James Choi & Asian American Responses to Race Issues

In a recent TGC post, my friend James Choi shared some helpful thoughts on how Asian Americans might join the race conversation. He highlighted “three truths” that Asian Americans must remember as we seek to develop an Asian American response to race issues, such as the recent Hollywood Whitewashing controversy.

  1. The Christian Asian American is not angered by racism; we are humbled and grieved by the effects of sin.
  2. The Christian Asian American is not offended by ignorance; we are compelled to love.
  3. The Christian Asian American is not discouraged by disregard; we are activated to speak biblically.

These were great points that embody the gospel’s demand upon Christians to turn the other cheek, to grieve over sin, to mercifully respond to uninformed ignorance, and to first take the planks out of our own eyes. Responding to racial injustice in the ways that Choi recommends, namely with mercy, should provide the world with a winsome Christian witness.

My only contention is that such a witness is incomplete. It’s incomplete in that it fails to stand for justice. A witness that exclusively displays mercy toward sinners, yet fails to prophetically preach justice against sinners is incomplete. A witness that only turns the other cheek, yet doesn’t seek to heal bruised cheeks in the name of justice is also incomplete. It’s not that Choi is way off when he warns Christians against succumbing to their more “natural” responses to racial injustice. But what also needs to be acknowledged is that such responses are “natural” for a reason. It is “natural,” and even righteous to be angry and frustrated with racial injustice. Racial injustice is an affront to the Creator and his creation.

But this gets us into sticky territory. After all, how does one simultaneously turn the other cheek while also insisting upon justice?

Not to be self-serving, but perhaps my previous post on using 1st vs. 2nd/3rd person perspectives to love “the Other” might come in handy here. I wrote:

What if, when suffering injustice ourselves (in the 1st person: I/me, we/us), we defaulted to mercy, rather than the more common response: demanding justice or vengeance for ourselves? And what if, when witnessing injustice (or even committing injustice) against others (in the 2nd or 3rd person: you, he/she), we defaulted to indignation, rather than the common response: demanding mercy and forgiveness from “the Other”?

Distinguishing between injustices against ourselves and injustices against others is a helpful way for us to judge when we should insist upon justice and when we should insist upon mercy.

Although I don’t necessarily disagree with Choi’s exhortation to Asian Americans that we unite around the gospel instead of our frustration at racial injustice, could it be that this potentially sets up a false dichotomy between the gospel and the pursuit of justice? Pursuing justice means being frustrated against evil doers and on behalf of their victims. The gospel isn’t just good news later to victims of injustice. It’s also truly good news now. We must of course acknowledge that a final justice will be served when our King returns. But still, to love others is to pursue justice in this age for their sake, regardless of our inability to bring consummate justice into fruition.

So as an Asian American, I of course want to respond mercifully and graciously to those who offend us. But part of loving my Asian American actor and actress brothers and sisters who can’t break through Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling is to speak out against the system. It would be all to easy for me, as someone who isn’t in the entertainment industry, to simply tell the victims of Hollywood whitewashing to respond with mercy and forgiveness. To love them is to empathize with their frustrations and to advocate for their cause, rather than merely advising them to roll with the punches and to respond with grace. To love them is to acknowledge that their cheeks have been bruised and to do something about it. To love them is both to encourage them that change will come in the future and that (a measure of) change can and should come now.

This is the lesson I’m learning about speaking into racial issues. I betray my own privilege and insensitivity by telling those who suffer from injustice to simply turn the other cheek. Of course they should respond graciously, and of course there is a time for me to counsel them in this direction. But I must never simplistically tell those who suffer injustice to turn the other cheek. After all, it’s not my cheek that’s getting bruised. Also, I must never forget that the gospel is the proclamation of good news to those who are downcast, both in this age and in the age to come. To stand for the gospel is to stand for justice and mercy now and forever. Both must inform the Asian American response to race issues.

Caveat: I don’t think James Choi was being simplistic, insensitive, or unthoughtful. Not everything can be said in one TGC blog post, and sometimes adding nuance takes away from the rhetorical force of one’s main point. I also want to recognize that everything I’m saying fits well with his first and third points: “…we are humbled and grieved by the effects of sin” and “…we are activated to speak biblically.” I just wanted to tease them out some more.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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