By Jimmy Roh (PhD student, at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary)
There’s been a lot of discussion about the term “evangelical.” The discussion has centered on evangelicalism’s theological vision versus its cultural expressions. This has led many, especially people of color, to assume the white majority’s culture normative in the evangelical movement. Most recently, Tim Keller weighed in on the conversation citing how many Christians of color have abandoned the label altogether (e.g. Lecrae’s remarks about divorcing himself from “White Evangelicalism” which prompted a response from John Piper). Adding to this conversation, Ray Chang, a chaplain at Wheaton College, responded by urging Piper to heed the sentiments of minority leaders who struggle to find their place in an evangelical movement primarily shaped by white leaders.
As a Korean-American, I appreciate the many evangelical leaders who are willing to have this conversation. It’s a difficult one, but important to have. I’d like to follow-up on Chang’s article and offer further reflections on the culture of evangelicalism. Chang has called for change on a macro-level, appealing for greater diversity within evangelical institutions and among platforms of leadership. However, we also need to focus our efforts of reform on the micro-level. We need new categories to inform and aid us in our personal conversations about the subject. Let me suggest two.
The Perpetual Foreigner
Broadening the conversation beyond the black-white binary has been one of Chang’s greatest contributions to the discussion. The black-white binary restricts our understanding of race according to the history of black-white relations in America. As a result, black-white relations become a paradigm for all races and ethnicities in understanding their experience as minorities. Other minorities, however, may encounter different kinds of racial experiences. Sociologist Michael Emerson framed the issue of race in America according to two separate spectrums: 1) those who have access to society’s rewards vs. those who don’t and; 2) those who are American vs. those who are foreign. The second spectrum is sometimes overlooked.
My experience of being a minority in America largely revolves around being perceived as a “perpetual foreigner.” Although I was born in America, one of the first questions people ask me is, “Where are you from?” An underlying assumption to this question is the belief that America is not my true home. (It may be more helpful to ask about a person’s ethnic background instead) But many minorities, like myself, have known no other home besides America. As a “perpetual foreigner,” however, my sense of belonging is tethered to my status as a guest in somebody else’s home. After years of this repeated experience, the feeling of alienation can be very disorienting. Many are led to wonder: If I don’t belong here, where do I belong? This experience is common for many minorities within evangelical institutions and churches, especially among second-generation immigrants.
So, in our conversations about race and ethnicity, it’s important to listen to the entire spectrum of experience, rather than clustering all minority experiences into one group. The diversity is great even among Asian-Americans alone. The experience of East Asians may be very different from South Asians or Southeast Asians. Moreover, it’s important to dialogue with people from a different race or ethnicity as fellow “sojourners” (1 Pet 1:1–5), rather than as guests. As fellow sojourners—not hosts and guests—we wait, together, for the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet 3:13).
Ethnic Identity and Spiritual Formation
Within evangelicalism, ethnic diversity has often been discussed under the rubric of mission. The multiethnic vision of Rev. 7:9 is frequently cited as one of our primary calls to action. The language of mission, however, may be insufficient in helping us fully understand the role of ethnic identity in the Christian life. Under this rubric, people of color are people to reach with the gospel. Now, I don’t want to minimize the critical task of world evangelization. Most people groups with little-to-no access to the gospel are people of color. Nevertheless, how do we think about ethnic identity once they are reached? Evangelical institutions and churches have struggled to answer this question, which has often led to tokenism.
Without minimizing the importance of mission, I believe ethnic identity also plays a vital role in our spiritual formation. As part of our spiritual formation, one’s ethnic identity is something both whites and minorities must reflect upon in order to love our neighbors. In a recent 9Marks podcast, Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever shared a conversation on the topic of race. After reflecting on his life, Dever shared how some of his upbringing as a white male impeded his ability to love his neighbors well, especially his African-American brothers and sisters. Recently, I shared a similar conversation with several childhood friends, whom I grew up with in a small Korean immigrant church. Decades later, we reflected upon our experiences growing up as second-generation Korean-Americans; on how those experiences have shaped us in both positive and negative ways and how we can better serve others through our ethnic identity today. In an increasingly diverse world, these conversations are vital for all believers to have and should be included in our spiritual formation practices. Seeing ethnic identity as a part of our spiritual formation may also help whites and minorities to engage in more meaningful and constructive conversations with one another. Although our experiences may be different, as fellow sojourners, we can all humbly reflect upon our social location. In the end, we’re all called to carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2) no matter how different those burdens may be.