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Posts from the ‘race’ Category

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.

Pulse

News of a gay nightclub in Orlando being attacked by an armed gunman on June 12 immediately quelled my excitement for Loving Day – an annual celebration of the 1967 Supreme Court decision to federally legalize interracial marriage. Nine years before the court’s ruling, police officers acting off an anonymous tip had raided the home of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving, pulling them from bed and charging them with violating Virginia law. In court, the trial judge would invoke the natural and inviolable created order of “Almighty God” to condemn the Lovings to twenty five years of banishment from the state for publicly violating mores of sexual respectability.

The day before the shooting, I was riding through hundreds of miles of California desert with a group of young Japanese Americans on a cross-country trip to Manzanar, a concentration camp where more than ten thousand persons had been imprisoned during world war two. Once we arrived, we spent the day taking it all in, visiting the graves of those who died in camp, and laboring with gardening tools for hours under the silent sun, fighting back against nascent tumbleweeds.

In the camp’s museum, a large guestbook had been laid out for visitors to record their thoughts. I saw a lot of beauty and innocence in those pages, signatures in dozens of languages and notes of pained hope and healing. Then I flipped to a page that seized my attention. Someone in confident, inking scrawl, had written:

 Make America Great Again!

Vote Donald Trump!

Let’s do this to the Muslims!

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I started shaking in anger, remembering a similar incident from my first pilgrimage to this site two years ago. While eating dinner at a restaurant near camp, a waiter, an older white military veteran, had stormed up to me from behind and ripped my keffiyeh off my head, demanding that I keep it off, and calming only when another employee intervened to point out my Hebrew tattoo. Over the past few years, politicians and talking heads have favorably revisited the idea of resurrecting America’s concentration camps for Muslim and Arab Americans, just like we did to “those Japs.” But too many of our families remember the barbed wire and the machine guns to be silent while something like this happens again.

The home, a marriage bed, an incarceration center’s memorial guestbook, or a gay nightclub on Latin night – these are supposed to be spaces where wider currents of violent acts are repelled, not their epicenters. When such prejudice manifests in a place that is supposed to be sacred, it wounds twice over. The injury is visibly deepened as a vulnerable group is robbed of what little sense of safety they had to begin with.

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Emerging from a familial background in which matters of sex and sexuality are often characterized by silence and a cultural context in which few of the popular labels around sexual minorities are indigenous, I have over this past year deeply struggled to articulate my own identities. Sometimes talking about being queer feels comparable to publicly discussing my personal struggles with mental health: I’m truly afraid to pin these stories and identities loudly to my chest, lest I give others the weapons that they might later use to wound me.

As a queer person who is in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, I have often felt a fixed degree of separation from many of the “traditional” markers of The Gay Experience™. I am struck by the fact that when my partner and I hold hands in public, we do not experience the kind of revulsion, for instance, that my gay mom and her partner do when they act in the same way. I am much more easily able to camouflage, to blend in, and rendered that much more unseen.

But this relative hiddenness has not lessened the pit that opens in my stomach – around the dinner table, in church settings, on television, with friends and their spouses – when LGBTQ people are being boldly or subtly maligned. It has not reduced my fear that new or old friendships will evaporate if I begin to trouble easy assumptions about my sexuality. And this sense of invisibility has not mitigated the trauma of the Orlando shooting. I was comforted and challenged by someone who recently tweeted, “Bisexuality is real and you deserve to mourn, too.” The shooter did not stop to ask his victims whether they identified as L, G, B, T, or Q; that night, a proximity to brownness and queerness was enough to mark their bodies as utterly worthy of death.

If there was ever a time to reapply ourselves to the work of combatting the ideologies of death that affect Latinx, queer, and Muslim communities, it is now. Just as every myth and measured lie about black sloth and sexual predation fed into Dylan Roof’s racial terror in Charleston last summer, so too did every pulpit proclamation against the “abomination” of homosexuality and the threat of queer families help fuel the Pulse nightclub attack. While many “traditionalist” evangelicals have been quick to voice their sympathy for the slaughter’s victims, less acknowledged is that what the Orlando shooter did exceptionally well on Sunday was bring the doctrine of “hate the sin” to its ultimate, horrifying conclusion.

On the morning of the Pulse attack, I woke up in a Los Angeles hotel on the same street where our families had to line up with what little belongings they could carry, to be searched and trucked off to camp. Before America’s more than fifty Little Tokyos were forced into historic memory, they stood as vibrant communities of diasporic Nikkei identity, testaments to our migrant pride. Today, only three Japantowns exist. Only three scattered patches of streets, reduced from former glories, have managed to repel the near-constant incursions by outside business and political interests who dream of raising up more parking lots, high-rent housing, and yuppie kitsch in their place.

