Tag Archives: America

Why Christian calls for unity in the wake of Charlottesville may be both racist and theologically unsound

Whether it was the clergy in full vestments, arms linked facing down gun-wielding white supremacists or the torch-bearers chanting anti-semitic threats, it is abundantly clear that theology is not neutral in 21st century America.  And yet, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Christians have responded with opaque calls to unity and appeals to people of faith to “tear down the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

At first I thought such statements offended me merely as a cultural anthropologist.

You see, while it is powerful and poignant to condemn discrimination and racism, it seems a problematically ethnocentric, if not a positively white-privileged perspective to blatantly condemn “the racial and cultural barriers that divide us.”

Whose culture, whose race is dividing us?  Perhaps it seems like mere semantics, but when Christians posit that culture and race are problems that breed division, that they are the very evils that need to be stamped out, we reveal that our calls to unity run dangerously close to the rhetoric of those who rallied in Charlottesville last weekend (even if that was not the intent).

Even though race is a social construct, we do see color and it has socially and politically relevant power and effects that especially white Americans must grapple with rather than ignore.  The creative cultures that have emerged from communities of struggle and resistance among people of color in America are not barriers that divide us but rich resources to teach us about what America can and should become.

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Not only do we have to choose our words carefully from an anthropological point of view, but we have to do so because the ministry and the integrity of Jesus Christ is at stake here.  Countless Christians have boldly quoted Galatians 3:28 in the face of racial division: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.”  But Paul uses this passage to argue that all are liberated from the law and therefore, we do not need to become like one another to be in Christ and receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; rather, in Christ, we can live as one with those who are radically different from us.

Indeed, we often forget that Jesus came into a culturally pluralistic world and honored the cultural practices in communities and peoples who were different from him, while preaching a gospel that sought to unify.  There are certainly passages in the Bible that also justify slavery, genocide, and division, but when we look at the whole of God’s ministry arose history and in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, I believe we do see that redemptive reconciliation does not damn culture, difference, and the sacredness of varied human lives, but the ways in which we human beings often instrumentalize these differences as division.

There’s nothing theologically unsound about unity, but unity that obliterates, objectifies, and undermines difference falls short of the vision God has for the fullness of humanity in Jesus Christ.  Unity that maintains inequitable power structures is false and faithless.  And unity that fails to listen and value the struggles of people of color in America is not only anthropologically unsound but theologically dismissive.

If you’re a Christian, especially a white Christian like me, seeking healing, reconciliation, and unity, I recommend you read the PCUSA’s statement on “Facing Racism,” adopted in 1999 by the General Assembly as a policy document to guide the pursuit of racial justice.  Or read this exegetical lecture on Acts, where Princeton Seminary Professor Eric Baretto powerfully describes how differences are gifts from God.  You might check out my post on “Embracing Difference as a Spiritual Discipline” and consider the challenge in a theology where we recognize and affirm that although we belong to God, God does not belong to us.  And check out Christina Cleveland’s “Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves.”

Of course, there’s so much more to read and do.  But at the very least, let’s check ourselves from parading around platitudes about unity at the expense of diversity, especially in the name of Christ.  Christians have got to stand for more than that.  We owe it to one another and especially to Jesus.

 

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The culture of things

One of the qualms that comes with an international move (apparently) is that cultural values in regards to things, abundance, and excess inevitably don’t quite match up.  

I mentioned that in China, many of my friends only owned one or two pairs of clothes, many families had just a few possessions, the insides of their homes, some with dirt floors and concrete walls, appeared barren to my Western eye.

Before we moved to China, my husband and I sold many of our possessions.  But another young couple used most of our furniture for the two years we were in China, and we had other treasured things–wedding photos, souvenirs from travel, and books–stacked in footlockers waiting for our return.

We’ve all but completed our move and our set-up here in our new apartment in New Jersey, and the business of making a home is fun, and one that was made quite a bit easier and more affordable given the items we kept those few years.

