Rick Warren and Conversations with One’s Feet

“Why are all these Asian Americans so upset with Pastor Rick Warren? It’s just a humorous use of an image, after all? It’s just a joke, right?”

– Link to Christianity Today story
– Link to Religion News Service story.

Red_GuardApparently not. The huge outcry over Rick Warren’s posting of a Red Guard led to Pastor Warren’s half-hearted public apology yesterday. (As it turns out the figurine was not dressed in a Red Guard uniform, so it may not be accurate to identify it from the Cultural Revolution.)

I confess that I didn’t give much thought to this incident when my cousin Rev. Dr. Sam Tsang brought it to my attention [see his blog].  I’m rather cynical about the practice of protesting “stereotypical” images. All they do is garner attention to the loudest protesters who often use the incident to enhance their own platforms. In the end, we wind up censoring yet another Asian representation because it is labeled culturally insensitive.

Would it have been better if Pastor Warren used the image of Rosie the Riveter to make his “funny point”?


Maybe. But would we complain about a lack of Asian American representation?

I posted a link to an academic op/ed I wrote a few years ago that makes this same point [see blog]

But then it occurred to me that the image itself or the motives behind using it were not really the issue (well, maybe they would be for the rabidly anti-communist). Ignorance of another people’s cultural and historical sensitivities can be forgiven. After all, many Chinese American immigrants who are unaware of the Japanese American internment experience or of the story of the Black Civil Rights movement harbor deep resentment and prejudice towards Japanese and African Americans. The fortunate ones learn and appreciate. So even if Rick Warren should have known better because he lives and ministers in a region with a very large Asian American population, it doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t be aware of Chinese Christian feelings about the Cultural Revolution. We all live in cultural bubbles.

To me, the real issue was the type of responses Pastor Warren and his defenders gave to Dr. Tsang and those who expressed concern. Using a despised image ignorantly is understandable, but disrespecting those who object to its use is not. I refer you to Kathy Khang’s blog.

As leaders grow in prominence in the evangelical world (and this includes Asian American evangelical leaders), they must make choices about who to pay attention to and who to ignore. Pastor Warren’s initial dismissive response and subsequent half-hearted apology (and especially those of his defenders) reproduce a world view where Asian Americans don’t have to be taken seriously. According to this outdated 19th century perspective, the body of Christ may be diverse, but the white person is always the face and the Asian (and other non-white people) are always the feet. Asian Americans are only useful as contract laborers or vehicles for bringing a Westernized gospel to Asia. There is no need to hear their voice, their joys and sorrow. They speak a foreign language anyway.

This brings to mind the bible text that I’ll be preaching from this Sunday. In Genesis 40, Joseph interprets the dreams of a baker and cupbearer, two fellow prisoners. After predicting that the cupbearer would be released and have his position restored, Joseph asks him to “remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.” (verse 14) Unfortunately, we are told that “the chief cupbearer…did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” (verse 23)

It’s unfortunate that Asian American contributions to the American church and to society in general is largely forgotten. But if Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (former general secretary of the Reformed Church in America) is correct, Asian Americans, along with other immigrants, will continue to impact American Christianity positively in the future.

It becomes even more imperative for prominent evangelical leaders in America today (including Asian American leaders) to view this incident as an opportunity to have a serious, but loving, discussion about the role of Asian Americans in the church (see Justin Tse’s blog )

It is time for the Body of Christ in America to speak to its feet!

P.S. Chinglican does a far better job of explicating this point: http://achristianthing.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/it-would-not-be-funny-if-i-said-that-rick-warren-was-the-rick-in-rickshaw-rally/

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  1. I cannot thank you enough. I also felt the same way; Warren’s initial post was a foolish gaffe and was clearly done out of ignorance, but it was the insufferable condescension of him and his followers, compounded by the fact that Saddleback is planting a church here and hoping to draw the very people he offended and brushed off (yes, Christians in Hong Kong felt great offense at his insensitivity too) that sickened me. It made me realize that we don’t want that kind of leadership here, and neither would I want to be around a body of Christ who feels that the other body part can be ignored as though it were just being whiny or thin-skinned when there were legitimate concerns about Warren’s attitudes. I, for one, was curious about Saddleback coming to Hong Kong even though I already have a church I am attending. I didn’t intend to change churches but we often refer others to local English-speaking churches. After this fiasco, I most certainly would not recommend Saddleback because the leadership has proven itself most unwise. That is the sad but true effects of his actions. It turns people away from his ministry. For him to have said such things and then go on to promote his new church here is akin to feeding us spiritual food with one hand and slapping us with the other. We’re Chinese, but that doesn’t mean we’re beggars or stupid. We can tell when someone is being disrespectful, even if our voice is very small. As Chinese people, we don’t always get confrontational. Our way of showing our loss of respect is to disengage. That means that we stay quiet, but it also means we won’t be going to his church.

