Finding hope in the midst of Deadly Vipers

*Update: Deadly Vipers has been pulled from shelves by Zondervon and the Deadly Vipers Web site is down. I need some more time to process my thoughts, but I’m thankful what seems like progress. Yet I know it will be a long road ahead towards deeper reconciliation.

When the whole saga about Deadly Vipers hit the fan I felt a cornucopia of emotions — agony, frustration, anger, sadness, tiredness mourning, indignation.

But after two weeks, things seem to have cooled down somewhat and I’m left feeling mostly a sense of excitement and hope at where this all might be going. Not that everything has worked out perfectly (it hasn’t) or that the pain that came through this wasn’t real (it was). But as a follower of Christ who loves the Church and desperately longs for it to be “a house of prayer for all nations” — I think there is a lot to look forward to in the weeks, months and years to come.

I want to focus on looking forward, so I won’t rehash some of the key issues surrounding the Deadly Vipers saga except share some of the posts that I think best summarize the issues and were the most helpful for me in understanding and responding:

  • Soong-Chan Rah’s open letter to Zondervon, the publisher of DV, and authors Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite. Rah defines some specific offenses in the material and suggests practical response that both the authors and Zondervon could take.
  • Eugene Cho offers helpful reflection on the key issues and begins to address those who wonder if he is “over-reacting.”
  • Helen Lee, guest blogging at Next Generasian Church, challenges those who responded to the criticism of DV with, “Get over it. Stop being so insensitive. This isn’t a real big deal.” The seemingly benign caricatures can have powerful associations, especially for those who have experienced abuse and ridicule using some of those same images. For Lee one example was being called the “dorm geisha” or “Heren Ree” as a student whenever she baked cookies for her classmates.
  • A joint statement by Foster, Wilhite, Kathy Khang and Rah suggesting that there is real and significant dialogue taking place and there is an increasing amount of common ground and mutual understanding on the issues.

What I’m really excited about on the other hand is how the DV saga has catalyzed the Asian American evangelical community and how in many ways this could impact the future of American evangelicalism. I see two things happening:

  • 1.) A robust, larger-scale discussion within the Asian American evangelical community

When you get a chance, read through the comment threads on Soong Chan’s open letter or on the deadly viper’s blog site (find Soong Chan’s comment about 8 down) or on other blogs like reconcilliationblog or eugenecho or charleslee. There is incredible dialogue (with the requisite share of vulgarity, trolling and unnecessary snarkiness of course) but good points are raised, dialogue and discussion is happening.

This was happening for days on the blogosphere, but also on facebook and twitter in smaller, less well-known circles. Not among pastors of mega churches or social media fiends, but among friends, small group members, students, people with out seminary degrees or PHDs. I was dialoguing with friends and acquaintances I haven’t spoken to in years, but who wanted to chime in on my facebook thread and tell me I was being too sensitive or to echo my horror at the material or something in between.

There was deep and intense dialogue on faith and culture taking place that I have never experienced. Ever. Even in the midst of the 2008 election, with great dialogue on politics, race and faith, Asian American evangelicals were never as catalyzed across the board into discussion as I saw those first few days after the DV stuff took hold.

I use the term “larger-scale” because I’m still assuming the majority of Asian American evangelicals weren’t involved in the conversation. I’m assuming there were many who were disinterested, apathetic or unaware– I think that will always be the case. But can you remember a time where you had such a wide scale discussion within a critical mass of   American community on issues of faith and Asian American culture? I can’t.

Why is this important? A robust, large-scale discussion among Asian American evangelicals is exciting because for the first time, we may start to see a consolidation, or increased clarity, of language and ideas surrounding faith and culture that could move our community forward in concrete action.

The Asian American community is so historically fragmented, disconnected and nebulous– and with good reasons. What comprises the Asian American community? East Asians? South Asians? South East Asians? Asian Pacific Islanders? Some ragtag combo of them all? What are the issues that are import to “us”? What is our terminology? Is it even important to talk about an Asian American community? All of these things are constantly in flux with the Asian American community, not even thinking about the complexities within the Asian American evangelical community.

Asian American are not monolithic, we won’t agree on everything. But we can move closer to finding ways to bring our dynamic, multiethnic community together in a common language, even if we fall on different sides of the issues. Then whatever common ground we do end up landing can be the basis of larger-scale, grass-roots action that can have a broad impact both within the community and without.

