Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Ten Years of Letters

Back in 2006 when I was working at Hitachi and finishing up seminary on nights and weekends, I took a class with Steve Korch. I don’t remember what the class was but one day, Steve segued into a discussion about parenting. He described a tradition he started when his children were young. Every year on each of their birthdays, he would give them a letter he had written them ten years earlier. He shared how his daughters and son would eagerly anticipate the letter they would receive each year. Each birthday, it must have been like opening up a time capsule about one’s life. I was impressed. I decided it would be a practice I wanted to adopt with my own children.

My oldest son, Caleb, turned fifteen yesterday. I wrote my first birthday letter to him ten years ago. On his latest birthday, I told him about my letter-writing tradition and how I started when he was in kindergarten. I sense he was surprised, in a thoughtful way. Obviously, he’s a completely different person from back then. What fascinates me isn’t how much he’s changed but how much he’s the same. While re-reading the letter, I noticed how much his personality today was evident during kindergarten. He loved being physically active and was popular with his classmates. He also relished building unique LEGO creations. He is all those things today - creative, emotionally intelligent, and athletic. 

I see these letters as a non-emotionally charged way to express our parental commitment over the years. It’s easy to have a selective memory - especially in a rebellious phase - to forget past innocence and how your parents invested in and cared for you in early childhood. I used to blog about raising kids but stopped in the last couple years since Caleb became a teenager. He’s on social media and if I imagine being an adolescent again, I would absolutely not want my dad writing about me. I can understand why parents of teenagers are careful how openly they share about their parenting struggles. It can be quite shaming for their children. And thus for sermon illustrations, I try to use my younger children as examples - they tend not to mind as much. 

But not blogging about Caleb doesnt mean Ive stopped thinking about him or have stopped growing as a parent. In fact, Judy and I think about him just as much - though its often out of frustration with his study and smartphone habits. Every phase of our kids development has challenged us. Adolescence is no exception. If anything, it’s harder because there seem to be fewer resources available, fewer positive role models of good parenting, and the sense that we should have this figured out by now. Thus, these letters also testify to how we’ve grown as parents - or not. 

And from the beginning, I doubted my ability to persevere in writing. Most projects I start are never completed. I start strong and fizzle out about a month or so in. It’s really hard for me to stay consistent and focused on something over the long haul. But somehow, pretty much every birthday, I would remember and get it done. There were challenges. I forgot to do the 2007 letter for Caleb. That year I was transitioning from high-tech employment to vocational ministry, we had three children under six years old, and our marriage was in a bad place. Some letters are short, some are longer. I definitely remember lagging months after a child’s birthday, not wanting to write the letter. 

The letters typically start by narrating events that child was involved with in the past year. I make observations about their character. There’s always some personal self-disclosure. I love talking about myself and would not miss an opportunity to share how I’ve been feeling. I used to be more guarded in what I share but over the years, I’ve become more vulnerable. After all, at this point, they’ll be reading these letters in late teens and early twenties. They will be well-acquainted with my weaknessses whether I share them or not. My biggest concern now is whether they will be able to decipher my penmanship because I so rarely hand-write anything.

I love photos because they can often express more than words. We have lots of pictures of our kids. What we have fewer of is stories. Specifically, stories that capture our hopes, dreams, desires, and fears for our children at a given snapshot in time - those kinds of stories are in shorter supply. So in closing the letter, I share what I’ve been praying for that child - the vision God might have for their lives and our hopes, dreams, and fears for them at that moment. I hope in sharing that they would be reminded of our love and concern for them over the years and remember it for the years to come.



Thank you, Steve. May your tradition carry forward to touch and inspire future generations.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nerdy Asianz in the Hood

An awkward Asian American intellectual reflects on being a missionary exile in East Oakland

Russell Jeung’s new book is called At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors & Refugee Neighbors. An alternate title could have been "Nerdy Asianz in the Hood".

Make no mistake about it - Russell Jeung is a nerd. He absolutely fits the model minority stereotype. How to tell? Exhibit A: When you graduate from world-renown Lowell High School in San Francisco, get a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford University, and then later obtain a PhD from UC Berkeley. Check those boxes for Jeung. He now works as a sociology professor at San Francisco State University.

I met Jeung for the first time at his book launch. Exhibit B: When you are decidedly unimposing physically. Jeung doesn’t wear glasses but his look fits the nerd mold. He is rail thin and doesn’t appear to do any strength training. His body language is awkward and although a fluid public speaker, had trouble speaking into the mic.

After graduating from Stanford, instead of taking the high-speed on-ramp into a Silicon Valley tech job, his journey takes an abrupt left turn off the freeway. Jeung didn’t spend a week in the hood, like the typical urban “missionary". He didn’t spend a summer or even a year.

He lived in the Murder Dubs of East Oakland for twenty years.

