I think I first heard the term “holy discontent” from Bill Hybil. I wish to comment on what I see in blogsphere and Facebook pages lately. Some of the most popular religious bloggers (both in English and in Chinese) are those who point out the problems of the church. Many of them have made a living blogging about these problems. Their contribution is very important. I often read many of them faithfully.
Several themes surface among these bloggers and some Facebook updates (and such updaters happen several times a day on the same topics). They may say that the church has lost the gospel. Others may say that the church’s stance on certain issues (e.g. homosexuality or same-sex marriage) is passé. Still others point out that based on this or that study, numbers are declining, making the church irrelevant and even unnecessary. In many cases, the framing of the problem is almost formulaic. The problem could be theological, ethical or numerical (or pragmatic). There’re two ways to react to such bloggers.
First, some may choose to conveniently ignore them by maintaining status quo. Others are more vocal in denouncing such bloggers as radicals and liberals. I believe there is a third way.
I always feel very hesitant to buy into everything these bloggers say simply because some of them have not had church ministry experience. Sure, I think ministry experience is not the “be-all and end-all” criterion in judging someone’s observation. In fact, I think some of the keenest observations come from my non-Christian friends. This is the problem however. They only become popular because they hit a nerve on many others who feel equally discontent. Before we know it, there’ll be a chorus of curses raining down on the church. What they say may be valid, but their observations often offer no solution to the real problem.
Real problems have to be solved within the church. I believe that it is naive to get rid of all of the structures of the church and then call it renewal. If we were to do so, we end up with anarchy in the name of renewal. I also feel that structures were set up for a reason. We somehow lost the reason along the way, thus being stuck with the structure. Thus, i think the solution to structural issues should be solved by research and reflection on why certain setup worked in ages past. As Christians, we can’t simply assume that the Spirit somehow works NOW in the renewal of the church without regard for the PAST work of the Spirit.
Many studies have been cited by bloggers to back this or that reason why numbers are down. The fact is, statistics could often be listed along with “lies, damn lies and …” You get my point. Those who are familiar with statistical analysis know that certain sociological studies are heavily laden with presuppositions and in some sad cases, question-begging and circular reasoning. Statistics tell only part of the story if they even do that much at all. Statistics are the metanarrative of modernists and unaware postmodernists. Even if the metanarrative is right bout the dropping numbers, can we simply correlate one cause to the drop? From my observation of many declining churches, each case is often drastically different. Even if the statistics are true, what different factors are causing the drop in attendance in church? These factors could fill up tomes. The whole “the number is dropping” argument also creates another pesky problem. We’re starting to measure success purely based on statistics, and number becomes a larger and larger part of the way we evaluate truth. In such a case, is the church more and more becoming just like a corporation, with some being successful numerically (and turning profit) while others failing miserably (and suffering loss in finance and attendance)? The very tool we often use to evaluate success represents the very thing many such blogger hates: institutionalized religion. I’m unsure whether many who make such an argument are aware of this fallacy.
I’ll use one more example. Some have said that we have lost Jesus or lost the gospel and so on. Well, that’s fine. It’s easy to say that we’ve lost Jesus or the gospel. Okay, fine! Such rhetoric even makes one sound “cool” and “hip.” (Can we even use the word “hip”? It is so uncool. Maybe I should say “sick” as in “dude, that’s an uber sick ride. It’s dripping in gold.”) How do you FIND Jesus and the gospel? Would the same bloggers offer solutions via serious research in biblical studies, church tradition, and theology to formulate the TRUE Jesus or the gospel? It’s easier to complain than to do serious research. I can tell you a secret. Most of them are not serious researchers in any of these areas. If you don’t believe my claim, google them for any serious research on biblical studies, theology, church history or ethics, in serious academic publishers and journals. Whoops, I’m exhibiting academic snobbery, yet another hated trait by this group of cool bloggers. IF by some chance some of them have done some serious research, not many of them have tried to preach regularly in a contextualized manner what regaining this Jesus or that gospel actually means. At the end, these blogs are spiritual junk food. Sure, they taste good initially because you can resonate with the problems they bring up, but then after you devour them day after day, they can hurt your attitude and ruin your spiritual health. The unsolved problem therefore remains: “cool” is overrated.
