Orientalization is an objective offence: answering our objectors

Orientalization is an objective offence: answering our objectors September 30, 2013

Last week, one of the big stories in evangelical news concerned a fairly heated conversation that Asian American and Hong Kong evangelicals have been having about Rick Warren’s Red Guard Facebook photo. Unintentionally, this blog participated in bringing this issue to a wider public. The story was also picked up by the news media, keeping the issue public even while Warren has deleted the photo, issued a response on one of the most visible bloggers’ blog, and apologized conditionally on his public Facebook wall.

The question that some have asked us is: now that there has been an apology, why have we left our blog posts up?

Our answer has been that it is important to maintain the integrity of the public record. But this is not enough for some who object to what we are doing. For our objectors, that sort of answer is a secular one, that to be public is to be ‘worldly’ (as opposed to being ‘churchly’) and that to be on the record is to fail to love Warren; after all, doesn’t St. Paul tell us that ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ (1 Cor. 13.5 NIV)? Accordingly, their charge against us is that we are not being Christian. Here are some of the more popular ones that I hear:

  • Rick Warren has done a lot of good for the kingdom. By leaving the posts up, you are damaging his ministry by tarnishing his reputation. He took down his post and apologized. Shouldn’t you take down your post before you wreck his ministry?
  • I’m not offended. I’m sorry if you were. Even so, Rick Warren has apologized because you are part of the group of highly sensitive people that was offended. Shouldn’t you stop focusing on yourself and your pride and refocus on Jesus?
  • If you keep the post up, all that the outside, non-Christian world will see is Christians bickering. That is a poor witness, and you are making it worse. How will the world understand us by our love? How will the church be able to reach the world for Jesus when all we do is fight?
  • You need to reconcile with Rick Warren. Reconciliation can only happen when you forgive him. Forgiveness means that you have to wipe the slate clean, just like God does with our sin.
  • I am not perfect. Rick Warren is not perfect. You are not perfect. Who are you to judge Rick Warren? You would never want to be judged like you judge him. That’s why Jesus says not to judge.

What our objectors want is a theological answer. This is it.

The short answer is: we have left the posts up because we are Christians, and our theology is orthodox.

In the late modern world, Christians who practice orthodox theologies have often felt themselves besieged by a world that no longer believes that truth is objective. Objective truth means that what is true exists outside of one’s subjective experience and remains true despite attempts to subvert it in favour of alternate ideologies, especially powerful political interests. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the modern loss of this sensibility the ‘dictatorship of relativism,’ the notion that in a world where truth is merely reduced to one’s individual perspective, then the stories that are told in that society will be co-opted by powerful individuals and institutions with the ability to stamp their version of truth onto the world and call that ‘the truth.’ For those of our critics who are uncomfortable with a Catholic citation, note well that this has also been a common evangelical complaint, one that is often heard in apologetics classes written by Josh McDowell, church-state relations seminars using the work of Charles Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (oops, I did it again: another Catholic!), taught especially by the neo-Reformed tribe to defend their allegiance to the Gospel’s propositional truths, and generally complained about by culture warriors opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, ideologized public education, and the encroachment of the state onto matters of religious freedom. Although the writers of this particular blog have often felt that the theological divisions between Catholics and evangelicals are becoming increasingly artificial, we grant for the readers of this particular post that they are still separate ecclesial entities. And yet they agree on one core contention: that truth is objective.

Without stating our position on the above culture war issues, we affirm as orthodox Christians that we believe in the objectivity of truth.

From Kathy Khang’s reflection on Warren’s public apology, we know that Khang believes strongly in the objectivity of truth. After all, she meant what she said when she wrote that she ’emailed Rick Warren and there is no “if”.’ She is saying that her being offended by the image is not merely a subjective feeling. Unlike Professor Sam Tsang, neither Khang nor her Korean American family had any connection with the Cultural Revolution. So too, Tsang, who spent the last weekend preaching at a retreat hosted by a pan-Asian American church whose origins are Japanese American, told me (and I quote with his permission), ‘I heard from my Japanese brothers and sisters when I preached this weekend. loud and clear, We’re with you!‘ These non-Chinese Asian Americans had no subjective reason to be offended. But they were. This is because the offence was objective.

Screenshot via me

What was objective about the offence was its complicity with a process of orientalization Orientalization is the process by which ‘orientals’ are made. ‘Orientals’ are a collective image of Asians and Asian Americans as collectively different from persons from the West, a set of images that regards them (as Edward Said famously put it) as static, backward, conservative, kinship-oriented, and immutably exotic. As theologian J. Kameron Carter describes it, orientalizing ideologies have been responsible for the problem of race in modern theology, including (as he fascinatingly makes the argument) the enslavement and subsequent subjectification of African Americans in American life. This is because modern orientalizing ideologies conveniently located those of different coloured skins from ‘white’ Europeans as inferiorly different, which meant that they could be colonized, traded as objects, and subordinated into inferior positions. Indeed, despite recent conflicts in the last twenty years between Asian Americans and African Americans, scholars and activists of race have long recognized that their common experience of racialization should have made it easy to develop solidarities between the two groups. That solidarity is hard to come by is a subject for another discussion.

