By Lucas Kwong and Russell Jeung
“We don’t want Chinese bullsh*t,” a woman declared as a fellow rioter ripped a scroll down from Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Capitol office wall.
Among the scenes of insurrectionists bearing crosses and Confederate flags as they shouted racial epithets and profanities such as the one above, Asian American Christians like ourselves noticed another awkward, embarrassing, and paradoxical truth.
Supporters of White Christian Nationalism were not all White.
While those who might list “Anglo Saxon” or “Nordic” in their Parler profiles formed the majority, the mob included hoisters of Korean, South Vietnamese and Khmer flags, not to mention the iconic walis tambo Filipino broom. Fascists, it seems, have their own version of Asian representation.
Twice as many Asian Americans favored Biden as favored Trump, while their Georgia election turnout helped swing the U.S. Senate to the Democrats. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that Asian Americans of both older and younger generations have cast their lot with Christian nationalism.
Asian American Christians, in particular, are vulnerable to the combination of biblical interpretations, anti-Communist propaganda, and “family values” motivating Christian nationalists. For those Vietnamese, Khmer, Korean, and Filipino Trumpists who marched on January 6, the scroll destroyers were likely the lesser of two evils, if not positively good. Meanwhile, in interviews with pro-Trump Asian American pastors, less violent supporters of Christian nationalism cite abortion, Israel, and national sovereignty as justification for their Trumpism.
As we have written elsewhere, the right today hosts a virulent brand of Christian nationalism—a fervor for America as God’s chosen nation—that at least half of surveyed Americans support. The insistence that America return to traditional hierarchies to reap divinely ordained blessings translates into fear of the other and support for strong boundaries.
The politicians who incite this hate speech, and the corollary explosion in anti-Asian hate, are all outspoken Christians. Senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley cast themselves as holy warriors in an existential conflict with “godless Communist China,” with the passive (sometimes active) support of their churches.
Why are so many Asian American Christians willing to not just tolerate sanctified Sinophobia, but actively propagate the Christian nationalism underpinning it?
When in doubt, Evangelicals turn to the Bible. In that spirit, the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel offers a way for us to interpret Asian American support for Christian nationalism. Mark 5 details Jesus’ encounter with a demonized man in the Gerasenes, a region of the Greek league of cities known as the Decapolis. Chained “among the tombs,” where he cuts himself and frequently breaks loose from his shackles, the Gerasene man is shunned as one cursed with an incurable spiritual affliction.
The townspeople’s ostracism of the demonized tomb dweller, in other words, accords with the racial profiling of Asian American bodies during COVID-19. In an incident that a warehouse retailer reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a Chinese American said:
“When I was shopping, a group of [W]hite males in their 30s started giving me dirty looks and following me around the store. They started shouting abuse at me saying things like ‘Get out of this store now, you filthy, slant-eyed chinky!’ [One] threw a tin of potatoes at my head with quite a lot of force and shouted, ‘If I ever see you around again—you diseased creature—I will personally shoot you with my AR-15!”
Viewed as subhuman, diseased, and cursed like the man in the Gerasenes, Asian Americans are to be excluded, not only from American stores but also from our borders. They threaten and defile America’s purity and health.
Despite his marginal status, the Gerasene man is consumed by violent power, habitually breaking out of the chains to which he always returns. This spirit ultimately drives him to self-destructive behavior, such that even his superhuman virility cannot liberate him from literal and figurative imprisonment. What kind of spirit is this, that strips the man of social power while offering the temptation of material strength?
The famous answer comes in verse 9, when Jesus forces the man to declare, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
Legion, we suggest, is a spirit of empire. Like those held captive in Babylon or colonized by Rome, many of us are possessed with an idolatry of American wealth and power, that is, an obsession with the (Asian) American Dream.
Asian American Christian nationalists—often having fled chaotic, war-torn states—seek law-and-order regimes where our ambitions can be achieved through meritocratic effort and our safety be secured through military and police power. We hold to the Bible as the scriptural authority in our spiritual lives, and we hold to the American empire to protect our material well-being.
Thus, we can then be the model minority, both in our rigorous, pietistic Christianity and in our White-adjacent position in a land of privilege.
As we contemplate Asian American complicity with Christian nationalism, we might press this interpretation of Legion possession further. The Legion commanders, like other servants of the Roman establishment, carried the sign of a bundle of rods, wrapped around an axe. This sign was called the fasces, the root term of “fascism” and “Christofascism,” Christian nationalists’ ultimate endpoint.
It might be ahistorical to say that Mark 5 documents Jesus exorcising the spirit of fascism. However, we can say that this demonized man—who was likely Greek, if not a Greek Jew—was possessed by the spirit of the fasces, the animating force behind his Roman conquerors.
What is this demon if not the same spirit that fuels Asian American Christian nationalists, a movement that infuses its followers with deceptive feelings of strength, inspires self-destructive enthusiasm for one’s own colonizers and exploiters, and fearfully calls on Jesus for self-preservation? Indeed, the Gerasene man even calls Jesus “Son of the Most High God,” not out of reverence, but out of fear that the spirit of strength and Pax Romana will be dislodged.
The Gerasene demoniac reminds us that Sanctified Sinophobia not only incites physical harm to our communities through anti-Asian violence, but also threatens to “infect” our psychology with internalized racism and a devaluing of justice. We are captive to the empire: adopting its educational system, eating its rich foods, and even changing our names to fit in. Those of us who have succeeded in the empire look down on those who haven’t done as well, blaming them for their own poverty and misfortunes.
The Gerasene demoniac’s self-injury and flagrant violence merely shows us the extremes of this psychological infection. Conversely, Jesus’ politically charged exorcism shows us the lengths to which we must be prepared to go to undo it.
In that light, we are calling for Christians to support our open letter condemning the nexus of far right politics, institutional American Christianity, and anti-Asian racism today. While it is intended to be signed by allies of any background, it is written in the voice of Asian followers of Christ in America.
We side with Jesus the exorcist because we reject not only the spirit of Legion, but also the other collective spirit in Mark 5: that of the “respectable” townspeople who beg Jesus to leave their region. Surveying the damage done to their economy and comfort, the townspeople considered a reprisal of the demoniac’s liberation too costly to tolerate. In a way, they were the “model minorities” of their own time, emphasizing orderly self-policing under Rome’s watchful eye.
We Asian Americans have come too far to settle for the Gerasene townspeople’s example. Instead, let us joyfully model ourselves after the liberated man himself, who subsequently risks further ostracization by becoming what N.T. Wright calls “the first apostle to the Gentiles.” Just as he built bridges between his Greek neighbors and the Palestinian Jew they sent away, we must also proclaim the good news that can demolish the border walls between out-group and in-group, Jew and Greek, Asian and American.
Dr. Lucas Kwong is a writer, musician, and assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology. He’s written at eschatontwist.substack.com, The Institute for Christian Socialism’s Bias Magazine, Inheritance Magazine, Public Books, Journal of Narrative Theory, and Victorian Literature and Culture. He is also assistant editor for New American Notes Online. He and his wife are diehard New Yorkers.
Dr. Russell Jeung is author of At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus Among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors. He’s co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, a center that tracks COVID-19 discrimination and proposes policy interventions.