***Just a brief word before I get started: I’m really nobody, okay? Kay.***
The Christian Post recently interviewed Amos Yong, a professor at Regent University, who was one of the contributors to the book Aliens in the Promised Land, Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Churches and Institutions. I think it’s clear from the title that the book is going to be pretty thought provoking, which is good thing when it comes to the discussion on race. One part of the interview really stuck out to me, where Dr. Yong says this:
What I mean by “racialization” is that we learn how to look at the world through a racial lens, one in which whites are superior and other races or ethnic groups less equal, if not inferior. I don’t think we teach this as the God-given truth, but we do act in ways that basically presume the superiority of white evangelical culture, values, and perspectives. Growing up Asian (Chinese) in America and even into my young adult years, I tried to act and become white since I felt that full conversion to Christ meant leaving behind Asian culture and embracing “Christian” (white) culture. Whites don’t realize that they are communicating this, and Asians do not generally realize that they are receiving this message.
A tough statement, but I agree. I have seen it firsthand on several occasions, how many white evangelicals do not realize that some elements of “evangelical” culture are not truly religious or theological, but really…white, and uniquely American. They assume that their approach to Christianity is completely above culture, based solely on universal biblical principles. But this is simply not true, as the different streams of evangelicalism around the world have substantial differences from American evangelicalism (and of course, some important similarities). So I appreciate what Dr. Yong, and the other contributors to this book, are saying.
BUT. There’s always a BUT with me, and usually it’s a big one. What can I say, I like big but’s.
I think it’s important for minority Christians like myself to admit to themselves that these cultural blindspots are not at all limited to white evangelicals. All Christians exhibit these same tendencies, where they are blissfully unaware that their cultural assumptions are not shared by all. And I know this is true because as much I have seen this dynamic at work in the white evangelical church, I have seen it just as much, if not much more, in the Korean-American church.
In my many years in the Korean-American context, I became acutely aware of how cultural beliefs could be subconsciously but inextricably tied to spiritual ones. In many Korean churches, their approach to their life of faith is biblical, orthodox, but distinctly Korean. And the Korean elements went hand-in-hand with the Christian ones, as if they were one in the same. This dynamic is not just limited to recent immigrants, but was demonstrated even in second-generation churches where English is the first language, and there is a great deal of familiarity with American culture. They freely use references to Korean phrases and culture as if all their people were hip to them, which they were not. There were subtle elements of both Confucianism, as well as a success/failure mentality. Since I’m a Korean person who is not culturally all that Korean, I pointed out that such actions could be deeply alienating to those who are not Korean. I was listened to courteously, but nothing changed in most of those churches.
I don’t say this to dump on the Korean-American church, not in the least. Quite to the contrary, I have deep admiration for them and their contribution to the Body of Christ. But I say this to remind us that we all have cultural blindspots, even minorities. All Christians have aspects of their faith that are informed by their culture and context, and that we subconsciously foist upon others. All Christians, from all racial and cultural backgrounds, are just as susceptible to this tendency. And if we limit our criticism to the white church, this ignores the fact that this is a huge problem in all churches, including ones led by minorities. We all need to do our best to check our assumptions, myself most of all.
Now, one might say that this situation is different because white evangelicals are a majority and privileged culture, and have been so for so long, Their assumptions have gone unchecked for a longer period of time, and are more dominant and deeply seated. I don’t disagree with that idea in the least. A majority and homogenous demographic becomes a petri dish for rampant unchecked assumptions. But at the same time, we shouldn’t overlook that every culture can be a “privileged” one, at certain moments and situations. For example, I am a minority in the United States, and yes, by and large, my viewpoint is not a privileged one. And so I often find myself forced to navigate the assumptions of other people, assumptions that I myself do not share.
But this is not always the case. For instance, in an Asian American church, I am the privileged one, with experience and friendships and awareness that others do not possess, and so could easily force others to swim in my wake. I am sure that I have inadvertently done so. In the context of the well-educated, I am again “privileged”. I could assume that everyone knows what the word “perspicacious” means, when most do not. And so just because a person is not necessarily in a majority/privileged context racially, or in the nation as a whole, that hardly means that they won’t find themselves playing that role in some other substantial part of their life. If we ignore this, and focus only on calling the majority white culture to account, that just leaves us susceptible to those same problematic tendencies in our own lives.
Again, I don’t say this to disagree at all with what Dr. Yong says in this interview, nor with the premise of this book. The assumptions of white evangelicalism are deeply seated and have gone unchecked for a long time. They have been, and continue to be, deeply alienating to those who find themselves outside of that context. I admire the authors’ courage and willingness to call the church to account. But more than anything, I want to confess my own culpability in this as well, that I have my own blindspots, and have often acted in accordance with what was easy and comfortable to me, and not necessarily what was respectful and loving to others. Yes, white evangelicals could do better when it comes to being sensitive to outsiders. But God knows so could I, and so could we all.