Archive for the ‘op-ed’ Category

New issue of Inheritance Magazine now available!

December 15, 2009 5 comments

Hello everyone!

The new issue of Inheritance Magazine, a resource of Asian American Christian Young Adults, is now available. See it on-line at: and follow it on Facebook at!

ISAAC is a big supporter of Inheritance Magazine. The following is an article that I wrote for the inaugural issue a few months ago. Please support this important work!

Colorblind and Purpose: How differences can also bind
Timothy Tseng, Ph.D.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133:1 (NRSV)

I left New York City in 1994, but I still feel like a New Yorker deep down. I’ve come to appreciate the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and enjoy the local sports scene, but I still secretly root for my New York teams. However, despite the fact that I am nostalgic about my experience growing up in the Big Apple, I don’t miss the feeling of being rendered invisible or silent in a black-white community. Things are different now, but in the 1970s and 80s, Asian Americans in New York City were barely noticed in public life or media.

I also didn’t realize that I was a member of a marginalized Chinese enclave until I enrolled in college. It was there that two competing emotions caused me to reflect on my faith more critically. First, I felt ashamed of being Chinese. Not only were real Chinese New Yorkers rendered invisible, but also stereotypical images of Chinese people dominated the media (well, maybe with the exception of the late Bruce Lee–maybe). My sense of shame was exacerbated by my poor Chinese language skills, which marginalized me from many of the people in my church. Thus, I entered college with a strong desire to flee the Chinese church.

The second emotion was anger at mainstream America for its history of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans–and its complete ignorance of that history in contemporary life. In college, I learned about the horrors of slavery and racism directed towards African Americans, but I had to learn about the Asian American experience on my own. Asian American activists were harshly critical of Christianity’s complicity with these historic injustices, and I was “all ears.”

I thank God for the Chinese Christian Fellowship and InterVarsity ministry at my college. Their love and willingness to hear my shame and anger helped me heal. Their enthusiastic commitment to the gospel as the way out of personal and societal brokenness convinced me to surrender my life in service for the Kingdom of God. However, they did not have good answers for the causes of my shame and anger. They held a colorblind worldview and did not have biblical and theological resources to deal with ethnicity and race. In fact, talking about race and ethnicity was very uncomfortable for them.

However, I believe that God intended creation and humanity to relish diversity. For instance, the diversity among and within plant and animal species in creation appears to be at the core of God’s design.  Also, God rescued not just one kind, but every kind of creature in Noah’s ark. Moreover, at Pentecost, God spoke to different people in their own languages. Accepting and embracing diversity gives voice and power to those who have been isolated and silenced by those who are more powerful. God intended diversity to be a good thing!

I’ve discovered, however, that many Asian American Christians today are uncomfortable talking about diversity. Many are not interested in their racial-ethnic identities because they believe that Christian identity supersedes all earthly concerns. Others have had negative experiences in Asian immigrant churches and want to leave for a mainstream American church. Still others feel that talking about one’s ethnic or Asian American experience is unbiblical and impractical for multi-ethnic ministry.  They argue that emphasizing our racial-ethnic identities creates division in church and society. They also argue that we should unite on common kingdom goals, such as winning souls for Christ and correcting social injustices.

I argue that avoiding the “Asian American” question is short–sighted, dangerous, and is an idolatrous conformity to mainstream American culture.  I do not mean that there is something innate in European or white American people that is idolatrous. Rather, what is idolatrous in any situation is when realities of power and privilege are masked by rhetoric that sounds appealing.

Being “colorblind” sounds appealing because it sounds like anti-discrimination language. It also appeals to the belief that Christians should be spiritual and avoid the messy sinful world of race politics.  Even when multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism is held up as the ideal goal for American Christians, an unconscious “colorblind mandate”– the conformity to “white norms and privileges”–remains if the ugly realities of race are not brought to the surface.

On the contrary, our full human experience–including our bodies, our cultures, and our politics–is of concern to the God who created all things. The “colorblind mandate” ignores the messy and complex realities of human experience. In contrast, some Christians now favor the term “cultural mandate,” which means that God called us to be embedded in our cultures, transforming them according to God’s purposes. If we are to find unity of purpose, Asian American Christians (indeed, all Christians), must consider how to participate in the “cultural mandate” and be very conscious of how power and privilege operate.

In order to overcome the “colorblind mandate,” each cultural or racial group within a multi-cultural organization must be allowed to represent itself. When Asian American Christians leave their immigrant churches to join or form multicultural or mainstream churches, what do they bring with them? How do they “represent?” If they bring nothing of value from their experiences or cultures, I would argue that they’ve conformed to the “colorblind mandate,” choosing to be invisible and voiceless.

There is no doubt in my mind that the “colorblind mandate” has had a devastating impact on Asian American evangelicals. It exacerbates our intergenerational gaps, separates us from the neediest Asian Americans, and leaves us feeling worthless in both the American and global contexts. Unlike the previous generation of Asian Americans who were forced to feel inferior and made invisible, our generation has a choice but has often chosen the path of isolation and self-hatred. This is one of the reasons why Asian American Christians have such a difficult time finding unity of purpose.

So how can Asian American Christians move towards unity? Perhaps we can begin by removing “colorblind” interpretations of the bible. Here are some examples: In Luke 10:27, Jesus affirmed the two great commandments: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpretation would ignore the “as yourself” part of the command. Implicit in the “as yourself” phrase is a need to be conscious of one’s own situation and identity. Maybe Asian Americans need to understand themselves better if they are to better love their neighbors.

Another example is in Ephesians 2:14-16, where Paul declares that Jesus is the peace that broke down the wall that divides Jews from Gentiles. The key phrase is in verse 15, where Christ creates “in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” (NRSV). A “colorblind” interpreter would say, “It’s obvious that God wants to remove our cultural particularities in order to create a new and more spiritual people.” But that goes against the grain of the incarnation of God in a flesh and blood Jewish man. The new humanity is neither the erasure nor the fixation of our cultural particularities. It is the mutual transformations of our differences towards a common kingdom purpose. So rather than ignoring or rejecting our Asian American identities, we need to find ways that these identities can contribute towards the new humanity. This can take place in ethnic-specific, pan-Asian, and multi-ethnic churches.

Finally, the Great Commission is not about rescuing sinners into a “colorblind” lifeboat, but about going into the world and making disciples of all nations. This means appreciating and transforming all cultures, not assimilating them into a “colorblind” norm. The history of missions has demonstrated that the gospel can only spread if this principle is followed.

Finding unity in purpose among Asian American Christians is complex, but not impossible. It begins with removing “colorblind” interpretations of the Bible.  It also involves building relationships with fellow Asian Americans intentionally and unapologetically. These steps will help Asian Americans towards the transformation of our culture for the Kingdom of God.  Crucial to this mission is for Asian Americans to understand that we contribute towards the Kingdom of God not by dismissing our cultures and identities, but by becoming more conscious of who we are.

The Deadly Viper Incident: How Then Shall We Represent? by Tim Tseng

December 4, 2009 6 comments

This blog was originally posted on the Postcolonial Theology Network site on Facebook. Go to:

On behalf of Zondervan, I apologize for publishing Deadly Viper: Character Assassins. It is our mission to offer products that glorify Jesus Christ. This book’s characterizations and visual representations are offensive to many people despite its otherwise solid message. There is no need for debate on this subject. We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently.

So stated Moe Girkins, President and CEO of Zondervan Books on Nov. 19, 2009. The removal of curriculum Deadly Viper Character Assassin: A Kung Fu Guide for Life and Leadership ended a two-week protest by Asian American evangelicals over the use of images that, according to Professor Soong Chan Rah, reveal “a serious insensitivity to Asian culture and to the Asian-American community” and “co-opt Asian culture in inappropriate ways.” [ – see also Rah’s weblog:] Among the Viper’s deadly sins were the use of martial arts movie themes, mock Chinese names, Asian accents, and conflation of Chinese and Japanese cultures. Rah, the key leader of this protest, is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and the author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity Press, 2009). No stranger to the struggle against racism within American evangelical circles, he led an unsuccessful campaign several years ago against “Rickshaw Rally,” a Southern Baptist Vacation Bible School curriculum. “Rally” also employed Asian caricatures to teach children about “other” cultures. During the anti-Viper campaign many leading Asian American pastors, seminary professors, and lay leaders weighed in through letters to Zondervan and blogs. The conversations were often heated as many inside and outside the emerging Asian American evangelical community debated the seriousness of Deadly Viper.

