If you hang around the two of us long enough, you will not only hear conversations about our mothers or the latest family gossip, but often our conversations turn to the role of the church, particularly the Chinese-American one, in social change, how the Church has been complicit in oppression, what theologies inform our work in social justice, and what opportunities exist in the Church for creating change.
In this piece, we discuss why Symphony still has hope in the Church, while Joanna continues to serve as a skeptic and critic of the Church as a viable institution for bringing about social change. We explain our search for a theoretical and spiritual framework that engages the Church in social justice work and political engagement.
Symph: Why are you so critical of the Church and the way in which it addresses social issues?
Jo: I’m still not entirely sure why, but I still obsess over how to change the church even though I don’t even go anymore! Probably because I’m a PK. I have long been skeptical about whether the Church can play a role in social change. Certainly, the African-American church has been crucial to the civil rights movement. The Catholic church has been at the frontlines of helping migrants who cross the US-Mexico border.
But, even churches that care about social justice are preoccupied by their congregation’s spiritual formation or other church problems, and that takes time, money, and resources away from working on social justice just in practical terms. Let’s spend less time focusing on Mark Driscoll and his stupid thoughts, and more time thinking about the role of the church in ameliorating issues of police brutality in communities of color. Let’s spend less time talking about Millennials leaving the church and more time on how the Church can direct resources towards addressing poverty in their communities. Let’s spend less time on whether gay people can get married and more time on how to reduce residential segregation.
Symph: There are, however, some organizations that are not churches, but faith institutions that do social justice work. But, the recent World Vision example shows that ultimately, theology and people’s ideology trumps doing what is right. Even in an organization whose expressed purpose is to provide services to the most vulnerable population is making decisions based on theology. In this situation, both faith-based organizations and churches are making decisions that have social justice repercussions but the reasons for those decisions are theological and ideological rather than justice-centered.
Jo: To me, there is a real lack of a social justice perspective that is critical, meaning a theology that examines power and privilege, specifically among upper and middle class evangelical churches, including Asian-American churches. That was a major reason why I left the church.
But, I don’t want to be a complete pessimist. I still want to believe that there are opportunities for the church to change. Specifically, I believe in the people in the Church who can make that change happen. I have faith, not in God nor the Church, but rather in people who can make it happen. In that sense, the responsibility is on the churchgoers, not on God, or theology, but individuals.
Symph: The biggest disagreement I would have is that I do believe that God can bring social change through the Church, and that is our theological difference. On the point where you say that individuals are a major component bringing change to the Church as an institution, I am completely on board with that. The method I am approaching this issue is through an attempt to challenge and catalyze change in individuals from the inside. I don’t see that work as separate. You pose as a critic from the outside of the inner workings and challenges that the Church faces. We’re a pretty good team!
The reason why I believe God can bring social change is because I believe God can transform individuals. When people truly follow Jesus (the one who flips tables and calls out religious leaders); they will inevitably work to bring freedom to the oppressed, aid widows and orphans, help those who are poor in spirit, and so on. Those actions go hand in hand with social change. Therefore, when people’s opinions and ideologies change from inward looking and selfishness to outward reaching and selflessness, they are able to think and care about others’ needs. I think the major problem is people often think that church goers are good people when in reality they are just as messed up as non-church going humans. Without the help of God, they are not able to truly think beyond their narcissism.
Jo: That’s spiritual narcissism.
Symph: In some instances, churchgoers can be even more blind to social injustices because they are so caught up in religious legalism, righteousness, and their idea of holiness. They think they are good, but are they really? The way I approach this mess is that on the one hand, I am advocating for bringing social justice to the forefront of church, and on the other hand, I’m working to push people out of their spiritual narcissism because unless they are free from that, there is no way they will care about social change. My method is through spiritual transformation.
Jo: I hope the Church sees that, as an institution, it should utilize its structures, resources, and political power to actually address social justice issues. To clarify, the Church is already a machine for political change, but more often for the wrong things (and there will be many who disagree with me on that point, for sure). Evangelicals have thrown a lot of political weight (and money) against women’s access to reproductive rights. But they seem completely blind to addressing the related issues of poverty among minority women and their lack of access to healthcare and education.
