what is raised (a new world dawns)

Today the words “He is risen” and “He is risen indeed” will chime around the world as Christians of all tongues, cultures, and ethnicities greet each other. For those setting aside this day to celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the day symbolically marks the death of Death itself and the beginning of a new era of history: the Kingdom of Heaven now being ushered in on Earth.

As the chorus of “He is risens” surround me in a sunlit haze, I find myself pondering once more the grand upheaval of the Cross and the magnitude of what it altered so many years ago. All too often we get caught up in a lukewarm acknowledgement of the Cross and Resurrection, the reality of it swinging off our necks on silver chains or nestling comfortably in the fluff of a store-bought Easter bunny. We settle into the familiar rituals established by our church forefathers and foremothers and then dress ourselves in bright new clothes on Easter morning to symbolize the birth of our new selves.

Cross necklaces and fluffy bunnies and new clothes are not an evil; however, do they represent a condition of our souls where we are redeemed but too sanitized to submit to the full work of transformation that God wants to unfurl upon our lives?

When I say “sanitized,” I mean a type of de-fanged faith that enters eagerly into spaces of spiritual formation and personal growth and rituals yet resists the call to sink into spaces of suffering and tension. That kind of faith may still shape your character and draw you near to God, but it is also incomplete in its essence because it requires only a selective trust in God.

A selective trust in God implies that we trust God with the Level 1 or even Level 2 sins, maybe going deeper as our XP increases (yes, I am a gamer), but once we hit a certain level and encounter that monstrous, hideous boss we cannot name and do not want to, we try to guide God away from the sight (Nothing to see here Lord!) and change paths so we don’t have to see it again. However, we serve a stubborn, or rather, persistent God who does not allow us to re-load the game and pretend the monsters in the shadows don’t exist. He points to them again and again through friends’ words, through a video on Facebook, through online articles, through Scripture. We may keep resisting, but He will draw those monsters out to sharpen our faith into a weapon that can cut through darkness.

A toothless faith unwilling to confront the forces of evil shaping the realities of those around us and shaping ourselves, even unconsciously, will be in no position to carry forward the work of the Cross. To understand the work of the Cross, we must acknowledge what is put to death with Jesus, what is nailed to the blood-mottled beam along with his body: the norms and practices of a decrepit world order. Sometimes we call them our daily thoughts and habits. They may be the aspects of our lives so familiar and reflexive and even pleasurable, yet at their root contain the degenerative elements of sin.

What comes naturally: clinging to what we believe we deserve. Generalizing people into cookie-cutter categories for easy use. Listening to words that affirm us and make us feel comfortable. Gravitating towards familiar boundaries of thought. Preserving our reputations as good people. Dismissing anything that challenges that notion.

These often unspoken values inform our actions as we interact with others, creating a distorted filter when they blind us to the breadth and complexity of our sin and the ways in which it impacts other human lives. Our Claredon or Ludwig filters set, we miss the grievous wrongs we contribute to and miss opportunities to surrender those to God and undergo the continuing process of transformation as He removes the filters and endows us new eyes to see the world. Only then do we finally see the mess of the old world order in action.

The old world order is one where mocking gay people is meme-worthy. It is a world where the dearth of female voices in Congress, on church stages goes unacknowledged. A world of dismissals of #BlackLivesMatter for being too radical and of complaints about whining immigrants that should just be deported anyway. A world of pulpits instead of prayers with poor white folks on welfare and black folks imprisoned for minor drug offenses. A world where the poor lack agency to do anything but wait for a white savior to enlighten them. A world where our sanctuaries become havens for the privileged to retreat to and distance themselves from all the people they love whose sins they hate. A world where I don’t have to question the big -ISMS and -IAS (homophobia, racism, xenophobia, classicism, ageism, ableism) in my heart and in my Church.

A world mired in the grave of its false convictions that we have the right to dismiss the suffering of others if it is not relevant to us.

Christ put that world in all its defense mechanisms and justifications and ignorance to death. He nailed the couched kind of religion that requires worship songs but not works of sacrificial advocacy for our neighbors. He drowned our man-made divisions in His blood. Why do we then grasp for the trappings of what he interred rather than entering into the new World beckoning our minds and hands and feet?

