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Rally for Asian American Women in Manhattan Chinatown (Photo by Andrew Ratto)
Body Politics

Beyond Ontologizing Asian America

Even though Asian America is irreducibly diverse, the vast majority of Asian American theological voices are East Asian theological voices, with voices and concerns from Southeast Asian, Filipinx, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Christians being barely heard or simply dismissed. This raises questions about how helpful “Asian American” is as an identitarian category.

My challenge in this series of important discussions is to somehow address the innumerably complex political realities within Asian America while also acknowledging that injustices experienced by Asian American individuals intersect with classisms, racisms, gender, sexualities, historical and geographic issues. Additionally, the diversities inherent within Asian America mean that, just as we don’t fit neatly within binary racial constructions, we don’t neatly fit within binary oppressed/oppressor categorizations. A short reflection cannot do these issues justice. Hence my focus will be on a constructive critique of Asian American theologies and why it is critical that we avoid, as I shall term it, ontologizing Asian America.

I begin with a perhaps unexpected theological voice. In his very critical but oft-overlooked book, Beyond Ontological BlacknessVictor Anderson provides a constructive criticism of Black theology’s over-reliance on what he calls “ontological blackness.” Ontological blackness distills the diversities of Black experiences and narratives, essentializing them into a universal identity of suffering and resistance to White supremacy. As he writes,

When black identities are justified primarily in terms of ontological blackness, too many of the differences that genuinely signify black life and culture recede into the background. Too often the heroically representational qualities of racial genius, the cult of black masculinity, and its often brutal forms of conformity gain ascendancy (162).

Anderson’s insights matter for those of us doing work in Asian American religions, politics, and other inquiries given the obvious diversity of Asian American communities. Complicating Asian American theologies is that there are two ontological Asian American visions in current use. 

One ontological vision is the one that Anderson critiques. It is the one that is sensitive to narratives of suffering and marginalization, and reaffirms the importance of asserting “Asian American identity” in its resistance to Whiteness. Of course, this vision is not wrong per se—White supremacy must be resisted if a Christianity that testifies to and embodies the radical and humanizing hospitality of Jesus Christ is the goal of all theologies. But what inevitably happens is that “Asian American” discourses still circulate underneath frameworks and categories that Whiteness set up. Hence, instead of amplifying the diversities and struggles within Asian America, what results is a gatekeeping of what constitutes acceptable Asian American theological method and content in the discursive house that Whiteness built. Like ontological blackness, the diversity of histories, experiences, and cultures become minoritized. Over-simplified readings of historical narratives become grounding tropes for a universalized “Asian American identity” that overlooks other narratives. If Asian American theology relies on this ontological Asian America, then it cannot understand and effectively critique Asian American Christians like Elaine Chao, Bill Hwang, or Michelle Park Steel who command tremendous financial and political power. 

This is ironic considering how Asian American theologies and other identitarian theologies arose to celebrate and amplify minoritized voices. Even though Asian America is irreducibly diverse, the vast majority of Asian American theological voices are East Asian theological voices, with voices and concerns from Southeast Asian, Filipinx, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Christians being barely heard or simply dismissed. This raises questions about how helpful “Asian American” is as an identitarian category. If it is code for East Asian American, then it will function along the lines of racial supremacist ideologies and exercise power over who is included in “Asian America.” While many Asian American theological voices are (East) Asian women, the reality is that many Asian American ecclesiastical and administrative voices are dominated by (East) Asian men. What this suggests is that Asian American theologies don’t always reflect Asian American Christian realities, something that ontologizing Asian America will only exacerbate, to the detriment of women, LBGTQ, and other minoritized voices.

The other ontological vision is the one that is oftentimes summarily dismissed as the “model minority.” This vision is sensitive to narratives of success, especially success in the face of marginalization, as well as prioritizing pragmatism in the face of Whiteness. I do not mean to suggest that there are no Asian Americans who are willing accessories to White supremacy; they certainly exist. But the “model minority” is neither static nor monolithic. What makes being “model minority” enticing is not always overt White supremacy, even if living into the construct habituates people into its tacit acceptance. Different narratives that do not easily fit into prevailing Asian American narratives of exclusion – the Chinese Exclusion Act and Executive Order 9066 come to mind – exist in different Asian American communities. Many Asian Americans who have fled to the United States from communist regimes find “socialism” or even “democratic socialism” equivalent to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime or the Communist Parties of China, North Korea, and Vietnam, all of whom have checkered records (to say the least) when it comes to respecting basic human rights. Hence, many older Asian Americans, for whom memories of these narratives are particularly acute, find greater affinity with Donald Trump’s foreign policy, even if they don’t agree with his domestic policies. The specter of Cold War frames of reference is one reason why Kuan-Hsing Chen has argued that their deconstruction is critical to deimperialization. However, this is easier said than done. Trump’s official call to Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, was widely celebrated in Taiwanese and Taiwanese American circles; finally, here’s a president who bravely stands up to Chinese (Communist) hegemony against diplomatic protocol and norms! Unsurprisingly, protestors in Hong Kong resisting China’s clamping down on freedoms of expression have verbally called for Trump’s intervention. Trump is to Communism as Jesus is to Satan. Hence, the presence of a growing and increasingly assertive Chinese American right wing, even as Trump and his minions pour fuel on anti-Asian sentiments. Political categories and interests cut different ways.