Screenshot via me

The point, though is that orientalization was, is, and continues to be a process of continual offence, regardless of how it is received subjectively. This puts to rest the notion that the offensive Facebook photo could not have been offensive because some Asians and Asian Americans–perhaps even a large swath of them–were not subjectively offended by the post.

No, we believe in the objectivity of truth.

Accordingly, we observe that the initial Facebook photo post was offensive because it objectively objectified Asians and Asian Americans. This was an offence because it treated Asians and Asian Americans as objects, not as persons. There is a difference. A person is someone with whom one shares communion. A person has agency to converse, has the ability to either agree or to disagree, is capable of talking back and thinking and walking together with people with whom he or she can relate in the myriad of ways that persons can. An object has no agency. An object cannot be communed with. An object has no agency to converse, has no ability to either agree or disagree, is incapable of talking back and thinking and relating. Orientalization is the process of reducing Asians and Asian Americans from persons to objects.

Whatever one feels about being treated as an object and not as a person, and whatever one intends in even the accidental, ignorant proliferation of images and discourses that perpetuate this objectification, is irrelevant here. The objective truth that treating people like objects and not as persons is a violation of any person’s objective dignity as an imagebearer of God himself. In short, the objective truth that is declared by the Christian faith is that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God and thus have dignity as personsTo objectify another human–that is, to deny a human being his or her personhood and agency by reducing him or her to an object–is to offend against this objective truth. This objectification need not be subjectively intended; in other words, Warren did not need to have any malicious intent in posting the photo of the Red Guard. Neither does this objectification need to be subjectively received as such; the result was that, of course, some Asians and Asian Americans were fine with Warren’s humour. Instead, the process of objectification describes an observable, objective effect: objectively speaking, does the photo with its caption treat Asians and Asian Americans as persons with whom to be communed or convenient objects to be used as the butt of jokes? Was this the image of a person made in the image and likeness of God, or was it the image of an object that could be conveniently used to make a funny point?

Screenshot via me

Warren’s initial response suggests that the latter is true. That Warren then declared ‘it’s a joke!’ indicates, regardless of whether he was thinking this or not, that it was inconvenient for him that the ‘orientals’–the objects–were talking back as persons. He did not need to think this. Again, we are looking not at his subjective experience, but the objective, observable situation. His message was this: ‘orientals’ should not talk back; ‘orientals’ should be content to be the objects that they are; ‘orientals’ should not be listened to as persons. Those offended were framed as ‘orientals,’ suggesting that the ‘oriental’ image displayed on the photo should not be read as a Red Guard with whom communion can be shared. She was an object–an ‘oriental’ object–whose sole function was to make a funny point.

Screenshot via me

Our contention is that attempts are now being made to twist this objective truth. Warren’s initial defence achieved an interesting twist on the relationship between persons and objects. Warren then explained that the ‘disciples’ would have understood his humour while the ‘self-righteous’ would not have comprehended it. Perhaps unintentionally at a subjective level and likely without malicious intent, Warren was saying that Asians and Asian Americans are to be regarded by the disciples of Jesus Christ–the church–as the objects of jokes and those who would dispute this use of humour are the ones who are self-righteous, the ones that would in turn crucify the Lord of glory.

Understanding this theological twist is key to comprehending why it is that those who are arguing for the objective, dignified personhood of Asians and Asian Americans have been suddenly framed as the enemies of Christ. Regardless of Warren’s interior motives, the theological effect that has been achieved is that those who are defending the personhood of Asians and Asian Americans are framed theologically as the offensive aggressors, the ones who are now crucifying Warren for his use of humour. In so doing–again, regardless of personal motive–Christian theology has been rewritten. Defenders of personal dignity are framed as aggressors. Those whose actions (regardless of intent) result in the objectification of persons are described as Christ-like martyrs. The irony could not be more striking.

Screenshot via me

This theological twist is magnified by the attempts to erase and rewrite the public record. To advocate this is (according to our objectors) to advocate forgiveness and grace. From the deletion of comments on Warren’s Facebook wall calling for a public acknowledgement of the objectiveness of orientalizing offence to the vitriolic objections of our objectors pleading for us to delete our posts, attempts are being made to ‘wipe the slate clean.’ It is in this context that Warren’s response on Professor Sam Tsang’s blog and his conditional apology on his public Facebook wall should be read: they are attempts to wipe the slate clean without acknowledging the objective truth that orientalization is an objective offence against the dignity of human persons. As theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in Discipleship, this is ‘the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.’

