Should the Freshly Liberated Ignore the Currently Oppressed?
“Racism isn’t a gospel issue,” they said. “We don’t want to turn people off,” they said. “I don’t see color,” they said. And the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms let out a victory cry.
Were it not enough that the world today reels under the scourge of a virus that attacks the most vulnerable, as the novel coronavirus has pummeled nation after nation—taking lives, crippling economies, and sapping days of their usual vigor—cases of racism against Asian Americans and the broader Asian diaspora surge.
We now fight two diseases: one that erupted months ago for which infographics, PSAs, and hashtags abound, and the other, accompanying humanity since the fall, whose severity has been even more disastrously downplayed than the virus confining us to our homes. For the former, coordinated efforts have swiftly changed the culture. Activities previously deemed innocuous, like going out or touching your face, now carry a stigma. For the latter, efforts to “flatten that curve” have gained broad support such as the Statement on Anti-Asian Racism in the Time of COVID-19, hotlines for reporting harassment, and a tracker for incidents of racism. Yet much work remains.
I spent seven years living in three countries across Asia. I speak five languages from the region. When I lived in Boston, I attended a predominantly Asian American church and in Seattle, a Korean American one. My Masters is in China Studies. A decade of my professional experience has focused on Asia. I even recently asked my roommate to mark me Asian American when she completed the census for us, joking, “I identify that way.” (She didn’t.)
Lest anyone think I appeal for solidarity on the basis of affinity or personal experience, I do not. Those make adequate worldly reasons for loving your neighbor, but you don’t need the gospel for that.
Asian and African Americans have a history of social distance. A study of the makeup of wedding parties in the US found that Asian and African Americans seldom include each other: 2.8% of black wedding parties included at least one Asian American and 1.7% of Asian America ones included at least one black.
But even when in each other’s orbit, mistrust can mar both sides. The Pew Research Center surveyed Asian Americans about intergroup relations. Among whites, Hispanics, other Asian Americans, and blacks, Asian Americans reported the lowest comfort levels around blacks.
Many years ago I took an internet quiz called “How Asian American are You.” The fourth question was “Are you afraid of black people?” Asian American friends have told me their parents would disown them if they brought home a black significant other. I once had a Chinese woman tell me I wasn’t black because I wasn’t scary. And yet none of this would justify my silence in their time of need. says the wise speak out for the vulnerable and defend the cause of the afflicted.
On the flip side, I’ve known black people to be dismissive or suspicious of Asian Americans. Our experiences as minorities are often pitted against each other. Asian Americans argue affirmative action keeps them out of top schools, while blacks fear others will assume that’s how we got in. Asian American business owners in economically depressed neighborhoods report being harassed and robbed by blacks, while black patrons say they are followed. My dad has used Asian racial slurs. I myself have struggled with resentment towards Asian Americans, wishing to trade stereotypes, even as I know the “model minority” is a gross and harmful oversimplification of a beautifully diverse group.
For all our differences, however, we also share battles and victories. In 2013, hashtags #NotYourAsianSidekick and #blackgirlmagic both went viral, revealing a shared fight by women to be seen, respected, and celebrated in their own right. Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians stormed box offices in 2018 to a swell of pride at positive popular representation. Further, in the wake of police brutality, an Asian American penned an open letter to Chinese moms in support of Black Lives Matter.
It’s strange that people freshly liberated should need to be taught how not to oppress, yet this is Israel’s story. Fresh from Egypt, God teaches them what it means to love justice and how to avoid becoming the source of what once ailed them (). They weren’t immune to this sin strictly by virtue of personal experience with it. Our hearts pull, like broken shopping carts, toward evil if we do not consciously redirect their course.
Someone asked why conversations about racism between African and Asian Americans aren’t happening in the church. As with society at large, most discussions about race focus on black/white issues, leaving Asian Americans overlooked. We also default to thinking of ourselves as victims of racism and remain relatively ignorant about Asian Americans and their experience.
Yet regardless of how much we do or don’t trust each other or of how socially integrated our communities may or may not be, in Christ, we are bound by the gospel to love. Compelled by it. Woe to us if our hearts grow cold with indifference when they ought to burn with righteous anger. Christ gives us a courage, conviction, and perspective the world cannot. As people of the cross, division does not become us.
Racism needs to be addressed from the pulpit, and if from the pulpit, in seminaries too. Yet it needn’t be isolated to be addressed. When condemning fear, pride, idolatry, misplaced security—all things racism latches onto to give it life—it can be addressed. When extolling the beauty of righteousness, justice, forgiveness, repentance, lament, enemy love, and the resurrection itself, a distaste for bias can be cultivated.
While discussions are needed at the highest levels, they must also happen around dinner tables, through bedtime stories, on our platforms, among friends, in the streets, and wrestled with in our hearts. These are our frontlines in this battle. What we advocate for so vocally for ourselves we must likewise advocate for for others. Otherwise, our legacy unravels and we make a mockery of Dr. King’s words “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” If it was only for our own benefit we sought equality, yet feel no sense of urgency when it is denied others, that does not make us lovers of justice, but of ourselves.
Surveying the outcome of much of the majority white church’s approach to racism, we ought to learn from their mistakes. The prophet Jeremiah used Israel’s sin as an example to Judah in the hopes that Judah would take a different path. The Lord spoke to him, “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel?” God then laments that “her treacherous sister Judah saw it” yet “did not fear but too went and played the whore.” () In an interesting parallel, we’ve seen how well a muted or delayed response has played out with coronavirus in areas hardest hit. Why then should we suppose that adopting a moderate response to the racism Asian Americans face would leave our hearts or them any better off?
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy. (ESV)