The neighborhood surrounding 23rd Avenue and International Boulevard in Oakland has been the epicenter of the city's drug dealing and violent crime since the 1990s. I didn't notice any drug deals happening when I parked in the neighborhood but I was nervous about my car being broken into. I was also surprised by how many people in the the neighborhood were of Asian descent. 

Jeung’s perspective of the hood is neither patronizing nor glamorous. He comes from a place of humility. The hood taught him about life, the gospel, and justice in a way that suburban existence could not. He recounts life at the Oak Park Apartments as an incredible learning experience. The Cambodian refugees living there taught him profound lessons about hospitality and community. The lessons did not come easy. Jeung recounts an instance when his laptop was stolen by a neighbor and he attempts to buy it back from a shady character named Roach:
Wanting to catch my enemy, I reported this information to the Oakland Police Department. They said I should arrange a meeting time, and then they would wiretap me under my clothes. I could obtain a verbal confession from the thief, and then they would swoop in for the arrest. As this was the stuff of television cop shows, I was all in. I arranged a meeting time and place with Roach and got my cash payment in mint condition, small denominations. Then I contacted the sergeant of OPD Robbery Division, reporting that the “eagle has almost landed.” The sergeant checked, and then informed that the electronics technician was away on vacation. “Jeez,” I thought, “no wonder no one ever calls the police.” pg. 47
Exhibit C of nerdiness: When you say the “eagle has almost landed” to a police officer. This kind of geek humor occurs throughout the book. The humor underscores an important theme in the book - the marginalized view government institutions with well-founded suspicion. Governing authorities tend to benefit the privileged and being poor is more about powerlessness and alienation than simply a lack of financial resources. 

Jeung also discusses his Chinese ancestry. He writes: 
I feel slightly proud about being Chinese in the United States, because I was different and unique. But then I thought about it. There are about 1.4 billion Chinese in the world. What’s so special about being one of every five humans on earth? Perhaps I stood out because I was Chinese American, an overseas Chinese. Yet that’s not a unique status, either. There are 47 million others just like me. That’s not special Disney material at all. pg. 54
Exhibit D: When you cite global statistics regarding your ethnicity. And yet this ambivalence about ethnic identity resonated with me. I want to feel special about my Chinese heritage but it doesn’t feel very special given the numbers. Undeterred, Jeung researches his family’s history and discovers his Hakka roots. The Hakka are an ancient Chinese tribe who were known for being “ rebels, nomads, and pirates”. He recounts some fascinating history of discrimination against his ancestors in Monterey, California. His comments at the end of this chapter are helpful and inspiring to me: 
Unlike Americans, who value egalitarian relationships, the Chinese recognize the hierarchical nature of relationships that have uneven power dynamics. Since it is easy for those with power to become paternalistic or patronizing when they serve others, we must learn Christ’s humility and self-emptying. . . When doing ministry, our joy and strength cannot be based on our own success or power. We receive these gifts only when being guests of the King and recognizing our limitations while in exile. pg.115
In 2000, Oak Park Ministries, the advocacy group Jeung helped found, won a lawsuit to revamp their dilapidated apartment complex. The apartments were rebuilt and many of the kids received their own bedroom and yet the renovations (fencing, security gates, and lighting) changed the atmosphere and culture of the apartments. Jung reflects candidly:
Whenever I get together with Oak Park youth, we fondly recall the old days of pandemonium and rue the new Oak Park. Our story of community organizing for justice didn’t necessarily have a happily-ever-after ending. We obtained justice, but lost a bit of community. pg. 141
In line with Jeung’s themes, Disney fairy tale endings are for the movies. In the pursuit of justice, we can fall prey to idealistic notions of success. That’s not the nature of urban ministry and the reality of a broken, fallen, sin-cursed world. We can deceive ourselves with metrics indicating we’re making a difference and I deeply appreciate Jeung’s willingness to face truth at the expense of his ego. 

Chapter 5 is my favorite. It’s a story of nerdy Asian American courtship and parenting. This is Jeung’s first impression upon meeting his future wife, Joan (pronounced Joe-Ann):
Instead, I opened the door to a magical scene as if The Lord of the Rings had been set in East Oakland. In front of me, I gazed upon an elfin creature - if you can picture a Korean American female elf - with the sweetest, most delicate heart-shaped face. . . After the Oak Park community met Joan, members gathered and formed the Fellowship of the Ring. They recognized that I had been a bachelor far too long, and the fellowship initiated a collective quest to convince Joan to marry me. Such a venture was quite perilous, and many hearts has already been broken in vain attempts to secure such a ring. pg. 152-153
Exhibit E and F of geekiness: When your first impression of your wife-to-be evokes a scene from Lord of the Rings AND when your friends deem you incapable of wooing a woman on your own and form a team to aid you. On early dates, he talks about getting into arguments with Joan about how to shuffle a deck of cards - Jeung prefers the riffle shuffle because it “more elegantly and efficiently randomizes the cards”. This guy is too much. 