Although Tsang acknowledged Warren’s first response as an apology, it is better described as a responding comment. In this comment, Warren stated that the photo was ‘instantly removed.’ Whatever one’s subjective interpretation of the passing of two days might be, this is not objectively true. It is objectively true that Warren’s ‘instant’ response was to suggest that those who did not find his joke funny were ‘self-righteous’ whereas those who were giggling were like the ‘disciples.’ Moreover, Warren tells Tsang to contact him ‘directly.’ A better word choice here is ‘privately.’ Attempting to hide the objective truth that this incident began publicly, the response here wipes that slate clean and puts the blame on Tsang for not approaching him through a private channel. Khang then attempted to do exactly as Warren said: she sent an email to Warren ‘directly.’ It was met with a generic, indirect response. This suggests that ‘private’ is indeed a better word.

Image via Kathy Khang

As Khang eloquently states, the effect of this maneuver (whatever its intent) was that she was ‘silenced.’ Indeed, that initial response generated three tactics by which the objectively existing public record has been fudged. In particular, the tactic that has been used is to turn the objective offence of orientalization into a subjective experience. First, Warren himself touted his credentials as someone who initially wanted to plant a church in Japan and then the doors were closed. Second, immediately after this comment, L2 Foundation’s D.J. Chuang (himself a member of Saddleback Church) then commented on each of the bloggers’ walls (including this one) reiterating, ‘That post was removed immediately and personally by Pastor Rick as soon when he learned how the photo was offensive.’ Third, Asians and Asian Americans themselves–likely without any prompting from Warren or Saddleback–began to accuse the bloggers of failing to represent the universal experience of Asians and Asian Americans, for many proclaimed themselves that they did not feel offended, that is, that they did not subjectively process the objective offence of orientalization as a subjective offence.

Note: though these photos are from the public conditional apology and have a later date than those described in these present paragraphs, they illustrate the types of comments that have occurred. As Khang notes, earlier comments that would have been available were deleted along with the original photo. (Screenshot via me)

In so doing, the record–the objectively existing public conversation that exists outside of Saddleback’s private control–has been fudged. Warren declares his solidarity with all Asians by touting his missionary credentials. An Asian American himself comes to Warren’s defence on each of the blogs. Asians and Asian Americans unhappy with the bloggers declare that they are not subjectively offended. The problem is that none of these responses got at the heart of the objective offence of orientalization. To be missionary minded toward Asians does not erase an act of orientalization. To have a prominent Asian American evangelical come to one’s defence does not lessen the objectivity of this offence. To have Asians and Asian Americans declare that they did not subjectively receive the offence as an offence does not mean that it was not an offence. Orientalization is an objective offence. But this process of damage control has subverted the perception of orientalization as objective. It is now subjective simply because people now say it is.

Screenshot via me

And the result is that those who protest the objective offence of orientalization are silenced. Khang tells us that she ‘felt silenced.’ No, Kathy, you do not only feel silenced. You were objectively silenced.

Following the publication of a Religion News Service article, though, Warren then issued a public conditional apology on his Facebook wall. The apology was conditioned by an if: if we were offended, then the apology applies to us. What this amounts to, however, is the further subjectification of an objective offence. It suggests that the offensiveness of orientalizing objectification is conditioned by how it is subjectively received. It means that if someone is not offended, then an image that strips human persons of dignity by turning them into objects is not offensive for some people. Kathy Khang is right to object to the conditionality here: ‘Words matter,’ she says. Or to quote her in full:

There is no “if.”  I am hurt, upset, offended, and distressed, not just because “an” image was posted, but that Warren posted the image of a Red Guard soldier as a joke, because people pointed out the disconcerting nature of posting such an image — and then Warren told us to get over it, alluded to how the self-righteous didn’t get Jesus’ jokes but Jesus’ disciples did, and then erased any proof of his public missteps and his followers’ mean-spirited comments that appeared to go unmoderated.

am hurt, upset, offended, and distressed when fellow Christians are quick to use Matthew 18 publicly to admonish me (and others) to take this issue up privately without recognizing the irony of their actions, when fellow Christians accuse me of playing the race card without trying to understand the race card they can pretend doesn’t exist but still benefit from, when fellow Christians accuse me of having nothing better to do than attack a man of God who has done great things for the Kingdom.

Khang is objecting to the process of objectification being framed as just another subjective experience. It is not subjective. It is an objective offence. There is therefore no ‘if.’

Screenshot via me

To resist this silencing, our objectors say, is to fail to forgive. In so doing, we are accused of being the ‘self-righteous’ who are crucifying Warren, tarnishing his reputation, and bringing shame to the church by continuing our bickering. To cease to be objects of orientalization, to assert ourselves with the personal dignity that is objectively ours by virtue of our creation, is to sin, according to our objectors. Our actions are described as prideful; our assertions are characterized as divisive; our call for Asian and Asian American agency is judged as judgmental. Our objectors seem, in short, to be able to wield the power to define what is good and what is evil. On the other hand, we as orthodox Christians committed to the objective truth of the person are not only incapable of wielding such strange sovereignty; we refuse to do so because we understand this seizure of truth to be eating from the very tree of the knowledge of good and evil for which our ancestors were cast out of paradise. And yet for not capitulating to our objectors’ theological rationality, we are labeled as the ones who should be cast out of the church. Indeed, this has already happened to at least one of us this week: Professor Sam Tsang has been asked repeatedly by our objectors whether or not he is a ‘born again Christian.’ Our objectors are powerful. They have, it seems, the power even to excommunicate.

