(RNS) Asian-American Christians are voicing concerns over how they’re depicted by white evangelicals, most recently at a conference hosted by Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California.

Paper cutouts of men in various colors

Paper cutouts of men in various colors photo courtesy mtkang via Shutterstock

Saddleback recently hosted a conference by Exponential, a church-planting group, and a video on Tuesday (Oct. 8) left some Asian-Americans offended.

It’s the second dust-up in as many months involving Asian-Americans and Warren, who spoke at the Exponential conference. Last month he received backlash from Asian-American Christians after he posted a Facebook photo depicting the Red Guard during China’s Cultural Revolution. “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day,” the caption read on Sept. 23.

Warren later posted an apology.

In the video at Exponential, a pastor jokes about making his church-planting apprentice do menial activities, such as getting him coffee, giving him massages and holding his towel, according to the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean-American Episcopal priest who attended the conference.

The apprentice reacts to the pastor in a parody of the “Karate Kid,” the 1984 martial arts film. The pastor begins speaking in a Chinese accent with “typical ‘Oriental’ music” playing in the background, Lee said. They go into a karate segment, and at one point, they bow to each other.

“I know they are not trying to be offensive,” Lee said. “I was actually trying to talk myself out of (being offended), but I kept coming back to this question: Would they have done this with black people?”

Saddleback staff declined to comment on the skit since it came from Exponential. Exponential leaders could not be reached for comment.

A group of Asian-American Christians are drafting an open letter to address the larger issue of continued troubling stereotyping of Asian-Americans and Asian culture.

“It’s disheartening to believe anyone is having to explain to fellow evangelicals that racist stereotypes are not OK, especially in the church and used in the name of mission,” said Kathy Khang, author and blogger who has been outspoken about race issues.

Pastor Rick Warren greets the audience before a forum with the presidential nominees at his Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. Religion News Service file photo by Ann Johansson

Pastor Rick Warren greets the audience before a forum with the presidential nominees at his Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. Religion News Service file photo by Ann Johansson


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Last month, several Asian-American Christians commented and blogged that the photo Warren posted on social media was distasteful.

“People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!” Warren initially posted in a Facebook comment. “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 undoubtably giggling!”

Warren took the photo down and apologized in the comments section on writer and speaker Sam Tsang’s blog.

“Thanks so much for teaching us! It was removed instantly. May God bless you richly. Anytime you have guidance, you (or anyone else) can email me directly,” Warren wrote in part.

Warren then posted photos announcing new Saddleback campuses, including one in Hong Kong, which upset Asian-American Christians who felt he needed to apologize more publicly.

Warren later posted an apology on Facebook, saying, “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.”

It’s not the first time Asian-Americans — about 13 percent of whom are evangelical, according to the Pew Research Center — have been upset by depictions from other Christians.

In 2009, the Christian publishing house Zondervan publicly apologized for publishing “Deadly Viper: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership,” a book that uses illustrations depicting Chinese characters and images.

In 2004, LifeWay Christian Resources was criticized for its Asian-themed “Rickshaw Rally” Vacation Bible School curriculum, which some saw as racially insensitive. After the criticism, some changes were made in those materials but the curriculum continued to be used.

“It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery,” said Justin Tse, who is finishing a Ph.D. in geography at the University of British Columbia.

Author Helen Lee wonders whether the continued use of Asian imagery suggests evangelicals are unable or unwilling to see their own cultural blind spots.

“How many times must we say the same thing before we are heard?” Lee said. “It is not acceptable to caricature Asian culture and to do so for quick laughs.”

Update: Exponential leaders have posted an apology. A group of Asian Americans have published a general open letter to the evangelical church, including those quoted in this story. Additional signatories include Eugene Cho of Seattle’s Quest Church, Greg Jao of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and C. Jimmy Lin of the Rare Genomics Institute.

65 Comments

  1. “How many times must we say the same thing before we are heard?” Lee said. “It is not acceptable to caricature Asian culture and to do so for quick laughs.”