The third way is a simple way. IF you want to complain, earn the right to complain by being part of the solution, by doing serious and deep reflection or research, and by participating in the church’s life to bring forth change. When people do not participate in the church’s life, they should also lose the credential to complain.
Here’s a youtube conversation with Pastor Steve Nation in Australia about the making of the book. Click to listen or view.
On the week of commemorating Tienanmen Square massacre on June 4th, 1989, we must think about liberation. I don’t have much to say about June 4th that people who are much better qualified haven’t already spoken. The bodies flattened by tanks (literally flat) are still fresh in my memory. As a biblical studies specialist, I may have something of broad relevance. The relevance came by the way of an advertisement I saw recently.
Recently, I’ve seen a new series by a reputable publisher that started a new series on contextual reading of the Bible. The advertisement causes me to pause long enough to disrupt my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings series. One description of a book caught my eyes. More importantly, this description made me think. It describes the book as “These essays de-center the often homogeneous first-world orientation of much biblical scholarship and open up new possibilities for discovery.” Of course, the “first-world” technically means that the location was under US (and western) control while the “second-world” was under the USSR. The “third-world” is contested territories. Now that the second-world has collapsed with the breaking up of the USSR, we have only two worlds left: the first and the third.
Upon further review of the authors, I notice one of the editors to be Asian-descent but is now teaching in the US. The Asian country from which he immigrated is far from third-world (in the pejorative popular usage of the term “third-world” by “humanitarians”). In fact, it is a much more thriving country than the US at the moment. Even as a developed world, US may even be less developed than some of the formerly third-world countries. These countries now become the “more developed” world. So, how is his position non-first-world? I should call his world the “hyper-first-world” (at least “developed world”) based on what I know about that country, but then his teaching in the US causes him to be a hybrid of sorts with perhaps the label Asian American. Thus, his perspective should not be considered non-first-world at all. It wold be hard for him to demonstrate 1) he was under poverty and oppression 2) he is now highly influenced by that experience. To call his perspective third-world is to categorize everything “occidental” to be first world (and “modern,” “advanced,” … “better”). Even with intentionality of trying to yield to a broader perspective, this series creates a description that smacks of the pitfall it is trying to avoid.
A friend of mine (aka the blog name Chinglican) and I have been conversing about how it is possible to be an evangelical with liberationist tendency in many parts of the world but not so much the US. In the US, the “liberationist” is the “other”, a liberal, a nut case and most likely a commie. Not so other parts of the world. Why is this? I think we should relabel everything. How about calling the western US reading of the text, a capitalist reading? The fact is, an interpreter can be an evangelical reader of the text without sacrificing cultural context. Sure, grammar and syntax as well as historical backgrounds are important. I believe that. But after that, so what?
What we have is the occidental blind spot. What do I mean by that? It is terribly easy to label the “other” this or that category without being quite aware of one’s social location when reading the Bible. This is a fact! If we look at the “first world” and “third world” labels, we would find that such geographical terminologies to be divided by the Global North and Global South, with the underprivileged being the Global South (aka the “third world”). My friend who’s almost done with his PhD, Mr. Chinglican, gladly informed me that such terminologies reflect a time when global wealth was distributed based on colonial power. This outdated historical fact no longer holds true. The world has moved on, especially in economical and intellectual terms. The sooner we wrestle with this fact, the better reader we will become of the Bible, not in terms of its original message but in terms of the relevance of the original message for today’s world. We should also wrestle with how others read the Bible who according to historical past were the “other” but are no longer so. Without first properly and accurately applying a label (even a negative label) to our own social location in light of the “other” (well, what we consider the “other” though the “other” may consider us the “other”), we continue to favor our own version of truth to be the whole truth.
I do not think we have deconstruct all the old labels thoroughly enough. At least a lot of labels, based on colonial (and antiquated) social-economic geographical terms, are no longer adequate if not outright misleading. Purely from social-economic and intellectual development, the colonial dichotomy between first world and third world isn’t always going to work. Having taught in Hong Kong for almost three years and being active in many contexts over there, I can no longer read the text the same way. Am I third-world? Well, Hong Kong is not third-world. Although it was still a British colony, its social-economic condition was already first-world even when I first immigrated some forty years ago. Its present subway system is more efficient and cleaner than any of the ones I’ve seen in the US. No, I did not work in a third-world mission field. Hong Kong is a developed world. By all accounts, I worked in a first-world academic post dealing with a different set of political and social challenges than the US.
