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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!