Helen Lee and Kathy Khang demonstrate the art of achieving peace without sweeping racial insensitivity under the rug.
FOR MONTHS it sat in Christian bookstores with its black cover, nonsensical red Chinese lettering, and Asian-style decals. “Deadly Viper Character Assassins: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership” was a book written by two Caucasian pastors, published in 2009 by Zondervan about Christian leadership integrity and how various “character assassins” could threaten a leader.
The problem wasn’t so much the intent as it was the way the authors chose to illustrate their points, characterizing the “deadly vipers” with Asian characters, ninja warriors, and the “deadly viper” of lust was portrayed by a woman wearing a traditional Chinese dress with a samurai sword.
“It was just bizarre,” said Kathy Khang, author and regional multiethnic ministries director at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. “We thought, ‘This is a book on Christian leadership and it’s a very beautifully produced book, but it tries to use Asian culture as a prop, as opposed to actually understanding what these characters mean.’ [It] ended up being a kind of gibberish.”
Helen Lee, author and a former editor at Christianity Today, also noticed the book and communicated with Zondervan and the authors about the problems with cultural appropriation. The book was eventually pulled from shelves and a public apology was issued, but the Asian American Christians who raised their voices received criticism from the rest of the church, saying that they had overreacted and damaged the reputation of the two pastors who wrote the book.
“Folks were brutal, saying, ‘Why would we want to take down two other Christians who were trying to raise up godly Christian leaders?’ and ‘Don’t be so sensitive,’ and ‘You should be a Christian first, your Asian Americanness shouldn’t matter’,” Khang said. “It was hard because it wasn’t shocking. It was just so disappointing that there were so many people in the church that felt this was something that we as Christians shouldn’t be addressing and that stereotypes within the church were not valid because we’re all Christian. It was such a disappointing moment for me.”
As time went on, more and more examples of the same kind of mentality was shown, from skits at conferences to Vacation Bible School curriculums.
“Over the past decade, there had been continuing incidents and lack of awareness and sensitivity to Asians and Asian Americans,” Lee said. “I felt like it was the same stuff, relying on the same stereotypes, mocking the language, martial arts, and typical Asian culture. I feel like the same things are happening over and over again and it’s getting tiring.”
It wasn’t until Pastor Rick Warren posted an image of a girl in the Red Guard on his Facebook page, that Lee, Khang, and other Asian American leaders decided to address the issue of cultural misappropriation in a different manner — from individual and small groups to a united Asian American coalition.
The infamous image posted on Sep. 23, 2013 had the caption, “The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day,” and reminded many Chinese of the painful history of the Red Guard and brought up gruesome memories of rape, torture, and murder. When various people brought up the issue with Warren, he wrote, “People often miss irony on the Internet. It’s a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn’t be following me!”
“It’s not that we didn’t want to show grace; none of us are blameless. We all make errors when it comes to cultural sensitivity,” Lee said. “That being said, we felt like we needed to raise the awareness of the church a little. These things keep happening and we need to build awareness. [It’s] not OK to offend and hurt a significant portion of your church family.”
In fall of 2013, an open letter was created by a group of Asian American Christian leaders that addressed their concerns and offered suggestions for reconciliation.
“A number of us had found ways to bring up the issue, but it wasn’t enough,” Lee said. “Things we had done in the past wasn’t enough, raising the issue with the publisher was not enough, blogging about it was not enough. We realized we had to move from individual advocacy or small groups to something that was [greater], to get across a point that there’s a recognizable, sizeable coalition of Asian Americans.”
The number of people who signed grew to more than 1,000 people and sparked major change in various organizations.
“You don’t just want to be heard. I think that’s where being too aggressive leaves you,” Khang said. “People just hear you, not what you’re saying, and experience your anger and aggression. I think as leaders and communicators, we want to be effective, and I think that’s where the open letter is a great example: The end goal was to see if we can bring Asian American Christians together, to test the water and see if the time is right to bring our voices together.”
For Lee, who crafted the initial draft of the letter, being Asian American was an asset to addressing the issue calmly, yet directly.
“For those [of us with an] Asian cultural background, that’s one of the big gifts we bring to the table in our relationships,” Lee said. “We can be the mediator and find the common ground and communicate difficult issues without hammering our points into them. We don’t want to throw away the positive aspects of our cultural background and how it relates to these kinds of conflicts.”
Khang, whose blog often addresses issues on ethnicity and gender, said having a group of people to be accountable to is crucial to appropriate peacemaking and voicing of opinions.
“If you’re a lone ranger, that is unwise,” Khang said. “You cannot be a lone ranger with this. Jesus was not a lone ranger. He traveled with a lot of people. You need people who will be able to hold you accountable and ask you how you’re doing spiritually, and that’s a big discipline for everybody. We’re all called to be peacemakers, just not everyone is called to do the public stuff. But if you see [or] sense that God is calling you to it, you cannot be alone in it. Be a part of a body, a part of a church. Have a community surrounding you and then take courage in that and lean on that community.”
Khang said that writing the open letter created a sense of community.
“It was virtual, but it was community,” Khang said. “It was holding each other accountable and wording and communicating well with our audience and respecting each other and all of those things. That’s why I look back and I have no regrets about that at all. I’m so thankful that out of that emerged new friendships.”
Lee also encourages close relationships with people of different ethnicities, generations, education levels, socio-economic statuses, and backgrounds.
“It’s hard to be a peacemaker if you don’t have an understanding of the different ways of communication and wrestling with different conflicts and styles,” Lee said. “Diversify your own relational circles. Ask yourself if you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to interact with people who are different from you.”
Lee and Khang both said passive aggressiveness (a trait people from Asian American backgrounds resort to sometimes) can be harmful to creating dialogue and addressing issues.
“I’m not sure if passive aggressiveness belongs in peacemaking, or even in our lives,” Khang said. “It tends to be manipulative and hurtful, both for the person in that act and the people on the receiving end. And that’s not peace.”
Khang said that because many Asian Americans grow up bi-culturally, their backgrounds help provide different lenses through which a situation can be viewed and it helps with understanding issues from different perspectives.
“It’s a gift to see things from multiple sides and multiple perspectives and having to navigate those different areas,” Khang said. “That’s a skill that we’ve learned growing up and if we take the time, we can train and teach people about that. We can bring that to the table and take what we’ve seen can work.”
Even though the letter was published last year, Lee said that peacemaking is a continual process that requires a lot of patience and grace.
“With our letter, we wanted to hit that balance: speaking the truth but showing grace, demonstrating that we were upset by those things,” Lee said. “We’re part of the body and wanted it to be a letter of
extended grace. You want to speak the truth in love.”