    Thank you, thank you for your post. It was what I have been thinking but am unable to articulate into the blogosphere.

    • Thank you T.R. Unfortunately, as you may have noted, RW’s sermon at Saddleback last Sunday did little to invite reconciliation. It is sad.

  2. Rick Warren didn’t get it the 1st time; he revisited it and didn’t get it again. Insensitivity steeped in ignorance, fair enough, but there is no malice here. As a public figure he is constantly accused of insensitivity and intolerance and i am certain he gets tired of it. In terms of our relationship to Jesus, there is no such thing as a Chinese [or white] Christian just as there is no easy way to be offended. There is so much room for forgiveness and acceptance in the heart that doesn’t consider ethnic/tribal/racial loyalty as a matter of importance.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, John. I’m not sure I understood your last two points. Are you saying that paying attention to race or ethnicity is a hindrance to forgiveness?

  3. I live in Southern California. Although I attend another church close to my home, I know several friends and family members who attend Saddleback. In recent dialog with such a friend, I am very surprised how vehemently Pastor Rick Warren is defended by her, especially since she herself is Asian. She wants to excuse his ‘faux pas’ because of the recent suicide of his son. She wants the criticism of her pastor to stop. In her estimation, he has apologized, I should not judge him, let’s move on. I just don’t get it. Is it because he’s been so attacked in the media that his followers’ knee-jerk reaction is to flock to his defense, without discerning whether he is right or wrong? That type of blind allegiance is very concerning to me. Perhaps they are worried that public discourse would weaken their ministry to the mission field. Ironically, NOT owning up to it and NOT being humble enough to admit his mistake and learn from it has crippled his ministry even more. Very sad.

    • Hi Joanna, thanks for your response. Have you seen Pastor Warren’s sermon from last Sunday? It seems like he was lashing out indirectly at those who criticized him. Clearly he was NOT owning up to his mistake. I think you are correct – by not responding with some willingness to really hear his critics may harm his ministry. Especially Saddleback Hong Kong. “Sigh”

  4. Good word Tim. I’ve just been observing this whole episode and not commented b/c frankly social media time moves too quickly for me to keep up. Important conversation though. Agree with you on so many levels. I would just add two things. There is a pattern of inconizing Asian and Asian Americans in our broader culture that is being mimicked in the church. Rickshaw Rally, Deadly Viper, and now this reflect this practice. I think some of this has to be interrogated more.

    2nd, I’m doubtful that this is an issue of personal pride, insensitivity, or arrogance. This is about about populist expectations of leadership in N. America and in the church. Warren has chosen to make his son’s suicide public b/c that does not jeopardize his image as a leader b/c it demonstrates his humanity. Warren has chosen not to sincerely apologize to AAs b/c that projects him as weak and fallible to his white constituents. Thus far you have yet to see a genuine public act of reconciliation from any who have offended AAs. So I agree with you, it has to do with the politics of race – even his “personal” response to the situation. As Agassi said in a commercial, “It’s all about image!”

    • Thanks Bo! Yep, I agree with both your points. While I don’t think RW’s use of the image itself is as problematic as Rickshaw Rally, there needs to be some examination about how and why the American mainstream chooses to use certain images of Asians and Asian Americans and ignores others.

  5. Reblogged this on summysays and commented:
    My first reblog! “the body of Christ may be diverse, but the white person is always the face and the Asian (and other non-white people) are always the feet.”

  6. I think it’s a more important point to that Rick Warrens’ refusal to understand and apologize fully is UNBIBLICAL than that it’s harming his ministry. To say, “Oh he should know better, b/c he’s harming his ministry” does not keep in mind that the bigger problem is the spiritual harm it does to Rick Warren’s own relationship with God, and his defenders’ relationships with God. We who know better should seek to restore him and them.

    Paul’s extremely sensitive and thoughtful letters to many wayward churches (e.g. Galatians, Corinthians) and less-wayward churches (e.g. Philippians) set a very high standard for how thoughtfully a pastor should approach those he serves. As Paul encourages the Philippians, “Forgetting what it behind, and straining toward what is ahead, [we] press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us].” That includes forgetting our own (sometimes merited) pride to take on the attitude of Christ himself to be a Servant to others and endure a cross.

  7. Colleen, thanks for the reminder that our practice of loving and listening to those who are different from us is a spiritual discipline derived from the cross and empowered by the Spirit.

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