Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

A Foreigner’s Thoughts at the Great Wall

Author: 
Emilie M. Townes

He did not have funds to contribute to the Academy Fund financial appeal that the American Academy of Religion (AAR) makes each year. However, would I, as president of AAR, come as its representative to do a lecture and lead two workshops as his guest in Shanghai? He would take care of housing and meals; the AAR would be responsible for my air- fare. My only condition was that I must visit the Great Wall.

An extremely busy spring semester meant that I did not do my normal research for a trip to a new and unknown country. I did manage to catch a few History Channel documentaries on the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses that guard his tomb. What I did not realize was that I took with me on this three-week, four-city journey, along with my excitement, a whole host of misperceptions of China – the land and its peoples. The trip was an occasion for pondering yet again how we misapprehend the stranger.

A Bag of Stereotypes

The moment we stood in the vastness of Tiananmen Square in Beijing that first morning was the moment I realized the baggage of stereotypes I was carrying in my head: I was surprised at how modern China is. My images of China had been filled with the rural countryside of rice fields, peasants, and water buffalos. This is, to be sure, a part of China too, and I saw it outside of Guilin and Shanghai. But it is decidedly not what one finds in urban areas. Western clothing is the norm – I might have been standing in Manhattan or Chicago. The young people there dress like the young folk here – complete with earphones and bopping to their own concerts on their MP3 players or iPods. People go about their daily lives just as we do here in the U.S.

Luxury automobiles abound on city streets and highways. This contradicted my stuck-in-time image of Chairman Mao’s China. Instead I found a country in a hurry to be a modern globalized nation, not a classless state. There is abject poverty and ostentatious wealth. Day workers mingle easily with business people as the cars, bicycles, motorcycles, motorized bikes, and pedestrians do a most intricate dance of moving people and machines to their destinations.

Construction dominates the urban landscapes I visited. In Shanghai, the number of skyscrapers going up was striking; the visitor sees few single-family houses. With a population of more than twenty million in the metropolitan area, people buy apartments. Although there is a one-child limit for families, the city (and the country) continues to grow. It is an awesome thing to know that I was living, for three weeks, in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Standing in enormous Tiananmen Square that hot summer morning in Beijing, I was left speech- less at the astonishing blend of ancient and modern. I recalled the student protests for democracy in 1989 and the image of a lone male student staring down four tanks just outside the Square; now I could see why the tanks and the man looked so small. To my left was Mao’s tomb and the long lines to view his embalmed body that lies in state. In front of us was the People’s Hall, where the general assembly meets. Far away to my right was the entrance gate to the Forbidden City, with Mao’s massive portrait hanging over the entrance. For nearly five centuries, the Forbidden City (Imperial Palace) served as the home of the emperors. Something else astonished me: this place combines grand scale with a beauty unlike any I’ve ever visited. And so I realized: In order to experience the real China, I would have to acknowledge as honestly as possible the baggage I was carrying about it, and lay it down, and let China teach me about itself, and perhaps I’d also learn some things about me.

Religion at the Wall

The next day, after an hour’s drive from Beijing, I stood on the Great Wall. Pondering the immensity of that undertaking – the tremendous toll its construction took on people’s lives and families, its testament to the immemorial human search for security – I was struck with how old China is and how young the U.S. is. Here, a person encounters a vast sense of time, a sense of tradition, a sense of beauty, a sense of the religious. I had not expected this reaction to the Great Wall. I knew I would be wowed by its age (it was built, rebuilt, and maintained between the sixth century BCE and sixteenth century CE) and its scale (where I stood was merely one segment of a 4,000-mile-long edifice). But it was the sense of the religious and then the spiritual that made its deepest impression on me. I found myself doing what Howard Thurman, a noted Black mystic of the twentieth century, calls centering down. I moved to a quiet and reflective space internally, where I felt the awesomeness of God’s creation wash over me. Instead of a wall of protection to keep invaders out, I experienced the Wall as an entry point not only to the history of China, but also my history as a citizen of the U.S. I thought of the debates we have in the U.S. about building border fences to keep foreigners from the south out, but we do not have these same debates about our northern border. Who or what, I wondered, are we “protecting” ourselves from when erecting modern-day versions of the Great Wall in the U.S.?