I love how he talks about Asian American parenting, particularly the obsession with our children’s education. This is the sacred cow of overachieving Asian American parents. It’s a controversial topic in their New Hope Covenant Church community. Oakland has two distinct socioeconomic areas - the flatlands encompassing East Oakland where the student population is overwhelmingly low-income and the hills where the schools boast wealthier families and higher test scores. Panda Dad Jeung and his Tiger Mom-ish wife compromise and send their son to a higher performing flatland school. He also discusses the journey of how he and his wife fostered two Bumese teenage girls into adoption. All of this discussion centers around the theme of our shared identity as exiles - we belong neither here nor there - and therefore, to sink deep roots as we invest in and love the city and its exiles (Jeremiah 29).

In the end, Jeung is the exception that proves the rule.

He is a nerd only because of his intelligence, awkwardness, and education. But I know hundreds of nerdy Asians including yours truly and he resembles none of them where it counts. At the core, a nerd is fearful, passive, and insecure. Jeung does not check those boxes. Two attributes stand out about him:

Humble courage: Urban ministry requires a sense of adventure but it takes an entirely different category of courage to embed yourself in a marginalized community for twenty years. It requires humility to come as a guest - in the posture of a learner - and to recognize your impact will not be immediate, broad, or widely recognized. You die to the idealism and walk in simple obedience to love your neighbor. You may experience more of the gospel first-hand than what you impart to others.

Self-awareness without self-loathing: I used to hate being Chinese American. I hated feeling out of place in the US and out of place in Asia. Even today, the awareness of being a cultural exile tempts me to resent my ethnic identity. I see that among my peers. We don’t quite know what to do with our Asian-ness. It’s so easy to hate on our immigrant parents and their backward cultural values. But Jeung’s memoir points to the truth of the gospel: that every culture has redemptive elements. Let us therefore celebrate the gospel values we have inherited from both Asian and American cultures. In this, there is a Spirit-filled self-awareness that is not self-loathing.

At the book launch, when asked who the intended audience of the book was, Jeung replied it was primarily for the Asian American church. He explained we’re often perceived as bridge builders but bridges are trampled on. He wrote this spiritual memoir to highlight how our unique cultural perspective plays a vital role in the American church. Our value of community and humility against the backdrop of an individualistic and self-promoting society make us the destination rather than the means. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Adding Lawry's to "Oceans"

"I am not an angry black man."

Those were Pastor Bryan Loritts' first words at our church leaders' training session. I had been nervous about the event. When our lead pastor announced Loritts as the guest speaker and his topic of diversity, there were several voices expressing concern this workshop might constitute “social content” and not address our leaders’ need for spiritual formation. 

I understand the root of the concern. “Diversity” is a loaded word. It conjures up visions of state-sponsored politically correct brainwashing. It feels like it emphasizes behavior rather than identity. It feels focused on the outward rather than the inward. It feels beholden to a progressive political agenda. It feels devoid of the gospel. Those concerns are well-founded. There are indeed abuses of social justice by the Christian left, who seem to have  abandoned the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and faithfulness to the scripture. 

Loritts quickly deconstructed this stereotype by leading us through Ephesians 2. He explained how Ephesians 2:1-10 deals with the vertical aspect of our relationship with God. Being a believer absolutely deals with one's individual relationship with Jesus. But conservative evangelicals often forget about the rest of the chapter. Ephesians 2:11-21 transitions into a believer’s corporate relationship with God. Jesus destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between two ethnic groups - Jew and Gentile. Thus, the horizontal aspect of one’s relationship with others is a fundamental aspect of the gospel. 

Loritts pointed out the greatest opponents and proponents of the civil rights movement were both Christians. In recent years, conservative and liberal Christians have fallen into two different yet related errors. If you grew up in a conservative church, you grew up with a bifurcated gospel. This camp has emphasized the horizontal to the detriment of the vertical. Conservatives tout bible reading and theology while neglecting love for the poor and marginalized. Meanwhile the latter camp  has emphasized the vertical to the detriment of the horizontal. Liberals feed the hungry while neglecting the proclamation of the gospel and the study of the scriptures.

Jesus did both. He taught the scriptures AND healed the sick. Orthodoxy cannot be divorced from orthopraxy. The thinking of our faith and doing of our faith are both critical to the life of the follower of Jesus. Loritts went on to explain how the first century church was always multi-cultural - Jew and Gentile in community together. Acts 6 details how the early church accommodated the cultural patterns of Hellenist (Greek-assimilated) Jews and later chapters demonstrate adaptation to Gentile cuisine. In each case, the gospel was both preached and lived out in cross-cultural ways.

One of my favorite moments was when one of our leaders asked “What is white culture? I’ve never experienced anything like that”. It took courage, compassion, and humility to pose that question. It’s exactly the kind of learning posture needed to carry this conversation forward.

