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Wong Tian An – An Asian American Theology of Liberation [Review]

Asian American TheologyThe End of Homecoming

A Review of

An Asian American Theology of Liberation
Wong Tian An

Paperback: Lever Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Luna Kim Yeh/Joshua E. Livingston

Seemingly out of nowhere, Wong Tian An has offered the Asian American church, and to the church at large, an unfathomable gift. This is not hyperbole. If we really listen to what’s presented here, we will find that Asian American liberation theology, and Asian Americanness in general, is not fathomable, not legible, and not comprehensible under the gaze of bordered, propertied, and “containered” capitalist, settler colonial, white theological normativity.

Building on the essential work of Jonathan Tran, Wong continues to move us all past Asianness as an identitarian signifier and its corresponding discourse known as “Asian American,” that is, a cultural “knowledge regime” (92) that is legible to U.S. nationalism. Wong explicates how Americanism itself requires the reduction of bodies to categorizations of convenience, or what shipping and logistics professionals might call “containers.” We have Black Atlantic scholars such as Saidiya Hartman to thank for helping us understand how human (namely black female) bodies have been subjected and shipped in service to the establishment of a globalized political economy. 

It is here that we are swept up in the improvisational, fugitive, and fluid performance of blackness, again, not as a racial category legible to the perverse fantasies of an extractive nationalism, but as a life-mode that privileges aesthetic movement over the stasis of finished products within commodified circulations. Wong provides a paradigm-shifting analogy (somewhat contra to Tran) to the economics of desire found in Afropessimism, a black radical discourse that boldly asserts the impossibility, and indeed, undesirability of “subjectivity,” that is, personhood as defined and understood by white, colonial, patriarchal capitalism. 

If– as historian Gary Okihiro reminds us in Margins and Mainstreams

Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to America; Americans went to Asia. Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to take the wealth of America; Americans went to take the wealth of Asia. Asians, it must be remembered, did not come to conquer and colonize America; Americans went to conquer and colonize Asia.

– then the very notion of Asian Americans internalizing and chasing the American dream is an inherently self-defeating prospect. Rather than play this game, Wong proposes five seemingly subaltern theologies, or maybe imaginaries, for an “outright decolonial refusal… not bounded by nation-state… fiercely internationalist” (12) Asian American liberation: subjectlessness, landlessness, beinglessness, havelessness, and powerlessness. Each one, in turn, takes a chunk out of Americanized presuppositions of capitalist, colonial Christianity. 

To accomplish this, Wong draws on an absolute treasure trove of somewhat obscure (that is, to white Christendom broadly) Asian American researchers across a veritable prism of disciplines. As a method of shorthand, I’ll simply name drop some essential sources and encourage the reader to follow the rainbow.

In explicating subjectlessness, Wong puts Kandice Chuh (see Imagine Otherwise: An Asian Americanist Critique, which culminated many years later into in a more direct engagement with Black study in The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man”) in dialogue with the landmark psychoanalytic work of David Eng and Shinhee Han (see Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans). In short, Wong hopes such engagements can “free us from trying to fit into preconceived notions of who we are and move toward adaptive racial dissociation: being able to be many and one without collapsing in on ourselves” (16), or as the poet Fred Moten puts it, “consent not to be a single being.”

With regards to a theology of landlessness, Wong makes it plain: “There is no ultimately defensible position for inclusion in the anti-black U.S. settler-colonial empire” (17). The aim here is to question the narratives of “belonging” as they presuppose seeking and benefiting from the very colonial powers that subjugated them in order to establish their sense of place. The key interlocutors in this section are Palestinian liberation theologian Naim Ateek and Native American scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. (see God is Red: A Native View of Religion and Custer Died for Your Sins). Of note here is the problematizing of the traditional liberationist interpretation of the Exodus narrative, which conveniently forgets that “the freedom that Israel had gained from Egyptian slavery ended in the genocide and occupation of Canaan.” This is held up against the insight of Eiko Kosasa, who points out how “acts of erasure produce an American imaginary where concepts and images of ‘blankness’ and blank spaces proliferate.” This obviously paves the way for the good intentions of settler colonialism and the Doctrine of Discovery.

The chapter on beinglessness unabashedly consults the aforementioned Afropessimism (by way of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks), the Black radical tradition (see primarily Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism), Black liberation theology (namely James Cone), and notions of untouchability found in the work of Dalit feminist theologians such as Prasuna Gnana Nelavala and Surekha Nelavala (with shots appropriately fired at Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste). At stake is Asian American (resistance to) “social death,” as characterized by the Afropessimists. Will we allow our social dreams to resist Americanization or will we “partake in the pain of caste and racial oppression” (166) of our Dalit and Black siblings?