Due to my contextual concerns, I do not think I can ever apply the Bible the same again the way I did in the US. Some might see some liberationist tendency, but that is just my own contextual application of the gospel with no deliberate leaning towards liberationist hermeneutics. Most people who know me still consider me evangelical, though I even have trouble with that label “evangelical.” How do I mix the liberationist and evangelical together? I never try. It just happens when the biblical world and my world collide Beautiful fireworks happen when the two worlds collide.
In my own experience and reflection of the false labels (I can name so many examples), I think we need to start thinking about our own reading context in light of other people’s reading context. Sure, there’ll always be haters saying stuff like, “Oh, he really isn’t Reformed enough. He is a liberationist. He must be liberal then because we know that all liberationists are liberals.” I used to worry about how people would label me but I realize in the last decade or so that such haters will always exist because the majority of the people in our world do not know how to walk in the shoes of the others (and I don’t use the word “others” pejoratively here).
Contrary to the impression of this post, I’m not trying to advocate for more politically correct vocabulary here. My plea is grander. The fact is, many in the US are too comfortable where their biggest problem may be whether Obamacare would take a bit of their earnings away while people are getting killed, imprisoned and oppressed not just in “third-world” societies but even in developed places. Then, I just brought up the political dimension. My context here then isn’t about economics then but has a political aspect because certain environments call for a political reading. Politically speaking, economically developed countries that appear stable are not necessarily stable at all. In other words, the old labels tell me nothing about the interpreter’s perspective or context or experience. Being aware of our interpretive location also demands that we understand the locations of others. This is why we must surge ahead and do better for the sake of the gospel.
I think we’re facing challenging times in the globalized culture. Paradigms shift faster and faster. We’re being challenged to revamp or even discard all our labels. Navigating in this murky water will be risky but navigate we must or our blind spots will become our entire vision. It is no longer (it never was) adequate to label anything that does not fit our comfort zone of old labels. Everyone reads the biblical texts with his or her lenses. Everyone interpreting other readings also interpret those lenses through our own personal lenses. Our reading of other readings and other lenses determine whether we reach true understanding of what “others” are saying.
Liberationist or not, never forget June 4th, 1989.
I always say that Christian culture is stranger than fiction. You simply can’t make this stuff up. The above caption sums it all up. I saw a few other minister’s quotations of Scripture that, at best, have no place in a disaster like Oklahoma’s and, at worst, downright abusive. Of course, all this is done with good intention so that “the raw realism of Job’s losses will point us all to his God “compassionate and merciful. James 5:11″. Yes, this is a direct quote off Piper’s Facebook page. HOW do you pastorally link the gigantic loss that had hit these folks with God’s compassion and mercy? How? James 5.11 has nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, to do with natural disasters. One of my blogger friends call this the true abuse of the Lord’s name because when you use the Lord’s name, you do something to the recipient.
Many of my friends are saying that I’m too picky on exegesis. Well, here’s where bad exegesis can lead pastorally. It leads to re-victimization of people who have lost everything, including family members. It leads to a holy huddle that looks more like a joke than a witness to the world. How do you ask a parent who has lost a son or daughter in this disaster to link the disaster to God’s compassion? Wait! Don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question. IF you do, please say it to the faces of the people who lost loved ones and not debate it theologically here. I’ve done both academic and pastoral works. I wouldn’t dare to make some of the announcements these people are making.
My gut reaction is not merely anger. I also feel puzzled. Whenever something bad happens, someone always hopes that Westboro Baptist would not protest. Yes, those extremists are annoying pests in the guise of Christian clothing. However, to a lesser degree, I feel puzzled about evangelical Christian logic. Yes, evangelical Christian logic can be a kind of special logic. I listen with disbelief at times when people start moralizing about disasters and terrorist attacks (not only on Americans but worldwide). It goes something like this. These people must have done something to draw divine wrath. Evangelical Christians are especially prone to make such broad announcements “for God” against the more liberal areas (e.g. Boston) where people hold to a different moral standard. At this moment, I haven’t heard any evangelical Christian pronounced any curse against Oklahoma simply because Oklahoma is in the conservative Bible Belt. I’m glad to see that. What I’m saying is that we’re very selective in how and to whom we curse in the name of God. I did see one curse being uttered by an evangelical Christian overseas who was unfamiliar with the Bible Belt though. This is the problem. It is easy to moralize and curse when you are ignorant. It is easy to select when your blinders are on.
