To be Cantonese in a colonized church

To be Cantonese in a colonized church July 6, 2017

Me joining a colonized church - photo by my wife, meme by me
Me joining a colonized church – photo by my wife, meme by me, in reference to how I ate my words to my students about Eastern Christianities

A few weeks ago, I was having pizza and beer with a group of people in Chicago who can perhaps be described as some of the intellectuals of the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv. A lot was said that I do not remember, but I do remember one of the things I said. For some reason, I was standing up either to get another slice or a refill on the beer, and as I was sitting down, I said, almost as a sigh: I’m glad to have joined a colonized church.

One of my interlocutors sat up straight. Tell me more about that, he said.

I told him that it was like they kept on apologizing for the foibles of the Kyivan Church. It is a known fact that Ukrainians often shoot themselves in the foot for their own political causes, usually with one exaggeration too many, or one phrase too awkward, or one rude act, or one revelation too far. For example, it is unquestionably mind-boggling, gut-wrenching, and morally reprehensible how many Ukrainians died in Stalin’s artificially-created genocidal famine in the early 1930s known as the Holodomor, but my ethnic Ukrainian friends always do a little facepalm when someone gets carried away with putting the numbers over ten million, as inflation is counterproductive for any cause for recognition.

But then I said: But this is exactly the charm of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic ChurchI would much rather be in a church of the colonized than of the colonizers any day.

I say this almost with a Cantonese inflection. My orientation to the world, I’ve been saying over the past three days (and longer, actually), is marked with a Cantonese way of being in the world – with the ‘air of righteousness’ 義氣 (Cantonese, yi hei) – so much so that I need to emphasize over and over that I may love Hong Kong, but I am not from there.

Normal as it may sound, it is a strange thing to be simultaneously Cantonese and Christian if you stop to think about it. The Asian American literary master Frank Chin stopped and thought about it; it’s what makes him an angry old man now.

As Chin spells it out in The Big Aiiieeeee!, it’s like you need to pick between the two – being Chinese and being Christian – for the rest of your life. Christianity, after all, is designed to save people, which means that you have to convince them that they need saving. Chin shows that in relation to Chinese people – especially of a Cantonese heritage – modern Christian missionaries and their converts have stopped at nothing to construe ‘Chinese culture’ as this evil, repressive, misogynistic, and homophobic culture out of which Christians grant freedom. To become Christian is, at least in the conventional missionary sense, to kill the Chinese within (or as I prefer, the Cantonese). The result, as numerous Asian American historians like Henry Yu and Madeline Hsu have shown, is that Christianization becomes linked with westernization and modernization, framing ‘Chinese culture’ as backward in need of progress. What this amounts to is a kind of secularization of the missionary project – the Christian part actually doesn’t need to be there, the modern sociological infrastructure-building impulse stays, the missionary habits remain the same.

Wherever it is on the spectrum from the theological to the sociological, it’s this modern missionary mentality, Chin suggests, that often produces the split identity crisis that most people take to be the meaning of ‘Asian American.’ Am I Asian? Christianized/modernized Asian Americans have been asking for over a century, as Judy Yung demonstrates (I’ve also shown this). Or am I American? What am I?

For Chin, what happens is that this split identity mentality is itself colonizing because it means that the Asian Americans who are so psychologically torn have been forced to forget the stories that would make them integral selves, especially the stories of martial fidelity that are encapsulated in the term yi-hei 義氣. Chin claims that this is because the split in the self comes in large part from a self-loathing of Asian cultures as inherently backward, depraved, misogynistic, and all the things. What happens is that in the name of Christianity or modernization-with-missionary-habits, Christianized and/or modernized Asian Americans might practice a purposeful forgetfulness about this sort of righteous way of doing things, premised on the street philosophies of righteousness. This is why Chin has famously loathed Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, Amy Tan, and authors like them for so long: they often alter Asian literary cultures with a purposeful Americanizing amnesia in order to address a sort of imagined backwardness in Asia.

