Nine Lessons I Learned From Yellow (And One More)

Article
02.26.2010

You won’t find Frank Wu’s book Yellow in the Christian section of the bookstore. But if you’re a pastor or church leader interested in knowing how to love and serve minorities in your congregation, it may be worth reading.

Wu was the first Asian American law professor at the historically African American Howard University and is a commentator on racial issues. His book Yellow looks beyond customary Black-White divisions and considers the role of Asian Americans and other minorities, offering a unique perspective on the topic of race.

In Wu’s eyes, no one is color-blind. Issues of race affect our thinking, whether we are conscious of it or not. Race is an important issue because we’ve turned it into an important issue. Given the history of slavery and race-based discriminatory legislation in the United States, the stage has been set for a race-based way of interpreting life. Americans can’t just wish this history away.

Whites might not be comfortable with Wu’s discussion of “white privilege” and the way he often sides with minorities, but I think he’s onto something. All things being equal, being white in America is generally an advantage. Yes, more factors are involved, such as socio-economic discrimination or reverse discrimination by minorities (which is offensive to God). But does discrimination by minorities have as large an impact? Walking with Wu through his own experiences is quite eye-opening.

Along the way, I picked up nine lessons from Wu for thinking about race in our local churches, along with one more lesson.

NINE LESSONS (AND ONE MORE)

First, clothe yourself in the gospel. I’m starting with the “one more” lesson. This is cheating since Wu—probably not a Christian—does not discuss the importance of grace. However, those who have repented of their sins and trusted in Christ should know that our identity is found firstly in Christ. Everything else, like race, ethnicity, even gender, comes further down the list (see Gal. 3:28).

What is more, we should not seek correction for moralistic reasons. We seek racial reconciliation because God has reconciled us to himself and to one another in Christ. We want him to be glorified as his gospel is magnified through the church. The nine lessons which follow are possible outworkings of the gospel in the arena of race.

Second, race is not neutral. Wu states, “[race] shapes every aspect of my life—and everyone else’s” (7). Yet he contrasts white Americans, who “can choose to stop thinking about race (or to never start),” with African Americans, who cannot stop thinking in racial terms. It’s often easy to think that we have a neutral viewpoint and that our culture is neutral. Yet clear examples in our daily lives demonstrate that this is not the case. For example, Wu argues, African Americans congregating in a group “provides white Americans with another negative visual cue”(320). The converse situation of white Americans meeting together is usually inconspicuous.

What this means in our present cultural context, ironically, is that achieving a color-blind outlook is not necessarily a positive goal. Particular ethnic groups have struggles that are unique to them, and we should not ignore those struggles. Pastors especially should be aware of the struggles of their sheep so that they can better exhort them. Certainly the fundamentals of reconciliation will always be the same: the cross is the ultimate solution for our rebellion against God. Yet the gospel’s practical outworkings may differ depending on one’s background. For example, perhaps an emphasis on grace to an Asian American coming from a culture prizing duty.

Third, “race is asymmetrical”(10). Wu argues that white Americans may need to assume a greater burden in humility. There is a “false moral equivalence, as if Whites and Blacks as groups actually experience the same racial discrimination on a regular basis” (29). Yes, this is controversial point, but repeated studies show that minorities, especially Blacks, suffer from higher incidences of stress and other health difficulties than Whites.

What does this mean for the pastor? White pastors should be willing to make a greater effort to understand the concerns of minority members in their congregations. This is not because Whites are more guilty of racial offences, but because they posses a more privileged place in society.

I term this the “New York Yankees” syndrome. The Yankees players may not be more arrogant than the players on other baseball teams. But since they enjoy greater financial resources and play on the biggest stage in America, baseball fans impute to them an attitude of pride. In the same way, white pastors have the particular burden (or opportunity!) of working harder to relate with members of their congregation who belong to a minority.

That being said, Asian Americans and other minorities should also be careful about their own attitudes toward each other. Our acts of discrimination are also offensive to God. We are to please him, not society at large.

Fourth, we should be careful of stereotyping races, even positively. For example, a pastor may stereotype Asian Americans as humble due to their relative quietness. But quietness doesn’t mean Asian Americans are less proud; they simply manifest their pride differently than Whites or Blacks. Pastors should be aware of differences that may arise due to cultural or ethic backgrounds, but Scripture should always govern what a pastor finally assumes about every individual human being.

I’m grateful that at my own church, the elders evaluate a man’s suitability for pastoral ministry based on his fruit and not on his style. People from different backgrounds will preach differently. But fruitfulness is race-neutral.

