By Charlene Jin Lee
I was mostly absent from the firework of reactions that went off one after another to Rick Warren’s public display of entitlement by virtue of the all-too-casual “American” humor, when he likened his industrious church staff to the Red Guard. It was a joke, people, is how this kind of thing usually goes. Some did not get the humor in Warren’s disposition of propriety over any and all historical-cultural materials to service a few harmless laughs for his Facebook friends.
By the time I was caught up on the brusque fireworks sparked by the Asian-American Christian community, I benefited from the plethora offensive voices that crowded together to name and denounce the insidious colonialism that lurks in the underbelly of a “democratic” America—an America where we can all have a good laugh together. After all, you and me, we are equal; we are the same; go ahead and make a joke about my Irish heritage, I won’t get offended, some might say.
Of course, the reality is that we are not all the same. We live in a systemic web of inequities drawn from lines that divide and order us by race, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, social class, abilities, etc. Some of us are privileged to be able to casually laugh, privileged to brush off offense by citing ignorance, privileged to make an issue a non-issue by dismissal or disengagement. While Warren exercised his privilege of disengaging from the storm of fireworks, the Asian American community raised critical voices with passion and intelligence…and continues the—arguably urgent—conversation.
When Young Lee Hertig proposed enlarging the ensuing conversation to include gender consciousness, I realized a bit more fully why I am okay with the distance I kept from Warren’s Red Guard incident and the following sea of exchanges. Maybe it is my laziness to participate or, perhaps, it is a reflection of my fatigue from a duplicitous pattern of selective advocacy that rises from the Asian American Christian community. I was both impressed and not surprised by the surge of voices that swelled to respond to Warren’s gaffe. Church leaders, academics, among others, quickly dispensed their takes on the overt and covert forms of racism that live in American consciousness. We have seen this kind of surge, and gratefully so, to situations equally and more deeply troubling than this incident. What we have yet to see, however, is a collective articulation on the issue of sexism that importantly shapes the life of the church.
The lack of representation of women in Asian American ecclesial leadership is a benign enough place to begin recognizing the gender inequity that pervades in our theology, polity, and cultural consciousness. Some have made this a non-issue, citing uncontextualized Pauline texts; some resolve this issue by arguing a complementary model of gender roles that assigns which ecclesial tasks women are suited or unsuited for; some unapologetically lead all-male pastoral staff and elder boards; many churches continue to deny or disapprove women’s ordination to ministry; and most of us choose the path of least resistance by accepting the present reality as the norm.
When a young woman grows up in an Asian immigrant church, discerns a direction to enter seminary and later responds to a call to ordained pastoral ministry, instead of rejoicing, church members and pastors alike question if her path is God-honoring and biblically correct. This for me is a tragedy. Where are those voices—male and female—of advocacy that so effectively denounce inequitable treatment of our racialized identities? Where is the Asian American Christian community for that young woman and for the women who remain in perpetual self-advocacy for their steadfast service of ministerial leadership for the church? For many of us, we have had to step outside of the Asian American context to fully live into our vocational callings. The preceding generation of Asian female clergy has had to necessitate creative strategies for partaking in the life of the church, by way of chaplaincy, academia, and constituent-specific ministry, for example.
Self-advocacy gets tiring. And, sustaining the conversation only with others who perceive it as urgent compounds the fatigue over time. This is when a surge of collective advocacy can replenish one’s sense of belonging and validity within a larger community—in this case, the Asian American ecclesial community. Unfortunately, that community, led by those who hold tremendous gender privilege, has more or less exercised dismissal and/or disengagement as its modus operandi. I do not want to discount male colleagues who engage in the discourse or the few who genuinely stand in solidarity with female clergy and actively cultivate emerging leadership among women in the church. I do not want to discount Asian American women in ministry who may express an entirely different experience from what I have described in these paragraphs. However, speaking forthrightly from my particular location (as an Asian American woman, scholar, minister, mother, and spouse) is a way I earnestly contribute to the current conversation shared among the larger Asian North American Evangelical faith community.
I have yet to witness fireworks or a critical mass of sparks to at least signal that the issue of gender inequity and sexism is within a peripheral view from the center of the Asian North American Evangelical community. Too often, women who speak—loudly, with both passion and intelligence—from the intersection of a racialized and genderized identity are perceived as angry. Can those unrightfully labeled as angry Asians (men and women) who are deemed as hyper sensitive to racist jokes begin to sympathize with women who live and minister from this difficult intersection?What will it take for Asian American voices to rise on behalf of women who possess rich gifts for ministerial leadership but are denied space and opportunity to share them?
As I write this, I keep recalling a recent story featured on National Public Radio. The first female marathon runner ran her race in Culver City, California, in 1963. Until then, women were not permitted to run marathons because it was said that long distance running would damage ovaries. Quite funny, right? Or, frighteningly sad. While, I am certain that no one in the Asian American church would cite damage to ovaries as a reason to dissuade women from preaching, leading, teaching, serving Communion, heading decision making boards in the life of the church, the Asian American church at large would benefit from serious reflection on the ambiguous intertwining of cultural beliefs and theological paradigms that preserves the status quo of male leadership as normative.