This blog is about a picture on Rick Warren’s Facebook which features a Red Guard young woman posing. The picture is typical of a ballet that became immensely popular during the Cultural Revolution period, with a woman depicted similarly in this video at around the 3rd minute. The ballet was the prototype artistic expression stipulated by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution.
The caption on Facebook reads, “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
When called by a number of people to recant his statement, he wrote the following response:
People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke, people. If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me. Did you know that, using Hebrew ironic humor, Jesus inserted certain laugh lines – jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous miss them all while the disciples were undoubtedly giggling.
I’m fairly confused as to what this update actually means because after all, I’m bicultural. I’m not white. I don’t get white men’s humor sometimes (or maybe I do get it too well). I’m also kidding! See? I can kid too.
Does Warren mean that his staff is like the Red Guard woman here who persecutes him daily or does he mean that his staff is marching forward like good little Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution, killing of their kinsman in the process? Or does he mean merely “onward Christian soldier”? Or perhaps Mr. Warren just thinks that the female Chinese soldier is as attractive as his staff?
Humor is so tricky. Of course, following the posting of this picture and its caption, few angry responses followed. Here’s one … “Is this a joke? Are those at saddleback really this culturally ignorant?” … well, yes! The positive responses supporting Mr. Warren is however overwhelming though. The running logic of most supportive posts go something like this, “Pastor, you’re such an inspiration to us. That was funny. You people [whoever they are] need to get over yourselves. You don’t get humor. We can’t seem to say anything funny without offending someone these days in our PC society etc.” The number of supportive and sometimes racist posts outnumber those who advice caution. I can’t suspect such hideous posts are all from Saddleback membership. I’m sure quite a number are. It’s as disturbing as it is disgusting.
I’m writing this blog because I have a lot more cultural knowledge than Mr. Warren. I happened to be still teaching part-time for Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary, and I fly there at least twice a year. When I was a full-time faculty there, someone from the planning group of HK Saddleback had contacted me (I forgot his name by now but he’s a nice bloke.) via Facebook to get my take. Here’s my summary of a rather long-winded piece of advice for planting a Saddleback in HK, “If you do not know the cultural history, political climate, and ministerial context of HK, do not plant. If you plan on just having an English-speaking ministry serving the upper middle class expat community, do not plant. There’re plenty of churches doing that. If you don’t plan on having locally trained pastors on your staff that lead the ministry to Chinese, do not plant.” The irony of all this is that shortly after the opening of the HK Saddleback, we have this Facebook update. This single update shows that Mr. Warren hardly has any idea of what the picture truly represents. Sadly, it also proves my original advice to be spot on. HK Saddleback website doesn’t even have Chinese. It’s like me coming to America to reach English-speakers with a Chinese website.
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.
I’m willing to excuse careless updates in the lightning quick internet age and extend grace to Mr. Warren. What I’m unwilling to extend grace towards is his insistence on his humor, after more than two or three witnesses had exhorted him to take the high road. This is his response at several people who try to warn him of the offense early on in the life of his update.
People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me! 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 undoubtedly giggling!
The awesome insensitivity of this statement ranks up there with some of the worst statements involving religion I’ve seen lately. I do not believe Jesus had ever made a joke about the destruction of Jerusalem or mass murder of people. In fact, Jesus grieved over the eventual destruction. I wonder what brand of Hebrew ironic humor to which Mr. Warren was referring. What Bible was he reading? The disciples would’ve been nauseated rather than amused if such an insensitive joke actually came out of Jesus’ mouth. Jesus was radical, but he was not a jerk. He would certainly not poke fun at the expense of other people’s misery.
