Asian American evangelicals, Eastern Catholics, and the question of uniatism

Asian American evangelicals, Eastern Catholics, and the question of uniatism July 10, 2018

A bunch of bewildered Protestants contemplating the Umbrella Movement in an Eastern Catholic parish, 14 October 2016 – photo credit: Richard Wu

I don’t know what it says about me that the most popular post around here for a while was last Wednesday’s piece on Asian American evangelicals. I am sure that the Orthodox are among my readership. For example, I saw on a recent post on Ancient Faith Ministries that the very popular Orthodox priest Fr Lawrence Farley ‘heard that a Byzantine Catholic community used [his] akathist Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness as a liturgical part of expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement’ and ‘felt a sense of ambivalence’ because while he liked that his akathist was ‘useful,’ he felt ‘a bit uneasy at the politicization of liturgical prayer.’

I am the only Eastern Catholic that I know of who writes about praying Fr Lawrence’s Akathist to Jesus, Light to Those in Darkness in relation to Black Lives Matter and all victims of state violence, as well as in a moment of my own uneasiness on the night that the 2016 American elections were decided. I therefore conclude based on the circumstantial evidence that Farley has read my blog, even if only once and two years after the fact. For me, Farley’s oblique reference, however critical, is a happy thing, though I wonder how Farley would feel if he learned that an Orthodox guy (one who is not in communion with Rome) and I had had discussions recently about praying his akathist in solidarity with Palestinian protesters and residents who were lethally fired upon by Israeli forces. Alas, I recently had a falling out with that interlocutor, which also means that Farley has nothing to worry about from us in the near future. I will, of course, continue to pray for Palestine on my own.

What I’m saying is that it is always good to have Orthodox readers. In fact, the last few times my blog had so much traffic was probably because of them. Twice, I was on their side when I wrote letters of jest to writers at the fundamentalist Protestant blog Pulpit and Pen as they criticized the Bible Answer Man Hank Hannegraaff’s conversion to Orthodoxy. I think somebody said that it was great that as an Eastern Catholic, I was standing up for my Orthodox sisters and brothers even though they don’t always have our backs.

That comment reminds me of the other time my blog suddenly became popular. When I was a newly received neophyte in the Kyivan Church, I also wrote on Ukrainian autocephaly. I don’t think my Orthodox readers liked that one very much. I heard that on one facebook group, the word ‘uniate’ was used to describe me. For those not in the know, ‘uniatism’ is a bad thing for the Orthodox that sounds like a good thing to those in the Latin Church and its Protestant discontents. Roughly speaking, ‘uniate’ translates to motherf*–er in Orthodox-speak, and it’s pretty literal in most cases because the accusation is that some Orthodox Christians cut themselves off from canonical Orthodoxy to get into bed with mater ecclesia, the Church of Rome. In a word, they’d consider all of us Eastern Catholics, who are technically Orthodox (but not all Byzantine) in communion with Rome, to be uniates. Among ourselves, there’s a little bit more circumspection. Some of us radicals, especially our theologians, use ‘uniate’ to refer to those who have a chip on their shoulders because we’re not Latin and therefore try to be more Roman Catholic than the Romans with their rosaries, stations of the cross, kneeling, and so on and so forth. In both my preferred usage of the term as an Eastern Catholic radical and in the Orthodox blanket depiction of all of us as uniates, uniatism is a dirty word, ranking up there with all the other racial and ethnic slurs that might come immediately to mind.

Funny enough, nobody called me a uniate for writing the last post on Asian American evangelicals. If anything, the Asian American evangelicals who commented on social media and got in touch with me told me that it was so wonderful to read me writing out of my own Orthodox tradition. I suspect that, far more than the Orthodox, they were the primary readers of the previous piece. They told me that they’d learned about Orthodoxy and were fascinated by the unexpected connections with Asian American evangelicalism. Of course, I told them to keep calling me Orthodox. As someone who gets called the u-word more than I’d like to bet, I’ll take what I can get wherever I can get it. For my part, I told my evangelical sisters and brothers that I was trying to show the most respect I could to their tradition, one that I had departed in my own ecclesial journey. Again, my attempt to be fair to Asian American evangelicalism did not come from a sense of their practice as purely identifying as Asian and Protestant Christian because of biological phenotype and geographical ancestry. Rather, as I argued in the previous post, Asian American evangelicals tend to have an anti-orientalist streak, if even only for the personal purposes of not wanting to be personally identified in a normatively white world as exotic oriental others but find themselves nonetheless inhabiting the networks of evangelicalism for reasons of worship, fellowship, or even career.