Loritts said explaining culture is like telling a fish about water. You never notice it until it’s absent. One of Loritts’ examples concerned music. He shared about a black friend looking for a church in Washington, D.C.. When his friend visited a culturally white church, he wondered why there were five guitarists on stage. How many guitarists do you need? Loritts talked about Hillsong’s “Oceans” - how its slow tempo needed Lawry’s seasoning to make it palatable to a black audience. And Kirk Franklin and other gospel artists need to be toned down to be palatable to a white audience. In white culture, parents negotiate with 3-year olds but in black (and Asian!) households, young children have little autonomy - little say in how the household is run and when your stomach is full. White preaching has a conversational and subdued tone. White culture is far more egalitarian and individualistic. Black culture is more hierarchical and communal. Chinese culture is even more so. One major difference between Chinese and African American culture is that I have never been forced to identify myself in reaction to white American culture because the Chinese immigrant experience has different dimensions from that of blacks in the US. My parents, as recent immigrants in the 1970s, did not face anything remotely resembling the discrimination blacks experienced over the past 150 years or what previous generations of Asian immigrants faced in the past century. 

The second session was based off of Loritts’ book Right Color Wrong Culture. He used characters from the 1990s sitcom, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, to illustrate three types of leaders. C1 leaders represented by the character, Carlton Banks, are those from one ethnicity who have assimilated to another ethnicity. Carlton is black but compleletely immersed in white culture and has few black friends. Will Smith’s character, on the other hand, is the opposite. He refuses to assimilate to white culture and is culturally inflexible. His inflexibility is exhibited by how he wears his private school jacket inside out. Loritts talked about the need to raise up leaders who were culturally flexible - who felt comfortable moving between cultures while retaining aspects of their native culture/ethnicity. These types of leaders are categorized as “C2” leaders as opposed to C1 or C3.


The session made me reflect on whether I could be considered a C2 leader in this culturally white church. I wonder if, as a second-generation Chinese American, I have “sold-out” to white evangelical culture. It’s one of many important questions Loritts helped raise and I look forward to the many discussions his workshop sparked. I pray it bears much fruit for the kingdom.
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Friday, October 7, 2016

Indignant vs. Filled with Compassion

Mark 1:40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” [italics mine]

Can someone be angry and filled with compassion at the same time? That’s the question for the difference in how various Bible versions render Mark 1:41 - the healing of the man with leprosy. Before reaching out his hand to heal the man, Jesus is overcome with emotion. What does he feel? The New International Version 2011 says “Jesus was indignant” but most translations render it “Filled with compassion” (ESV: “Moved with pity”).

This is not a translation issue in the literal sense. The NIV 2011 committee (taking from the TNIV) made a decision which extant manuscripts to use for translation. Most of the earliest manuscripts use the Greek word for σπλαγχνισθείς which is translated “filled with compassion” versus a smaller number of later manuscripts that use ὀργισθείς, which means “filled with anger”. Why did the NIV 2011 committee choose “indignant”? Perhaps because they felt it better reflected Jesus’ character - he feels insulted the leper would insinuate he does not desire his healing. 

Does this mean he is angry at the leper? Of course not - he is repulsed by the implication he would desire the man to remain in his illness. 

Is there a conflict between feeling indignant and being filled with compassion? I don’t think so. It is absolutely plausible Jesus was both angry and compassionate the same time. He is so with the man with the shriveled hand in Mark 3:5. He heals out of anger and grief at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart. Granted he is not angry at the man with the shriveled hand but I don’t think Jesus is mad at the leper either. He is both indignant AND filled with compassion.

Even without a feeling of indignation, Jesus’ willingness to heal is evident. The encounter with the leper is repeated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each instance, the leper asks Jesus “if you will” OR “if you are willing” - this formulation is a question of intent and desire and not used to indicate the future tense. The leper is not questioning Jesus’ ability but his desire. He believes Jesus has the capacity to heal and wants to know if Jesus wants to. There’s an obvious implication the man would not have approached Jesus on his knees if he didn’t believe Jesus desired his healing. The leper believed it was in Jesus’ character to desire his healing and his question is more a pleading to make this healing happen.

I don’t have the space here to examine how this text informs our view of theodicy - why God allows suffering and evil. However, I would interpret this event, along with all of Jesus’ healing encounters, to indicate Jesus does not desire people to suffer from illness and disease. There may be other scriptural evidence that God intends suffering from disease but I do not consider this passage to be one of them. 