This is the truth. Life is complex. Suffering is difficult. No amount of theologizing or moralizing can explain suffering. Therefore, we may as well stop trying. The best way to evangelize sometimes is to keep our mouths shut and keep our hands and feet moving. I urge everyone to just pray for people in Oklahoma and many other places where chaos reigns. No moralizing is welcome at the moment.
For my Chinese readers, my conviction about Romans 13 is well-known because I wrote about this passage in three of my books. My English readers are probably familiar by now since this passage is also in my Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, chapter 15. What I have not talked about in any of my previous work on Romans 13 is how misunderstanding this text can have grave consequences not only on domestic civil liberty but also encourages foreign colonization. This text is serious, and if it is seriously misunderstood by Christians, the consequences are dire.
Introduction to the Problems and Meaning of Romans 13
I’ve been spending some time doing two things lately. First, I’ve been blogging on Right Texts, Wrong Meanings. Second, I’ve been reviewing some books written by known theologians on political topics within the Bible. Are the two related? Oh, yes. Having seen the “absolute obedience to government” interpretation of Rom. 13 surfacing again in the Hong Kong mega-churches (aka pro-China churches), I will disrupt my usual flow in blogging about each chapter and focus on chapter 15 of my book. Apparently, these argument and interpretive methods are not limited to Hong Kong pro-government leaders, but also is typical of right-wing evangelical (okay, these really are fundamentalists who claim to be evangelicals) theologians in the US. Right wing! Left wing! What’s the difference? Both sides have hijacked the Bible for their own aggrandizement.
Since some of these books claim to be “biblical,” I shall look at some of the usages to see whether that is indeed true or not. I will blog about the book I reviewed much later because my book review has yet to be published. My blog about this one book will illustrate one lesson I’ve been teaching congregations and students for years: proof texts prove nothing. One other lesson I hope my readers will learn is that no matter what the “experts” say about the Bible, read the Bible in context for yourself. Today, I will look at one usage by one very famous US systematic theologian. In fact, I’ve seen similar usage by several Christian authors on this topic.
Based on the systematic theologians book, his usual argument follows this logic, “If the Bible says to do this, you must do this. Period!” This guy got a lot of mileage out of Rom. 13, so much so that it is the most cited chapter of the Bible along with 1 Peter 2. If the biblical merit of any theological book rises and falls on the most cited passages, then the most cited passage ought to be examined. Let’s look at the meaning briefly before looking at the dire consequences of misinterpretation in the above form.
Rom. 13 is not that hard at all. It is part of Rom. 12. If we read carefully, Rom. 12.14 talks about blessing those who persecute, signifying a new topic of dealing with the society. While Rom. 12.14-21 deals with persecutors, Rom. 13 deals with the government, not in general but in specific situation dealing with morally neutral issues such as taxation (Rom. 13.6). I have dealt with this more extensively in my new book. At this point, all we need to know is that the backgrounds for Paul’s writing are two. First, Paul was on a mission to Rome and then Spain (Rom. 15.28). Second, Paul did not live in a democratic society. There had been no known success in revolting against the empire. In addition to the background of the text, there’s important lexical evidence for strong subordination of human government to God’s laws IN THE TEXT. My colleague and friend Sze-kar Wan, in an excellent article points out that we should distinguish between plural “authorities” from the singular. In a private correspondence, he summarizes his argument in this way, “The plural refers to local magistrates; the singular refers to Absolute Authority that properly belongs to God alone.The plural of Rom. 13.1c is a play on the plural of Rom. 13.1a and the singular of 13.1b & 13.2a.” What Paul wrote as a very strong monotheistic subordination of human government under God’s law. This is something that those who stress absolute obedience to government have failed to notice altogether. Now on to the consequential logic coming out of misreading Rom. 13. We shall see that any misreading of Rom. 13 makes a meal of an appetizer and dealt with no direct relationship with either mission or totalitarian government at all. We shall see what terrible consequences come out of misquoting and misinterpreting the Bible.