These people – Asian American evangelicals who really profess to try to be anti-orientalist in the structures of evangelical whiteness – were understandably the most nervous about my post. In examining the hubbub about Eugene Cho saying that the Holy Apostle Paul’s churches were all dead when they are currently Orthodox metropolitan sees, it was like I was criticizing one of their own. One even texted me to say that reading it was like watching a predatory animal expertly stalking its prey and then suddenly going in for the kill. I wrote back to say that I hope he didn’t think I had eaten Eugene Cho alive, and he clarified that it was more of a conceptual stalking, from outlining what the anti-orientalist agenda of Asian American politics was to cashing in. Nice save, I thought.

But all in all, it seemed surprisingly well received, and again, all that a writer can wish for is coming true for me: I have readers, even outside of my ecclesial home. Indeed, it has me re-evaluating my relationship to Asian American evangelicals all over again. Right in time for this thought to occur to me, I received a comment from a well-meaning critic of my last post saying that it seems that I am ‘still working through [my] own own identity and justification as one who has converted to Orthodox Christianity.’ Close, but no cigar, I thought, though (as previously) I appreciated his acknowledgement of my Orthodoxy. Working through my own differentiation from Protestantism is so yesteryear. It was quite a struggle, one that evoked the comment from a brilliant Reformed friend of mine that my relationship to the Protestant world is ‘basically Oedipal.’ I have never disputed this psychoanalytical diagnosis. It is a matter of historical fact that I learned my Christianity from a wide range of Protestants, and when I left Protestantism, the psychic process of discovering my own voice within the Kyivan Church felt as painful as parricide and matriphilia.

What, then, does it say about me that I still have Asian American evangelical readers, lots of them? If I were to go by the measures of evangelicalism, I suspect they’d say that there’s still a part of me that’s evangelical, and therefore I’m still theirs. Evangelical membership, after all, is notoriously promiscuous. Just as a lustful gaze is already the adultery of the heart, an admission of evangelical superego usually constitutes ipso facto membership in what Protestants have long called the ‘invisible church,’ those who may not be visibly united in the structures of the ecclesia but are still inwardly connected. The problem is that, like most Catholics and Orthodox, one of the first heresies I renounced upon reception into the Kyivan Church was that of the invisible church. It’s an ecumenical cop-out. If we are all united anyway, we might as well get back together structurally. For those who protest that I am too obsessed with ‘man-made structures,’ I’d say that they should also probably do away with marriage and save all the teens in their youth groups the agony of abstinence education while they’re at it. If we can solve schism by sheer intention, all those ‘married in our hearts’ justifications for premarital sex are also fully valid.

Ecumenism, in other words, is about walking together for the sake of the world while conscious of the deep pains of our divisions. The oikoumēnē refers to our common inhabitation, which is on this earth though not of this cosmos. Having inherited the schisms of history, we still have to live together in an unjust order in which creation cries out for social justice. Ecumenical work therefore does not only focus on how we can get back together structurally, but also on what we can still do together despite the ugly reality that we are all children of divorce.

One of the things that I said in the previous post that we can do together – Orthodox-not-in-communion-with-Rome, Eastern Catholics, and Asian American evangelicals (and I suppose those in the Latin Church as well) – is to profess and practice an anti-orientalist politics. It would in fact go a long way toward the ecumenical endpoint somewhere down the road of getting back together, because we might realize in our collective practice that many of us inherited our schisms from orientalists in the first place. Those of us whose families are from places that were evangelized by modern missionaries know well that missionary propaganda has contributed to our divisions. I’ll use my family as an example. My parents are from Hong Kong; so is my wife. There, they were educated in missionary schools, went to churches founded by missionaries, and were treated in hospitals established as missions. In those places, they picked up that Catholics are not Christians; in fact, even the Catholics are known to say that they are Catholic, not Christian. This is because the word for ‘Protestant’ in Chinese is ‘Christian’ 基督教. In turn, ‘catholicity’ has nothing to do with Catholicism; that’s 天主教, Lord-in-the-Sky Teaching. When the Anglicans got there, they did not call themselves Anglican; they were the 聖公會, literally the holy public association, which is one step away from calling themselves The Holy Catholic Church. Orthodoxy got a better translation – 東正教 – literally ‘Eastern Orthodox Teaching,’ but then again, it hasn’t exactly been good at being a missionary church either, especially not in Hong Kong, where it’s still much more associated with the local Greek and Russian populations there.