Zondervan received increased pressure to respond as secular and Christian media such as Christianity Today and Sojourners covered the controversy. Their decision to pull the curriculum left some bewildered (“what’s the big deal?”), but most Asian American evangelicals were delighted, surprised, and relieved. There is no trace of Deadly Viper on Zondervan’s website []. The images are gone. The co-authors and publishers have repented and vow to be more culturally sensitive. Zondervan’s staff are now required to read Rah’s book. Harmony appears to have been restored.

So this is a good time to reflect on the incident. I’m particularly intrigued by the question of Asian American representation. What disturbed me most about Deadly Viper was not the stereotypes, but the lazy manner in which the authors and publisher adopted popular representations of Asians. Perhaps evangelicals are naive about the social and political power of images. Unlike their mainline Protestant cousins, they are new to the politics of racial representation. But it goes deeper than that. Iconoclasm and interiority are at the heart of evangelical spirituality. After all did not God say to Samuel “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV)? The outward appearance is not essential to evangelicals. They are willing and able to strip away “outdated” cultural accretions in order to remain fresh and relevant. For many, including myself, this makes evangelicalism appealing. Thus contemporary evangelical music mimics pop songs. Evangelicals worship in buildings that look like modern movie theatres and office parks, not cathedrals.

Yet the evangelical strategy of seeking broad appeal by casually co-opting popular culture backfired for Deadly Viper. By not doing the homework about how media and pop culture constructs Asian stereotypes, Zondervan reproduced representations that were rooted in a racist worldview. Many helpful studies would have helped writers and artists avoid such negative images. Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999), Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (2001), and Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (2004) come to mind. Hopefully, the Deadly Viper incident will encourage American evangelicals to destabilize the Western colonial impulse to speak for the Asian American “subaltern.”

Another issue that concerns me is the question of Asian representation itself. Prof. Rah, like many younger Asian American evangelical bloggers [see, for example,] have discovered Edward Said and orientalism. They have latched on to an idea that both explains anti-Asian racism and provides an antidote to the “model minority” path of “selling out” the Asian American soul. The common enemy is the privilege and power of white dominant institutions to represent Asians. By appealing to orientalism, emerging Asian American evangelicals have found a voice in an American racial discourse locked into white-black binaries.

However, appealing to Said’s version of orientalism alone is problematic. Indeed, not all the stereotypes in Rickshaw Rally or Deadly Viper are oppressive distortions. Nor were they all constructed by Western colonial power. In fact, Bruce Lee’s introduction of martial arts to Hollywood helped create a more positive, albeit stereotypical, image of Asian men. Saying “no” to white power leaves unanswered the question of Asian representation.

Indeed, the simplest solution for overcoming distorted Asian representation is to erase all traces of Asian-ness. I suspect many assimilationists and color-blind advocates would be happy with this approach. But if we don’t attend to the question of Asian representation, there may be nothing Asian American to represent in American evangelicalism. So what is it about Asian culture and image that Asian American evangelicals can say “yes” to?

I have two suggestions. First, Asian American evangelical church leaders and theologians ought to embrace a more pluralist and generous reading of orientalism. J. J. Clarke’s proposals in Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (1997) is helpful in this regard. Without denying the oppressive conditions that reproduce its worst features, Clarke suggests that orientalism “cannot simply be identified with the ruling imperialist ideology, for in the Western context it represents a counter-movement, a subversive entelechy, albeit not a unified or consciously organized one, which in various ways has often tended to subvert rather than to confirm the discursive structures of imperial power.” (9) In other words, the West’s Asian gaze serves to not only dominate the East, but also to critique the West’s act of domination. So can we find something in evangelical discourse about Asian “otherness” that critiques Euro-centricity? Maybe not. But at least we should be open to the possibility. By embracing a more generous view of orientalism, it allows us to talk about Asian representation.

Secondly, Asian American evangelicals need to engage both Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” and Homi K. Bhabha’s “linguistic multivocality.” Both identify the Western production and implementation of binary oppositions such as center/margin, civilized/savage, First/ Third worlds, West/East (orientalism), North/South, capital/labor, and enlightened/ignorant as the colonial “original sin.” In The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha argues that destabilizing these binaries opens the door to more complex inter-cultural “interactions, transgressions, and transformations” than binary oppositions can allow. The resulting hybridity and “linguistic multivocality” can reinterpret political and cultural discourse and therefore “dislocate” colonization. For Asian Americans, Bhabha’s strategy means that all the diverse Asian American voices must be heard in order to destabilize orientalist representations of Asians (Lisa Lowe also suggests this in Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics [1996]). Therefore the perspectives of ethnic immigrant, fifth generation, pan-ethnic, multi-racial, gay, evangelical, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. Asians Americans all must be given room to flourish.

In her classic essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism,” which is a temporary solidarity for the purpose of unified social action. Orientalism and other binary oppositions “essentializes” or stereotypes people. While recognizing the danger of “essentialism” she believes that there is still a need to speak on behalf of a group using a clear image of identity to fight opposition and to recover and represent the “subaltern” voice. In the United States, it means that Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Southeast and South Asians, who have not historically shared the predominant East Asian American experience, still ought to provisionally unite under an Asian American umbrella to overcome racial discrimination and other injustices.

I’m tempted to label Bhabha’s approach yin and Spivak’s yang. Both are necessary parts of the process of creating Asian American representations that more accurately reflect our realities or aspirations. Unifying the diverse Asian American evangelical community is necessary for a common cause such as protesting Deadly Viper. But the beautiful diversity within the Asian American evangelical community must also be embraced as a way to move beyond stereotypical representations. It’s not easy because most of us still unconsciously harbor stereotypical representations of ourselves and others, yet never discuss them openly. Unfortunately, the temptation for many Asian American evangelicals is to “leap-frog” the question of representation.

So how then shall Asian American evangelicals represent? Let’s encourage mainstream evangelical institutions to provide space for Asian Americans, in partnership with others, to create new images. A few mainline seminaries (Princeton, McCormick, and Pacific School of Religion) have created Asian American programs. But no evangelical seminary has developed such a program (some have Asian language programs). Unless there is a mass movement of Asian American evangelicals into these mainline Protestant seminaries, evangelical seminaries will be the next arena where Asian American representation is debated and created. There is evidence that evangelical seminaries are beginning to respond to Spivak’s warning that “to refuse to represent a cultural Other is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework.” Asian American consumers of evangelical theological education must decide for themselves whether it is worth their effort to struggle to create Asian representation within these settings.

The other option would be to create better Asian representation within Asian American organizations. Will Asian language seminaries and immigrant congregations be the sites for creating cultural representation in the future? A few such as Logos Evangelical Seminary are trying. But it remains to be seen since most Asian American evangelical organizations still model themselves after Western Christianity. Our efforts at the Institution for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC) [] are precisely for this purpose – to create a better representation of Asian American Christians than is currently available. The recent publication of the Asian American Christianity Reader [] is our initial effort to encourage Asian American representation. Not many of the Asian American anti-Viper evangelical leaders have paid much attention to the Reader. But at some point, for the sake of the next generation of Asian American evangelicals and the wider church, I hope that they will also embrace the call to create Asian American representation.

I believe Andy Crouch’s call for Christians to be “culture makers” especially applies to Asian American evangelicals (see Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling [2008]). In order to secure a future where Asian American evangelicals are able to fully participate in the Church and contribute to the common good, we must not only protest damaging representations, but also create new ones in theology, history, ministry, worship, and artistic expressions.