At the time I’m writing this blog, this specific statement already received more than 180 likes, and around more than 3000 liked the original post. Yes, 180+ people (unknowingly? plus 3000) agree that raping, torturing, maiming and massive killing are funny, and these are “Christians”!! What bothers me even more is the numerous posts that tell Mr. Warren not to be bothered by criticisms or keep on posting funny stuff or that he’s such an inspiration (as if this joke is a spiritual inspiration), and even a few condemning judgmental attitude. Such is not the point! Compare the “likes” on those who posted cautionary notes in the same link. Statistics, in this case, does not lie. Therefore, those who follow Warren’s Facebook “like” jokes made in fatal bad taste over any cautionary and gracious admonition by the prophetic voice of a few. I think the posters would be equally judgmental if their family had been exterminated in the Cultural Revolution, no? I’m one of the lucky ones whose family had escaped, but not because they beat my mother for her faith and took away our entire family estate. Others are not as lucky. Did you know, Mr. Warren, that many escaped to Taiwan to avoid the atrocities (note: Taiwan was already a functioning place when the mainlanders escaped but that’s another political point for another day)? Judgmental? Human judgement hardly suffices against such crimes against humanity. I’m waiting on divine judgment myself! That’s the “judgmental” God I believe in, and I’m fairly sure I don’t have a beam in my eye.
Here’re the issues Hong Kong (and to even a larger degree in China) is facing. HK has been dealing with China’s dominance since 1997. It would not be too harsh to call what China is doing cultural rape. Every holiday, the People’s Liberation Army bring their tanks and armor personnel carriers across for a show of force to demonstrate that they can easily turn HK into another Tienanmen like they did on bloody June 4th, 1989. As I’m blogging today, the PLA has sent its four high power destroyers to practice in the harbor of HK accompanied by the Chinese marine vessels to practice landing. I think as an American, you would hardly understand how China’s colonial threat feels like in the comfort of your spacious Mission Viejo office. Recent case of Ms Lam, a school teacher, is a perfect example. She merely spoke out against injustices of HK and China. Now, the government and all sorts of pro-China organizations are trying to silence her by threatening her life, by trying to take away her livelihood and by dragging her name through the mud. Some call her ordeal as a kind of mini-cultural revolution. This is still happening as I speak. Meanwhile, all the guaranteed freedom under the treaty of 1997 has been slowly stripped away even before the allotted 50-year period to give a final handover to Chinese central government. Yes, I’ve witnessed such things. The government, like the juntas of Argentina in the 1980s (aka Guerra Sucia), regularly use thugs to suppress voices of freedom, often in collaboration with some of the local police. Meanwhile, since the government has strong ties to the wealthy, the law is stacked against the poor right from the start. In the developed world, HK has the highest disparity between the rich and the poor. Now, what does HK Saddleback have to say to THAT? Surely, this offensive picture Mr. Warren jokingly posted now takes on a new meaning, no? Christians in HK struggle daily to come to grasp with such happenings. None of that is funny. The church and local theologians (e.g. me when I was still serving there) struggle to create a theological response to the suffering and poverty created by an unjust government, accompanied by real social action. Will Mr. Warren have any Purpose-Driven theology for THAT? I wonder! I’m not saying that HK Saddleback or you haven’t said anything, but I haven’t seen your voices in South China Morning Post or HK Christian Times, where such a stance actually matters. You see why I get my trousers in a bunch now? Ignorance is no excuse for cultural offense. I suppose if the victims were your mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers, uncles, aunties etc., the joke would be different, wouldn’t it? If you still think such things are funny, you need to dissociate yourself from the name of Christ.
Now having sounded so harsh, I don’t want to dismiss Mr. Warren’s work altogether. Surely, he will try to do some equally good work in Hong Kong or even China, but good work in the past does not excuse current insensitive behavior. Planting a church, having a heart for the “lost”, zeal, and even compassion don’t give anyone the qualifications to do mission. Cultural ignorance can hit everyone, but those who are willing to learn from others who have more knowledge will surely be spared from further missional faux pas.
Since I’ve taught and wrote about Paul for years, let me wrap up this blog with Paul’s words. One of the most admirable sayings that Paul had ever uttered is his letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 9.19, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” Paul was not merely a Jew. He was a multiculturalist with real understanding of other cultures. That’s what makes Paul such a great hero. I hope Mr. Warren takes to heart the teachings of Paul, even though Paul doesn’t have a Facebook page (though his followers surely have started many).