Consequences of Misreading
When reading this theologian, he uses Rom. 13 to talk about four basic issues close to his heart: obedience to US government (especially the constitution), capital punishment, pacifism, Native American settlement. I only use the Native American example he uses to illustrate a greater problem. If you substitute “Native Americans” with any oppressed group in any part of the world, you can reuse this example. For my Chinese readers, you can substitute this for the dockworkers or the colonized people of Hong Kong. The danger needs to raise a huge red flag, and I don’t mean the red Five Star Flag of China.
First, the basic assumption about Rom. 13 by this one author I’m reading is that it endorses the US Constitution as something representing the government’s role and should be obeyed absolutely by citizens. The book’s author fails to grasp that the “obedience” to the constitution (or perhaps one interpretation of it) had relegated black people to the back of the bus and separate toilets just some fifty years ago because simply the interpreters, especially conservative ones, tend to also advocate racist policies. The author fails to note that his understanding of obedience is also a kind of interpretation. What if (and I’m saying this hypothetically) the US Constitution has anti-biblical elements? Would the full endorsement by this author prevent him from being able to critically engage the issue rather than a blind adherence to it? What if ANY country has a constitution that has anti-biblical elements? The highly flawed presupposition of this author is that the US constitution was based on Christian principles. This “Christian nation” notion (ironically only argued by the American Religious Right) is highly debatable.
In his view of the international relations, his orientation is completely based on US imperial doctrine of manifest destiny (a highly colonial US policy from the 19th century in its dealing with the entire American continent) even though he would never admit it. Astonishingly the same author actually says that the Korean War and Vietnam War were efforts to protect the nations and preservation of freedom. This essentially implying that both Korea and Vietnam were “our nations,” never mind that lives on both sides were lost. All at once, such loss of lives surely should go against the consistently pro-life position he advocates, but he fails to grasp the logical contradiction. Does he mean protection of all lives or just American unborn children’s life and all lives form different nations are worth killing to protect American nation and preserve American freedom? This two-tier American exceptionalism plagues this book at almost every issue. The examples are too numerous to name. The problem of his hermeneutics is a failure to understand the world in front of the text, but soon enough, he will demonstrate his failure also regarding what is in the text and behind the text. By his assumption, our government can claim any nation to belong to the US, and we must say amen to that in obedience to Rom. 13. If we switch this to a totalitarian regime like China, its Christian citizens would also have to endorse (not just tolerate helplessly) its aggression in Asia and Africa.
Second, in justifying capital punishment, he simply talks about the sword the government bears as some kind of literal figure that puts people to death. He states that the sword literally means the sword that executed criminals. This is simply untrue. The Roman magistrates who wore the sword did not use the sword to kill off anyone they deemed criminal. His suggestion is based on word studies alone without taking into consideration of how the Roman society functioned. Just suppose that the sword was literally used by the governmental authority, he appears to have a case, but that appearance is only superficial even based on his own application. By rejecting the sword as a symbol of governmental power, he makes the serious mistake of not seeing his own symbolic interpretation of Paul’s passage. After all, what does he mean by the sword? Is it not as a symbolic power of the government? Does the US government now use swords to execute people?
According a consistent application of his wooden method, the most biblical case should be made by the US government going back to executing people by beheading criminals. This incomplete understanding seems to point to a lack of understanding of how symbols work and how language can function as a sign at almost every level. If so, those who see the sword as a symbol have a stronger case than a literal application of the text. While many wish to make a clear separation between exegesis and application, this interpreter demonstrates no such understanding. At the hermeneutic level, interpretation inevitably leads to some sort of contextualization even if we contextualize the text to the NT time.
Third, especially demonstrative of his reading of Rom. 13 is his discussion on pacifism. We can put aside whether pacifism is the “biblical” way or not for the time being, since such a topic is beyond the scope of this review. I do not care either way, for the purpose of this blog. In typical wooden fashion, the book quotes Rom. 13 as the proof text of divine governmental authority. He suggests that disobeying the war policies of the government, the pacifist is disobeying God. In other words, there’s no role for the conscience. So long as US wages war on any country, the citizen must subscribe to the policy without question. How about if this applies to China? What if China takes over Taiwan or Japan or the Philippines? Would the typical Hong Kong Christian still cry “obey the authorities”?