Screenshot via me

In other words, the situation in which we find ourselves has degenerated precisely to the point where it could be called a ‘dictatorship of relativism,’ a scenario in which what is true is dictated by might and not by an objectively existing truth that cannot be bent by the powerful to their own interests. By calling this present situation a dictatorship of relativism, we in no way imply that Rick Warren is a dictator. We are saying instead that our communion with our brother, Rick Warren, has been co-opted by a relativist ideology. This is a sad state of affairs because relativist notions of truth hold no possibility for objective forgiveness and reconciliation.

They preclude it.

The objective of this practice of relativism is to return this present situation to a certain status quo, a situation in which Asians and Asian Americans are not in active conversation with Warren, the state of affairs that existed prior to Monday morning. In this status quo, however, Asians and Asian Americans will not have been reconciled to Warren as persons. We will still be objects, ‘orientals’ who cannot and should not speak back. But this ‘peace’–this constructed harmony in which there will be no more visible contestation–does not return us to the objective truth declared by the Christian faith that all humans are created as persons in the image and likeness of God. It leaves us with a situation in which the objectified are still objects and the persons are not reconciled.

An orthodox Christian theology bears witness against this dictatorship of relativism. An orthodox Christian theology insists on the objectivity of truth and insists further that that objective truth is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. It is from Jesus, not from our objectors, that the cross is truly understood, that the forgiveness of sins is achieved, and that the communion of persons is realized and restored. It is because truth is objective–it exists outside of what anyone says it is–and it is objectively found in Jesus.

‘The light shines in the darkness,’ the Gospel according to St. John (1.5) begins, ‘and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The true light of Jesus Christ’s objective truth subjects this dictatorship of relativism to a crisis. While the discourse has fudged the objectivity of objectification, we recognize in Jesus, the very image and icon of God, that redemption means the restoration of all human dignity from processes of objectification. As St. Irenaeus puts it in his interpretation of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of one like a son of man coming as the glory of God, ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’ (Adversus Haeresus IV.20.7). Confronted with the person of Jesus Christ, the subjectifying logic of orientalization crumbles. ‘The time is fulfilled,’ the Lord declares (Mark 1.15), ‘and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel.’

From Jesus, we understand that the cross was the last resistance of those who wish to pronounce for themselves what is good and what is evil. By challenging the logic of objectification, Jesus challenged the reduction of persons into objects by the powerful to preserve their own interests. For doing this, Jesus was betrayed, beaten, flogged, and crucified. Jesus was silenced. But in that process, that which was hidden from the foundations of the world was revealed. The challenge to objectification provoked the murder of the Lamb of God. Objectification is revealed as a process of violence, for its perpetrators and defenders must silence, must fudge, and must kill those who object to the reduction of persons into objects. But by killing Jesus, the power of such dark practices is broken, for the illegitimacy of their actions is revealed. As St. Paul says of the cross, ‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it’ (Cor. 1.15). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

From Jesus, we then understand forgiveness to be the love that he shows us in his resurrection as an embodied person, seeking not vengeance but communion with those who abandoned him and crucified him. Having rendered the power of sin and death powerless by exposing its illegitimate core, Jesus does not return in vengeance. He rises from the dead to love the very people who abandoned him and killed him. He calls Mary by name. He breathes the Holy Spirit on the followers who abandoned him at the cross. He invites St. Thomas to put his finger in his nail marks and his hands in his side. He reinstates Peter with the words, ‘Feed my sheep.’ He sends the Holy Spirit on the church at Pentecost, from where the people that St. Peter accuses of crucifying Jesus grow into the first Jerusalem church. This is forgiveness: the maintenance of the cross on the public record as a moment when the things hidden from the foundations of the world were revealed and exposed, and yet the unexpected embrace of the crucified one toward those who did not know that they had killed the Son of God. In his resurrection, Jesus forgives, and the cross is transfigured–it is not erased–into an instrument of love. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

From Jesus, then, we understand the church to be a communion of persons, the very Body of Christ that lives out the objective truth at the core of our common existence: that we are made for communion with God and with our brothers and sisters. If orientalization has happened in this Body, it must be confessed, exposed, and forgiven. That it has no place in the church does not mean that it does not happen. When it happens, it must be revealed and not fudged; it must be judged and not excused; it must be confessed and not covered with fig leaves. As St. Peter writes in his first letter (4.17), ‘The time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.’ The result, as St. Peter emphasizes in his entire letter, is that the church will perfect its communion in visible suffering, with its members clothed with humility. Indeed, the truth that would be manifested in the love that is shown would finally ‘cover over a multitude of sins’ (4.8). The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And thus, if our critics have only the view that we must participate in their revision of Christian theology, then we must refuse for the sake of our participation in the objective truth manifested in Jesus Christ and handed down by his apostles. As St. John proclaims in his first letter (1.5, 7), God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. We must then walk in the light as he is in the light.

