April 9, 2008

Proselytizing, Asian American style

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I saw this article about Asian American Christians a few days ago on AAM, and I wanted to collect my thoughts before posting. I myself am an atheist according to Richard Dawkins's definition, which means that I believe God is extremely unlikely to exist. I see no reason to believe that he exists, and since the doubt an agnostic would feel is negligible to me, I am therefore an atheist. At the same time, I have friends of different religions (including a Christian friend on the 44's), and so I try not to judge people based on their beliefs. Belief is a personal choice. Still, some of this fundamentalist Asian American evangelical Christian stuff is scary, and since I feel it hinders our efforts to create a stronger Asian American community, I thought I'd comment on the article.

As a college student years back, I had the exact same experiences with Asian American evangelical groups. They gather in large groups, and they try to coerce their "friends" into converting to their religion. There are good Christians and bad Christians, of course, but evangelicals try to force a logically indefensible religion on people through all kinds of control and manipulation (which is mentioned in the article.). It's wrong. All of the leaders treat the existence of the Christian God as a given fact, and they expect others to do the same without proof or reason. These Christian groups will often use bribery, threats, manipulation, and ostracism to get other Asian Americans to bow down to their god, whose existence they know they cannot confirm. It often broke my heart to see strong young people broken down by fear and submitting themselves to these cult-like groups.

Keep in mind that I'm not trying to insult anyone. I'm not trying to degrade the practice of religion. I'm just noting some extreme behavioral problems with fundamentalist evangelical Christian groups, as well as some of the problems that I see with the whole obedience lesson that these evangelicals preach. I think this hurts Asian Americans, and I think it's something we need to bring out in the open.

From the article:
Then one day in the dining commons, Chiu met a Bible study leader who invited him to Acts2Fellowship's student welcome night, during which a variety of skits were performed. In the "mask skit," a character goes to college and tries to fit in by wearing different masks, but can't find any meaningful relationships. The scene struck a chord with Chiu. "That's how I lived my life through middle and high school," he said, "trying to act cool."

This is exactly how it usually works. For many of these evangelicals, selling Christianity is like selling Amway. "Hey, neighbor, I've got this great product that you should try. Come by Johnson Auditorium on Friday night, and bring your friends!"

People should be free to say whatever they want regarding their religion, but at a certain point, it becomes obnoxious. How do you excuse someone who pretends to be your friend in order to get you to subscribe to his belief system? I once even heard of a girl feigning interest in a guy just to get him to church. Having been approached by numerous Christian Asian American students when I was younger, I remember the modus operandi of the college evangelical very clearly. In fact, I could teach the method:

1. Be nice and outgoing: Meet lots of people, and invite them to your church. Act cool. You can even mention that there are tons of attractive women there.

2. Be somewhat distant during the early meetings. During church, preface everything by "I believe" or "we believe." This way it doesn't look like you're forcing your beliefs on people.

3. Invite them into the fold, and drop the H-bomb: "You're going to HELL if you don't believe what I do!!! Thou art a sinner!!!"

Those Christian skits in college were mad crazy. I remember seeing a bunch of skits that did the normal preaching--no women, no drugs, no alcohol, no thinking licentious thoughts. There was never anything positive about the message. It was always "Thou shalt not ___," rather than "Why not try ____." It was always about restricting the individual, rather than encouraging the individual. The whole symbolism of the Christian campus skits were scary too. It was as if they were trying to teach Asian Americans fear and guilt.

Even in this article, most of the people seem to join because they are desperate for answers. They are somehow at the end of their rope, and they have nowhere else to turn. So they turn to evangelical religion, which demands total obedience and no exercise of skill or leadership. It kills your individuality.
In particular, Chiu said he found it hard to believe he was very sinful. Like many Asian students, he said, he was mostly concerned about making good grades and obeying his parents. "I never did anything bad, like kill anyone or do drugs," he said. But he did start considering how he saw himself — particularly, how proud he was. And he admits that he tended to look down on others who weren't as good as him academically or athletically.