Pondering the scene, I felt also a tugging on my faith. What walls have I erected in my life to keep invaders out? How is my faith and my active wit- ness a welcoming of the stranger? How are walls erected in our daily lives in the U.S. to keep others out? Is erecting walls a sign of faithful witness or human fears?

The broader issue of religion in China turned out to be perhaps my greatest misconception. I arrived believing that religion is totally suppressed and no freedom of expression exists. There is, to be sure, repression of religion, but it is selective and strategic. There are five official religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam. The first two are considered indigenous to China, the latter three are seen as religions that accompanied various foreign invasions. As several Chinese scholars and tour guides noted, in China one can say many things to the government about politics and religion, but one must be careful how one says it. One cannot advocate any hint of revolution or revolt.

Thus no foreigners can preach or pastor officially in the churches and mosques. The Protestant Three- Self Church (TSPM) is the only state-sanctioned or registered church in China. The three “self” principles – self-governance, self-support (financial in- dependence from foreigners), and self-propagation (indigenous missionary work) – continue to hold after surviving the ban on religious expression during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Although the TSPM is not a denomination, pas- tors are trained at one of thirteen officially sanctioned, Marxist-oriented seminaries, which teach liberal theology. The house church movement is also strong, though it is impossible to know the number of Christians in China in the registered and unregistered churches because congregations do not keep official membership lists. Estimates are 18 million for Protestants alone.

Conference Epiphanies

I was surprised to learn that only five universities in China have what we would call a department of religion or religious studies. However, there are numerous initiatives and centers, often linked with the social sciences, where religion is studied as a social phenomenon. Only recently has theology, as we think of it here, begun to be studied as widely as are the sociological dimensions of religion.

As I learned more about the status of religion in China, the conference neared. I read over my open keynote lecture – written well in advance of the conference – with great bemusement. It was based on my work on the role and influence of Black stereo- types here in the U.S. The phrase I had coined for the ways in which stereotypes are entrenched in our

imaginations and perceptions of each other – the fantastic hegemonic imagination – was more apt than I knew. I’ve often argued that this hegemonic imagination infects all of us, and part of what we must do as people of faith is develop strategies to recognize this in ourselves and lean more firmly into the Gospel mandate to live as brothers and sisters. Here I was in China, learning how this infected imagination plays out globally – in me.

The lecture went well enough and the respondents, two Chinese scholars, found it helpful to think about in their own lives and work. However, things did not come fully into focus until the last day of the conference and workshop, when I led a session with seventy students that featured images of stereotypes of American slaves and real pictures of slaves. I stressed the ways in which Blacks in the U.S. are equated with apes in these stereotypes, and the students began to realize that this was the image they carried in their heads about U.S. Blacks. I exhibited the April 2008 Vogue magazine cover, which displayed NBA basketball star LeBron James and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen in the same pose as King Kong and Fay Wray, and the Obama-as-Curious-George T-shirts that made a brief appearance in early summer of 2008. Quite unintentionally, I had tapped into two obsessions of these Chinese graduate students – professional basketball players and Barack Obama. It clicked for all of us as we talked about the spoken, hidden, and destructive stereotypes we have about each other from nation to nation. When a student asked me if people in the U.S. have stereotypes about Asians, I told them that immigrant Chinese laborers in the late 1800s were called the “yellow peril.” The session was, for me, an incredible experience of grace and forgiveness as we talked candidly during question- and-answer time.

Pilgrims, Not Tourists

It will take me a good long while to sort through all that I learned on my China trip and the impact it must have for my teaching and my daily attempts to be faithful to God’s call in my life. But there are a few things that I “know” now as I write this reflection on the eve of a new academic year at YDS.

