Many East Asian Americans suffer from a spirituality that’s oriented towards the fulfillment of duty. The Confucian heritage is organized in terms of duty fulfillment. If you want to be a good parent and not bring shame upon yourself and your family, you fulfill your duty by sacrificing for your children. If you want to be a good child and not bring shame upon yourself and your family, you fulfill your duty by sacrificing for your parents. Parental sacrifice is reciprocated with filial piety. Since the version of Confucian culture that people are familiar with is an informal, populist one, fulfilling our duty is considered good regardless of our inner disposition.
Think of the immigrant parent who says that they have come to America and have worked in the excruciating and humiliating conditions in the inner-city grocery store or dry cleaners for their children. Their sacrifice demands that their children respond in obedience, sacrifice, and maybe even outstanding achievement. (By the way, this is the larger context in which to understand the whole “Tiger Mom” thing.) This linking of parental sacrifice and filial piety means that the love of parents isn’t necessary free. Their sacrifice comes at a cost to the children. What seems benign or possibly socially fitting in this familial context becomes pernicious in the spiritual realm.
The cross of Christ could be misinterpreted in this duty-orientation. The cross can be the great parental sacrifice, which requires a reciprocate response of filial piety. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the debt of filial piety. Ever wonder why for some Asian Americans the message of God’s great sacrifice on the cross is so burdensome? If Christ’s sacrifice isn’t really free, but obligate a reciprocating response, it can be most oppressive.
Some defend this way of thinking with their misunderstanding of “costly grace”. Even for Bonhoeffer, who coined this term, costly grace was still always free. He was correcting a wrong understanding of justification by faith; he was not doing away with justification. That would simply be apostasy to think that we must pay for grace in some way, as if the cost for grace comes from us somehow.
Biblically, this duty-orientation is the spirituality of the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: Fulfillment of duty without the inner disposition. Most Asian Americans resemble more of the elder son and not the prodigal son. Like the Pharisees, they are upright, moral, even obedient, but they are only fulfilling duty, without really loving God. For these “faithful” committed servants, their service is burdensome and joyless. In their hearts, they make God into a demon, which command obedience and sacrifice while threatening displeasure, judgment and hell. They will not be able to serve forever if this is their foundation. Or they will continually have to beat themselves up with fear and shame in order to keep on serving.
Only when you know that you don’t have to take care of God like some elderly parent, can we really serve, worship, and obey freely and joyously. You can only fulfill your duty to God by going through the door of delight.
Daniel D. Lee is a systematic theology doctoral student at Fuller Seminary researching Karl Barth and contextual theologies. He also serves as the Coordinator for AATMI (Asian American Theology and Ministry Initiative) at Fuller, working to develop an Asian American program there. (This piece is cross posted with the blog Next Gener.Asian Church)
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