Does not the same thing happen in a church like the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, which I (following Andriy Chirovsky) have been calling the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv? In the stunning essay L’uniatisme, the Eastern Catholic theologian Cyril Korolevsky argues that Eastern Catholics have something similar going on. Having entered into full communion with Rome, Eastern Catholics – including and especially those in my church – engaged in a project of self-colonization because they had a chip on their shoulder, preferring Latin theological formulations, liturgical acts, and devotional practices to Byzantine ones (or Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian, and or Chaldean ones) and mixing-and-matching to the point of sheer ugliness. Add to this the history of Ukraine for my church, and the picture becomes even more complicated with the colonization of what was formerly Kyivan Rus’ by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire – and then the Soviet Union, and now more increasingly, Russia with a ‘Russian World’ ideology.

What this means is that a church like mine really can’t catch a break; the fact that we keep saying that we’re trying to recover our own Byzantine and Kyivan practices by doing away with the foreign practices of latinization means that we are colonized to the core. The only small comfort we might possibly have is that for all that the Orthodox mock us for being uniates, it’s not like the Orthodox don’t have a history of being colonized either: the sack of Constantinople in 1453, the dissolution of the Moscow Patriarchate by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, the preponderance of Latin and Protestant theological formulations until nineteenth-century Russian and twentieth-century Greek theologians tried to recover something of a Byzantine theological tradition, the legacy of communism in Eastern Europe, and so on and on. True as it might be that Byzantine Christianity is by definition an imperial religion with its historic symphonia between the imperium and the sacerdotium, it is also true that great empires can end up getting colonized too – think of the indigenous ones like the Aztecs and the Incas, or maybe think of how Qing China got carved up by unequal treaties. Even for us Cantonese – a people with technically no empire, but constantly venturing forth from the littoral zone of South China, mostly as merchants – look at what we did to the indigenous people and the Hakka in Guangdong by calling ourselves punti 本地 (the locals of the land), and then what the British did to us in turn, and now what Beijing is doing to Hong Kong.

Because of this, I like to think that we Cantonese should be at least sympathetic to other colonized people (but are we?). One would also think that all of us Eastern Christians should feel the colonization in our history in our bones such that it is expressed in our makrodiakonia to all who have suffered the yoke of colonialism – although the reality is that in the world of Orthodoxy, there’s plenty of ecclesial racism to go around, condemnations of ethnophyletism be damned: Slavs to Greeks, Greeks to Arabs, and so on – such is the actual reality of historically colonized churches.

And yet, there is the story of what happened to me, a Cantonese kid who grew up evangelical Protestant, took a detour through the Anglican Communion, and found my way into this Eastern Catholic church from Kyiv. I often try to make sense of it, as it’s no secret that the churches I went through as a Cantonese kid, from non-denominational Chinese ones to the Evangelical Free Church (which is a de-ethnicized merger of Scandinavian free churches) to the Global South provinces of the Anglican Communion, also all have something to do with some kind of European colonization.

The thing is, not all colonizations are created equal. Some colonizations turn you into model minority monsters by letting you join some middling elite so that you can help manage the unruly masses. Other colonizations castrate you and engage you in so much mental and physical torment that, as the postcolonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes, you are barely recognizable as a human. In fact, Fanon says that you can experience both of the colonizations at the same time. It really is, as Ms Lauryn Hill once put it, a ‘war in the mind.’

The Christian colonization with which I grew up basically held that all this Cantonese stuff that I’ve been talking about needs to be managed and then eventually eradicated. For my parents’ generation, it was perhaps a hook for evangelization – Christian style Cantonese opera, using Chinese characters to describe gospel stories, learning Chinese culture to eventually evangelize China itself – but the point wasn’t to preserve some kind of hierarchical Confucian culture (as my second-generation peers so often think) – it was to learn about the Bible with their own language while eradicating the little idolatries they might have picked up along the way.

By the time we got to my generation, though, we were supposed to be fully assimilated Americans, which meant that we were free not to care about that Chinese stuff – in contrast to our parents, it wasn’t important for evangelizing us. In fact, our diet of The Picture Bible, Josh McDowell, Tim LaHaye, and Josh Harris in our formative years (ok, Disney too) and then the pastor-theologians we thought were academic like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller and the rest of them had some of us convinced that all that ‘Chinese culture’ stuff was works-based salvation that needed to go in order for the true gospel of justification by faith alone to be preached. In fact, as I wrote ‘air of righteousness’ in my two previous posts, the ex-evangelical in me winced a bit because I was always taught as a Protestant that God’s righteousness is imputed to us by the free gift of Christ’s death on the cross, exchanging our sins for his grace. For the sake of the gospel, the Cantonese culture that had been managed by my parents had to be denounced as heresy.