For instance, let’s add Orientalism into the common language of Asian American Evangelicals. We can disagree on its importance in the Church’s mission or its priority in personal discipleship, and that would still be an amazing fruitful healthy discussion. Or how about we share honestly about how  racism has or hasn’t affected us as Asian Americans? Or how we have or haven’t dealt with it? Or whether we see ourselves as honorary whites or oppressed minorities? These are important questions to be discussed on just between church leaders but on the ground with real people who are facing these issues (or non-issues if you prefer) every day at school, work, with family and GASP! even at church.

  • 2.) The development of an emerging Asian American evangelical leadership coalition

This certainly has a lot to do with advancements in social media and the growth of Asian Americans on the internet. There was no such rapid communal response to Rickshaw Rally or the Skit Guys. Social media hadn’t developed that back much then, it was still the Stone Age, you know, when people still used Friendster and Tweets were just sounds canaries made.

But in Nov 2009, once word of Deadly Vipers hit, word was out within an hour. Like magic beanstalks discussion threads, twitter @ replies, email chains circulated the web.

I think we all felt our fair share of frustration, anger and the sentiment: I GOTTA GET THE WORD OUT. I forwarded it to people who I knew would care. I saw notes referencing dozens of friends. Blog posts flew up. Most lay people did their fair share of spreading the word.

But the real heavy lifting came from what seems to be an emerging coalition of Asian American Evangelical leaders with at least a developed internet presence (usually through blogs). And these individuals seemed to be either: pastors and seminarians from influential ministries (Eugene ChoDavid Park, DJ Chuang, Charles Lee, Daniel Kim) or Professors and Authors (Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang). There are many others I’m leaving off, but I think these are just a few of the blogs that generated a lot of traffic and buzz about the issue in a short span of time.

What does all this mean? Why is this important?

I think we can learn from these events that there is an emerging Asian American evangelical leadership coalition developing. It’s still undetermined and it will obviously never be firm and absolute (who speaks for the Black community? Who speaks for women? Who speaks for the Islamic community?). Yet, with the rate of growth and disproportionate influence of Asian American evangelicals particularly on college campuses and in other sectors of society and the Church, not only can we not afford to have some type of community leadership, human nature won’t allow it. Leaders will emerge (if they haven’t already).

The Asian American evangelical community is a fast growing community, rich with cultural resources, educational privilege and financial wealth. what an opportunity to harness those gifts and use it for the sake of the wider Church body and God’s mission in our world! To do so, I believe we need strong leadership and a common vision for harnessing our community’s gifts and engaging with the wider church in a healthy, meaningful, mutually serving way. Not for the sake of perpetuating cycles of identity politics and race baiting nor for advancing the insular agendas of a specific ethnic group, but so that the work of God can be advanced to all people of all nations, and that the Church of Jesus Christ can be a credible witness in an increasingly  multiethnic world.

We’ve seen a glimpse of that leadership in dealing with the Deadly Vipers. We’ve seen these leaders engage in fruitful, cross-cultural dialogue and come to public understanding, all for the watching world to see. Sure, there have been lessons learned along the way and good amount of mea culpas, thoughtful reflections as well (DJ Chuang, Daniel Kim.) And that’s what leaders do. Go forward, take risks and model success and failure well and empower others to move forward themselves. The work of God is advanced. The Kingdom of God in its full Shalom is manifest.

Who will be this emerging leadership coalition?

I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it will be comprised of influential pastors, seminary professors and perhaps authors. They will be individuals with developed internet presence. They will be able to be conversant AND networked with not only Asian American churches and organizations but other ethnic and majority culture evangelical orgs as well. That’s my hunch.

I know for a fact that there are Asian American leaders who don’t run blogs or actively update their facebook page, who played a significant role in the DV saga and in past situations. They should not be discounted. In fact, as we have seen from Deadly Vipers, most of the most substantial, productive dialogue did not happen in exchanging emails or comments, but through phone conversations and (hopefully) will continue in face to face meetings between human beings and not avatars. But the web is a vital way to connect groups that are far apart, geographically, culturally, demoninationally… social media can facilitate dialogue and be the first steps for conversations between individuals that might otherwise never have a chance to connect. This is clearly a good thing and we need gifted, tech-savvy Asian American leaders to harness the power of the internet to facilitate real dialogue that produces action.

