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Asian American Theologian: Our ‘Culture’ Is Not to Blame

The past several years have seen a sharp rise in violence against Asian Americans.

In 2020, the FBI recorded a 73 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Over the next two years, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center documented over 11,000 self-reported discriminatory incidents, two-thirds of which were categorized as harassment.

Acts of violence against Asian Americans, including a rash of physical assaults in New York City and the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, have captured the national media. And a recent shooting in Monterey Park, California, by a Chinese American man stirred up similar sentiments of stress and anxiety.

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But that heightened anxiety is contrasted against a sense of personal and cultural sublation among the diaspora that can make both verbalizing and addressing these stressors difficult.

While a wide majority of Asian Americans believe that violence against them is increasing, they are also the least likely of all US racial groups to report incidents of hate or utilize mental health services. Instead, many Asian Americans slouch into a form of cognitive dissonance, often defaulting to criticisms of themselves and their own cultural values while struggling to fully acknowledge the racialization they face—a result of what author Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings,” or “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic.”

For Asian American Christians to address the increased stressors within their communities, Daniel D. Lee, a professor of theology and Asian American studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, believes they’ll need to more fully embrace and examine their own heritage and theology—understanding the way both have been shaped by their racialized experiences in the United States.

“If you think the only problem that arises within the Asian American community is cultural, then everything will be a cultural problem. It’s Asian shame. It’s Asian values. It’s something wrong with our family dynamic. It’s indirect communication,” Lee said. “But what if it’s racial? We’re a racial minority. What if it’s internalized racism? What if it’s self-hatred? What if it’s actually how we evaluate our cultural values based on a white norm?”

“Maybe it’s something that comes out of the migration experience; maybe it’s your family. How do you tease this out? If you are actually proficient in multiple categories, you can say, Oh, it’s not this; it’s that.

Author of the new book Doing Asian American Theology: A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice, Lee spoke with Christianity Today about distinguishing racial trauma from cultural values, contextualizing Asian American history, and bringing ethnic identity under the lordship of Christ.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Are there particular ways that Asian American Christians tend to grieve difficult situations?

When we talk about [Asian American] churches in general, there’s a kind of contextual confluence, certain things within the context that overlap and stress each other. You have the Christian thing, and you have the Asian American Christian thing. On top of all that, sometimes cultural values of shame and collective identity can play a role.

I say it that way because people are too quick to blame their Asian heritage based on more of a white norm of what it means to be human. That becomes very toxic for Asian Americans because, compared to white normative communities, everything we do is wrong: We’re too quiet. We’re too indirect. Something’s wrong with us. We’re not assertive enough.

All those [presumptions] are based on a norm that isn’t beneficial for us, but how do you know that this is racism as opposed to our culture being at fault? There are layers and layers that play against each other, and they can create a nice cocktail to where it’s difficult for Asian Americans in certain spaces to navigate and find the right kinds of resources that can really nourish and heal our community.

You talked about this confluence of layered ideas—the white normative culture, the Asian American subculture within that, and the Asian American Christian framework within that—but in your book you argue that a lot of Asian Americans don’t realize that those dynamics are playing out. Why is that?

A lot of Asian American churches are relationally and societally Asian American, but they have no idea how to consciously be theologically or spiritually Asian American. I don’t mean you have to put the word Asian American on a sign above your church. I’m just saying that these are the people you are ministering to; these are what their issues are.

It doesn’t mean we erase individuality. People have different experiences, but there are some themes we should at least be aware of. Not everybody might fit some of those themes, but at least you have an idea that because of societal forces, because of historical forces, these are some of the things in the waters. Average Asian Americans don’t know those things. Our leaders don’t know them.

The problem is, they have a white normative education that basically doesn’t talk about Asian American stuff—or maybe some of these people learned all their rhetoric and concepts from the Black community, which is obviously very beneficial, but that’s not necessarily particularly Asian American. If you use somebody else’s categories that are normative to them, then you start distorting your experience. You start distorting your experience so that it fits more of their understanding, and that’s basically where stereotypes come from.

When we internalize [those stereotypes] for Asian Americans, we describe ourselves the way other people would describe us—in a very crude way. And that’s what’s taking place devoid of [an understanding of Asian American culture and theology]. We typically say, “Oh, it’s because of our Asian shame,” but some things are not cultural; they’re actually racial. We’ve experienced racism, and we’ve turned this way as a result of it.

How does that intersect with the faith of Asian American Christians?

So much of evangelical Christianity has been colorblind. In my book, I talk about the fact that it started out with this kind of supersessionist theology where we forgot the fact that Jesus is Jewish; we forgot that Jesus’ Jewishness has soteriological significance. And Jesus wasn’t just fully human, fully divine—he was actually Jewish, and that covenantal relationship actually mattered to God. That’s why the Bible has all these genealogies, right? Now, we think that no matter who you are, you are in Christ, but no. You’re in a Jewish Christ. So it means that I can’t just come to God in my generic humanity, because that’s not how the Bible talks about what it means to be human.

Sometimes Asian American identity can be fraught; it can be painful, because society makes it very painful, or even our common community can make it very painful. So we say, “Oh, you know what, I don’t want to deal with this painful identity. I am a child of God.” It’s a shortcut. It’s a simple answer. It’s a Band-Aid. Is it true? Yes, it is true. But it’s not like there’s a self that can be extracted out of or separated from my body and my culture and who I am. Who would that be, right?

The one that God loves is all of me—with the Asian American, Korean American male aspects of who I am. I am in Christ, because I’m in a Jewish Christ, not just some generic human Christ. If we have a generic human Christ, maybe I can be generically human, but that’s not what the Bible says. So I am in Christ as all of who I am, not in spite of who I am.

What does it mean to embody ourselves as Asian American Christians more holistically?

I always clarify that I don’t actually think that our goal is to become “more Asian American.” I don’t know what that means—like should we eat more Asian food or learn our language or only marry another Asian? What it actually means is that I allow God’s presence and God’s shalom to fully impact that aspect of my life.

But to do that, we have to own that part of ourselves. The fact that we’re Asian Americans isn’t all of who we are. I mean, we have other identities, right? I’m a theologian. I’m a son. I have my personality. I have my family identities. I’m an Angeleno. All those things matter, but being Asian American intersects with everything else, and it’s a significant part of who I am, just like other identities that I have. And all these identities need to be reconciled because I want Jesus to be Lord over all these identities. Otherwise, they will have a life of their own apart from Christ’s lordship.

What that looks like it’s hard to say. There’s no template for what being an Asian American Christian looks like.

Asian Americans are such a broad pantheon of cultural groups from different backgrounds that the application of being more embodied may vary quite a lot.

A lot of people will talk about the fact that the Asian American category is inadequate, but the white category is inadequate. The Black category isn’t adequate. Every racial category is inadequate, but it’s part of how the US decided to organize society. You can’t just get rid of it, because it’s baked into our society.

Now, we have to hold [these categories] lightly; we have to make sure we don’t use them toxically. But there is a way in which these categories have some function, and it doesn’t mean that every use of them is toxic.

The Asian American category—same thing. Sometimes I’ll walk into a room, and it doesn’t matter that I’m Korean American. Everybody’s stereotypes about a general East Asian American–looking man will be projected on me whether I like it or not. I still have to navigate that. Whatever happens in China might impact me. I’m not Chinese. It doesn’t matter. It’s part of how implicit bias works. That’s just navigating the world, and that’s not going to just go away because I want it to.

So, I always tell people, “Yeah, I’m Korean American, but I’m also Asian American.” And I have to make sense of that. I have to actually own that to some degree.




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