Eugene Cho

pete hoekstra and cultural intelligence: why it matters to the church


Did you see Michigan Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s political campaign ad during the Super Bowl?

As you read in my previous post, I had some choice words about Go Daddy, Teleflora and other companies that continue to objectify and exploit women but I hadn’t seen Hoekstra’s ad.

Well, I just saw it…and I almost vomited in my mouth. Almost. Those chicken wings I consumed during the Super Bowl wanted to come back up. Check it out:

I know the questions you’re asking:

Is Hoekstra racist? No. And I’d rather not go there in this post because once you do, you miss the deeper conversations we all need to have.

Was the commercial racist? One could debate back and forth but one thing that’s absolutely clear is the complete lack of  cultural sensitivity and cultural intelligence displayed in the commercial. If you click on the actual website, it gets even worse. Yes, I said worse. – as in “I’ve never seen anything like this from a public official – ever” worse. Complete with caricatures that will make up for some great material for sociologists.  Absolutely mind-boggling.

And yes, I just did vomit that chicken.

Why does this matter? Why is this so critical – including for the Church? Yes, it’s true: These portrayals will likely continue to happen. Incidents like Lady Chinky Eyes – sadly – will continue to take place but imagine the pain of these incidents happening in the Church. I recently spent some time discussing and sharing with my good friends Helen Lee and Soong-Chan Rah about the important but not often discussed topic and commitment of cultural intelligence. Helen Lee is a writer, journalist, and author of the book, The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home & in the World. Soong-Chan Rah is a professor at North Park Seminary and the author of The Next Evangelicalism and Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church.

Here’s a summation of what we wrote together. It’s a must read introduction to a very critical conversation for all – but especially to leaders, pastors, and influencers:

What is your Cultural IQ?

Imagine this scenario occurring in your workplace. It’s your company’s annual corporate retreat, and in a misguided attempt to inject humor into the event, your leaders present a skit in which they all pretend to be disabled in some way.

They hobble around with awkward positions, as if paralyzed or unable to use particular limbs; they exaggerate their speech and behavior to grossly characterize those who have communication difficulties, and all these representations are done in a mocking and demeaning way, to garner a few laughs.

How about the Church?

No modern-day corporation would do this. And yet, in the context of Christian organizations and churches, similar situations still occur.

We recently witnessed a sermon video in which the pastor of a large, multi-site church in Minnesota brought an Asian man on stage representing a “samurai” and had him sit before the congregation, stone-faced and silent, while the pastor flailed his arms in a cartoonish imitation of karate moves while yelling random Asian-sounding gibberish, then banged a loud gong in an attempt to rattle the “samurai’s focus.”

As word of the video spread through the Asian American community and beyond, the church took it down but chose to ignore repeated overtures for dialogue from Asian-American Christians. In our fictional scenario above, this would be equivalent to the company leaders hearing rumblings from people who were offended with their dramatic representations and responding:

“It doesn’t matter what you think. We are the leaders, and it’s our choice how and what we want to communicate. If you didn’t like it, it’s not our problem.”

The church’s motivation may have been well intentioned; like many others before them who have co-opted another culture to serve their own purposes, they were aiming to be “relevant,” “engaging,” “creative,” “cool,” “hip.” But this sermon reflected none of those qualities, revealing instead an extreme lack of cultural intelligence.

For those who are passionate about the future of Christian leadership, for those who seek to or who already influence a group of followers, we have a prediction: more so than “emotional intelligence” or cognitive ability, your leadership prowess will be largely affected by how much cultural intelligence you possess and demonstrate.

What is cultural intelligence?

Our nation is moving rapidly towards racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, and American Christianity is bearing witness to these dramatic changes. Workplaces, congregations, conferences, and readerships are all changing to reflect this reality, but Christian leaders are lagging behind in attaining the cultural intelligence they need in order to navigate through this multi-cultural reality.

