ISSUES IN ASIAN AND ASIAN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
The Rev. James Kodera, Ph. D.
Note: The following is a response-reflection from The Rev. Dr. James Kodera, professor at Wellesley College, Massachusetts and former president of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council to the Panel Discussion on Asian American Theologizing found somewhere in this blogsite. – Fred Vergara
I have read a recent talk given at Columbia Theological Seminary by the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara, Missioner for Asiamerica Ministry of the Episcopal Church. He was good enough to send the full text of the same talk. He invited the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry community to offer our own thoughts on the topic of discussion at Columbia Seminary. I would like to accept the invitation.
I offer my reflections in an itemized format in the hope that my contribution might elicit further responses from a variety of Asian and Asian American communities, especially those with Christian commitments. What I offer here is selective, and certainly not exhaustive, intended to move the discussion forward.
1. Christianity in Asia and Asian Christians:
Christians of Asian heritage are often viewed in North America as "new comers," as products of the work of missionaries from Western Europe and North America. It is indeed true that so many Asian Christians were schooled in institutions of higher education founded, or inspired, by missionaries from the West. Directly inspired by the Protestant missionary movement, started by a handful students at Williams College, in the nineteenth century, many missionaries went to Asia to propagate Christianity in the second half of the nineteenth century. Common assumption then was the no one could be "civilized" without being Christian; "Christian" referring to certain Protestant traditions, later known as "Mainline Protestant" denominations. Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, American Baptist, and so a lesser extent Episcopal, were among them. They went to Hawaii, China, Japan, Korea and Thailand, where the leaders of these institutions of higher learning remain grateful today for the work of the missionaries. United Kingdom, Holland and Scandinavia also sent their missionaries during this period.
And yet, we should also remember that, centuries before the Western European and North American missionaries, there were Christian communities in Asia. Put differently, we could say that both some of the oldest and the largest Christian churches are in Asia. Look at churches planted by Saint Thomas in Kerala, India. St. Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church in Alleppey, Kerala, India, was founded in 54 CE by Thomas. The church remains vital today. It is one of "seven and a half" Churches planted by Thomas before he was killed, martyred, in Chennai in 72 CE. The largest parish church in membership in the whole world today is Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul with upwards of 900,000 members. While many churches in South Korea were planted by American missionaries, especially by Horace Allen and Horace Underwood of the Presbyterian Church and Thomas Appenzeller of the Methodist Church, the strategies for mission and ministry have not been simply to copy what they learned from the missionaries. The founder of Yoido Full Gospel Church received no formal theological education, except for a brief study in Korea. He knew that the future of Christianity for the Korean had to affirm the native Korean traditions, especially the Confucian respect for learning and the vitality of Shamanism, especially Shamanesses, deeply rooted in the Korean folk tradition. Yoido Full Gospel Church is a product of the Korean Christians rejecting the Western missionary model, and infusing the native Korean traditions as part of a uniquely Korean Christian movement. Other Asian countries have not followed the same. Japan, for example, continued to propagate the missionary versions of the Christian Gospel, although there were some notable attempts at "indigenizing" Christianity. Among them are Uchimura Kanzo's "No Church Christianity" and Kitamori Kazo's "Pain of God Theology." Both appealed largely to a small group of intellectuals with strong Western leanings. More recently, Koyama Kosuke's unique theology, developed while teaching in Southeast Asia and at Union Seminary in New York, appealed to Westerners and North Americans, but not to the Japanese. In Japan, appealing to the pro-Western intellectuals did not result in planting the Christian Gospel among the masses.
2. Why is Asian American Studies important not only for Asian Americans but also for Asians:
It was in the crucible of the late 1960's when the term "Asian American" was coined by the students in the Bay Area. The impetus that contributed to the coinage of “Asian Americans” in the late 1960’s in the Bay Area included not only their opposition to the US involvement in the civil war in Indochina, but their awareness of the rise of certain Asian countries in the world. Japan’s rise as a technological power and China’s rise as a political power under Mao were among the reasons. They found strong affinity with the opposition to the “Vietnam War” by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. To them, the war was not “Vietnam War,” but “American War,” for it was the US who was fighting their war against the Communists in Vietnam.
