[Editor’s note: Dr. Sam Tsang is the author of Right Texts, Wrong Meanings (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and more than thirty other books on the Bible. He is a part-time associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, teaching preaching and New Testament, and an adjunct professor in Ambrose University College, Canada, teaching Introduction to New Testament, Prison Letters, and Acts. He has preached for more than two decades and taught preaching for more than a decade in different denominational contexts and cultures (both American and non-American). We asked him to provide us with some thoughts about cultural blind spots.]
I was chatting with a white American pastor a while back on race. He said something that I once but now no longer believe: “We’re all Christians. I don’t think we should think in terms of racial identity.” The longer I live as a minority in America, the less I agree with this idea. The fact is that it’s easy to say that as a member of the dominant culture.
I’m unsure whether the average American churchgoer knows that a lot of theologies and ideologies coming out in book form are actually based on Western assumptions. Why wouldn’t they be based on a Western assumption? Each person is limited both positively and negatively by his or her geographical location. Look at those from the east coast of the United States versus those from the West Coast. If cultures are so different even within the United States, why would people from cultures in other places be exactly the same as a person born and raised in America?
One (hidden) assumption is the superiority of the dominant mainstream Caucasian American voice. When Missio contacted me to be a guest blogger, I was of two minds about it, and it took me quite a long time to settle my internal conflict. Truthfully, when issues like this come up, I’m often hesitant to share because I realize the cost I may have to pay when I speak my mind. Every member of a minority group knows this cost. Maybe others will assume that we’re trying to cause trouble or upset the society, when we are merely narrating our stories. Thus, as minorities, our first struggle is the extra emotional precaution we have to exercise before we narrate our experience. A few days ago, I read a blog written by a white blogger titled “When white people don’t know they’re being white.” At first, I laughed out loud and wanted to share it on Facebook, but then I thought that a white person had better do the sharing. I can’t afford to lose any more friends. Would what I say be truer when a white person says it? If so, why? Credibility does not merely relate to race but more so to the power of a dominant voice. In every society, the dominant voice, however wrong, is the superior voice. But truth should not be based on cultural dominance.
Another (equally hidden) assumption is what I call the “I’m my own person” approach. Since my PhD is in biblical studies, I often wonder why some of my white counterparts do not see certain problems in their individualistic biblical exegesis in applying the Bible only to “my own person.” The problem is not due to a lack of education. Their Western lens—the one that enables them to say “Let’s forget about race and culture and focus on our (whatever that means) identity in Christ” —may be the problem. And yet, our biblical faith calls us to community and not merely to a life of atomized individualism, which suffuses Western ideas. The assumption simply does not work. Many people do see themselves as part of a subgroup, even if the group is the dominant group. In my recent run-in on a controversial subject, I’ve lost a number of (so I thought) close white friends. A number of white friends emailed me in private because they didn’t understand why I got involved in this situation. The surprising number of close friends who did not talk to me but quietly left the friendship circle is shocking. Whatever the reason for an abrupt breakage of friendship, they had preferred to side with their sub-group (privileged whites) over our journey as friends together. No matter what their intention is, their action showed that identity with a subgroup is more important than long-term individual relationship. No one is his or her own person completely. We are, after all, creatures of community. Individualism and faith community building are enemies.
One final (hidden) assumption is what I call the “I like you. We’re friends. Let’s disregard any cultural differences” approach. Diversity is a fashionable catchword. However, real diversity is a rare praxis. The dominant, singular cultural narrative of the US is dwindling; American cultural is becoming increasingly diverse. It is not enough just to say, “I accept you because you’re different.” What exactly does that difference mean? It means that we don’t only embrace the minority superficially by sweeping real differences under our bed. In America, our broader culture has been strengthened and learned much from other groups. We have come to empathize with the suffering of some minority groups. For instance, we remember the Jewish Holocaust. We have also developed greater disdain for slavery and sympathy for the Native American plight. More work still needs to be done. These are important steps. But what about the recent immigrants, like Latinos and those from countries in Asia? They too bring a rich narrative that is most likely historically longer than the relatively short history of the U.S.
We can learn so much about God and redemption even in each cultural narrative (e.g., importance of a household faith in Asian culture). Why limit our understanding to one culture? Many decry the lack of education in world history and geography in America. Whatever the public school has failed to address, the church can repair, not merely for educational enrichment but for missional purpose! When 9/11 attacks happened, some Americans began to learn more about the Muslim world. Some American Christians began to look for ways to have dialogue with Muslims. This then is the problem. The Church is often reactive rather than proactive. She’s more of a follower than a leader to the society. But both church leadership and lay people in the churches seem to be in the grips of a single narrative and singular theology peppered with Western ideology in Christian clothing. That clothing needs to be mended, the fabric made richer and stronger from other cultural narratives. Otherwise, the Church will freeze to death in the upcoming spiritual ice age.
No one is immune to cultural bias. While this essay seems to be about race, it isn’t. It is really about dominance and power. A good friend pointed out to me that by 2050, the white, European-descended population in the United States will likely no longer be the dominant culture, which would represent a great reversal. “The Minority’s Burden” matters because power should not be allowed free rein with no understanding of the minority groups. The problems outlined here need solution for a better tomorrow in our church and society. Whether a group is majority or minority, together both can search for a solution. Can we not keep our cultural identity and our faith? Certainly, only if subgroups are willing to recognize their blind spots when another subgroup points them out. We aren’t just looking for tolerance; we’re looking for understanding.
Photo: Laura Shreck