Cultural intelligence is not merely gaining intellectual knowledge about another culture. Just because you like samurai/ninja culture and have seen Kung Fu movies does not mean that you possess cultural intelligence. Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect.

Without cultural intelligence, a leader runs the risk of caricaturing other cultures, as in the church’s example above. You cannot appropriately represent a culture that you have not taken the time to know or understand. And when you attempt to do so, you not only dishonor those who are a part of the culture you are diminishing, but you also dishonor the One who has created every tongue, tribe, and nation to begin with.

None of us can claim perfect understanding of the wonderful diversity that exists both around the globe and even within our own country. But Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation, and Christian leaders are the ones who need to step forward in the hard work of developing cultural intelligence.

What are steps that leaders can take to increase their cultural IQ?

Here are three simple ways to begin:

  • Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to new cultural experiences that you have never tried–foods, styles of worship, entertainment, for example. As you normalize the discomfort of new cultural experiences, your sensitivity for those cultures will increase.
  • Examine your personal relationships: how often do you spend time with those from a different cultural background? If your relationships overly homogeneous, how can you expand your relational horizons?
  • Ask someone from a different culture to mentor you. As you meet leaders who speak into your spiritual and emotional life from a different cultural context, your understanding of our changing world will expand.

Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility.

You can be “relevant” or you can be a reconciler: make the intelligent choice.

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38 Responses

  1. Greg says:

    Can you help me raise my cultural IQ? What exactly in that ad did you find offensive?

  2. worinld says:

    Part of me feels like Asians will always be the easy ones to make fun of, because there’s so little media and organizational backlash. we need a naacp for other colors.

    @greg, as an asian, I find a few things about the ad offensive.
    1) the depiction of rice paddy’s, because that really represents China.
    2) she’s wearing normal westernized clothes but, oh, she has that hat on her neck so, yeah, she must be chinese.
    3) the actress speaks pretty darn good english, but oh no, she has to say crap like “your economy get very weak, ours get very good” oh, all of a sudden she has to use classic ‘asian bad grammar’ to show she’s really chinese?

  3. Terri C. says:

    The ad plays up out-dated stereotypes that are supposed to be Chinese but are the imagery of rice paddies and the hat are more reminiscent of Vietnam than China. I found that disturbing. China isn’t full of rice paddies – maybe in parts of Canton in the south, but that is one corner of the country. Same goes for that style of hat.

    This leads into what lonetomato808 says about the yellow peril propaganda of the 50s. Take that propaganda and the imagery: for a certain generation, it will remind them vaguely of the war that they were drafted to fight in their youth.

    Otherwise, if he’s trying to make a point about spending here that bolsters the Chinese economy, why not use footage of current day Shanghai or Chongqing or Chengdu or any of the other industrial cities? Why resort to using something that isn’t real? Fear is easier induced with vague generalities that point at something unknown. Real cities and people wouldn’t be as scary.

  4. dborgergermann says:

    Wow, thanks for this post. As a pastor and father to a Latino boy and an African American boy, I’m deeply unsettled by the dominant (ie loudest) expressions of the North American church when it comes to race. I confess I’m still very much struggling with what it all means to give witness to the kingdom in our heavily racialized culture.

    Who’s up for reclaiming the _real_ subversive and offensive nature of the Kingdom of God? Like inviting politicians and clergy to admit when they’ve employed racial stereotypes to advance their agendas.

    Let’s not forget it was the clergy and politicians who conspired to kill Jesus because he threatened our treasured conceptions of power, privilege, race, land, and (gulp!) class. Where else are we blind? Where else do we miss the practices and posture that best embody the Kingdom of God? Lord, have mercy.

  5. Chae Choi says:

    The thing that bothers me the most. The Asian-American actress in the commercial agreed to do this.

  6. dmowen says:

    I agree with Terri C. above. The ad is so lacking in cultural intelligence that I missed the point that it was supposed to represent China. After watching it the first time I thought, “Wait… Is Vietnam a major buyer of US government debt?! Is there something I don’t know about?”

