“I Think the White Evangelical Church is Dead”: Dr. Russell Jeung on ‘Guilt’ vs. ‘Shame’ and Decolonizing Asian-American Christianity

People of color are a few short decades away from making up the majority of the American Christian population, according to demographers and church growth experts. Yet their stories, theologies and impact on American society often take a backseat to those of white evangelicals. As part of a broader series, RD senior correspondent Deborah Jian Lee continues her work of unpacking the movements of evangelicals of color, what they believe, and how they organize.

In this interview, she speaks to Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and author of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU Press, 2012).

Their conversation explores a few of the ways he sees Asian American Christians decolonizing their faith from white Christianity, how that shapes their approach to social justice and their impact on the broader landscape, especially during this political era.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve been interviewing a lot of Christians of color who are working to “decolonize” their faith from the conservative white-centric Christian framework. The journeys people take are varied, nuanced and complicated. In your research of Asian Americans you’re finding that many, including evangelicals, are turning to Asian traditions. What does that look like?

For some people it can be abrupt—this is a whole new way of doing things—and for others, it can be a smooth transition that occurs little by little. Maybe in prayer, they shift to silent prayer, then they began to meditate more, and then, they find themselves doing a more Zen-like Buddhist practice.

My research has looked at what a lot of second-generation Asian Americans are doing. For example, Vietnamese-Americans who are Catholics are also developing home shrines, a practice of honoring ancestors. Their approach revealed how they were doing it in a hybridized way—embracing both the traditional and the personally meaningful. On their shrine they’d place something traditional, like just a photo and maybe fruits, but they would also make a montage of pictures and then ornament it with personal effects.

I’ve been speaking about my book to a lot of evangelical churches and they surprisingly embrace both my social justice angle and my Chinese-y angle of incorporating Chinese concepts. Even among evangelicals, there’s an orientation to being able to contextualize the gospel well.

Are these white evangelical churches or—

—No, no. They’re Chinese churches. I speak about the gifts the Chinese church and the Asian American church have to offer to the broader church and they appreciate that because they recognize that we have something to offer.

Can I say one thing that actually is a really good example of that, of the gift?

Yes, absolutely.

This goes back to guilt versus shame cultures. That shame-based perspective of salvation actually resonates a lot more with Asians. The Bible talks about shame three times more than guilt.

How do you define shame and guilt? How do you differentiate the two?

The guilt orientation for righteousness is that your actions are wrong. The shame orientation for righteousness is that you’ve ruined your relationship with others.

You’re shamed because you’re not right with others. That’s very Asian. That’s how a Confucian understands righteousness. It’s also very biblical. That’s how Hebrews talk about righteousness. That’s what it meant for Adam and Eve to be ashamed that their relationship is broken, not necessarily that they were guilty.

How do you apply that theological framework to social justice?

That’s my main point in talks about doing justice. The American sense of doing justice is that things are unfair and so, you’d have to make things more fair. It’s a very individualistic, process-oriented sense of justice. I argue that the Asian’s sense of justice isn’t about fairness. It’s about right relationships and corporate responsibility.

It’s not about you individually losing your rights; it’s about people not being responsible for other people. Injustice occurs when people aren’t taking care of others. It’s when the government isn’t being responsible for the people. It’s when families don’t take care of each other. Justice is when people take corporate responsibility for each other. It shifts the sense of justice from being an individualized thing to a corporate thing and from a thing that’s rights-oriented to something that’s responsibility-oriented.

I hear from a lot of Christians of color who echo this sentiment. They may frame it with language of decolonizing faith from the individualistic theology of white evangelicalism. As a result, many are divesting from white evangelical spaces, and some are turning to ancestral faith traditions. Obviously, this isn’t some new development, but in our current context, has the election and the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump accelerated this? Has it motivated more people to turn away from white evangelicalism and find a faith that’s more authentic to who they are?

I think it started before Trump. I think, clearly, Trump hastened the divide. For evangelicals of color, a lot of this started in the 2000s during the racial reconciliation movement, as people worked to articulate the differences in our communities and our different perspectives within evangelicalism. I think that process made Asian Americans begin to articulate their particular identities and theological frameworks.

It’s slow going, but you see groups talk about what Asian-American worship consists of, about what Asian-American social justice activism look like. Once people begin to write about it and teach about it, then it gets diffused in the evangelical world. More seminaries have Asian American centers, more people recognize the negative effects of colonization and more believers want a decolonized approach to faith and justice.

Do you see this filtering into the predominantly white evangelical landscape?

Apparently not. That’s why I’m so disappointed. Since the racial reconciliation movement, people of color have been going to these justice conferences and spoken to young white audiences about these issues. The white vote just disheartened me… all this effort, all these conversations and conferences… they haven’t made a dent. I think the white evangelical church is dead. The hope is that evangelical millennials have very different views from older evangelicals in terms of climate change, in terms of sexuality, in terms of the role of government.