Voices: A Part Yet Apart – Moses a Model for Second-Generation Chinese-American Christians

By Melissa Lee Emerson

This column has been slightly edited from the new website, Forum: Dialoging with the Covenant Quarterly. The journal is now available online.

KANSAS CITY, MO (September 3, 2015) — At first glance, Moses and second-generation Chinese American Christians (2CC) may seem to share little in common. Yet I believe attention to the intersection of Moses’s cultural identity and his vocation calls 2CCs to steward their complex cultural identity in a way that embraces solidarity with, and fosters liberation for, all ethnicities.

Melissa Lee Emerson

Melissa Lee Emerson

Moses’s yearning for justice (Exodus 2:11-17), paired with his tri-cultural identity as Hebrew, Egyptian, and Midianite, allowed God to use him to fulfill God’s mission of liberating the Israelites. Moses’s exile in Midian allowed God to forge his Hebrew blood, royal Egyptian socialization, eagerness to pursue justice, and semi-nomadic lifestyle for greater purposes than Moses could see.

Just as the land of Midian bore witness to Moses’s development, can America be a place where God forms 2CCs into a willing instrument for his liberating, transforming work?

A History of Exclusion

By restricting U.S. citizenship to “white” immigrants, the Naturalization Law of 1790 relegated Asian immigrants to the status of “aliens” and “foreigners.” The impact of this distinction endures far beyond the time it was in force (modified in 1952). Chinese immigrants and their Chinese American children continue to struggle with self-perceptions of being foreign and excluded. At the same time, efforts to prove worthiness of inclusion—competitive work ethic, over-achievement in education, and strict frugality in pursuit of wealth—have earned Asian Americans the backhanded compliment of being the “model minority.”

Caught in this impossible dance between “foreigner” and “model minority,” 2CCs have become a part of American life but remain apart. This uncertain position complicates the 2CC’s relationship to other immigrant and minority groups. The seemingly positive stereotype of “model minority” can tempt 2CCs to turn a blind eye to the reality of its implications and revel in a status earned by their parents. This may be evident in the large number of 2CCs who live in affluent suburbs, attempting to forget their history of segregation or to distinguish themselves from those for whom it remains a reality. In this way the image of “model minority” inadvertently condemns other minorities, silences their calls for justice, and provokes competition between minority groups.

A political cartoon from 1882, showing a Chinese man being barred entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The caption reads, "We must draw the line somewhere, you know." Photo: Library of Congress.

A political cartoon from 1882, showing a Chinese man being barred entry to the “Golden Gate of Liberty.” The caption reads, “We must draw the line somewhere, you know.” Photo: Library of Congress.

Moses’s Call to Chinese American Christians

The cultural confusion and unequal privilege of 2CCs resemble Moses’s position as a Hebrew raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter. But do 2CCs also mirror Moses’s stewardship of his cultural identity? 2CCs can serve as advocates for immigrants and other minority groups that continue to face alienation. Rather than being content with our inherited privilege, we can pick up our cross and join efforts to dismantle the legacy of racism, civic exclusion, legal segregation, generational immobility, and immigration reform.

Moses’s anticipatory acts of justice (Exodus 2:11-17) were by themselves inadequate to save the Hebrews, for they needed to be empowered by God’s command and presence (3:12). Likewise, 2CCs must be dependent on God’s power and call, and commit to a sojourn of faith amid unknowns. The template of Exodus offers not a freedom from all control but a humble posture that asks, “Whom will we now serve?” exchanging bondage under Pharaoh for the freedom found in service to the true Lord.

“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:24-27).

Melissa Lee Emerson is a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary and works as events coordinator for Made to Flourish in Kansas City, Missouri. She is a second-generation Chinese American.

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