Library of Sermons & Articles
Re-imagining Relationships in Communities of Difference
Michael Sepidoza Campos
SRC 9999: Poststructuralism and Pedagogy
Assignment No. 4 and Presentation to Sonoma State University
16/17 March 2007
Ethnicity, Sexuality, and Identity as Loci of Discontent
“In God’s House” emerged out of the collaborative reflection of church workers, social activists, academics and peoples of faith within Asian-American Pacific Island (API) communities. Produced by the PANA Institute and directed by award-winning filmmaker Lina Hoshino , the film offered a thoughtful response to the controversies that divided Asian American communities during Mayor Gavin Newsom’s crusade to legalize same-sex marriage in the city of San Francisco. Reacting to what appeared to be an attack against family values, various Asian Christian churches in the Bay Area mobilized against the legal sanctioning of what many considered an immoral lifestyle. These traditionally reticent communities traversed boundaries of privacy to claim a moral voice in the civic space. It was a proclamation that imbedded conservative Christian rhetoric within the narratives of Asian American immigrant communities. It was as much a claim upon identity as morality; yet it was also a move that silenced the voices of Asian American faithful who self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
Theologian and religious educator, Boyung Lee, asserts that within the communal dynamics of Asian cultures, sexual taboo bears potency to structure ethical and moral spaces. As a distinct aspect of human personhood, sexuality “cannot be discussed in public except for discussions about procreation.” There prevail clear delineations between the private and public spheres that configure one’s public significations. For Lee, this dichotomy explains why legally sanctioned same-sex unions lend a degree of moral urgency among some API Christian communities. Such marriages would not only transgress traditional constructions of morality, but also blur public/private boundaries that, by extension, fortify an ethnic identity in diaspora. Lee observes that while no separation between one’s ethnic and sexual identities prevail within API individuals, living in exile privileges ethnicity as the necessary locus of identity-construction. Issues concerning sexuality are subsumed beneath a set of cultural givens that constitute ethnic identity. Thus, when such “givens” are subverted by incongruous behavior that threatens communal values (such as same-sex relationships), it is loss of identity —not just moral degradation— that stands at stake. Indeed, Chinese-American gay activist Eric C. Wat echoes Lee in claiming that, “to occupy an identity that tradition has not allowed room for is, for many Asian parents, to reject the validity of that tradition and, by extension, of the family whose foundation rests on that very tradition itself.” Reflecting upon the awkward tension between race and sexuality in his work as a political activist in the 1970s, Filipino-American Gil Mangaoang similarly observes that to come out in the Filipino community would be double jeopardy. My first concern was that being openly gay would further jeopardize the serious consideration my political viewpoints would be given to the Filipino community. Secondly, to come out in mainstream society would force me to confront the homophobic attitudes of society at large in addition to racial discrimination that I was already subjected to as an ethnic minority.
For API immigrants, therefore, relegating sex-talk to the bedroom serves as an implicit tactic that allows one to oppose the dominant, white, North-American Christian culture against which a diasporic identity is forged. Lee asserts that for some API immigrants, exposing sexual desire in public signifies a westernization process that threatens cultural integrity. Thus, conflicts over same-sex unions within API communities signify a deeper struggle to articulate identity in diaspora. It is an assertion not merely of religious values, but of ingrained conceptualizations of a cultural self that seeks to thrive in a foreign land.
Retrieving Memory and Retelling Stories
“In God’s House” (IGH) was produced to foster dialogical encounters that include the very real struggles of API-LGBT Christians in the larger conversations affecting API communities in North America. Structured as a communal narrative, the film weaves the stories of API Christians who encountered, challenged, rejected and eventually embraced family members/friends who “came out” to them. By honoring divergent voices —some articulate, others nearly silenced by the gravity of pain— IGH evokes the image of a village gathering drawn together by shared memory and experience. Each story attempts to penetrate the diaphanous boundaries that demarcate public and private spaces, moving the listener to engage; to behold a mother’s anguish at her child’s disregard for cultural convention in “choosing” to be lesbian; to discern a respected pastor’s reorientation of happiness, suffering and faith in the face of a loved one’s decision to “disengage” from community to affirm self and so be “authentically” happy; and to appreciate a young woman’s palpable commitment to embrace her roots and so foster spaces of welcome in traditionally homophobic contexts. These stories bear the capacity to transform because they do not pontificate ideologies and posture self-righteous claims. Feminist and literary scholar bell hooks claims that “hearing each other’s voices, individual thoughts, and sometimes associating these voices with personal experience makes us more acutely aware of each other.” In storytelling, therefore, solitary experiences lose their exclusive hold upon the individual; listening deeply allows one’s experience to be shared, engaged in communal spaces.