Even very well-intentioned people who care very much about issues of oppression, somehow don’t see that the church has a larger political and public role in creating social change. This has to do with the history of evangelicalism – for a while, they sort of withdrew from the public sphere, and only began mobilizing again in the 1970s through the Moral Majority around specifics issues like abortion. I think that while some churches are involved in political action, many more are not. Even when they are, they are not mobilizing for social justice issues. I agree that working on the individual level and political education within the church is where it begins, but I wonder how effective the Church will be if it does not also do the work at the broader policy level.
Symph: I’ve been thinking a lot recently ever since my pastor (aka Jo’s dad) in the recent year has been advocating for our church to be a “community church”. The idea of a community church. What does that exactly mean, especially in a gentrified neighborhood? Particularly in the New York City Asian American, Chinese Christian middle class community, many churches are not exactly community churches presently, and by in large commuter churches. So using this as an example, when churches are not community based, congregations lose touch with the immediate needs of the community that is physically around their church building.
Jo: Hm. Which churches do we know that are like that?! (chuckle)
Symph: I’m not directly saying one particular church is at fault here. I think in the context of the churches I am familiar with specifically, even in some of the outer NYC boroughs, it’s a systemic problem. For one, many of the leaders in these churches have similar backgrounds whether that is because of their education or literally being from the same seminaries.
Jo: How do churchgoers think about social, economic, racial, and gender inequality? How does what is said at the pulpit impact how people vote? If you and I both believe that spiritual formation must include political education and in the best scenario, also political organizing and action, what would that look like? What does that mean?
In my mind, churches should be actively involved in organizing their church members around policy issues that are inherently unfair and that prop up a system of oppression. For example, last year when the DREAM Act came up for vote in the New York State Legislature, and it didn’t pass, there was an opportunity for local community organizations of all sorts, including churches to mobilize voters to call the remaining state senators who had not agreed to vote for the bill. That was an instance in which churches could have mobilized their members to act on an issue that directly affects the church in an immigrant community, and perhaps made a real difference.
Symph: Why do churches not see political action as a means to support what they are doing spiritually? I also want to address another systematic issue within churches, which is the racial, socio-economic, and generational divide. There is a stark difference between immigrant and second generation (more middle class) churches, white/Asian churches from other ethnic churches, etc.
Jo: Or in churches where social justice issues affect the lived experiences of its members, where it’s in the fabric of their communal life to talk about social justice…
Symph: I wonder if and/or how the Fujianese churches participate in political action. Did they mobilize their church members around the DREAM act and immigration reform? One place I do see and hear of pastors getting involved politically is through advocating for undocumented immigrants and refugees when they apply for asylum. But that is still on a very individual, case by case scenario. We still go back to the question of how often do churches mobilize congregation members to go on the broader city, state, or national level for a legislative stance or in advocacy and awareness.
Jo: What would this look like? How much airtime is being given to social justice issues in the daily life of the church? One cannot engage in political education unless it is intentionally structured, and if all churchgoers are doing is Bible study and singing sappy love songs to Jesus, there is no time for applying and translating theology into social action.
Symph: Much of the social action is centered around service, which can be translated to one time projects, or an annual trip to the destination of the service trip. I am now slowly seeing more churches start to adopt a more sustainable approach and support missionaries and social justice organizations through capacity building and training; but there is still a dominant culture of being short-term missions focused.
Another problem I have is that while churches may teach on how we as Christians need to be a part of social change on a broad scale, there isn’t teaching on how we can live that out in practical and even political terms. Sometimes social change isn’t just about doing work, it’s an attitude and a lifestyle. Hey…doesn’t that sound like the foundational values of following Jesus and being a Christian?!
Jo: We need a theology of hope, linking political engagement with an actual spiritual praxis (not just spiritual formation). What does that theology of hope look like? We need to keep thinking about this. We have more questions than we have answers here!