Fifth, consider ways that the church can serve members from marginalized groups. Wu argues for affirmative action given the history of race problems in the United States.

Well-meaning Christians may agree or disagree with this stance when it comes to the political arena, but it’s good to keep in mind that the fellowship of believers is not “America,” and that we are free to consider race-based approaches to address certain issues in our congregations. Given the unequal discrimination that majority and minority members face outside the church, Christians can take extra measures to encourage the marginalized.

For example, a black man faces more difficulties than a white man. Wu notes,

Most white Americans need not worry about rampant drug dealing and gun violence in their neighborhoods, false arrests, police brutality, selective prosecution, or the death penalty. Being killed by one of their peers, the leading cause of death for African American young men, is not a major fear for their white cohorts (207).

Under these circumstances, congregations can care particularly for those who are black. Pastors can encourage their churches to make sure black members and visitors feel welcome.

Sixth, the church should combine assimilation and integration, both a melting pot and a multi-culture. Wu observes that the polar extremes of assimilation and diversity both have sub-optimal outcomes. Complete assimilation rejects cultural distinctiveness, while complete diversity rejects an overarching identity and leads to a paralysis.

The church, first and foremost, must be centered around the gospel. That is its primary identity. Paul states that, “here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:10).

If a church became more racially diverse, however, it would make sense for its culture to change as well. A church, particularly a congregational one, is defined by its members. If it welcomed members from other cultures and ethnicities, it should feel different. Consider geographical contrasts: the culture of a church in New York City will probably be different from the culture of one in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

How would a change in the culture of a church take place? Here is one idea: members of the church could spend more time with people from different backgrounds. If more Hispanics joined our church, pastors should encourage members to spend time with them and their friends. Members shouldn’t restrict themselves only to people who look like themselves.

Seventh, we should spend time in ethnically reverse situations. Wu calls for “a place where people of color can be in the overall majority and hold most of the leadership positions” (324). Typically, when people call for multi-ethnic churches, we assume minorities are to join white-led churches. The converse–Whites joining minority-led churches–is much rarer.

But Christians should be willing to enter situations where people of color are in the majority. Go to a party where the majority is a minority. Better yet, serve where minorities are leading. Cultural nuances will probably be more apparent in such situations. Wu states, “we do not all need to follow the same [cultural] rules. But we all need to have a better understanding of the multiple sets of rules that are in operation” (329). When pastors learn the rules of another culture, they will be better equipped to love their congregations.

And if you’re looking for a new church, consider a church you might not typically think of joining because you would be in the minority.

Eighth, “our familiarity with other races should not lead us to premature self-congratulation” (299). We can have friends of other races yet still be blind to racial issues. Don’t assume all your opinions are “sensitive.” Be willing to continue learning and avoid complacency.

Ninth, take care with your words, and consider what others are hearing. Consider how you may best love others through your speech. Here are examples of things that are not helpful to say:

  • “Where are you really from?” (79).
  • “My, you speak English so well.” (80).

Consider what an Asian American hears from either statement. She may be born in America, and be as American as a White from Texas. Yet those statements reinforce her place as an outsider.

In addition, pastors should discourage racial jokes. Jokes which seem benign to the majority can “seem like an endlessly recurring nightmare for the minority” (10). Jokes can be used well and encourage humility. However, racial jokes are in a category increasingly taboo in our society. Pastors should be particularly sensitive to such speech because it generally does not commend the gospel.

And tenth, we should address racial issues with heaven in mind. Wu waxes poetically that, “Americans were idealists once and we can become idealists again” (348). Just as Americans once created a land of the free and home of the brave, he means, so they should also be idealists when it comes to issues of race. As Christians, we have a much greater hope and certainty. First, we know that in heaven, there will be people from every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). God will accomplish salvation among all peoples of the earth. Second, the Church in heaven will dwell perfectly in harmony. It will submit perfectly to God as a flawless display of his glory.

With the hope of heaven, we can be freshly motivated to address issues of race here on earth. It should be clear that the culture of this church in heaven will differ from the culture of our churches today. We will probably not sit in pews or wear choir robes. (There may not even be organs!) And the ethnic composition of this final church will be quite different from that of our own. Even now, the majority of the world’s Christians is not from North America but is from the global South—South America, Asia, and Africa. Therefore, we should not hold strongly to one culture. Instead, we should welcome and serve those of other backgrounds gladly, knowing that in so doing we will be preparing for our eternal home.

By:
Sam Lam

Sam Lam works in international development in Washington, D. C.