Watching, reading, and listening to stories as a child, characters were almost always simplified into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Patriarchal language aside, this seems like an easy way of looking at the world and making decisions. It’s so much more satisfying and definitive to hear a story where good triumphs against evil and right actions correct wrongdoings. But step outside of your home or log on to your social media and really, this easy dichotomy of understanding justice doesn’t give us any assurance or legs to stand on in the face of even the tiniest bit of complexity. And, frankly, being an Asian American in the United States today is nothing if not complex.
As Asian Americans, regardless of where we grew up, our faces, our stories, our very existence in this country carries heavy baggage. It really doesn’t matter how assimilated we are nor how successful we become nor how closely our lives and bodies resemble white-European physical distinctives—our presence in the US is tied to foreignness. The narrative of the perpetual foreigner is like a leash on the freedoms we claim in the US, where there can feel like we have a lot of power and a lot of leeway, until those who write the narratives (generally people with high status or power) say we don’t.
The term “Asian American” encompasses hundreds of races, languages, hair textures, experiences, and skin tones. And realistically, there are more “palatable” or “preferable” races, languages, hair textures, experiences, and skin tones in our melting pot society. This means that the field is not level; the game is not fair and hasn’t ever been. But is the goal of justice for everything to be fair? Or is the goal of justice for everything to be whole? I think as we learn, study history, and engage in justice work we ought to consider wholeness the goal, as that is the work Jesus does in the Bible and currently. We can have both the stories of privilege and the stories of pain, and we must resist placing a value judgment on either kind of story, because there’s brokenness in both. Wholeness exists to the extent that all of humanity, and their unique design, needs, and person is given inherent value – the kind of value the image of God imparts on a person. To engage in the work God is doing to restore wholeness requires kindness and humility (Micah 6:8).
I was browsing through greeting cards in a store, when I heard yelling nearby. “You can’t touch me like this!” “You cannot treat me this way!” “You’re hurting me!” A woman was being forcefully pushed by her arms along with her carry-on-sized rolling suitcase by two adult, male security guards from the entrance toward the back part of the store. Nearby store clerks mumbled to one another, “Stealing again.” As I stood there and witnessed everything unfold, all I knew was that I felt deeply uncomfortable. A part of me wanted to just tune out the yelling, look down and continue shopping. Another part of me felt that there was something very wrong with this situation, and it wasn’t the theft that made me think about that situation for months: it was the way the woman was being treated and that I just stood there… frozen, silent.
When I think about how to engage in justice, I often think about this experience. My deep, Sunday School roots remind me (in a sing-song-y way) that stealing is wrong. The loud and agitated yelling is off-putting and triggers some feelings of fear and anxiety from old childhood wounds. Some questions that run through my mind as I think about this event over and over again: 1) What action deserves such a show of force? 2) Does it matter the value of what was stolen? 3) What is the extent that these security guards are “doing their job” vs. overstepping boundaries? 4) What is my role here? 5) What can I do?
The reality is such that no matter how I answer the questions above, I answer them as a 30-something, Californian, Asian-American cis-female, AND I don’t have all of the answers. None of us do. In the moment, I thought about saying something to the effect of: “You can’t handle her like that!” I hesitated to say anything because as soon as I thought about saying something, I wondered how it would be received coming out of a mouth/face that looks like mine and was trying to make a quick assessment of my own safety. This is what it often looks like to engage in justice as Asian Americans (or as many other black, Latinx, POC) in our own strength and power. We will always wonder about our safety both physically and emotionally.
That is why kindness is deeply crucial in our journeys toward wholeness. Kindness to ourselves for not doing more for the oppressed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that because I’m an Asian American, I am supposed to “build bridges.” Well, sometimes the other side is hostile and a bridge isn’t very stable when only supported on one side. And most of the times it is exhausting and depressing work, where the “wins” look a lot like losses. Kindness is our antidote. Kindness in the face of the oppressor is the heart of Romans 12:20—it’s the only way to win. Kindness to ourselves allows us to continue to engage in justice for a longer period of time than burning out quickly. Kindness can look like the popular “self-care” or “treat-yo-self” tactics of today, but it’s critical to remember that kindness serves justice, not the other way around.
