I found this story fascinating to watch unfold.
On Monday, Rick Warren, the famous pastor of Saddleback Church, posted this image and wrote this with it:
“The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.”
Unfortunately, the image is a propaganda poster used by the Mao Zedong regime during the Great Leap Forward, a brutal four-year campaign from 1958-1961 in Chinese history that resulted in the deaths of over 40 million people.
So I created this cartoon based on a Nazi youth propaganda poster from WW2. Why not? There are parallels.
Warren took down the Facebook and Twitter of this post, but not until it had been live for over nine hours on Monday.
His “apology” is being accused of not being an apology at all. It seems this kind of apology is increasingly popular among Christian leaders lately. Warren responded:
“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 certain laugh lines – jokes – in the Sermon on the Mount? The self-righteous miss them all while the disciples were undoubtedly giggling.”
Dr. Sam Tsang, an Asian-American academic who has extensive overseas teaching experience, wrote a passionate and intelligent response to Warren. Here’s just a part of his post:
“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 also appreciate Kathy Khang’s response, an American of Korean descent (I corrected this from “Korean Christian blogger” after she kindly contacted me. Thanks Kathy!). It is mixed with offense, anger and some genuine humor. It points out the problem with Warren’s original post and his response to the public reaction. She didn’t find it funny. And she found his “apology” condescending. Her most powerful sentence: “… genocide always looks better when it’s smiling & perfectly-coiffed.” I also like her very valid point that if we are constantly warning our children that what they put online stays online and has consequences, then why aren’t the adults minding the same principle? Just because Warren took it down doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that the attitude behind it has disappeared.
Many say it shows cultural insensitivity. Some suggest it betrays racism. So there are concerns around Warren’s soon to open church plant in Hong Kong.
There is confusion over why he would use this image. Are they taking over the world? Is Warren a dictator? Is he leading a communist style regime? Are they using propaganda to promote their ideology? Was this for the Chinese Saddleback Church staff to inspire them to evangelize all of China, starting with Hong Kong?
Of course Warren wouldn’t use a Nazi propaganda poster. He’s familiar with western history. But he did use a Mao Zedong propaganda poster. Because maybe he’s not as familiar with Asian history.
I’m sure Pastor Warren had in his mind, “I love my staff and they work hard. I want to encourage them today. And I want people to know how great it is to work here. I know! I’ll get an inspirational picture of a smiling person all gung-ho to work! Ah, this one’s perfect!” Probably little thought went into it. He was just looking for an inspirational picture to send a lighthearted and encouraging message to his staff, as well as inform the world that Saddleback Church is an awesome place to work. But that’s the problem. Like many jokes, little thought went into it. But if Warren would just admit that something like this happened, it would help heal the wounds he inflicted. It’s better to apologize for not thinking and being culturally insensitive than insisting that you did nothing wrong. It perhaps suggests that the cultural insensitivity is closer to racism.
Being a famous public figure has its responsibilities and its consequences. One responsibility is to speak truth. One consequence is to apologize when you don’t.