A Part Yet Apart: Moses as a Model for Second-Generation Chinese American Christians

In this post Melissa L. Emerson offers an intercultural reading of Moses for her own cultural context as a second-generation Chinese American. What texts speak to your social location, and how do you read them for this particular location? What insight into the biblical text does your cultural perspective offer the church at large? We invite you to share these insights in comments. 

A Curious Combination?

Melissa Lee Emerson

Melissa Lee Emerson

At first glance, Moses and second-generation Chinese American Christians (2CC) may seem to share little. Yet I believe attention to the intersection of Moses’s cultural identity and his vocation, calls 2CCs to steward their complex cultural identity in a way that embraces solidarity with, and fosters liberation for, all ethnicities.

Moses’s yearning for justice (Exodus 2:11-17) paired with his tri-cultural identity as Hebrew, Egyptian, and Midianite allowed God to use him to fulfill God’s mission of liberating the Israelites. Moses’s exile in Midian allowed God to forge his Hebrew blood, royal Egyptian socialization, eagerness to pursue justice, and semi-nomadic lifestyle for greater purposes than Moses could see. Just as the land of Midian bore witness to Moses’s development, can America be a place where God forms 2CCs into a willing instrument for his liberating, transforming work?

A History of Exclusion

By restricting U.S. citzenship to “white” immigrants, the Naturalization Law of 1790 relegated Asian immigrants to the status of “aliens” and “foreigners.” The impact of this distinction endures far beyond the time it was in force (modified in 1952). Chinese immigrants and their Chinese American children continue to struggle with self-perceptions of being foreign and excluded. At the same time, efforts to prove worthiness of inclusion – competitive work ethic, over-achievement in education, and strict frugality in pursuit of wealth – have earned Asian Americans the backhanded compliment of being the “model minority.”

Caught in this impossible dance between “foreigner” and “model-minority,” 2CCs have become a part of American life but remain apart. This uncertain position complicates the 2CC’s relationship to other immigrant and minority groups. The seemingly positive stereotype of “model-minority” can tempt 2CCs to turn a blind eye to the reality of its implications and revel in a status earned by their parents. This may be evident in the large number of 2CCs that live in affluent suburbs, attempting to forget their history of segregation or to distinguish themselves from those for whom it remains a reality. In this way the image of “model-minority” inadvertantly condemns other minorities, silences their call for justice, and provokes competition between minority groups.

Moses’s Call to Chinese American Christians

The cultural confusion and unequal privilege of 2CCs resemble Moses’s position as a Hebrew raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter. But do 2CCs also mirror Moses’s stewardship of his cultural identity? 2CCs can serve as advocates for immigrants and other minority groups that continue to face alienation. Rather than being content with our inherited privilege, we can pick up our cross and join efforts to dismantle the legacy of racism, civic exclusion, legal segregation, generational immobility, and immigration reform.

Moses’ anticipatory acts of justice (Exodus 2:11-17) were by themselves inadequate to save the Hebrews, for they needed to be empowered by God’s command and presence (3:12). Likewise, 2CCs must be dependent on God’s power and call, and commit to a sojourn of faith amid unknowns. For the template of Exodus offers not a freedom from all control but humble posture that asks, “Whom will we now serve?” exchanging bondage under Pharaoh to the freedom found in service to the true Lord.

“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.” (Hebrews 11:24-27)

We invite you to share your own intercultural readings in the comments section, using the link under the title above. What texts speak to your social location, and what fresh reading might your perspective offer the wider church as we read Scripture together?

Melissa Lee Emerson (melissa.lee.emerson@gmail.com) (MDiv, NPTS) lives in Kansas City, Missouri, with her husband Anthony. Having wrestled with her second-generation Chinese-American identity in her young adult years, she set to learn how Scriptures could speak into her ethnic and Christian identity. This article is a short summarization of this work. When she’s not working with Made to Flourish: A Pastor’s Network for the Common Good, she is learning how to play the cello, cook Indian food, or reading a good book.

Melissa Emerson

Melissa Lee Emerson is a second-generation Chinese American woman whose grandparents immigrated to the US in the 1958 and 1970. Raised in an immigrant Chinese church and Christian private school, she experienced the tensions of her cultural identity. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of Houston with an emphasis in Human Development and Sociology, while she served as a Youth Minister at Mosaic Community Covenant Church, a multi-ethnic church in Houston. She and her husband Anthony currently serve the local church in Kansas City, MO.