Asian American Liberation Theology Now!
By Wong Tian An
in
Church
Jun 21, 2019 | 8 min read
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Exactly 50 years ago, the identity “Asian American” was seized as a call to action, to resistance against oppression and solidarity with Third World liberation movements. Today, it is almost only a census label. Fifty years ago, the world was in upheaval, with the civil rights movement, Third World revolutions, and decolonization. Today, the ground is shifting again, with mass migrations, climate change, fascism, and a lot more capitalism. Things are not OK.

In part one, I described my journey uncovering a historic Asian American theology of liberation, born in the turmoil of the 60s, rallying around a new Asian American identity. In this part, I suggest that an updated Asian American liberation theology can intervene in Asian American theology, providing a robust alternative in which to ground our praxis and activism, protests and strikes, as we head into the 2020s, as Hong Kong is staging its largest ever protest 30 years after the Tiananmen massacre, and Sudan’s protest has turned into another massacre.

What kind of an Asian American theology of liberation is up to the task? Such a theology is only a means, and not an end. “Asian American” is a category that is often contested and not always useful, such as to Hmong students. It is at once too broad (marginalizing South and Southeast Asians) and too narrow (centering U.S. citizenship). But as certain Asian Americans continue to gain power and representation — such as Sundar Pichai, Andrew Yang, and Hasan Minhaj — its strategic use may help build power and solidarity with other communities of color. Our freedom cannot come at the cost of the freedom of others.

Theologies of liberation, on the other hand, are considered to be passé, a theological movement whose heyday has come and gone. But its final vision — centering the oppressed in theological praxis, namely, the nonwhite, the underclass, the alien, and the queer — has not yet been realized. A revolution unfulfilled but not invalidated, according to Gayraud Wilmore. Indeed, the work is never finished. And as the global crisis deepens, we must set our sights on liberation for all, a more expansive and revolutionary vision than just more Asians Americans on Netflix and in politics.

To rebuild an Asian American theology of liberation then, we must be always vigilant, insisting on the centering the working class, undocumented, migrant, deported, refugee, queer, homeless, racialized Asian.

Above all, an Asian American theology of liberation must center the suffering of the poor. This is not negotiable. The kingdom of heaven is theirs. As liberation theologians such as James Cone, Gayraud Wilmore, and Ivan Petrella each reflected, the failure of past theologies of liberation lay in their acceptance into the academy and the middle-class. Or as Marcella Althaus-Reid put it, liberation theology became decent. To rebuild an Asian American theology of liberation then, we must be always vigilant, insisting on the centering the working class, undocumented, migrant, deported, refugee, queer, homeless, racialized Asian. As Gustavo Guttiérrez writes, all the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and of liberation are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes.

As we build, there is much self-work yet to be done. I want to propose an Asian American liberation theology that is driven by a self-critique of the Asian American church, clearing the path to solidarity with the oppressed. Here are a few things that any serious Asian American theology of liberation must deal with:

