Rick Warren, Saddleback Church and Propaganda Posters

Rick Warren, Saddleback Church and Propaganda Posters September 27, 2013
rick warren saddleback church cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
“Rick Warren, Saddleback Church and Propaganda Posters” by nakedpastor

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Gary


  • Cynically Inclined

    That apology … what was he thinking? Mistakes happen, and a real apology admitting not knowing its implications would have made this a non-event. But that “apology” was like spraying gasoline onto a lit match. He went from looking a little clueless to looking like a arrogant, condescending ass.

  • klhayes

    People can be willing to forgive and understand mistakes like this if the person can truly apologize from the heart. If the apology is not sincere, why even bother?

  • Al Cruise

    I think you can go further and say the Church in general, seems to be unable to apologize for it’s mistakes, leadership always seems to deflect the blame for any mistake made by themselves, at all cost. This I believe is the biggest reason people leave the Church and will continue to leave.

  • Pat68

    Having served in a predominantly white, suburban church for 12 years, I found through that experience that there are some people who are just clueless about things outside of their context and within other cultures. It was quite a wake-up call and not in a good way. I remember the Sunday a pastor showed what amounted to a propaganda video about Muslims and tried to tie it to his sermon about the importance of family for Christians. But the video was xenophobic with a narrator using an ominous tone of voice with the general theme and tone of it being, “the Muslims are coming!” I remember that weekend seeing people walk out on the video and one family left the church because it was just too much for them added to some other things they had tried to overlook. And there I am, an African-American woman who was crying on the inside from my own hurt as I tried to talk to this family about staying. When I finally could talk to the pastor and other elders about it, I remember them all sitting there looking at me dumbfounded. I think only one of them got it, as he was a little more acquainted with the larger world. Later, the pastor and I were talking and he admitted to just being a “white boy” or something to that effect. In other words, he just didn’t know about these things. But when the family that left the church tried to address their concerns to him in an e-mail, he didn’t even respond. Sometimes it’s just not enough to take an “aw shucks” stance. Sometimes, people just need to say, “I’m sorry. I’m genuinely sorry. I didn’t know the offense this could cause, but I’m grateful for having been educated.”

  • Maybe he didn’t know what the picture was and thus, didn’t know what he was apologizing for? I’ve made jokes on Facebook and had a bunch of people randomly flip their lids and presume I had the same thoughts when I wrote it as they did when they read it. I wouldn’t even know what to apologize for because they were too busy letting me know how offended they are and presuming I should have known how they would take the joke. That could be the case here. I highly doubt anyone is stupid enough to know what that picture is, post it anyway, and try to pass it off as a joke… I could be wrong. But who knows. Looks to me like he might have been going for a Rosie the Riveter picture, but picked up the wrong one. I feel more bad for him than I do for the people he offended. Offending Christians is like jumping into a tank full of piranhas with a steak suit. lol

  • Al Cruise

    I think your right he probably didn’t know what the picture was. But who he is and the position he’s in, it is imperative that he should know these things when he’s using them to represent his message. That is called “good stewardship”.

  • Karen

    Even if you live under a rock and know absolutely nothing about the history of oppression in China, the picture is creepy. The woman has one of the most artificial smiles I’ve ever seen. So he wants us to think his staff is fake? unreal?

    Add in a tiny bit of historical perspective, which for Mr. Warren should come just from being alive during the Cold War, and I could add, you want us to think your staff is brainwashed? authoritarian? totalitarian?

    Yeah, not funny. And he’ll have to forgive me for not wanting to attend his totalitarian church filled with brainwashed people.

  • Andy

    YES! Spot-on, David.

    Mr. Warren is a fan of jack-booted global government, so I would imagine that his sensitivity to Maoist imagery is significantly lower than it would be for us freedom-lovers. Kudos to you for calling him out — Godwin’s Law only applies when playing the Hitler card is out of context. 🙂

  • The way we envision ourselves or others matters deeply. Thanks for the link, David.

