The Stories Asians Live By
The following is a guestpost by Daniel Ang, who is Director of Parish 2020, a process of parish renewal and revitalisation in the Archdiocese of Sydney. He previously served as Director of the Office for Evangelisation in the Diocese of Broken Bay, and is a member of the Executive Committee for Plenary Council 2020. Daniel is a married layman with two children (Checkout other guestposts on Notre Dame and Slavoj Žižek) .
In the beginning, as Asians, we were overfed.
This was because the ghost of scarcity lingered in the experience of our parents. Abundance was our gift, underwritten by their hardship.
Fast forward and the fear of poverty has sedimented into a culture of achievement. This is achievement, not as enjoyment in a job well done, but as a means of escape from life’s uncertainties. It is achievement, we were taught, that will hold us back and safe from the precipice.
What is more, in the Asian-Australian experience, the ancient Confucian stress on effort as the source of success neatly aligns with the new heaven promised by a Western culture of consumption. However, a high performance culture inevitably exhausts, and the promise of this new heaven eventually rings hollow. The ethic of mere life enhancement leaves one empty - mere addition is no substitute for growth.
For some, staying on the allotted treadmill would prove too much. Sheer effort and dogged discipline did not deliver shalom but defeat, quickly followed by the onset of shame. Others more resilient would run the race and attain social respectability, but at personal cost. This cost was progress without presence, making without meaning.
Whether we are aware of it or not - and whether we are Asian or not - we are shaped by the stories that have gone before us. We embark on the voyage of life to create our own history and yet do so as the product of other histories, with their lessons and lacks.
The encounter with the Gospel does not destroy or obliterate this cultural inheritance. Instead, the Word of God places that inheritance within a wider perspective - the divine assurances of Psalm 18 - and so allows us to feast on its fruit while its utopian tendencies are tempered.
The Word of God - embedded as it is in the story of the Patriarchs, a Nation, an incarnate God - brings a story that is also anchored in a past. It is a story likewise located in a people’s longing amidst poverty of spirit and hostility of circumstance. In this story, however, the risks and contingencies of history are not overcome by performance or accumulation. These contingencies are not overcome at all in fact but are instead engaged by a form of knowing called faith. This knowing bursts the boundaries of calculated ends and progress bordered by fear. The Gospel offers instead a plenitude that is accessed by the surrender of the veneer of self-sufficiency.
To enter the way of faith is to discover that our own worth lies not in our self-sufficiency but in alterity, in an encounter with a divine other rather than promethean effort, in receiving divine gifts given, not social acceptabilities gained.
Discipleship in this faith is an invitation to the Asian - as much as everyone else - to refashion our heart in the likeness of this other, namely Jesus Christ. Christ, in His life, death and rising reveals authentic progress to be neither self-development nor a program of action. The Gospel stands as an invitation to enter into the achievement of God’s promise, He who loved us first and who is our true north and abiding hope.
For Asians made awkward by the tension between faith and the familial, the hard won legacies of generations past need not terminate in a desperate ethic of performance and accumulation. The lessons and legacies of their toil and exertion, hardship and heroism, can be received as a summons to give of ourselves to others with the abundant love that underpinned their sacrifice. The undeserved graces of our forebears are invitations to live by a story bigger than even their imagination, to live for Him “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).
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