We are afraid. I am afraid of probing my past and present to find the points where I have benefited from privileges fabricated from the exploitation of native peoples and their land. I tremble at the uncensored stream of thoughts pouring out of the well of  internalized racism within me. I avert my gaze from articles about the “safe activism” of middle-class individuals and my lips grip together when a friend talks about the ignorant remarks her classmates made about “crazy people,” mentally-ill people, when I can recall all the times I used to make similar jokes.

Apologies touch the surface, but repenting for the old world’s cracked bones beneath my skin necessitates an agonizing type of self-examination in full surrender to God’s judgment and His grace. For God will judge the way I treated my neighbor, and the way I failed to humble myself and learn and listen when on Earth. How can I claim to be the new creation declared in 2 Corinthians 5:17 when I am so invested in securing my old self? Colossians 2:-15 reiterates this:

 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

If Good Friday and the Cross remind us of what is put to death, Easter reminds us of what is raised. And as children born again, learning how to crawl and amble and bound our way through the puckered skin of a new world, we are what is raised. We are raised, not only to greater heights to view the latitude of the human story in its Fall and Redemption, but also to maturity in perspective because the best and perfect Father is the one raising us to represent His abundantly loving and just heart with everyone in our sphere of influence.

Jesus’ death conquered the old world order and its rulers, and his resurrection raises us into the roles of our inheritance: ambassadors of our Father (2 Corinthians 5:20). The one raising us gives us access to everything we need to act as vision-casters for those around us still struggling with the remnants of the old sin-gouged world already defeated. Our vision is not yet perfect but rather in process, and every time we surrender all thoughts and actions to God, even the ones we have yet to grieve or are most afraid to reveal, He clarifies our vision that much more.

My encouragement to my Christian family on this Easter Sunday: Inhabit the reality of one God is raising to be just, compassionate, empathetic, selfless, and kind, and cast visions of His restored and rightly ordered world. The cost will be our comfort and our carefully manicured privileges and reputations as we challenge distorted views and practices and engage with our individual and Church community sins. Let us face our monsters and realize that victory is assured; no one stands to condemn us. Only further growth and grace await those who reach out from the pits to which they have fallen and realize the great and wondrous thing it is to be raised from them to greet the light.

 

 

 

none is good 

I originally wrote this for Tumblr but wanted to share it here:

Trash.

Disgusting.

Shit.

The trio of damnation on any social media site. These words erect a barb-wire fence around the individual who has erred so horrendously that no word or action stemming from them afterwards will be acknowledged. They become no more than an SNL punchline to mock, a post to type layer after layer of scathing comments under until it resembles a stairway descending to hell.

The crimes committed range from as large as misogynistic characterizations in a movie, acts of infidelity, endorsement of policies that would disenfranchise an entire marginalized population to the individual levels of a racist comment on Twitter, a personal interaction reeking of homophobia.

Do not mistake me–these words and actions wield the power to devastate and kill and alienate. People must and should challenge actions that index problematic attitudes and broken systems of power. If we do not, we bear some responsibility for the consequences they will reap for those already disadvantaged by society.

However, when we label a person “trash” in opposition to their words and actions which anger us, we dehumanize them into an object which we can readily abuse and cast away from our community forever. In our minds, they no longer deserve a place amongst us, not even where the dogs sit under the table. I understand this compulsion; when I see a comment on YouTube spiked with sexism, I want to shut that person’s mouth and shove them as far away from me as possible. When I see pictures of another black teen bruised from a hate-crime, I want to rage against all white people. For that moment, I wish I could just purge the world of stupid trash that write and act in such awful ways.

That. Not who. In the midst of my justified anger, grief, and pain, I cease to recognize the person behind that comment, behind that beating as human. By calling them trash, I not only distance that person from their humanity, I also distance myself. I assert myself as morally superior, more knowledgable, more progressive, and in some ways, I’m right. There are opinions and ideologies that are simply better, less oppressive.

In the other ways that matter most, I am utterly wrong.