This, then, is what forgiveness entails. It is to call Rick Warren into fellowship with his Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters as persons, not as objects. This manifestation of communion must not be hidden from the world; it must be manifested in the full, visible unity between himself and those whom he mistakenly objectified. Warren must thus acknowledge that he, though likely without malicious intent, committed the objective offence of orientalization. He, as well as his followers, must commit themselves to a fuller communion with their Asian and Asian American brothers and sisters. In particular, he might himself accept the invitation to a public conversation about the lingering offence of orientalization in the church, seeking to discern with us all how we might live in the power of the Holy Spirit as ‘the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.’ That catholicity would be the sign that the kingdom of God is among us, that Jesus is present, and that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.


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  • Verry well put! But I think calling RW’s first act of posting the figurine with Orientalizing is a bit of a stretch. 🙂

    • I grant the point. At first, we were a bit unsure how to interpret the image. The hermeneutic was clarified when he replied to the initial comments. The point, of course, is that this need not have been intentional or malicious. It is instead a call to greater catholicity, in which we would welcome forgiveness, reconciliation, and full restoration with our brother.

      • Indeed – his response was “orientalizing.” Had he responded with a keen interest to understand and listen to his objectors, then the image might have been redeemed as an object lesson. It still can.

  • I’ll push back slightly there. The image is orientalizing, regardless of his intentions, because it uses the static image of the exotic other to make a point. That remains an objective offence. Yet had he acknowledged that he was initially mistaken and that he was willing to learn from his brothers and sisters, this orientalizing image could well have been used as an object lesson for what not to do in the future, and our communion would not have been impacted so hard. However, his response was to keep the object as an object. That is indeed what has made things difficult. But things can certainly turn around. We hope for it, for the sake of the church catholic.

    • JT Alderson

      I have been following this conversation since the beginning, especially in regards to the inappropriateness of the apology-ish, the lack of community conversation in a helpful manner, and the revisionist post-deleting that’s been going on.

      What I cannot get my mind around is: Why is the use of the smiling red guard woman implicitly orientalizing? My understanding is the objective offense comes from the angle of ignorant use from a historical perspective on a person who represent a lot of hurt for a community (ie slaughter of thousands of people in China). Would it have been just as orientalizing if he instead used a smiling female Russian red guard, instead of Chinese?

      Please help me in my growth and understanding in Christ Jesus.

      • This is an excellent question, and thank you for engaging so thoughtfully and kindly. A friend recently pointed out to me exactly what you’re suggesting in a way, and that’s that there’s a residual bit of the Cold War left in this. I agree with him, though he sprung that on me out of the blue, so I’m still thinking about it. What I’ll give you, then, are two thoughts, one of which I’ve thought through more about the ‘angle of ignorant use from a historical perspective’ and one that I’m still in a more preliminary stage of thinking about. I’d welcome a conversation on this as we think through this together.

        Here’s my more worked-out thought. The Facebook photo post actually works on different levels of orientalization. What you’re articulating is the perspective that Sam Tsang posted, which gave voice to the concerns of many ethnic Chinese people whose families suffered through the Cultural Revolution. I talked about this too as a trigger of our traumatic memories. In that sense, you are absolutely right: part of the offence is that it brings up these awful historical memories, and it trivializes them as a joke. That’s already one level of orientalization: our histories don’t matter. They’re just a joke.

        But here’s the orientalization that few have talked about–and this goes back to Tim’s objection as well. My sense is that we haven’t talked enough about the original caption itself: ‘The typical attitude of Saddleback staff as they start work each day.’ Here’s how the humour was supposed to work, and I grant Warren that it was *supposed* to be funny. It’s technically supposed to be funny because of the asymmetry between this ‘Asian’/’Chinese’/’not white’ woman and the Saddleback staff. As Edward Said pointed out in his classic Orientalism, this is a classic orientalization: the imaginary, exotic other is being used to make a point back ‘home’–‘home’ where everyone is de facto ‘white.’

        And that gets at the offence for all Asian Americans. Beyond just the terrible memories of the Cultural Revolution for some Chinese Americans (the ones who don’t like Mao; this is a debate, yes), the way that the humour works implies that Asians and Asian Americans don’t fall under the category of ‘Saddleback staff.’ It may not be what Warren himself intended in the depths of his heart. It may not be the point he was trying to communicate. It may not even be true that ‘Saddleback staff’ has no Asian Americans. But the point is that it’s supposed to be funny because the way that the humour is structured works so that the asymmetry–the mismatch between a smiling Red Guard woman and ‘Saddleback staff’–is what’s funny. That asymmetry has the unfortunate–and likely unintentional–but no less implicit subtext that Asian Americans aren’t ‘home’ here. That was also what was offensive about Rickshaw Rally, Mee Maw, and Deadly Vipers: for those who were involved in those as well as this case like Eugene Cho and Kathy Khang, they weren’t offended because it brought up terrible memories for them and from their family histories. But though they are Korean Americans, they were in solidarity with Chinese Americans because this is not about ethnicity; it’s about how all people who look like the ‘other’ aren’t home here in American evangelicalism.