The Federal government of the United States adopted "Asian and Pacific Island American" as a new demographic category in the 1990 US Census. Less than 1 million in 1960, they increased to more than 7 million in 1990. "Asian American Americans, separated from the “Pacific Islander Americans” in the 2010 US Census, today are the fastest growing segment of the US population. While this was happening, Asians in Asia remain divided by language and history. Colonialism is a very big factor, contributing to the division. While many Asian countries were colonized by Europeans powers, including the British (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma), the Spanish (the Philippines), the French ("Indochina") and the Dutch (Indonesia), the most savage colonial oppression in many parts of Asia were by the Japanese. Japan first sought to occupy the Korean Peninsula in 1592. After Japan's victory over Imperial China in 1895 and over Imperial Russia a decade later, Japan was given by the international community (Portsmouth Conference of 1906) the Korean Peninsula as its colony. Asians’ struggles have not been just with European powers, but within Asia, especially with the Japanese. Unless peace and reconciliation is achieved among Asians, Asian Americans cannot come together as a “Pan Asian” community with a common history and aspirations.
3. The myths of Asian Americans as “Model Minority”:
Since the publication of William Peterson’s article in the New York Times Magazine in 1966, in which he coined the term “model minority,” referring to East Asian Americans, not only the larger North American society but Asian Americans themselves have assumed that they have “made it,” especially in education and employment. Today, the median income of Asian Americans is higher than that of other Americans, including Euro Americans. Today, Indian Americans, who comprise 1% of the US population, are the wealthiest ethnic group in the US, surpassing Jewish Americans. This statistic compounded the stereotype of Asian Americans as well educated and wealthy. And yet, the poorest Americans are also Asian American, namely the Hmong Americans, most of whom came to the US as refugees in the aftermath of the “Vietnam War” that ended in 1975. They also have among the highest rate of domestic violence in the US. How can we group all Asian Americans, as if they were a homogeneous group?
4. Aspirations of Asian Americans, born of their forbearers’ struggles:
We must be mindful of a number of anti-Asian legislations in US history. It started with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and was compounded by the Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklyn Roosevelt in 1942, ordering some 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in the West Coast to “internment camps” for over three years. Asians working on plantations in Hawaii and coal mines in Wyoming, laundry and restaurant workers in San Francisco and gardeners in Southern California were ineligible for naturalization as US citizens until the passage of the Water McCarran Act of 1952, which effectively ended the Chinese Exclusion Act after 70 years. But it was with a quota, less than 3,000 per year. When we consider that Asians comprise roughly one half of the human race then as now, the quota was extremely small. It was not until 1964 when the New Immigration Act, envisioned by President John F. Kenney and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the racial quota was dropped. In the new immigration law, “refugees” were given a special consideration in their transition to the US. As Americans of Asian heritage come together in search of a common history and aspirations, it is essential that they know not only what happened to Asians in American, but why. The fear of Asians becoming American was real. The State of California passed an anti miscegenation laws against Asians in 1850. Furthermore, only able bodied Asian men were allowed entry into the United States through the Port of San Francisco. Women were barred, unless they were prostitutes. California’s antimiscegenation laws were not repealed until 1948.
Given this history, evident are the Euro Americans sentiments against Asians. Equally noteworthy is Asians’ and Asian Americans’ complicity in the racial superiority of people of European heritage. Reluctance to “make waves” in Asian American communities is to keep them safe, given the history. But it is also an expression of Asians’ deference to, if not reverence for, people of European heritage. This is precisely the reason why Asian Americans as “model minority” is defined in European and Euro American terms. Asian Americans who have excelled in educational and vocational pursuits that are supposed to be European and Euro American in origin are considered “model minority.” Asian Americans who excel in piano and violin are “model minority.” Asian Americans who obtain PhD in Shakespeare are “model minority.” But Asian Americans who excel just as much in Asian art or Asian literature remain on the periphery of North American society. They are not “model minority.” In short, racism is not simply of Euro Americans against Asian Americans, but also among and by Asian Americans. Racism remains a social, cultural and political reality as Asian traits.