    For that matter . . . any culture. If we allow some insensitive comments because it does not pertain “me” or “us” or the culture that we are part of, the possibility of this kind of attitude will continue. The main reason is: We give license or allowed it or already gave permission to use it for others. So . . . why not us? Therefore, please let us not be surprised if today it is our turn. Case in point . . . why is it OK to put down Muslim or African Americans or Latinos and not OK when it is the Asian’s turn? It is all in the pecking order or us vs them. It is all in the mind set that we are more righteous than them. We have to get off the high horse and remember that Christ already died for our sins, He is the only one who is righteous and our part is to remember: “if you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

  2. Couldn’t help but notice how the title stereotypes “white evangelicals” as a group… seems like there is room to grow in both directions. Then again, to attack everyone from one group as if everyone from another group is upset is a far more “exciting” headline, than to just say, a few folks were upset at what a few other folks did.

    • Are you genuinely comparing the historic and current plight of ethnic minorities in this country to this article having “white evangelicals” in its title?

      • I think that we need to get over ourselves. We are spending time and energy on a battle not worth fighting. In countries run by non-whites, the devout have far greater problems than these….

        • I’m curious how you would reply if this were said about something that reflects you personally, Corey. For example, if you were a white male and a prominent person/group consistently portrayed all white males as racist and stupid, would you desire a redefinition, or would you just need to ‘get over yourself’?

          You make a good point that Christians in many countries face significant persecution, but what I hear the Asian Americans asking for is respect – not mockery – from their brothers and sisters. This IS a significant issue that the white evangelical church needs to examine because it is part of our story. We cannot simply dismiss our own problems just because other people have problems too. It’s akin to missing the plank in our own eye.

          If you’re familiar at all with the reconciliation movement, Asian Americans are certainly not the only ones who detect a sense of cultural dominance and ignorance from the white evangelical church. Sadly, it is not uncommon for many groups to feel unheard and dismissed by majority groups (in this case, the white evangelicals). When we refuse to listen to those we wound, we end up doing even further damage.

          Kudos to Sam, Kathy, and Helen for their courage and willingness to pursue a healthy balance of respect for everyone in the body of believers, not just for the white folks who hold the microphones the most often.

          • Sorry, Jody, but I am a white male and a number of prominent individuals and groups consistently portray all white males as racist and stupid. I don’t take them seriously (even though I think they take themselves quite seriously). I’m not bothered by jokes about Scotsmen and the Irish, I’m not offended to be called “white male oppressor” (a group of feminists introduced that in a seminary chapel service!) or “cracker” or “homophobe” or “WASP” or a whole list of other stereotypical insults. I’m secure enough in my own identity, and in God’s love for me “just as I am” to not get worked up by someone trying to insult or provoke me. I will not think of myself as a victim.

          • First of all, Jody, thank you for your kind words. You get us! We value partners like for the greater cause of Christian unity. As for what Dave said below, I can’t speak for Kathy, Helen or Christine, but I too am confident in my identity in Christ. Being confident of one’s identity in Christ has nothing to do with pointing out faults in our faith community. In fact, we’re so confident of our identity in Christ that we gladly point out the problem of faith community in spite of many “Christian” hate mails we receive. We fully expected the backlash that came after the Rick Warren affair and received as much as we expected. Please don’t dismiss our effort as a lack of confidence in Christ. Just because whatever group says something racist (e.g. “cracker” etc.) does not excuse any such racist behavior against any other group. Stating that you aren’t offended contributes to no progress in the conversation here. After all, it is not about YOUR feeling or MY feeling. It is about the unity of the Body of Christ. I hope you see the corporate unity as equally important if not more important than your personal leanings. If not, you should because Christ did not call us as individual role models without calling us corporately into ONE BODY. Your strength is not given to be our role model. The strength given to us by our identity in Christ is meant for us to empathize with those who are not so strong. Their feelings matter in the overall scheme of Christian unity and mission. As for the hurtful slur by Vic against the Rev. Christine Lee below, I wish to distance myself from this kind of intolerant and graceless Christianity as far as the east is from the west.

