A joking Facebook post by Saddleback Church's
Rick Warren was the catalyst for a pointed letter from some 700
"We the undersigned, are distressed about the continuing divide
that persists in the North American evangelical church in the area of
That's the first line of a four-page open
letter to American Evangelicals ("On cultural Insensitivity and
Reconciliation in the Church") from a coalition called Asian American
Christians United. The letter was released earlier this week.
roughly 700 signatories are a who's who in Asian-American Christian
circles: a seminary head, several professors of religion, dozens of
pastors, even a few popular bloggers. It was drafted after a few weeks
of painful missteps by one of the evangelical community's most prominent
Rick Warren is the author of The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?,
which stayed on the best-seller list for years. He's also a pastor of
the Orange County-based Saddleback Church. Saddleback is considered a
crown jewel in the American evangelical diadem and Warren is one of the
country's most visible evangelical pastors.
McCain-Obama debate in 2008 was held at Saddleback — a prestigious
precedent-breaker, since no modern presidential forum had ever been held
in a church.)
Warren has spearheaded outreach to multiple
ethnic groups and invited them to join him in the cause of Christ. And
he's opening myriad Saddlebacks abroad, to spread the Gospel to what he
calls a dozen "Gateway Cities" on several continents.
A Problematic Facebook Post
Warren returned from opening the church's Hong Kong campus last month.
Soon after, he posted a photo of a Red Guard, the young Communist cadres
that policed their communities during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
The poster showed a smiling, rosy-cheeked young woman in the drab gray
uniform the Red Guard typically wore.
His post (since taken
down) said "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work
each day." (there are still several screen captures of it, though, like
Although the Saddleback pastor said he intended the
photo to be a joke, many Asian-American evangelicals were not amused.
Many come from Chinese immigrant families, some of which suffered
greatly during Mao's Great Leap Forward. (Some 15 million people are
estimated to have died during that time, from "discipline" administered
by the youngsters in the Red Guard, by the Red Army and from outright
starvation, the product of nonsensical agricultural practices that,
literally, bore no fruit.)
The Joke That Launched A Letter
was to tell readers that sometimes people on the Internet didn't get
irony: "It's a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really
shouldn't be following me!" That, in turn, was followed by what many
consider to be a pro forma apology.
But a few weeks later,
Warren spoke at a conference that featured a video in which a white
pastor talked in a fake Asian accent, and engaged in goofy Karate with
another character, replete with bows, and tinny "Asian" music.
That was too much for many Asian-American Christians. Hence, .
"Over the past decade," it pointed out, "Christian
evangelicalism has been the source of repeated and offensive racial
stereotyping, and Asian Americans have been inordinately affected...
Asians have been caricatured, mocked or otherwise treated as foreigners
outside the typical accepted realm of white [evangelicals]. And the
situation has not improved over time."
In fact, the letter
cites about a half-dozen offenses in recent years. And it points out
these are only the incidents that have been highlighted by the media.
For every one of those, the writers believe, there may be myriad others
that never capture the public's attention.
Some of the letter's
signatories were as (or perhaps more) disturbed by the reactions they
encountered when they expressed offense.
"Get A Sense Of Humor"
Kathy Khang, a minister and the author of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith,
wrote to Warren, saying his apology was about as offensive as the
initial mistake. Kang asked Warren to "please reconsider your comments
that essentially told many of your brothers and sisters in Christ to get
over it, to get a sense of humor, to lighten up, etc....because you
don't get to tell me to laugh about the Communist Red Guard, because it
Comments like that struck home. Warren ultimately pulled the offending Maoist illustration and posted a longer apology:
"If you were hurt, upset, offended or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry," he wrote. "May God richly bless you."
point of the letter, according to many of the people who signed it, is
to begin a much-needed, long-delayed dialogue within the evangelical
church. And to acknowledge that although they are all one Christian
family, Asian-American evangelicals are feeling a lot like unloved
step-children at the moment.