Timothy Tseng • December 4, 2009

“Look before you leap” by Timothy Tseng

November 20, 2009 1 comment

As ISAAC’s most productive program year draws to a close this Thanksgiving, we are grateful for all of our supporters. We have learned many lessons. The one that stood out most to me is the necessity of resisting the urge to “leap-frog” Asian America. Asian American Christians are used to being “leap-frogged” by the academia, seminaries, and mainstream church anyway. After all, Asia is considered more exciting, exotic, and enticing than Asian America. Many well meaning friends have urged ISAAC to become more international because of the availability of greater resources. I agree that there is great benefit to engaging an emerging Asian Christianity. My research, teaching, and ministry interests have broadened to include Asia, but for ISAAC, it would be a mistake to “leap-frog” Asian America.

Because Asian American Christians are so deeply impacted by being “leap-frogged,” we are tempted to evade our own experiences in North America. It is easier to “leap-frog” challenges such as intergenerational church conflicts and diversity or poverty, racism, and other social ills in the wider American society. Today, the average South and East Asian immigrant family and their children have “leap-frogged” the inner city and settled in the suburbs. The average immigrant pastor is ill-equipped to minister to inter-generational congregations, having “leap-frogged” any training about the North American context. The average North American Asian Christian is encouraged to participate in cross-cultural ministries overseas or in urban America but “leap-frogs” the Asian American experience. The average Asian seminary professor is trained in Western theological education but is more comfortable with Asia as his or her primary context, thus “leap-frogging” Asian American Christian communities. The average university Asian American studies program “leap-frogs” Christian studies. Most Asian American evangelicals “leap-frog” the Asian American experience because they are taught that culture is to be avoided because it is sinful or that Christianity is beyond culture.

The “leap-frogging” phenomenan goes on and on – even in my personal experiences. I’ve discovered that I’m more valuable to colleges and seminaries when I teach about Asia or the traditional Euro-American curriculum, but not Asian American religion. Many of my second-third generation Asian American friends have told me that they would rather address multi-cultural issues and question ISAAC’s focus on Asian Americans. Most of my immigrant friends focus solely on Asia because they believe that the need is greater there. In the end, Asian American Christianity always winds up being more frog than prince. Is it any wonder that Asian American Christian leaders find it easier to “leap-frog” their Asian American experience?

But the truth is that “leap-frogging” Asian America is short-sighted and hurts everyone – not just Asian Americans. We’ve already witnessed the pain caused by Zondervan’s Deadly Viper curriculum that was quickly cancelled after protests by Asian American evangelical leaders. To me the biggest problem with Deadly Viper was that its authors “leap-frogged” real Asians by using pop culture representations of Asians without realizing that these images have been used in demeaning ways. Reinforcing these particularly stereotypes (which arguably may be better than “heathen” stereotypes) will render American evangelicals culturally incompetent in a global and multi-cultural world. But wait a minute! Acculturated Asian Americans also “leap-frog” when they reinforce stereotypes of immigrant church leaders as authoritarian and backward-looking. Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Tran expressed this concern during his lecture at the Asian American symposium co-sponsored by ISAAC and Fuller Seminary earlier this month. Have Asian American Christians who define themselves as over against, leaving behind, and separating from immigrant churches “leap-frogged” Asian America? Many immigrant leaders, on the other hand, “leap-frog” by romanticizing Asia, disrespecting Asian Americans, and condemning American culture. So when Zondervan invites Asian American leaders to advise them on future publications, I hope that these leaders are not “leap-froggers.” I hope that they have taken time to engage and learn about Asian Americans more fully before they are asked to represent Asian Americans. “Leap-frogging” leaves stereotypes in place, but does little to change them. It is one thing to protest negative stereotypes, it is another to create a more realistic and positive representations of Asian Americans.

We cannot afford to conveniently “leap-frog” uncomfortable situations. All of ISAAC’s work this year – our publications, co-sponsored lectures at U.C. Berkeley and University of San Francisco, the symposium at Fuller, consultations with congregations, pastoral support groups, and advocacy for research – is about Asian American Christian culture making, for the sake of the Church and the world. We invite our current Asian American Christian leaders to join us. We challenge the next generation to stay and build. It has not been not easy for us at ISAAC, but we are glad that we resisted the temptation to “leap-frog” Asian America. Instead, join us in kissing the frog! Who knows – it may be nobility in the making!

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Tim Tseng

Response to “Deadly Viper” from Andrew Lee, ISAAC East Region Director

November 12, 2009 2 comments

The Power of Zondervan

While many blogs, opinions, and letters have been aimed toward the authors of Deadly Viper, the number of comments directed toward the role of the publisher, Zondervan, pales in comparison.  The publication of this book is an indication that Zondervan and its editorial board deemed its content appropriate.  And while the authors, Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, have taken responsibility and issued personal apologies, two weeks have passed and Zondervan has yet to take an official stand.  Why the delay in acknowledging and rectifying the wrongs, however unintentional, which have occurred?

In his blog, Professor Rah references Said’s Orientalism, explaining how the West describes, dominates and rules.  Asian culture plays an unflattering second fiddle to western primacy. Numerous examples have already been cited by others regarding the errors in the representation of Asian culture in Deadly Viper.  Suggestions have been offered for editorial changes that would not alter the essential content of the book but would remove offending aspects of its presentation.  Sadly, if corrective actions are not taken to make major changes to the book, this will be yet another example of modern day colonialism. The cultures of the marginalized will again be referenced and exploited for economic gain by the corporate empire.

If colonialism in its current incarnation is defined as the acceptance of cultural, political and economic marginality, then these conditions will clearly be present should the book be allowed to remain in its existing format:

  1. Cultural exploitation, i.e., hegemony—The dissemination of this publication with its flawed portrayal of Asian culture will only serve to reinforce the stereotypes that currently exist and led to their usage in this work in the first place.  The purchasing of Deadly Viper by Asian Christians underscores its cultural captivity to Western evangelicalism.  Accepting this book serves to reify Western dominance.
  2. Political exploitation, i.e., dominance—The inability and unwillingness of the Asian Christian community to galvanize and garner enough support to compel changes to be made by the publisher signifies its continuing political impotence.  Asian Christians do not constitute a powerful bloc unlike the African American community.  While the presence of the Asian Christian community is vital to the survival of many evangelical seminaries, its lack of political power is a sad reflection of its unwitting assent to white privilege.
  3. Economic exploitation, i.e., marginality—The loss of profit from making editorial changes and republishing the book would be more important to Zondervan than its image in the eyes of Asian believers.  Public perception would not be as critical as corporate earnings.  Control of the means of production for economic gain is yet another reflection of the power of the empire.

On the Deadly Viper website, the book is self-described as being concerned with the issue of “radical integrity” and the development of “leaders who will have intentional, transparent, and honest conversations about key character issues.”  What better way for Zondervan to present itself as being allied with similar values than through recognition of the voice of the Asian Christian community?  While the protests that have been raised against caricatures of its culture have resulted in apologies from the authors, the cycle will not be complete without remedial action on the part of the publisher.  While we are one in Christ, cultural diversity and how such distinctions are perceived and presented are highly significant.  Honoring one another, rather than demeaning one another, clearly takes precedence over economic gain.

Rev. Andrew Y. Lee, Ph.D. <– Contact Andrew directly here

Categories: op-ed Tags: , , ,

Just Desserts: Russell Yee reflects on immigration policy, hard work, and fancy desserts

September 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Russell Yee is a pastor at New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland and teaches at Fuller Seminary – Northern California. He also serves as a member of ISAAC’s Board of Directors. Here are his reflections on KQED-FM 88.5, a San Francisco Bay Area public radio station (KQED airs short opinion segments from listeners called “Perspectives”):

N.B. He did NOT write the online intro that uses that “a” word (“assimilation” . . . )

September 15, 2009

There I was, invited as a guest aboard a full-sized cruise ship plying North American waters. While on board I found myself thinking about our attitudes towards immigration.

On this particular ship, the crewmembers were mostly Indonesian and Filipino nationals in their 20s and 30s. Talking to them, I learned that they work 11 or more hours a day every day for up to a year, with no days off.  Many of them spend these long seasons away from their own young children, who are left with relatives.

