I grew up in a Catholic parish with quite a few Japanese neighbors. That means my neighborhood looked a little bit like this:
I loved it, but really all I learned about the statues and shrines is that they were ‘wrong’ because they meant the people inside ‘worshipped’ someone other than Jesus. I wish I could go back and tell my childhood self that, as we suspected, it’s all a bit more complex than that.
I didn’t know much about the veneration of saints or ancestors; I only knew that the people who had yards like this put a lot of time and money into creating these mini sanctuaries. I thought they were beautiful, but that’s it.
About 8 years ago, we had an international student from China live with us for a year and a half. She talked a little about how important ancestors were to her family and culture. I asked her to tell me why she felt this connection was so important in her culture. She said, “It’s like the way you would love your grandmother and ask her to take care of you. I do that with my ancestors. I honor those who are alive, but the ones who have died are more honorable because they have finished this life.” I thought then about how I had learned from my Catholic students about the similar way they venerate Mary and the saints.
In my family, heritage has a significant place of honor. My brothers and I were fortunate enough to know our great-grandparents, as were our children. If things continue to go well, my grandchildren will know their great-grandparents (on my side, anyway) as well. For generations, we have worked hard to keep the cords of heritage strongly intertwined with our faith. Even though our traditions have diverged, every generation has known Christ. We are truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, past and present. We honor our ancestors because of the legacy they have given us. I will admit, though, there are times I find myself looking at pictures of my grandmothers and asking them to pray for me, to lend me their strength. Is this veneration? Maybe. But if you told me that I would need to walk away from my family to follow the “truth,” I have a pretty good idea how I would respond.
In Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up, Simon Chan addresses the ways in which veneration of ancestors and family honor systems have been and must continue to be taken into consideration. I struggled with the assumption that becoming a part of the Family of God seems to many to mean that we must leave behind our earthly families. “The new community created by the Spirit at the very least distinguishes itself from the social and familial bonds that have shaped Asian religions for millennia. Frequently it detaches the Christians from their kin and loosens familial and social bonds.” My first response to this was confusion as to how this idea squares with this: “Thus in Asia religion blends seamlessly with family and social life. This close relationship between religion and family reflects the value that Asians place on traditional family structure and corporate life.” How does a faith that pulls people away from their families work contextually in a culture where the relationship between family and religion is traditionally extremely close? I’m not naïve. I know that adherence to Christ can mean leaving behind things that we value culturally and socially. In my own family, I am the “black sheep” because I have stepped away from the right-leaning evangelicalism of my immediate family to embrace a type of social gospel that more closely resembles that of my grandmothers. But that is nothing like leaving behind the deep traditional faiths found in these Asian cultures. For me, that would be more like converting to Islam or Buddhism, leaving Christ completely behind, abandoning the family gatherings that we hold on Easter, baby dedications, and possibly Christmas.
Chan does address those parts of Asian Christianity that seek to hold on to traditions while living in a new faith community. My thought at first was that those like the JICM who ascribe to what Chan calls a “postmortem theory of salvation,” are grasping at ways to remain balanced between their old and new lives. That may be true, but it also got me to thinking about why our (white) Protestant culture in the United States would likely struggle to accept anything like ancestor veneration…we don’t honor our elderly, so why would we honor our ancestors.
I specifically call out white Protestants here because I have witnessed that those in the African American and Native American communities to which I have been exposed have a deep respect for their elders and those who have passed. (I do not know enough about the general Catholic community to speak to their honor of elders as a whole.) Even with the deep attachment I feel to my own ancestors, I realize that I have not always afforded them the respect and dignity worthy of them. Our culture honors the new, the beautiful, and the young. Our fear of aging and inability to talk about death cause us to feel discomfort when we look at and hear from our elders.
Okay, I may have stepped up on my soapbox there, but I think there is something crucial for us to learn from the way Asian cultures honor their elders and their ancestors. There is something important for our faith to be found in the way Asian cultures honor each phase of life, even death. Chan’s thesis that Asian theology is best found among the grassroots Christians tells us that perhaps those of us who are interested in spreading the gospel in Asian cultures have as much to learn from their cultures as they have to learn from our Christ. Chan said, “The gospel must be contextualized, but it must remain prophetic.” Maybe part of the prophetic is allowing the way God is already at work in cultures (i.e. wholistic health and peace with life stages) to speak to the damaging parts of our cultural contexts. Or who knows, maybe it’s not so weird to ask our grandparents to pray for our strength. Mine were always closer to God than the rest of us. I’m pretty sure that didn’t change when they died.
 Chan, Simon. Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.) Kindle Edition., p. 163.
 Chan, 174.
 Chan, 11.