Oh man. I don’t know if I should be writing this. I’m supposed to be busy writing the manuscript for my first book…which is already late. But hey, I need a writing break and what’s a better way to take a break from writing by writing. Ok, not really.
As I’ve checked my Twitter feed yesterday, there appears to have been a controversy surrounding Pastor Rick Warren and this photo below that he posted on his Facebook and Twitter (It has since been removed). The photo was posted this past Monday morning as a joke by Pastor Rick (or someone from his staff?) and was meant to make comparisons of his staff to the People’s Liberation Army aka Red Guard, aka Red Army, aka These Folks Did Some Scary & Cruel Stuff:
“The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
Before I comment on this, let me first say that I have much love and respect for Pastor Rick. While I haven’t been a huge fan of his Hawaiian shirts, let he that has perfect fashion sense cast the first stone. So, I’ll drop my stones.
Seriously, Pastor Rick has been influential to many; He’s been a mentor to many – locally, nationally, and globally. And with the personal tragedy of the death of his son, he has been on the hearts of many. Like many other pastors and leaders, I took a moment to pray for Pastor Rick and Kay Warren at my church on that Sunday morning (the day after news broke of his son’s suicide).
Their vulnerability of both their pain and hope on a very recent Piers Morgan interview (CNN) was a source of deep ministry to many. It was raw, painful, courageous, and beautiful.
In addition, Pastor Rick has been a personal encouragement to me. While I’ve never had much substantive time with him, he’s always been kind and warm on the occasions we’ve spoken at similar events. He even took the time to write a personal tweet that very much encouraged me since he didn’t have to at all. I unashamedly retweeted it.
So, what’s the issue with the picture?
Well, I think it’s best for me to first direct you to others that have taken the time to craft up more articulate posts about why that photo was offensive and painful. Let me point you to three:
- Rick Warren, Cultural Sensitivity, and Mission – by Dr. Sam Tsang // This is one of the best and thorough (and pastoral) explanation.
- Dear Pastor Rick Warren, I Think You Don’t Get It – Kathy Khang // In a way that only Kathy can articulate.
- It would not be funny if I said that Rick Warren was the ‘Rick’ in ‘Rickshaw Rally’. // Hmm. That title…
They are all important reads and worth your time.
Some of you may ask, “Why are you bringing attention to this?” or “Why would you throw Pastor Rick under the bus?”
First of all, no one’s throwing anyone under the bus. There’s no attempt to embarrass or shame anyone. So, stop with that. Let me explain to you three simple reflections for me in response to this situation. There’s more but I don’t have time so let’s just stick with three for the time being.
This is a learning opportunity.
We’re all learning.
We all make mistakes.
We all have blind spots.
We can’t possibly know everything about everything.
Even if our intent was to be funny, or honoring, or whatever…sometimes, we just don’t know everything.
I don’t question Pastor Rick’s intent. He’s a funny guy and seeks to engage his supporters and fans around the world (particularly with social media) but the photo was a poor attempt at humor. It was a mistake but as I see it, we can also do away with the accusations of racism because I can’t possibly see how one can infer racist intent and motivation.
So, what’s the issue with the photo?
Well, consider these words from Dr. Sam Tsang that captures the essence of why this hit a nerve for me and many:
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.
You see, we all have blind spots and in a fast changing society, cultural intelligence and sensitivity is a must – and especially so for church leaders.
I was speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary last year (my alma mater) at an event hosted by the Asian-American students and when I brought up the controversies surrounding Rickshaw Rally and Deadly Vipers, no one batted an eye. They had either mastered the art of sleeping through lectures with their eyes open or they had no clue what I was talking about.
Nope. They had no clue. Needless to say, I was a bit shocked and disappointed.
Yo listen. No one likes being “that person” that brings up certain issues but we can’t pass up these learning opportunities and we need to keep educating our children, our churches, and even our leaders.
We raise our voices because we love the Church.
When these sort of issues are often raised, the pushback is often swift and mighty:
Get thicker skin!
There are many more things I’ve heard over the years. One of these days, I’ll share what you should NOT say (and why) but I want to explain to you why the likes of Dr. Tsangs, Kathy Khangs, Christina Clevelands, and the Soong Chan Rahs take the energy and time to write and engage these conversations.
Let me be clear: They are not fun. They are not life giving. They might be good for some extra blog traffic but they are not good for our larger reputations. Every few months, I still get the occasional random angry email referring to me as a “book burner” because of my role in un-publishing Deadly Vipers. For the record, I hate being called a “book burner.”
But I want you to know that we share these things because at the core…we love the Church. It’s not just your Church, or their Church, but it’s also our Church and we love the Church because it is all grace. We are part of the Body of Christ. And because we love the Church, we want to help the Church - by God’s grace – to more deeply reflect, embody, and pursue God’s Kingdom.
We also share these things because we have deep respect for the likes of Rick Warrens and other leaders (notable or not) and we want to sharpen our fellow co-laborers and leaders. Why? Because if I make intentional errors, I hope folks would care for me enough to correct me. If I make unintentional errors, I pray that folks would care for me enough to engage me.
We engage these conversations – while admittedly at times with tiredness – with a spirit of love because we believe we’re speaking to family and because they reflect the values that are consistent to the thread of justice and dignity that run through the narrative of God’s story.
Take time to listen. Really listen.
No one likes criticism. No one. And when we receive them, it’s tempting to simply dismiss them, get defensive, or altogether ignore them.
I’m not suggesting that one needs to acquiesce to every concern, complaint, blogpost, petition, or request that may come before you but shouldn’t we prayerfully consider them – especially when they are accompanied with respect and care from folks in your larger family? What I’m simply suggesting is that we take time to listen. Really listen. And in listening, to truly consider the possibility of our blind spots.
It’s never too early and never too late to apologize. This is why I was so encouraged that after 2 days, Pastor Rick apologized to one of the bloggers above:
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.May the grace of Jesus be your experience today. Thanks again! Your servant, Rick Warren.
P.S. In 1979, Kay and I felt called of God to serve in China but we were prevented by the government at that time. I had already been a part of planting a church near Nagasaki, Japan where I lived in 1974. When our plans were blocked, we ended up planting Saddleback in California.
I concur with Dr. Sam Tsang and commend Pastor Rick in receiving what was shared.
“Today I received and accepted Pastor Rick Warren’s apology. If you wish to see it, it’s still on my previous blog. I think it speaks volumes about him. I must admit that I didn’t expect a personal apology stated publicly on my blog. For that reason, I want to leave the blog up for historical record to show that a good man is good not because he is right all the time but because he owns up to this mistakes. I think he’s doing the best he can in his response. Of course, I’m still a bit confused about the joke in the original post…”
So, props and kudos to Pastor Rick Warren. That takes humility and leadership. Thank you!
…and it’s my sincere hope that he might take the time to share that apology publicly on his respective social media channels since that was the playground for the initial attempt at humor and explain to his fans/supporters why he chose to remove the posts. As you’ve been committed to mentoring and discipling thousands upon thousands of people around the world, may you continue that commitment.
Why is this important?
Because it needs to be a(nother) learning opportunity for many and we all have much to learn. This is part of the journey of discipleship and discipleship is something we should all be in agreement about.