These crewmembers are hired in their respective homelands at differing market-rate wages, often after paying large sums to hiring brokers and training schools.  There on the high seas, on ships flying flags of convenience, the only labor law is the law of supply and demand.

As an Asian American man with young children, I couldn’t help but notice how much I and these crewmembers resembled each other–indeed, there was a moment when someone mistook me for a crewmember.

So why was I the one on the asking end of a request for another fancy dessert? Mostly because two and three generations ago my ancestors and my wife’s ancestors had taken risks and made sacrifices to immigrate to these shores, and worked hard here, and raised our parents and then us in turn to do the same.

Of course we need well-regulated borders and fairminded, enforceable immigration laws. But I believe we have so much to give and to gain from still being the destination of hope that America was for my ancestors and so many of yours too.

I believe we have so much to give and to gain by investing in the education and lives of immigrants, as well as investing in the lives of everyone already here for however many generations.

Meanwhile I hope my own kids will learn the values of thrift, sacrifice, service, and hard work.  Maybe I’ll send them to work on a cruise ship.

With a perspective, this is Russell Yee.

Categories: op-ed

The Task of the Postcolonial Theologian by Steve Hu

September 11, 2009 2 comments

Some thoughts from Steve Hu, an ISAAC volunteer. Steve is currently a pastoral intern at Rutgers Community Christian Church where he also serves as a leadership coach. He received his dual Master’s of Arts in Old Testament and Missional Theology from Biblical Seminary (Hatfield, Pennsylvania) in 2007. This commentary was originally posted on the Postcolonial Theological Network on Facebook at

Almost 30 years have passed since Edward Said’s Orientalism was first published in 1978. What first emerged as a school of literary criticism, postcolonialism came to embody a field of critical discourse and analysis centered on power, privilege, identity, and the relationship between East and West. Postcolonial theory has gained prominence as a critical methodology in secular disciplines, yet it is still making headways within the walls of the Church. When postcolonial theory is employed as a methodology in theological discourse, the resultant product is always categorized as “third-world” theology. Such categorization, Franz Wijsen notes, renders any theology that employs postcolonial theory as “exotic fruit” that merely supplements “traditional” European theology. This delineation only perpetuates colonialism in theological discourse and the dualistic categories of what’s normative and marginal. The theologian who employs Western categories is often blind to such colonialism, and the theologizing that he practices is all but irrelevant to the colonized.

The dualistic categorization of the normative and marginal obfuscates the enterprise of theology by predetermining what is acceptable theological discourse. This act is inherently political, and by delineating theological discourse, theologians are no longer theologians, but they become powerbrokers who mute the voice of those in the margins. While the number of postcolonial theologians remains few, recent works by Mayra Rivera, Joerg Rieger, Kwok Pui-Lan, and Jonathan Tan indicate theologians are seriously examining this methodology as a source for theology. The number of scholars working in this field is on the rise, yet the majority of these scholars still remains in the Catholic and mainline segments of the Church. Evangelicals are slow to take seriously postcolonial theory as a starting point for theology. The reasons for this are too many and complex to describe here. However, in this essay I hope to encourage my fellow evangelicals to cease regarding postcolonial discourse as an accessory of theology. Postcolonial discourse should no longer remain in the theological periphery. Rather, engaging and listening to those in the margins will further inform and enrich our theological enterprise. It is out of a personal commitment that I say this: as an Asian American evangelical, I’ve discovered that postcolonial discourse grants me voice that is normally not heard by those sitting at the theological roundtable, a table that long has been the domain of Westerners and privy only to those who can speak its predetermined discourse. This table has been so embedded in Western forms and categories that when I attempt to converse, my words, as Tite Tiénou notes, “are perceived as threats to orthodoxy.” Yet no one will disagree that theological enterprise is conversational in nature, that it is an ongoing multi-lateral exchange between the biblical text, tradition, reason, and context among various dialog partners. It is time that those sitting at the theological roundtable cease to exclude marginal voices from this conversation. The inclusion of marginal dialog partners not only will give voice to the voiceless, it will also produce rich fruit for our theological conversation.

As an Asian American evangelical residing in North America and as one who represents those voices in the margins, I ask my fellow evangelicals to consider seriously postcolonial discourse as a starting point for theologizing. In our globalizing world, the Church cannot afford not to consider the multiple contexts in which theology begins. The task of theology always has its origins in a particular context, and is done for that context, by that same context so that the result is always something relevant in that context. If our discourse continues to remain in the domain of the West, the resultant theology would be powerless to address the issues of the global church. What will this new theologizing look like? Here I will describe five starting points necessary for the new kind of theologizing to be done for today’s world. This list of loci is by no means exhaustive, but they must be incorporated into our theological enterprise in order for it to be relevant.

1) The life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The beginning of any theology must consider the life, death, and resurrection of Christ himself. Incarnate in human flesh, Christ embodies all aspects of the postcolonial: contextuality, marginality, and hybridity. Christ came not as a man without a cultural heritage, but as a first-century Jewish carpenter who lived and breathed the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. He was not culture-less, but was fully embodied in a cultural context in which he knew and engaged so well. Christ was an outsider, a working class average joe, and was not privy to the roundtable of privilege, power, and the ruling class. Yet he continuously challenged the systemic evils that the elites perpetuated, questioning their piety and bringing to light their hypocrisy. Lastly, Christ in his personhood concretized both God and man, divinity and humanity, and yet he was sure of his mission and purpose on earth. In Christ there was no confusion of purpose and identity. Christ’s hybridity points us toward the multiple identities which postcolonial theology must consider, that even our own identity in this world is fluid, not monolithic.

2) Contextuality. Today’s theologian must think and act like a cross-cultural missionary and take into account the place in which his reflections are located. As Wijsen observes, today’s theology must be constructed in “the context of multicultural societies and a globalizing world.” Theology is at once global and local, and it reflects upon the divine and speaks to the unique earth-bound locale from which theology begins. No one can escape the contextuality of theology. Contextuality is necessary for the theologian to faithfully appropriate the message of the Gospel in culturally relevant forms so his audience may understand what he is attempting to communicate regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The theologian’s task is never done in a vacuum; he is always guided by his context, mindful that he is always theologizing from that context.

3) Marginality. As globalization continues to shrink the world through economic, political, and technological advances, it simultaneously creates new local conditions. Those who do not have the means to adapt and change with the dynamic processes of globalization are left behind and pushed to the margins. In these locales, marginality may also result from exclusion from the political process. Another situation in which marginality arises is the process of migration. As the son of immigrants from Asia, I know very well what it means to live in the social and economic margins of mainstream society. I am always questioned by others about my origins and never accepted as part of the majority culture. Nevertheless, my experience has given me a unique perspective of the world, a perspective that Christ himself had when he lived as an outsider in first century Palestine. Yet, as Gary Okihiro notes, the struggles of disenfranchised minorities have helped preserve the egalitarian ideals of liberal democratic societies. This important contribution by the disenfranchised has been missed by those engaged in theological discourse. It is the dialectics between the margins and mainstream that fuels fruitful conversation. Theologians would gain much insight if they lend a listening ear to marginal voices. Thus, today’s theologians must identify with those in the margins and recognize that their voices add insightful reflection to the theological process.

4) Heterogeneity and hybridity. The issue of identity should also have a place in today’s theological discourse. As globalization continues to create new realities for humanity, individuals must negotiate, navigate, and bridge multiple contexts in order to live and belong. In this dynamic process, new identities are forged, often from various sources. Thus, identity in the age of globalization is one of hybridity and synthesis. Speaking from my own social location as an Asian American, my identity is multi-faceted and cannot be relegated to a monolithic category. I stand to have my feet in different worlds, one in the old and the other in the new, and I posses a hybridized identity that is informed by my unique social location. In a word, I am in-between, or “betwixt,” embodying both worlds at once. This hybridized identity informs me how my faith is perceived, conceptualized, and practiced in my community. The relationship between faith and identity is bilateral, with faith informed by my identity and my identity maintained by faith. Any theologian engaged in today’s theological enterprise cannot disregard the hybridized identities individuals embody. Our theological enterprise must take into account the various social locations from which identities are synthesized so we may remain relevant to speak the truth of Christ’s life into those contexts.

