In 1910, the First Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City (FCPC) was founded on the east side of Midtown. On the surface, it was an odd location for a church that was dedicated to serve the Chinese in New York City. 23rd Street was at least a 20-minute walk from the edges of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Certainly, there were available properties closer nearer for the church to occupy.
As it turned out, the year before, a young White woman – Elsie Sigel – was found dead in Leon Ling’s apartment. Sigel was a volunteer teacher at a local mission school that Ling attended. Scandalously, love letters between Ling and Sigel were found. The Sigel Affair, as it would be called, inflamed Yellow Peril sentiments across the nation. Denominational missions agencies questioned whether the “heathen Chinee” within U.S. borders could really become Christian and, even so, adopt Western values. Churches with mission schools reconsidered sponsoring them. In this milieu of suspicion, FCPC’s founding pastor, Rev. Huie Kin, established the Church in the 23rd Street building far away from Manhattan’s Chinatown. In a way, he was trying to convey the message that FCPC’s Chinese were not those Chinese – the troublesome and immoral Chinese who lived in Chinatown. Unlike them, Huie and FCPC’s Chinese can coexist amicably and respectably among New York City’s White bourgeoisie.
FCPC’s story illustrates the ambivalence within Asian American history that inconveniences tidy narratives of Asian Americans. This is unsurprising; after all, as Johann Baptist Metz has taught us, that’s what dangerous memories do. But it is in troubling the narrative waters that allows the difficult truths and painful realities to surface. This approach is not novel. Augustine of Hippo’s deft ressourcement of Rome’s dangerous founding memories in De Civitate Dei, for example, not only troubled universal narratives of Rome’s moral superiority, allowed him to argue that what the Romans regarded as a desire for glory was really the un-Roman vice of the libido dominandi, a vice that “brings many evils upon the human race and grinds it down” (De Civitate Dei III.4), But Metz goes further; the crux of Christian faith is in the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. If so, then Christians should not be fearful of remembering similar memories. The way to salvation and holiness is neither safe nor convenient; Christians who wish to practice a costly faith – to appropriate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “costly grace” – must pass through the valleys of the shadow of danger.
When Asian American theology arose in the wake of the Yellow Power movement in the 1970s (which itself, it must be remembered, was inspired by the Black Power movement), it was motivated by the importance of resisting White supremacy and imperialism as Asian Americans. Hence, much Asian American theological scholarship arising from the 1980s and even the 1990s focused on resourcing Asian – and by “Asian,” it largely refers to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean – metaphors or experiences of racism to construct theologies of resistance. However, as Jonathan Tran observes in his Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, and the other contributors to this symposium also concurred, such identarian approaches to theologizing often undermine anti-racism by relying on the Black-White binary categories that leave Asian Americans in a racially-ambiguous space. Indeed, the prevailing Black-White racial narrative often obscures subaltern spaces and also provide alibis for Asian Americans participating in various forms of marginalizing. Thus, Tran rightly argues that identarian constructs racialize, even as they respond to racializations, and as they do they marginalize religious and economic analyses, at best.
One would imagine that Asian American theologies can fill the void that Asian American studies has initially paid scant attention to, but a critical problem with Asian American theologies is the relative laxity when it comes to naming and excavating anti-Black and anti-Brown attitudes within Asian American communities. In other words, they fail to interrogate how Asian Americans have been complicit in marginalizing others with the same verve and level of analyses that the scholarship has investigated marginalizations of Asian Americans. Without discounting the contributions of the Yellow Power movement to Asian American history and thought, the movement’s vocabulary and intentions easily obscure the ambivalence of Asian American experiences on matters of race or obfuscate inter-Asian racisms by essentializing Asian America.
Additionally, Asian American theological scholarship has not sufficiently appreciated the inexorable link between capitalism and racial construction. In another Political Theology Network symposium, “Making Sense of Minority Christian Voting Trends,” one of the important takeaways is how political economy matters to minority voters in ways that theologians have not appreciated. Even as Donald Trump inflamed Yellow Peril sentiments and fueled anti-Asian hatred in the United States, many voters still supported him because his anti-China policies translated into anti-communism, whereas the rhetoric from some Democrats about being “socialist” allowed Republicans to frame the former as being soft on communism (read: oppression). As more educated and better-capitalized immigrants from Asia increased after the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, many did not resonate with the rhetoric of racial solidarity from the Yellow Power movement. America, after all, was not a land of racial equality, but a land of (economic) opportunity.
Therefore, one of the most important contributions Tran offers in his book is to present and excavate the dangerous stories in Asian America that oftentimes do not get told. These memories are dangerous because, like stories of White oppression in the United States, remembering such narratives implicates us in systems of injustice and unrighteousness while behooving us to repent and respond responsibly. Tran presents the narratives of the Delta Chinese unapologetically, but importantly, his analysis points to the racial liminality that Asian Americans experience. The Cheungs’ grocery stores provided food and community in the Jim Crow South, but even Penney could not evade being otherized by her Black peers. Asians were certainly not at the top of the racial totem pole, but they owned the shack that housed the store (65). Sam Sue’s observation that his parents were friends with many in the Black community while saying racist things about them at the same time (89). Such narratives of racial ambiguity, of being both victims of and contributors to racial injustice, are complicated but important sites that invite further theological reflection.