    I preferred the image that Warren posted — with the Red Guard. Having lived in China and heard the horror stories and still seeing similar policies in action today, I felt the China image very deeply. Horrible what they did, no need to change it to Hitlers’s Youth, more died under Maoist policies and Chinese who bought into. But they are all horrible, or course and since people more easily relate to folks who look like them, putting up caucasian criminals may resonate more.

    You could have done the same with young Christian youth marching off under Papal orders in the Crusades or young Jesuit priest marching off to serve Christ by destroy cultures around the world.

    Alas, the horror of the Ideal — the horror of the people who claim to know a higher cause, a higher purpose or a higher anything!

  • Gary

    Perhaps not…but the mere presence of the swastikas leaves no excuse for not making any effort to know. Ignorance is not an excuse when it is willful ignorance.

  • Wait a minute! That is my problem with David’s cartoon here.
    It almost amounts misrepresentation.
    Or am I confused.
    Rick Warren didn’t post anything with a swastika.
    David Hayward did the swastika image and put Warren’s quote on it.
    See the link in David’s comment — it leads to the real image Warren used — of a young Red Guard of China.
    Do you see what happened, Gary? (or am I mistaken?)

  • Yes but even after he knew what the image represented his “apology” was not an apology. He never indicated that he didn’t understand the picture. In fact, he seems to imply it was funny.

  • Gary

    Hmm…I see what you mean. I did take it to mean that the image in David’s post was the one Rick had used and the link was just to that image.. My mistake.

  • RustbeltRick

    No one apologizes anymore, especially powerful people, and especially powerful evangelicals. It’s always the fault of the haters for not getting the joke, dontcha know.
    The pattern is wonderfully Palin-esque: Say or do something incredibly insensitive; see the firestorm; then blame the firestorm on the people who actually reacted correctly to insensitivity. Repeat as needed to keep yourself in the news cycle.

  • Right, that is what I thought. Thanx.
    For that reason, when I first read the post and saw that picture, I thought it just amplified misunderstandings by putting his quote on a picture he did not do.
    It almost seemed like slander — not sure about the legalities on blogs, though.

    If it confused you — I’d wager it confused others thus it sort of makes Warren say something he didn’t.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    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.

    Little extension of a filk I came up with for a future-set SF story, based on a YouTube filk titled “Dynasties of China” (“Hong” can mean both “Red” and “Revolution”; here it’s used as the name of the dynasty founded by Mao):

    “Chin, founded by Shih Huang Di,
    Strictest of the Dynasties;
    Second Shih Huang Di, Mao Ze Dong,
    Purged the gwai lo, founded Hong.”

    Though Saddleback using it sounds more like a “WHOOPS!” than anything else. Wouldn’t be the first time someone used a cool image without knowing its provenance.

  • fox2436

    Does Rick and Kay Warren fall into the category of, “Too Big to Fail?”. The good citizens of Saddleback Church are there for all the right reasons.
    Sheeple make the mistake of putting their faith in Pastors, who are just as likely to fail to the flesh as any common sinner. We are saved by Christ’s Grace not Rick and Kay Warren’s.

  • mskathykhang

    David, thank you for covering this issue on your blog. It has reignited much-needed conversations about forgiveness, cross-cultural competencies in mission, and social media. If you would, I would appreciate a correction in the piece. I am not a Korean blogger. I am an American of Korean descent. I self-identify as an Asian American, but your label is a bit misleading. Some of the comments on Warren’s own FB page allude to the racial and ethnic divide in North American evangelicalism, and incorrectly identifying me as Korean may lead some to believe I am stepping into an “American” conversation. Thanks again.

  • Dan Cutrona

    Gosh….lighten up, folks. I’m not a big fan of Warren, but my goodness, the reactions are more insidious than the poster.

  • Thanks Kathy. Ironic, isn’t it? I so appreciate you contacting me. Forgive me. I’ve corrected it.

  • Chinglican at Table

    That is how to do an apology. Excellent. Just excellent.

  • I kind of agree, Dan.
    When we don’t like someone, we look for anything we can to show them as horrible, ignorant, evil and such.
    This had that flavor to me.
    It was like Republicans attacking Obama.
    When we are angry at someone, no matter how justified, we should try to stay focused in our attacks — otherwise we lessen the power of the attacks that are important.