With these different translations of church names, it was also easy to think that these various churches worshipped different gods. The Protestants – that is, the Christians – prayed to God, a 神 (technically, a spirit) in the singular, and if they wanted to be more specific, they invoked the ancient Shang hero-deity 上帝, the Emperor Above. Catholics on the other hand got their god from the Pope, who was in Rome, which meant he wasn’t Chinese. It used to be that the Jesuit missionaries referred to their God as simply the Sky, 天, and made out that venerating the ancestors was similar enough to praying to saints that they set up ancestral tablets on some of their altars. Two hundred years into this practice, the Dominicans and Franciscans tattled on them, and Pope Clement XI issued a decree ordering Catholics not to pray to the Sky, but the Lord in the Sky, the 天主. In this sense, Protestants and Catholics not only had different theologies, but also seemed to have two different gods, which is how the perception has persisted that – beyond even schism – what divided the two communions was literally that they were two religions. Here is where some Anglican humor is appropriate: the via media compromise for them was 上主, the Lord Above.

To become Christian as a Chinese person is automatically to be born into schisms not of your own ancestors’ making, and I suspect the same is true for most Christians in places that were colonized by orientalists. At some point, you might even need to make some life choices. Do I want to stay with the Chineseness of the folk tales, martial morality, and spiritual ordinariness of street opera, popular television shows, and the stories of my grandparents? Or do I cast off all of my past as heathen and join the worlds that were shattered in Europe? Or do I do what most Chinese Christians do – appear as conservative family values practitioners who can guarantee their kids a better education than their European and American counterparts while secretly retaining the jokes about white people as well as the spiritual orientations that look like superstition?

Those of us anti-orientalists especially in Asian American studies have given the phenomenon of these impossible choices many names. The most popular is the model minority, the appearance of Asian cultural values to guarantee success in education and managerial professions until a glass ceiling is hit. The Asian American literary critic Frank Chin just calls it Christianity with a sneer, holding that the psychically painful choice of such identity crises is produced by missionaries who want to kill the ‘heathen Chinee’ within and save the Christian soul. I learned a new word in Eastern Catholicism. It’s uniatism.

It takes a Uniate to know uniatism when I see it. Just as I would argue (despite the detractors who reject my papers) that the central task of Asian American studies is to theorize the model minority as internalized orientalism in order to provide an anti-orientalist path to liberation, I’d say that the main concern of Eastern Catholic theology since the interventions of Fr Cyril Korolevsky, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, and Archimandrite Oreste Kerame in the early twentieth century has been to identify uniatism as a phenomenon of colonization and to reject it in the effort to construct an Eastern Catholic anti-colonial politics. Perhaps Korolevsky provides the best working understanding of uniatism in this sense. Far from the simple fact of Orthodox Christians having re-established communion with the Bishop of Rome, to be a uniate in Korolevsky’s analysis is to have such a chip on your shoulder as a Byzantine Christian that you actually prefer Latin theology to Greek formulations, and along with those latinizations, you also take on Roman liturgical, artistic, and practical manifestations. The result of such self-colonization is a mishmash where Roman Catholics see you as a second-class citizen who gets to play Catholic with a glass ceiling while you stick around wishing that the Romans would just accept you and your culture if only you were better behaved. It’s a kind of orientalism that turns the othering inward, making you imagine yourself as an exotic, passive, and static Easterner who has to find a way to fit in a normatively Western Christian world.

The model minority is the racial version of uniatism. On its face, the mythos of the model minority is about the success of racial minorities, usually Asian Americans in current discourse, but also African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinx Americans too, if one were to be honest about what folks from Samuel Chapman Armstrong to Booker T. Washington to Richard Rodriguez have been about. The idea is that you go to school, and you’ll be saved from the losers in your minority community. The promise is that you’ll join a mainstream professional workforce and perhaps even have a political impact where it matters. The appeal is to cultural values usually about the family that predispose children to educational and economic success. It all sounds fine and dandy, but the problem is that the promises never really pan out the way that the ideology says they do. Instead, what tends to happen is that you are still perceived as a minority in the professional world that you longed to join, which leads to all sorts of disadvantages and conveniences that crystallize into a glass ceiling of advancement. But having been united to this normatively white world, you also have learned to despise the peoples of color from which you came, or to see them as inconveniences and distractions at best. The preference for whiteness is internalized, along with the racializing implication that whatever is from back home is not to be preferred. The result is not only economic, but also psychological: you have an identity crisis where you can’t figure out whether you’re, say, Asian or American and feel like you have to choose one over the other. That symptom of self-colonization – that’s exactly what Korolevsky’s talking about when he talks about uniatism.

