On Racism in my Faith Community
Every people group has suffered racism in one form or another. This societal ubiquity doesn’t discriminate – people of all colors and religions, the educated and less educated, rich and poor, powerful and powerless are just as capable of bigotry. Racism is not always one direction – victims of racism can be racists themselves. Racism is not always mean-spirited, blatant or conscious. Well-meaning people may harbor personal prejudice latent deep within without knowing it. Organizations may perpetrate systemic bias without their perpetrators’ awareness. Then again, organizations may perpetuate institutional inequality and tribal homogeneity when insiders feel threatened.
Racism in religious sodality seems like a contradiction in definition. Not! My faith community is founded on the ideals of holiness living and the mandate of world evangelization. We pride ourselves in representing Christ to many peoples. We have missions in over seventy countries. And yet, as a parish cleric, seminary professor, and denominational leader, I have felt the sting of racism in all sectors of my global-minded faith community.
Paternalism is a form of racism. My denomination’s global endeavor seems to have morphed into a “white man’s gospel” and subverted by a form of “white supremacy.” Referring to how our missional work had reached many nations, a leader stood before a racially diverse audience and in earnest said, “Let me speak in defense of paternalism.” My first week at the national office coincided with its quarterly board meeting. A board member poked his head into my office and spewed a derogatory slur, “So, you’re the Chinaman they have appointed.” Of about forty administrators in the building, I was the only non-white. At an annual general council, a friendly couple glanced at my name tag and wondered where I was from. “From New York,” I replied. “No,” the man corrected me, “where are you really from?”
Some racists are ignorant with uninformed prejudice. During a luncheon, a former missionary sat next to me. Because I was Asian, his narrow experience assumed that I was not fluent in English. In a slow, deliberate cadence, he leaned over to greet me, “How. . . are. . .you.?” At another time, a colleague mindlessly besotted an oxymoron by referring to my American born family as “second generation immigrants.” Enough students in our denomination’s seminary assumed that a Chinese professor like me should or could only teach Chinese students. A Black student confessed, “When I saw your name in the class announcements, I thought – what can a Chinese teach me!”
Racism is cultural bias. My name was submitted for an executive position to the President’s Cabinet. Initially, it rejected my nomination. Its collective rationale was that the color of my skin would hinder my effectiveness among non-Asian churches. My Vice President excoriated them, “The color of John’s skin has nothing to do with it. I want him because of his credentials.” At his strong insistence, the others reluctantly appointed me. There are about a hundred Chinese churches in our denomination. All verbally embrace the great mandate for global evangelization. However, the Chinese understand it to mean reaching the Chinese globally. When pressed how he could justify such ethno-centric exclusion, a prominent leader had a rehearsed answer: “There are so many Chinese in the Great Diaspora how can we not reach out to our kinsmen in the world.” On another occasion, perhaps under the cloak of xenophobia, a white colleague referred to all Asians as “your people.” I sternly retorted, “then who are YOUR people?”
Some time ago, I wrote an open letter to our denomination’s president seeking a wider dialogue concerning institutional and personal racism. It was in response to his annual report regarding institutional “racial superiority” and “spiritual lethargy.” (his terms) I have edited the letter for clarity and removed any proper names to avoid shaming recrimination:
You mentioned “racial superiority.” No doubt this sense of superiority is beyond but stems from racial biases. From experience, I suspect this notion of elitism is cultural, social, spiritual, and missional. . . . I suspect these attitudes are ubiquitous if not systemic. Our mission in America and worldwide is no longer solely a “white” burden. As you well know, many of the most effective ministries are among our intercultural communities. Our movement, here and away, reflects a profound cultural pluralism.
You would agree that our national and regional leadership do not reflect this pluralism. Looking through the glass darkly our denomination is no different from secular society’s exclusivity. To truly represent and lead our movement into its future, we must recognize, welcome and promote participation from our entire and pluralistic family. Perhaps a new form of leadership will come from here.
I have worked with intercultural churches and pastors. I do not disagree that some find it challenging to assimilate into American culture. But not all intercultural leaders are immigrants. There are vibrant next generations (children and grandchildren of immigrant members) who call themselves hyphenated Americans. They act as a bridge that connects our rich and enriching communal mosaic. You would take courage to see some of the innovative ways they go about doing the work of God’s kingdom. Some deserve and should be given opportunities to serve the greater church.
There is a tacit intimacy between “racial superiority” and “spiritual lethargy.” I hesitate to think that their intimation has impacted the many denominational declines you mentioned. Our faith community has been my ministry family for much of my professional life. And my pastor’s heart throbs longingly. It is my hope that these unfinished thoughts are taken as an earnest impetus for further dialogues in our family.
The president cordially wrote back only to apologize for what racism I have suffered. That innocuous apology didn’t cost him nor the denomination further action. He has no intention of initiating a wider dialogue. In response to recent racial protests, our denomination calls a convocation to address “racial reconciliation.” We have convoked enough times before. Each time, the outcome is predictable. Nothing of substance comes of it. At best, this latest is but a banal nod to political correctness and an emasculate rendering of tokenism. In his book, White Too Long, Robert P. Jones talks of racism in American Christianity. He concludes that racial reconciliation, if it has irenic significance, must reckon with personal responsibility, institutional racial repair, social justice and equality. Refusing to own systemic racism, my denomination has no intention of taking responsibility. Without subsequent meaningful reformation, any jeremiad is but spewing into thin air.