Lastly, the most extensive discussion of the manuscript differences in the translations can be found here - the note is reproduced below: 

note 74 tc The reading found in almost the entire NT ms tradition is σπλαγχνισθείς (splancnisqei", “moved with compassion”). Codex Bezae (D), {1358}, and a few Latin mss (a ff r) here read ὀργισθείς (ojrgisqei", “moved with anger”). It is more difficult to account for a change from “moved with compassion” to “moved with anger” than it is for a copyist to soften “moved with anger” to “moved with compassion,” making the decision quite difficult. B. M. Metzger (TCGNT 65) suggests that “moved with anger” could have been prompted by 1:43, “Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning.” It also could have been prompted by the man’s seeming doubt about Jesus’ desire to heal him (v. 40). As well, it is difficult to explain why scribes would be prone to soften the text here but not in Mark 3:5or 10:14 (where Jesus is also said to be angry or indignant). Thus, in light of diverse msssupporting “moved with compassion,” and at least a plausible explanation for ὀργισθείς as arising from the other reading, it is perhaps best to adopt σπλαγχνισθείς as the original reading. Nevertheless, a decision in this case is not easy. For the best arguments for ὀργισθείς, however, see M. A. Proctor, “The ‘Western’ Text of Mark 1:41: A Case for the Angry Jesus” (Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1999).







Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Fundamentalism is Masculine

Sam Harris breaks down radical Islam - the beliefs of the Islamic State in this podcast. He references the publication of the Islamic State, Dabiq, Read this magazine at your own risk because it is terrifying. The publication is horrifying for many reasons - mostly because it’s true. It is extremely clear. ISIS is intent on killing people of the West. Make no mistake about it. It is not about our foreign policy, it is not about imperialism, it is not about excess, it is about our beliefs. We are disbelievers.

Harris is an atheist and it is fascinating to listen to the Dabiq writers describe Christianity from the perspective of another religion (radical Islam) and then hear Harris evaluate Christianity and radical Islam from the perspective of an atheist. He brings out good points. The Christian concept of trinity is a doctrine that is very difficult to describe. It’s so easy for us just say oh we’re not meant to understand this mystery of God. That’s such a cop out answer. Harris’ focus is on the religious idea of an after-life. He attempts to get his audience (mostly atheist I’m guessing) to empathize with the game-changing idea. If what we do in this life is secondary to eternal life after death, it creates tremendous incentives towards morally questionable activities (martyrdom, violence, evangelization, etc.). 

It’s disturbing to read the testimony of Finnish woman who converted from Christianity to Islam and find common religious language that Christians to describe their conversion experience - the after life, simplicity, full devotion, etc.Certainly absent from her conversion testimony was a discussion of grace. In fact in her rebuke to Finnish Christians, she claims what Christians is a set of rules and regulations to live life. Indeed we do. That’s called the law and it didn’t work so well. It did not lead to salvation. That’s what the Muslims believe and they’re not wrong. It’s just incomplete. Living by rules and regulations does not get the job done. We need a savior. We need a complete internal renovation - to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

Harris says there’s something about radical Islam that is incredibly appealing to men or certain types of men. He’s absolutely correct. And he goes on to explain why.

First of all, radical Islam appeals to the male instinct to discuss and debate abstract philosophical ideas. There is a depth of religious thought and discussion that most strains of religion don’t get to. It’s reflective, profound, and meditative. Men love to talk about “What if” scenarios like “What’s the worst way to die?” During Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” craze in 2012, I posted about the relationship between hard work and the grace of God. On Facebook, a bunch of my male friends argued through comments about the role of his work ethic and opportunities he was given to succeed in the NBA. Finally, a woman interjected with “Shouldn’t you guys spend more time praying for Jeremy Lin than arguing about something so silly?” That effectively quashed our discussion. Men love to argue about abstract ideas and also find tangible ways to practice them. There are numerous well-defined practices of prayer and spiritual discipline that actively engage a man’s faith in Islam. Sam Harris calls it “yoga” and thus each Muslim male is a yoga practitioner. Conversely, in Christianity, a man attends church and is reduced to a passive spectator. If you’re not on the worship team or the pastor (very narrowly defined positions that few people can participate) then you can feel left out and emasculated. Sure, you can read your Bible and pray but those pursuits can feel very solitary and don’t give a sense of being connected to something better.

Second, radical Islam taps into the male instinct towards aggression and dominance. Put short, you get to kill people. You have a channel for your aggression to pursue evil and eradicate from the universe by fighting disbelievers and putting them to death. That’s where Harris is genius in coining the term “yoga assassin”. Radical Muslims are sent by God on a mission to eliminate disbelievers. You cannot fail at this mission because even if you die trying, that is still success. You have built-in channel to violently vent your fury. War is incredibly bonding because men need tangible enemies and Satan and his demonic forces are intangible opponents.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, radical Islam promotes the subjugation of women. As Harris describes, if you’re a guy who hasn’t experienced much success with women (and this is true for 83% of men under 30), you will find radical Islam appealing because women are subservient to you. You don’t have to work hard to impress them or play mind games or make a lot of money or whatever. Polygamy is encouraged and women have very well-defined and traditional roles. 


