Spiritual formation and political education are not often parallel paths of human development. For many reasons, we have had an unlikely journey that has led us to think about the relationship between faith and social justice. While we grew up in a middle class and conservative evangelical environment, we have come to understand and critique the implications of that upbringing, and particularly, to remember and understand our own privilege as Chinese Americans. We may have roots in the immigrant community, but we also had access to very expensive higher education.
Presently, Symphony is still active in the church while Joanna no longer participates. However, for the most part, we share our views on social justice and political engagement. We both seek to develop a critical consciousness about social justice, race, class, gender, and issues of oppression, but we did not fully develop that consciousness in the Church. Our church taught us to care for people in need, but it didn’t nurture us with a framework for how to translate faith into social and political action. We also have peers who we know who have not developed the same kind of political consciousness.
So, what is that about? Was it the influence of education, friends, or something else? In this piece, we explore how our identities as PKs have influenced our perspective on social justice and how we developed a political and progressive ideology that informs both our spiritual formation and political engagement.
Symph: How did the way we grew up as PKs shape the way we view injustice and oppression?
Jo: Going back to the question of being a PK and my own spiritual formation (hyperlink to part 1), I think my social justice lens behind everything I do comes from being a PK. It is the outcome of my earlier spiritual formation. How I engage in the struggle for educational equity, the purpose for my work as a researcher or school leader, the fundraising I do for undocumented students – all of that is absolutely a direct result of my earlier spiritual formation as a Christian.
I have this idealism or over-the-top drive for social change. For others, it may be a critique of capitalism or society. For me, it is a result of the idea that things or the world can be perfected and healed. They can be redeemed. I don’t think redemption comes from God anymore, but I think it can come from human beings. That idea that you work towards redemption comes from being a Christian and not just being a liberal. So my progressive politics has roots in my earlier life as a Christian.
Symph: How did you develop a critical consciousness?
Jo: I grew up with a lot of immigrant youth in the church. The church focused on at-risk youth by trying to address the supposed deficiencies in their character, but not the problems they faced as working-class immigrant kids who lacked access to quality education. The church was preoccupied with piety and spirituality, but not with systemic injustice. So it became part of my political education because it led me to search for answers about the roots of inequality.
Through my studies in education, public policy, and political theory, I began to think that the questions I had in life were bigger than God and spirituality, but were related to structural forms of oppression. Finally, I started teaching – that’s what clinched it – I didn’t see how faith could resolve or explain the educational iniquities that my students and I faced as a public school teacher in a high poverty school district.
When I first left the church, I once told a friend of mine that I felt the school became my church. It was where I could find ways to think about “worship” and “serving”. It was where I found a community of people that I felt were really committed to social justice, committed to community, and it was in a completely secular environment. Doing the work of fighting for educational equity and reform became my spiritual practice. It became the way in which I found a way to express all the things I felt I should be doing as a Christian, but in a context that was completely secular (and free of all the theological baggage that I felt created barriers to real social changes). It gave me a glimpse of what I thought a social institution could be. It became increasingly clear to me that the Church could not do the same, or at least had very serious limitations, unless the basic theological foundations of the Church changed.
How did you develop a social justice lens?
Symph: My social justice lens is rooted in how my mom developed and cultivated compassion in me. Children model after their parents and I internalized her compassion for others, I think that was a foundational value in how I presently live life. That compassion and empathy translated easily to being passionate about social justice issues.
A turning point was when you did a social justice series at our church during my junior year in high school. That was when I consciously remember beginning to interact with political issues and channel the values my mom ingrained in me towards a tangible practical form.
The social justice issues resonated deeply with me. It wasn’t just something I heard and then moved on with in life, but I actually seriously thought about it. I don’t even think I realized at the time how seriously I took it. My reason for wanting to study international relations when I applied to college was at first simply a matter of interest. But that decision to study international relations in college informed pursuing social justice and change to become a life-long pursuit. Even if studying international relations does not directly translate into a career choice, it had a lifelong correlation to how I observe and analyze the world.
Jo: The social justice series that I taught at our church that year was my last attempt to reconcile my faith and politics. It was the method that I thought I could use to insert what I thought was missing from the church. It was my attempt at making an explicit connection between faith and oppression, between the way we live our lives as Christians to addressing the injustices we see in the world.
Symph: It wasn’t hard to believe that these issues were happening, and as a Christian, you had a part in that. Going through the social justice series helped make my faith more tangible. I was enabled to learn how to apply faith in present issues through the social justice seminar. Faith no longer was simply an introspective and compartmentalized aspect of my identity in the world, but a motivation for how I went about with everything else in life. I could actively participate in social change — through prayer, giving monetarily, and advocacy. It was a part of a larger social justice movement, social consciousness, and social responsibility during that time.
Jo: What about all your friends who are PKs?
Symph: Some of my friends are doing social justice work. I went to American University which is all about social justice. Having friends who also are passionate about social justice work has definitely furthered how I hold justice as an important issue that cannot be separated from faith. It wasn’t just the individuals themselves, but the campus fellowship I was a part of gave us a platform to pursue issues that we wanted to engage with. During my freshman year, we started doing this Human Trafficking Awareness Week that eventually turned into an Exploring Justice series where college students from within the Christian and greater campus community could look at the intersection of their faith and justice issues. I do have to say that within the college and para-church ministry context, it is a lot easier to find spaces to dialogue and delve into faith and justice over a church context. College students are usually in a place where they are already searching for answers for a variety of topics and are more open to discuss and wrestle with these big questions — and then act upon it. The structure, policies, and inter-generational culture clashes within a church context do not always make it easy to have a safe space for a faith and justice framework to grow. But look at the social justice series you did. It was done within a church context and changed at least one person — me!
Jo: I think for you, you had structures within faith communities that facilitated your political education. The church had a space in which you were taught and given a platform to learn about the connection between faith and social justice. I think you’re a good example of how that kind of development for Christians can happen in a church. The church has a responsibility to provide those structures and spaces so Christians can develop a political and social justice consciousness in their spiritual formation. (We talk more about this in Part 3).
I didn’t have that. That could be a reason why I left the Church. I created that for other people (from what you are saying). But growing up, I didn’t have that for myself. It often felt like I was going against the cultural upstream in the Church. That was a real challenge for me. It was also hurtful and frustrating. I had to look elsewhere to nurture that part of what I believed and who I am. Initially, I thought I had to find the place where I could nurture that part of my growth as a Christian, or that I could create that space myself (through my own leadership in the Church). Later, I just gave up and decided I could not find that in the Church. My dad says that if I ever come back to the Church one day, it will be because I have found a way to reconcile those tensions that I struggled with when I left. Hence the reason for my continued interest in the intersection of faith and social justice. You could say that it is a continuation of my journey with the Church, except I don’t care about the spiritual component anymore. Ultimately, I think that I care because I think the Church can make a positive impact in the world despite my personal belief that there is no God. But quite frankly, I don’t know what that looks like yet.
Joanna and Symphony continue A Tale of Two PKs in a discussion on what the role of the Church is in social change and social justice.
Footnote: When Symphony was in her junior year in high school, Joanna led a series of Social Justice Seminars for their youth group at the Church of the Living Lord. In this series, the youth discussed the theological and Biblical foundations for the Church’s responsibility in addressing issues of poverty and oppression. Joanna covered topics that included poverty and inequality, the genocide in Darfur, and immigration.