“The Reluctant Patron Saint of Asian American Christianity:” A Response

A few people have asked me for my thoughts on this piece about Francis Chan, so I thought I would take a few minutes to respond.  The author, Nate Lee, argues that Chan, a popular pastor and speaker in evangelical Christian circles, has ignored his ethnic identity in his ministry and would do well to acknowledge it, both for his own sake and for the sake of Asian American Christians.

On one hand, I think Lee has several solid points.

Do I think, as Lee does, that “Chan’s Christianity is profoundly affected by his ethnicity?”  Absolutely.  Our cultures and ethnicities impact every aspect of our lives — how we understand and interact with the world, how other people perceive and interact with us, and on and on — whether or not we’re aware of that.  (And that goes for white people, too, not just people of color.)  Additionally, I think Lee does an excellent job of describing the ways in which many Asian Americans experience God based on their experiences with their fathers.

Do I take issue with Chan talking about his ethnicity only through the lens of otherness and his jokes about Asians and Asian Americans in front of predominantly white audiences?  Yes.  I have no problems with people making jokes about groups they belong to, but when you do so in front of people who don’t belong to your group, you run the risk of 1. validating their stereotypes and 2. making them think they have permission to make these jokes, too.  The most egregious example that Lee cites — “Oh, I want people to rike me” — I find especially unacceptable, both because exploiting that stereotype is cheap, lazy, and unhelpful and because the joke detracts from the (otherwise good) point he’s trying to make.

Do I think that Asian American Christians benefit from Asian American Christian leaders who can talk openly about how their cultures and ethnicities have shaped them and their faith?  No question.  Unlike those who left comments on the post saying that focusing on race is divisive, I think we need more discussion and understanding of race, not less, in order for us to understand ourselves and our history — and how we can make ourselves and our society better.

But.

The notion that Chan should talk more about his ethnicity, should take on the responsibility of exhorting Asian American Christians, simply because he’s the most prominent Asian American person in evangelical circles — that, I think, is pretty misguided.

Very simply, no one has the right to tell another person how they should feel or talk about their racial or ethnic identity.  I’ve written in the past about models of racial and ethnic identity development, and these models illustrate is that everyone is at different points in the process of understanding their identity.  Not all black people feel the same way about being black, not all white people have the same understanding of their whiteness, and not Asian Americans feel the same way about being Asian American.  We’re all at different stages in the process, and you can’t judge someone for being a different place than you are.  Nor can you expect them to have the same understanding of their ethnicity that you do.

I don’t know where Chan is in his process.  It’s possible that he’s still in the first stage of conformity and prefers whiteness and feels negatively about Asian-ness — in which case it would be unreasonable to expect him to speak thoughtfully about how his ethnic identity has shaped his faith.  It’s possible that he’s in the final stage of integrative awareness, in which he can appreciate and critique both his own culture and the dominant culture, and simply doesn’t feel compelled to talk about his culture at length.  That’s okay, too, and that’s entirely his prerogative.

In my days in the conformity stage, when I hated being Asian American and was quick to lash out at any reminder that I was, nothing was more frustrating to me than someone who told me that I should be more Asian.  Not only did that kind of command erroneously assume that there was only one way to be Asian, but it also invalidated my personal experiences and my legitimate reasons for being uncomfortable with my ethnicity.  Heck, that command would still irritate me now, even though I’ve gone through all the stages.  I fully embrace my ethnicity, but no one has the right to tell me how I should be practicing it, how I should be talking about it, or how it should play out in my work.  Even if other people would benefit if I did things a certain way, that doesn’t mean I have to if it doesn’t resonate with me.

Not to mention that it would be impossible for any one person to be the face of Asian American Christianity, given the incredible diversity of experiences, languages, values, socioeconomic statuses, reasons for immigration, and acculturation levels — among other things — in Asian American cultures.

So.  All that to say that I think that Lee makes some strong points, but his ultimate exhortation that Chan face his ethnicity and make it a part of his ministry is out of line.  Chan has the right to be any kind of Asian American he wants to be — and to speak, or not speak, of it how he chooses.

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3 thoughts on ““The Reluctant Patron Saint of Asian American Christianity:” A Response

  1. Pingback: Link love (Powered by rainstorms and troubled sleep) - NZ Muse

  2. First off, great post. I wholeheartedly agree with you that we’re all at different points on our journey in understanding our own and communal racial identities. Nobody can be faulted for where they’re at right now — some people have had more opportunities to grow, while others haven’t.

    Where I’m struggling is with the argument that nobody can expect him to grow in or want to talk about race. I don’t know if he is growing in that capacity or not. But I think that argument raises the question: do people have a responsibility to grow in racial understanding? And perhaps more importantly, do people of power and privilege have that responsibility?

    I would argue that having that expectation is fair. If there’s no expectation, there’s no impetus for people to address their own blatant bigotry, or more proactively, speak up and be an advocate for those who are racially oppressed or marginalized. There’s no impetus for Asian Americans to speak up and stand with other minorities when the issue doesn’t directly affect our community. They’re all our own individual prerogatives.

    And I think this is especially pertinent for Francis. He lives in the sphere of teaching and leading others in living more like Jesus.

    Again, great post. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. james: thanks so much, friend! i appreciate your kind words and your always-thoughtful insights.

    i feel the tension that i think you’re describing. on one hand, do i think people in positions of power and influence have a greater responsibility when it comes to these kinds of things? yes, i absolutely do. but do we have any way of enforcing that, of making someone grow? i don’t think so. to draw a parallel, i think that people in positions of power and influence should also be held to higher standards of maturity, but i don’t know of a way to force someone into maturity who isn’t looking for it. and even if they are, we may have different definitions of what maturity is. so i think the expectation is warranted, but i don’t think we have a way of enforcing it.

    a side note: i also think that if we’re holding chan to this standard, we also need to hold white pastors to the same standard, and it’s unfair to single out chan when white pastors hold the same responsibilities and are equally negligent.

    and even if we could force this kind of growth, does that mean that chan has an obligation to talk about race in the way that lee (or anyone) wants him to? i don’t think it does, no. to steal from my friend eugene, i wish some pastors would speak more about social justice and i wish all male pastors talked about fully empowering women in ministry — we all have things that we wish certain ministers would focus more on, but all pastors have different priorities and can’t prioritize everything. so would i love it if chan became more racially aware and thoughtfully addressed issues of race to his congregation? yes, i would be all over that. but i don’t think we can insist that that be his priority simply because he’s asian american, especially if there are other causes that he may feel more compelled to address. (and like i said before, if we expect these things from chan, we should expect these things from white pastors as well, who have an equally important role in the conversation on race.)

    … or i could be full of it. would love to hear your thoughts.

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