Thursday, May 6, 2021

Freeing ourselves from the prisons in our hearts

The most curious thing that belonged to my father was a cotton handkerchief that he mounted on a frame and hung on the wall in his little antique shop. On the handkerchief was a hand-painted picture of a beautiful Japanese woman, surrounded by a pink cherry blossom tree and some Japanese writing. 

At the bottom was the signature of the artist and the letters, “POW” for Prisoner of War.  My dad served in the Air Force in World War II and was stationed in Guam. He was part of the bomber crew that conducted raids against the Japanese Imperial Army. 

This handkerchief was original art from the hand of a “POW” who was incarcerated at the Air Force base in Guam at the time. This entrepreneur would make deals with American soldiers in order to secure cigarettes and other creature comforts. 

Anyone who would give him a clean handkerchief and a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar, would receive his handkerchief back with a lovely Japanese picture.  My father was one of the customers, and this curious treasure came back home with him after the war.

I used to stare at this picture in awe.  Japanese people were so foreign to me. I had never encountered anyone of Asian descent in my whole life growing up.  I heard about World War II and was glad that the Americans had defeated the Japanese; but I had no idea what had happened just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

Japanese incarceration in WW II concentration camps

President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced Executive Order 9066 that created a forced relocation and incarceration in concentration camps of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62 percent of whom were American citizens.  These camps were located mostly in remote areas of Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado and California.

Personal property was seized, assets were frozen or stolen, and there was no recourse or defense for these Japanese Americans.  They were deemed guilty by the fact that they were at least 1/16th Japanese.  They were prisoners of war in their own country. 

At the camps, they were subjected to harsh conditions, forced labor and denial of basic human rights. Their crime was being who they were; and racism, fear and executive Presidential privilege painted the canvas.

After World War II these camps were all closed. The Supreme Court ruled that the practice of incarcerating citizens was unconstitutional, President Gerald Ford, officially repealed the President Roosevelt’s executive order in 1976. The United States Congress issued a formal apology in 1988 and passed the “Civil Liberties Act,” which awarded $20,000 to over 80,0000 Japanese Americans as reparations for these atrocities.

Fast-forward to now. There is a new kind of prison emerging in the rising tide of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans, which has increased since the onset of the coronavirus. Claims by high profile voices that this pandemic was caused by the Chinese people has ignited much violence and suffering for people of not only Chinese but Asian heritage in general. 

Hate crimes against Asian Americans increase

The incidences of abuse and hate crimes has risen by 150 percent this year alone; acts of prejudice that aren’t crimes have also soared with 2,800 cases being reported since March. Asian women are 2.5 times more likely to be targeted than men, adding sexism to the racism.   

This environment creates a culture of fear and a “prison” of anxiety and worry for our Asian-heritage brothers and sisters.  I know of one Asian American woman whose family has encouraged her to purchase pepper spray as protection.

We as God’s people should be speaking out about this, naming it when we see it, and living in respectful, peaceful ways among people of all races, cultures and diverse conditions.  The truth is, when we harbor racist attitudes and practice discrimination, we too are in a prison of isolation, fear and anger that is just as constrictive and deadly to our souls.

Jesus engaged personally with Samaritan, Syrophoenician, Greek and persons of other outcast groups who many despised. He—like his apostles Peter and Paul—calls us today to close down our prisons of fear and open wide our hearts through love, acceptance and a vision of God’s marvelous, diverse creation. 

Through the power of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus, we can do this. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:14a “For he himself is our peace, who has made us one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”

I encourage you to engage and seek conversations with people of Asian descent and hear their stories, learn about their families and cultures, and find new freedom of heart, as we tear down the prison walls of separation. Also, become an outspoken advocate against the national tide of hate and rejection of Asian-heritage people.

May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  What a great time to do all this and more!


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