Sun peeks from behind a chain link fenceMany East Asian Americans suffer from a spirituality that’s oriented towards the fulfillment of duty.  The Confucianist heritage of the East 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 Confucianist culture that people are familiar with is an informal, populist one, fulfilling our duty is considered good regardless of our inner disposition.

“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 excruciating and humiliating conditions in the inner-city grocery store or dry-cleaner’s for their children.  Their sacrifice demands that their children respond in obedience,  sacrifice, and maybe even achievement.  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 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 recipicate 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 recipicating response, it can be most oppressive.

“for some Asian Americans, the message of God’s great sacrifice on the cross is burdensome”

Some defend this way of thinking with their misunderstanding of “costly grace”.  Even for Bonhoeffer, costly grace was still free. He was correcting a wrong understanding of justification by faith; he was not doing away with justification. It 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 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, their service is burdensome and joyless. In their hearts, they have made God into a demon. 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.

“You can only fulfill your duty to God by going through the path of freedom and delight.”

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 path of freedom and delight.

Author

Daniel D. Lee is a minister, husband, and father of three daughters. He directs the Asian American Center at Fuller Seminary and teaches theology and Asian American ministry.

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