For reasons that I might explain in future posts, I had a theological meltdown shortly after I was confirmed as an Anglican. To be sure, it is perfectly acceptable to have the sort of New Calvinist theology as an Anglican (there’s actually a whole diocese that’s famous for it: Sydney) because what is Anglican theology anyway?

But suffice it to say that the little ministry that I had imploded because of it. What I re-discovered resonated with some of what I learned in Catholic high school – a sacramental way of viewing the world that was also perfectly acceptable in Anglicanism, especially if you call yourself ‘Anglo-Catholic.’ But in the process, I realized that I had also gotten sucked down the rabbit hole of what was called the Anglican realignment, the attempt to shift the power balance away from the ‘Global North’ of the Communion to the Global South through sexuality issues. This was around the time that I started blogging as Chinglican, and in so doing, I began to find my voice as an Anglican Christian, blending the barely commensurate strands of Reformed evangelicalism, Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism, broad church liberal rationalism, and charismatic enthusiasm – a truly liberal feat, if it could really be accomplished, as Oliver O’Donovan would put it. I perfected the art of never taking a stand on anything and being an epic fence sitter because this is, simply put, how Anglicans do things. It was in fact the perfect way to speak about the realignment: as Michel Foucault put it in his analysis of Victorian British culture, I learned the art of talking incessantly about it in order to be able to say nothing about it at all. I became, as one Latin Catholic friend has recently mocked me (dignum et iustum est, I’d say), a British banana.

To be sure, there is something obliquely ‘Cantonese’ about this kind of Anglicanism. Anglicanism remains a prominent religious force in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia to this day, mostly because of the legacy of British colonization, and in some ways, to be able to be Anglican in this way as Cantonese – to take all the sides, to sit on the fence, to not show your cards, to be a complete mystery to your interlocutors – can be taken as a certain sign of cultivation and sophistication. When I was an Anglican, there was a certain high-ranking Cantonese Anglican functionary that I liked to make fun of for having the ‘spirituality of a chess player,’ like one of those old Chinese men in the public park pondering a chess board and thinking ten moves ahead of his opponent while talking crap to deflect attention from his thinking. The thing is, I think in hindsight, I became exactly like him. To have such cultivation means that I as a Cantonese Anglican could quite possibly be the smartest guy in the room, moving chess pieces around, deflecting attention, never showing my cards. I’m not saying that all Anglicans are like this; I’m saying that this is what my Chinglican spiritual formation did to me.

That’s how the Umbrella Movement did me in. I wrote in the days preceding the Hong Kong protests that I was miffed that the Hong Kong Anglican hierarchy was so unfriendly to the democracy protesters, but it never occurred to me that this kind of fence-sitting, everything-is-theological, spirituality-of-a-chess-player Anglicanism was a way of positioning myself as a highly efficient colonial manager. I had, after all, argued as an Anglican for a post-colonial Anglican theology that took seriously the legacy of colonization and discarded them for a return to a pre-Reformation visionary mysticism – that of the Venerable Bede, of Cædmon, of Anselm, of Thomas à Becket, of Richard Rolle, of the Cloud of Unknowing, of Julian of Norwich. I had even begun to embrace my Cantonese way of being in the world, how I have always been since I was a child.

But the point of the Umbrella Movement was that it could not be managed. More than that, the spirit of righteousness demanded that I could not stay above the fray; it could not be that the market establishment nexus of state-tycoon-and-Triads could be just as right as those protesting for the right to have some political agency in a city that they called home. I had to become part of the world, part of the people, part of those who are conscious of being colonized and finding their voice again.

I wouldn’t say that I joined the Kyivan Church because of this – that’s far too rational, and joining a church as colonized as the one I joined is a fairly irrational act. But because I met the Eastern Catholic Jesuit who later became my spiritual father through the Umbrella Movement, I would say that the Holy Spirit brought the Kyivan Church into my life at exactly the right time.