  3. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

    Vic Christian

    You have got to be kidding? What about being forgiving??? Oh, I forgot, the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean-American Episcopal priest, who is disobedient to scripture by being a priest, is the proper role model to listen to…

      • Vic Christian

        If you read scripture you would know the answer. God commands His church to have male elder/pastors (priests) and forbids women to teach men in the church.

        • Misinterpretation of the meaning of that scripture. Studying the background culture and history of that time period. God is and never was against women preaching. It had to do what was going on at the time with that particular culture and their women. Get your facts straight please!!!

    • Danny Berry, NYC

      how can one “disobey scripture”? what does that mean? since everyone I know picks and chooses anyway, I doubt if the expression has a lot of meaning.

      • Vic Christian

        Danny – I am not sure what you mean by “picking and choosing”? Reading and rightly dividing the Word of Truth is necessary. Are you stating that what God gave us in His Word is not truth? If so, I cannot change your mind.

        • One quick example of the difficulty of correct, Spirit-led interpretation:

          Jesus himself says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Matthew, sermon on the mount) Most Christians I personally know, even those who abide by by the strictest interpretation (very conservative dispensationalists come to mind), still have both their eyes. (FYI, when I first read this as a new Christian, I considered seriously whether I should do this. So I’m not trying to poke fun at Scripture. I’m trying to illustrate that in Scripture, commands are given in such a way where you don’t have to take them at the American 20th century literal interpretation. Which is nice, since having two eyes – or even 1 eye, since if 1 caused you to sin, likely both caused you to sin – is pretty useful.)

          So the passages in Paul are troubling, and yes, I think we have to deal with those passages prayerfully and thoughtfully. We should also ask why American men aren’t stepping up more in the church. But I would say that a greedy, self-absorbed, insensitive church is a worst sin than a church with a godly woman in leadership because few godly men. Deborah was a godly judge, and did a great job (and also pronounced prophecy over Barak, her general). Priscilla and Aquila did a great job too. So there’s enough in Scripture to make Paul’s statements about women not as clear cut as we could wish.

        • Danny Berry, NYC

          you’re seriously not sure? you mean to tell me that you follow the letter of every single suggestion, exhortation and “commandment” in the bible? for real?

          as for equating every single word in the bible with the “Word of God,” well, that’s too absurd even to discuss.

          • Vic Christian

            Danny – if you are not a Christian, I do not expect you to know or understand the Bible as God’s Word. If you do profess to being a Christian, by what do you base that claim if not on the Bible.

        • You’ve strayed far away from the issue of the article, which is using people from a group other than your own to frame a joke. This issue is very close o many things that Jesus said, so I’m unclear as to why Christians of any persuasion,in particular people who hold Biblical guidance very dearly would either participate in this or condone it in others.

          • Dr. Mark Bear

            Miriam,

            Precisely! You have said everything that needs to be said! Thank you for allowing your light to shine!

    • Forgiveness means that you don’t hold someone’s sins or actions against them. Just because you forgive someone, doesn’t mean you can’t speak up and point out that something they did or said was offensive, hurtful, or discriminatory (whether it was intentional or not).

      In fact, Paul encourages accountability within the church, as seen in Galatians 6:1.

      And I don’t think it’s fair to judge those who are a part of an ethnic minority for requesting those of us who are not part of that minority when they ask us to stop doing things they perceive as being offensive. Keep in mind: as the minority group, they’re the ones who decide what is or isn’t an offensive or discriminatory portrayal of their culture. . . .

  4. I don’t think it’s helpful to put Rick Warren’s picture as the cover photo of this article. Unless it was actually him doing the things that were mentioned at Exponential, his picture obscures the greater issue inherent in this article, but never named. Rick Warren, at least, has apologized for his past offense. As a Chinese-American Christian, I’m concerned about this issue, but let’s give the Warrens a break this time around, they are going through enough. The broader question is, “what are the systemic causes of racism against Asian-Americans in the evangelical community broadly?” Your articles and coverage on this issue points to this question, but never actually quite get there.

