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Disability and the Asian American Church: From Shame to Strength?

by Amos Yong, PhD.

Generalizations that Western cultures are guilt-based and Asian cultures are shame-based, while highlighting one relevant distinction, may make less of a difference when dealing with disability, and are certainly less applicable when discussing the Asian American experience, including that related to Asian American Christianity. To be sure, it is better to talk about Asian American churches (in the plural) given the diversity of Asian American cultures, even as it is more pertinent on this issue to note that Asian Americans live with both the “model minority” and “perpetual foreigner” stereotypes. In fact, empirical studies confirm that Asian Americans are less likely to request or accept accommodations, services, or relevant interventions for disability conditions than non-Asian Americans, and I hazard to guess that this reluctance is related to the many factors perceived as impinging on their reputation in the eyes of the host culture. In other words, Asian Americans, even Asian American Christians, may be even more hesitant in the case of living with disabilities about appearing in need, especially since they already wrestle with a sense of partial belonging (neither fully Asian nor fully American), not to mention feel as if they have to live into a higher set of expectations held both within and outside their communities.

Asian cultural deferentialism, although another generalization that has to be handled with care, further complicates negotiations with disability in Asian American contexts. Here, Confucian hierarchicalism and traditionalism combines with conservative Protestant theological commitments, often of the Reformed persuasion, to urge Asian American Christians to accept the status quo and embrace life’s conditions. In some instances a kind of fatalism ensues: that the experience of disability is at least allowed if not predetermined by God, and human beings ought to be resigned to divine providence, however inscrutable it may be. There is little cultural or theological impetus here for sustained lament or for an activist approach to disability matters, particularly if such activism might be interpreted as “rocking the boat,” not only in church but also in society. First generation immigrants may be particularly hesitant about reaching out in these situations, despite tremendous need.

Within Asian American ecclesial contexts, then, one wonders how many families with disabilities struggle on their own because they are un-inclined to approach others in, even leaders of, the church with their challenges. This means that they bear the primary if not sole burden of caring for a family member with disabilities, and also have to process without much input the existential challenges and theological meaning of such for their lives. How might Asian American pastors or lay leaders be more supportive of families with disabilities in their communities? There are certainly many ways that Asian American congregations facilitate the immigrant experience, and there is no reason why we cannot – should not – be more intentional about addressing the social and economic challenges of living with disability not only for those on this process of transition but also for any and all members who live with disability.

As a theologian, however, I would like to suggest briefly a slight paradigm shift that may be helpful for Asian American Christians who desire to be more attentive to disability matters in their lives, churches, and ministries. If St. Paul is widely accepted as the architect of Reformed theology – given the centrality of his letter to the Romans to Reformed traditions – then perhaps he can also be a guide to biblically minded Asian American believers in their reconsidering disability at this important theological level. For our purposes, I want to focus on Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, in particular the persistent theme in these letters of strength in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9; cf. 1 Cor. 2:3, 2 Cor. 11:30). The all-so important caveat to mention up front is to resist the temptation to equate this weakness with disabilities not only since Paul is speaking theologically first and foremost, but also because it is naïve and presumptuous to think about people with disabilities in such terms. In fact, it is precisely the Pauline point to argue that our prejudices on this matter are related to our worldly perspective. Instead, he castigates the Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27, NRSV). If the Corinthians relied on their status, affluence, knowledge, and spiritual giftedness for their self-understanding, Paul insists that God values otherwise. “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member” (1 Cor. 12:22-24, NRSV, emphases added).

My point, let me reemphasize, is not to people with disabilities are either weaker or less honourable – on this matter we need to learn from people with disabilities themselves and the broader American disability community – but to say, with Paul, that it is precisely our own culturally generated stereotypes and biases that lead us to think about and see them in this way. And Paul’s point to the Corinthians of old, and my goal here, is to invite us to adopt God’s perspective that challenges our shamefulness about what is not esteemed in the world’s eyes. If we did this, then we understand how God overturns both our value-system and our hierarchies so that people with disabilities can take their place as equal members of the body of Christ gifted by the Holy Spirit according to his purposes (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-13). What might our Asian American congregations look like if people with disabilities were not shamefully hidden away but the lives and gifts celebrated as central to the community of faith?

Dr. Amos Yong is Amos Yong came to Fuller Seminary in July 2014 from Regent University School of Divinity, where he taught for nine years, serving most recently as J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and dean. Prior to that he was on the faculty at Bethel University in St. Paul, Bethany College of the Assemblies of God, and served as a pastor and worked in Social and Health Services in Vancouver, Washington.

Yong’s scholarship has been foundational in Pentecostal theology, interacting with both traditional theological traditions and contemporary contextual theologies—dealing with such themes as the theologies of Christian-Buddhist dialogue, of disability, of hospitality, and of the mission of God. He has authored or edited over 30 volumes. Among the most recent areThe Future of Evangelical Theology: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora (IVP Academic, 2014); Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity, with Jonathan A. Anderson (Baylor University Press, 2014);Interdisciplinary and Religio-Cultural Discourses on a Spirit-Filled World: Loosing the Spirits, coedited with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and Kirsteen Kim (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Pneumatology and the Christian-Buddhist Dialogue: Does the Spirit Blow through the Middle Way? Studies in Systematic Theology 11 (Brill, 2012); The Cosmic Breath: Spirit and Nature in the Christianity-Buddhism-Science Trialogue, Philosophical Studies in Science & Religion 4 (Brill, 2012); and Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace (Baylor University Press, 2012). He has also authored 175 (and counting) scholarly articles in a wide range of peer-reviewed journals, edited book collections, and other venues. Dr. Yong is past president of the Society for Pentecostal Stud

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