I was called all sorts of names growing up. Gook, chink, nip, you name it. I vividly remember being angered to the point of tears a few times in elementary school because of racial slurs thrown my way. In middle school, I had my fair share of fights because of arguments that started with sly comments about my ethnicity. And I was by no means just an innocent and helpless recipient of derogatory torment. I spewed my fair share of racist venom too. We were all complicit and we were all wrong.
For a long time I felt as though I was a walking dichotomy of sorts. I was under the strange impression that to be an Asian-American was to be split into two halves, as though the hyphen separated two distinct and opposed ends of my being. But I have come to realize over the years that the two identities are deeply connected, interwoven, and even embedded into the other. I’ve learned that I cannot be truly American without being fully Asian, and vice-versa.
It’s been interesting to read numerous Christian blogs the past few days about the need to repudiate any sort of national or even ethnic identity and trade it in for a strictly Christian one. Here are some grossly generalized statements some of these bloggers make: We are Christ followers and nothing else. Nationality and ethnicity are secondary. Only Christ is primary. While these are interesting ideas, they fall short because they neglect something deeply important within the Christian narrative. They fail to recognize that the whole of human existence is a part of God’s creative ordering of things. And everything plays a critical part in painting the picture of both our individual stories and the larger, overarching, macro story of God and the world he is creating. I recognize that some of the tension arises as a Christ-centered response to the oppressive power wielded by some national empires both in our current context and over the course of human history. I agree that as Christ followers, we cannot stand by and allow injustice to befall other human beings in the name of national pride or progress. This is what Hitler did and it is quite possibly the vilest of evils. But this does not give us reason enough to completely do away with all sense of national or ethnic identity. This would be to throw the baby out with the bath water.
In passages such as Ephesians 2:19 and Philippians 3:20, Paul writes that we are to find our citizenship in heaven and in the family of God. This is a beautiful statement and we ought to fully embrace this new identity Christ offers us. But this does not preclude our national or ethnic identities. I do not believe that heavenly citizenship means we will someday be reduced to a generic, conformed ethnicity in which everyone looks, talks, thinks, and acts the same. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), he was not asking them to pray that God would give everyone the same colored skin or a universal language. Rather, I believe firmly that our heavenly citizenship and our inclusion in the family of God actually works to illuminate our current national and ethnic contexts. It gifts these old identities with a fresh resonance. In Revelation 7:9, the writer paints a beautiful picture with his words, describing his vision of the culmination of God’s redemptive action in the world: “…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” God redeems and rescues the world and the image we see is a mosaic of national, ethnic, linguistic variety.
So today, on 4th of July, as our nation gorges on hot dogs and sets off fireworks, regardless of your opinion on our government’s policies and agendas, my hope is that you would find some time to embrace and celebrate what is good. You are American, like it or not. God decided to write your story here. And with all of our faults, failures, and moral shortcomings, we are your tribe.