  • Gagarin

    I had a thought of creating some mock posters with Hitler Youth, KKK photos, and even Burma and Sudan and posting them. “Ironically” of course. Because, you know, irony.

  • I’m not an enemy of Warren’s. I’ve written positively about him before. I introduced this post with my interest in te story. It might be no big deal to you, but it is to me. And it is to Asians I know. Simple mistake. But when it was pointed out, the mistake was made worse with a lousy apology.

  • Tom Estes

    Rick Warren was clearly wrong for posting this, but the self-righteous tone here is ironic, considering you spend your time offending a lot of people with what you draw. It is especially ironic when we consider that your response probably would be the same as Warren’s if someone called you out.

  • Tom,
    (1) David’s offenses are intentional — Warren seemed oblivious to the implications he was making. If he wasn’t, his metaphor was criminal.
    David’s may be offensive, but in a very different way.

    (2) I think, David has proven time and again that he is very good at apologizing.

    As I said in my comment, the tone here though, agreeing with you in part, is a bit cheap in ways.

  • I would, for one, like to know how what I said was cheap.

  • Well, David, you said it yourself:

    “I’m sure Pastor Warren had in his mind, … Probably little thought went into it. He was just looking for an inspirational picture to send a lighthearted and encouraging message to his staff”

    So if it were just a silly mistake or a stupid, thoughtless joke, why turn it into the Nazi poster and make it look all that more intentional.

    So you recognize the mistake and then are upset about his apology.

    How do I describe this?

    You wait for a guy to slip up, you think he does, but then realize it might be a mistake, so then you attack the apology.

    The desire to attack is palpable to me.

    Just my perception. As and you know, I have no dog in this race.

  • Ooops, sorry, got lost in Digust’s hierarchy and put my comment in the wrong place. Here it is again:

    Well, David, you said it yourself:

    “I’m sure Pastor Warren had in his mind, … Probably little thought went into it. He was just looking for an inspirational picture to send a lighthearted and encouraging message to his staff”

    So if it were just a silly mistake or a stupid, thoughtless joke, why turn it into the Nazi poster and make it look all that more intentional.

    So you recognize the mistake and then are upset about his apology.

    How do I describe this?

    You wait for a guy to slip up, you think he does, but then realize it might be a mistake, so then you attack the apology.

    The desire to attack is palpable to me.

    Just my perception. As and you know, I have no dog in this race.

  • but do you have a horse?

  • Where I live, we race dogs and have horse fights!
    (Way to avoid content. Focus on spelling or wording. Why apologize, when you can sidestep.)

  • I’m not sidestepping. I wrote the post and drew the cartoon only because Asian friends were horrified by the use of that image, and were sorely disappointed in his apology.

  • OK, I wasn’t the only one who felt the tone.
    Gary mistook the drawing like I did in the beginning too.
    Maybe you have no regrets about this post and feel you were very justified and those who hear the tone and think it misrepresentative are just not understanding it and out to get you.
    Maybe that is part of the complexity of Warren’s response.

    Part of this could have been avoided by posting his remark with the picture he posted.

    Then explaining the offense taken by others,
    Then posting your cartoon saying, “See, it would have been similar to doing this”

    Just a thought.
    Communication is never perfect — on blogs or FB.

  • I always think we take a chance when we attack a person.
    Not that we shouldn’t, but it is easy to mix motivations.

  • I concede: maybe I should’ve posted his original illustration with his post. I thought my “nakedpastor.com” on it was a giveaway. Wrong.

  • Hm. Whenever I post something about someone else, I ALWAYS ask myself if that’s how I would want to be addressed. I also think: if I ever meet this person, will it be a cordial meeting after I post this? I thought I was fair and friendly. But I could be wrong.

  • That is a great technique!
    You are indeed a gentleman.
    Love your stuff, David. You know that.

  • I know. I appreciate you too. I thought, initially, that it was no big deal. Until I saw the Asian response. Then… well… I couldn’t help myself. I’m convinced the western church imagines itself as white middle class male.

