LOGIA FOR FEBRUARY 2020: THE CHURCH BENEFITS WHEN I BRING MY PARTICULAR SELF BY SARAH SHIN

If you told me two years ago that I would be boarding a plane with my husband and a one-year-old baby daughter so that I could pursue further theological studies in Scotland, I would have laughed in your face. Our move this past August was unexpected for many reasons, including what we thought would be life as new parents. However, it was particularly unusual because of what ministry had been for me for the twelve years prior. I trained and continue to train churches, seminaries, and ministries in the US on how to connect ethnicity and Christian faith together for fruitful evangelism, discipleship, and reconciliation. I wasn’t exactly headed for a place more diverse than the classrooms and congregations that were my metropolitan neighborhood and teaching contexts; if anything, they would be less.

Many a friend has raised an eyebrow at the institution of my choice, a bastion of Western thinking. Throughout many communities, theology and the evangelical church are being criticized as being laden with the trappings of Western colonialism, bias, and white supremacy. There is much truth here. Critique and truth-speaking are important; societal and theological reform are impossible with such prophetic insight. Where would we be without the powerful critique and words given to us by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr.?

I came to Scotland in search of the theologian J. B. Torrance and his descendants because Torrancian theology had been critical for me in articulating a framework and vision for understanding ethnicity and theological personhood on this side of the eschaton and beyond. From J.B. and his brother T. F. Torrance, I understood God’s essential character as covenantal love that is unwaveringly committed to his creatures and reconciliation, which in turn helped me teach an understanding of ethnicity as a quality of all human creatures, as affirmed in Pentecost and Revelation, and thus as present in the eschaton.

New Testament scholar Erin Heim uses the metaphor of adoption to talk about the continuity of particularity in persons who are in Christ:

“Adoption metaphors communicate that the embodied particularity of persons (e.g., gender, race, class, historical location) are not incidental to the telos of humanity, since “adoption” implies a continuity of personal identity and yet a change in familial relation and status. Thus, these particularities are carried through to the final restoration where they are dignified and sanctified.”[1]

However, in case we mistakenly interpret such to mean that problematic ascriptions of hierarchy will remain in the eschaton, Heim vigorously asserts:

“To be sure, Paul is emphatic that the sinful hierarchies built upon gender, class, race, and so forth have no place within the body of Christ. Rather, Paul’s vision of adoption communicates that the diversity that exists among human persons is taken up into the divine life and sanctified through participation in Christ, the firstborn Son, as brothers and sisters of a diverse family.”[2]

So, then, to answer my black American friend who asks the theological question of “will I be black in heaven?” I would answer, yes! For all the beauty that God intended for your ethnicity in form and culture, in individual unique expression as well as corporate connections, yes! But for all the negative experiences and oppression that blackness entailed in this world, that kind of status hierarchy will not exist; supremacy over another and oppression of the other will be done away with fully in the eschaton. I am Korean American, and I will retain that heritage and story in the eschaton, where it will be sanctified and bear no trappings of being identified as an exoticized inferior other or a mythical model minority trope used to criticize and demean other ethnic groups.

But what of now, in the “here but not yet”, on this side of the eschaton? Heim argues that “theosis is a relentlessly embodied concept” yielding “historically particular and embodied expressions of the imago Christi.”[3] Though I have not encountered Heim’s work until recently, my work as a teacher and trainer has been in convincing ministries in America (which often default to functional colorblindness) to see themselves as ethnically embodied particulars— to not see ethnicity as accidental but as an intentionally created particularity, a vehicle for witness and indeed theosis.[4] I’ve seen some amazing, promising signs of change in places where I have gotten to train denominational leaders and seminarians; I have also seen heartbreakingly painful places of relationships and structures damaged by racial bias, unrepentance, and resistance to sacrificial change. I’m on my knees in prayers of tearful gratitude or tearful intercession.