Why do I put this post here instead of my other blog that usually deals with issues like this? You ask. This blog is normally read by those in ministry. It’s a fitting blog for all of us in ministry to get a grip on cultural pulse even in our most casual remarks. Sure, we can mess up and learn from it. It is quite easy just to say, “My bad.” It is however quite difficult to see people’s defense of cultural insensitivity being casually passed for humor. Prolegomenon for mission is cultural sensitivity or just don’t do it!
Fen Qing said:
If Warren wants to endear himself to Asians (or at least Chinese speakers) he should have used this: http://pic2.997788.com/pic_search/00/07/38/75/se7387515.jpg
It’s about faith and uh… optimism. Make sure to forward to any Chinese-speaking congregations – particularly if they are Taiwanese. They’ll really appreciate it.
Mr. Tsang. Have you been born again in Christ?
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
I’m sure i have. Thanks for your concern for my salvation, bro.
Wait, what? A devout man rightfully points out a boneheaded and rude move done by a minister *and* the resulting boneheaded moves when he is called out for it, and that’s worthy of questioning someone’s salvation? OY! Is our salvation in Christ, or in being (or at least falling into line with) WASPs? Did Jesus die for the sins of the world, or just for culturally clueless Western white folks? (FTR, biracial here. I don’t fully qualify as… well, anything.)
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Many have tried before i jumped in. They have done so on the original post he deleted. I assume he’s very busy and had no time to read the posts. Then, perhaps the Saddleback people just ignored them. I’m saying this because i want to assume the best of Pastor Rick, not the worst. He really is a busy man. I also know it must be hard for him to work so hard when his son just died. I want to keep that in mind when we look at the situation.
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i hope no disciple giggled at this latest round of madness.
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David Woodham said:
Hey Sam. Just read your article, and Justin Tse’s article too. Nice work, both of you. I personally wouldn’t have “gotten” the offense until you explained it … I appreciate you enlightening me. There’s so much discussed here that I never knew, and I’ve even read books on Chinese history. I still have a lot to learn.
I also wouldn’t have “gotten” Rick Warren’s joke (to use his word for it). I agree with you that he was probably not being malicious. He made a mistake. I find the reaction of some of his followers to be more disturbing. They seem to believe in pastoral infallibility.
God bless you and everyone who labors (directly or indirectly) in Beijing’s shadow.
Thanks, Dave, for the support.
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A Mak said:
I hope you don’t mind but since I don’t have a blog, I would like to post this letter to Rick Warren on your site. I have also posted it on Saddleback Church’s Facebook wall, but since he has been deleting from his own Facebook wall opposition comments and comments asking him to apologize, I would like to post this letter on a few blogs, if allowed.
I’m a Chinese Christian living in Hong Kong, and I would like to express my sentiments from the point of view of someone who is about to have Saddleback Church open in our city.
Dear Pastor Rick Warren,
Since you will be establishing your church in Hong Kong, I as a Chinese person living in that city would like to let you know how we feel about your actions this week.
Your initial post of the Red Guard image was a foolish gaffe, but I had given you the benefit of the doubt by treating it as a mistake made out of momentary bad judgement. I decided to overlook it despite the unearthing of your previous speech regarding Maoist ideals, which indicated you probably understood the connotations of associating the Cultural Revolution with your staff’s work ethic (http://stevesrambling.blogspot.ca/2013/09/rick-warren-and-red-guard-photo.html). Of course, countless Christians were persecuted and killed in that same revolution, but perhaps you were not really implying that Christian persecution is a true characterization of the typical attitude of your staff, nor that you celebrate such acts. As for myself, I have also made awkward cultural jokes before that weren’t funny but were actually inappropriate. We all have. It is regrettable.
However, what made me feel very sick was the condescending and seemingly dismissive attitude from you and your supporters, as evidenced by the responses of the ‘you need to learn to take a joke’ nature. This is compounded by the fact that Saddleback is planting a church here and hoping to draw the very people you offended and brushed off. Yes, Christians in Hong Kong also felt great offense at your insensitivity. We may not blog in English or we may not run blogs with a massive audience/following like Eugene Cho, but we do have feelings.