In my desire to separate myself from all the “trash” that oppresses people in big and small ways, I fail to comprehend that by my own definition of problematic, I belong in the trash heap too. Maybe I didn’t type that ignorant post on Tumblr or exploit immigrants to line my pockets. Maybe I’ve never screamed racist obscenities at a political rally or threatened to deport Muslims from our nation.

Instead, I stay silent and passive instead of speaking up about racism in church. I cling to hateful, petty thoughts about people in my head. I appropriate indigenous symbols and language for my own entertainment. I watch TV instead to avoid spending time with a lonely friend. I still struggle to see black men as beautiful because of my internalized racism. I lie to get what I want. I act out of ignorance and make excuses when I’m called out for it.

The potential to say and do problematic and oppressive things lies in me, and it’s not dormant. While I don’t have the products like Joss Whedon or the power of Donald Trump or the history of a Kim Jong Il, I have the power to hurt people, and that matters. I don’t get an exempt card because I’m “not as bad as that guy.” I don’t get a free pass because I’m a woman of color. I’m accountable for what I do in my sphere of influence and how I treat the people within that sphere. When I do wrong by them, I am trash….

…or I should be. In an interaction with a rich young man who wanted to assert his superiority in the community, Jesus said this:

Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matt. 19:16b-22)

In the King James Version, Jesus says “None is good,” and he meant it. From the perspective of God, we are all fallen. None of us is kind, loving, respectful, harmonious, and selfless 24/7–we are not perfect, and we fall gravely short of the way God designed us to live. Within this paradigm, the mountains of human morality are soil heaps in comparison to the peaks of His holy standards.

In this divine landscape, so radically foreign and impossibly counterintuitive to our own, Donald Trump and I dwell in the trash dump together. My mind can barely wrap around that idea because it feels so wrong, it rails against everything that feels just. I can rationalize it all I want–that doesn’t make it any less true.

Within Jesus’ message remains this amazing, beautiful thing called grace. Grace represents favor undeserved, unconditional love given when we have broken all conditions. Grace represents forgiveness for wrongs done and a commitment to reconciliation and union. Jesus gifts that grace to us and continues to love us even when we are profoundly unlovable.

We are not Jesus. I watch a racist pundit on the news and feel like punching him in the face. I grit my teeth at a particularly offensive Facebook post. But the miracle is that when I lean into the grace that I have been given so freely, God enables me to extend that grace to others.

What can grace look like? It can be as simple as not immediately shutting down a conversation with someone on the opposite end of an issue even if they speak hurtful words out of ignorance. It can be listening to a person’s pain across partisan lines, across color lines. It can be sharing a meal with a person who has wounded me. It can be the seemingly impossible forgiveness towards the Wall Street tax collectors and politicians who have prostituted themselves for profit.

We demonstrate grace through the way we challenge problematic words and actions, encouraging an elevated dialogue rather than insult-slinging. We show grace by eliminating the word “trash” from our vocabulary, recognizing that we interact with humans just as pervasively broken and divinely created as we are.

Grace rejects the quick path from hurt to hatred to war by advocating for a type of conciliation and hope our world barely grasps and dismisses as weak.

It is then crucial to emphasize what grace is not:

Grace is not appeasement. 

Grace is not accommodation.

Grace is not blindness.

Grace acknowledges grievances, acknowledges loss of trust, loss of credibility, loss of relationship and carves a path towards transformation. It reminds me that the racist pundit on TV has the potential to be an a**hole, but also that he has the capacity to change in fundamental ways. I know he can because Christ has changed my life in endless fundamental ways even as He peered right into the darkest and most disgusting parts of me. I want to contribute to that change in other people and in society. I want to keep challenging what is problematic yet avoid losing myself to bitterness and resentment and rage in the process.

I also feel the legitimate tension of how grace is always seemingly asked of those marginalized towards those who have oppressed them. It can feel like such a heavy burden to be constantly pushed into that position or else deemed unrighteous for being frustrated and angry. We must acknowledge the reality of that experience of being sinned against, and the trauma it causes. A person with privilege must understand the gravity of what they ask for when they demand that people of color and others of targeted identities show grace. It is a divine enabling of forgiveness, not an obligation to ignore the consequences of individual and collective sin.