Which leads me to an aside before I get to the homestretch. There are at least two unresolved tensions regarding this emerging Asian American leadership coalition that I’m figuring out how to deal with:

  1. By Asian American, we’re mostly referring to Korean and Chinese. The vast majority of the Asian American blogs that have been linked by folks were Chinese or Korean. The individuals that have led the charge (with the exception of Nikki Toyama-Szeto who is Japanese) in the conference call and talks with Zondervon have been Korean or Chinese. Is this OK? Who are the non-Korean, non-Chinese Asian American voices that need to be heard? That we are leaving out? Help?
  2. And secondly, it seems like this emerging Asian American leadership coalition will be male. One voice that has been conspicuously absent in this dialogue has been that of Asian American women. Is this a good thing or a REALLY bad thing? Are we missing out or worse, pushing out, the important voices and contributions of Asian American women in this discussion?  Put in more provaocative terms: Is our male-dominated lens of interpreting Asian American culture simply another form of Deadly Vipers with the Asian American community? Take a look at the lists of bloggers on the blog rolls of some of the bloggers I’ve mentioned. Heck look at my blog roll for pete’s sake. The vast majority are men. There’s already been some evidence depicting the gender gap in the media and mainstream blogosphere, should this be a concern in the Asian American Evangelical community? Where are the femal voices?  Kathy Khang suggests another vital layer in this whole discussion isn’t just the racial insensitivity of DV, but the reactive hyper masculinity of the church in which Asian Americans must also take responsibility. (full disclosure: Kathy is my supervisor as well as a good friend). How does this issue move forward while still being inclusive and sensitive to the experiences of our Asian American sisters?

So as I wrap this bad boy up, I just want to reiterate, despite some unresolved tensions, how much hope I have, as a small insignificant peon, in what God is doing within the Asian American evangelical community and how that work is not for the sake of our insular community, but for the sake of what God is doing in the wider Church in America and around the world.

Each unit within the body of Christ must be healthy for it to function. Healthy within itself and healthy in its relationship with other parts of the body. While in our world, different cultures do not share as fixed a boundary as different organs, yet the principle is the same. The Asian American community must be healthy within itself but also in its relationship with others. Same for the White community. Same for the Black community. Same for the Latino community. Same for men. Same for women. Same for different generational communities.

I am so excited because what Satan surely intended as a divisive painful episode in the Body of Christ, I have no doubts that God is using this for good, to further reconciliation, justice and mission. The Asian American community has a voice and a role to play in the wider church. I think we just have to continue to follow His lead and learn.

I have a few more thoughts on this issue, which by this length, nobody except my mother will care to have read. However, if you’ve by chance ventured this far, I’d appreciate some discussion.

Here are some questions I’ve been thinking about (and have LOTS of thoughts regarding which I’ll withold for now) that I believe can help continue to move this Deadly Vipers fiasco from the theory and subjective into the practical and concrete and perhaps can help give everyday folks who may not be able to talk to Zondervon execs or Mike Foster directly some ways to move forward.

  1. How will Asian American evangelicals engage the broader American evangelical community?
  2. How will Asian American evangelicals engage the secular Asian American community?
  3. How will Asian Americans respond when racial injustice takes place OUTSIDE our community?
  4. What does this look like on a local church level?

5 thoughts on “Finding hope in the midst of Deadly Vipers

  1. This is a fantastic post. Thanks for thinking so deeply on this. I especially appreciate the challenge to think more deeply on the place of women in our leadership. That’s a significant next step we’ll need to consider.

    It has been a little disheartening to read some of the comments on professor Rah’s blog that miss the whole point of this controversy, lamenting the loss of a book with more good material than bad. My sense is that those brothers and sisters are not allowing themselves to see the extent of the damage that racial stereotypes can inflict.

    As an author who has invested a lot in numerous book projects, I can identify with the difficult time the writers of Deadly Viper must be having. However, it is far better to have a book that is free from stereotypes and exploitation even if we have to go without it for a period of time. With all due respect, the church will survive without that book on the shelves for a little while. 😉 And when it comes back, it will be all the more powerful and helpful in the long run.

  2. This is admirable thinking and expressed well. I’m am glad that you all are considering next steps. I too have been saddened by the blindness of those ranting about their loss, indicating clearly that they do not understand the nature of the offenses. Keep it up!

  3. @ed thanks! it seems like dealing with and working through the backlash that’s coming from the book and web site’s removal will be just as important as the original material itself.

    @melody thanks too! I think without next steps and practical change, especially at the local level, this whole fiasco will have been fruitless.

  4. I think you’re right about an “emerging Asian American evangelical leadership coalition”. It stands on the coattails (and advancements) of previous protest movements, e.g. Black power, Liberationism, even feminist movement.

    My only concern is that this incipient movement (of which I identify) will be dismissed as “liberal” based on its presuppositions.

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