Earlier this week, a coalition of Asian-American pastors and church leaders published an open letter calling for an end to Asian stereotyping within the evangelical church.
In the letter, Asian Americans United acknowledge that the church has made several attempts towards racial reconciliation. But Asian-Americans, they say, continue to be, “caricatured, mocked, or otherwise treated as foreigners outside the typical accepted realm of white evangelicalism.”
The letter is partly a response to a photo and caption Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, posted on his Facebook page last month. Under a photo of the Red Guard, a socio-political movement that killed millions in China in the name of communism, Warren quipped: “The typical attitude of Saddleback staff as they start work each day.”
The photo elicited a flurry of responses. Some commenters thanked Warren for his sense of humor. Others pointed out that using a propaganda image was “bad taste.” Warren initially tried to diffuse the situation by saying it was all a joke. “People often miss irony on the internet,” he said in a Facebook comment. “If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!”
Then Christian Asian-American writer Sam Tsang blogged a lengthier response to Warren, explaining why his photo was offensive. “Do you know what narrative is behind this picture you just posted?” he asked. “Has any Red Guard ever raped your mother? Does Warren mean that his staff is marching forward like good little Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution, killing of their kinsman in the process?”
Warren apologized to Tsang in a comment on his blog: “Thanks so much for teaching us! … Anytime you have guidance, you … can email me directly.”
Tsang accepted Warren’s apology and thanked him for taking the photo down, but not before pointing out the irony between Warren’s Facebook post and the fact that he’s launching a branch of his mega church in Hong Kong. He repeated advice he had given someone on their team earlier in the year: “If you do not know the cultural history, political climate, and ministerial context of [Hong Kong], do not plant. If you plan on just having an English-speaking ministry serving the upper middle class expat community, do not plant.”
A few weeks after this incident, presenters at Exponential, a church conference hosted at Saddleback showed a skit in which a pastor compared working with his intern to a scene from the film Karate Kid.
RNS reported that the video showed a pastor figure speaking with a Chinese accent. As Oriental music played in the background, the pastor and the intern go into a karate segment, bowing to each other at one point.
Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean-American Episcopal priest who attended the conference told RNS that she tried not to be offended. “I know they are not trying to be offensive,” Lee said. “But I kept coming back to this question: Would they have done this with black people?”
Exponential apologized in a press release, saying, “the scene was meant to highlight what has become known worldwide as an extremely positive leader-apprentice relationship.” But they acknowledged it reinforced “Asian stereotypes and was racially insensitive to the Asian-American community.”
Asian Americans United acknowledged the apology but still released its letter to raise awareness about the church’s pattern of “orientalizing Asian-American believers.”
As solutions, the signees call for media coverage on the issue of Asian-American Christians, a closer look at hiring practices in Christian organizations, and for churches to pay closer attention to how they present Asian culture in media. They also proposed pursuing open dialogue about race and religion and said they’re willing to review any ministry’s action or choice ahead of time to make sure it isn’t offensive.
“Just imagine the possibilities if we can finally progress together as one body, as one family of God, pursuing true reconciliation and racial harmony together,” they wrote.