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Nikkei Theology: Untangling Barbed Wire

In my dreams I am frequently met with all manner of bodily calamity – teeth falling out, piping hot lava, exhaling steam pipes swallowing me up in fine, chalky mist. These dreams have been accelerating lately – there have always been zombies, but now they’re butcher-proof, the triggers on my pistols don’t work or the barrels spray only water.

I would be surprised if this back-order of spontaneous nightmares had nothing to do with last month’s election, or with the wider climate of fear and hatred that seems to be only growing around us. I preached a couple of weeks ago on the marked increase of hate crimes affecting Muslim, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities since the election. Last week, Japanese Americans in Chicago held a press conference with Arab and Muslim American groups condemning recent rhetoric seeking to justify a mass detention or profiling of these groups on the basis that, well, “we did it to those Japs.”

If you haven’t seen the Broadway Musical “Allegiance” yet, I would highly recommend it. I had the chance to travel to New York City last fall to watch the play and meet some of the cast. On Tuesday, I saw the theatrical one-night release of the show’s film with some friends in the Chicago area.

I can’t tell you how many times I was brought to tears in that room, especially in light of EO 9066’s approaching seventy fifth anniversary this February. Of course I thought of Uncle Clark and Joe, forced out of college and into concentration camps (not the kind that help you study). I thought of Uncle George, whose now-wrinkled hands once gripped a cold metal fence at Dachau, liberating its prisoners as his own family remained behind bars.

Whenever I let my mind revisit this history, I am also tuned into the screeching demands for patriotic “loyalty” that were so key to this process of strip-mining our humanity. We weren’t allowed to serve in the armed forces, live outside of barbed wire, our worship spaces and language schools were forcibly shut down.

These histories of forced adherence to Patriotic Orthodoxy on pains of exclusion and death cannot be mentally divorced from modern inquisitions into Theological Loyalty. These legacies violate and clamber through one another.

In short, I am no longer able to understand the accusations of “you’re not a real American, you damn traitor Jap!” wielded against my ancestors as qualitatively different from the “you’re not a real Christian, you damn deceiver heretic!” I received as I was being excised from white evangelicalism. Coming to terms with this has been incredibly healing in terms of recovering from spiritual abuse at the hands of vigilante theological “gatekeepers” – a pointed term for my people.

Leaning into my heritage as a Japanese American has been complicated: I have actually changed my name(!), I have messily broken up with conservative and liberal church communities that have internalized the Gospel of White Supremacy, burning bridges not through malice so much as fear, benign and panicked arsons. None of this has been without pain.

Sometimes people ask about my family’s history of immigration to the United States. I try to explain that we never came to America: America came to us. It bowled us over, conquered the Kingdom we lived in – questioned, interrogated, and incarcerated us, spirited our children towards grotesque whiteness, sent us to camp and abroad to water the fields of the American bloodlust with our lives.

These are stories that I cling to in times of pain. Now, more than ever, we will need to lean into the traditions and ways of our ancestors, drawing strength and witness from their lives. Our communities can help us resist oppression and see the face of God in unique ways.

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Last February, sean miura tweeted that as an organizer working among communities of color, he is “in a constant state of untangling barbed wire.” Few things have struck me as so profoundly true. Creating Nikkei theology in a world where I am often marked with suspicion and fear has, for me also, been a constant process of untangling barbed wire.

Untangling shame, silence, and complicity in gargantuan structures of violence that are deep-rooted and tentacled beyond imagination. Unspooling the precarious perch of slipping on the silken mask of whiteness, which at any time might once more slip into a noose. Unwinding vaulting beauty standards and our peculiar presence on colonized lands and our gnarled role in this faith tradition often seeded to our ancestors by brutality or Western fervor.

These are the kinds of questions that theology issued by Japanese American Christians will need to address in the coming decade, if we are not to fade into the mist of polite religion or quaint historic anecdote. And now more than ever, we must speak out against the sinister values that our country’s next President is determined to enflesh. Donald Trump embodies everything I believe people of faith and conscience are called to resist: white supremacy, sexual assault, bodily disownership, separation and pride.

Speaking honestly is an integral part of this process. Our theology must diagnose the essence of things, or it is lying. So enough: Trump does not have a “black” heart. He is not heralding “dark” times. Truly, he is not a “tribalist” or even a “Nativist,” but the opposite – a sterile and crystallized product of Western Civilization, whose “success” is only possible by an anti-indigenous violence that is the extinguishing of tribe and native.

We can all do something to resist. If you dance, sing, paint, or play, don’t give it up to fight for freedom – do more of those things. If you write, please write, and hold their conquest at bay with your words. Blog, tweet, start a book club, form a small group with loved ones or church members. Be patient with those who don’t “get it” yet in the way you do. And, always, care for yourself. These are white times we are headed for, friends, and we need each of you.

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