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Monday, September 30, 2013

Rick Warren, Ignorance, and Apologies

This week Pastor Rick Warren posted a culturally inappropriate Facebook (FB) photo. Not only was the original post racially ignorant, but his reaction and defensiveness to pushback was disheartening. Here, I try to summarize events and reactions, relying heavily on excerpts from the excellent writing of Kathy Khang and Sam Tsang. Their original posts can be found here, here, here and here, as well in some of the links below.

The Image
Monday morning, the follow appeared on Warren's FB wall:

The image is of a woman in the Red Guard, a propaganda image of the Cultural Revolution. In posting it, Warren demonstrated an ignorance and disregard for the horrors that such an image represents. Tsang asks "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?"

Tsang elaborates:
"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?...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?...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."

The Comments
Read more on the Red Guards
Within hours, the post had reached thousands of followers. Many approved, many others objected. Still others object to the objections. Khang summarizes many of the comments:
  • "Don’t you know this is a joke? This is funny. Get over yourself. Get a sense of humor. Christians can be funny.
  • I didn’t mean to offend you. BUT…Get over yourself. Get a sense of humor. Christians can be funny.
  • Why are you attacking “fill in the blank with well-intentioned White person’s name here”? Don’t you know how many people said person’s ministry and life’s work has touched and brought to faith? Get over yourself. Get a sense of humor. Christians can be funny.
  • If you are a Christian, show “fill in the blank with well-intentioned White person’s name here” some grace. Get over yourself. Get a sense of humor. Christians can be funny.
  • Don’t be so politically-correct. Be a Christian first. Don’t make this about race. Get over yourself. Get a sense of humor. Christians can be funny."
These types of responses are all too familiar. We often hear such reactions after racial offense is pointed out. Unfortunately, this time the responses are from Christian sisters and brothers, and are almost indistinguishable from responses we've come to expect in the secular world.

Khang notes that "The FB comment thread was disheartening. There is nothing quite like watching your family’s dirty laundry aired out over FB, and that is what it felt like. There is no joy in showing the world that indeed Christians are imperfect, rude, and in desperate need of the very Jesus we tell everyone else they need."

Indeed, disregarding the hurt expressed by those objecting to his post, Warren doubles down:
"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!”

In open letter to Warren, Khang articulated the frustration that many were feeling: 
"The image of the Red Army soldier is offensive. It isn’t funny. And it does have racial implications. I know you are a thoughtful leader, so why not choose an equally funny/not funny image of Hitler Youth who look just as cheerful, focused and determined (and perhaps, dare I say, more like your staff?) Because it was easy to use the Red Army image? Because you didn’t think it was a big deal to connect your Christian staff with the Chinese Red Army? Because you have someone of Chinese descent on your staff and he/she didn’t think it was a big deal?

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. Please take a moment to hear us out because you don’t get to tell me to laugh about the Communist Red Army because it isn’t funny. There is no irony. Do not compare me and others to the self-righteous who did not get Jesus’ humor as you did in your FB defense."
Eventually, the image and comments were removed with no attempt to engage in the issue or to help followers understand the issues at play.

Khang notes that "what could’ve been a wonderful opportunity to help his followers understand that leaders of international influence make public mistakes, don’t get the whole cross-cultural thing which is pretty important to missionaries, that he made a mistake, that he apologizes and asks for forgiveness and would they, his followers, who thought the whole Red Guard thing wasn’t a big deal, should do the same, has the appearance of a bunch of online activists shutting him down."

The Apology
Two days after the original posting, Warren wrote this, among other updates, on his Facebook wall: "Finally back home. Staff handed me a hard copy of an email from someone offended by a picture I posted. If you were hurt, upset, offended, or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry. May God richly bless you."