Your brush-offs – and what I felt was a disrespectful attitude – made me realize that we Christians in Hong Kong don’t want that kind of leadership here. Neither would we want to be around a body part of Christ who feels that another part of the same body can be ignored, on the basis that we Asians are perceived as just being whiny, easily offended or thin-skinned. In fact, there were even accusations from your supporters that we were ‘being unloving by holding a grudge’ (posted on your Facebook wall), and one of your own replies inferred that we were being ‘self-righteous’. The truth is, we felt we raised legitimate concerns about your attitude and responses in the handling of the whole matter.
For a dialogue on why the opinions of Asian Americans – and soon, Asians in Hong Kong – matter as a part of your congregation and on a larger scale, the current church scene, please refer to Tim Tseng’s blog post here: http://timtseng.net/2013/09/26/rick-warren-and-conversations-with-ones-feet/. We understand that you want Christians in Hong Kong (yes, the ones whom you hope will be attending your church in order to bring non-Christians to Saddleback HK so that it will grow) to feel welcome at Saddleback when it opens here, on the basis that they are also a part of the body of Christ. We hope you – and your supporters – will not suddenly disown that part of the body when we express our concern and opinions, alongside our Chinese-American counterparts. If you do so, it is my guess, but it’s likely the non-Christians probably won’t want to come to your church here.
I, for one, was curious about Saddleback coming to Hong Kong even though I already have a church I am attending. In fact, I signed up to attend your wife Kay Warren’s seminar in Hong Kong, though it was canceled because of the personal family tragedy that occurred just shortly before the scheduled date. I wanted to hear what your wife was going to say on behalf of your ministry and why it would have any relation to Hong Kong. Now, I don’t intend to change churches, but we often refer people to local English-speaking churches, as we know of a great many expats and travelers that come to Hong Kong (I assume these are your target audiences for Saddleback Hong Kong). 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 your actions. It turns people away from your ministry. For you to have said such things, refuse to engage in meaningful dialogue, remain reticent on the matter, and then go on to promote your 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 in need of charity or stupid. We, too, need the gospel spread to us, but 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 is an Asian cultural nuance. It means that we stay quiet in some ways (I don’t have a blog nor will I be contacting any reporters at this present stage), but it also means we won’t be going to your church, nor will we recommend others to your church.
Perhaps it sounds like we are being passive aggressive by disengaging here and quietly withdrawing any kind of support for Saddleback, but so far, bloggers like Sam Tseng, Kathy Khang et al. have by no means cut off dialogue with you. They have tried to engage you. But your silence is causing greater offense. I quote Sam Tsang in the article in Religion News Service: “But [Rick Warren’s] silence is as hurtful as his link he posted today, as if to tell us to ‘get over it because we’re moving on.’ (http://www.religionnews.com/2013/09/25/rick-warren-gets-backlash-asian-american-christians-posting-photo/)
I am not a famous blogger nor do I have any sort of big influence in Christian circles in Hong Kong. But I do believe I am speaking on behalf of many ordinary Christians here in Hong Kong to say that we do not want to offer our support, endorsement, or positive opinion of Saddleback Church in Hong Kong or elsewhere, until we see that you make a genuine attempt at reconciliation in this whole matter.
I have noted that you have deleted negative comments or comments asking for your apology regarding this matter from your Facebook page, including my comments and my friend’s comments posted yesterday. I will be taking a screenshot of this letter posted upon Saddleback Hong Kong’s Facebook page and will be posting this letter as a comment on other blogs too. We hope that you will not continue to handle this matter by censorship so that your supporters or other visitors to your page will have only a certain perception of you.
That’s fine. It’s written with grace which i believe we should extend to Pastor Rick, especially in light of his recent loss of his son. Let’s continue to keep it civilized, even if you support me. Thanks for ALL the kind words for everyone.
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I believe the picture that Pastor Rick posted was http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Detachment_of_Women_(ballet)
紅色娘子軍, not 紅衛兵.
You’re correct. The ballet (in fact predating the Cultural Revolution) is however been quite popular in an era that the Red Guards were active. I did post portions of the ballet in one of the links, especially at minute 3. Thank you.
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