        What that sort of implicit exclusion unfortunately implies is that this is not just a ‘cultural sensitivity’ issue. It’s a church split that falls along racial lines, ‘race’ as in the sheer colour of one’s skin–simply one’s physical appearance regardless of ethnicity or ‘culture’–being able to determine social location. What happens there is that everyone who looks like an ‘oriental’ gets lumped into the same category of the exotic other. To say that means that all of us who look like this, regardless of our ethnic histories, are not ‘one of us’; we’re ‘one of them.’ That’s a church split. A church split, a division in the Body of Christ, is a schism. The healing of a schism is an ecumenical move that moves us toward greater catholicity. The problem is not simply a failure to be ‘sensitive’ toward a sensitive population. It’s that the message that is implicitly sent to Asians and Asian Americans is that we don’t belong in the church, that it is OK for humour in the church to frame Asians as the ‘other.’ We’re not the other, we’re saying. We are one in the Body of Christ. That’s why these images must go. It’s not a ‘cultural sensitivity’ thing because there’s really not much here about ‘culture.’ It’s about whether we are really, truly one, as Jesus prayed for us to be.

        That takes me to my less worked-out point: the Cold War one.

        I must say that you and my friend have me thinking about the hypothetical situation of a Russian soldier, and here’s a preliminary thought. In the Cold War, it could be fair to say that the Eastern Bloc was in a sense ‘orientalized’ by a NATO ‘occident.’ The Soviets were depicted in ways that were similar to ‘orientals’: they were despotic, totalitarian, crafty, backward, and even exotic (think of what John Le Carré calls ‘honey traps,’ and the point is made; heck, the fact that George Smiley’s nemesis–a man–has a woman’s name, Karla, is a feminizing move that sounds interestingly similar to processes of orientalization). My sense is that this would not be OK either, but it would certainly get less of a reaction. But it would be no less an ecclesial problem because someone who is Russian would be subjected to the same sorts of orientalization as someone whose skin colour marks them as ‘Asian.’ It shows that who gets subjectified by this objective process constantly shifts, that maybe in addition to the skin colour thing, there’s also a residual ‘Eastern Bloc’ thing that we have yet to address, i.e. those who were on that side of the Iron Curtain during those years will always remain the ‘other.’

        This slippage really makes orientalization a power game that the church must be vigilant against. If indeed we are supposed to be one, these sorts of implicit power games ruin our communion. In fact, you could say that they are part of the way people define what is good and what is evil, which leads us close to the heart of original sin. This is not to ‘reduce’ this all to original sin; it is to say that confronting orientalization takes us deep into the bowels of depravity, which means that any Christian discussion of this must be tied back to the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. The key here is not then to write off ‘orientalization’ as just the way that we label people, so now labeling is just bad. ‘Orientalization’ is a particular way of illegitimately wielding the knowledge of good and evil, and that deserves a lot more theological exploration and much more frank conversation within the Christian church. As I’ve argued in the past on this blog, you could even say that the Catholic-Orthodox split was due to a form of orientalization–labeling the Orthodox as this ‘eastern mystic’ bloc that wouldn’t acknowledge Roman primacy–and so again, at the end of the day, this is important not because it’s about cultural and racial sensitivity, but about real Christian ecumenism in the church catholic.

        I hope that moves us toward a conversation, and I would be happy to engage in dialogue.

  • For more on the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical thing I alluded to in my comment above, I wrote about it here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecperson/2013/05/28/no-you-cannot-fence-the-table-with-orientalism/. Incidentally, this post also mentions Deadly Vipers.

    • JT Alderson

      Thank you for your gracious response, amidst a sea of not-so-gracious comments.

      If I may, what I hear you saying is that: Orientalization is the process of making someone or someones the ‘other’? Or is their more explicit connotation in the process (IE East vs West, Power vs Marginalized…)?

      My initial interpretation of the picture when it came out (confession: I am a white male) was that the Saddleback staff were likened to the picture in that that are smiling and perky in the morning, not likening to be contrasted, in fact, to the army guard, ethnicity, or complex history of the individual (which as I noted before, I initially saw ignorance of the complex and hurtful history to be the offensive “bad taste” use of the image).

      Is there a way for the ‘joke’ to actually be funny/non-offensive, or would that particular joke always be “otherizing” someone/someones?

      (My Russian example may have had too much shared history and geography to helpfully continue the conversation. What if creepy-smiling Sponge Bob or a smiling infant?)

      Thank you for your feedback and the ways you have helped me learn more for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom.