Perhaps most humbling but also freeing is the recognition that I should never allow someone else’s worldview – whether the media or some of the teachings in our churches – be the final arbiter of another people. This is particularly important as the church debates its stance and role in the immigration debates swirling around us. We must come to know folks through their lives and not from books or images that caricature the very is-ness of people and cannot capture the incredible emotions one can have by standing in another country and opening one’s head and heart to another people.

The second thing I’ve learned is that we must meet each other as pilgrims rather than as tourists. My time in China shifted radically at the moment I decided I didn’t want to experience the country merely as a tourist, but began to listen to the histories people gave about their country. It was not a monolithic history that emerged. Some folks contradicted each other, at times quite severely. I began to see the country and its people on a deeper level and could appreciate that I was in a complex society, and that twenty-one days would only be a faint scratch on the surface. If we take ourselves off the tourist track, we begin to dwell with folks as we make our way in creation.

A third thing I’ve learned is more an affirmation of what I’ve experienced from my yearly trips to teach in Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. People are gracious, and they greatly appreciate those of us who come to them to learn about them in their own context, especially when we do so admitting our faults and maintaining open hearts and minds. We live in an incredibly rich and diverse world. God’s creation is just beyond our fingertips each and every day. To live into this creation is, in part, to live into each other’s lives – perfectly and imperfectly.

I am even more aware now how much I do not like the word “foreigner” anymore. The ordeal of the modern border experience makes sure that foreign- ness is the only identity we are allowed to bring. Standing in line as we enter a country, there is the slight holding of the breath, hoping that one’s visa, passport, and declaration paper are in order. We become a complete and vulnerable other reduced to a document with a usually dated picture. Imagine the person who has braved this gauntlet – or the more dangerous journey of the undocumented worker – to enter the U.S. and make it to the doors of our sanctuaries.

This is why, with the help of the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale, the academic office of YDS has begun a three-year pilot project to give all new entering students a book that stirs their awareness and helps equip them to incorporate social justice issues in their ministries. This project, sponsored by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, includes programming around the issues raised in the book and, when possible, bringing the author to campus to do a public lecture and meet with interested students and faculty members. This fall, Peggy Levitt’s God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape is the selected book. Her book reveals how recent immigrants are transforming religion in the U.S. and globally. As our students prepare to enter into various forms of ministry, it is important that they be able to speak expansively about the social issues of the day; certainly the im- migration debate presses upon every religious and social landscape of the U.S. today. In God Needs No Passport, Levitt writes that today’s immigrants “are remaking the religious landscape by introducing new faith traditions, and Asianizing and Latinoizing old ones. By doing so, they are transforming what it means to be American.”

Perhaps we could find a new capacity to greet the newly arriving person in genuine welcome if we take our cue from the only undergraduate attending the workshop at Shanghai University. Mai, a college sophomore in a room of graduate students, listened intently to my workshop lecture and stared long and hard at the stereotyped images I presented. During the question-and-answer time, another student asked me, How do we stop sanctioning these stereotypes that separate us from each other?

As I was weighing how to communicate a long and complex answer, Mai’s hand shot up with all the confidence of youth. I acknowledged her and asked her to speak. She said, “We begin.”

Emilie M. Townes is associate dean of academic affairs and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African American Re- ligion and Theology at Yale Divinity School. Her books include Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (Palgrave McMillan, 2006) and Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health and a Womanist Ethic of Care (Continuum, 1998; Wipf & Stock, 2006). An ordained American Baptist clergywoman, she is the 2008 president of the American Academy of Religion.

Death in the Desert
In fiscal 2007, 400 people died while entering the U.S. from Mexico. That figure is down 12 percent from the 453 deaths that occurred the year before. A record 494 deaths were reported in fiscal 2005, according to U.S. border Patrol statistics.
The lower numbers were the result of better enforcement and more agents in the field, leading to fewer illegal crossings, a border Patrol report said.
The primary cause of death was exposure to heat. Other causes include hypothermia, drownings, vehicle accidents, and robbery.

border Patrol reports say 1,954 people died crossing the U.S.-mexican border between the years 1998-2004.
Source: U.S. Government
 

 

Issue Title: 
Who is my Neighbor? Facing Immigration
Issue Year: 
2008