I never really understood this religious focus on not feeling proud. Top athletes and top politicians are proud of their abilities. How is this sinful? More importantly, how can a person excel if he doesn't believe that he is good at a certain task? It seems to me that this is a false conceit. In order to think of yourself as conceited, you have to admit that you think you're better than other people at something, and if you think that, chances are pretty good that you are.
Today, Chiu says he's not as crazy about grades as he once was. And while he used to want a girlfriend to fill his loneliness, now he says he's focused on his male friendships.

Something about that just doesn't seem right.
"I began to see that my future is secure because God has a plan for me," he said.

Big Brother is watching you.

When the pastor began his lecture, the students dug in their backpacks bringing out notebooks and Bibles. He reminded them of the key verse of the year: Philippians 3:8. "Did anyone memorize it yet?" he asked.


A few raised their hands. He called out the first name of a male student sitting toward the back, joking about his engineering major. The student stood and recited the passage from memory: "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ."

"It's impossible to earn our way to heaven," the pastor told the students, as they jotted down notes. "The only way to heaven is through the cross of Jesus Christ."

Interspersed throughout his explanation of the passage, the pastor kept things lively by relating things to students' cultural experiences. He likened the Apostle Paul to the "guy in the Korean newspaper" who "your mom points out, who goes to Harbard," he said, laying on a thick Korean-mom accent. Later, he compared God's power to that of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, when the white-haired wizard releases King Theoden from the spell of the evil wizard Saruman. "God releases you and you can be healed," he said.

Then he got serious again. "What is life all about?" he asked. "The one thing that's certain about everyone's life here is that we're all going to die. We're all sinners, and we're all going to die and face our God one day." He acknowledged that this might sound harsh to some. "I'm not trying to be a morbid prophet, I'm not trying to scare you," he continued, adding, "Shouldn't we try to find a way to salvation?"

This is classic fundamentalist bullshit. This pastor is pulling the scare card right out of his hat, and he's talking about a "salvation" that has never been proven. I'll say it loud and clear: this pastor is lying through his smarmy teeth. Fear is the number one enforcement tool for the proselytizer. Everything else is meaningless. Read the article and see what all the converts are saying, "Now that I've turned towards Jesus I'm not going to HELL." This pastor can go about his business in scaring people into dropping coins in the collection tray, but make no mistake--he is trying to scare people.
"I think Asian Americans are looking for more than just what they're doing in their life," Huang said. "They're looking for more than just what their parents brought with them from China or other Asian communities. That looking for more has translated into looking for God. I think a lot of Asian Americans, their moms and dads found suburbia and privilege. And a lot of Asian Americans who grew up in privilege realize it's not enough. We have a nice house, two cars, food in the refrigerator, but there's still something missing. When we go to UC Berkeley, we want to know what's out there. We want to experience more."

I agree with Huang's idea that Asian Americans are looking for more in life. It just strikes me as utterly ironic that people turn to religion.

There is just so much more out there. What about studying history so that you can make positive changes in society? What about studying literature or art so that you can see what is beautiful in life? What about studying music? Putting yourself in a place where your leaders attempt to scare you with the unproven idea that you're a dirty sinner who will go to Hell without their guidance just doesn't seem to me to be the best way to assuage your desire for more in life, and it worries me because I think a lot of young Asian Americans are turning to the wrong leaders. What they want is control over their own lives, and instead, they are turning to people who are promising control over an afterlife which probably doesn't exist.

We're at a point in history where we need people to create change. We need people to contribute their intellectual capital to the betterment of society. We don't need people to submit to a group mentality and to cave into fear. Now some of you may say that Martin and Malcolm were both religious and that they did their civil rights work within the framework of their religion. I'd respond by pointing out that this brand of Christianity is clearly different. Martin never forced his beliefs on others through fear and guilt, and Malcolm proved his openness to other religions by quoting from the Bible. There was never any kind of "Thou art a sinner" type of theme in anything they did. Fundamentalist Christianity is a bad thing for Asian Americans. It is an opiate, a red herring, that keeps us from where we really need to focus. We need strong people to fight for equality, people who will rise to challenges. We don't need this:

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Again, I'm not trying to dog anyone's religion, so feel free to disagree with me.

(photos from gracepointonline.com)

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