I. The Diaspora Chinese Christians in North America: Finding the theological context for the Chinese Churches

Introduction:  In search of a context


            Theology never comes out of a vacuum.  There is always a context for its birth.  For example, the doctrine of Trinity came out of the concern of Jesus’ deity.  If Jesus is God, and Yahweh is God, and there is only one God, then how do we understand the relationship of Jesus and the Father?  What started off as our understanding of Christology later developed into the doctrine of Trinity.  The point is:  Athanasius and the Cappadocians did not come up with the doctrine because they found a new hobby on Saturday afternoon, but it was because they had to face challenges of their time.  The historical forces that shaped our faith are the contexts of our theology.  These contexts are complex in nature and they often comprise cultural, sociological, and political elements.  In this four-part series, I would like to discuss in broad strokes the various theological contexts of Chinese churches in North America.  Part one will begin with Hong Kong immigrant—whose heritage I relate with first hand.  Part two will discuss Taiwanese churches, and part three will be on immigrants from Mainland China.  Finally, I will conclude with American-born Chinese, whom I refer to as “the second generation and beyond.”

            I would like to make a final note to distinguish the difference between theology and theological context before I begin.  Theology is the understanding of what we actually believe.  In essence, it is the answer to our ‘problem’ (or subject matter).  However, the theological context is not the solution.  It is ‘the problem’.  Therefore, this article is not an attempt to resolve any problems or challenges that North American Chinese Christians face, but it is an exercise to examine those challenges that are crying out for a theological understanding of the Christian faith.


Part I:  Hong Kong Immigrants


The Wilderness Mindset

            “Israel” did not start out as the name of a great ancient nation.  The name was first given to Jacob, and later referred to the collection of the thirteen tribes that came out of his sons.  During the time when they wandered in the wilderness after Egypt and before Canaan, there was no nation Israel.  For forty years they lived as nomads—cut off from their previous culture and not connected with their future civilization.  They lived as the “in-between” generation, after Egypt and before the kingdom period.  The fact that they belonged to no nation made their concerns pragmatic.  Whether they were eating manna or quail preceded the significance of any social issues.  Faith was expressed in the observance of the Sabbath, and Torah—the code of governing that held them together as a people—dealt mainly with worshiping and moral issues.  Israel in this period lacked a kingdom mindset that will not appear until towards the end of the Judges era.  The sociological uniqueness of Israel during this time strangely formed the parallel of today’s churches in North America that made up of Hong Kong immigrants, who also live an “in-between” culture and lack kingdom mindset.      

            Hong Kong had been a British colony for over one-hundred and fifty years.  This unique political status has formed a very special people in the world.  Through much hard work, the citizens of this city, which only accounts for a small dot in any world map, have set foot on the international stage at many levels.  In fact, Hong Kong particularly prides herself as a financial center in the Far East.  But, the success of Hong Kong came with a price—one that was intentionally planned by her “suzerain.” Knowing that England was a foreign power to Hong Kong, the government adopted certain strategies to ensure prosperity and a trouble-free environment within this people.  In the end, they succeeded in helping to create a capitalistic miracle that turned a fishing village into an international financial center.  At the same time, the political neutrality that the people enjoyed slowly stripped away any of their remaining nationalism for China.  To be fair, the internal turmoil within China at that time did not help.  The people of Hong Kong were faced with a choice of either to stay in Hong Kong as colonial citizens and enjoyed a good chance of making something of themselves, or going back to a totalitarian communist country and risked losing everything, including your life and dignity, while chasing after idealism.[1]  Some picked the latter, and the books that tell their stories belong to a different article.  For those who picked the former, they had eventually become proud citizens of an international city—but ones that had lost their allegiance to any state.  They were people who belonged to no nation.  They were a “kingdomless” people.  They sang to no national anthem.  They pledge to no flag.  Of course, all that was changed when Hong Kong went back to China in 1997—that was also the year when the immigration waves to North America stopped. 

