Should Asian Australian Christians pursue upward mobility?

Pastor Grace Lung
Director of Centre for Asian Christianity

East Asians in Australia are commonly associated with upward mobility. But the Bible often teaches downward mobility, as we consider Jesus and the original context of the Roman church. How do these two ideas work together for those to whom suffering is now a far away concept? New Testament scholar, Dr. Siu Fung Wu and Sarah Do (Whitley Transformation program coordinator) joined CAC’s Director, Grace Lung for a chat recently about Dr. Wu’s new book, “Finding God in Suffering”. Here is an edited transcript of the discussion: 

G: Many evangelicals tend to read Romans as a theological treatise on justification and sanctification. So Siu Fung, what drew you to Romans, and how did you end up looking at the theme of suffering in Romans?

SF: Good question! I guess there were two things that drew me to that topic. As you know from my book, I have been reflecting on suffering all my life—my childhood experience, my experience as a migrant and a pastor, and my work in a humanitarian organization. The other thing is my research on Romans itself. It was obvious to me that the second half of Romans 8 is all about suffering, and Romans 8 is a very important chapter in Romans. But there was no major recent scholarly work on suffering in Romans. Therefore, I set out to do a PhD on that very topic.

G: Thanks for that Siu Fung. Sarah, I’d like to hear from you your thoughts as you read through the book.

S: I think the book resonates with me in the sense that it gives voice to the real and varied experiences of suffering, without discounting or disregarding any particular ones. I think about the comparison between my own sufferings to my parents, who were Vietnamese refugees, who experienced war and poverty. I think the book takes me towards a point of humility: to honour the sufferings of my family and also the Vietnamese communities, and also to be able to recognize the privilege, freedom and power I have in Australia, and what it means to steward these privileges in a Christlike way.

G: Absolutely. When I read the book, I was struck by how privileged I am, and my church community. My parents came from HK too, and my mom particularly, struggled with poverty too. But in Australia they, like their peers really, really committed to upward mobility, they have many assets and live very comfortably. It was strange to consider Siu Fung, your story, and even though you and my mother’s stories started off somewhat similar, it seems they greatly diverged in Australia.

At the same time, I’ve recently been struggling with envy as many of my church members have been taking overseas holidays, especially to Japan, to the U.S., so feeling poor as well, being a pastor and resonating with some of those issues of living simply while others around me are living quite different lives.

G: So today, we are gathered in Box Hill, a migrant suburb of East Asian people, talking about suffering. It almost feels a little strange. Perhaps many of us haven’t really encountered suffering, or it was an experience that was in our early family history, but not what we experience now. A lot of us have experienced upward mobility – whether it’s the international students here, established migrants, or newer migrants. This area is growing and developing rapidly as a reflection of the wealth of people in the region. The migrant struggle and humiliation seems pretty far away. But what do people in these circumstances teach us? 

S: In the context of my Vietnamese church community, I definitely saw God’s presence close to/with the Vietnamese people. Although poor, my understanding is that they worked very hard, and their faithfulness to God in stewarding even the little they had for the sake of the church, I think, signifies a great expression of faith. Still, there is some kind of humiliation in being poor, isn’t there? Yet, when I read Siu Fung’s book, he explored  the meaning of the cross: what is considered to be shameful and weak, is, in fact, the wisdom and power of God. And I think that’s a testimony that is demonstrated by the experience of my church community. I think the elders of my church continue to take comfort in God’s provision, and I take comfort in the fact that God uses that story as a testimony of God’s faithfulness into the future, as well as shaping in me a posture of mindful stewarding of my finances.

SF: Thank you, Sarah. I have learned a lot from you about the amazing faithfulness of the Vietnamese church. To respond to Grace more directly, I think the poor have a lot to teach us. And I think the disciples in the New Testament were in a better position than us to understand these things. In the first century, the poor were everywhere. Just read the Gospels and we will see the chronically sick, the lepers, the lame, the blind, and the crippled. For sure, some relatively well-to-do people are also mentioned in the Gospels, like Nicodemus and the Roman centurions. But the disciples had plenty of opportunities to mingle with the poor, much more than us who live in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Likewise, there were plenty of poor people in ancient Rome. For example, about 25–40 percent of the population in Rome were slaves. While a small number of them might enjoy some upward mobility, the vast majority of them were exploited and abused physically, emotionally, even sexually. And some disciples were slaves themselves. Upward mobility wasn’t really an option for most of the disciples. The most likely survival strategy of the earliest church was the voluntary sharing of resources between the well-to-do and the poor within the church, which almost certainly meant that the well-to-do had to move downward in terms of their socioeconomic status.