  7. Erick says:

    Thanks for posting this, I had not seen the ad until now…wow. Thank you, Helen and Soong-Chan for sharing your thoughts on raising a cultural IQ as well. Good call. Did Soong-Chan tell you about the ‘jelly beans’?

  8. Josh Roberts says:

    Thanks for posting Eugene. It’s been a while since I’ve visited and am glad I did. I didn’t see this “ad” until I came by. Will do my part to get the word out.

  9. Adrian says:

    Great post Eugene… thanks for calling attention to this! I’d add that cultural intelligence goes deep into issues of the heart, and how people really feel about minorities, whether in ethnicity or gender. I wanted to pass on a fantastic article that three of my colleagues wrote about the various heart “postures” those in the majority culture might assume, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s a must-read in my opinion for anyone seeking to increase their cultural IQ:

    Thanks again for the post!

  10. Kaitlyn Kim says:

    watch the glee episode “spanish teacher.” cultural competency has many levels and this just shows we have far to go.

  11. chrisbscott25 says:

    Couldn’t agree more..

    I just sat through a church service that was supposed to be about martyrs in Iraq and ended up being about why muslims are the enemy. I think we need to mature past our dualistic, us vs. them, paradigms and realize that our enemies are not people. We need to not just be aware of people who are different, we need to know them, and even love them. As I talked with people at the church who also attended the service they were oblivious to the fact that the content not only alienated outsiders and Muslims, but stereotyped them and encouraged us to fear them much like this completely insensitive campaign video. How did we get so far from Christ’s teachings? Why are people so unaware of their cultural naiveté? Thanks for bringing up this stuff and standing up against it!

  12. […] lot of very well respected and intelligent people have already posted their responses to this advertisement – I suggest you read them first, and then come back and read this one […]

  13. […] eugene cho – pete hoekstra and cultural intelligence and why it matters to the church […]

  14. […] bridge cultural and generational divides. Anyone interested in that event might also want to read this post on cultural intelligence, collectively written by Rah, Eugene Cho, and Helen Lee in response to a campaign ad in […]

  15. Frank tan says:

    Since the article encourages us in the church to think through what may or may not be happening. I’ll state that the “American” church can be consistently oblivious to cultural sensitivities, due to their own pre-occuopation with their own dominant cultural stereotypes, or what they perceived as “American racial issues”—usually limited to the White vs. Black issue. Even with the growing Hispanic majority, the church doesn’t seem to know what to do with this culture.

    Case in point. Several years ago very few Evangelicals, outside of Asian American bloggers, brought up the fact that many Asians were offended when a major curriculum publisher came out with a VBS kit that focused on the Far East, and depicted outdated and stereotypical perceptions of how Asians live, as well as make the mistake of lumping distinct Asian cultures together. If that were a mistake on White vs. Black, then I’m sure the discussion would have been thorough, instead of just dismissing and omitting the issue.

  16. […] Cho, along with Helen Lee and Soong-Chan Rah, have written recently about the need for cultural sensitivity within society in general, but in the ….  Prompted by the airing of a political campaign ad from Pete Hoelkstra presenting negative […]

  17. David BG says:

    Any chance you might write or respond to this related story?

    would love to hear your thoughts.

  18. […] Eugene Cho wrote a thoughtful post and ended with: Instead, a leader with a high cultural IQ has developed a sensitivity to other cultures and handles those cultural contexts with honor and respect…Cultural change is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The leaders who will have the biggest impact in this shifting cultural landscape are those who possess a teachable spirit, flexibility, and humility….You can be “relevant” or you can be a reconciler: make the intelligent choice. […]

  19. Mark DiMeglio says:

    More than once I have heard VPs, Directors and Executives where I work use the phrase of a “come to Jesus meeting.” It bristles.

  20. […] that the Church ought to be safe place – for people from all cultures and customs. During an earlier post I shared about Pete Hoekstra (Senate candidate) and cultural sensitivity, I made this […]

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