Rick Warren Busts a Gut Over Cultural Revolution

Last Monday, Rick Warren posted a photo on his Facebook of a Red Guard with the caption, “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day,” which received thousands of “likes.”

When confronted by some of his Facebook followers for making light of a group that publicly tortured and murdered teachers, intellectuals, and everyday civilians on the flimsiest of excuses, Warren reacted by blaming his followers for having no sense of humor:

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!

Warren, possibly America’s most influential evangelical, clearly views his sense of humor as a crucial part of his pastor persona (his defensiveness even echoes comedian Daniel Tosh’s in the wake of an incredibly insensitive rape “joke” last year).

At any rate, Warren, who is on the cusp of opening an international branch of Saddleback Church in Hong Kong (as well as one in Berlin and one in Buenos Aires), rethought his position after reading this post by Hong Kong Baptist Professor Sam Tsang:

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?  Or does he mean merely “onward Christian soldier”?  Or perhaps Mr. Warren just thinks that the female Chinese soldier is as attractive as his staff?

Humor is so tricky.  Of course, following the posting of this picture and its caption, few angry responses followed.  Here’s one … “Is this a joke? Are those at saddleback really this culturally ignorant?” … well, yes! The positive responses supporting Mr. Warren is however overwhelming though.  The running logic of most supportive posts go something like this, “Pastor, you’re such an inspiration to us.  That was funny.  You people [whoever they are] need to get over yourselves.  You don’t get humor.  We can’t seem to say anything funny without offending someone these days in our PC society etc.”  The number of supportive and sometimes racist posts outnumber those who advice caution.  I can’t suspect such hideous posts are all from Saddleback membership.  I’m sure quite a number are.  It’s as disturbing as it is disgusting.

Warren commented on Tsang’s article, “Thanks so much for teaching us! It was removed instantly.” However, Warren did not get around to posting a formal, public apology until the next day, once again, via Facebook:

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.

It’s hard not to get the sense from Warren’s delay in apologizing that he viewed a very serious failure of cultural competency on his part as an ephemeral, temporary issue, deserving of only a brief note, rather than some serious soul-searching.

American evangelicals have shown a distinct cultural insensitivity to Asians and Asian-Americans in the past. In 2009, Evangelical book giant Zondervan published, “Deadly Viper: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership,” which basically invoked every stereotype ever thought of about Asians. To be fair, Zondervan was more apologetic than Warren when confronted: they immediately pulled the book from stores.

Still, if both America’s most popular evangelical and most powerful book publisher make such bizarre and egregious errors of intercultural understanding, it’s little wonder that most American churches remain segregated along racial and cultural lines.