Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pride and Prejudice... and Multiracial Ambiguity

A few years ago, I visited Chicago after being away for three short months. I had recently moved to Kenosha, WI to serve a UU congregation as Director of Religious Education and teach a college course. I returned to the Chicago rarities I frequented, including Medici on 57th, Nookie's Tree and the Seminary Coop Bookstore. My hair was getting long, so of course I went back to my favorite guy-in-a-barbershop business on Broadway. I liked this barber for two reasons. First, he likes real conversation and always entertains. He's not like those college student stylists and Great Clips who feel they must work for their tips by chattering. This guy talks politics, religion and all the topics I appreciate. Second, he knows how to cut Asian hair, as he himself is Asian. There are so many cool hairstyles I have wanted, but my head would never cooperate.  I know I look Latino or Greek or Persian or something exotic--not Asian.  Still, I have strong Filipino genes. My hair needs to be cut either very short or very long. Anything in-between gives that legendary "Asian hair" that "white people hair products" simply cannot tame.  Sorry, Crew brand.  The shape of my haircut must never be blended, or else a horizontal spike grows around the sides of the head and on the top.

This guy went to Great Clips:

Frequenting this guy-in-a-barbershop storefront had always ensured my hair would look nice for the next three weeks, and I always complimented him on knowing what to do with my Asian hair.  He always thanked me and told me my mother raised me well.  I always tipped well.

You know how those Great Clips college students pretend they remember how you liked your hair cut, even though you have never visited that location before?  Well, an Onion News in Photos installment riffs on this phenomenon.  But, apparently, Great Clips is not the only forum for this white lie.  When I returned to my barber on Broadway shortly after leaving Chicago, he said he knew me and that he remembered how I like my hair.  I continued our normal discussions and told him I couldn't wait to have my "'Asian hair' cut" again.  There was silence in the barbershop.  Tension.  He paused for a few seconds, then he asked me what I said.  I repeated that he really knows how to cut "Asian hair."  For about eight minutes, he was silent.  No talk of politics or religion.  No eye contact, just trimming.  I tipped well, and he took my money.  I left the shop, though, with one of the worst haircuts I had ever received.  When I got back to Wisconsin, I had to do more trimming, but my bangs were too short, and the sides and top were all wrong...  Then I realized: he had probably been too proud to admit that he didn't remember me, though I had visited only a few months prior.  He pretended to know all about me, and I assume his intention was to make me feel welcomed.  When I resumed our conversations that he indicated he remembered, he probably picked-up on the fact that I was telling him that I like how Asian people cut my hair, but of course he missed the fact that I am also Asian.  I look Latino or Greek or whatever.  Taking his false cue, of course I did not remind him that I am, in fact, half-Asian and that my hair is a gift from my Asian mother.  He must have assumed that I am racist, and he punished me by butchering my hair in a way that would make any Great Clips stylist blush.

In our categorically oriented society, any exception of a norm requires apology and explanation.  We like normativity, which creates bigotry on both sides.  With heteronormativity, gay people have to "come out" (read: apologize) to their parents because they have no chemistry with people of the opposite sex, and bisexual individuals have to advocate for their existence to both heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities.  Mixed-race individuals can be rejected or unrecognized by those who share our ethnicity.  The barber on Broadway helped me understand that.  With racial purists, some white people pretend that Obama has nothing to do with them, and some black people pretend that any opposition to Obama is racially motivated.    People on both sides of the political aisle have said terrible things about Obama and race.  These violators are all bigoted and oppressive.  They are like barbers and stylists who make damaging assumptions about a multiracial President.  Whether they are non-mixed black or non-mixed white supporters of Obama, they tokenize Obama as a racial object to support, and that bigoted act dehumanizes Obama.  (Unfortunately, the mainstream media rarely attacks Obama's supporters as tokenizing and dehumanizing Obama.)  Similarly, non-mixed white detractors who create slightly clever bumper-stickers about "A village in Kenya is missing an idiot" are also dehumanizing Obama.  Both experiences are equally racist.