But everything I’m reading lately (see here, here, and here) reminds me that we live in a climate of excess here in America.  Every time I go out to eat and a huge portion greets me, or even when warm water runs over my hands in the kitchen sink, or when I’m sorting through boxes of items that we’ve amassed over the years I’m embarrassed, stunned, and overwhelmed by things and their hold over me.

Views of the countryside in Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.

A fellow blogger recently discussed the growing materialism in China today, while also remarking on the lively debates we Americans get into over PC vs. Mac, or the way we caress our computers and phones.  She argues that Americans are simply unaware of their materialism, to the extent that they are unable “to separate material (especially techno-consumerism) from their identities.  America is so accustomed to its wealth that we are loathe to part with the products that make us who we are.”

We speak of things we need that we don’t really need.  We choose to feel inadequate when we don’t have enough “furniture to fill the space” and we buy more things as we can afford bigger spaces.  This morning I heard on NPR that the average cost of raising a child from age 0 to 18 in America is $250,000, but that’s relative to your income–as in the more money you have, the more money you will spend on a child.  

How does God desire that we live, and is that living relative to the country or the continent on which we find ourselves?  

I’m asking you this morning because I’m still parceling these things out as I go.  I’m still reeling from this new context in which I’m making my home and trying not to live in a nostalgia for China that romanticizes poverty, but rather a life that realizes authenticity and simplicity.  And God knows I’m finding it difficult…what about you?

 

 

 

Farewell, China. And hello, America.

My heart is heavy as I leave China this day.

And it’s not only because we’re attempting to pack two years of life here into two big duffle bags, or because of who we leave behind–people of love and faith who have reached out to us as strangers in a foreign land and welcomed us as their own.

My heart is also heavy because of the brokenness in this world.

A few days ago Evan and I had Hong Kong-style dimsum with some British friends who’ve spend almost ten years in China at a delicious restaurant in the heart of Nanning, China.  We chatted the way only expats can about the joys of being sheltered from the burdens of our respective nations’ budget woes and political spats, and also about the challenges of life in a foreign place.

Evan and I admitted that going back into the political fray, especially during an election year, feels overwhelming and a bit nonsensical.  When you’ve been living in a land where there is effectively no child welfare, people die of natural causes in their fifties, and birth defects and tainted milk are commonplace, it’s sometimes hard to take seriously what (especially from far away) sounds like senseless squabbling over the US Olympic team uniforms being made in none other than China, and the like.

Meanwhile, across China, people often have a healthy, if not exaggerated, admiration for America.  When the cashier in the grocery store finds out I’m an American, or the old man smoking his cigarette in the park, I’m greeted with a thumbs up and cheers for this country from which I come.  It’s just one reason, why, although being a foreigner in China can elicit all too many lengthy stares and smatterings of predictable, surface level questions (Do you like the NBA?  Kobe Bryant?  McDonald’s?  Chinese food?), ultimately being strange in this strange land actually feels strangely warm.

And so over the years, I’ve tried to help my Chinese friends see that I love and respect China for real, sincere reasons.  My Chinese friends are often surprised to hear that they have a more robust, reliable, affordable public transport system than America.  They’re often shocked to hear that we struggle with the question of affordable health care, and dismayed to see that we don’t treat elderly people all that well.  America may be great, but we’re not perfect, and so I’ve tried in my small ways to encourage a more nuanced dialogue between our two countries and cultures in my short time here.

But this week, as the brokenness of our nation reared its ugly head and the entire world remains stunned by the shootings in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, I realize how much despite its faults and seams that show perhaps only to its citizens, America has been and will always be my home.  I’m not ready to talk about the shootings with my Chinese friends who adamantly argue that America has gun problems because we have so many guns (although I do see their point).  I don’t want to talk about how the shootings in Colorado could have been prevented or what we can do to move on, but suddenly I have an urgency to get back to this place and to these people who are hurting, despite the fact that I can effectively do very little to ease anyone’s pain or suffering.

My heart is heavy today to behold that we’re still living in Eden lost, as a fellow Chinese expat-blogger put it, and that no manner of cultural understanding or growth can transcend the grief and pain people feel this day.  I struggled with even writing this post, because I don’t want to appear as though I think my words (written from so far away) can either heal or provide real insight to such deep tragedy.