  • If we are having trouble seeing why people were offended, try to imagine a well-meaning, popular pastor in china who was unfamiliar with 20th century western history. In an effort to encourage his staff, he posts the picture that David posted (the Nazi one). The image gets out on the internet and some controversy ensues.

    When people start calling the pastor out, he tells them to lighten up because it was just a joke.

    How do you think the children of holocaust survivors would feel? Or children of WWII vets?

    That is what we are dealing with here. You would never tell a holocaust survivor to lighten up about negative feelings associated with nazi propaganda, however innocently the attempt at using it was.

  • In all fairness, though, the Chinese pictures has no obvious symbols, does it? This one has the Nazi symbol loud and clear. So if you were a bit naive about Chinese history, the image would see benign. For instance, if you were naive about Nazi Youth propaganda, this image might be one you’d borrow without thinking:


    [I can’t believe I am defending Warren.]– Actually, I am just addressing the method, not the person.

  • It’s okay. It’s just obvious you’re not Asian.

  • Really? Do you know my background in that realm??

    Did you know I graduated from a Japanese University and worked in China? And one of my graduate degrees was in South Asian studies with my languages being Hindi and Urdu? And I lived in Pakistan and India.

    All of those are “Asia”, I think.

    But you are right —
    on the outside, I am merely a white boy.
    I was just a visiting imperialist.

  • mskathykhang

    Thank you!! What? Ironic? It was a joke? Should I just get over it? Bleh.

  • mskathykhang

    He may not have known what the image (the female Red Guard soldier) was, but many people (and not just Asian Americans) posted on his FB commenting on their concerns about the image. This entire episode, if you will, wouldn’t have gone beyond that had RW simply apologized. But his response amounted to a “get over it”. That’s when people started calling him out on his less than pastoral ways.

  • mskathykhang

    I actually am convinced the western church imagines itself simply as “THE western church” and then is shocked when those of us who participate but are not white middle class male speak out with a voice unlike theirs.

  • mskathykhang

    Whose reactions are insidious? RW’s response to people who raised their concerns about the original image (the female Red Guard soldier) was just like yours. “It’s a joke!” He then proceeded to give us a lesson on Hebrew humor and irony, insinuating that those of us who were more concerned about the image, after all he is planting a church in HONG KONG!, were like the self-righteous who didn’t get Jesus’ sense of humor. For me, that is when this became an issue.

  • While this is certainly shocking, there are Christian leaders who do far, far worse.

    Consider for example the statement of the most popular Calvinist alive: John Piper:

    “It’s Right for God to Slaughter Women and Children Anytime He Pleases”


    Or consider the repeated attempts of the most popular Evangelical apologist, William Lane Craig to rationally defend divine genocides:


    Frankly speaking, what Rick Warren said and did is harmless in comparison.

  • You know, you could always edit your post and clear all this up.

  • And to think,
    These are the Christians who are not afraid to say what they think.
    As for me, I am glad most of my Christian friends don’t really believe half of what they confess each Sunday.

  • warza

    He said it was a joke. I get it. It was pretty brave of him to make a point like that.

  • Guest

    No apology was necessary. People are so freaking sensitive these days. We need to all just chill out and find something useful to do.

  • wanderer

    My read was that it’s ironic that he made a cultural faux-pas in the midst of writing about someone’s cultural faux-pas. Didn’t seem like a joke. Maybe I’m missing the point though.

  • wanderer

    agree. that’s my issue with it. Especially if he’s supposed to be some role model of “jesus-y” as a christian pastor. A “Wow, I didn’t realize… I’m so sorry” would have gone a LONG way.

  • wanderer

    the empathy you display is truly astounding.

  • wanderer

    if all that is true then I am horrified you aren’t offended on behalf of the Chinese who suffered during that horrific time.

  • Oh great wanderer, I see you are wandering around today grading folks on their lack of empathy and righteous indignation. If only if we could all be as politically piously correct as you.

