“On Being Black, Immigrant, and Christian in the American (Evangelical) World”
I am black. I am a male. I am an immigrant. I am also a Christian. Hence, by many individuals, I am an outsider of both worlds: the White Evangelical world, and the African American community. It is not only religious affiliation that establishes this remarkable difference between me and them; it is also my unique ethnic experience as an immigrant that sets me apart, and this distinctive identity sometimes engenders social isolation and religious exclusion.
Tribalism is one of the major factors that is destroying modern Evangelicalism in America. American evangelicals are divided over moral and political issues, social and cultural issues, and on the right application of biblical principles concerning the public role of Christianity in the contemporary culture. Frankly, there are battles that are not worth fighting for anymore. Some evangelicals have decided that your voice or opinions do not matter because you are different (It was at an evangelical seminary that I learned quickly that I was a “different breed of Christian.” Although I considered myself an evangelical, others in the seminary (both students and faculty) doubted my commitment to Scripture or sound doctrine and my personal piety as a black immigrant Christian.) It is not that I have given up on certain important ethical and social justice issues nor have I now stopped fighting for what is just, peaceful, godly, and Christ-pleasing; honestly, some of these matters are time-consuming and could potentially lead to mental breakdown/fatigue, psychological malaise, and social alienation.
There were certain issues I used to zealously fight for with all my intellectual energy and rigor with the hope that I could bring further clarity and understanding to the table. At this moment in my life, I’m going through an important transition wherein I am slowly readjusting my priorities as a husband, father, pastor, missionary, mentor to young people, and a champion of biblical justice and of the poor and the vulnerable in my city (at least, I aspire to be a champion to the weak and most fortunate in my community). Some battles are not worth fighting. They’re meaningless because some Evangelical Christians are just stubborn and refuse to change their way of thinking and their action. It appears that the power of the Gospel has no transformative and redemptive effects in the Evangelical life and experience.
Moreover, some of my (Evangelical) Christian friends (both white and black) whom I used to dialogue with on some of the pivotal moral issues (as outlined above) have reminded me occasionally, both directly and indirectly, that I am/was an outsider and that I am/was an immigrant who does not/did not understand the complexity of the American experience and culture, especially as that pertains to justice and moral issues, racial reconciliation and harmony in the church and among American Christians, as well as race relations between Black and White Americans. Stubborn that I am, I refuse to believe that I have nothing meaningful and constructive to contribute to the welfare and future of American Christianity and American Evangelicalism.
So far, I have spent 25 years of my life in this country we call the United States of America. I immigrated to this land in middle school. It is in this country that I went to High school, graduated from College and Graduate school, and even earned a PhD here. I got married in this country and my children were born here. I even became a naturalized citizen. It is in this country that I have gained greater understanding of democratic freedom, human rights, my national identity, Christian identity, and my responsibility as an American citizen. It is also in this country that I have learned what it means to be a man, a father, a husband, and a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I tis also here that I acquired a better understanding of the concept of justice, fairness, and equity. In addition, as an educator, I have taught for 15 years both in High School and at the University level here. I have also written a couple of books and a few peer-reviewed articles on assorted topics. I communicate my ideas (in writing) better in English than in my native tongue. For some people, I still do not belong. Perhaps, because I live in between two worlds or perhaps, because my allegiance is not single, and that my narrative as black, male, immigrant, and Christian is paradoxical and full of complexity? I am still searching for the truth.
“The American Gospel in White and Black”
The American Gospel is a puzzling message that is affected negatively by race relations and a powerful history of dominance and control. American (Evangelical) Christians have indeed undermined the universal quality and value, and correspondingly the cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, and transnational force and intent of the Gospel. It is important that Evangelicals do not allow the American historical narrative and the conflict between White and African Americans, as well as the struggle for shalom and wholeness between White and African American Christians to be the only lens to assess the relevance of the Gospel in the everyday life and as it relates to urgent existential issues such as the project of social justice, peace, racial reconciliation, unity, and harmony.
When White American and African American Christians discuss the issues named above among themselves, both directly and indirectly, they shut off the voice, agency, and ignore the concerns of other brothers and sisters in Christ including those of Hispanic, Asian, and black Christians who are not African Americans or White Americans. When other brothers and sisters are not included in these Christian dialogues, both intentionally and unintentionally, this form of ethnic and racial exclusion will not fully unite the body of Christ nor will it foster adequate conversations across the various ethnic, racial, and cultural lines in American Christianity in these urgent moments. We need a more inclusive message to help heal our collective wound and restore our fragmented soul.
Moreover, the American history of racial trauma and fear, and the triumph of injustice and dehumanization of certain groups of people in our society should not dictate the meaning of the Gospel nor should the trajectories of American history be the hermeneutical paradigm that define human flourishing and the common good. We must first begin with the inclusive message of the Gospel, followed by our careful analysis and criticism of the complexity of the human experience and life in America. The moral compass of the American politics and the ethical worldview of America’s geopolitical hegemony in the world is the antithesis of the Gospel culture; they challenge the liberating ethics of Jesus that accentuates human flourishing and God’s salvation for humanity, especially the oppressed, the weak, and the vulnerable in our culture and in the world.
