Reading: Galatians 5:13-26
In his sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, Augustine of Hippo preached, “It seems fitting that we, who are about to honor the Passion of our crucified Lord in the very near future, should fashion for ourselves a cross of the bodily pleasures in need of restrain.” Citing Galatians 5:24 and the image of crucifying our flesh with its desires, he adds that “on this cross indeed, the Christian ought to hang continually throughout the whole of this life.”1Sermons 205, 1. The notion of “bodily pleasures” quickly conjures up sexual lusts, but it doesn’t have to.
I wonder if churches often focus on sexual sins because, like Augustine, they know that repenting of other carnal desires demand much more of them. The untrammeled consumption of goods and services as the backbone of economic prosperity, the lust of power and wealth at the expense of the suffering, the desecration and destruction of our environment… these are but some of the raging carnal desires that afflict our world. Among these carnal sins are forms of racism that separate and dehumanize peoples on the basis of their skin color or shading – that is, colorism. By naming colorism as sin, we can inventory its persistence in our communities and find concrete ways of addressing it.
While Asian Americans do not fit neatly in America’s Black/White racial dichotomy, our non-Blackness and non-Whiteness does not mean we are incapable of racist or colorist attitudes and actions. Asian American communities often re-perpetuate colorist habits amongst ourselves, including those that were institutionalized in Asian cultures. The Duke legal scholar Trina Jones observes that “skin color is a significant aspect of Asian and Asian-American identity, one that may be used to further intragroup divisions and hierarchies.”2Trina Jones, “The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian-American Communities” UC Irvine Law Review 3, no. 4 (December 2013): 1120. For much of East Asian history, lightness of skin color was a mark of class and educational status. Darker skins marked people as being laborers or peasants, out in the sun toiling all day. On the other hand, lighter skin marked nobles who were well-educated and mostly spent their time indoors. In other words, light makes right.
A few months ago, at a political theology conference, I commented on how rarely we read the voices of darker-skinned Asian Americans in Asian American theological scholarship. Indeed, most of the big names in Asian American theology are Chinese-, Japanese-, or Korean-American figures. Two of the theologians I met, both of them Cambodian, agreed, noting how difficult it is to call this sin out in their communities. “It’s like if you’re not Chinese, Japanese, or Korean,” one remarked, “your theology is not important or not Asian American enough.” The other described the typical response to his concern was the lack of Indian-Americans or Southeast-Asian Americans doing theology, even though it is patently untrue.
Ironically, the conversation took place at Union Theological Seminary where James Cone taught. Cone’s contribution to theology is not simply “the Black Jesus”, but reminding us that the Jesus Christians claim to worship is not the Jesus of well-endowed, steeple churches, but the Jesus who ministered and suffered with the dehumanized, silenced peoples. Likewise, in mainstream Asian American Christianity, we need to be reminded that the silenced Asian-Americans are the privileged places from which God speaks and indicts us. For some of us, participation in the various iterations of the model minority construct silences the struggles of our fellow Asian Americans.
Jon Sobrino described mercy as “taking the crucified peoples off the cross.”3Jon Sobrino, “The Crucified Peoples: Yahweh’s Suffering Servant Today,” in 1492-1992: The Voice of the Victims, eds. Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizondo, Concilium Special Edition (London: SCM Press, 1990): 120. Indeed. Instead of owning our complicity in perpetuating colorism in our communities, we blame it on White supremacy so that we can avoid accountability. East Asian churches and theological spaces in positions of power often choose to withdraw into silken East Asian cocoons instead of forging relationships and solidarity with South and Southeast Asian churches.
For Augustine, self-interrogation during Lent is a matter of the whole of life. “Christian living” that ignores or crucifies the bodies of the suffering so we can maintain or avoid confronting our existing privileges and pleasures is actually anti-Christian. Let us, therefore, examine ourselves so that we can take the crucified victims of our colorisms off the cross and be free to embrace the full humanity, the full Asian-Americanity, and God-imagedness of those in our neighborhoods who are of South/Southeast Asian descent.
God of Heaven,
As we embark on this Lenten journey and reflect upon the many injustices that rob us of freedom in Christ, may your Spirit open the eyes of our hearts. May we see the carnal privileges that we covetously hold on to. We love them more than we love you. We love them more than we love our neighbors. Indeed, we love them more than we love ourselves.
Take apart the pride and callousness of our hearts. In crucifying our racisms and colorisms on our crosses, may we be free of them. May we be encouraged to join with those who suffer under the weight of evil in the world so that we all can fight for a world where all people can freely do what is right and just.
We pray this in the name of the God who created us,
Christ who sees all people as precious in his sight,
and the Holy Spirit who encourages us to see all peoples as Christ sees them,