I am remembering more than anything this week that there are vast powers arrayed against each of us, forces trying to encroach upon the integrity of our whole selves. We are, each of us, a Little Tokyo. The world will try to pick and parcel us apart, claiming that we cannot possibly hold all parts of ourselves together – you cannot be both queer and a Muslim; a person of color and a Christian; attracted to both women, men, and people of other genders.

We are a people whose mere existence frightens the state’s enforcers of the status quo, those frustrated men who see in our multitudes miscegenation, violation to be extinguished. Their vicious acts of hatred continue to wound deeply, and there are not words to address them. But we will continue to share our hope and our lives, speaking out against single stories and silence. If we do not tell these stories, no one else will.

Apple Orchard

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I had a nightmare last night. In my dream I didn’t know where I was, but I was trapped, somehow unable to either open or close my eyes. I was being swallowed up in marbled heat, like I was closed inside a standing coffin, sweltering in the sun. But I wasn’t inside, I was just…standing outside, sobbing, unable to catch my breath. Loved ones were standing around me, watching me dissolve into my body’s demands, and I knew in this moment that I was back at Manzanar.      

This weekend I’ll be chaperoning a group of college-age (18-25) Japanese Americans to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, where we will be engaging in critical workshops and discussions on Nikkei identity, as well as exploring the history of the community there through political tours and museum visits. The next day, we will head three hours north to the site of a former concentration camp that imprisoned more than ten thousand people during world war two – some of our participant’s family members included.

Two years ago, I went on this same trip myself as a participant and really felt that my life was changed forever by it. It was certainly the most explicit site of my genesis as a liberation theologian. Afterwards, I wrote a number of times about this experience: dramatically, for my own blog ; coolly, for the Pacific Citizen newspaper; and most recently for Inheritance Magazine.

I had spent the year before that first trip crystallizing a sense of racial consciousness through joining weekly videoconferences with a now-defunct antiracist/feminist theological collective (Killjoy Prophets) where we read Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and engaged in decolonizing discussions around faith, gender, race, and social media.

From Cone to Manzanar to mobilizing around Michael Brown’s stalking and killing later that fall, these events left an indelible mark in my personal racial consciencization. They were each steps in a long journey of learning to marshal my own muddled, depoliticized identities into greater participation in a Christian QPOC activist tradition that has been extraordinarily life-giving. All of these collective experiences helped me finally begin to question the hegemonic categories of whiteness (and straightness) in which I’d enacted uneasy participation for most of my life. That year left me altered, some Ship of Theseus type stuff (if you replace every single component of a ship part by part, is that ship the same ship as before?). Manzanar met me shining and bright and I somehow left cut to the heart, immolating, with a new theology and a new name.

The concentration camps that our country raised from desert sands were our community’s crucifixion event. It is the Exile. This pilgrimage feels like, maybe, the disciples’ grandchildren gathering at Golgotha seventy years later, poking at old scabs, shooting for profundity, wondering if there is any going back here, or if it will fade forever, and which would be better.

Maybe someday when I’m telling this story of our people to the rokusei, sichisei (ha!), the hachisei, I will remind them that it could be that everything started with Manzanar. It is all here: trauma, sexuality, memory, ghosts, dead life, broken bodies and haunted houses. I wonder if all those years later, I will still be consumed by the reckless hatred of it all. Not my hatred – although that is there also, humming raw and pink in my chest. But the hatred of the men who for God and country architected this, and the easy scorn of the millions who to this day remain silent. (The people who believe themselves to be human.)

The immanent fact of returning to Manzanar in under 48 hours exhilarates and panics me. I have reimagined the scene of my return a thousand times, in dreams and idle thoughts. This land is not just any land. I know the history of pain there will physically paralyze me when I return. Where blood is spilled, where bodily hosts are broken, these places become perverted sacraments, outward and visible markers of an inward and invisible corruption. The cynics cannot understand the weight of this place, but there living memories here, waiting to be resurrected. When you walk over the sands, your feet kick up dust that stirs around in the wind and is swept into your nostrils. You can’t help but leave the place coated, the stuff sticking in and through and with every inch of you.

Please pray that we are able to have a productive and life-changing trip. Pray that the Spirit of God would speak powerfully to heal the trauma we are walking into this weekend. That we would be ever more greatly propelled towards enacting the liberation of ourselves, but especially other marginalized groups. That we can together learn to honor this place and history without deploying an essentialized or sterile version of this event, painfully easy for me to do when I am sharing with nice white folks, or to other well-meaning people of color who are eager to quickly bound towards The Greater Atrocities like we’re swapping tales about Big Fish.

I am looking forward to everything to come this weekend, and grateful for each of you who is reading this post.