The argument against pacifism in the book is particular vulnerable to criticism not only because of the imprecise attempt at absolutist exegesis, but also his overstatement against pacifism. My criticism at this point is against his misunderstanding of pacifism in American politics. Pacifism is allowed in American politics! It has been allowed since William Penn the Quaker founded Pennsylvania. In American Christianity, pacifism has been a legitimate, though not always popular, tradition. Conscientious objectors to war have come in and out of American history and tolerance for such objection has been pretty strong lately. Due to exceptions given to pacifists in American law, it is absolutely “legal” to disobey the government’s order to go to war. If the governmental law has the provision for pacifists not to participate in the military, is the pacifist obeying or disobeying the government? The logic should follow that the pacifist is obeying the law, if the book’s logic seems to say that obedience of the law is equal to obeying God’s law. To take this a step further, if the government’s war is deemed unjust, should the Christian resist the order to go to war personally? These are questions that a simple “yes” or “no” or a straight proof text cannot answer.
Fourth and finally, as if the problem of historical manifest destiny is not severe enough, his treatment of the Native American land ownership issue takes his misplaced interpretation down to a new low. His suggestion that somehow there needs to be reform is not the diabolical part, but his insistence that his way of taking away tribal ownership and turning it into private ownership is somehow justified by the Bible AND by practicality does not square with the limitation imposed by texts he quotes. He simply states that the sovereignty of the tribes will go away.
As if that injury is not enough to insult any level-headed Native American, he goes on to say that the US government should rule because it is God’s servant “for your good” according to Rom. 13.4. At this stage I can barely contain myself without giving some parallels from other cases of Native American history. It is already commonly accepted fact that the original immigrants from Europe had not only taken over Native land but also slaughtered many of them, leading to serious genocide. These tribes had the land. They could do what they wanted with it. Their “government” was their tribe. It is like me walking into a farm one day with my gun and set up my household while running the people off. After they came back to beg to work for me, I tell them that they can be my slave. Now that I establish my household, I would tell the oppressed that I have set up my own rules about how I would use that land, based on Eph. 6.5-9. This clearly is not logically right or biblically supported in the modern civil society. However we deal with the tribal issue is a different story, but his justification via Rom. 13 is clearly criminal. He’s dealing with an issue that a simple “yes” or “no” from the biblical text cannot answer. To answer it is not only naively stupid; it is criminal.
It is time to summarize the above mistakes in light of Paul’s background. In order to appreciate the convenience of Paul’s argument, Paul was not talking about all governments in all times. He was talking about the (imperfect) government of the time he was trying to do his mission to Rome and Spain as he wrote Romans. Paul wrote in light of the imperfect government and admitted that within the imperfection, there was divine authority. Yet, the real reason was that the policy of the government was supposed to do good. Paul did not say what would happen if the policy was no good. Paul additionally did not want the church to run into trouble by not paying taxes (Rom. 13.6). The Jews had had historic trouble with paying taxes by the time Paul wrote this letter. There was a whole lot that did not get addressed with Rom. 13 simply because Paul’s concern was practical for his mission to Spain. Neither the governmental structure nor the letter situation fit the American church. The straight import of the content of Rom. 13 is completely misplaced.
What have we learned from the above mistakes? First, our understanding or misunderstanding of the world behind the text will impact our interpretation. Second, proof texts only prove that you do not know how to interpret the text. Third, our understanding of the world in front of the text with our convictions should consistently reflect the message derived from behind and within the text. The greatest mistake is not necessarily that those convictions are wrong, though the author also got some of the issues fatally wrong, but that his loose method is wrong. Everyone should be grateful to know that not every big church pro-government pastor interprets these texts inconsistently. Inconsistency is not an exclusively Chinese trait. It plagues us all. Under his hermeneutical grid, our government can 1) declare war on anyone, 2) we must support the war effort without exceptions, and 3) we should still treat the Native Americans the way we treated the Lakotas at Wounded Knee. Let’s apply it to the Chinese government (just as an example). Under that idea, China can run over Taiwan or any other little countries, can imprison anyone it wants, can persecute any minority group it wants, and can still treat dissidents the way it did at 1989, June 4th. May history never repeat itself! Amen.
 Wan, “Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1–7,” in The Bible in the Public Square, ed. C. B. Kittredge, E. B. Aitkin, & J. A. Draper (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 2008), 173–184. I thank Wan for pointing out his article for us. Please read his entire article for additional rationale for his imperial reading which I fully endorse.