    • He only apologized because of all of the backlash. Warren is a punk. He even mentioned if people take this seriously, they shouldnt be following him. Then “oh, people don’t like me, this is becoming bigger than I thought…I might lose members…” apology. Like with every dim-whitted thing he does; either apology or absolute denial.

      • Larry G. Gray

        Right on, April! Warren is an idiot. Christianity is nothing more than numbers to his ilk. Compassion is not anywhere in the picture. Have nothing to do with this wolf in sheep’s clothing!!

  5. I agree that this can be offensive to folks and things need to be better thought out, especially from the pulpit.

    It’s an unfortunate stereotype to have. Even as a white person I can relate to this (granted only on some level) as being someone from Appalachia. Why is it fine to characterize everyone from Appalachia as being toothless, dumb, and then make incest jokes? It’s not funny. Skits do it all the time

  6. @ Vic Christian – Misinterpretation of the meaning of that scripture. Study the background culture and history of that time period. God is and never was against women preaching. It had to do what was going on at the time with that particular culture and their women. Get your facts straight please!!

    • Vic Christian

      Jamie – the 12 Apostles were all men (chosen by God, not because they were better but due to His will) – his exhortation for elders was that they be men. I am sorry – but disagree with you on those passages being due to background culture or history. What other actions which we believe are sin are “explained away” buy culture or history?

      • I’m sorry Vic. It’s great that you hold your interpretation of the bible the only right way. And if it was just few years ago, I would have agreed with you. But over the years God had taught me how fallible that type of interpretation was. Maybe God will also help you to see that too. Some of the women pastors I have met are most God anointed pastors I have met. 12 disciples were not only men but also Jews. Thus, if you argue that way, only Jewish men should be priests or pastors. Because that interpretation was what you were taught, that doesn’t it make it right.

      • And there are plenty of women who were chosen by God… Let’s study out church history and women in the bible.
        Women were ordained as elders in early church. They had a different name in Greek… Which meant women elders. They did the same things as make elders… But when it was translated, it became simply “older women”
        When you study church history how early Christianity interpret the scripture … There’s a lot of difference. And also this topic is so far away from the original topic. Just because Christine lee is female korean priest, that does not make her not worth of hearing.

  7. Exponential leaders have responded with this blog post = Exponential Addressing Asian-American Leaders’ Concerns http://blog.exponential.org/2013/10/exponential-addressing-asian-american-leaders-concerns/

  8. Daniel Berry, NYC

    Just a general observation: my experience with “religious” people is that they’re generally either as nice or as mean as the gods they believe in. I see a lot in this thread supporting that idea. I think there’s probably not a meaner creature on earth than a righteous person.

      • Danny Berry, NYC

        I’ve never heard “God say” anything – and believe that anyone who thinks they do is mentally ill to one degree or another.

        More to the point, you and I understand the world and religious experience so differently that I’d say dialogue is highly unlikely to be fruitful.

        • Vic Christian

          Danny – I agree completely with your last statement. Since we have different perspectives on Jesus Christ and God’s Word – there is nothing we have as a common basis. Just fyi – I will be praying that God will show Himself and His truth to you at some time in your life. Thanks – and I appreciate your candor.

      • Vic,

        Apparently, you idolize the bible, and God cannot speak outside of what was said in the Bible – as interpreted by you. I do not believe this to be practicing Christianity, for it is not a worship of Christ, but a worship of a book.

        Try to deal with people as people. We exist in reality.

        Sincerely,
        A Christian.

        • Daniel Berry, NYC

          Good call–one of the things I was thinking about this person who sees the bible as a series of “commands” from his god. Idolatry straight up. I wonder what Vic makes of the horrible blood-thirsty god of the Judges – especially Samuel.

