Shortly after my family immigrated to America in 1999, my uncle handed me a history of the United States written in Chinese. I gobbled the book in two weeks, immediately captivated by the personalities and idealism behind America’s founding. I was particularly fascinated by the story of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, lifelong friends—and rivals—who both died on the 50th anniversary of America’s founding.
My fascination grew into an obsession with American presidents, politics, and John Adams. In college, I picked American Studies as my major. I was proud to know more about American history than any of my American friends in high school did, and even prouder when my parents and I took our oaths to become American citizens in 2005.
Many of my teachers in China told me that if a nation were compared to a canvas, China would be an ancient painting on which the strokes of history have been layered over and over through thousands of years. There is little room for change or improvement. The United States, on the other hand, is still a blank canvas with opportunities to grow and improve. While that may be a depiction of China’s historical baggage, the analogy is less accurate for the United States. Young though it may be, the relative brevity of American history makes this country’s social problems and historical contradictions even more prominent.
Splattered with Racism
The lofty ideals and heroic sacrifices of the American Founding Fathers did not halt the growth of slavery, a legacy that still haunts us. My own alma mater—the nation’s first Catholic university—had to recently reconcile with a history of Jesuit leaders selling 272 black slaves to raise money for the school.
The relative brevity of American history makes this country’s social problems and historical contradictions even more prominent.
The abolition of slavery after a bitter Civil War did not end racial injustice. Jim Crow laws dominated the next century, along with the continuing slaughter of Native Americans, Chinese expulsion acts, Japanese internments, and many other measures of discriminations against ethnic minorities and immigrants. And our nation continues to grapple with police violence and injustice against African Americans in our criminal justice system.
As a church, we cry out, “How long?” As a Chinese immigrant, I ask, “Where is my place in this nation?” When a racial riot broke out in my hometown in 2001, I wrongfully joined in with my white classmates and asked, “Why can’t the black people just behave themselves and not cause any trouble?” But then I wondered, What do I have to do in this country to appear normal? Does it mean I have to work extra hard to blend in, make white friends, study American history in an elite college, and marry a white girl? And by doing that, do I have to relegate my Chineseness to my home and a few allotted spaces in order to not stand out among my friends?
As it turns out, I have done all these things. I received a great education, got a cushy job in a corporate law firm right out of college, married a lovely white girl, and am now serving as a pastor in a predominantly white PCA church. But my acceptance into the mainstream American society is always preceded by my willingness to play the assimilation game. The recent wave of anti-Asian rhetoric and sentiment in this COVID-19 pandemic again highlighted how tenuous my acceptance into society can be. When political candidates speak of a vision to restore America to a former greatness, it often makes me wonder whether this “greatness” has a place for people like me.
Yet as I offer this personal critique, I also remember how the heroic ideals and sacrifices of our Founding Fathers shone through as a resilient nation came together after 9/11. I could see the progress of justice through the inauguration of our nation’s first African American president. I am grateful for the opportunity in this nation to come to Christ and worship God with his people in freedom. I am proud to be a citizen of this nation.
When political candidates speak of a vision to restore America to a former greatness, it often makes me wonder whether this ‘greatness’ has a place for people like me.
On this Fourth of July, I hope you can join me in taking pride in our national achievements and celebrating all the blessings that God has given us in this country. Yet we should be quick to remember that the Fourth of July belongs also to the protestors and the activists, the immigrants and the refugees, the Muslims and the Christians, the African Americans and the Asian Americans.
If there is any claim to exceptionalism in American, it is the sparkling light of the American mosaic that makes our society vibrant and beautiful. I pray that my Chinese culture, African American cultures, Arab cultures, Latino cultures, and others may shine as brightly in this society as the array of Caucasian cultures.
At the same time, we must remember that despite our progress and ideals, neither America nor the march of democracy and liberty is the fulfillment of history.
When I took my citizenship oath in the summer of 2005, I renounced my fidelity to any foreign sovereignty and pledged my allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America. But I must admit that at best I can only be a subversive patriot—not because I am looking for opportunities to betray my country, but because I have been called into the kingdom of God. Every day of my life—when I see injustice, violence, evil, sickness—I will pray that the people of this Kingdom will be a light in darkness, and that the glory and authority of our King will soon be fully established in our world.
I am a subversive patriot because, despite the progress we have made as a nation, America is not my best hope for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” My ultimate allegiance is to a King who gave up his own life, liberty, and happiness to redeem us from the tyranny of sin so that these may truly become our “unalienable rights,” not just in this world but eternally. I am a subversive patriot who, in the process of seeking a good life in America, discovered “that I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ . . . who by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”