Every June 4th, Hong Kong citizens come out in droves to commemorate one of the most senseless slaughters (well, all murders are senseless) of mainland Chinese students who wanted nothing but a little more freedom of speech. This cultural wound has not yet healed because China has continued to whitewash over the event. Here, I’m going to use it as a launching pad to talk about a greater problem: doing mission with no cultural sensitivity. Many of you know that I’m completely bicultural and bilingual and have lived in three continents for extensive stays. I’m always concerned about culture and the gospel.
For some strange reason, many have chosen June 4th to come to Hong Kong to hold gospel-related meetings. A few years back, Hillsong United, the Australia Christian music group, held a huge concert right on that date at the Asian Expo Hong Kong right on that day, despite quite a number of us (including me) pleading with them to do it on a different day.
The problem has several dimensions. First, I do not just blame Hillsong for their immense cultural faux pas but also for their arrogance. Even with the outcry, Hillsong neither replied to the local leaders nor mention anything in their concert about the June 4th, 1989, event. Sure, I understand they might not want to get involved with local concerns. However, if they don’t want to get involved with the biggest local concern, why even come? Is the gospel in a first-century vacuum?
Second, I lay heavy blame (maybe even more so than on the visiting “stars”) on all sponsoring bodies that invite visitors to do such events on such occasions. The very fact there was an audience shows the church’s insensitivity towards its “mission” and “mission field.” Would Americans enjoy a big gospel celebration on 911? Would evangelists hold a big revival at a funeral? I would hope not! If the church continues to ignore its surrounding culture, non-believers will not only feel apathetic towards Christianity; they would actually hate it and its believers.
So, I implore all my western Christian friends, even as a transplanted western citizen (I was a young immigrant to the US), please exercise a little cultural sensitivity. Our simple gospel and moving testimony can’t permanently heal the deep cultural wounds of many parts of the world. Our gospel action means nothing when it actually reopens cultural wound. If our gospel does not bring healing, at least don’t use it as a weapon to reopen wounds.
Let me go back to the picture above the blog. Does it disturb you? That’s one of the tamer pictures. I don’t want to scare your kids. If you actually see some of the real pictures of bodies being completely flattened by tanks of People’s Liberation Army, you would lose your dinner. If such pictures do not disturb you enough to think twice about cultural wounds of the ethnic Chinese people, you really should NOT do any mission work. If you don’t plan to do mission with cultural sensitivity, go home!
This the introduction to a series of blogs about the making of my new book and the ideas behind why dealing with the topics within is important for our faith.
After publishing this book, Right Texts, Wrong Meanings, I began to travel to speak on this topic. By the way, I am open to invitation to speak on this anywhere and any time. You can access my speaking schedule and my information here. In one particular seminar, I declared that Jesus quite often used the narrative of his society and turned it upside down in a disturbing way in order to make a sharp point. One questioner outright said that Jesus certainly did not do that. I was referring to one parable where Jesus took what was normal and turned it upside down to show how different the kingdom was. I asked further, “Why do you feel that?” The questioner replied, “I just FEEL that Jesus’ presentation is very NORMAL.” Here lies our problem.
IF Jesus was not speaking anything that was challenging to his faith community, why would they crucify him? IF Jesus was the domesticated carpenter of our popular church culture, why would he be worth considering? The fact is, we each create the Bible based on our assumptions, some of which are uninformed and unfound. The fact is, like OUR Jesus, our Bible is also created in our own image.
I suggest that the Bible as a whole disturbs rather than delight. Sure, there are places that can cause you to laugh out loud if you understand Jesus’ culture. Many of Jesus’ parables are outrageously funny. Many of his points however, are greatly disturbing. In reading this book on popular texts, many are greatly disturbed. I’m glad. Many are greatly disturbed because their comfortable little “Christian” world built on wrong assumptions, interpretations and worse yet, applications, have been completely deconstructed. Remember this. Just because a falsehood has been repeated a thousand times, it does not become truth. I dare say that the shock people receive from reading this book and listening to my lectures is an indictment of our church culture and pulpit. Our church culture is meant to create comfort. Many of our pulpits are meant to induce euphoria. Jesus did neither. By lulling the slumbering church using unexamined Christian cliches, many preachers have failed miserably to challenge their church culture the way Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day. In fact, not many of us are creating enough of a ripple to make us worth crucifying or even persecuting. And when we are making enough waves, we’re usually making the wrong waves. What really is our church life meant to be?