Given the above, I understand.  I really do.  Yet, I object.  We are no longer living at the dawn of the 1900's. We are in the second decade of the third millennium in the common era.  Regardless of whether one is completely heterosexual or perfectly gay, purely black or totally Caucasian, we need to get beyond this categorical thinking.  Our inability to do so creates destruction.  Whether it is political destruction or an embarrassing haircut, it is our pride that disables us.  Our pride makes us look weak and incapable.  When we embrace the full complexity of humanity, then we are strong.  Our failure to look beyond the binary or the categorical has created the political hostility during this national downturn. I have a feeling that this period of economic downturn and the racial contentiousness will be the reason posterity looks back at this generations as another "Great Depression."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Towards a UU Doctrine of Wholeness

I still receive alumni publications from my Bible college, Olivet Nazarene University, which had prepared me for my short-lived career as “Local Minister.”  With the arrival of the latest issue of The Olivetian, the school and its doctrine are freshly in my mind.

My former denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, is a part of the “holiness movement” and has strong historical ties to abolitionism.  At the beginning of the 1900’s, a large percentage of Nazarene ministers were female.  Unfortunately, the social justice orientation of the denomination stagnated in the early 1900’s, and archaic regulations preclude ‘homosexualist’ involvement in religious education.  That’s how you got stuck with me!  Unusual practices survive as relics from days before the Model-T, including abolitions against consuming alcohol, viewing motion pictures and playing games of chance with cards that have faces on them.  Yes, ladies and gentleman, that is my religious heritage.  However harshly I may criticize their war against culture, I find that the doctrine of holiness has real implications for our liberal religion.  In my personal humanistic worldview, the doctrine of holiness helps me illuminate humanist and other theologies.
Two basic distinctives for the doctrine of holiness promote entire consecration to the service of God, then the belief that such consecration brings peace and freedom from sin.  If salvation is the first work of grace and a gift from Jesus, then this “sanctification” becomes a second work of grace and a gift from the Holy Spirit.  Undoubtedly, Unitarian Universalists will reject the necessity for salvation, since we promote the inherent worth and dignity of all humans, and some of us will object to the proposition that a work of grace can be a work of a divine entity.  Granted that a divine entity cannot be directly responsible for this work of grace, can we still assess the doctrine for its merits?
Consider the assertion that Unitarian Universalists, for the most part, already consecrate their lives to the service of humankind, through struggles of justice and acts of compassion.  Our Denomination’s “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign provides a public stage on which our members may advocate for fair immigration trails and marriage equality, not to mention our heritage as abolitionists, suffragists, and desegregationists.  Locally, our congregation has also participated in endeavors to abolish capital punishment.  One may argue that the Church of the Nazarene might look a lot like the Unitarian Universalist Association if it cared to revise its doctrinal statements after slavery. 
Also, consider the idea that living for the service of humankind offers peace to the world and spiritual freedom.  You may have heard that simple practices like giving to charity and “thank you” helps us feel free, if not empowered.  It would not be a leap, therefore, to say that consecrating our lives to the service of humankind offers the world peace and frees the soul within.  This is my doctrine of wholeness.
Why do I write this theology?  Today, the UUA staff reported the following:
Adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States has declined for the second consecutive year following many years of positive though nearly flat growth. Enrollment in children’s religious education programs also dropped this year, continuing a slow decline that began in 2002. […] Many Protestant denominations also reported declines this year, including the Southern Baptist Convention, -.24 percent; United Methodist Church, -.98 percent; Episcopal Church -2.81; and United Church of Christ -2.93. Five denominations reported increases. Jehovah’s Witnesses is up 2 percent, Church of God 1.78, Latter-day Saints 1.71, Assemblies of God 1.71, and Roman Catholic Church 1.49. These figures are from the National Council of Churches 2010 yearbook. http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/160696.shtml
Our mission is to serve the world and each other.  Even ancient Christianity, before the Council of Nicea, believed with St. Paul, that we are collectively God’s Temple, and with Jesus, that whatever we do in charity we do unto God.  Our heritage in ancient Christianity and our unique identity as a liberally religious congregation tell us that we ought to solemnly consider our purpose as people who reach out.  We risk neglecting the concerns of the world, yes.  More importantly, we risk the stagnation and loss of identity that the Church of the Nazarene has experienced since the early 1900’s.  We know our mission.  For the sake of our movement and our religious education programs, my hope is that we use campaigns such as Standing on the Side of Love to impact the world in a new and profound way.