5) Activism and service. Lastly, the postcolonial theologian must make his theologizing an act of service in order to give voice to the voiceless. As Jonathan Tan points out, this theologizing can never be “abstract” that remains in “the intellectual arena” removed from the realities of people’s lives. He goes on to say that “one problem about classical academic theologies as conceived in the Christian West is that they are often either articulated apart from, or in priority over community life, practice, and spirituality.” A theology espoused in this manner actually does disservice to the people. Any practicing theologian must take into consideration the “struggles, dreams, and aspirations in a particular place and time.” Such theology will indeed give voice to those who are hurting, to those who are oppressed, to those who are victimized and alienated, to those living in the margins. The theologian is not just a scholar who sits in the ivory tower; he is an advocate, a voice for the unheard, one who betters humanity through his work.

What I have described are five simple and fundamental starting points for any theologian who wishes to engage today’s world. Gone are the days when theologians sit alone and dream up categories for their systematic theologies. Today’s new theological enterprise requires collaboration among different perspectives and conversational partners who reside in the margins of society. Until theologians can engage and listen to multiple perspectives and utilize postcolonial insights, our theological enterprise will remain provincial at best, with our theologies developed only for the Western ghetto. Such theologies will also be powerless to speak to the contexts of our globalized world. Only engagement with postcolonial methodology will result in a theology that is relevant and capable to embody the truth, the person, and the diversity of God.

Contact Steve Hu

Categories: op-ed

The late Ron Takaki, Him Mark Lai, and other influencers

June 4, 2009 1 comment

The passing of several important scholars in this past year has given me occasion to pause and reflect. Robert Handy, an American Baptist church historian, and Kosuke Koyama, theologian and advocate for Asian contextualized theology, passed away earlier this year. Both were strong influences for me while I was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Handy encouraged me to enter the Ph.D. program in history of Christianity when I was uncertain of my scholarly abilities. Dr. Koyama served on my dissertation committee and encouraged me to enter the academy. I’m grateful for both of these men because they showed me that one could be both a scholar and church leader.

Three important historians passed away recently as well. I did not know John Hope Franklin (January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009) or Ron Takaki (April 12, 1939- May 26, 2009) personally. I’ve corresponded with Him Mark Lai (Nov. 1, 1925- May 21, 2009) on a few occasions. These three historians profoundly shaped my thinking about race and multi-culturalism in America. Through them, I  learned not only about the hidden histories of African Americans and Asian Americans, but also how to reframe American history through the perspectives and experiences of racialized peoples. Him Mark Lai’s grassroots approach to Chinese American history linked colleges to local ethnic communities and challenged the elitism of university education. Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, his much acclaimed  history of Asian Americans, demonstrated that the racial landscape of American history was always diverse – even before the landmark 1965 Immigration Act that allowed Asians to immigrant on an equal basis as European immigrants.

Furthermore, Takaki and other Civil Rights Era historians (they used to be called revisionist historians) also began to ask why ethnic and racial diversity were not reflected in American histories and popular culture.  The first book by Takaki that I read was Iron Cages, a sophisticated analysis of the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of white privilege in 19th century American culture. Before it became common to employ Edward Said’s Orientalism as a theoretical tool for analyzing Euro-American texts, Takaki demonstrated that paying close attention to historical documents can yield powerful critical interpretations of the use of privilege and power to create racial differences and hierarchies. Today, Soong-chan Rah’s scathing criticism of Western, white privilege in American evangelicalism [see his The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity, 2009)] will not make many white evangelicals happy, but that critique rests on the solid work of historians like Franklin, Takaki, and Lai [as well as some sociologists who see it operating in multi-racial settings today. See my review of Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245 at:]

Their passing comes at a critical time for Asian American Christians – especially evangelicals. Our most thoughtful Asian American evangelical leaders don’t really know what to do with these historians from the Civil Rights Era. Asian American evangelicals tend not to think about their ethnic identities or public issues affecting Asian Americans – the very issues that Civil Rights Era historians focused on. Acting as if the model minority myth is reality, many embrace individualism, consumerism, and materialism (the other aspects of Western Cultural captivity that Rah critiques). Even those who are passionate about missions or social justice leap-frog the Asian American experience. Further complicating the Civil Rights narratives  is an increasing scholarly recognition that racial identities are more fluid, transnational, and complex than they were understood to be a generation ago. All this, along with the reality of multi-racial marriages, a growing number of hapa children, greater Asian American social mobility, and a general embrace of racial non-recognition and globalization have challenged the the anti-discriminatory vision of Civil Rights Era historians. Is it any wonder that many of our Asian American evangelical leaders have a difficult time bridging past and present?

So what should  church leaders, theological educators, scholars, business and non-profit leaders do? Shall we repress the past as leaders in China appear determined to do on this 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests? Shall we ignore history and move on because the past is not directly relevant to our ministry, research, business, career, or causes? Or shall we continue to remind this generation and our children of the sins of human history such as the Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, the Japanese American concentration camps, Jim and Jane Crow, etc.? Leaders today are entrusted with the souls and the aspirations of the next generation. It is easy to write off the voices of the past as irrelevant for this generation and the future. But the responsible leader in Asian American settings will attend to the lessons of Lai, Takaki, and Koyama.

– Tim Tseng

* * *

May 31, 2009
Ronald Takaki, a Scholar on Ethnicity, Dies at 70

Ronald Takaki, who made it his life’s work to rewrite American history to include Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups excluded from traditional accounts and who helped start the first doctoral program in ethnic studies in the United States, died Tuesday in his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 70.

The cause was suicide, said his son Troy. He battled multiple sclerosis for years. “He struggled, and then he gave up,” his son said.

Mr. Takaki, whose Japanese grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 19th century and worked on a sugarcane plantation, became a leading scholar of ethnicity and multiculturalism in works that challenged ethnic stereotypes and chronicled struggles of non-European immigrants.

His works like “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” (1993) became seminal texts in emerging fields that he helped institutionalize by establishing a doctoral program in ethnic studies in 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 30 years.

Don T. Nakanishi, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Berkeley Web site: “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world.”

Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki was born in Honolulu and, in his youth, spent most of his time surfing. On the beach, he was known as Ten-Toes Takaki for his hang-ten style.

He found his vocation while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. While in Ohio he married Carol Rankin, who survives him. Besides his son Troy, of Los Angeles, he is also survived by another son, Todd, of El Cerrito, Calif.; a daughter, Dana Takaki of Chester, Conn.; a brother, Michael Young of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; a sister, Janet Wong of Chatsworth, Calif.; and seven grandchildren.

He continued his education at Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in history in 1967. He was deeply influenced by the Free Speech movement at the university and by the civil rights struggles in the South. “I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the ’60s,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

He wrote a dissertation on slavery in the United States and returned to the subject in his first book, published in 1971, “A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.”

At U.C.L.A., Mr. Takaki taught the university’s first black-history course, created in response to the Watts riots. When a student asked what revolutionary tools he would be teaching, Mr. Takaki said: “We’re going to strengthen our critical thinking and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”

In 1971 he became the first full-time teacher in Berkeley’s new ethnic studies department, where he taught a highly influential survey course that took a comparative approach in describing racism as experienced by different ethnic groups in the United States. In addition to helping establish the graduate program in ethnic studies, he helped put in place the requirement that all undergraduates take a course intended to broaden their understanding of racial and ethnic diversity. He retired in 2003.

His many books include “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America” (1979), “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” (1989), “Democracy and Race: Asian Americans and World War II” (1995) and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” (2000).

* * *

May 22, 2009

UCLA Asian American Studies Center
Him Mark Lai: Dean of Chinese American History, Passes (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai, the internationally noted scholar, writer, and “Dean of Chinese American History” was born on November 1, 1925 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  His ten books, more than 100 essays, and research in English and Chinese on all aspects of Chinese American life are published and cited in the U.S., the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Lai was a member of Amerasia Journal’s editorial board for more than 30 years and a contributing writer.  Among his works published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press are: A History Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986); in 2000 Amerasia Journal published his autobiographical essay: “Musings of a Chinese American Historian.”