Another critical contribution Tran makes is his connection of Asian American experiences (and, more broadly, race discourse) with capitalism. Racial capitalism, however, is also shot through with complicating ambivalences. In her study on the subject, Nancy Leong discusses how, under racial capitalism, non-White peoples perceive they can get a leg up by affiliating with Whiteness. At the same time, White peoples can also secure some advantage by affiliating with non-Whiteness, thereby signaling their anti-racism without demonstrating any form of concrete solidarity (Leong, 2179). This is possible because racial identity, which should be an integrated part of one’s self-understanding, becomes unbundled into a separate commodity that can be (ab)used (2205).
A salient example of this, one that Tran focuses on, is children and education. Tran’s story about the situation surrounding Lowell High School is not unusual and, I wager, is quite familiar among many Asian Americans, particularly those of us who have gone through elite schools and universities. Paula Yoo, in her young adult novel Good Enough (2008), tells of a Korean American teenager’s “adventures” at church and school to excel and stand out from her peers. Church becomes one of the spaces that may be veneered in the language of faith, holiness, and virtue, but actually functions as a node in this racial economy where parents hoard educational opportunities for their children in a bid to ensure that their children stand a better chance to gain admission into the hallowed Ivy-League trinity of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton Universities. Of course, this is not the totality of the Asian American story; certainly, other Asian American groups such as Hmong Americans, Palestinian Americans, or others have other challenges that do not fit neatly into the (East-) Asian American narrative mainstream. However, Tran’s focus on the economic dimensions of racial discourse sheds an important light on why Asian Americans can sometimes support unequal or unjust policies, even if they support White supremacist or patriarchal polities.
So, Tran’s book will prove important for both studies in theology and race, and Asian American theology because of the less-investigated avenues of inquiry that it forges. However, one important question that I had as I read Tran’s analysis preceding the book’s second part was how his insights could be concretized by Asian American churches. Fortunately, he tells the story of Redeemer Community Church in San Francisco (hereafter, “Redeemer”) and its affiliated school – Rise University Preparatory School – to suggest one way a church has tried to be liberated from model minority script. Redeemer is, as Tran notes, largely Asian American in its membership. This does not, however, indicate that the church is Asian American. In fact, the church’s website advertises it as being a multi-ethnic congregation. At the risk of being misread, I hasten to add that I have no ecclesiological beef with churches aspiring to be multi-ethnic. Their vision to be a “reconciled community” that testifies to God’s saving grace which transcends dividing lines of hostility is one that every church should aspire towards.
One way to read Tran’s story is that racial identity is secondary to Christian identity. If so, Rubén Rosario Rodriguez’s critique in his symposium contribution is an important warning that the rhetoric of “reconciliation” can be misconstrued into a byword for a color-blinded “post-raciality.” In such a situation, “reconciliation” becomes an instrument for silencing dangerous memories which, contradictorily, flies in the face of the reconciling witness of Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. How I understand Tran’s story is that the script for Asian American Christian resistances to racial capitalism needs to be formed by the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’s witness. Otherwise, Asian American theologies end up resisting identarian essentializations of Asian America that do not always speak to concrete challenges and dynamics that Asian Americans experience.
However, Redeemer’s story betrays its ambivalences. As I mentioned earlier, Redeemer does not identify as an Asian American church, which allows it to avoid the cultural and historical pitfalls that Asian Americans carry. That, in turn, provides an alternative way of witnessing to the world without needing to be enmeshed in racial capitalism’s logic. Or, to put it starkly, Redeemer can chart a convincing alternative because it does not insist on being a Chinese, Korean, or even Asian American church. It does not have the challenge of having Chinese or Korean patriarch-elders who control the church’s finances. Yet, many Asian American churches do have such patriarch-elders in leadership, and I am sanguine about them being persuaded of the spiritual importance of resisting racial capitalist logics. Capitalism is insidious but also presents an attractive rhetoric. Asian American seminarians training for ministry have to reckon with the reality of such an ecclesiastical polity.
Hence, I wonder if there is room in Asian American theology for such churches? To put it differently, in order to resist racial capitalism, should churches transition away from ethnic congregations and, like Redeemer, adopt a multi-ethnic model? Redeemer, of course, is not alone. In Minnesota, the Church of All Nations (CAN) was founded by the English congregation of a Korean American church and strove to be multi-ethnic. The Church, interestingly, also sponsors a seminary modeled after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Finkenwalde community that emphasizes postcoloniality, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, and justice-work in its curriculum and pastoral formation. But if a multi-ethnic ecclesiology provides the practical resources for resisting racial capitalism’s logic, then Redeemer and CAN’s stories further question the need for an explicitly Asian American theology.
My questions should not obscure the fact that Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism raises important questions and critically encourages readers to remember dangerous memories in Asian American experiences. In the middle of an ever-evolving pandemic, the threat of Yellow Peril continues to haunt Asian Americans, but a silver lining is that it has motivated a new generation of Asian Americans (including seminarians and pastors) to remember that race matters. Tran reminds us that, while race indeed matters, it is also complicated; racial and economic considerations are not separate. Taking them together into consideration allows for a more realistic, albeit more complicated, picture of Asian America. At the same time, it raises important challenges to Asian American churches about what it means to be church in these unstable times.