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May 2021 - Where God Meets Us: Four Approaches to Asian American Origins and Theology

Updated: May 22, 2021

by Professor Daniel D. Lee, Fuller Magazine, Issue 19

The continuing erasure of Asian American history results in ignorance from all Americans—even, sadly, those of Asian heritages. This issue besets all reflection upon theology and ministry in the Asian American context. Whatever their educational background, most Asian Americans know very little about Asian American history or context beyond their personal experiences. Ironically, even personal knowledge of their own family and church communities can be misunderstood, filtered through the lens of White normative education that distorts and often pathologizes what it means to be Asian American. The field of cognitive linguistics teaches us that the processing of our experiences occurs through the concepts, language, and narratives we have at hand. Without adequate concepts, language, and narratives that center and normalize Asian American experiences, conversations about identity and experience can only be frustrating.

Is there such a thing as an Asian American identity? Are we Asians who happen to live in America, hearts stuck in the motherland, forever foreigners in the United States? Or are we Americans with over 170 years of history and struggle as a marginalized racial minority? Or are Asian Americans part of the third world, subalterns in solidarity against Western dominance, diasporically transcending the discrete boundaries of nation states? Discerning these questions is vital for our discipleship because it is in our own particularities that we hear God’s Word and are called to follow our particular vocation. Just as Moses, Esther, Daniel, and other biblical figures living under the shadow of empires had their distinct callings from God, so Asian American Christians are called to bear a particular witness for such a time as this.

As a way of naming the places where Asian Americans receive God’s call, I offer a typology of Asian American origins. By “origins,” I mean the manifold roots of who we are, in the sense of our historical origins. I often use typologies in my teaching because these interpretive tools can bring some order to the multiple layers of complexity in an issue, thus taming the confusion. The four types of Asian American origins presented here are personal history, ethnic history, racial history, and postcolonial history. This typology can be used to analyze how an individual or a community understands their Asian American identity and what Christian faith means in light of that understanding. Each of these types has its uses and limitations, although some are more problematic than others. These four types reflect what I have observed in Asian American studies and Asian American theology, as well as in the lives of Asian American Christians with whom I have studied over the last two decades.

1. Personal History

The first type understands Asian American origins narrowly, in terms of personal or family history. This type can also be labeled a non-history of Asian American origins in the sense that it lacks historical consciousness of Asian American identity.2 In this individualistic perspective, Asian American history began with one’s family coming to the US. Any history before that belongs to Asia. This connection back to Asia, however, is tenuous and diminishes with each passing year, even as the homeland continues to change with time. Amos Yong summarizes the White evangelical theological outlook as “a-historical, a-cultural, and even a-contextual.”3 Many Asian American pastors and their ministries with this ahistorical identity espouse this same theological outlook. The White normative faith that passes itself off as universal offers a colorblind Christian identity in exchange for the seemingly socially cumbersome Asian American identity. Being “in Christ” here signifies a disembodied reality where earthly particularities cease to be relevant.

Asian American Christians with a narrow individualistic idea of their sociohistorical origins struggle to engage in informed and significant political activism because they lack historical and structural awareness. While Christian discipleship and ministry should not be reduced to politics, gospel faithfulness cannot be otherworldly quietism either. Whether regarding the Black Lives Matter movement or the migration crisis, the gospel according to these Asian American Christians offers little guidance in living out kingdom witness either as individual Christians or faith communities on earth.

2. Ethnic History

The second type of Asian American origins is ethnic history.4 The focus is on ethnic and cultural heritage, not race or a history of racism. In this narrow sense, culture and ethnicity are attractive to conservative Christianity with its strong convictions about global missions and missionary history. Asian American Christians who hold to this narrow ethnic-cultural understanding of Asian Americanness focus on cultural contextualization.

When Asian American experience is understood only from this cultural perspective, Asian American identity and features can easily be pathologized because the racist societal forces that Orientalize these elements remain largely invisible without structural critique. While Asian cultural values are indeed fallen and need redemption like all others, this approach ends up unduly singling them out with accusations of syncretism or cultural encroachment.

Many Asian American Christians with this ethnic conception of their origins are also political quietists like those of the first type. Those who do engage in political activism do so either detached from their acontextual faith, or as honorary Whites who are learning from Black theological traditions. I have seen Asian Americans in progressive spaces disparage “Asian Americans” as a whole for their collective ignorance and compliance without any reference to the broader and historic Asian American movement. The Black liberation tradition has much to offer, but there is an Asian American liberative tradition as well. Learning more about the latter would help more accurately locate the specificity of Asian American perspective and struggles. As these Asian American Christians focus their scope on ethnic identity and personal experiences limited to their conservative churches, the broader history of Asian American panethnic racial identity and activism largely eludes their gaze.

