Monday, October 21, 2013

Asian-American Christians Condemn Racism in Evangelical Culture

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA, now finds himself at the center of two controversies over depictions of Asian Americans in the evangelical community. First Rick Warren traveled to Hong Kong in September to celebrate the opening of a new Saddleback church, according to NPR. Upon his return, he posted a vintage picture of a Chinese Red Guard woman on Facebook with the caption "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day." (More Than Serving Tea captured a screenshot of the post before Warren took it down.) The Red Guard was a Maoist social movement that persecuted intellectuals and destroyed cultural relics during China's brutal Cultural Revolution.

When confronted by others who found the image offensive, Warren dismissed them. "People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!" Warren wrote on Facebook, according to the Huffington Post. "Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted several laugh lines- jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous missed them all while the disciples were undoubtebly giggling!"

Asian Americans responded with disgust. "The image of the Red Army Guard soldier is offensive. It isn’t funny. And it does have racial implications," wrote Kathy Khang, a contributor to Sojourners and a regional multiethnic ministries director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Sam Tsang, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist Theological seminary, called out Warren's insensitivity in a blog post at Engage the Pews. Disappointed by Warren's initial response to critics, Tsang reminded Warren of the Red Guard's savagery.
"Imagine, Mr. Warren, the Chinese in your congregation both here in the US and in Hong Kong.  Do you know what narrative is behind this picture you just posted?  Has any Red Guard ever raped your mother?  How about having your joints dislocated and quartered by horses?  Oh, this is a great one.  How about having your arms hung up in an awkward position until they’re dislocated while being beaten merciless with all sorts of torturous devices?  How about being made to stand near naked in freezing temperature outside?  If Mr. Warren is trying depict the Great Leap forward by Mao, does he know that more than 40 million Chinese died in that campaign?  I can go and on but I won’t belabor my point.  From the above images, Mr. Warren needs to think about just the Chinese descent members of his church.  Why did they immigrate to the US?  They did to get away from that image you just put up, Mr. Warren!  You just reminded all of them the nightmare they left behind and for what? For a joke on Monday? I know your your intent is not to make light of suffering but the effect of your post has done exactly that, because you have no idea."
Rick Warren came under fire again after an incident at a church-planting conference in early October. At the 2013 Exponential West Conference, hosted by Warren's Saddleback Church, a video on mentoring featured a scene parodying The Karate Kid, with a caucasian mimicking an Asian accent and practicing martial arts.

Exponential later apologized for the video, and its leaders hosted a meeting with Asian American leaders. "We never want to intentionally be offensive to anyone,” said Todd Wilson, director of Exponential. “The point and illustration we were trying to make could and should have been made differently without offending anyone. We know racial stereotypes can be a barrier to the Gospel. Our desire is for the only barrier between people and the Gospel to be the Gospel and not the things we say or do.”

The two incidents were not the first race-related disputes in the evangelical community, but they galvanized Asian American Christian leaders into issuing a collective statement. In an October 13th statement entitled "An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church", Asian American Christians United expressed disappointment in the current state of race relations in the American evangelical community.
"We, the undersigned, are distressed about the continuing divide that persists in the North American evangelical church in the area of racial harmony. Certainly, we acknowledge that over the past several decades, the church has grown both in its understanding and pursuit of racial reconciliation. However, such efforts have largely been reduced to black-white relations, or they have resulted in tokenism, in which organizations or events allocate an appropriate number of spots to include voices of color and mistakenly believe that is all that is required."
Lamenting that Asian American Christians continue to be "misunderstood, misrepresented, and misjudged", the signatories ask that the church make a concerted effort to acknowledge and address issues facing Asian American believers. The letter condemned ongoing racism in Christian publications and events, citing Rick Warren's recent "poor judgment".
"Over the past decade, Christian evangelicalism has been the source of repeated and offensive racial stereotyping, and Asian Americans have been inordinately affected. From VBS curriculum, to youth skits, to general Christian trade books, Asians have been caricatured, mocked, or otherwise treated as foreigners outside the typical accepted realm of white evangelicalism. And the situation has not improved over time. Within just the past month alone, a well-known Christian leader and a popular Christian conference ... have also exhibited examples of poor judgment and Asian stereotyping.

And it has to stop."
The letter criticizes non-Asian observers for dismissing racist incidents, reminding their fellow Christians that racial insensitivity undermines the fellowship and unity of the church.
"Whenever you marginalize, ostracize, or demean us through carelessness and ignorance in print, video, or any other medium, you are doing more than just ruffling the feathers of a small group of online activists. You are damaging the very cause of Christ, by maintaining and increasing fissures within the church. You are furthering the exact opposite of what it means to be the church, which is to reflect Christ and his love through the power of a reconciled body. And you are creating an environment that will not only disillusion current Asian American Christians within the church body, but also repel Asian Americans who do not know Christ and who do not see him represented in the actions of those who call themselves Christian."
Observers have called evangelical leaders to task for their messages about women and LGBTQ persons, prompting dialogue within the community. Recent events remind us that the evangelical community is racially diverse, and that it needs to address race issues as well. Rick Warren and the Exponential video serve as evidence that some evangelical leaders need to be mindful of the diversity in their ranks and serve their communities in a sensitive manner. Faith communities, and society as a whole, should be free from sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism.


  1. the sad thing is that much of this is unintentional coming from congregations that are oriented toward being a "family", insular in every way. They don't have diversity in their auditoriums (houses of worship), and thus they don't even realize the degree to which they offend. How unlike Christ they truly are. But then, this is hardly new is it?

    1. Sherry -- Good observation. Honoring family means honoring the human family in all its diversity, not just the nuclear family.


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