  1. Antiblackness. How can Asian American churches not only acknowledge but also dismantle their own antiblackness? Why have there been so few Asian faces in the Movement for Black Lives, and why was the larger turnout of Asians in response to police brutality in defense of Peter Liang’s murder of Akai Gurley? Solidarity between Blacks and non-Blacks is by far not a given, despite figures such as Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama and histories of Asian American protest. Historically, Asian immigrants have argued for citizenship and civil rights on the basis of being not black, and therefore deserving the same access and privileges as Whites. Also, why have Asian Americans been silent over the recent calls for reparations to African Americans, on the 50th anniversary of the demand from white churches and synagogues for $500,000,000 in reparations? What reparations do Asian Americans owe to other people of color for their complicity in racist domination and antiblackness?
  2. Model/middle minorities. In spite of the model minority myth, Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic, with the largest and fastest rising income inequality in the U.S. Bangladeshi, Hmong, Nepalese, and Burmese median households incomes are well below the national average. What does the Asian American church have to say to the educational attainment, economic success, and home ownership of its constituents, in stark contrast to the stubbornly depressed numbers in certain Asian, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities? How shall Asian American theology focus on the poor when for example, in 2017 over 50 percent of employed Asians worked in management and professional occupations, a higher percentage than other racial groups? Is it possible to celebrate the achievements of some Asian Americans if this upward mobility only reveals the selectivity of inclusion into whiteness?
  3. Migration. What role have Asian American churches played in providing sanctuary and refuge to those at risk of deportation, detention, and family separation? Not only are Central and South Americans suffering at the U.S.-Mexico border and at detention centers throughout the continental U.S., but Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans and refugees also continue to be detained and deported. What more needs to be said about the migrant children now being held at what used to be a Japanese internment camp? Moreover, undocumented Asians form a significant part of the working-class Asian community, and are often supported by immigrant churches or other religious institutions. How can an Asian American theology of liberation critique the prevailing narratives of immigration which center the citizenship of “Americanness”, while centering the migration of Third World peoples across borders, real and imagined?
  4. Islamophobia. Asian American Christians enjoy certain privileges being in a culturally Christian nation, more so than their Muslim neighbors. What solidarity is being offered to Muslims in light of the attacks in mosques, the unstable geopolitics with Iran, the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China, and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar? Also, what does it mean that the U.S. census designates “white” as including people from the Middle East, rather than “Asian”? According to Asian liberation theologian Aloysius Pieris, a distinguishing feature of Asian theology is its multi-religious, largely non-Christian cultural backgrounds, which will be important to consider in a so-called “post-Christian” U.S.
  5. Settler colonialism. What do Asian American Christians have to say about their participation in settler colonialism in the Americas? Indigenous peoples insist that settler colonialism is an ongoing reality of violence and dispossession. How does that square with Asian Americans who often identify as immigrants or children of immigrants? Even more so is the situation in Hawai’i, where Asians together form the largest demographic, and whom activist Haunani Kay Trask calls settlers of color. Crazy rich Asians are a problem rather than something to be celebrated — empty homes owned by rich Asians contribute to homelessness and gentrification in urban centers in the U.S. and Canada. And what be about the connections to settler colonies in the Philippines, Palestine, Taiwan and Tibet?
  6. Solidarity. Closer to home, Asian American communities have organized not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protests against homeless shelters being set up in their neighborhoods, such as in Queens, NY, and Los Angeles, CA. Together with the lawsuit against Harvard's affirmative action — not the first time Asian Americans have challenged affirmative action — and the Peter Liang protests, it is clear that the Asian American community has deep work to do around solidarity with poor people of color. Is the Asian American church enabling an Asian American petit bourgeoisie by its silence on such issues? As Asian American theology continues to build upon identity-based projects, does the label “Asian American” have any value left for class struggle and antiracism?
  7. #MeToo. The #MeToo movement has led to the #ChurchToo movement, bringing to light thousands of allegations of sexual abuse within churches across the denominational spectrum. It is obvious that sexual abuse is ecumenical, not to mention the struggles for LGBTQ+ rights. Where are the Asian American voices on this? Even if Asian American churches are not the problem — a generous concession — can they be a part of the solution? The added layers of shame and heteropatriarchy from Asian cultural backgrounds on top of Western Christianity must certainly lead to further silencing and deeper oppression of women and queer people.
  8. Climate change. As residents in the heart of capitalism, which is ravaging the climate, what is the responsibility of Asian American Christians towards climate change? According to one study, the emissions of the average person in the U.S. are responsible for the suffering or death of two future people. More importantly, unproblematic participation in corporate USA implicates Asian Americans, as it is corporations, not individuals, who are responsible for the scale of ecological destruction and greenwashing. While environmental justice has tended to be the domain of white activists, racialized Asians can bring the fight through the dimensions of environmental racism and stewardship, as climate change disproportionately affects poor communities of color and U.S. plastic waste is overwhelming Malaysia and Thailand. Moreover, the effects of climate change could see over 140 million migrations by 2050.
  9. White theology. Asian American churches, insofar as they approximate White churches by attending white seminaries, reading white theologians, studying white church history, and modeling white evangelism, maintain the status quo at best, and at worst lead to problematic situations like the death of missionary John Allen Chau, who attempted to evangelize a remote hostile Indian tribe in 2018, echoing the glorified death of Jim Elliot and four other missionaries to Ecuador in 1956. If Asian Americans are to be serious about theology, then Asian American churches that model White Christianity must be fundamentally re-examined. How can Asian American Churches decolonize from Whiteness, and renounce honorary white supremacy?
  10. Empire. For one, there is the imperialism and militarism abroad, particularly in Asia as tensions with Iran and China continue to grow, not to mention the entire history of U.S. militarism in Asia — from the Philippines to Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. What does it matter if the one ordering the drone strike is white or black or brown or yellow? Then, there is the global supply chain, which leads back to sweatshop labor and trafficking in South and Southeast Asia. Should not the Asian American church be critical of these practices, of how consumer life in the U.S. and Canada depend on these ongoing exploitations and violence?
To go deeper we must work harder, and be amongst the working class, the undocumented, and the refugee, just as Jesus incarnated and identified with colonized and oppressed.

To be certain, there is work that is being done. For example, the Progressive Asian American Christian group is building a largely online community that centers diverse Asian American voices, especially LGBTQ+ ones; Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah has named the “Western cultural captivity” that the U.S. church needs to be freed of; and the Letter for Black Lives started conversations in Asian American and Canadian communities about racial justice, police violence, and antiblackness. But these are voices in the wilderness, and what is needed is a chorus to be shouted on the rooftops. To go deeper we must work harder, and be amongst the working class, the undocumented, and the refugee, just as Jesus incarnated and identified with colonized and oppressed.

The list I have offered is certainly not exhaustive, and need not find agreement with everyone. What is required, though, is that Asian American churches begin conversations about these, asking the hard questions, and to show our faith by our works. As we look back on the Asian American liberation theology of the 1970s, we must ask ourselves: will later generations look back on us with disappointment and anger, asking why the Asian American church did nothing as the world burned, or will they be proud and inspired? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Take Action: Based on the above, I've put together a rough User's Guide as a template for groups to kick off discussion and build an Asian American theology of liberation for the next generation. It is currently a work in progress, and it is as much yours as it is mine. Have at it!

By Wong Tian An

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