In fact, the model minority and uniatism are born from the same impulses of modern colonial history. The general idea is that Christianity is normatively Western and generally associated with some kind of European respectability, usually of the Anglo-Saxon variety, and the real question that someone who wants to fit into that orbit has to ask themselves is whether they’d like to assimilate or not. It’s a maddening question, of course, because in the process of assimilation, you not only ask yourself what you’d like to give up, but you also evaluate what you’re giving up through an orientalist lens that you didn’t know you had. Western success is pitted against, say, the strangeness of a Byzantine liturgy or the hierarchies of Confucianism, as if ‘Byzantine’ and ‘Confucian’ were stable ‘Eastern’ categories that are static, passive, exotic, and despotic. In the process of such internalization, the worst enemy of, say, an Asian American evangelical or an Eastern Catholic is not ‘white people’ who demand assimilation (they seldom do) or the Bishop of Rome (whom Korolevsky notes were generally jolly good fellows and opened their archives to him, which revealed that there is no centralized ‘uniate’ policy to get Eastern Catholics to conform to Rome). Rather, it’s an internal psychological battle with whiteness and Western Christianity as figments of imagination, superego projections that do not neatly conform with white people or Roman Catholics in real life.

This is not to say that orientalist colonization is not real; quite the contrary, that’s why these psychic internalizations happen in the first place. But the orientalism that Asian American evangelicals and Eastern Catholics confront is complicated. It is, on the one hand, against real orientalists who vulgarly treat us as second-class citizens, whether in official policy or through microaggressions. But on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, it’s in our own consciousness as well.

What I’m saying is that this anti-orientalist conscientization is an ecumenical task in which Asian American evangelicals and Eastern Catholics have common cause. What we have each been doing, for example, is to recover our histories. The Asian American literary scholar Elaine Kim says that Asian American sociocultural history is the urtext for Asian American literature. You can’t really engage in Asian American literary studies – or anti-orientalist activism, for that matter – without knowing the history of how Asian Americans have been orientalized, excluded, indentured, incarcerated, bombed, and propped up as model minorities without reference to their own spiritual ontologies, ways of relating to the land and seas, and senses of peoplehood. Likewise, as the Kyivan Church’s Bishop Borys Gudziak has shown, a closer look at the documents by which the Metropolitanate of Kyiv came into communion with Rome do not lend themselves to charges of uniatism. Amidst the complex geopolitics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the rise, a budding Russian Empire, and a Constantinopolitan patriarchate on the decline, the Union of Brest (from which the word uniate is actually derived) is actually a document that maintains that the Kyivan bishops and their sees keep their Byzantine Orthodoxy, do not latinize their practices, and do not really even intend to be seen as non-Orthodox. We are, as our current Patriarch Sviatoslav says, ‘an Orthodox Church, with Orthodox theology, liturgy, spirituality and canonical tradition that chooses to manifest this Orthodoxy in the spirit of the first Christian millennium, in communion with Rome.’ For this reason, as imaginative as our dear brother Fr James Siemens is in his recent proposal that we call ourselves ‘Uniate Orthodox,’ I must dissent. Just as Asian American history tells us that we are not model minorities, Eastern Catholic history posits that we are not uniates.

I suppose what I’ve written myself to at this point in this messy post is a new agenda for my future blogging. A Catholic in the Latin Church commented about my last piece that it was as if I had never left evangelicalism – and that that was not a compliment. I’d suggest that the continuity is even more horrifyingly radical than he imagines: it is only by joining an Eastern Catholic church that I learned that I’d been a uniate all my life in evangelicalism and Anglicanism and am finally engaging in the conscientizing education that is necessary for me to unlearn that model minority self-colonization through the conversations that we have in our own church about uniatism. I guess what that means is that I’ll need to work through this thought in my writing, testing its claims and seeing if it works as an argument. Perhaps in doing so, I’ll make good on my promise in another previous post on Stormy Daniels and the pornifiation of American conservative politics to discern what evangelicalism has become. The reason that these thoughts belong on an Eastern Catholic blog should be obvious at this point: what I think I’m actually starting to do is to theorize what uniatism really is in the modern world.

We’ll see. This is work in progress.

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