By Young Lee Hertig (originally written for ISAAC EXPRESS)
I signed my name to the Open Letter to Evangelicals written by Kathy Khang and Helen Lee during Rick Warren’s Chinese Red Guard Facebook debacle and the ensuing responses. It was refreshing to finally have united Asian North American (ANA) Christian voices break the silence and name the offenses. ISAAC EXPRESS, in part, was propelled by the debacle to sustain ANA Christian voices. This online forum aims to provide a communal space where ANA Christians address the challenging issues we face at the many intersections of identity and faith in the North American social matrix.
As Allan Johnson, in Privilege, Power, and Difference, put it, “We can’t talk about it if we can’t use the words.” In other words, we can’t deal with a problem if we don’t name it. Once we name it, then we can think, talk, and write about it.
For these reasons, creating an ANA communal cyber space to name, think, talk, and write is significant if we are to stop perpetual offenses and challenges from within and without the ANA world. Hence, the theme of the first month is the intersection of race and gender, and the persistence of the internalized “isms” among minorities. Particularly subtle but notable forms of internalized “isms” imbue both academic and ecclesial settings. For example, in academia, minority scholars of both genders often find it necessary to assimilate to white knowledge in order to secure their positions. I often hear comments from ANA faculty, “I don’t do ‘ethnic stuff’.” The systematized white knowledge and its power of legitimacy to the vulnerable scholars of color is understandable because the system rewards those who imitate the dominant paradigm. If one deviates from it, one may have to exit from the position he/she had pursued and invested in. Consequently, the diverse composition of students and faculty does not necessarily translate into a colorful curriculum. In other words, the content of knowledge does not necessarily change just because the bodies change.
Similarly, in church settings, many female members see ordained women clergy and elders as deviant, on the basis of internalized gender roles that they have been taught. Without having been exposed to female clergy at the pulpits regularly, church women cannot get used to seeing a female clergy preaching. Depending on how male clergy respond to the church women’s internalized sexism, either an opportunity for learning or dismissal could emerge. Regretfully, the latter seems to be more pervasive even in the year 2013. I wonder how many of the ANA Christian leaders who signed the petition regarding Rick Warren’s Facebook incident would sign a gender equality petition if we were to draft an open letter.
Among ANA evangelical leaders, I experience three types: Those who (1) Openly oppose women’s ordination; (2) Support ordination of women who are under men’s wings; (3) Dare to stand on equal ground. Among the three categories, number (1) may be the majority. Number (2) can be quite confusing with their narrowly-defined image of women whom they support for ordination. In other words, some ANA evangelical leaders are open to ordaining women as long as they are under male clergy’s tutelage. Similar to the academic system that rewards minority scholars who imitate the dominant knowledge, the church system also rewards women who submit to male authority. In such a system, the male clergy can claim that they help women by hiring them…to be in charge of the children’s ministry or give them occasional opportunities to preach. Yes, more women are open to getting such rewards and thus submit themselves to the perceived benevolent male clergy. The flipside of such choices, whether conscious or subconscious, is that the reinforcing, rather than reforming the cycle of oppression by those oppressed continues. Mimicking the power of the dominant, the minority more often than not repeat the cycle when they finally find themselves in power positions.
For example, in gender dynamics, a woman leader often finds herself assimilating to male leaders for several reasons: 1) to prove her leadership; 2) to climb up the ladder largely built by males and maintained by males; 3) to become an insider. The upward mobility track, however, bears unintended consequences. For many women climbers, the loss of balance in both feminine and masculine in an extremely competitive setting results in physical illness accompanied by emotional entrapment. Similarly, the racial minorities experience alienation and loss after climbing the white ladder — their ethnic identity.
Collectively, what do we miss in this vicious cycle? The opportunity to build diverse knowledge and minimize educational deficit is lost which then keep the dominant group oblivious to the minority’s American experiences. Rick Warren’s seemingly innocent Facebook incident exemplifies the disconnection of the educational system that exclusively promulgates white knowledge in a society that is confronting rapid demographic shifts. Without pluralizing the educational contents, despite the demographic change and diverse faculty composition, the oblivion and innocence will continue to shock us. How do we then minimize such an incident? The answers are embedded in the problems: (1) The educational systems need to intentionally include diverse content (“colorful” knowledge). (2) The ecclesial bodies need to exercise inclusion and balanced gender representation. Only then is the unlearning of the conditioned fear of differences and embracing the perceived others as equals, possible. The process could be messy at times triggering pain and wounds; nevertheless the accompaniment toward equality is worthy.
I believe treating one another as equal human beings created in the image of God, and being in solidarity with one another, is truly possible. We envision ISAAC EXPRESS to provide a small space for authentic and powerful dialogues that may position ANA Christians to bridge multiple gaps of EGG (Ethnicity, Generation, Gender) by engaging in civil discourses.
Rev. Dr. Young Lee Hertig is executive director and a founding member of ISAAC (Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity) and AAWOL (Asian American Women On Leadership). She teaches in the Global Studies and Sociology Department at Azusa Pacific University and is an ordained Presbyterian clergy as well as a commissioner of the Presbyterian Church USA to the National Council of Churches Faith and Order.