3. Racial History

The third type of Asian American origins is racial history, rooted in the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) protests of 1968 at San Francisco State College. This is understood as the beginnings of ethnic studies and of the “Asian American” panethnic identity formulated for political activism.5 One of the decisive questions regarding Asian American identity is where the Asian American movement and TWLF should be located in narrating Asian American history. A chronological presentation of Asian American history can stress ethnic diversity over racial solidarity. Properly incorporating the TWLF and its critical insights about capitalism, imperialism, and racism into Asian American history is fundamental, because it defined and catalyzed the Asian American movement.6 As Frank Wu explains, Asian Americans are “made, not born,” self-inventing “collectively and individually in the United States” with no true physical place of origin on a map.7 The homeland under this type is the US, where Asian American identity was created through the process of racialization in the crucible of racism. Later generations of Asian Americans often do not consider their ethnic cultural heritage as impactful as their racial identities. Thus, the idea of solidarity with other minoritized Americans becomes most salient as they seek out a helpful rubric for social engagement.

This racial origin connects Asian American Christians with the kind of historical knowledge to resource and develop their political activism qua Asian Americans, and not as Asians in America or as honorary Whites. Race, as America’s original sin and part of the powers and principalities that rule this world, is named and thus able to be resisted in faithful witness of God’s kingdom. The limitation of this type of identity is that race can become a totalizing category homogenizing all Asian Americans, often creating an East Asian ethnic monopolization that ignores internal diversity and further marginalizes those with underrepresented ethnic heritages. This narrow racial thinking can also dismiss ethnic-cultural influences still residing deep below the surface.

4. Postcolonial History

The fourth and final type of Asian American origins again finds its inception with the TWLF, but this time understood as the beginning of third world studies and an anti-imperial, anticolonial movement beyond national racial dynamics in the US.8 In this telling, Asian America begins with imperialism and a Western desire to colonize and exploit Asia, or as Gary Okihiro would put it: “Asians did not go to America; Americans went to Asia.”9 Instead of the narrative of America as a nation of immigrants, we move beyond the boundaries of modern nation-states to interrogate the hegemonic forces of imperialism and colonialism.

With this “third world” understanding of Asian American origins, the scope of political activism for Asian American Christians grows broader and even more radical. One example is the perception of the United States as an empire.10 In what ways does confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord” lead the early church to subvert and confront the Roman empire and its emperor? What is the cost of discipleship and witness during contemporary American society with its rampant nationalism, nativism, and racism? Another example is critiquing and rejecting the evils of capitalism. Rejecting the script of the model minority myth, what does seeking God’s kingdom for economic justice globally look like personally and communally?

God Meets Us in Our Identities

In sum, the first type of personal history affirms one’s immediate experience in its particularity, presenting an ahistorical understanding of Asian American origin. This type is unacceptable because it lacks adequate contextual awareness and understanding, it is an acontextual theology failing to faithfully address the covenantal God of revelation. The last three complement each other while playing specific roles. The second type, ethnic history, highlights the need to identify and engage Asian cultural heritages. By itself, it is open to Orientalist manipulations, but if accepted along with the last two, the focus on ethnicity serves an important purpose in terms of theology and ministry. The third type of racial history is crucial for a proper understanding of Asian America, especially with its radical and liberative roots. To be an “Asian American” is to be an activist, fully conscious of historical and structural racism and actively resistant to its reductive and oppressive powers. In order to comprehend the social location of Asian Americans, this type or origin must be incorporated into one’s overarching understanding of Asian American identity. At the same time, the focus on ethnic history of the second type can help ensure that political representation is not advanced at the cost of ignoring internal diversity. Last, the fourth type situates Asian America globally and protects our racial understanding from becoming provincial and nationalistic. While conceptually sophisticated and analytically impressive, its weakness is that its high-level perspective can feel too abstracted from the everyday experience of Asian Americans.

The eternal God who has entered time and space particularly in a covenantal relationship with Israel, the cosmic Lord who took on a particular first century Palestinian Jewish flesh, meets us in all the different layers of our particular sociopolitical identities and contexts. It is in those particular spaces that we encounter the living God calling us toward discipleship and faithfulness. Thus, taking careful stock of our identities and contexts is a vital part of our faith in this God of the Covenant and Incarnation.

Daniel D. Lee is academic dean for Fuller’s Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry and assistant professor of theology and Asian American ministry. Since 2010, he has been the key force behind the center and the Asian American Initiative before that, helping to develop many of Fuller’s Asian American courses and programs. Ordained in the Korean Presbyterian Church Abroad (KPCA), he has served in pastoral roles in both New Jersey and Southern California. Lee is author of the book Double Particularity: Karl Barth, Contextuality, and Asian American Theology (Fortress, 2017).

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