Our lives are meant to meet challenges to our faith, our assumptions and our ethics. Over the years, my faith has evolved, hopefully for the better. I’m greatly delighted that through my education and teaching in various post-grad academic institutions, I have been able to hold firm to what is good and to get rid of the extraneous and erroneous. In the next series of blogs, I will examine the making of each chapter of my book and discuss what false assumptions and interpretations can hinder rather than help the Christian life. Stay tuned.
For ordering your copy of the book, feel free to look here.
This is an open letter to my evangelical mission-minded western friends (well, I too am an American citizen, Asian American) in the guise of a blog post.
According to the above caption in Chinese, Hong Kong has the great contrast of the rich being twenty six times richer than the poor. Twenty six!! Not six, not twenty, but twenty six!
This week marks one of the biggest strikes in recent times on a labor dispute for the docks of Hong Kong. As one of the most prosperous free port of the world (ranked number three behind Singapore and Shanghai), Hong Kong corporations have been raking in the bucks since day one. Yet, the pay of the dock workers actually have decreased since 1997 handover to China. In other words, the rich is getting much richer and the poor is getting much poorer. The rich however is getting rich off the poor’s misfortune. The daily working hours of these workers are so high (twelve to eighteen) that they’d be better off working for minimum wage in the US. To make matters worse, Hong Kong, by and large is probably more expensive than ANY US city.
Do we have a gospel for these people?
One newly planted expat church from a US mega-church thinks it has the answer. It conducts a seminar on why happiness is not enough but true joy in Christ is better. Well, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this topic. In fact, as a Christian, I quite agree with the general proposition. In times like this, however, is this the best topic? It sounds to me more like a nicotine patch for a city full of chain smokers or a mirage in a desert full of thirsty people that religion is often accused of being by those who hate Christianity. Who can blame the haters? The timing of this topic about joy couldn’t be worse. No matter how many verses the speakers quote from, the message will never sound much like the gospel unless there is a true understanding of local conditions by spending quantity and quality time with the locals. Now, I cannot blame this innocent faux pas or can I? After all, why would a newly planted expat American church know anything about local conditions? Before you nod your head, you must see something wrong with the question I just asked. If not, think twice. Here’s a little missiological lesson for my western friends.
Before you head into an area to do “mission” and make “converts” for God, please make sure you know what mission is and what local needs are instead of coming in with fancy topics and unfulfilled hype. We certainly don’t see St. Paul coming into Athens speaking Christianese! I know a lot of you who are a little more mission-minded will think that Hong Kong is perfect for being the gateway to reach China. Yes, I know. I heard that message for years. Once again, before you nod your missiological little head, think about what I just said. Let me translate for you. What that message really is saying are the following. First, any westerner can “use” Hong Kong to get to China. Second, the converts in China, as potentially large as they will become, are more important than local needs in Hong Kong.
Let me respond. First, no one likes to be “used.” In fact, western colonial powers have “used” Hong Kong in modern China until 1997. The locals are not idiots. They know when they’re being used. Some resist; others oblige, but no one is unaware. Someone will ask me the inevitable question when we talk about reaching Chinese with the gospel, “What is the biggest obstacle in mission?” My answer? Based on real-world experience, most colonized people think that the gospel is a western religion (though it’s Jewish) used by colonial powers to exploit rather than edify. Many missionary efforts still look like religious colonialism even to believers like myself. Is this what the gospel is about? Second, if we bypass local interests and go straight towards the target China, we are essentially saying that conversion is all about numbers. Is that what the gospel is really about? Really? If you say yes, please stop reading my blog and go read the Bible, the ENTIRE Bible, again.
Is there a gospel for the oppressed dock workers? Not according to the recent missionary strategy I’ve seen. These new church planters seem barely aware of the economic and political situation and if they are, they’re choosing to ignore it, all in the name of the gospel. Planting yet one more English-speaking church in Hong Kong will only reach more English-speaking mostly very successful middle-upper class, often white elites. Is there a gospel in that? Not according to my Bible! You may say, “Isn’t preaching any kind of gospel is better than none? Isn’t getting more converts always great for the church?” To such questions, here are my retorting questions. Are you sure you’re preaching the gospel? Are you sure you’re converting the true converts?
Before we think any unreached people group (and Hong Kong is not unreached at all) with our gospel, we should make sure we have a gospel to preach. Otherwise, stay home!