black and white
THE CIVIL RIGHTS movement. #BlackLivesMatter. Racial reconciliation. It would be easy for me to imagine the words of Eliza in the musical “Hamilton” and sing, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative.”
At first glance, those statements, movements, and conversations might be mistakenly boiled down to division and brokenness between two Americas—one black, one white.
But I’m neither. I’m “yellow.”
I didn’t choose to erase myself in history, but it’s what I learned. Asian Americans weren’t erased from American history as much as we just didn’t exist in the Plymouth Rock story of East Coast immigration, with its emphasis on Europe’s poor and hungry “huddled masses.” We learned that “assimilation” was as much about becoming “white” as it was about becoming “American.” We learned that the civil rights movement was a fight for equal rights for black Americans, with little connection to “others” like myself. There was no category for someone who looked like me unless it was Oriental, chink, or gook—racial slurs I first heard as a child on suburban playgrounds (and still hear as an adult), slurs tied to a history and wars I knew very little about. In America, race is a social construct divided most simply between black and white.
I also learned that the best I could hope for was to become a model minority, an “honorary white” who would never be considered a “real” American.
So I just didn’t become one. In an act of rebellion, I chose not to become a naturalized U.S. citizen until a few years ago. In the process I learned what it means to opt into a binary conversation with a different, clear, defined perspective. I needed to learn who I was, created as a Korean-American woman carrying God’s image. I needed to learn that Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Esther weren’t blue-eyed or blonde.
In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man. Here at Sojourners, Rev. Laura Barkley has debunked Kelly’s statements, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”
In his article over at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt argues that Jesus is not only not a white man, but that scripture is mostly quiet about Jesus’ racial makeup. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Merritt agrees with historian Edward Blum, who draws from King’s statement that “Jesus transcends race.” Ultimately, Merritt points to the universality of Jesus, focusing on Christ’s availability to all, to individuals from “every tribe, nation, people and language.”
Yet in pointing to the universality of Jesus, it is easy to pass over his particularity to a certain time and place.
We live in a church context where so many embrace unbiblical either/or understandings of Christianity: Either evangelism or social action, either inward journey or outward journey. And on and on.
It is the widespread onesidedness that makes Rich Nathan’s new book so exciting.
Turning our faith into a set of rights and wrongs is partially based upon our own insecurities, but our fears are often warranted by how others respond to us.
“You attend that church?! Oh, that’s your pastor?! You went to that seminary?! You’re reading that book?! You like that theologian?! You belief that?! You like that type of worship?!”
It’s happened to us all at least once — someone labels our faith as wrong.
Question after question, one after another, on a daily — almost hourly — basis. If we aren’t careful, our faith and spirituality can quickly devolve into a set of distinct questions and responses.
In a corporate culture driven by hard data, statistics, evidence, trends, sales, surveys, and measurable information, our beliefs can be treated like a quarterly business summary — dissected, analyzed, and studied.
Our relationship with God turns into a cold and calculated set of methodologies, hypotheses, and professional-driven structures — the intimacy, raw communication, and love slowly disappears.
The mystery of God becomes something meant to be overcome, explained and defeated. And our church institutions become modeled after Fortune 500 companies instead of reflecting the vibrant early church communities of the New Testament.
In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden … out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve — you, me, all of us — on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.
Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong. But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here, outside the Garden, it’s rough sometimes.