Many, including Tsang, have indicated a willingness to accept such a statement as an apology. Nevertheless, it is again reminiscent of a long tradition of non-apologies. Again from Khang:
"There is no 'if'. I am hurt, upset, offended, and distressed, not just because “an” image was posted, but that Warren posted the image of a Red Guard soldier as a joke, because people pointed out the disconcerting nature of posting such an image and then Warren then told us to get over it, alluded to how the self-righteous didn’t get Jesus’ jokes but Jesus’ disciples did, and then erased any proof of his public missteps and his followers’ mean-spirited comments that appeared to go unmoderated. 
I am hurt, upset, offended, and distressed when fellow Christians are quick to use Matthew 18 publicly to admonish me (and others) to take this issue up privately without recognizing the irony of their actions, when fellow Christians accuse me of playing the race card without trying to understand the race card they can pretend doesn’t exist but still benefit from, when fellow Christians accuse me of having nothing better to do than attack a man of God who has done great things for the Kingdom. 
When apologizing you do not put the responsibility of your actions on the person who is hurt, upset, offended, or distressed. You do not use the word 'if'. You do not communicate that the offense was to one person when, in fact, it was not. You clarify and take the opportunity to correct those who mistakenly followed your lead. Your apology is not conditional on the 'if' because you should know because you have listened, heard, and understood the person you hurt, upset, offended, or distressed."
A Christian Response?
As Christians, our role is not to defensively cling to our own perspective, but to repent, and to ask
forgiveness when we have caused each other pain. We need to listen and humbly learn from one another. We ought to be able to model this behavior to world, rather than falling prey to the same hackneyed racial responses that perpetuate pain and marginalization.

In his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabayashi asserts, “the world needs to see that our faith really does make a difference for life, especially as we deal with some of the most vexing social struggles, like race, gender, and class suppression.”

Too often in moments of racial controversy, the Christian response to those hurt by such events has been either muted, late, nonexistent, or even in defense of the oppressor. We fail to manifest Christ’s love in solidarity, and at our worst, we add to the voices second-guessing the cries of racism. We leave the marginalized to wonder if our sermons about unity and diversity were just for show.

Feel free to leave your perspective in the comments section, where I have also added a few addendums and asides that didn't quite make it into the main text above. 


  1. While I have selected quotes from only a subset of Khang and Tsang's writing for the sake of length here, I have tried to stay true to their original sentiments. It is well worth reading the rest of their writing, as well as that of others who have addressed the subject:

  2. Yes, it appears that Rick Warren hasn't gotten rid of the foot-in-mouth. He offends, then asks people to get over it. Doesn't the world say the same thing when people are offended at someone's comments.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Michael. Hurtful behavior indeed!

  4. Katelin, thanks for your thoughtful comments. It seems to me that one of the problems is that as a Christian community we simply don't get how to genuinely admit we are wrong about something. An apology on the order of "I'm sorry that offended you" is patronizing, not apologizing. Seems in all situations where we aggrieve each other we need first to understand how we've offended, then be able to articulate our own understanding and to take on board how this is hurtful, and to say without excuse, "I'm sorry, I was wrong and I see that this was hurtful to you in these ways. What can I do to address this in our relationship?" Most "apologies" I see are really attempts at covering ourselves and excusing or minimizing what we have done, not really taking it on board. You very helpfully observe that many of these "apologies" in fact put the blame on the other. Thanks for this post!

  5. you were true to our sentiments. Thank you.

  6. Great thoughts, Bob! I think much of the hurt in this situation goes beyond the original offense but int he almost flippant response to it. A good apology can go such a long way toward reconciliation!

  7. Thank you for your good words and insights. It is so very appreciated.

  8. Mel-
    Please forgive me for my terribly tardy response. It is no indication of my interest, but to the contrary reflects my desire to be able to give it my full attention.

    You are right the internet discourse can become hideously vitriolic and it is unfortunate that it puts people on defensive rather than being in a place to hear critique.

    With regard to humor, it is wonderful that so many smart, sensitive and justice-minded comedians exist to provide examples of how we can be funny, without being hurtful or marginalizing our audience. It requires a bit more energy to be attentive, but it is possible, and well worth the effort.

    We certainly do apologize to Jesus. That is exactly what repentance and seeking forgiveness is all about. It puts us in a posture that sets aside our pride, reconciles us to the wounded and helps us to learn to do better. But your right: a faux-apology accomplishes none of these things.

    As always, thanks for your thoughts!


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