With the writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn, historian Judy Yung, and editor Russell C. Leong serving as the co-editors, the UCLA Asian American Center Press will be publishing his autobiography in 2009-2010.

* * *

Him Mark Lai was born in San Francisco Chinatown to immigrant parents from Nam Hoi District, Guangzhou, and attended local schools including Francisco Junior High, Nam Kue Chinese School, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering and until his retirement worked for Bechtel Corporation.

In late 1949, he began volunteering for Chung Sai Yat Po, the first daily paper to support the People’s Republic of China, and became a member of organizations active in persuading students to return to China to serve the new government.  He also joined the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, more familiarly known as Mun Ching, where he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant, whom he married in 1953.

According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn:

“Lai joined the Chinese Historical Society of America soon after its founding in 1963.  These events, together with contemporaneous changes in the status of minorities spurred by the Civil Rights movement, led Lai towards developing a Chinese American identity, and in 1967, he accepted a proposal by Maurice Chuck, editor of the bilingual East/West, the Chinese American Weekly to write a series of articles on Chinese American history.  This marked the beginning of Lai’s career in reclaiming the Chinese/American experience-a fortuitous confluence of his passion for history and his deep commitment to his bicultural heritage and democratic principles.

His East/West articles – revised and annotated-became the cornerstone for the classic A History of the Chinese in California, A Syllabus, co-edited with Thomas W. Chin and Philip P. Choy, as well as the basis for the first Chinese American history course in the United States, which Lai team taught with Choy at San Francisco State College in Fall 1969 and which resulted in another classic Outlines: History of the Chinese in America.  Lai’s first scholarly essay, “A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America,” published in the Fall 1972 issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars – together with subsequent revisions-remains a standard reference.  So do Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, co-authored/translated with Genny Lim and Judy Yung; Lai’s “Chinese on the Continental U.S.” in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; his From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: a History of the Development of Chinese during the Twentieth Century (in Chinese) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Overseas and Huaquiao Huaren baike quanshu [Encyclopedia of Chinese and people of Chinese descent overseas];  his studies of Chinese newspapers and schools, district associations, and communities in the Pearl River Delta.”

Indeed, almost every researcher or scholar who has studied Chinese Americans during the past forty years is indebted to Him Mark Lai’s pioneering and lifelong work based on primary Chinese-language sources.  According to editor Russell C. Leong, “Him Mark Lai gave Chinese Americans a voice in history because he listened to ordinary people both in America and China and trained himself to read what they felt and thought–in the Chinese language. His legacy challenges us to listen, to think, and to feel more deeply–to untangle, to clarify, and to refine the historical and political record of our lives here.”

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is also grateful for Him Mark Lai’s support of the work of others as a long-standing member of the editorial committees of Amerasia Journal and of Chinese America: History & Perspectives, the two leading scholarly journals which have collectively published the most materials on Asian Americans and Chinese Americans during the past four decades.

-Russell C. Leong
Editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

* * *

Union Mourns
Professor Emeritus Kosuke Koyama, Intercultural Theologian

The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Studies, died on March 25, 2009, at BayState Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 79. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, said his son, Mark.

During the 16 years he taught at Union Theological Seminary, Koyama made a name for himself as an important figure in the development of global Christianity.

He was an early proponent of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, long before those terms came into common parlance. He taught courses in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and showed students how these faiths could inform Christian commitment.

“I feel a mission to teach about different religious traditions,” Koyama said. “I think it’s the Christian thing to do.”

Chris Herlinger, a 1993 Union MA graduate whose work with the humanitarian agency Church World Service has taken him to numerous predominately Muslim countries, said Professor Koyama was “way ahead of the curve in having students look beyond the limits of our own faith borders.

“A full decade before 9/11 and its aftermath, Professor Koyama was almost alone at Union in alerting us to the realities of religious pluralism in the world. I’m not sure everybody fully understood or appreciated that at the time, but I think we do now.”

Kosuke Koyama, known as “Ko” to his friends, was born in Tokyo on December 10, 1929, at a time when Japan was already active against Manchuria and China. He survived the bombings, violence, and destruction of the war years, and later wrote that he was baptized “not so much from an awareness of my personal sinfulness as from the immediate experience of the destruction of my country by war.

“The minister who baptized me told me that the God of the Bible is concerned about the wellbeing of all nations, even including Japan and America,” he wrote. “To hear this at the same time that we were being bombed by America was quite startling. This was my first ecumenical lesson.”

Koyama graduated from Tokyo Union Theological Seminary in 1952. He then chose to pursue his theological studies in the United States. At Drew Theological School he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree cum laude in 1954, and at Princeton Theological Seminary he completed the Th.M. and Th.D. in 1959. (He would later refer to his nascent thinking at Drew and Princeton as his “New Jersey theology.”)

Upon graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. As Dale T. Irvin wrote in his introduction to The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kōsuke Koyama (a festschrift presented to Koyama on the occasion of his retirement from Union), in Thailand Koyama “found himself exploring a theology that began not with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or Karl Barth, but with the needs of farmers among whom he worked. Out of this commitment to being a neighbor to the northern Thai farmers was born the ‘waterbuffalo theology’ that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth century contextual theologies.”

In 1968 Koyama moved to Singapore to take up the position of dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST), which had come into being two years earlier − an outcome of a historic theological education consultation held in Bangkok in 1956. At this conference, Koyama later wrote, “We consciously began the process of decolonization of theology. The selfhood of the Asian church became a subject of serious discussion.”

At SEAGST, “All of the professors were people of two cultures (‘fork and chopsticks’). We explored together the nature and limits of cultural accommodation of the Gospel not from the North Atlantic theological perspective but from the contexts of diverse local cultures in Asia.”

In 1974 Koyama was appointed Senior Lecturer in Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was there that he received a phone call from the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver, Jr., then Union’s president, inviting him to become Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity. The first Asian appointed to the faculty at the Seminary, Koyama began teaching there in February 1980. He was later installed as the first incumbent of the newly established John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity.

At Union Koyama had a profound effect on both his students and colleagues. “To say that Kosuke Koyama made his imprint on ecumenical church meetings, in unnumbered intercultural theological dialogues, and in intense classroom discussions at Union and around the world, is to forge an understatement,” Dr. Shriver wrote about Koyama’s years at the Seminary. “In his quiet, persistent way of speaking and writing, humor which cloaked his seriousness, fidelity to Gospel teaching, and readiness to listen long before he crafted another of his eloquent metaphors, he was an exemplary educator and Christian witness to all who knew him.”

And New York had a profound effect on Koyama. There he encountered Jews and African Americans for the first time, an experience that forced him to respond theologically to “the fact of enormous violence suffered by these two peoples.” He sensed, he said, “that my identity would be directly threatened if I did not come to terms with the twofold encounter… The experience of blacks and Jews challenged the heart of the Christian faith as I understood it at that time.”

Throughout his life Koyama went from encounter to encounter, hammering each into a contextual theological endeavor. He beat swords into plowshares, evoking King Zedekiah – “his eyes torn out, and taken into exile.” He wrote about a theology of the cross “in which love, becoming completely vulnerable to violence, conquers violence.” He carried on a deep theological dialogue with Buddhism, studied Judaism and Islam, and again and again returned to reflect upon the encounter between East and West.

When he stepped down as Professor Emeritus in 1996, he said he didn’t like the word “retire” and preferred, instead, to think of himself as “reappearing” through “new empowerment from the Holy Ghost.” He continued his encountering and endeavoring to the end.

In a final tribute, to Koyama, his former student Dale Irvin, now President of New York Theological Seminary, offered this remembrance:

“Koyama once remarked to me that one reason he enjoyed reading a particular work by Thomas Merton was that he could pick it up and begin reading anywhere, in any direction, and the book still made sense to him. Koyama found in Merton’s work a profound circularity in which beginning and end met in a cosmological rather than eschatological way.