      • Yes, I enjoy this conversation very much, especially the opportunities to clarify that you’ve afforded me. Yes, ‘orientalization’ certainly involves a geographical dimension: it frames the ‘other’ as part of a unitary space called the ‘Orient,’ that is, the ‘East.’ This is not simply a factual geographical error; it has been a tool of colonization since at least the advent of modernity (though Said makes the argument that it goes back to Herodotus and maybe even to Homer’s Odyssey; it’s a big argument–and for objectors that don’t like that I keep coming back to Said, do note that I have a bit of a heterodox read of Said and post-colonial studies as an orthodox Christian, and I have yet to fully flesh that out in writing). You could think of it as an exertion of power by exoticizing the other as from a massive geographical bloc labeled the ‘Orient.’

        My sense is that ‘the one who lives in a pineapple under the sea’ might have been a much better option because it’s using something that doesn’t comes with the baggage of orientalization, colonization, etc. all of which isn’t subjective baggage, but objective forms of violence that actually happened and that have had lasting geographical effects. It’s the asymmetry that’s supposed to make the photo funny, and certainly, that asymmetry could have been accomplished by, as you say, Sponge Bob or a smiling infant (in fact, the smiling infant might have brought a very positive response–‘whoever welcomes this child welcomes me,’ Jesus says–brilliant point!). But to use the image of the exotic, orientalized other is to cross a line into complicity with the long-standing processes of orientalization, which is precisely the sort of thing that the Body of Christ exists to bear witness against.

        Thank you for this conversation, brother.

  • A bit of a stretch here. You’re going to relate being offended by something to being an orthodox Christian? I don’t think Said ever intended Orientalism to be thought of in terms of “objective truth”. That seems to be stretching Orientalism too.

    I don’t see how you can embrace Said’s Orientalism without embracing Postcolonialism and all of the lessons of Cultural Studies. Objective truth exists, but language is always interpreted.

    If you really want to look at the objective truth of the photo, it was a photo of a ballerina from a play. That’s the objective truth of the photo. It needed to be interpreted in order to become a “Red Guard” and further interpreted in order to become offensive.

    Can’t we just acknowledge that many Asian Americans, perhaps the majority of Asian Americans were not offended by Warren’s photo? We need to have a conversation about why Asian Americans are NOT offended by this type of thing rather than defending yourself about how offensive the photo was. Asian cultures value relationship over specific “offensive” actions. I think this is a lesson in Asian culture.

    By insisting that the photo and Warren’s response was objectively offensive, you’re pushing Asians to speak up and be much more western in their sensibilities. Asians don’t want you to speak up, because that’s not the Asian thing to do. Asians are telling you to look at Warren’s ministry because to Asians, that matters. Asians look at the whole body of work and are very ready to overlook an offense or two.

    If you want to keep pushing this, you’re going to need to start arguing why Asian culture is objectively wrong or objectively unbiblical. And that, actually is a conversation we need to have as Asian Americans.

    • Oh boy, somebody has just realized that the colonial construction of Asian subjectivities is just that: a subjectivity. Good for you.

      • So you’re not going to accept the overwhelming criticism in the same way RW didn’t accept criticism?

        • Ah, now this is an excellent question. I want to give it really the time of day it deserves, but unfortunately, the answer won’t be short and sweet. It needs to be nuanced. Give me a day to write something up. 🙂

    • Dude, first of all, before you speak for the REST of us Asians, understand the news of this fiasco traveled all the way to China (I’m sure those people are Asians) picked up by two of the biggest news agencies, spreading the North and the South. There’re WAY more Asians over there than over here and from what i can read (i do read original sources … aka Chinese), they aren’t happy. So, first please get off that high horse.

      Second, regarding the ballerina, have you any sense of history? OK, history lesson in case you think THAT was just a ballerina. I’m going to give you the wiki version since the whole history of theater might be too much of an interpretive exercise … The story was written originally in the late 50s by a PLA member that portrayed the 1930s as a time of women liberation, of course using PLA female soldiers. Yeah, 1930 has PLA female soldiers. Yeah, 1930 had a lot of Chinese female rights. No! My grandma who lived during that time told me otherwise. Women were barely out of their foot binding. Sorry, failed propaganda. It gets better. In the early 60s, it was written into a play and eventually right before the Cultural Revolution a ballet. During the Cultural Revolution, the ballet was made the prototype of good art and touted as the best artistic expression by the Chinese government, thus forcing all theater companies to perform and popularize it. Are you getting the picture of where the Red Guards come in now?? THAT too is objective. Did they not teach history in the US.

      • My, this is going to save me some work.

      • First of all Sam, did you even know any of that stuff about the ballerina when you wrote your first blog post about the incident? Doubt it. You researched it after it was made known to you and reinterpreted the data. You found out it wasn’t a Red Guard (after you claimed it was) and now you’re trying to making a tenuous connection to the Red Guards via reinterpretation.

        And that’s the point. All of this is subjective and interpretative.

        I’m not the one trying to speak for Asians. I’m not the one claiming any objectivity about whether or not the picture was offensive. Of course it was offensive to some and of course it was not offensive to others.