            The Hong Kong immigrant church in North America has largely inherited the “nationless” identity before 1997.  Therefore, like Israel in the wilderness, their concerns are pragmatic.  Job security with a good future is the standard goal.  And, the same hope for the next generation is expressed in the parents’ focus on the quality of their children’s education.  In other words, they are still looking for “manna” and “quail.”[2] At the same time, spirituality is often expressed in the form of refusing to maximize the effort to gather manna and quail.  Like their counter-parts in the wilderness who observed the Sabbath, the modern day Hong Kong immigrant Christians would go to church every Sunday.  Going-to-church-on-Sunday is more than a religious observation for these immigrants.  It is their testimony of a choice of honoring God, because they could be working somewhere else if they are not in church.  Like the Israelites who observed the Sabbath, they depended on the divine provision of a double portion of manna.  This is especially true for immigrants from the sixties to the eighties. 

            I call Hong Kong immigrant Christians “Diaspora” because they are scattered between two cultures.  Their most familiar way of living rests on a small island at the tip of China.  Although a good percentage of the first generation may communicate in English, the vast difference in culture puts them at odds with the mainstream society.  Also, the growth of the Chinese communities often renders the first generation from having to interact with mainstream in any meaningful way.  Interactions often remain on a “need-to” basis, like buying a car, buying a house, going to work, and going to the bank.  However, when crises arise, they would immediately turn to their Chinese community for support.  In this sense, the Chinese remains as “a people” a bit like Israel in the Pentateuch.[3]  In fact, the church has become their new “village”[4] in America.  When their sons and daughters marry, church members make up the majority of guests at the wedding banquets.  At funerals, again, friends from the church make up the community of emotional support.  Together, these “villages” of Hong Kong immigrants sojourn in America as Diaspora Chinese, whose emotional allegiance wanders between an old culture that they have left years ago and the mainstream culture that always looks foreign.  I suspect this background significantly hampers their understanding of the kingdom concept as the here-and-now; therefore, reducing it to either ecclesiastical fellowship or an eschatological phenomenon. 


A Biblical Response

            Much like American Evangelicalism, the spirituality of Hong Kong immigrant Christians is pragmatic.  When faith becomes pragmatic, something will be lost.  We will not notice it at first because it is not practical.  However, it will eventually show up—just like in those days when Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit.  Of course, drawing a parallel with ancient Israel demands a biblical response to the context.  The biblical story tells us that the first generation passed on in the wilderness.  The same will be true for the first generation immigrant.  Over time some will adopt the culture and plant new roots in this land, still others will not.  Either way, we can all learn from Israel’s history.  At the end of their wilderness era, they entered Canaan and eventually established a great kingdom.  When they crossed River Jordan, Joshua commanded twelve men, one from each tribe, to pick up twelve stones from the riverbed and pile them up as a sign on the shore.  This sign will serve as a memorial for the fathers to tell their stories to their children for many generations to come.  Oral tradition will continue to bind this people together as they remember how their God blesses them from the past to the present, thereby stirring up a faith that continues to look upon their Lord in the future. Likewise, first generation Hong Kong immigrant Christians needs to tell their stories before they passed on, for those stories are nothing less than the provision and blessings of God.  Their children will settle down in this land.  They will face life issues that way surpass the need for “manna” and “quail”.  In order to play a significant role in the kingdom of God—in order to be the wise virgin who brings oil, the faithful servant who traded with his talents, or the righteous sheep who fed the Lord when He was hungry—they will need to face matters that deal with justice and righteousness.  They will need to be the prophet and the priest of this world.  Knowing the stories of their fathers will teach them the context of the previous generation.  It empowers them to recognize which part of the struggle is over and where they shall continue with the relay.  In the end, God will realize His kingdom on earth through His people, and finishing the job when our Lord Jesus comes the second time.    


[1] This is a “fast-forward” comment on the history of Hong Kong.  What actually happened during the one-hundred-and-fifty-year period was much more complex.

[2] The metaphor of “manna” can be understood as basic need, while “quail” refers to luxury or a better quality of lifestyle.   

[3] I do not mean Israel was a people because they hung on each other for emotional need, but I am drawing a parallel between the Hong Kong immigrant and Israel as a people wandering in a foreign land. 

[4] “Village” seems to describe well the network of the Chinese community. 

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