G: Yes I’m so struck when I read the gospels again about Jesus hanging out with the marginalized, and re-thinking the Beatitudes as well. As someone who is privileged, I over-spiritualised it. But Jesus is really talking about material issues here, and he has a special concern for them. I was hearing stories from church planters planting in a very low socio-economic area, and how the people in these places really clung onto stories particularly about God’s people being like Joseph, and feeling the injustice in life. And that prison wasn’t a far away concept for them, either they or someone in their family had been or was currently incarcerated. 

So given this is what Jesus demonstrates in his own life, and we see it in not only the book of Romans but the whole bible, so this concept of downward mobility, what do you think it could look like in practice as we follow Jesus, for us who feel the privilege that we now experience? Sarah?

S:  I definitely feel very privileged to actually work in Box Hill as well, but it does feel a little bit foreign to me, to be honest. I would say my family is not rich, but I don’t think I’ve experienced poverty in the same way my parents or even my brother – 10 years older than me, did. But in some ways there is this generational consequence of having a strong sense of increased responsibility to steward these resources well. This is characteristic not only of myself but others in my circles, who do seek to mobilize themselves financially so that they can alleviate the burden from their parents. I have a strong sense of financial responsibility to my parents, despite them refusing for me to pay for anything. God has also blessed our family by alleviating significant amounts of financial burden as well.

SF: For me, the first thing we can do is to be less consumeristic. There is a difference between buying what we need and buying what we want. There is a difference between an expensive overseas holiday to see things that we haven’t seen before, and a relaxing family holiday in country Victoria where we spend time praying and listening to God together. 

Another thing we can do is to ask God to give us opportunities to hear the voice of the poor. In the last 9 years God has graciously given me the opportunity to teach Asian students from refugee backgrounds. Their dedication to God and resilience in the most difficult circumstances have been an inspiration to me. It is also a real privilege to walk alongside them as they continue to struggle as migrants and as their loved ones continue to suffer in their homeland.

By the way, one thing I have learned is that giving up our power and privileges is profoundly liberating. It is because our concern is no longer how we can keep those powers and privileges, but to seek first God’s kingdom.

G: Yes I was recently considering schooling for my daughter who will be in high school in a couple of years. I’m struggling with the choice to send her to a Christian private school, which means we will be around relatively wealthy Asians, and a needy area to focus on near our church, OR considering moving into a good catchment where there will be a public school, but where the houses are unaffordable, OR staying in the local catchment area which has a school without a good reputation, but families with struggling backgrounds. It’s an ongoing struggle. It’s a real temptation to place comfort and security as idols. 

What do you think are some dangers that Asians and/or Christians can be prone to when it comes to the pursuit of upward mobility? 

SF: First, I don’t think there is a simple answer to schooling for our kids, and no-one should judge you for whatever decision you make for your children. But yeah, I think the danger is that we become part of the system, and that the system blinds us from seeing what God sees. In my book I say that sin is not only a power that enslaves human beings as individuals. Sin is also embedded in social and economic systems. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a good example. The rich man failed to see the needs of Lazarus, who lived at his door. Is it simply because he was selfish, or that his upper-class way of life had blinded him from seeing God’s purpose for the world? And the ending of the parable is telling. When the rich man pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them, Abraham said that they had Moses and the Prophets, and so let them listen to them. There are so many Scriptures in the law of Moses and in the Prophets that speak of a just society for the poor, and I hope we listen to them, not least Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Amos and Micah.

S: Personally, I think it can be very easy to forget where I have come from and the sufferings experienced by those who have gone before me. I think it can be really easy to impose the shame on others that you’ve previously experienced, once you are no longer there anymore. What I mean is that, being much better integrated into Australia, and more financially stable too, it is very easy to look down on those who have less education, who continue to experience poverty, and this can innocently be the consequence of simply not wanting to be in that place of shame anymore. In a very real sense, I think I am prone to allowing the shameful experiences of poverty to also dehumanize those who are still there. And I think I will be very candid here, but this can definitely be a common Western Christian lens to look through when considering those who are of lower socio-economic status, and who come from non-Anglo backgrounds. Not only this, even I, as an Asian, am prone to looking down on people, too! 