And I realized his explanation doesn’t just apply to Islam but all strains of fundamentalism, including Christianity. Fundamentalism, at its core, is composed of an unwavering commitment to a narrowly defined set of beliefs, adherence to a set of rules and regulations, and a militant even violent approach to both people and ideas that threaten the first two qualities. Christian fundamentalism attracts both men and women to be sure, but the fact that fundamentalism attracts both conveys that it is appealing to men. From my understanding, progressive Christianity is female-dominated. Men feel increasingly alienated from mainstream Christianity. There’s an inherent fundamentalism (anger against the establishment and overt misogyny) to Donald Trump that makes him appealing to men. Hillary Clinton simply cannot match that. Men are leaving the organized church in droves, both Millenial and otherwise. I don’t believe Christianity was meant to be feminized. Thus, the questions I’m wrestling with are: What real and good aspects of fundamentalism and masculinity need to be recovered in Christianity? Where do we draw the line when those aspects become destructive and unhealthy?

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Economics of Asian American Privilege

Students at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino
Age group competitive soccer in the San Francisco bay area is essentially comprised of two social classes: the affluent, predominantly white families that at away tournaments eat at nice restaurants and stay at expensive hotels and the non-white predominantly Latino immigrant families that bring their own food and extended family to games. At a recent tournament, I made small talk with one of the dads as we attempted to fit into the first group. He's a middle-aged Russian immigrant and I asked him what he did for work. It turned out he's a data scientist who works for a large insurance company. He creates data models that predict things like bay area housing price trends.

He in turn asked if I was a programmer. I told him I was a pastor but it was a good guess. He agreed. After all his algorithm had calculated the probability was high. I love immigrant candor.

This question encapsulates why I live in the bay area. Where else do I get mistaken for a software engineer? In the bay area, I can walk into a nice restaurant wearing outdoor performance gear and because the wait staff will presume I'm a stock option baller who works at Facebook or Google or some start-up company with a clever-sounding name that has a tenuous relationship with the product made, I will be seated pronto. They treat me well because I'm a nerd and in the bay area, nerds rule the world. If I lived in some rural town in the Midwest, people would see me and think "Who are you? Why are you here? Are you bringing me Chinese take-out?"

Asian American privilege, in its highest form, exists in major metro areas with a high rate of professional employment, a prestigious university, and a large immigrant population. In my new church, we have white people moving out of the area to quaint places like Shingle Springs, CA and Bend, OR. Educated Asian Americans don't move to those areas. We have no privilege there. What kind of work would we do? More importantly, how would we eat? Who is going to seat us immediately when we walk in wearing a Patagonia 100% recycled fleece pullover? Who is going to serve Japanese noodle soup that we wait two hours for and then post pics of on Instagram? Where are Asian women going to dine with their white boyfriends? Where are Asian guys going to congregate? That stuff is important to Asian Americans like me.

My wife's cousin from Taiwan can tell if someone at first glance is an American, including Asian Americans, not based on their attire but by their body language. There's a difference in posture. We stand up straighter and we strut. We tend to look down on people rather than look up in submissiveness. We take up more space. If you're a male, it's called man-spreading. Our facial expressions are more expressive and we use expansive hand gestures. We are louder in public - not just louder in groups but louder in public as individuals. An American is the only person in the world that can be as loud solo as in a group.

I have British-born Chinese friends in Scotland. Their parents were Chinese immigrants (mainly from the Guangdong area) and came over to open restaurants. I observed their body language. When we were in public, it felt like they crept around the margins - not quite fitting in and feeling sort of invisible. That doesn't happen very often to me in the bay area. When it does, it's when the white to non-white ratio is worse than 10:1 like at an Irish pub in Los Gatos. And then I'm only invisible because everyone is taller than me. You'll never see anything approaching a white:non-white ratio of 10:1 in any high-tech company except perhaps in the sales or HR department.

Therefore, body language is a proxy for the degree of privilege you enjoy. The greater the privilege, the more expansive the body language. That's another metric for Asian American privilege. You'll see it in the way bay area Asian Americans move. We strut around like we own the place. Because we often do.

Claire Jean Kim, a political science and Asian American studies professor at UC Irvine, writes:
Asian Americans are not, as they are often labeled, a “model minority” whose cultural endowments have allowed them to outstrip other less equipped minorities. However, like whites, they do enjoy a priceless set of structural privileges and immunities, as evidenced by high educational and residential integration and intermarriage rates with whites.
She doesn't provide support for the first claim. And her second statement contradicts the claim of the first. I agree with her second statement but the adjective I want to challenge is Kim's contention that Asian American privilege is "priceless". That's inexcusable hyperbole coming from a professor because it is simply not true. Privilege is quantifiable and it is bounded. The price of Asian American privilege in the bay area is between $1.5 - $2M. You can come straight from China with a boatload of cash and your suitcases of money will buy you an older three bedroom, two bathroom house in a predominantly Asian (or significantly affluent immigrant) city like Cupertino or San Jose neighborhood like Almaden. For the money, you will receive social cachet and the privilege for your children to go to school with their Tiger Mom-raised peers. This is where the future software engineers of America will grow up. For the same price, you can buy 5-8 decent homes in rural Missouri but you will be utterly priced out of the social cachet market. That's why affluent Asian Americans live here. The housing may be ridiculously expensive but at least there's access to social capital. Asian American privilege absolutely has a price tag. Your dollar can buy you privilege here whereas in other places it gets you pennies on the dollar.