Extending grace is difficult, especially when our compulsion is to require others to change in the ways we want and show remorse in order for us to forgive them. I still resist the unearned status of grace when all I desire is for the people who have hurt me to repent and atone for it. However, my reflex towards punishment and a list of red-lined conditions is not grace.

There are times where you may need to remove yourself from an abusive and/or toxic conversation or environment. There are times where radical action is needed to hammer home a vital message or cause. There are times where we must challenge those with privilege and power to hear those hurting, but those situations are not mutually exclusive from grace. In God’s framework of grace, there is no damnation, no demonization, only broken people communing in a bruised and bloodied world that God invites us to help make healthy and whole as a community.

None is good. None is wholly irredeemable either. That is the space between trash and human.

the rift of names

Peter Liang was convicted. Relief passed through my body like an exhalation. Then the tension crept in, like it always does, twisting and kneading in my chest, my stomach–the tension roused from the realization that the world is agonizingly far from what it should be.

Tension arises from the chasm between the shalom of Eden and the Earth still healing from the ravages of sin’s disease. Because in our world, as Jonathan Walton puts it, “Justice is behind bars.” We want people to pay for what they did. We want them to answer proportionately to the ways in which they hurt us. Yet the paradigm of Christ complicates this narrative when we begin to see that in this story of human Fall, brokenness, and redemption, we are all at fault, and we are all victims–though not in the same ways.

So the reaction to news like Peter Liang’s conviction is mixed…and painful.

Relief: the life of an unarmed black man maintained enough value in the eyes of the law that the person who killed him had to account for that action.

Grief: after a succession of police officers unlawfully killing black individuals, the only one convicted is an Asian man, a man of color.

I understand better the protests and the counter-protests. They point to a strife-riddled landscape of American racial politics where the model minority and the marginalized black body are pitted against each other in the wrestling match to earn the prize most elevated in our realm: white privilege. Both persons are reduced to objects, pawns in a greater struggle to uphold white supremacy because if we learn to cast suspicion and hate upon each other, we never address the corrupt referee supervising the match.

So we wrestle with each other, and afterwards retreat to fight our people’s battles against racism alone. Asians to Asian problems, Blacks to Black problems. Yet the desire exists for our battles to come together, for Asian peoples in the U.S. to care as much about #BlackLivesMatter as black peoples care about the exoticization and and humiliation of Asians. But we remain stagnant, sequestered within our individual protests, the silence of stillborn conversations carving the trenches between us.

I’ve realized recently that I feel the weight of this silence acutely because it manifests itself in my own name. My name is Joanna Chin. My first name weaves together the first names of my Jamaican grandmother (Joan) and my Dominican grandmother (Yaniris, translated as Anna). My last name is Chin, endowed to me by my great-grandfather, who emigrated from Hong Kong to Jamaica decades ago. My first name gives me access to blackness, mixed and multiple. My last name tethers to the vast expanse that is called Asia.

It is far easier for me to skip around the ethnic playground of Joanna, practice the cultures of being Latinx and black, figure out what that means to me and watch it evolve as I learn more and celebrate it, learn more and struggle with it.

I have a far more complicated relationship to Chin. Chin is either the exotic celebrity friend I name-drop to others (ohhh look I’m so mixed!), or the estranged relative I mention in passing (moving on…). Close enough to take ownership of, distant enough that I cannot call myself Chinese–or Asian. It cannot be fully mine, only partitioned, a divided portion handed down generationally.

My last name dwells in the attic like an antique heirloom, and when taken out, I use the reactions of others to my advantage.  I anticipate the raised brows, the cave-like Ohhhs their mouths make, the undulating nods that affirm that they “knew I looked mixed.” I am happy to corroborate their evidence. They do not expect the layers of curls and brown face to belong to a Chin. In Jamaica, it would be common. In New York City, it’s more expected. In the neighborhoods of my childhood and my college experience, it was a consistent surprise, further marking my difference from the norm of whiteness.

I learned from a young age that Chin means that I will always be explaining myself. The privilege of just being is rare unless in the company others just as mixed as I am, people who just get it.

So when Peter Liang is convicted, the news wedges itself in the gap between my names, the pressure on both sides creating a tension that until now, I didn’t know how to language. I had to ask myself: Why am I feeling resentful and frustrated with my Asian brothers and sisters? I have Asian friends, I KNOW many of them have advocated for me and been allies in engaging with racial struggles. But why do I feel so distant from Asian communities? 