In doing this work, I have reflected on the particularity of my being a Korean American woman. I remember speaking at a large conference this past summer and being warmly greeted by several Asian Americans who had never seen an Asian man or woman speak as the invited preacher in their majority white organization. But often, when I first speak, I see and feel the hesitation in the room. Am I a friend or a foe, an ally or someone who will make them cringe?  Will I elevate whiteness or promote the cause of communities of color? I am aware of these expectations thrust upon me by anxious and tense gazes when I first open my mouth to speak (really, if you want to make evangelical Christians anxious, tell them you are going to talk about race, ethnicity, and faith, and you can see the tense shoulders and body language from the moment you approach the podium).

I’m not black, and I’m not white. I’m not someone whose ancestral story and ties to the motherland were stolen by force (like those descended from black American slavery or the native American women and men who suffered cultural and physical genocide), nor am I a part of a people who have unconsciously or willingly disassociated from their heritage in order to be “American” as many white Americans have. Negatively, I have not had the choice of disassociating myself from my heritage because of the racial realities of being Asian in a majority white country like America (though the pressure to buy into stereotypes and erasure in a black-white binary is ever present), but also positively, disassociating myself from my ethnic heritage has not been something that I’ve seriously considered. As a child, I grew up with stories and strong ancestral ties to Korea, the country of my ethnic ancestors, to a four-star general grandfather who fought for his country’s freedom from the colonizing legacy of Japan. I am someone who was given the gift of history and appreciation of the culture and beauty in my ethnicity. My particularity is distinct from that of a Chinese descendent or a Japanese American.  Racial flattening of personhood is not an option for me, though I am well aware of the racial realities that affect people who do and don’t look like me, and I spent a good deal of time exhorting Christian ministries to care about racial injustice and oppression. There is often a good deal of ethnic division and difference within racial clusters (for example, Japanese versus Korean versus Malaysian, or Nigerian versus Haitian versus black American), which if denied make for difficult attempts at relationship building or addressing policy issues.

What this means is that I enter into American spaces being aware of something more than a black-white binary conversation that flattens personhood and ethnic particularity into race. Racial hierarchy will not exist in the eschaton; so if I identify myself by the status categories embedded in racial identities such as the majority/minority, oppressor/oppressed, powerful/disenfranchised, the problem is that in the eschaton the identity that I have chosen for myself as central will not exist. But my ethnic heritage, my ethnic story will continue, with all of its beauty and scars, and in the eschaton I will be able to behold the scars of my story and the story of my people without the memory of those wounds causing me pain. The same goes for those who are descended from oppressed persons; the same goes for those who are descended from the powerful. It is not that the stories will be forgotten; it is that the stories will not serve as foundations for continued enmity, strife, division, and stratification.[5]

I can choose to identify with then the false label of “other” because of how I don’t fit black-white paradigms, or I can use the ways I don’t fit into such particularity-reducing accounts as a mediating gift, an asset to bridge-building in the gaps that exist in both practical and academic theology. In facilitating trainings and conversations, I have found that ethnicity— my ethnically embodied particular story as an Asian, Korean American woman— is a gift, a way to lovingly confront the learner about his or her presuppositions about faith and reconciliation, or ethnicity and new creation. The ways I have been taught to honor the other, to hold space at the table for each guest, is a gift. My ethnic story allows me to have greater capacity for empathy and awareness of the other. My particularity in its embodied distinctness (my ethnicity, my gender, my personality) has been a gift that allows for me to speak and challenge across ethnic and racial lines. If all believers are to follow a cruciform life in the particularity of our lives, mine has been bridge-building between people groups who have little common language, relationship, or shared history and memory. It has not been easy, nor has it been without its share of bumps, bruises, and mistakes, but it has been worthwhile.

My journey has sent me across the country, to many different denominational contexts, often intersecting with university settings. Though I see churches growing in their desire to engage in reconciliation and multiethnicity, I see pressing gaps on the ground between our theology of justice and our eschatology amidst increasing division, nationalism, and confusion.    I am a minister and also an academic, and I am coming to accept that this is likely not going to change. So I should steward this best I can. My education at MIT many years ago taught me that the best scientists are not those who are stuck in theory; they are practitioners who are connected to their field of study. My field is driving my theological questions.

