Beyond Ornamental Progress: An Interview with Kevin Park

The Rev. Kevin Park is on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, where he is associate dean for advanced professional studies and assistant professor of theology. His interests focus on emerging Asian North American theologies, critiques of ornamental multiculturalism, and divine beauty as a resource for multicultural theology.

On ornamental multiculturalism …

As mainline Christians we aspire to become more racially and ethnically inclusive. Yet it often turns out that our attempts at this are mere ornamental multiculturalism. This happens throughout society: America displays particular aspects of other cultures like Christmas ornaments. It’s a way to enhance the perceived value of the dominant group. Minority cultures are accepted as long as they don’t alter or challenge the real structures of power. What we ethically aspire to and what we are truly willing to commit to are two different things. Multiculturalism sounds good, but so often we’re not willing to put ourselves into it and make it happen. That’s because it’s hard work. We need a new kind of conversation that takes up these issues without devolving into ornamentalism or white guilt.

On complicity, confession, and solidarity … As a Korean-North American, I can say that the second or 1.5 generation are no longer kids. We’re moving into our work lives, and we’re voicing socialpolitical and life issues in more profound ways. I think there is now an onus on minority communities to speak up. The Korean-American community, for instance, has spent so many years just trying to survive that we got accustomed to staying in our corner. Korean Americans, like other visible minorities, have been pushed to the margins by the complex social machinery of the dominant group. We need to confront that – and find solidarity with others pushed to the margins. I think we all need to come to the table in mutual confession, mutual vulnerability, and radical humility and admit we are broken by our sins as well as by the sins of others.

On the power of the cross …

Transformation will require mainline churches shaken up by the power of the cross of Christ. Despite the arguments of post-modernism, we all have our foundations. But the Spirit tears down in order to build up. That’s a voice speaking from the wilderness, and we’re not good at receiving that message in America. We’re good at self-affirmation and building ourselves up. We don’t do well with the message of the cross that drives us into the wilderness for deep self-reflection and repentance in the light of God’s Word. The Trump election exposed a truth about our society. We had President Obama, and we thought we were making progress. Yet what a thin veneer that turned out to be.

I think we’re now in a moment where we all need to exercise biblical self-criticism and rediscover what the Bible says about multicultural inclusiveness. Look at Rev. 21, which describes the coming of God’s kingdom: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” As I’ve argued elsewhere, God’s kingdom is not a melting pot where our distinctions are blended into a colorless unity. The world’s ethnic peoples – the nations – are not abolished; they are preserved and redeemed in the kingdom of God, and they will bring their glory into it.1 Each time we pray God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” we commit to improving life conditions where real biblical diversity, not ornamentalism, can take place on earth, here and now.

On the countercultural witness of churches …

Churches are still the best venues for conversations about mutual respect and biblical multiculturalism. Churches aren’t defunct. They are still gathering! If church leadership would speak the truth about the churches’ cultural captivity to prejudice and conflict, I believe people would hear it and overcome the defensive impulse to retreat. But confession comes first. It’s part and parcel of transformation. We need to admit how co-opted we are by the politics of our time. Let’s remember what the church is – a counter- cultural community of God that represents the new life in Christ.

It’s too easy to maintain a perpetual ritual that doesn’t propel us to change. It might be time that white churches need to experience marginality: The dominant group steps out and goes to the margins. What would that mean? I don’t think of it as another way to receive another PC badge. I realize many local mainline congregations are smaller now and no longer central. They find themselves marginalized. But maybe being small isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe now they can see things and do and say things that they couldn’t when they were the big church in town. Minorities know something about that.

  1. See Kevin Park, “Nations Will Bring Their Glory,” Theological Conversation 2016 #4,