Because silence wields as much potency as speech in the construction of truths, values and identity in API communities, Lee is keenly aware of the overt and subtle ways through which ideas are transmitted. Echoing educator Eliott Eisner, Lee stresses how communal values are just as effectively reinforced by what is not said as those explicitly articulated. Silence —the negative space of speech— compromises a “null curriculum” where ethics are formed by significations of taboo and implicit prohibitions. While it is tempting to dispel silence through explicit speech, there is, however, a necessary negotiation that must be respected in communities that lend equal weight to implicit communication. bell hooks insightfully nuances that “coming to voice is not just the act of telling one’s experience. It is using that telling strategically—to come to voice so that you can also speak freely about other subjects.” Thus, within cultures that assume intuitive relationality, rendering explicit that which is implicit requires careful navigation around structural taboos and value systems; it is just as necessary to sustain the delicate balance between silence and speech. This is particularly vital for a diasporic community that clings to tradition to survive.
Storytelling offers this intermediary space that allows for both explicit and implicit speech. In the act of sharing stories, the narrator and the listener/s exist as a collective body that re-members shared histories and so reconstitutes a common identity. Family lore—along with its propensity to pick up “new facts” as it is passed down the generations— exemplifies the generative power of appropriating “collective truths” to accommodate change. Theologian C.S. Song sees storytelling as an actual engagement with another. Sharing individuals interact in the stories, enter into one another’s lives, worlds, and histories as they tell their stories—I find myself in your story and you find yourself in my story. My story becomes your story and your story becomes my story.
The efficacy of storytelling rests upon its ability to avoid the confrontational tendencies that characterize prescriptive —and static— approaches to ethical formation. Storytelling transcends the limitations of linear thinking; minds and perspectives expand as experience fortify/challenge, uphold/dismantle long-held value systems that configure one’s culture. Since empathy —indeed, compassion— is engendered, ordinary human experiences are lent credibility as sources of truth. The suspicion and threat associated with difference lose their potency; and so difference is regarded as transformative. bell hooks gleans the power of experience/story in her work among racially- and/or economically-marginalized students. She claims that as a teacher, I recognize that students from marginalized groups enter classrooms within institutions where their voices have been neither heard nor welcomed… My pedagogy has been shaped to respond to this reality… This pedagogical strategy is rooted in the assumption that we all bring to the classroom experiential knowledge, that this knowledge can indeed enhance our learning experience. If experience is already invoked in the classroom as a way of knowing that coexists in a nonhierarchical way with other ways of knowing, then it lessens the possibility that it can be used to silence.
As a narrative mechanism, storytelling serve as channels of healing that “help us perceive a different reality, or at least the notion that it could be otherwise.” In so raising the stories of API-LGBT Christians, IGH envisions a community that affirms:  the silenced truths of API-LGBT Christians; and  the potential for such voices to enhance, deepen and transform the many life-giving qualities that constitute API life in diaspora. Both do not stand in contradiction to the other.
Engaging Difference in Learning
Learning is hewn upon the interface of persons and information. When individual contributions to the learning process are taken seriously, education results to the convergence of similar and dissimilar ideas. Contradictions in learning, while tedious at times, can reorient perspectives, deepen one’s apprehension of knowledge. Elaborating upon the ideas of Robert Kegan, Lee describes how constructions of meaning unfold precisely through the three-pronged dynamic of Confirmation, Contradiction and Continuity. Within this schema, differential encounters offer the possibility of affirming and/or challenging the learner’s “given” epistemology. When new experiences counter (Contradiction) —or even “mimic” (Confirmation)— one’s principles, they serve as avenues for integration. Continuity occurs only after an honest engagement with difference results to change, not the relentless domination of one voice over another.