The problem of ontological visions is its often-unacknowledged ambivalence. While strategic essentialism can give voice to subjectivity in times of crises, they also conveniently – and strategically – obscure or even silence other necessary internal criticisms. Careful and meticulous historical analyses elicit dangerous memories for ontologizing Asian America. As Daryl Maeda notes, outside of the Yellow Power movement or calls for justice in the wake of Vincent Chin’s murder, solidarity between Asian American ethnicities has usually been fragile. Japanese immigrants, for example, did not protest the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902, and when Executive Order 9066 was executed, Chinese and Korean Americans wore buttons to distinguish themselves lest they were misidentified as Japanese. In this time period, Kamala Visweswaran observed how in census takings from before 1940, dominant-caste South Asians argued successfully in court that U.S. statutes restricting citizenship did not apply to them on the basis of them being Aryan. (i.e. “White”). As Viveswaran argues, “while this does not invalidate the [South Asian] community’s claims of exclusion, it does rule out a position of total victimization, thereby complicating the community’s narrative of exclusion” (18). This is true as well for understanding Asian America especially in light of, as John Boopalan phrases, “the enduring malleable and ductile shifting logics of contemporary casteism and racism” (64). Ontological universality shortchanges this understanding and can be alibis for avoiding substantive critiques and deconstructions of patriarchy and other injustices.  

As I stated earlier, a short article cannot encompass satisfactorily the complex political identities of Asian America. But what I will do is to narrow my reflections to pertain to those of us who are Asian American academic theologians. Simply put, what can we do? 

First, to borrow Roger Haight’s ecclesiological vocabulary, Asian American theologies need to redouble the importance of doing theology “from below.” Doing theology “from above” appeals to a universalizing idealization of what theology “should” be, one that true Christians should assent to. In other words, it insists on conforming to ontological theologies. In contrast, to do theology “from below” behooves professional theologians in the academy to be in conversation with theologians in the church (i.e. the people, not just academic theologians) so that theology can concretely speak to their experiences. This should not be misconstrued to be “abandoning” Asian American theology. When I began my doctoral studies, I originally wanted to focus on Asian American theology and I sought to incorporate liminality, multiplicity, model minority criticisms, Vincent Chin, Yellow Power, anti-coloniality, and other insights from Asian American theology and history into my sermons at my church, a historical Asian American Presbyterian church. As church members became comfortable with critiquing me, they remembered those sermons as being irrelevant. “Henry,” one person told me, “that has nothing to do with us.” I then realized that I had mistakenly ontologized Asian America. I failed to listen to the congregation as people with their unique stories, essentializing them instead into my idea of what the “Asian American Christian identity” and their related should be. 

Doing theology from an Asian American lens, then, requires us to encounter Asian America “on the ground.” This means resisting an ontologized Asian America and recognizing the tremendous diversity of political, economic, and theological perspectives and concerns within Asian American Christian communities, even if we find some abhorrent. (Acknowledging their existence does not suggest assent.) We are not all postcolonial and progressive. Many Asian American Christians in the pews are more likely to find Rick Warren or John Piper more persuasive than Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak or Karl Barth. But instead of writing them off as theological aberrations or having traded righteousness for Whiteness, knowledge of Asian America’s theological and political diversity can help concretize our theorizing and theologizing by building alliances to generate actionable resources for leaders and pastors who want to advance justice.

If we continue to cling to ontologizing Asian America, then what results is that different Asian American theological ontologies end up criticizing each other without realizing that this reinforces Asian America’s fundamental “otherness.” Why? Because these discourses circulate in the house that Whiteness and patriarchy built. In de-ontologizing Asian America, in doing Asian American theologies outside the epistemological structures that Whiteness built and patriarchy reinforce, we become freed to actually address concrete problems that can make a difference, including internal evils that must be named.

Abstraction enables evasion, so let us risk being clear with what some of those evils are. When Chinese or Korean men devalue or silence the voices of women, when we are silent in the face of knowing women who are being sexually harassed, or conscientiously participate in injustice, we have sinned and, worse, we know we can get away with it. We are complicit in White supremacy when we excuse anti-Black and anti-Brown attitudes that fester within our churches, including exercising subtle caste-ism and anti-blackness through excluding Indian Americans, Palestinian Americans, and others from Asian American Christian discussions. And yes, we cannot avoid the LGBTQ-hatred and inter-ethnic marginalizations that make our Sundays among the most contentious days of the week. With the exception of a handful of churches such as HA:N United Methodist Church and others, most Asian American congregations don’t talk about racism or homophobia. Our complicities and silences are sin. As such, they need to be clearly named and our agential complicity or outright participation in these evils unambiguously communicated, so we can repent and be freed to move from being agents of injustice to becoming agents of healing. 

If this happens, “Asian American theology” is liberated from reifying Chinese, Korean, and Japanese American and related trans-Pacific concerns, as if those “Asian” ethnicities should totalize Asian American theological discourse, but can elevate and lift up Hmong, Mongolian, and other Asian American groups where poverty and suffering is real. It can amplify the concerns of Burmese Americans whose predominately Christian villages are under attack by the army junta. Dalit theology or the theologies from Asian American women don’t simply become niche but becomes mandatory reading for those of us who do Asian American theology and for instructing us in how to do church faithfully. Not only does this deepen conversations on Asian American identities and issues, but it gives us a way to concretely name and analyze our complicities with corrupt and White-supremacizing institutions, and strategically discern a way out of it. 

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The Binary is Black But Breakable

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But how could Trump seduce a great majority of the Jesus-believing, Bible-thumping, church-attending evangelical conservative community when his values are so contrary to those of Jesus, the Bible and what the church should stand for?

Beyond Ontologizing Asian America

Even though Asian America is irreducibly diverse, the vast majority of Asian American theological voices are East Asian theological voices, with voices and concerns from Southeast Asian, Filipinx, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Christians being barely heard or simply dismissed. This raises questions about how helpful “Asian American” is as an identitarian category.

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If there is one common thread which cuts through the essays in this symposium, it is the powerful testimony of the important role that religion plays in shaping the socio-political viewpoints of many conservative religious minorities.

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