“The logic was not linear and progressive, but circular and unfolding. Perhaps the same can be said of the life of Kosuke Koyama. It remains an unfolding event, circulating from the global to the local and back to the global dimensions, dancing between the cosmological and the eschatological dimensions of religious life, yet doing so with a certain agitation as he seeks to follow the God who spoke from the Mountain.

“Koyama is with that God now, and with the Christ he so passionately followed in his life,” Irvin concluded. “I am sure they are dancing together.”

Kosuke Koyama is survived by his wife of 50 years, Lois Koyama, and his children: James, who lives in Honolulu; Elizabeth, who lives in Moscow; and Mark, who lives in Western Massachusetts. He is also survived by his five grandchildren: Matthew, Isabel, Sophie, Amos and Silas.

Read President Emeritus Donald W. Shriver’s tribute to Prof. Koyama.

* * *

Union Mourns
Robert T. Handy, Church Historian

Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Handy, Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, died at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on January 8. He was 90 years old.

During the 36 years he taught at the Seminary, Handy made a name for himself as an impressive scholar of American church history, an exceptional teacher, and a gifted administrator.

“From the very first I knew him to be one of a cluster of faculty who could be counted on always to put the good of the school above their own good,” said former UTS president Donald W. Shriver, Jr.  As a member of Union’s presidential search committee, Handy in 1975 had helped to bring Shriver to Union.  Shriver in turn appointed Handy dean of the faculty in 1976, a post Handy held for two years.

“By the end of those two years, he felt obliged to return to full time teaching of church history,” Shriver reminisced recently in an email, “but by then he had restored many fractured relationships among faculty, administration, students and board.

“Bob was a born reconciler,” Shriver continued.  “He brought to academic work the skills and commitments of a Baptist pastor as well as the training of a disciplined scholar.  His is a combination rare in the halls of academe, rare among human beings, too.”

Handy’s students and colleagues have long since acknowledged him as a leading historian of American church history.  His work on church and state, on religious liberty, on nineteenth-century attempts to establish a “Christian America,” and his labor with fellow Union professors David W. Lotz and Richard A. Norris, Jr., in revising and updating Williston Walker’s standard, A History of the Christian Church, produced books that are still in use and considered classics.  Among his great contributions to the Seminary was A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York, published in 1987 as part of Union’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Handy’s tenure at Union as a member of both the faculty and the administration gave him particular insight into the critical issues affecting the Seminary during his time.  He also successfully illuminated events of other eras of Union’s past, particularly the troubled times of the Charles A. Briggs trial in the late nineteenth century.  An exacting and tireless researcher, Handy spent countless hours in the Seminary’s archives, fact-checking details and building on the work of earlier scholars of Union’s history, among them former Union president Henry Sloane Coffin and faculty members G.L. Prentiss and Charles R. Gillett.  The result was a readable and entertaining history, both objective and accurate, yet tempered by Handy’s respect and affection for the sons and daughters of Union Seminary.

Robert Handy was born on June 30, 1918 in Rockville, Connecticut and attended Brown University, where he majored in European history and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (later upgraded to a Master of Divinity) at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1943.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in May of that year.

At the time, Handy was still looking for a way to combine his two interests, history and the church, into one vocation.  “A congregation in Illinois,” he later wrote, “which I then served as minister for two years, enabled me to take some courses at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago ‘to fill some gaps.’

“At first I had no plans to earn a further degree,” he continued, “but a wise dean advised me to put whatever work I did on a doctoral program anyway…  Then, during an interim of nearly two years while I was serving as an Army chaplain, I concluded that my attraction to both ministry and historical scholarship could come together in the role of church historian.”

After leaving the Army, Handy returned to Chicago Divinity School, where he completed his doctorate in 1949.  The following year he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for a three-year term, “primarily to assist John T. McNeil and Paul Tillich in their foundational surveys of church history and the history of Christian thought, but also to teach courses in the modern and American periods.

“Little did I know that the three years would stretch into twelve times that number to the time of retirement,” he later marveled.  Handy’s full reflections on his career were published in Religious Studies Review in April 1993.  He taught at Union from 1950 to 1986, retiring as Henry Sloane Coffin Professor of Church History.

In 1989, Handy’s colleagues and former students published a festschrift in his honor, Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 1935-1985.  While not a conventional festschrift because the contributors were not all former students of his, nor were they all professional historians, the volume celebrated  the man all the contributors considered their mentor.

“Every one of them… knows his or her indebtedness to the lifelong scholarly career of Robert Handy,” wrote the book’s editors in the preface.  They went on to praise “his strict adherence to the technical canons of historical inquiry, his sensitivity to the practical needs of Christian people, his signal labors on behalf of a sophisticated understanding of American church history, and his appreciation for the conceptual ties of history with many other disciplines.”

Teacher, author, colleague, friend, spiritual helper – Handy was all these and more.  “We know that as a historian he loves the truth of history,” the editors concluded.  “He loves as well the people who make history.  Indeed, among those scholars whom we know, we know of none who better joins the love of truth to the truth of love.”

Peggy Shriver, wife of the president emeritus, had this to say: “Once a student of Bob Handy, always a student of Bob Handy!  He cared for them, nurtured them, was solicitous of their careers and lives, and was always ready to be helpful and encouraging.

“Although I was never his student,” she went on, “I sometimes turned to him in my position as Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  So I know how kindly and helpful he could be.  I also know how important he was to my husband during those early years of leading the seminary through some difficult times.”

Al Tizon comments at The Scandal of Evangelical Politics Conference (Mar 28-30, 2008)

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics Conference, sponsored  by the Evangelicals for Social Action/Sider Center for  Ministry and Public Policty, was held in Philadelphia on  March 28-30, 2008. The aim of the Conference was to help  Christians practice their biblical faith in the political  arena in an informed, uncompromising way. The program  included a panel discussion responding to the National  Association of Evangelicals’ Statement, “For the Health of  the Nation” from different cultural perspectives. The  following comments were offered on the panel by Al Tizon from an Asian American perspective. Al is Assistant Professor of Evangelism and Holistic Ministry, Director of Network 9:35 at Palmer Seminary. He was formerly pastor of Berkeley Evangelical Covenant church and received his PhD from the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA). Contact Dr. Tizon for a copy of the statement.

I’m glad to be part of this panel for a variety of reasons: first, because I get to serve with esteemed colleagues and world-changers at the table; second, because the Statement that we’re responding to is an important one; and third, because an Asian American has been invited to the table to bring an Asian American perspective—not the Asian American perspective, as if there is such a thing, but one perspective—namely, mine, who happens to be Asian American.

As a short aside to the topic at hand, I do find it curious when cultural diversity in America is talked about or called upon, that Asian Americans are more often than not left out. Diversity in America remains predominantly a black-white issue. And increasingly, Hispanic Americans have been invited, but Asian Americans not quite yet. For example, the title of this particular presentation [which this panel discussion follows] was “African-American, Hispanic, and White Evangelicals: Can They Come Together on Politics?” And I was on the planning committee!

I’m not sure this exclusion is legitimate in light of the rapid growth of Asians in America. According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, 10,242, 998 Asians and 1,655,830 mixed race people with Asian blood live in the United States. This does not include Pacific Islanders, which if you add them/us, balloon up to almost 17,000,000 Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. There are over 4,000,000 of us Filipinos alone running around the country (as we continue our quest to take over the world)! It is projected that the Asian and Pacific Islander population will double by 2030.

There are a few theories floating around in my head as to why Asian Americans are not readily included in diversity discussions despite their numbers, and maybe we’ll get into it here a little. For now, let me just say that it is an honor to bring an Asian American perspective to this panel and to this Conference.

And not just an Asian American perspective, but an evangelical Asian American perspective. 26% of the Asian community in the United States profess a Protestant faith, the largest percentage, with Catholicism at a close 20%. Of the Protestants, most Asian Americans identify with evangelicalism.

“For the Health of the Nation” – Random Thoughts from an Asian American Perspective

•    The Statement works toward consensus in the midst political diversity in the evangelical community
•    It provides biblical basis for civic engagement, and affirms the Bible as the source from which we as Christians derive norms
•    It calls for humility, civility and integrity amidst political differences
•    Pledges allegiance first and foremost to the kingdom and then America. I find the statement, “As Christians we confess that our primary allegiance is to Christ, his kingdom, and Christ’s worldwide body of believers, not to any nation,” particularly promising to include people of color, including, of course, Asian Americans.
•    (Related to the last bullet) the Statement acknowledges the contribution of the worldwide Christian community in enriching American political life with the sentence, “We invite Christians outside the United States to aid us in broadening our perspectives on American life and action.”

•    There was no wiggle room with regard to different perspectives on violence; the Statement seemed to adopt the just war principles wholesale with no regard to those who may think differently about the role of force in bringing about change. The People Power Revolution of 1986, for example, told us Filipinos and really the whole world, that indeed non-violence can work to change political realities. So to appreciate diversity in this area in the document would have been more consistent with the nature of the document as a whole.
•    There were also no developed thoughts on the church as the social conscience of the nation. The idea of community in the Asian mind, generally speaking, is central; so language of Christian community as a change agent in the larger community seemed lacking in the document.
•    Racism seemed buried under “We Work to Protect Human Rights;” but the “health of the nation” depends on how we deal with racism and therefore should be more prominent. In fact, it should be a free-standing principle alongside the other principles—something like: “We Seek Racial Equality and Work toward a Fully Integrated Society.” And include the last paragraph under Human Rights, expand the proposed section also to include what it means to be “hospitable to strangers,” i.e., immigrants. And add a specific example from the Asian-American experience in the paragraph: Choose from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the banning of Filipinos coming to America in 1934, the infamous relocation of Japanese Americans into camps during WW II, etc.
•    Lastly, there was limited distribution/visibility of the document on the grassroots level. Evangelical laypeople and clergy alike know very little to nothing about this Statement. And it is too important to be discussed solely in the ivory towers of the NAE. Let’s get this document in the hands of local congregations.

Overall, the Statement has the potential to bring diverse evangelical political camps together, and if the issues of race and ethnic diversity were lifted up, people of color would feel more welcomed to join the convergence.

A Meditation on Itch Scratching – Tim Tseng

October 6, 2007 3 comments

I made a surprising discovery. ISAAC causes rashes!

Many friends have encouraged ISAAC to “scratch where people itch.” Indeed, our research, resources, and consulting efforts “scratch” the Asian American “itch.” But most immigrant Asian church organizations and mainstream American institutions have so locked their gaze on Asia, that they barely notice the Asian American “itch.” And “model minority” Asian Americans are purported to be so well assimilated that they no longer itch.

Most of the messages that we church-going Asian Americans hear avoids the “itch altogether. We are always being mobilized for missions to China and the world, but we are not supported when we feel called to lead our own ethnic churches. Others urge us to leave our Asian “ghettos” behind to join post-modern, multi-cultural ministries. Yet, nothing about our Asian American histories and identities is affirmed or even taught to us. Still others insist that we must participate in social justice work, yet deny us the right to suggest that advocating for Asian American concerns is a justice issue. Is it any wonder then so few believe that there is an itch to scratch!

But ISAAC believes the “itch” is very real – especially among Asian Americans who are not in our churches. Many in these communities need help. Few are aware of efforts to resettle Karen, Chin, and Kachin refugees from Myanmar – a recent example of how the Asian America “itch” has been overlooked (see how American Baptists are helping at An exciting effort to raise up Second Generation Southeast Asian Christian leaders deserves more attention and support. And a recent report by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy revealed that effective giving to Asian American and Pacific Islander communities’ needs has not kept pace with the growth of these communities.

If we are to make a positive “kingdom” impact in the Asian American communities, then Christian leaders ought to pay attention to the “itch.” Moreover, we might want to practice the discipline of “itching the scratch.” For example, college students and faculty might support Asian American Studies on campus and encourage these programs to pay more attention to religion. Campus ministries might encourage students to see returning to their ethnic churches and communities as real discipleship and mission choices. Seminarians and theological educators might insist that courses and programs that address Asian American concerns be offered – and then go out of their way to attend or offer these courses. Similar “itching” practices ought to be encouraged in denominations, para-church ministries, and the market place.

Given the recent changes and growth in Asia, it would be wise to “itch the scratch.” History can be instructive. 65 years ago, Rev. Hideo Hashimoto, Pastor of the Japanese Methodist Church in Fresno, California, spoke these words to his congregation on the Sunday before 120,000 Japanese Americans was forced to leave their homes and live in internment camps during World War II:

In a sense, our being evacuated is the consequence of our sinfulness. As American citizens of Japanese ancestry, we had a great mission to fulfill. We were destined to be the bridge-builders of the Pacific.

But we failed. In our self-centeredness, like Jonah, we ran away from our great mission. We thought only of fun, thrill, and good time. We sought fame, reputation, to be a “good sport.” We sought money and soft, easy, comfortable lives. We were constantly reminded of our task, until we were sick and tired of hearing about “Bridge-builders of the Pacific.” Yet, instead of going straight toward our responsibility, we went in the opposite direction – money making, self seeking, sin. For sin means going the opposite direction from God-given destiny.

This war, this suffering, and our evacuation, is partially our fault and our making. If we had been vigilant, and stuck to our God-given mission, working with all our heart and soul to prevent war and make for peace, justice and true democracy, the situation may have been different somewhat.

From Allan H. Hunter and Gurney Binford, eds., The Sunday Before (Sermons by Pacific Coast Pastors of the Japanese race on the Sunday before Evacuation to Assembly centers in the late spring of 1942) [unpublished manuscript, Graduate Theological Union Library Archives])

Rev. Hashimoto exaggerated the shortcomings of the Christian Nisei in his sermon. In fairness to him, he also considered the evacuation “a shame, a dangerous attack upon the fundamental principle upon which our nation in built.” Nevertheless I believe his message to Christian Nisei has relevance for us today. We, too, have a responsibility to pay attention to the Asian American issues of our day!

Today, ISAAC is helping to scratch the Asian American itch. But we may have to draw attention to – and maybe cause the itch, first! Will you join us in this effort? – Tim Tseng, Executive Director

Categories: op-ed

Guest blogger: Anne Lau Choy on prison ministry

May 2, 2007

I volunteered as a chaplain at the Santa Clara County Elmwood jail’s Correctional Center for Women in Milpitas for a year and a half. I led a weekly Bible study and prayer group and then would go door to door, praying with whoever wanted. I was in a medium security section with individual cells housing 1 or 2 women.

Initially it scared me to interact with them and broke my heart to see people being treated like animals. About 98% of women in jail come from abusive childhoods and are on drugs. There is no pretense about needing God when you are in jail. The most basic message of the gospel, that Jesus loves you and offers forgivingness, is life and life changing. Somehow the gospel doesn’t always seem as powerful in our local churches. At the jail, I got to witness the power of God. I was deeply blessed!

We need to do hands on ministry, not just out of obedience, but to see Jesus and the power of the gospel. Jesus says when we feed the hungry, we do it to him.

I have new questions and concerns about our society and the church. How do we care for those in need? Do followers of Jesus Christ make a difference in our communities for the better or is there little change? What happens to the mentally ill? Many inmates are but prisons are not equipped to offer them help. How can we care for the mentally ill in appropriate and loving ways? What happens to the mentally ill in Asian communities and how does the church play a part in that or not? In this season of Eastertide, how is the body of Christ offering the hope of the resurrection to those in need?

I met a few Asian American women in jail and some of their family. Several were Christians who did not want their church or communities to know. I am saddened and yet know the reality that in the midst of this great need, the Asian American Christian community is the last place people would turn to for help. Reaching out to the church would lead to shame and greater isolation.

May our churches truly become the body of Christ led by our Lord.

Rev. Anne Lau Choy
Asbury United Methodist Church, Livermore CA

Categories: op-ed