Cultural theorist Chela Sandoval touches upon the potency of difference in upholding “oppositional consciousness” as a means of dismantling oppressive and naturalizing structures that limit human conceptions of relationships. Echoing Roland Barthes, Sandoval utilizes the metaphor of “falling in love” as an avenue through which transformative relationships can be re-imagined: To fall in love means that one must submit, however temporarily, to what is ‘intractable,’ to a state of being not subject to control or governance. It is at this point that the drifting being is able to pass into another kind of erotics, to the amplitude of Barthes’s ‘abyss.’ It is only in the ‘no-place’ of the abyss that subjectivity can become freed from ideology as it binds and ties reality; here is where the political weapons of consciousness are available in a constant tumult of possibility.
An oppositional consciousness does not situate the phantasmic other beyond the self. Rather, the learner and the teacher—or, as in Sandoval’s context, the lover and the beloved—occupy the same space of engagement. They are united, not separated by difference. Indeed, when two persons “fall in love,” what they apprehend is an other who is both like and unlike themselves. This encounter bears the potential to subvert “static” notions of truth, knowledge, history and values. The paradox of loving one—or learning from one—who is both familiar and different gives birth to new conceptualizations of self and of one’s space in community. And so, the “anomaly” of API-LGBT Christians opens forth possibilities to re-imagine identity/belongingness in contexts that render them doubly-exiled: culturally and sexually. Grounded upon a consciousness that locates self within community, API-LGBT Christians can wield difference as an avenue towards a common liberation. Their locus of contradiction bears the potential to transgress the public/private boundaries that limit imaginations of ethnic identities.
Lee asserts that differential encounters within API communities necessitate a delicate dance between the personal and the communal: one cannot simply criticize another without taking into consideration how “truth” will be received. Relationships matter; one’s public face and stature are important. Thus within any learning process —indeed, at any encounter with difference— both Contradiction and Confirmation must be balanced sensitively: If educators rush to contradiction emphasizing discussion without affirmation and analysis, many Asian Americans will perceive the educational event (encounter) itself as criticism of their own being and culture.
Deploying storytelling to puncture the oppressive veil of silence, “In God’s House” offers an oppositional space that challenges the hegemony of prevailing cultural norms. But the film’s efficacy as a transformative vehicle rests not upon its capacity to simply be heard. A truly life-giving encounter relies upon the willingness of both “learners” and “teachers,” i.e., both API-LGBT and API-mainstream Christians, to regard each other’s stories as inherently truthful and so worthy of respectful engagement.
Institute for the Leadership Development and Study of Pacificand Asian North American Religion. The PANA Institute is a privately-funded non-profit organization sponsored through the Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA. Lina Yoshino is an independent film-maker.
Boyung Lee, “Teaching Justice and Living Peace: Body, Sexuality, and Religious Education in Asian-American Communities”in Religious Education, Vol. 101, No. 3, Summer 2006, pg. 402.
Eric C. Wat, “Preserving the Paradox: Stories from a Gay-loh” in Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience, ed. Russell Leong (New York: Routledge, 1996), pg. 76.
Gil Mangaoang, “From the 1970s to the 1990s: Perspective of a Gay Filipino American Activist” in Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience, ed. Russell Leong (New York: Routledge, 1996), pg. 106. Emphasis added.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), pg. 186.
hooks, 148. Emphasis added.
C.S. Song, The Believing Heart: An Invitation to Story Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999), pg. 69.
Constance A. Dorn, Story Telling as God-Talk: An Exploration of Narrative Theology, unpublished Master of Theology thesis (Berkeley, CA: Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, 2001), pg. 39.
Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pg. 142.
If you have a sermon or paper that you would like to add to our library, please email it to email@example.com.