“The Main Issue with American Evangelicalism”
One of the key issues in contemporary Evangelical community is that Evangelicals have placed too much faith in American politicians to make moral choices and ethical decisions for the church and the nation at large. Christian identity is Christocentric, and not Americancentric, and the governing rules and values that shape both identities and their end contradict each other.
The political values of American Evangelicals cannot be said, at the moment, to be a discourse of contrast, in view of the political ideals of contemporary American culture. In the same line of thought, contemporary American Evangelicalism has not fostered a clear and specific theo-ethical system, grounded on a political theology of care for the poor and the marginalized, that interrogates the socio-political habitus of the dominant class and powerful American elite group.
It seems to me American politics is regulating the norms and contours of Evangelical ethics and its moral framework. (In fact, this has been an Evangelical tradition, which has crippled the public witness of Christianity in culture.) This trend is happening/has been occurring in the Evangelical world because American Evangelicalism has never articulated a robust political theology of social justice and divine sovereignty that prioritizes the Kingdom of God above the Kingdom of America.
Perhaps, this is a new era for Evangelical thinkers and leaders to look for guidance and wisdom from the Word of God, not from the realm of partisan and ideological politics, and for Evangelicals to reread with fresh insights and new lenses the political theology and theocentric kingdom-message of the book of Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
As long as Christians in America and American Evangelicals continue to prize the American kingdom and sovereignty, the kingdom of God will be subservient to American politics and cultural ideologies, and the public witness of the Christian Church in America will be just a footnote in the American experience and future.
To summarize my concluding thoughts on these matters, please allow me to share further a few things that I have learned in those 25 years of experience within American Evangelicalism and the Black community in America; I want to highlight four central issues pertaining to religion, race, immigration, and the politics of inclusion and exclusion.
1. Religion (Christianity): Being a Christian in America does not necessarily mean one shares Christian solidarity with other Christians (i.e. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White Christians). (Remember what I said above that American evangelicalism is split in many tribal groups over both cultural, ethical, and political issues). Christian solidarity in the United States is more racially-and-ethnically based than it is grounded on biblical principles and shared theological truths, and commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation. In the same way, Christian identity in America is rooted on cultural affiliation and political allegiance.
2. Blackness: Being black in America does not mean equivocally one shares “racial solidarity” with other blacks in various black communities—just based on skin color. There exists internal strife or tension between various Black communities (African American, West Indian Blacks, Black Africans, Hispanic Blacks, etc.). (Some will remind you that you are black indeed, but you are an immigrant, that is you are an outsider. Hence, you are placed in a different category of blackness because of your immigrant status. Evidently, African Americans, West Indian Blacks, Black Africans, or Hispanic Blacks do not share the same life experience, nor do they have a common history of struggle and suffering.) Several years ago, I attended a theology conference, the speaker was an African American theologian. I asked a question about the intersections of theology, race, and the black experience in America. He bluntly said that I was a “different black” and that many black immigrants came to America to reap what “our black ancestors, the true blacks” have fought for. He has also made similar comments on various publications that other blacks, that is non-African American blacks, do not understand the African American history of suffering and racial violence against them; yet, they are here to take away and benefit from what African American ancestors have fought for. Even though, I was not born an African American, I have lived in this country enough to grasp the Black experience or understand the Black struggle. I even earned a PhD in African American Literature and African American Intellectual History.
3.Immigration: for some people (both black and white Americans), because you were not born in the paradise land we call America, your opinions or perspectives on the affairs of this country have a lesser value than a native-born–even though you could potentially shed greater light on national issues or provide a few words of wisdom and understanding toward the common good and human flourishing in this country.
4. The Practice of racial and ethnic inclusion among African American and White Americans: One of the major complaints by African American Christian leaders is that White Evangelicals rarely give black people a public voice in their conferences and that White Christians intentionally practice racial exclusion and segregation in Evangelical gathering (recently, I have observed some considerable changes pertaining to greater racial and ethnic inclusion in Christian gatherings.). Similarly, African American Christian leaders have also excluded other ethnic blacks in their conferences as well. As their white counterparts, they also practice ethnic exclusion by the ideology of African American centrism. Thus, the notion of American exceptionalism does manifest itself in both White centrism in respect to white engagement and treatment of blacks, and African American centrism in respect to African American engagement and treatment of the non-African American black communities in the United States. The hegemony of these two represented (Christian) groups (White and African Americans) also indicates their insensitivity to the pain, suffering, and alienation of Brown, Asian, Hispanic, and non-African American Christians in American Christian history, and the Gospel project (and Christ’s promise) of universal reconciliation and global justice through the cross and power of Christ.
May God lead us to reject tribal Christianity to embrace a better and more promising vision of the Gospel and the glory of the cross of Christ toward human flourishing and reconciliation!