      • Actually if you read the Bible, and you look at Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees (who were the righteous people of the day), it seems to me that Jesus would agree with Mr. Berry’s comment about “righteous” people.

        • Daniel Berry, NYC

          Yes you can see some mean “righteousness” in the Pharisees, who believed that the rigor with which they kept the Law made them righteous. But even more interesting is looking at the history of religious wars, revolutions, reformations, inquisitions, crusades, fatwahs (Christianity certainly has no corner on the market of self-fancied righteousness) to see, perhaps, the ugliest episodes in human history – all in the name of righteousness.

  9. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, were you at this conference (Exponential West 2013) hosted by Saddleback Church Oct 8-10? Did you see the video clip in question?

  10. Sarah, Thanks for writing this article and its definitely something that is always dismissed or overlooked or “Asians need to get over it” type of attitude.

    I don’t think these actions were intended to be malicious but just out of ignorance which we are all capable of and can learn from our mistakes.

    Just because something does not directly impact/offend us does not make it permissible. Rick Warren apologized for the mistake and I believe he did the right thing by acknowledging it.

  11. Really long sorry, but yeah ss a Black person/minority I understand what Lee is talking about that is why being passive – aggressive needs to stop among the Asian race. And no that idiot wouldn’t have done that to us. Let’s be honest whites are more likely to have a problem with Mexicans, Muslims, and us because we are known NOT to be passive-aggressive we will tell them that we are offended. Whites as a whole love Asians so much because not all(my friends are not at all passive-aggressive they will set a racist straight no matter the race) but many will just take it. Plus dealing with shit hasn’t helped because Hollywood which is majority white offends Asians all of the time because they are like Asians as a whole are not going to say anything.

    And to stop dealing with this racism you guys have to stand up for yourselves towards whites, my race, any race so racism like this doesn’t happen… as much.

    I love Asian people, but this dealing with racism has not helped. I myself am tired of Asians being underrepresented in Hollywood, the Model Industry(because let’s be honest some Asian Men are incredibly good looking Dae Na you need to holler at a sister) and dealing with racism so I know you guys have to be even more tired right? I mean you guys should be going on a strike or making petitions against Spike Lee’s(who is an embarrassment of all of us and I will no longer support him) version of Oldboy. Spike Lee should have used Will Yun Lee or Rick Yune or a Korean actor period he has nerve.

  12. I find some of the offenses if not all of them to be quite ridiculous. The image that Pastor Warren posted did not seem to be stereotypical to an entire ethnic group, but to a very specific and specialized group of military personnel, that happened to be of Asian decent. The Karate Kid parody sounds to me like just that a parody of a film that stared a very talented Asian actor, should that parody have mimicked his voice, perhaps not. But still it was the movie, and not an entire group of people that it referenced. As far as getting mad over a book that has to do with Kung-Fu using Asian imagery, this is absolutely absurd. Kung-Fu as well as the majority of martial arts forms that I know of, come from Asian culture…what is the big deal?

    • Dr. Mark Bear

      And yet, we have the scriptures, the very Word we as Believers proclaim we believe with 100 percent infallibility, exhorting and admonishing us, in I Tim. 4:12, Rom 14:12, and I Cor 8:9, that if we are an offense to our brother, it ought to concern us. So, why the marginalization of the complaint? I can assure you of this much: In that great day, when placed before the throne of God, He will not be so concerned about our opinion, as to whether something was or was not offensive, as much as the individual offended!

  13. Asian-American brothers and sisters…reality-check: they don’t like you. Some may be sympathetic and lend a kind ear, and maybe tolerate you. But, you’ll never be their equal, capisce?

    And, usually the only reason why they hang with us, is to try to oof Asian girls. Prove me wrong! Think about every haole guy who hangs out w/ Asians and who he’s oofing? Prove me wrong!

    Get away from the haole man, who will always see us as the perpetual foreigner (no matter how many generations) and are angry all because we use a hyphen to define our heritage and lambast us for not being “American” enough. We’re damned if we do, etc…

    We ARE Americans! Don’t ever let anyone tell you different. We don’t need their validation and approval. Stand up and take away their “chink” privileges, just as the blacks did w/ the “n-word”.