But I wanted to write to express that especially given the brokenness in my country at this moment, I am an American who is grateful for the things that do make America great.  And I hope these will prove to be our ability to embrace one another during difficult times, our ability to stand in solidarity with one another, and our belief in a power greater than ourselves who suffers alongside those who weep this day.  

It’s with a heavy heart that I bid you farewell China, and begin the journey home, America.

America the beautiful

I’m realizing that this whole ambivalence that comes with leaving another country that’s been your home for the past two years isn’t necessarily the best fodder for the blogosphere (sorry).

I figured I could take advantage, however, of the mixed feelings, by listening to the leaps my little heart does when I think about some of the more frivolous (and not so) aspects of calling the U.S. of A. home.

So, with no further ado, here are some of the little things I miss and am looking forward to in our reunion with America in just a month:

Idyllic, isn’t it?
  • Grass, and walking in said grass, getting it between my toes and feeling the earth under my feet (cheesy, I know).
  • Pastries: scones, muffins, you name it, and the opportunity for some real baking in a real oven (which I hardly did before we left the country, but now it sounds great!).
How’s that for a chocolate cake?
  • Being in the same time zone as friends and family, i.e. being able to pick up the phone in mid-afternoon and give one of them a call!
  • Libraries full of books and movies in my native language.
  • And along those lines, quiet, solitude, and the great outdoors.
  • Worshiping at a Presbyterian Church.
  • Good draught beer, burgers, sandwiches, grilling out, and other all-American fare.
  • Going to the gym (and knowing it will have air-conditioning and be relatively BO-free!).
  • Gorgeous bathrooms and bathtubs where one can just linger…
  • Good coffee and wine!

What did I miss??

Thanking God for the woes

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. –Luke 6:24-26

I’m not usually such of fan of negative passages in the Bible, you know like the whole ‘Loving God, please heap burning coals upon my enemies’ heads’ lines that often fall at the end of the Psalms.  Something just doesn’t seem quite right with those…

Sermon on the Mount by Laura James

So I guess that’s why I tend to gravitate toward the version of the Beattitudes in Matthew 5, you know the one that wraps up with blessings, joy in heaven, and then moves onto that cheery salt and light bit.

And perhaps that’s why these few verses at the end of Luke’s version struck me so profoundly with their recognition that it’s not only poverty of spirit that’s too be cherished, but gluttony, wickedness, and pride that are to be avoided.

Yesterday, as we made our way to a foster family’s home on the outskirts of the city and down a dusty road, a Chinese friend of mine turned to me and said, “You know people think that because China is developing so rapidly that things are fine here, but we still have a lot of problems.”

This morning I read an article about the education that few can afford in China, and the widening gap between the rich and poor.  And yesterday I saw it with my own eyes, far removed from the gleaming skyscrapers in the city, among these lovely old ladies who live in shacks and take care of severely disabled, needy kids for next to nothing.

But we can all relate to that story of the haves and the have-nots, can’t we?

It’s the same story in America just on a different frequency, and it must have been the same story back in Biblical times or Jesus would have been able to stop with that list of blessings.

But he didn’t.  

He went onto to preach that he wasn’t just talking about the plight of the poor or charity, where the rich could chip in a few cents for the poor and go on their merry way, but life-changing justice–the kind where we’d all have to give up something so that others don’t have to go without the necessities, where we’d have to stop rejoicing in the struggles of others, or attributing our success, wealth, and status to our own good graces.

I’m grateful during this Lenten season that Jesus didn’t stop with the blessings, but heaped on the woes.

Because its causing me to ask myself the hard questions like, What is Jesus calling me to give up this season so that others don’t go without?  And what burdens is Jesus calling me to shoulder so that others don’t stumble and fall?  

These are the questions that Lent begs of us, and the questions that renew our search for God’s wisdom and for Christ’s kingdom here on earth.

They are the questions that I ask even now when I’m afraid to do so, so that in some humble way someday I might not be facing these woes or trashing Jesus’s good name with them, but that I might be a blessing to others.