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(This is a paper presented by Professor Jordan Ryan for the 2022 IBR/SBL session on Asian American Biblical Interpretation: Evangelical Voices organized by Milton Eng, Max Lee, and Bo Lim.)

Filipino Americans are the third largest Asian ethnic group in the United States. However, we are frequently invisible, forgotten, and excluded both within US society and within Asian America. This underrepresentation extends to higher education, and is particularly acute in New Testament studies, as there have only ever been a handful of scholars of Filipino descent in tenure track positions in my discipline in the United States. Within evangelical institutions, that number is even more stark, and may presently consist of just one person. 

The Filipino American community has a vested interest in interpreting New Testament texts, since 89% of Filipino Americans identify as Christians, with 65% identifying as Catholic and 21% as Protestant. Although Filipino Americans are well represented in the Kingdom of God, we are excluded from the table of theological education, especially biblical studies. The exclusion and absence of Filipino Americans from the academic table means that biblical interpretation has long been mediated to Filipino Americans through the White dominated spaces of academic biblical studies and theological education in the United States. 

As a Filipino American evangelical, I find my scholarship frequently caught between the coloniality of White supremacy and the coloniality of the White liberal academy. If our population is 89% Christian, then contextual interpretation for us cannot be separate from our living faith. This is all the more true for FilAm evangelicals. Yet, the discourse in mainstream (read: White) scholarship is increasingly hostile to confessional approaches and to the notion that the Bible has anything that can contribute positively to the liberation of oppressed peoples. This too is a colonial captivity, a protectionist strategy that maintains hegemony in interpretation by undermining the work of racialized ethnic minority and majority world scholars who are primarily operating in confessional settings. Minority scholars who approach the Bible from a stance of faith and whose communities have historically found hope and liberation in the biblical text are forgotten casualties in the ceaseless war between White evangelicals and White exvangelicals and progressives that drives so much of the discourse of New Testament studies. White conservative scholarship wants to deny that minority scholarship has anything to offer, while white progressive scholarship wants to deny minority scholarship the ability to speak meaningfully to our communities. This is yet another way of being betwixt and between. 

It is difficult for me to address the topic of Asian Americans and evangelicalism as a New Testament scholar apart from the topic of Filipino Americans and Asian Americanism. Our invisibility and erasure extends to the table of Asian American biblical interpretation. We can see this invisibility in the bibliographies of the landmark monographs in Asian American biblical interpretation that aim to present a vision of an Asian American hermeneutics. By my count, in What Is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics (2008), Tat-Siong Benny Liew cites just three Filipino or Filipino American authors, as well as two non-Filipino scholars who have studied Filipino Americans or the Philippines. None are biblical scholars, though one is a theologian. Gale A. Yee’s Towards an Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics (2021) cites just two Filipino authors. Neither is a biblical scholar, and only one is a theologian. Both of these works are important books of excellent quality that should be celebrated. Nevertheless, the lack of Filipino voices in these visions of an Asian American biblical hermeneutics is a clear indication that, whatever else Asian American biblical hermeneutics are, they are not for Filipino Americans as they are presently constructed. We do not have the opportunity to decolonize if we are not given a seat at the table. 

Our erasure means that the history, perspective, voices, and resources of a people who have a long history of resisting colonization and racialized oppression over five centuries are missing from the table of Asian American biblical scholarship. In the words of Filipino historian Renato Constantino, “Filipino resistance to colonial oppression is the unifying thread of Philippine history.” 

Filipino American identity emerges from the nexus of the White supremacist, genocidal violence of the US invasion of the Philippines and the subsequent “pacification campaign,” a protracted violent war that lasted from 1899-1913. The Filipino American evangelical community and its identity emerge from the intersection of that colonial violence and the imperialist Christian nationalism that enabled the subsequent American Protestant missionization of the Philippines. President McKinley explicitly framed the invasion as a Protestant missionary endeavor. In a speech given to United Methodist Church leaders justifying the invasion, McKinley claimed while he was in prayer, it came to him “that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” The casualties of this “uplifting” are estimated at around one Filipino million lives. 

The experience of being Filipino American is the experience of living in our colonizer’s house, a house in which we are historically racialized not as a model minority but as inferior, as a people fit only for service and for manual laborer, as an underclass. That specific racialization is rooted in the intentional depiction of Filipinos as inferior savages who needed to be civilized in order to justify the US invasion of the Philippines. It continues to be perpetuated through the ongoing exploitation of Filipinos in the US and in other developed nations for labor. If Filipino Americans are to be welcome at the table of Asian American evangelicalism, then we must do business with the history of US racialized, colonial, even genocidal violence in Asia and against Asian peoples as well as the role of Protestantism in that violence. 

As Filipino American evangelicals, we exist in the shadow of the weaponization of White American Protestant missions for the colonial suppression of Filipino independence and cultural identity, a missionary endeavor that was enabled by the racialized violence of the invasion and by the inferiorizing of Filipino people and culture. For that reason, Filipino American evangelical biblical interpretation must be decolonial or else it is nothing. Yet, the Filipino people have had a remarkable ability to turn the colonizer’s sword upside down, into the cross of the suffering Christ that is the central image of our indigenous theological tradition, the theology of struggle. To confront the reality of our history from within the evangelical fold is to confront powers and principalities. The tragedies of Filipino American history bear witness against White Christian nationalism because the blood of our ancestors shed in the name of “Christianization” and “civilization” cries out from the ground. 

Nevertheless, Filipino Americans experience invisibility within the evangelical discourse around race, which is centered upon the Black-White binary. When anti-Asian racism comes into the White gaze, it tends to be fixated on East Asian Americans. Between the Black-White binary and East Asian hegemony, there is no space for us to breathe. Ours is not the story of race that America wants to hear. I suspect that confronting the genocidal, racialized violence of US-Philippine relations is deeply disturbing to White fragility, and so it is in the interest of the powers and principalities to keep that history buried. 

Yet, we find deep hope in the proclamation of Scripture, so long as it is in our hands to interpret for ourselves. In Luke 14:7-14, Jesus is seated at table for a meal. At this meal, Jesus instructs his hearers to invite those who were regarded as being part of the underclass of his society to the table (vv. 12-13). He also exhorts his audience to sit not at the head of the table, but at the lowest place (v. 10), “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” We should thus re-envision the tables of evangelical and of Asian American evangelical biblical interpretation as places where those who are marginalized are invited and are welcome. It is past time for Filipino American evangelical interpreters to start taking up space at the table, knowing that, even as we are relegated to the foot of the table, the fact that we serve a crucified King who exalts the humble is a reminder that we belong. 

Dr. Jordan J. Cruz Ryan is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is half-Filipino, hailing from the multicultural city of Toronto. His current writing focuses on Filipino American hermeneutics and on reading the New Testament for and from the Asian American church. Dr. Ryan’s commentary on Acts of the Apostles from a Filipino American perspective is forthcoming soon in The New Testament in Color: A Multiethnic Commentary on the New Testament.

One Comment

  • Susan Okamoto Lane says:

    Thank you for this important article, Jordan. As a 3rd generation Japanese American whose journey into Christianity was part of my parents’ post-World War II desire for us to be “All American”, I recognize that it is a very different story than that of Filipino Americans. It’s inaccurate and perilous to lump together the AAPI community: culturally, historically, theologically, etc. It upholds damaging power & dominance.

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