    • DRAGON…This is wholly offensive and completely ignorant. And for someone to claim that a group of people are being racist and prejudicial and in the same sentence use a negative slur for that group of people (Haole) completely discredits anything else that person says…BTW if you are going to use an offensive term and are claiming Asian heritage as your basis for discrimination of white people I am sure there are plenty of words from your own culture to use instead of borrowing a Hawaiian word. Don’t stir stuff up, stuff is stirred up enough with out willfully ignorant people (of any race) adding to it.

      • With all due respect…I don’t see anything discriminating in what I wrote, Jason. I’m just writing the truth. And, I find your outrage in all this quite absurd, and you should probably lighten-up and get over it.

        “BTW if you are going to use an offensive term and are claiming Asian heritage as your basis for discrimination of white people I am sure there are plenty of words from your own culture to use instead of borrowing a Hawaiian word.”

        *facepalm*

        Oh, for Chrissakes. 3 guesses as to where I’m from, Jason. Or, would you rather I figure out how I should say it in my grandparent’s mother tongue…since, I couldn’t possibly be an American from a US state that uses a popular term from there to describe caucasians.

        I give up.

  14. No its not okay to make Asians the target of racial caricatures and then say “just kidding get over it.” Its even more hypocritical coming from a so called “Christian”.

    For those in the “its just a joke” camp, lets identify a statement that you would find offensive and then tell you to “just get over it.” The “just kidding” line is the standard cover when someone says something offensive. The follow up is always to retaliate against the victim by saying they have no right to complain. I think you know that and you either support or just don’t care about racism probably like Warren. Asians and any one else that has enough integrity to care should boycott Warren and his sleazy act.

  15. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, I’m a 2nd generation Korean Canadian… but I’m not really offended by any of this. Are we getting too sensitive? As a Christian, I do confess that my identity is secure in Christ.

    I do see the importance of racial equality, not stereotyping and not condoning any sort of the mentioned behavior… my personal opinion is that it (what happened at the conference) is just silly… but seriously, are we too easily offended?

    Just throwing a bone out there. Sorry if I offended anyone :-D

    • Dr. Mark Bear

      Hi Jacob,

      I really do not believe it has anything to do with whether one’s identity is secure in Christ. Even Peter, who was by all standards secure in his own identity in Christ, up on that rooftop, during his dream or vision, did not wish to partake of the food because he felt it unclean! That is, while he perhaps did not offend anyone publicly with his issue, he did suffer from prejudicial inclinations which he most certainly was corrected for, by the Spirit of God.

  16. geez, could it be that Christians are really racists who codify anything nonwhite as nonchristian? religion is a good cover for not examining your own faults.

  17. Comment marked as low quality by the editors. Show comment

    Alice Zindagi

    What it ultimately boils down to is that Asians are the antithesis to white archetypes. Whites are sporty, all-American, Midwestern-to-California types who charm everyone
    with their perfect smiles and pretty hair? Then Asians are the meek, permanently foreign types with buck teeth and bowl-cut hair. Whites are social creatures who would rather hang out at the local diner or tailgate a football game than stay at home studying? Then Asians would just stay at home studying. Some of it is positive. Some of it is negative. But stereotypes are still stereotypes nonetheless.

    This is especially problematic for Asian men, because if the white male sexual archetype is a tall, muscley fellow with chiseled good looks and a manly sized package, then the antithetical Asian is a short, scrawny dork who’s rocking a bent Tic-Tac:

    http://www.abcsofattraction.com/blog/what-women-think-of-asian-stereotypes-the-nerdy-asian/

    I think it is important that Asian guys remember these stereotypes are only bandied about as a defense mechanism from jealous white people in an attempt to “keep the Asian man down,” which I would take as a compliment if I were an Asian guy and considered a threat to white male hegemony.

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