The awkward realization swept upon me that although I have had Asian friends for years, I still feel alienated while present in Asian-predominant spaces. I lumber my way around these interactions like a space pilot who has never flown a freighter before, afraid of crashing at every jostle and turn. I hesitate, always conscious of the internalized racism festering in my mind, the jokes about language fluency and intelligence, the historic silences between Asian and black communities. Instead of dealing with these feelings of confusion and shame, I tamp them down, pretend they’re not there. I inhabit Joanna and pretend everything’s ok with my last name.

My experience at a racial reconciliation conference last week shoved all these feelings back to the surface with painful clarity. One of the speakers, Kathy Khang, shared about her experiences as a Korean woman and connected it to the story of Esther, speaking frankly about her struggles in navigating the American landscape and the expectations placed on her once she was thrown into the category of “Asian.” Like Esther, she had to “pass” to survive the court of identity politics. Like Esther, she had to be re-named to fit in. Though I cannot claim the experience of an Asian woman, I was struck by how much value we all place on names and how our stories of oppression, survival, family, and migration are embedded in them.

As I drew close to the story of Kathy (her English name) and absorbed her narrative of acculturation and alienation, the truth of my previous distance from my Asian brothers and sisters became clear. I struggle to see them and be fully present with them, not only because I doubt that I belong to them, generations removed as I might be, I doubt they belong to me, that their problems, their pain, are also mine to bear and share. As Christina Cleveland put it, “Reconciliation happens when your problems become my problems,” a reminder that caring for others should result in the mutual investment in each other’s stories and points of view.

I have not invested enough time or energy in the stories of my Asian and Asian-American family, and that convicts me. I must now position myself in the posture of learning, sharing in their lives if I am asking them to share in the lives of me and my black family.

So last Wednesday I went to my first Asian-American Christian Fellowship gathering. The theme was “What Do We Do Next?” in response to the Peter Liang conviction and #BlackLivesMatter. I sat in the second row and immediately regretted it because of the awkwardness coating me like a second skin, so strong I was sure others could sense it. Scanning the room, I noted that I was one of a handful of brown people. I shifted in my seat and tucked my arms into my lap, hoping I didn’t stand out too much. It wasn’t until the formal meeting ended and everyone was mingling that I forced myself to thread my way through the chattering crowds and pried my lips open to start conversations.

Why is this so hard? I kept thinking. I reminded myself that this was hardly an anomaly of an experience–I actually do have meaningful friendships with many people across ethnic and color lines. Then why did I feel so self-conscious in an Asian-predominant space?

The tension within myself, tension born from a mixed heritage, a lifetime of explanations and confused silences, the weight of steps traveled between names and between communities dragged my shoulders, pounded at my heart…until a tall guy came up to me and started talking. We were both small group coordinators and traded anecdotes about working with students. Then another guy scooted in and buoyed the conversation as we laughed over class mishaps and video game adventures gone wrong. I glanced around me, a smile creasing my cheeks as I saw throngs of people tucked in every space, munching on bao, poking at each other’s shoulders in jest, drawing pictures in the air as they bantered on.

It wasn’t until I left the room entirely that I realized that the knots in my stomach had loosened.

The tension hasn’t disappeared, and the process of examining my relationship with my Asian brothers and sisters and that aspect of my identity is only in its inception; so much lies unresolved in my own heart. But with this realization, I can address and challenge the confusion, frustration, and alienation between these parts of myself, the parts of this nation that all belong to me and I to them. I can converse with my brothers and sisters and find junctures of commonality, even as I explore and embrace the differences between us. Through this, I discover that rather than increasing the distance between my story and theirs, this action twines both of our stories together at last.

Like Indiana Jones leaping over the seemingly treacherous crevasse to find the Holy Grail, I prepare to leap into and over the once insurmountable rifts within myself, recognizing that, like the intrepid explorer, I will miraculously find my footing. When least expected and most-needed, God will craft a bridge from where there was only void, and in that crossing of air and ground, I will find the place where my names meet, inseparable, invaluable.