Let's take the economic perspective even further. Consumer demand theory dictates people consume goods and services in order to to maximize utility. Utility is the abstract amount of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a good or service. Given a scarcity of goods and services, a consumer will spend his money in a way that maximizes utility. Now replace "utility" with "privilege". Privilege is the social status conferred from the purchase of goods and services - specifically, the house you live in (and its surrounding neighborhood) or your occupation. I'm absolutely arguing that privilege can be bought. So with that in mind, here's my hypothesis:

A consumer will spend his money to live in an area or pursue an occupation that maximizes the amount of privilege he will receive in return.

This explains why ethnic enclaves (or "ethnoburbs") exist. Immigrants move to an area/neighborhood, bid up home prices, make the schools more competitive, and once a critical mass is attained, the momentum of privilege will shift in their favor. That is what has happened in cities like Cupertino and neighborhoods like Almaden. The homes are ridiculous expensive but Asian consumers understand the privilege their money is buying. It's privilege that can't be bought in Shingle Springs or Bend. It's the privilege of having your kids grow up in an atmosphere of software engineer aspirations and the accompanying pressure to excel in math and science.

It also explains white flight. The author of this article about white flight from "ethnoburbs" like Cupertino and Johns Creek, a suburb of Atlanta, thinks it's all about racism. She writes:
Somehow white parents’ liberal politics and progressivism do not inform them that the decision to relocate to avoid Asians is racism. They’ve defined the term so narrowly, their own individual acts of prejudice don’t meet it. I’ve been told, on more than one occasion, that Asians possess a sort of primal urge to self-segregate, that they choose to live in clusters, that these clusters of predominantly Asian neighborhoods make whites feel uncomfortable, so they leave. The so-called “choice” to live together ignores the very real social and economic realities of Asians who immigrate to the U.S.
The half-Indian author presumes racism is the motivation behind white flight and yet somehow when we Asian Americans segregate in ethnic clusters, we aren't guilty of the same thing because racism. And yet if you view privilege in terms of utility and we're all consumers making rational choices about maximizing privilege, then it all makes sense. It's not so much about overcoming or expressing racism but consumers acting in their own self-interest. When white people complain about their kids growing up in an over-competitive (code for Asian) environment, what they're really saying is "The privilege my money buys in this neighborhood has declined because of the influx of Asians". Of course they're going to seek more affordable white privilege. They're behaving as rational consumers.

Racism means privilege costs more when you're not white but it doesn't change the underlying economics. On the price spectrum of minorities, it's cheapest when you're Asian and most expensive when you're black. But when you view the world solely through the lens of race, you're holding a hammer and everything looks like a nail. There are other possible ways to view segregation. So before we start whacking on all the racist nails sticking out, it might help to put on a more pragmatic lens. It will lead us to an important possibility: it may be more helpful to understand segregation in economic terms rather than solely racial ones. At least that's what my predictive data model says. You can trust me because even though I'm not a software engineer, at least I look like one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Same-Sex Marriage and Gladwell's Generous Orthodoxy

I've been loving Malcolm Gladwell's new podcast, Revisionist History. A recent episode is called Generous Orthodoxy; it tells the story of a 98-year old Mennonite pastor named Chester Wenger who loses his pastoral credentials for performing the wedding ceremony of his gay son. This podcast attempts to reconcile the tension between relationship (generosity) and moral principles (orthodoxy). Without a doubt, he falls on the generosity side of the question. His appeal to orthodoxy consists of personal sacrifice and respect for the institution.  There's a lot to disagree with:

1) Gladwell does not espouse conservative Christian beliefs: One of my friends couldn't finish the podcast because of Gladwell's "smarmy and superior tone". It's also immediately apparent, especially if you've listened to his previous podcasts, that Gladwell is politically progressive. In one of that three-part series, he attacks Stanford, Bowdoin, and other elite colleges for their insatiable endowment appetites. It should then come as no surprise that Gladwell is LGBTQ affirming. 
 
And yet I've listened to plenty of smarmy and superior Christians. Their tone hasn't stopped me from hearing them out. I've also been known to have a smarmy and superior tone myself so how can I judge? If conservative Christians expect others to listen to us, shouldn't we be willing to listen first?

