Despoiling Pharaoh

What will happen to the white settler church as its mandate from colonized peoples is withdrawn? As american Asians find themselves unprotected from white supremacy? This is not a question of reform, but of exodus. It is a question of how we may best despoil Pharaoh.

A week after the 2016 election, a cherished, fellow Asian american friend quietly informed me that they were leaving their church. The church was a fine, upstanding reformed congregation, white-led and white majority. They had found in that space something like love and something like care. This was the community that had sent their family food and necessities in times of need,  providing solace and spiritual guidance. My friend had returned this love in kind. It was not far away from the church I attended at the time—another Michigander Dutch reformed church whose lawn spilled over with trestles of pulled pork potlucks for international students. In the basement were trinkets in glass displays, next to the Sunday schools. Next to the accoutrements of the first Dutch settlers who slithered into Odawa land were other artefacts; baubles that missionaries had scrounged from the inscrutable east. Dolls, bowls, scraps of silk with calligraphy. Each Sunday, the Scripture readings were offered in a new language—Swedish, Swahili, Mandarin. The congregation would savor the invocation of distant lands, and wonder at the work of God in a plunder of foreign tongues.

It goes without saying that many in both churches voted for the louder of the two white supremacists on offer in 2016. For my friend to leave, though, was a heart-wrenching decision—one that left them and their family without the material support and emotional affirmation that they had managed to eke out of a church of quiet, white settlers with quiet, lethal votes.

Our politics, even then, were not identical. I was only just disillusioned with liberalism. And they, among other things, were primarily looking for places that would protect their family and nourish their faith. I never asked what happened after they left that church. There was too much to process that November. After all, this was the same season that my farsighted trad-cath friend quipped, “I wouldn’t worry, Josh. You know they’ll go after the Blacks first, right?”

And now here we are. Not at the first act of violence in the United States against Asian americans, and Christ knows not at the last, just as we stood in June before the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, neither the first nor last murders in a history of genocide against Black lives.

Instead, we occupy a moment when protest is in vogue for white liberals, when paltry panegyrics are scattered from even conservative pulpits as bread before pigeons. But much of the discourse coming from Christians, who must be seen saying something, is very protective of their empire. They rather like Pharaoh. Oh, there will be a great show of lament in the church for some weeks. Another Midwestern, Asian family will contemplate sacrificing their tenuous security and leave their racist church. You might or might not notice. And then in the next quarter, post-vaccination, those same churches will shake baskets for youths on short-term missions. But amidst the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth, there will be no discussion of exodus—of leaving such churches. There will be no discussion of how to plunder Pharaoh. How could there be? To open that discussion we would have to confess a history far deeper than Trump or COVID or “the China virus.”

* * *

It should not be necessary to enunciate that this is no isolated incident, but part of an american ring of fire far wider than the Pacific. It should not be necessary to say that the american empire recruited my own people, burdened by unequal treaties in the nineteenth-century, to break their backs carving stolen mountains for railroads. Or that the abolitionist literati of the University of Michigan (where I study and labor) and other elite schools nevertheless paved the way for later laws that expelled and excluded Chinese women and then men.  That in 1871’s Los Angeles came the lynchings of 17 men and boys in Chinatown at the hands of 500 white settlers.

It should not be necessary to remind anyone that ornithologists and governors from Vermont and Detroit flocked into the nascent Republic of the Philippines to infiltrate and conquer it. That in the process of re-subjugating a sovereign nation in the early 1900s, american generals boasted of leaving whole provinces “howling wildernesses,” which they duly proceeded to do. Some 200, 000 civilians were murdered by the guns and the famine. It should not be necessary to point out the ways the good churches of middle america, Protestant and Catholic, swarmed as flies to a wound, providing a soft diplomacy of books and medicines that justified the imperialism of men like Dean Conant Worcester. That not just white men, but vigorous white women fell in line as teachers and nurses, in order to justify imperialism.  An imperialism evident now when your neighbor’s child comes asking for money to fly to Luzon or Honduras or Haiti or Zambia and evangelize.

It should not be necessary to rehearse the more recent—and therefore more obvious—american imperialism of the twentieth-century in Vietnam, in Korea, in the Philippines, in Indonesia that ensured not only the material depletion of those lands but involved massacres and purges of so-called communists. In the case of Indonesia, the CIA-sponsored massacres numbered up to the three million souls, eradicating communist movements and paving the way for the Suharto dictatorship.  And at home, Japanese americans were interned in the desert by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That these dynamics were replicated not only in the  pagan wastes of Hollywood, but in the homes of good Christians, listening to Adventures in Odyssey episodes that romanticized Vietnam veterans.

And it should not be necessary to remind leftists or liberals that these acts of colonial violence were especially and exquisitely visited upon Asian women, upon queer people, and upon sex workers like Jennifer Laude; that these long twined histories of conquest, fetishization, and rape are visible in the first suggestions of a PornHub search.

I see you’ve already done your research.

None of this should be necessary, in a moment when all I would like to do as a Malaysian on Potawatomi land is to grieve the murder of eight people—six of them Asian—at the hands of a white supremacist. I wish all that was needed was lament. Other words you may read—particularly by Asian American women—will speak elegies with more power and eloquence than I ever could. They’ve been writing from well before the pandemic. I hope you’ve read them first. I hope those words stay lodged inside you like glass in a wound.

