondent, who then added:

What that means is that we don’t have white people here, we don’t have black people here, we don’t have Latino people here. And part of what it means is that we don’t have poor people here. There are a lot of Asian-Americans who are poor, but they don’t come here. They are part of purely immigrant churches. I wish that as a community we could rid ourselves of the bad parts of the American dream and begin to do a better job of loving our neighbor. We see our faith as therapeutic, faith for our own good. We don’t see our faith as compelling us to be part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

Another commented:

I don’t know very many Asian-Americans who value their Asian-American heritage and are also integrated with other churches. It is either the Japanese church, the Chinese church, the Korean church, the Filipino church, or it is, “Oh, I forgot I was Asian.” It seems like it is all one or the other, either completely defined by our ethnic heritage or completely forgetting it. It is rarely leveraging it.

“In many areas, we have been content with being left alone and creating a name for ourselves,” another said, who added:

I would rather the energy be spent in using our influence and natural ability to bring churches and people together. As a people who are not part of the dominant culture, but are in many cases accepted as such, I would love to see Asians play the role of reconciler between cultures for the glory of God.

Ask for the Story
“Ask for the story.” Those were Megan’s words at the beginning of this article. Our class wanted to learn how Asian-Americans think theologically, so we went out and asked them questions that applied Christian worldview to aspects of daily life—work, education, family. Vague questions yield vague answers. We worked hard to develop sharply focused questions. New insights emerged. Now we have new points to ponder regarding Asian-Americans’ theologies, their pain, and their potential, expressed in their own words.  

Miriam Adeney is author of Kingdom without Borders, Daughters of Islam, and God’s Foreign Policy: Practical Ways to Help the World’s Poor. Miriam conducts Writing for Publication workshops on five continents. Boon Chayavichitsilp, Jodi Gatlin, Jennifer Gebhart, Megan Hamshar, and Kevin Moxon are graduate students at Seattle Pacific Seminary who contributed to this article.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 148-155. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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