    And you’re right to imply I may have lied above about my background. I am also a pathological liar as well has a calloused fool. Or a idiot for not learning all the indignations I should have learned. I am ashamed of myself.

    Interesting that this post divides people so — that is telling.

  • wanderer

    Dude, Sabio.

  • Dawwgg, wanderer!

    PS homie, how about taking some time to make a cool avatar to beautify Disqus. Make sure it is not offensive, though.

  • Hey could you please be a bit more specific and tell us what these confessions are?

  • That’s all well and good but you should have written the word „Evangelical“ before „Christian“.

    For most people in the Progressive Christian channels are going to openly deny these points (at least the way you put them) so there is no disconnect between what we profess to believe and what we actually believe.


  • Actually, I wrote “most” and I think that covers it just fine.
    Thank goodness most my Catholic friends don’t believe, most my mainline church Christians don’t believe and much more. Progressives are a very small sliver of Christians. Thus “Most” covers it perfectly as far as I can tell.

    And as for Progressives, the varieties of what they confess and what the actually believe may vary more than you suspect too.

  • guest

    Yeah, I think he just google-image searched and picked the first image he saw.

  • that’s also my guess guest

  • I’ve done that too. Damn.

  • Cecilia Davidson

    it was a very shitty joke.

  • Ya, not just a shitty joke, but a shitty joke that HURT people. And was very offensive to Asians. But they’re just Asians. No biggie.

  • Dave Taylor

    I agree. The “self-righteous tone” is just too much for me to stomach.

  • Gary

    Don’t drag me into this Sabio. I mistook the drawing but in no way agree with your attacks concerning “the tone”.

    I understand why David used the image he did and have no issue with it. In fact my response to the swastikas illustrates very well exactly what I think David was trying to convey. The image Warren chose would elicit a similar response from many asians and his use of the image he chose helped me understand that offense.

  • Wow, 2 days later. Yeah, my sentence was poorly written. It was meant to say something like:
    (1) Lots of folks here felt the tone was odd.

    (2) Many folks misunderstood the post (you being one) in that they thought Warren brought up Nazis. You understand David’s use NOW that I pointed out your misunderstand. I think the misunderstanding is natural — thus my complaint about the post too.

    Yes, yes, we realize you are David’s ally and don’t want to be polluted by my nasty agenda. You are clear.

  • Gary

    Yes yes…because I simply cannot think for myself without YOUR brilliant expose. (Yeah…right…LOL) And when I correct you for misusing my comments for your own agenda (which I happen to disagree with ) naturally you cannot help yourself but to reply with childish insults and smug condescension. In actuality David and I have sharply disagreed on a couple of points in the past. But this is irrelevant to you in your quest to ridicule me. Of course this leaves me with the exact same response that your childish rants often do.

    Fuck off sabio.

  • Sam Mad Doc Tsang

    Thank you for being a voice of reason, and God bless.

  • Caryn LeMur

    I actually appreciate this discussion on ‘what is a real apology’. I think I read all 73 comments…

    I unfortunately winced at RW’s apology… because it sounded like some of mine to my wife, Bonnie, over the years.

    I’ve taken to saying things like, “I am so sorry… I simply struck out… I apologize.” while in my head, I’m reeling backwards, trying to even understand why my joke or tease was so dramatically (and obviously to her) offensive.

    In the end, defending my joke or tease (to Bonnie), only sinks me deeper and quick…

    I think now, that I am more sold than ever on just keeping with “I am so sorry… I simply struck out… I apologize.” I may never understand why my original statement to Bonnie was offensive, but I need to heal the wound quickly before it festers.

    Thank you all for an interesting series of statements. Blessings! Caryn

  • cynthia curran

    Well, Warren church is mainly white but it has some Asians and Hispanics. In fact Orange County has a lot of Hispanics in certain cities, its 34 percent overall and has a lot of Asians in cities like Irvine. The Asian population of Orange County is 18 percent and the US average is only 5 percent.

  • Fonda Blair

    You all he has been through a lot, do not judge him. In judging him,you have judged yourself.

  • Fonda Blair

    He is still in the bereavement period in losing a son, please pray for him.