But I am grudgingly limiting myself to mere action: to asking, “What is to be done?” in the church. What will happen to the white settler church as its mandate from colonized peoples is withdrawn? As families depart their communities? As even the most reactionary and patriotic american Asians, loyal to the state, find themselves unprotected from white supremacy? This is not a question of reform, but of exodus. It is a question of how we may best despoil Pharaoh.

It’s an evocative tale, Exodus 12. After ten horrific plagues visited on a global superpower, its denizens are not inclined to resist the mandate of God. As the once-enslaved Hebrews depart, they plunder the land, demanding that gold and silver be surrendered. And so they spoiled the Egyptians.

I still find comfort in this narrative. Even the civilians of that empire decided that reparations in gold were a small price to pay to get Hebrews to go. Meanwhile, a mixed multitude of Gentiles trailed with the departing host—Egyptians and others fed up with the rot, tenderized by ten plagues.

The question is whether the white american church needs ten whole plagues. The question is whether they will leave now, on foot, without time to yeast their bread, or whether they will drown in the sea.  

The time of debating the morality of short-term missions in Asia is ended. I have neither ink nor love to spare on impassioned laments from The Gospel Coalition, or in demanding mere Asian representation in leadership. The time for that is either long past or too far ahead. Asian americans and Asians must deal in tangible things. Our movements need material support. We will need the finances, the labor and, yes, the physical immunity white bodies provide. We will need a dissolution and abolition of prisons, of the police, of the military. And those you know who are grieving will need support when they leave your communities.  Start with groceries.

Solidarity must also mean a willingness to flatten anti-Asian propaganda coded as american piety. Even on Thanksgiving. Think of the ways well-meaning leftists criticize distant Asian potentates, while tacitly ignoring Biden’s bombings in Asia and the Middle East. Anti-Chinese sentiment in the name of Chinese Christians is still used to justify imperialism—as though the witness of Christian american soldiers does not sabotage the Great Commission with far more speed and certainty.

I repeat, there can be no reforming an american empire. This will not be solved by placing a social democrat on the throne or ensuring healthcare-for-all made from drugs strip-mined from the Third World. This will not be solved by trans women of color leading armies into Asian nations and sparking new refugee crises. This will not be solved by gay Christian presidents managing kids in cages. What is needed is not Lamentations but Exodus.

* * * 

Perhaps it is hard to envision this exodus. I don’t mean escaping america to live elsewhere; the Pilgrims did this, and look what they wrought. Leaving your church in solidarity with a departing Asian family? Perhaps. But I hope tragedies like these remind the white american church of the blood on its hands. This is exactly the culture in which a white supremacist with a fetish for Asian women decided the only solution to his “sex addiction” was to gun down Asian women in their workplaces. The same church that baptized him conveniently wrote off his killing spree as “antithetical” to the Gospel, and quietly removed him from their rosters. True to form, the victims were reduced in the statement to “the women he solicited.” That’s very rich.

The white church is not infected with racist heresies from without. It is american imperialism’s first host; it is Patient Zero.

I use very different language with secular liberals. Their hypocrisy repulses me, perhaps the only view conservatives and I have in common. For liberals too hope that Trump’s departure means exemption from protesting for Black Power and against Asian hate. They too are anxious to get back to the brunches and the potlucks. But if I am to speak to other Christians, I will cite our shared eschatology, our mutual knowledge that this world will be winnowed as wheat. That amid so much innocent blood, we are in the hands of an Angry God. For we are either sabotaging capitalist imperialism or we are stooging for it. We are either leaving Succoth or languishing in it.

I have no doubt your relatives and friends are greatly afraid of the Yellow Peril. I am subjected to their comments almost daily. And a peril indeed my peoples are. We, the colonized, are heralds of an empire’s end, a reminder that not one stone of these cities will be left unturned. I see it in the Anakbayan movements of Filipino diaspora youth, or infuriated Asian mothers contesting predatory landlords in New York. I see it in the long heritage of communist revolt that spans South and East and Southeast Asia—and has openly repulsed american client states.

This should frighten the settler church. This should make us anxious to skip the muddle of middling candidates, of electoral reform, of church meetings to draft statements of solidarity. Let no one be deceived or distracted by a hamster wheel of “diversity meetings” in their workplaces or churches. Let no one think we have time to trifle with the half-measures white elders throw at those who want justice. White Christians must deal in material things—bodies, weapons, money, food for those who need it, police abolition, and an end to US military bases. And when Indigenous people and we of the Third World come to plunder pharaoh—to despoil the houses of Rameses—may the doors of the church be thrown open. Let the repentant among the church be saved, yet as by fire.

But let that punctuate this long, ghoulish chapter of american heresy. Let that be the end of a chapter of white hoods and nooses and exclusion acts and massacres and Agent Orange and coups, and the murders of six Asian people in three massage parlors in Atlanta. Let the ink dry and the book be closed soon. Memory eternal. And so they spoiled the americans.


* Image credit:  It all started with a ‘joke’, by Chuan Ming Ong. Displayed at Framer Framed/Pan Asian Collective 2020 exhibit

Joshua Kam Chun Wah writes from both sides of the Pacific. He passes between Malaysia, his home, and the Haudenosaunee and Potawatomi lands he does grad school on. His writings interrogate the imperial legacies left in his homelands and faiths.


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