We don’t have the answers and we are not the answer. While Asian Americans have a crucial role to play in justice work because we know both stories of privilege and pain, we are not saviors and we are not oracles. We have more history to learn and more connections to make, and it’s not easy to hear some painful truths of history. Humility keeps us from being too quick to accept the savior-complex, and know-it-all posture. Also, humility begets gratitude. When we recognize that we are always in need (to varying degrees), we grow more grateful for what we’ve come to understand and even how we got there. For the scenario I shared earlier, I asked several people who are engaged in regular justice work, how I could have acted differently and what other options I had in that moment. Despite my disappointment for not acting, I got to learn something, and I am better equipped for if I’m faced with a similar unjust situation.
Also, I am grateful because I (again, an Asian American cis-female in California) am afforded the privilege of not being fully in the cross-hairs of racial antagonism and I can steward that privilege by engaging and using my voice. But there is still a mark on others, and as long as that exists there’s lots of work to be done. I hope that with kindness and humility, we will continue to pursue wholeness.
“Isn’t it enough to just share the gospel with people?”
When we think about the phrases “sharing the gospel,” or “focusing on the gospel,” we need to know what we mean. Do we mean that we should only focus on the act of telling someone the words of the gospel message?
As we look at Scriptural commands holistically, we get the picture that God deeply cares both about what we believe and how we act. (Doctrine and ethics.) In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
The greatest instructions we’ve been given indicate two important relationships: our relationship with God and our relationships with others. The presence of injustice indicates that relationships among us are disordered and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves includes caring about that disorder.
In James we read, “27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Once again, we see a double emphasis on personal piety as well as an orientation toward the needs of the vulnerable in our communities.
Sharing the gospel–giving someone the good news that Jesus loves us and died for us while we were still sinners–is more than the act of telling someone that intellectual truth. As we are called to teach others all that Jesus has commanded us (Matthew 28:20), those commandments include the consistent instruction to care for the vulnerable among us.
Not to be trite, but an easy way to think about this in my mind is this: sharing is caring. If you’re truly sharing the gospel with someone, you are caring about the person you’re sharing with. Caring as Paul would have in Scripture–with a deep understanding of story and having studied someone’s context and the systems in place. Paul consistently goes to great lengths to prove why the gospel is so good to the people he’s sharing it with. One of the ways he does this is by simply recognizing and understanding cultural history, differences, and experiences. Not only did knowing these things make his message more appealing, I’m certain it grew Paul’s love for others and his likeness to God, who really is the best at loving others. Plus, why only tell someone Jesus loves them, when you can also show them Jesus loves them by caring about their needs, their rights, their stories and trying to do something about the injustice they experience?
“Is this too political?”
We don’t have to look too far into Scripture before we see people of the Bible, the disciples, or Jesus getting entangled in something political. And while that’s not enough to prove that we should not be afraid to get “political,” I do think that it is telling of the context of Scripture. Throughout Scripture, God’s people are in wartime, in exile, in conquest, in the rebuilding time post-war, or in hiding. Politics dictated and shaped many of the crucial circumstances where we find our Bible heroes in the throes of their stories. And while we may not be as aware of how the politics of our day shape our circumstances, as citizens or as immigrants to the United States, our government and its politics do shape the circumstances of our lives. We cannot be engaged, active participants in God’s redemptive plan without acknowledging that we do so within a political system. That doesn’t mean that we align ourselves with a particular political party (partisanship), but it does mean that we recognize that following Jesus will sometimes have political ramifications.
“Where Do I Start?”
I truly think prayer is a crucial place to start and where not only external things shift, but we also experience shifts within ourselves. Start by asking the Lord to show you what and who he cares for and to let what you see both break your heart and deepen your curiosity. As he shows you situations, systems, and people, pray for them. Even if you don’t know what to pray or if you even want to pray, talk about that with the Lord. Let those conversations be honest and see if that starts to lead you down a specific path of who/where/how to love. And then do it… do some research, find allies and ask questions, and then get involved in justice. There are action groups everywhere. Volunteer there, do informational interviews, donate resources, listen to stories. If you’re a bystander of an unjust situation, then learn the tools and language of how to stand with a victim… there are truly endless ways to do this because there are endless ways to love. Continue to pray and let God lead you. And good luck!