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Havelessness locates Asian Americans wrestling with their social location within racial capitalism. Here, Wong most explicitly incorporates Jonathan Tran’s Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, most notably as the material consequences to partaking in the above pains of the beingless. This commitment to solidarity is also given as examples in the complexity of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong as well as through Korean minjung theology as treated in the work of Kwok Pui-Lan and Joerg Rieger. Ultimately, Wong points us to how the “unreasonable, unbelievable call to havelessness … are constant reminders of just how difficult it is to take Jesus at his word” (197). In fact, it costs everything.

The final section is a remarkable treatment on the use of (non)violence in questions of powerlessness. Wong continues to shake us from the fantasies of a liberation that costs nothing. This includes the “false moral high ground of absolute pacifism” (19), which here is characterized as a pathology that often activates the model-minority myth. “[P]eaceful protests conveniently serve the purposes of the state and racial capitalism: they allow for the expression of dissent while leaving the broader structures–and indeed the sources of structural violence–intact” (212-213). More explicitly, as Frantz Fanon and decolonial theorists point out, true liberation requires violence. Even the mythologies of a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi can inadvertently point to their modes of nonviolent resistance as the (sole) cause of relative freedoms won, forgetting how these were “political victories in no small part because of the violence enacted upon their opponents by others” (214). In addition to Fanon, Wong also draws on the example of white abolitionist John Brown (see Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limit of Ethics by Ted A. Smith) to elaborate on the costs of liberation (and discipleship, for that matter).

These reflections lead us to question what a faithful response might be in light of the ongoing waves of Asian hate crimes and seemingly random acts of violence across America. It’s an extraordinarily contemporary litmus test for the church in our times. The general reader might not appreciate how, at this point, Wong takes a hard psychoanalytic turn. Without going into the details here, for Asian Americans, and Asian American women in particular, violence cannot be theorized apart from its racialized and eroticized dimensions. With Anne Annlin Cheng and her book Ornamentalism (itself a play on Edward Said’s must-read Orientalism), Wong conceptualizes the moves required to fetishize and objectify the feminized Asian body, “the afterlife of a racialized and aestheticized object that remains very much an object, even as the human stakes remain chillingly high” (Cheng, 429-430). 

Around here, Wong confesses that his attempts to neatly wrap up his conceptualizations around violence–mythic, psychic, divine, or otherwise–were thwarted by the horrifying back-to-back shootings of Asian Americans by Asian Americans. These in and of themselves should put to rest the lingering fantasies of identitarian ontologies. All we can do is sit with the piercing familiarity of a felt powerlessness. 

“How are we to think of power when all I have argued up to this point is a relinquishing of desire for subjectivity, land, being, and possession? … What Asian American theology affords us is the pulling back of the curtain on the interlocking power structures in which Asian American identity arises and is complicated. But rather than a will to power … which only serves to further assimilate Asian Americans into the standing structures of oppression, it is the will to powerlessness that undergirds all these moves away from these Faustian deals and toward collective liberation” (247).

In conclusion, Wong performs what amounts to a twist ending. All of a sudden, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams appears. And he’s talking about sex. At this point, I was compelled to read William’s masterful essay entitled “The Body’s Grace” in its entirety, which Wong heavily cites. I would highly recommend the reader do the same. It can be found in the volume entitled Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Comprehending An Asian American Theology of Liberation, especially from an “outsider’s perspective,” requires one to reckon with the entanglements of American desire, sexuality, politics, economics, embodiment, the church, and perhaps most importantly, grace. “Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us” (Williams, 311). Even still, being wanted for the Asian American cannot be enacted without “entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer,’ the private and the shared” (317), and Wong adds, “precisely the queering of boundaries in liberation” (263). Williams continues:

“We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our ‘private’ selves … and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification. All of this, moreover, is not only potentially but actually a political knowledge, a knowledge of what ordered human community might be” (317). 

Grace, as it turns out, shares a structural relationship with sexuality. Rowan Williams cites the philosopher Thomas Nagel in elaborating how sex “involves a desire that one’s partner be aroused by the recognition of one’s desire that he or she be aroused.” Williams concludes:

“All this means that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am … For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming … it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable” (313).

There may not be a better phrase for narrating the Asian body of Christ-followers seeking liberation on the shores of America: Welcome to the end of homecoming. “The purpose of Asian American identity, then, is to bring forth a world in which Asian Americans need not exist” (252).  

Joshua E. Livingston

Joshua E. Livingston is a writer and community developer currently residing in Indianapolis. He is the director of Cultivating Communities and the author of Sunrays on the Beachhead of the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2021).

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