        Chinglican here is the one claiming that it was somehow objectively offensive without any empirical data to back that up.

        • Sigh. The comments that happen while I’m on vacation.

        • I promised you a response, and it is coming. But wait till after I enjoy my vacation. 🙂

      • randplaty, before you claimed all the credit for being such a GREAT historian, let me tell you to go read the comments on my blog and re-read the thing. I stated that long time ago. You seem to want credit for everything. I’m unsure if that’s Christian at all. That’s all I want to say about this. Your continuous trolling here shows your true colors.

        • I also promised to continue this conversation on another post, and I hope that such conversation is a step toward walking together in communion despite disagreement. It’s our conviction here that that’s what makes this forum here a Christian thing.

  • Mike

    Great post. You really captured some of my unformed thoughts on both the objectifying move and the affirmation of the human dignity of Asians and Asian-Americans. Just great.

    I admit, as well, the need to fight back the thoughts that RW is incapable of understanding either, and of repenting of the former and massively agreeing with the latter: in word and deed.

    Thanks again.

  • Grace

    Though I agree with your overall points, I wonder if you push things a bit far, Chinglican.

    “Objective truth” and “orientalization” —them’s fightin’ words in certain circles, and mutually exclusive, un-overlapping circles at that!

    I think it would have been easier to just say that not listening, shutting down any person/group is not how Jesus loves us and calls us to love. Warrens’ failure to wonder why so many were so offended, is what is offensive. Does he not care? Do we not matter to him?

    And of course as randplaty pointed out—many other Asian American Christians weren’t offended. Would love to hear your thoughts are on that…

    • You know, a good friend of mine pointed out recently that this post seems designed to make everyone squirm precisely because Asian American studies (and as randplaty points out, post-colonial studies, cultural studies, and generally anything indebted to Edward Said) would blanch at being lumped in with ‘objective truth’ (notice that I didn’t say ‘absolute truth’) and the putative defenders of objective truth would be very offended about it being pointed out that they just might be complicit (probably unintentionally) with a dictatorship of relativism. I agree with your point that it would have been *easier* to talk simply about not listening, but there’s an ontological dimension to this crisis that few have discussed because it’s much more difficult: it’s that if the church is supposed to exist as a communion, then the positioning of ‘Asians’ and ‘Asian Americans’ as ‘other’ indicates a schism in the Body. That schism is objective, a wound that exists regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged. That some Asian and Asian American Christians did not subjectively receive this as an offence does not lessen the objectivity of the offence. That offence is complicity with the de facto racial schism that exists in American Christianity. As I promised randplaty, I’ll have a longer account of the debate among Asians and Asian Americans about the subjectiveness of the offence in due course.

      • Grace


        Thanks for your response.

        I guess I’m mainly wondering *who* you see as your audience.

        In my admittedly limited experience, “orientalism” is a word used by secular race activists, race scholars, and sure, the post-colonial studies people. Okay, maybe I’ve heard Evangelical folks who care about racial reconciliation use this term too.

        “Objective truth,” I’ve heard thrown around by some very (Evangelically) Reformed people I want to say? Your post alludes to Catholics using this term too, and sure, Evangelical apologists.

        But again my limited experience, I have yet to see these two (or very varied and multiple) groups mix.

        I think you have great things to say—but I would hate for people to be confused or lost and to stop reading.

        Also, I thanks for the ontological and schismatic point. They are less obvious points. In my again, limited Evangelical experience—these are not things that people tend to care or predominantly talk about.

        Re: ontology. Knowing that I was made in the image of God, and the wonder of what that was, is a huge reason I am (and I am still) a Christian. I remember in college in the 90s, this praise song (“I’m your beloved, your creation, and you made me as I am”) that used to cause me and others a flood of tears, so much so that a friend dubbed it the “Asian theme song.” I remember in seminary in the following decade, how I giddy and awed and overjoyed I was when I discovered more meat behind being made in the image of God—and how my white American friends just shrugged it off. They wrestled with other things…

        Look for forward to reading your reply re: the variance in Asian American Christian responses. The friend that called “My beloved” the “Asian theme song” was an another Asian American Christian, and she dubbed it that with scorn.

        • Grace, the question of an audience is an important, but tricky, one. As this RW incident has taught us, what is issued in the public sphere often has consequences apart from one’s intended audience. This is not a contemporary development from the rise of social media. It can be argued that Pius IX’s consolidation of papal power in the 19thC that led to the promulgation of papal infallibility should be situated in a 19thC Italian political context where the intended audience was those debating the sovereignty of the Papal States. It was overheard by Protestants, however, and has been a bit of a thorn in ecumenical relations ever since (not to mention the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the Syllabus of Errors). I intentionally mixed the camps because I’m sure both are reading, and it afforded some opportunity for unexpected solidarities to develop.

          I am afraid that I will need an extension of a few more days for my post on the variance of Asian American Christian responses. But it is coming. I have made promises that I intend to keep.