This is a wildly different church from my previous experiences. For example, all of their dirty laundry gets aired out from the word ‘go’ by themselves. I did not, for example, find out about the spat between St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral and Ss Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago from hearsay; the details about their rift over the calendar and Ss V&O’s demand to be put directly under Patriarch Josef’s jurisdiction are on their websites and Wikipedia pages. We are an unruly people indeed; the redemption is that time heals many wounds (my friend’s grandparents are an example: one goes to the Cathedral, the other to V&O’s, and they are still married – and I think they are not the only example of such cross-temple intimacy). The first Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Canada, the Holy Hieromartyr Nykyta Budka, would know that best: some of the lay people who got here first, built their own churches and community organizations, and didn’t want a bishop chased him out of their institutions across the country (Blessed Nykyta didn’t do himself any favors, though, when his call for loyalty the Austrian cause in the First World War was a big part of getting Ukrainian Canadians interned because Canada was on the Allied Powers side – really, colonization will screw you either way), so after fifteen years of overwork and stress, he got himself transferred back to Galicia (Western Ukraine), where after World War II he got sent to gulag by the Soviets and died there, which is how he got himself the martyr status while reinforcing the point that colonization really does screw people in all the ways.

To have been received into a colonized church is to have gone from being groomed to be a manager to becoming one of the managed. It is to be part of a people that is routinely thrown under the bus by both the Vatican and the various Orthodox churches, and it is to stay with a people who will air their dirty laundry on their websites. Life here is never boring.

And yet, this is home, a place where I am told that I do not have to become ethnic Ukrainian, but where I can finally explore my Cantonese way of being in the world as part of my Christian spirituality. I don’t have to manage my Cantonese; I get to be the insurgent character in the Cantonese stories living out the ‘spirit of integrity and loyalty 義氣.’ I do not have to be, as the Cantonese say, ‘clever’ to get my way in the world; channeling my inner Ukrainian, I can be true to the practice of my grandfathers and fathers on my family’s side and on my in-laws’ as well, who were said to be very ‘straight’ (zik, 直) in the sense that they’d say what’s on their mind and get in trouble for it, just like every other Cantonese hero of old exuding the ‘air of righteousness’ too. I love this church.

One of the things that liberation theologians say in the Latin Church – a church that I almost joined and probably would have if Eastern Catholicism had not come around the Umbrella Movement – is that G-d has a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ My Eastern Jesuit spiritual father says it too, so it’s fair game. What this means is that G-d is not managing the colonized, and he is not playing mind games with them either. Instead, G-d reveals himself to us in our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born to a peasant family in Galilee that was colonized by the Romans through intermediary managerial regimes: the Herods, the local procurators, the tax collectors. In this, Jesus is part of the mess of the folk and the unruly masses; in fact, politically speaking, the colonial managers colluded at all levels to kill him in order to maintain a colonized peace. In this, Christ is our brother – our good brother with the spirit of righteousness – and in rising from the dead, he is (as my church’s catechism says in its very title) our Pascha, trampling death by death and to those in the tombs giving life.

This is why I would rather be in a church of the colonized. The truth is that colonial management is a fantasy and has never worked on the masses. The deeper reality is that at an ontological level, we who were given life by the breath of G-d are all colonized by death; it is also true, then, that the deep structure of colonization is death itself. To try to escape it, as my spiritual father often says, is to make a détente with death, to acknowledge its colonizing spiritual power on us. In Christ, no such false peace is possible because he is risen from the dead.

As I a sinner work out my salvation in fear and trembling in my church, I am well aware that many of my sisters and brothers are doing so across the Christian churches, some of which I am in communion with, and some of which we need to work out in terms of ecumenical reunion. I am not faulting the collective spiritualities of these churches; I’m saying that in my own individual spiritual formation in them, I was formed into a colonial Christian manager. That I, a sinner, have found a home in a colonized church is such poetic justice that it might even work as a Cantonese story.



Before Patheos, as Chinglican and Religion Ethnicity Wired, which means that I was writing as a Protestant

On Patheos – as Eastern Catholic Person, which means that I have to be circumspect about writing about ecclesial houses that are not mine when my own is a complete mess

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad