Privilege is like wood.
In a country rife with conflict centered around violence, race, and wealth, the underlying operant which dictates so much of what is going is privilege. Yes, the reality of privilege and underprivilegeness is like wood to the foundation of what we see as the structure of our racial tension and conflict.
Where do Asian Americans fit in this discussion as the Treyvon Martins and Eric Garners of our world get the short hand of the stick while the Brock Turners escape and sit on the high horse? Is our entry point of discussion when our own people almost get thrown in the fray?
I hope not. And I hope some of these thoughts will help guide my fellow (Christian) Asian Americans (and even my White friends) towards a better voice and posture in the heat of the battle.
Let me do that by first positing an angle of Jesus that we may not have seen before
Jesus, the model of handling privilege.
Let this sink in first: In the Christian perspective, Jesus is the most privileged person in the universe. He created the universe, is the Son of God, all things belong to him, is the boss of bosses, the president of presidents, and will one day reign supreme over all (so let it be!).
The nuttiness of the gospel message therefore is this amazing, powerful, privileged Being coming not just down to earth, but taking our very likeness, and even to form of a helpless infant in a manger.
Philippians 2, a prominent passage used in the early church to form their understanding of who Jesus, is also the quintessential model of the duty of privilege set for us by Jesus. It reads:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
This is the amazing thing:
Jesus is honored here, while being the most privileged person in the universe, laying down that privilege in order that humanity can experience blessing. In the Christian faith, if Jesus had not done that, our reception of salvation is completely moot. Yes, it is amazing that the anchor of our entire Christian faith is based on the action of our God laying down privilege so that we might gain eternal life.
And so his example forms the model by which we as Christians should seek to emulate. As he washed his disciples’ feet, he exhorted them that no student is above their teacher, and so they should lay down whatever power they inherit to serve others.
Therefore, the model of privilege that Jesus sets for us is to lay it down so that others may gain. It is this beautiful act that uniquely marks Christian love. A love not given out of obligation, but one given because we’ve been beneficiaries of a privilege not ours.
Asian Americans in the Fabric of Racist America
With that being said, here are some distinctives I see regarding Asian America Christians:
On Dealing with Our Own Underprivilegedness
Speaking about issues regarding privilege and race as an Asian American is interesting because… we’re somewhat out of place. On one hand, most if not all of us have our own stories of mistreament and underpriviledness. On the other hand, we have our own set of privileges1, yet don’t identify with the most socially powerful groups. We’re caught in the middle of being privileged and underprivileged.
From this liminal place, our response to why won’t sympathize is typically some story of our own underprivilegedness.
“I experienced a lot of racism growing up…”
“We have our own issues of being minorities in this country…”
And those stories are completely legitimate. And the efforts to enter into the conversation about important topics are good.
Yet in spite of this, as a Christian, I have learned that is is futile to compare what privilege I have or don’t have to justify what I do or don’t do for others. I see what many White Evangelicals are tempted to do, in that to seek more power in our country, but I see the face of Jesus and I see that desire not. I choose not to be tempted to seek the place of power by stomping on or ignoring others.
The pursuit of my life should not be upward, but downward, no matter what starting place society had granted me because of the color of my skin or size of my bank account.
It does not take 100% of the privilege to lay it down. It merely takes some humility and love to say “whatever I do have, I will use it to serve others.”
On “Who is My Neighbor?”
I believe that part of being Asian means that we are a peacekeeping people and a self-preserving people. When I say we are a self-preserving people, I mean we are a people who takes care of our tribe.
Inside the tribe, you get to eat dinner, you get your honorific “uncle” or “auntie” name, you get red envelopes, and you get your back taken care of when things are hard. But if you are not inside our tribe, you are an outsider, we do not know you, and you are just as good as the dust we brush outside our home to preserve its sanctity.
Yet with that cultural observation in mind, I ask now as a Christian…who is our tribe? Or in the words of that not-so-smart lawyer who confronted Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” What would Jesus say?
I think Jesus would say, “Asian Americans, your neighbor are your Black brother and sisters, whether or not they are Christian. Your neighbors are White Americans, whether or not they care about you. And your neighbors are everyone in between the spectrum of privilege.”
It is that real strong reading of the gospels that I am convinced that to be Christian is to step outside the circle of our safe and comfortable people to extend hospitality, help, friendship, and perspective to people who could really use it.
As it turns out, the principles of self-preservation do not bode with our faith. At this point we must be reminded again-Are we following our culture or are we following Jesus?
Privilege and our sacred opportunity
It is true that people with privilege have a hard time participating in equality. This could be for a number of reasons–they don’t want to or they don’t know how to.
Whatever the reason, I have learned that as an Asian American, this is not an opportunity to lambast White people, especially those of faith for their privilege. That my energies are better spent modeling visibly 1) recognizing privileges that I have and 2) choosing to live a life that serves those around me and speaking about it.
And so I see a glorious opportunity for Asian American Christians-for us to stand in the gap and model dying. To die to ourselves, to die to our privilege, to die to our rights, and the benefits that we get to enjoy, in order that other people might experience it as well.
It doesn’t mean the stories of our underprivilegedness are not real or that the realities of still being a minority do not still worry us. I am reminded again of the poor woman who gave pennies at the temple, exemplifying that a sacrifice is deemed worthy not because of how much it cost in front of the eyes of others, but how much it costs to me.
I don’t have the answers of what God will lead me to do in the process. And I don’t have the answers for what suggestions I think other Asian American Christians should do or even what White people should do. But I just see this trajectory downward as it relates to privilege as the trajectory that best exemplifies the Jesus I follow.
I adore Martin Luther King Jr. in our day as I see pictures of him leading peaceful protests and thought about the change that brought.
Instead of just enjoying my new house, cars, and kids, and other privileges afforded to me, I want to be that Asian brother next to him hand-in-hand walking with him. Because there, I feel that I am holding Jesus’ hand too.
He is my model of One who knew what to do with his privilege–by offering all that he had for those who had none.
1 The fact is that you are more likely to be pulled over, harassed, and shot by law enforcement simply because you’re black. The fact is that as a Black person you’ll get more prison time than the white person who pulled off the exact same crime. The fact is that, even if you want to get ahead in life and want to buy a home, you’ll more than likely be relegated to only afford to live in a poorer neighborhood, with other black, with fewer services, poorer schools, and more problems.