G: What joys have you experienced while trying to pursue downward mobility? 

SF: The joy I experience is not necessarily “happiness” as the world understands it. Joy is often about the presence of God in suffering, that we experience God most when life is difficult. Catherine and I have lived on a low income for most of the past 28 years. If I do the sums, there is no way that we could have survived. What happens is that there have been many miraculous provisions all these years. We never do any fundraising, but God would send gifts to us through friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, often when we are most hard pressed. 

Another example of joy is bringing up children on a low income. We have one child. It’s hard when I saw that he didn’t have the opportunities that my friends’ children had—like overseas travels, birthday presents and other material things. But he said to us recently: “Chasing a house is like chasing security. It’s not biblical.” He is doing his honours year at Monash Uni now. I honestly think that it is better that he relies on God for his future, rather than his career or ability to earn money. His conviction gives me great joy as a parent.

G: You say, “poverty is not simply about a lack of money. Rather, it is about God’s image-bearers being trapped in a web of dehumanizing practices and unjust systems.” What are some areas you see suffering and poverty in Melbourne, and what do you think are ways to help that don’t hurt the recipients more? 

SF: Good questions! A scholar once said that we need to read the Bible from Genesis 1. It’s good advice. We serve the poor not because they are pitiful, but because they are made in God’s image. So, when we think of the children born to low-income parents and growing up in a low-income suburb, the question we should ask is not only what charity organizations we should give money to. We should also ask why our children have more and better opportunities for a better education and what government policies have caused that to happen. And we ask these questions because all children are made in God’s image, and it is not their fault that children in low socioeconomic areas should have less opportunities for a better life. 

I spent many years in a multicultural church where there were many low-income earners. There were also quite a few asylum seekers, and most of them came to faith in Jesus from Muslim backgrounds. At the time, there were heated debates around this nation’s immigration policy. One senator (Fraser Anning) “called for a return to a ‘European Christian’ immigration system and a ban on Muslims migrating to Australia,” which means that the majority of us here are not welcome to live here (because we are of Asian heritage) ! Thankfully it didn’t become policy. But the hardline immigration policy of this country means that our friends at church—who are Christians—have endured many years of the uncertainty of living on a temporary protection visa. The impact on their wellbeing and mental health is horrific. This is a good example of God’s image-bearer being dehumanized by dehumanizing social policies. 

S: Important to understand the systemic issues. At the same time, I think we have the opportunity to create spaces of freedom to be children of God in the midst of all this and I lean back into this concept of suffering with Christ – because somehow we come to know Christ and His resurrection amid sufferings – and in fact, we can choose to see this as a stance that is not dehumanizing, but it is something that Christ bore Himself and we do not need to be ashamed of it, because in the midst of our suffering, God is present. So, at the last book launch, Siu Fung offered a very unique space where people’s stories of suffering were honoured, and the testimony of God’s presence reverberated. I think everyone in the room could testify to the holiness of that space.

G: Indeed, leaning into weakness/shame as means for connection, rather than fleeing, embrace/lean-in to serve/walk alongside. If we lean into our migrant histories and stories, those struggles and humiliation, we can foster deeper empathy to those who face the same now and come alongside them, welcoming people into our city and being Jesus’s hands and feet. 

G: Any final words you’d like to share, Siu Fung?

SF: Yeah, I think it might help to be reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians regarding Jesus. Philippians 2:7–8 says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (NRSV) The Roman cross was a symbol of shame, humiliation, and defeat. Yet, it is God’s way of bringing about salvation. It is only fitting for us to follow the way of the crucified Christ and risen Lord. Let our lives be shaped by the cruciform love of Christ in every sphere of life!

G: All of us work in Asian contexts in one way or another, whether it’s on campus, parachurch, church or in our own families. I think we can all resonate somewhat with the themes we talked about today. Thank you both so much for sharing with us and prompting reflection and challenge in all of us. 


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