2) The Princeton protest segment is tangential: I revel in Gladwell's ability to weave disparate sources seamlessly into a compelling and cohesive narrative thread (a la Tim Keller). And yet his side story about Princeton students protesting Woodrow Wilson's name displayed all over the university campus was distracting and detracted from the gravity of Wenger's story. The protesters did indeed choose to go there and their sense of entitlement was repulsive.  It was only partially salvaged by Gladwell's suggestion that a generous orthodoxy must give up something costly - i.e. if the students truly believed in their cause, they should decline to return to Princeton and encourage potential applicants to avoid the school.

3) He only focuses on one side of the story: He says a generous orthodoxy is costly but every orthodoxy is costly when tested. I pay a price for holding the traditional Christian sexual ethic. It is unpopular, not trendy, condemned as regressive, and against "love wins". 

And yet there are tremendous gospel redemptive elements in this podcast. It's hard to deny Gladwell's implicit understanding of the gospel albeit indirectly through his admiration of Wenger and this episode had me in tears. Ultimately, Wenger's example asks the question of how would you feel about same sex marriage if the person getting married is your son or daughter?

There's a couple things to get out of the way before wrestling with that question. First of all, is Chester Wenger aware of all the Bible passages explicitly forbidding and/or condemning sexual intercourse between two people of the same gender? Any mention of these passages in his letter is conspicuously absent. The most common ones are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, and Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. The fact Wenger does not mention them does not mean he is ignorant or uninformed. I actually appreciate he doesn't talk about them. After all, his letter states he and his wife have read and reread the scriptures. I'm sure Wegner has pored over those passages and not only those particular but ALL of scripture. He has wrestled over this issue regarding his son and his parishioners FOR DECADES. And thus paying attention to which scriptures Wenger chooses to mention in his letter is important.

So if I were to pick the verses that are most important, most compelling, most revealing of God's heart verses from chapter 1 of Romans, I would choose v.16-17 over v.26-27 any day of the week. And that's how Wenger opens his interview with Gladwell - he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. It's ultimately about faith. And if there's one thing I would proclaim to the world, it's v.16-17.

Of course, acknowledging sin and brokenness is crucial and Wenger's letter makes reference to the vast array of sexual brokenness in our world today. In that regard, I appreciate the letter's reference to eunuchs in Isaiah 56. These men were sexually dysfunctional in the most literal sense of the word. And yet there is room in the kingdom for the sexually dysfunctional. There's something so gospel redemptive about this. Another helpful example I would bring up is Jesus' love for tax collectors. Being a tax collector is an ongoing lifestyle that is inherently exploitative and disreputable. And it's not clear this group of people changed their despicable occupations yet they were loved in their present status. 

Second, is Chester's son a follower of Jesus? If you believe being gay and being a Christian is mutually incompatible then you already have an answer. I'm not buying that. Chester is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt his son is a follower of Jesus. And that's where personal experience comes in.

I'm limited in how I establish my beliefs. I value the here and now. I cannot staunchly believe something solely in the abstract and thus require some type of personal exposure or experience to fully reinforce my convictions. So when dealing with same sex marriage, I need gay friends to process these issues with. And fortuitously, over the past fifteen years, God has provided men - through high school, college, and ministry - who have come out to me as gay. Some of them are still close friends and followers of Jesus today. None of them have been "cured". I've walked with these men through various stages of their journey in coming to terms with their sexuality. Each one has a different story that does less to explain the origin of his sexual orientation and rather does more to highlight the sexual brokenness of all people including my own.

Therefore I don't have a special discipleship agenda for gay men. If we're all sexually broken then we're all equally in need of the gospel. My commitment is to help someone fully understand who he is as a new creation in Christ. This means viewing and managing our sexuality as a God-given expression of our desire for relationship, intimacy, and pleasure. Sexuality is about being known and loved. Unfortunately, our flesh is fractured, self-centered, and weak. In that regard, I'm with Christopher Yuan in that I cannot support "same-sex marriage as a faithful and godly choice when blessed by the church". I base my stance on my understanding of scripture, my theological convictions, AND my personal experience. 

I discussed the podcast with a fellow believer and he responded without hesitation that if it was his son or daughter, he would have adopted a similar stance as Chester Wenger. I appreciate his honesty. I would absolutely love my child but I'm not sure how far I could go in affirming his lifestyle. I know for some that's tantamount to denying his personhood. I would like to think I could go as far as Wenger but without having gone through what he has, I don't know that I can. That's how I'm limited. 


And yet I can say his example challenges me to re-evaluate my convictions, to assess how well I understand the gospel, and to ponder the depths of God's missionary heart. For all that, I am grateful. And though I do not agree with Wenger's decision, I have no judgment - only respect and admiration. I look forward to meeting him, his wife, and all his sons and daughters, in heaven.