I’m in Scotland, at St. Andrews, because I believe that we need all of the gifts of the Body, all of the gifts of the whole Church, in order to thrive beyond Western-exclusive conceptions of thriving— but that includes Western theology that honors personhood, particularity, and the relentlessly covenantal God of scripture. While the Latin American theologian Justo Gonzalez, African missiologist Lamin Sanneh, and countless other writers and mentors of color helped shape my faith and convictions, it was also theologians such as J. B. and T. F. Torrance that helped form the theological underpinnings that have been essential for me in training the Church—and it is a deeper theology of reconciliation, a corporate, embodied, eschatologically oriented view that I am after.

Reconciliation is not particularity-obliterating. It refuses to envision a future without the particular, embodied persons that the Lord calls his own. And reconciliation, theology that fuels and powers Christian communal theosis, needs the gifts of the whole Body—Asian, black, Latino, native, white—Scottish, African, Korean, German, Mexican. There is no better way to get beyond our societal and cultural blinders, idols, and presuppositions than by relying on the gifts, perspectives, and stories of the diverse, particular body of the church to be able to see the context into which theology must speak truth. And as the church becomes more globally connected and as theology thus engages globally interconnected issues and challenges, we need the gifts of the entire body to help the church have the critical perspectives and insights necessary to for a healthy and flourishing Body.

Though our culture and times are rightly critical of the legacy of whiteness and colonization, it is only through interaction across the global body that one will be identify what was good, retrievable, and amplifiable in that Western history and heritage. For white and European theologians to bless the global Church, for Asian, Latin, African, and Middle Eastern theologians to bless the global Church, it is only in such interaction that we can scrutinize the foundations of our particular biases and also realize the gifts and necessary resources that we each bring. John Samuel Mbiti, a Kenyan Christian philosopher and Anglican priest, offered these powerfully piercing words in 1976:

Theologians from the new (or younger) churches [of the Global South] have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning centers of the older churches [of the Global North]. We had no alternative. We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you… We know you theologically. The question is: Do you know us, theologically? Would you like to know us, theologically?[6]

I am often one of few people of color, often the only woman of color, in my classrooms.  I can shirk back and say, I don’t fit. Or I can say, my particularity is a gift, that my ethnic-specific, woman self is critical to addressing gaps in theory and practice, and that I believe that the Church and theological conversations benefit when I bring the fullness of who I am— my Korean, American, woman self— and do the best theology I can.

[1] Erin Heim, “In Him and Through Him from the Foundation of the World,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science, ed. Andrew B. Torrance, Thomas H. McCall (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 130. Heim also writes on page 148, “If being “in Christ” does not extinguish personal identity, then the restored humanity of believers maintains their personhood and historical particularity. Indeed, we can conclude that the adoption metaphors assume the continuity of personal identity while highlighting a change in status and relation in regard to familial belonging. This construal of a Christocentric anthropology has several important implications regarding the relationship between Pauline adoption and creaturely existence, which can only be briefly sketched here. Perhaps most significantly, ethnicity, gender, social location, and other aspects of embodied identity are not peripheral to a Christocentric anthropology because they are not discarded in Christ.”

[2] Heim, 148. Heim ends her article by stating the need for communal cruciform living informed by telling and hearing the stories of the other, so that our relationships are informed by real knowing of the other in their distinctness instead of reducing the other to labels and concepts.

[3] Heim, 148.

[4] Theosis: the process of becoming like God through union with Him.

[5] I have often found it puzzling that Christians seem so intent on forgetting the past when the central point of worship around the Christian God is around His scars, the marks of the Son’s crucifixion and resurrection.

[6] John Mbiti, “Theological Impotence and the Universality of the Church,” in Mission Trends No. 3: Third World Theologies, ed. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (New York: Paulist Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 16-17.

 

Sarah Shin is the author of Beyond Colorblind (IVP Press) and the former Associate National Director of Evangelism for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) where she served for twelve years. She has a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Master of Arts in Theology from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton. Sarah is currently a Masters student at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the University of St. Andrews.

Photo by Sarah Shin