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Why Rick Warren's Facebook Photo Angered Asian American Christians

Failed attempt at humor comes as Saddleback prepares to launch Hong Kong campus.

Rick Warren's recent Facebook post featuring an image of a Chinese Red Guard prompted criticism from Asian American Christians this week.

The propaganda photo depicted a smiling, uniformed young worker, part of the Cultural Revolution in communist China. "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day," Warren wrote Monday morning. Thousands of his half-million-plus Facebook followers liked the image before he took it down, saying it was a joke.

Several Asian American Christian bloggers and others deemed the photo culturally insensitive, calling on the Saddleback Church pastor to issue a fuller apology.

Warren's response in the Facebook comments "essentially told many of your brothers and sisters in Christ to get over it, to get a sense of humor, to lighten up, etc.," wrote Kathy Khang, a multiethnic ministries leader and author of a book on Asian American women and faith. "Please take a moment to hear us out because you don't get to tell me to laugh about the Communist Red Army because it isn't funny."

On Wednesday, Warren did issue a brief, direct apology on Facebook. "Finally back home. Staff handed me a hard copy of an email from someone offended by a picture I posted," he said. "If you were hurt, upset, offended, or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry. May God richly bless you."

The Red Guard post came two days before Warren promoted the Oct. 6 launch of Saddleback Hong Kong, the first of a dozen international outreaches by Saddleback. (Berlin launches on Oct. 13, and Buenos Aires on Oct. 20.)

Sam Tsang, a seminary professor in Hong Kong, discussed the controversy in light of the upcoming launch and China's broader historic backdrop.

"Warren needs to think about just the Chinese descent members of his church… You just reminded all of them the nightmare they left behind and for what? For a joke on Monday?," wrote Tsang, who also wrote a follow-up post on Warren's apology. "I know your intent is not to make light of suffering but the effect of your post has done exactly that, because you have no idea."

During the Cultural Revolution, an oppressive and violent period in the late '60s and early '70s, millions of Chinese were persecuted, displaced, and killed by communist government forces led by Mao Zedong.

Asian American Christians point to Warren's post as an example of Asian stereotyping or insensitivity that continues to come up in American Christianity. Religion News Service noted the most recent example:

In 2009, Zondervan's leadership publicly apologized for publishing "Deadly Viper: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership," a book that uses Chinese characters and images for illustrations.

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