Faith Freedom and Facts Setting Free

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By Rev. Christopher M. The

Facts.

That’s how some of us show agreement and support. To say the word “facts” in reply to what we resonate with and find truth within, communicates our assessment of a claim exchanged in truth-telling dialogue. Just as folks in certain Christian circles may tend to do when replying with an instinctive, otherwise involuntary “amen.”

But the fact of the matter is that there are some construals of faith freedom that can be so myopic. (Can I get an “amen”?) In the shadow of white Christian nationalism, those forces having been normative for so long can seem like the truth. To dispel the darkness of stone-cold power, we need the enlightenment brought about by even more facts. Stories of pain and anger, truth and (yes and amen to) reconciliation, even the realization of wrongs done once and done again — we need these moments of awareness and understanding to realize what liberty really is. What are we free to do and be, to love and honor?

My heartfelt thanks to BJC for the “Voices of Asian American Faith Freedom” series coordinated during May 2021, in tribute to Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The series follows in profound solidarity with BJC’s other Capitol insurrection-era programming, which continues to help me better understand religious liberty in these (so-called) United States and during this time of multiple, ongoing pandemics. The interlocking injustices make the series particularly timely, not only to dispel Asian hate, Pacific Islander erasure, and other (f)acts of violence upon so many communities of color.

The series also realigns with a better, more nuanced, historically and politically charged notion of what is “Asian American.” To understand the weightiness of the claim Asian American is to understand how this interview series rightly follows the January 2021 conversation hosted by BJC centered on the book African Americans and Religious Freedom: New Perspectives for Congregations and Communities, edited by Dr. Sabrina Dent and Dr. Corey D. B. Walker, the “Voices of Black Faith Freedom” series in February, and the 2021 Shurden Lectures in April featuring the scholarship and prophetic witness of Dr. Teresa Smallwood, Dr. Anthony Pinn, Dr. Nicole MyersTurner, and Dr. David Goatley. (Facts!)

The more facts we have, the better these stories can be told in truth. I am thrilled by the fact that BJC insists on having these difficult discussions, even as I gravely lament the circumstances that necessitate having them. And the truth is that I am both proud of and pining for more of the kinds of conversations taking place since the new year. This pining is actually a positive assessment, just as it is a plea for more open, principled, and civil discourses concerning pluralities and differences that, frankly, we need. Too many conversations these days are held in bad faith — such as it is.

I appreciate deeply what the Reverend Lauren L. Ng shares about a kind of ecclesiological miseducation she experienced in seminary. My own research on immigrant churches and ethnoreligious identity formation is, in my view, animated by the same spirit by which Rev. Ng declares that “we’re actually removing layers of sediment” from a “white-dominant landscape.” Whiteness has been a false foundation on which the erasure of languages, the commodification of cultures, and the burying of lived experiences (redivivus as self-hatred) are predicated. Rather, the theological preference ought to be for lifting up so many othered communities, over against the compulsion to scrub facts.

At the same time, BJC must continue to press into the implications of recognizing Christian privilege, as pointed out helpfully by Professor Khyati Joshi. Words make worlds, and our (whose?) vocabulary could stand to expand. For established and culturally dominant religious institutions, this fact may be difficult to take in, as it would naturally be for any community that has become so insular that it dubs its own practices and behaviors as normative or (worse) “normal.” But variegated pluralisms are more fact than any totalizing orthodoxy could pretend to be. Multiple religious belonging is not mere theory but robust practice, as Dr. Joshi reveals in a vignette describing parenting within a multifaith household. Her book, White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America, will be both illuminating and illustrative for all of those participating in the BJC book club in July.

Activist Tahil Sharma frames interfaith advocacy within the common need for justice, which I think helpfully contextualizes and particularizes the core BJC activity under which this AAPI series squarely falls — such that education serves preventative justice, at least in part. (BJC’s core activities include education, legislation, and litigation — all of which, we recognize, are concerned with justice.) The fact is, justice requires accountability. We will never achieve social accountability without acknowledging our human needs as shared amongst us in ways deeper than we may realize and that cannot be reduced to moral creeds and juridical screeds. Non-faith and faith have commonality in the human experience. We live out our spirituality / faith / religion / beliefs / convictions as part of something bigger than ourselves, a reality from which we derive and share our life. The acknowledgement of such shared needs requires a humility that both asks sincere questions and receives unexpected answers.

Faith. Freedom. For all. As it should be — facts! — not in some thin, reductionist, tokenistic, sloganistic way. But if the constellation of meanings that reveals itself in the phrase “religious liberty” is available to some but not others, how then should we live? If the phrase “faith freedom” comes closer to shared interpretation but not common experience in actual fact, then what learning/unlearning do we need to take on next? Where is there sediment to clear? What privileges must be decentered? And which parts of our human family tree have received more attention, care, and cultivation, at the languishing of others? These are just some of the many questions emerging from plural Asian American experiences.

Facts. But just the facts?

Make just, these facts. And be free.

The Rev. Christopher M. The, a member of the 2016 BJC Fellows class, currently serves as the Director of Commission Information Services for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

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BJC- Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty