Archive for November, 2009

Milestones and Tidbits

Posted: November 30, 2009 in Uncategorized

Today my wife and I celebrate our 13th Anniversary.  I am incredibly blessed by God’s gift to me that is my wife.  She has been a patient, kind, loving, and a fierce presence in my life.  Here’s to 13 wonderful years and many, many, many more years to come.

Please be in prayer for our seminary (North Park Theological Seminary) community as we have been reeling from a series of tragedies, including the death of one of our students and the serious illness of one of our faculty.  Both are in their early forties so it is a wake up call to our mortality no matter how young we may think we are.

On December 7th, Mike and Jud will be launching their new and improved website: The People of the Second Chance.  If you haven’t already, join their facebook page and prepare to join the online community.  Congratulations and best wishes for the relaunch of a worthwhile work.

Sometime this week, I’ll be starting as a guest blogger on “The Seeker” website for the Chicago Tribune.  I will be one of several voices from the Chicago religious community to speak on issues of faith and culture.

Over the weekend, I was mentioned in a New York Times article on the new activism of younger evangelicals.  I’m mentioned as part of the inspiration for a former Wheaton student (I’m assuming from my chapel sermons from four years ago) who’s active in serving the refugee community.  A bit bizarre being named in the same sentence as Thomas Aquinas, Mother Theresa and Jim Wallis.  But if it’s in the New York Times . . . 🙂

Thanksgiving Wishes

Posted: November 26, 2009 in Uncategorized

Sending Thanksgiving wishes to all.

(1) First and foremost, I am thankful that I am redeemed by a God of grace. It is by grace we have been saved and not by works, lest anyone should boast.  Thanks be to God for His salvation grace. That grace calls me to live in pursuit of His shalom and justice. Gratitude that God would allow us to in some small ways, be a reflection of His mercy and justice.

(2) I am thankful for my family.  My wife continues to be my most amazing inspiration and support.  She puts up with a lot from me.  My kids continue to provide an unbelievable amount of joy.  Their creativity, their joyful spirit, their indominatable spirit inspires me.

(3) I still struggle with what God is calling me towards. After having been a pastor for more than 15 years, there was a great sense of loss in transitioning to academic life.  I feel that God has called me to serve in the academy but to always keep connected to the life of the church.  I am thankful that God has called me to teach at a seminary and have become more certain that this is my calling.  However, I still feel the loss of the joys of being in full-time pastoral ministry.  But ultimately, I thank God that I would be called to anything at all.  That is gift by God’s grace alone.

Praying that you are enjoying Thanksgiving with loved ones and in God’s gracious presence.

I am so thankful for the launch of Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite’s new website:  The People of the Second Chance.  I am very thankful that Mike and Jud’s powerful ministry will continue and in fact, will have a greater impact.  Check out their website and facebook to see how God will continue to work through them.

There is still ongoing discussion and official statements about Deadly Vipers (as well as some new discussions in a similar vein).  Some interesting insights from Bo Lim, Rudy C,  and Ed G.  I hope folks will move beyond the immediate topic to engage in a larger discussion on race, culture, and faith.  Evangelicals need a constructive dialogue on race and culture.  This whole episode has revealed a pretty major gap among evangelicals in our awareness and ability to deal with issues of race, culture and faith.  Some ongoing, big picture questions:

– Is there still a race problem in America?  Many seem to believe that racial and cultural sensitivity is only a problem for those who perceive it to be a problem.  Is that true?

– How can Asian-Americans be a strong voice in the evangelical world?  Clearly, this is a growing group, yet oftentimes without much of a voice.  This question should also encompass African-American, Latino, Native American, and bi, multi-racial Christians.

– What is the role of culture?  Are we to be culturally neutered because we are all God’s people and therefore we put aside our old culture? Or is there a place for cultural expression and celebration?  And what could a healthy expression of culture in the evangelical context look like?

In the next few months, I’ll scatter this blog with some theological reflections on the topic of race, culture, and faith.  Or you can always read my book The Next Evangelicalism.  Some random teaching videos and interviews from CCDA and Cornerstone can also be found on youtube.  All can link from the profrah.com website.

My good friend, Rev. Dr. Alex Gee is the Senior Pastor of Fountain of Life Church in Madison, WI (Dane County).  Alex and I met when we both were plenary speakers at Urbana ’03.  Pastor of a dynamic multi-ethnic church, Alex brings a pastor’s heart and a prophetic voice.

Dane County is an amazing community for African American babies to be born into.  It is a horrible community in which to live if you are an adult African American male.  As an African American who is both a male and a father, I find this stark contrast appalling.

Recently, I was at a Healthy Births Outcome event. We gathered that morning to discuss the fact that Dane County has the absolute best African American infant survival rate in the entire country. In fact, we are the only community in the nation where white and African American infants have the same survival rate.  As the father of child who was a one-pound, eight-ounce baby who was born sixteen weeks too early, I am grateful to live in Madison, Wisconsin.  So the news is good for African American babies. It is not so good for African American adults.

A colleague just showed me a report that states that in Dane County, fifty percent of ALL young African American men are either in prison, on probation or parole, or on extended supervision. That’s one half of ALL our young African American men. What are the implications for African American families? What does this mean for African American women? What does this mean for African American economics? This is scary and this is wrong! Wisconsin needs to be challenged in the way in which our prison system does business.

For example, nearly fifty percent of Wisconsin’s prison population is African American. This is appalling when one considers that African Americans make up only five percent of the state’s population. If you are male and African American in Wisconsin you are thirty times more likely be arrested of drug offenses that your white counterparts.  Our Gov. Jim Doyle and County Executive Kathleen Falk each established a task force to review the racial disparity in the Wisconsin and Dane County criminal justice systems. We need more than startling statistics. We need answers as to how this could happen in our state and we need to find solutions.

Unfortunately, racial profiling contributes to Wisconsin’s bleak reputations for treating its African American males more severely. Sadly, I know that from firsthand experience.  as I was recently pulled over by two Madison police cars in the parking lot of Fountain of Life Church, a well established multiethnic congregation where I am the founding senior pastor. I had not violated a single traffic rule, yet I was asked to show identification and to explain what I was doing there. My white staff member who was parked in the same lot and sitting in his car when I arrived was not asked a single question.  Is this some cruel joke? Is this really happening in my comfortable backyard while I snooze? African American males are not genetically inferior to our white counterparts nor are we predisposed to failure and criminal activity.  So, what is wrong with our corrections systems and why have so many of us just ignored this huge problem?

As a male African American Madisonian, I want to issue a call beyond the various task forces that now exist. I want to invite the entire community to become concerned and involved.  I want to encourage African American pastors to make their voices and concerns known.  I want to invite white clergy to address issues of racial disparity and discrimination from their pulpits.  I want the Urban League and NAACP to keep our political leaders’ feet to the fire for finding doable solutions for eradicating this awful disparity.

How can we celebrate healthy African American babies and not give a damn about their fathers and brothers and uncles?

Dane County leads the way for healthy African American babies; let’s do the same for African American males.

There seems to be a significant amount of misunderstanding regarding where things stand and even the larger context regarding DVZ.  I was hoping to not have further blog conversation on this topic but really to work to build relationships behind the scenes. But I do feel the need to address some specific issues and questions that have arisen.

(1)    I have reviewed my posts and at no point do I ever call for the complete shutdown of the website.  As far as I can tell, I don’t know of anyone else that asked for the complete shutdown of the website.  I and many others have repeatedly stated that the subject matter was an important one. There was no statement opposing the blog, the community itself, or every single aspect of the book and website. The suggestion was to pull the offensive material and to drop the theme.  The decision to completely shut down the website and to pull the books was in the hands of the authors and the publishers. Asking the authors to drop the theme and shutting down the entire website are not equivalent.  I believe that there should have been enough content to continue the website without continuing the theme.  And I am praying that the authors will be able to bring back the content in a new and impactful way.

(2)    There was never a point where the word “racist” was used against the authors.  Phrases like, “cultural insensitivity” were being used.  The word “racist” is such a loaded word that anyone even evoking the term becomes a name caller and loses credibility.  What an incredible irony.

(3)    Please recognize that many were offended by the theme and found that it was harmful to the body of Christ.  Many felt that it hindered witness to the non-Christian Asian-American community.  The CONTENT of the book should not have been impacted by dropping the marketing theme.  The work of calling the church to Christian integrity could continue without an absolute reliance upon the theme.  There was never any call for Mike and Jud to stop their ministry.  In the same way that there was never any call for Zondervan to stop publishing books.  There was never any sense of concern beyond this immediate situation.  There has always been a high level of respect for their past ministry and a strong affirmation of their future ministry.

(4)    Some have asked about stereotypes in the secular media. These are also very harmful. However, these stereotypes and racial/cultural insensitivity are not being perpetuated by my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  The secular media are not governed by Christian values, but the church should be governed by Christian values of respect for the other, an honoring of the image of God found in other cultures and a willingness to pursue God’s justice and righteousness.

I absolutely acknowledge that I made numerous mistakes throughout this process.  I extend both my public apologies as well as continue to offer apologies in private.  This ongoing process is a difficult one for all those involved, but we are choosing to stay engaged on this very difficult journey.  I have a deep sense of empathy for the strong feelings felt by many that something very significant was taken away.  Please understand that that is how many Asian-Americans felt when confronted with this material.  I don’t feel the need to re-hash why the marketing of this material was so harmful, but let us not forget that the need for a response was because there was an offense in the first place. I feel no sense of victory about the material being pulled.  If I had an agenda at all it was that this episode will call the church to a greater sense of understanding regarding matters of race, culture and the Christian faith.  We have a long way to go on this.  But I’m praying that for everyone involved, we can continue to move towards authentic reconciliation.

Joint Letter to Zondervan

Posted: November 20, 2009 in Uncategorized

To Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, and the leaders of Zondervan Publishing,

When we received Moe Girkins’ statement regarding Zondervan’s response to the Deadly Vipers controversy, we felt a deep sense of gratitude and admiration towards all of you, for your courage and conviction in the face of a difficult and challenging situation. We know that it must have taken many hours of discussion amongst numerous parties to reach this conclusion.  While the outcome is one we were hoping to see, at the same time we recognize that the costs to make this choice were high, both for the authors, Mike and Jud, as well as for Zondervan Publishing. The fact that you have not only chosen to take this step but to also use this situation as the catalyst for change within the organization speaks to the integrity of Zondervan’s leadership. The personal sacrifices that Mike and Jud were willing to bear in the midst of this decision speaks to their character and demonstrates that these are two pastors who practice what they preach and write.

Thank you for being willing to hear the voices of all those, Asian American and others, who expressed their concerns. We know that it could not have been easy at times to weather the criticisms. Nonetheless, your willingness to understand the issues, to take responsibility for the errors, and to act so swiftly and decisively in order to rectify the situation gives us great hope for the future, hope that the body of Christ can indeed demonstrate the power of reconciliation and be a witness to the world in how we resolve our differences.

We are also heartened to see the changes that have already taken place at the corporate level within Zondervan to reduce the chance that a similar controversy will occur in the future. We know that Stan Gundry has been working hard behind the scenes to bring resolution to this situation, and we want to offer him whatever assistance we can to help him in his new role. Please do not hesitate to call on us if we can support Zondervan’s efforts in deepening its cultural sensitivity and awareness.

To Mike and Jud, we can only imagine the personal toll this situation has taken on you. We have heard from numerous people who deeply admire your work and who attest to the impact that your ministry has in the church today, and we hope and trust that God will continue to bless your work, especially given the integrity you have shown in this matter. As you seek to begin the task of recasting your message in new ways, please let us know if we can help you in that process. We know there is much to preserve in the hard work you have done to this point in creating the content and community for Deadly Vipers, and we want to see your excellent ideas and your growing following converge in similar vehicles as before (book, website, blog, etc.), or more. Our hope and sincere prayer for you both is that this controversy and its resolution will in no way diminish your work and ministry, but broaden and deepen it.

Lastly, we hope and pray that the conversations and relationships that have begun in the wake of this controversy will not cease, but continue in renewed forms as we collectively seek to build and strengthen bridges amongst different members of the body of Christ. True reconciliation is not a one-time achievement but a lifelong, intentional pursuit. May this be just the beginning of all our continued efforts to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for the diversity of God’s people

Sincerely in Christ,

Eugene Cho, Quest Church

Ken Fong, Evergreen Baptist Church of LA

Helen Lee, Author

Kathy Khang, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Soong-Chan Rah, North Park Theological Seminary

Nikki Toyama-Szeto, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and Zondervan acted in a decisive manner yesterday.  Zondervan issued a statement that boldly declared their intention to pull the book off the shelves.  Their actions were courageous and bucks against business conventions but upholds theological and ecclesiological ones.  They acted in the best interests of the body of Christ and for Christian witness above ego and profits.   I am personally humbled by the actions of the authors and the publishers to take this radical step.

There is no sense of victory or exultation.  There is a strong sense of conviction and hope that a major Christian publisher displayed highly ethical and courageous behavior.  Significant credit must go to the authors and to the Zondervan leadership for their willingness to not only engage in this dialogue but to act upon these conversations.

Mike and Jud’s original intention to speak to the issue of integrity in leadership remains a worthwhile one.  However, those original intentions got lost in the morass of a marketing gimmick.  Now, with this action, they have displayed more integrity than thousands of words that have been written or hundreds of images that have been evoked.  I would encourage the authors that they have the passion, creativity, and the calling to continue to sound the bell of integrity.  They have not only written or spoken on this topic, but now they have demonstrated it to the maximum.  I would encourage Mike and Jud to continue their work without the theme. To reintroduce a more robust version of the content so that folks can engage a very important topic on a deeper level.  I don’t think it would be presumptuous to say that they would now have the support of a broader audience in the Christian community.

We should be cognizant of the possibility of significant backlash against this action.  I am aware that some wanted the authors to hang onto the theme of the book at all costs.  I am also aware that many may think this statement is an act of “political correctness” and an attempt to mitigate a potential PR nightmare.  I have a deep conviction that all of the parties involved were acting in the best interests of the church, for the sake of the body of Christ, and for Christian witness.  One of the concerns was that the Kung Fu theme was working for many individuals.  I would ask that we consider what is best for the entire Christian community and what will benefit the larger Christian witness.  This action by Zondervan has already received coverage by secular Asian-American websites and will engender a greater sense that there is a place for the Asian-American voice in the evangelical world.  Unreached Asian-Americans may find Christianity less hostile than it may have felt a few days ago.

Last night, after I heard the news, I was putting my son down for the night.  I thought to myself: “There is one less expression of a stereotype and cultural insensitivity out there that you will have to deal with. There are many others, but at least there is one less.”  Parents will advocate for their children.  We will look for ways to affirm our children and bolster their spiritual walk in every possible way.  Is there still ignorance and insensitivity in the world? Of course. But I pray that all of us will seek ways that the church does not further the cause of ignorance but further the cause of Christ. To do so with grace, mercy, and integrity as Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and Zondervan has demonstrated.  Thank you my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Zondervan Statement Regarding Concerns Voiced About “Deadly Viper: Character Assassins”

From Moe Girkins, President and CEO

Hello and thanks for your patience.

On behalf of Zondervan, I apologize for publishing Deadly Viper: Character Assassins.  It is our mission to offer products that glorify Jesus Christ.  This book’s characterizations and visual representations are offensive to many people despite its otherwise solid message.

There is no need for debate on this subject.  We are pulling the book and the curriculum in their current forms from stores permanently.

We have taken the criticism and advice we have received to heart.  In order to avoid similar episodes in the future, last week I named Stan Gundry as our Editor-in-Chief of all Zondervan products.  He will be responsible for making the necessary changes at Zondervan to prevent editorial mistakes like this going forward.  We already have begun a dialogue with Christian colleagues in the Asian-American community to deepen our cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Zondervan is committed to publishing Christian content and resources that uplift God and see humanity in its proper perspective in relation to God.  We take seriously our call to provide resources that encourage spiritual growth.  And, we know there is more to learn by always listening to our critics as well as our advocates.

It would be unfair to take these actions without expressing our love and support for the authors of this book, Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite.  Both gentlemen are gifted writers and passionate about their ministry. We do believe their message is valuable and plan to work with the authors to come up with a better presentation of that message.  We will jointly ensure we do our due diligence on the appropriateness of the creative side.  This will include reaching out to a broad spectrum of cultural experts.

Finally, I want to personally thank Professor Rah, Ken Fong, Eugene Cho and Kathy Khang for their input and prayers during this discussion.   We appreciate everyone’s concern and effort and look forward to working together for God’s kingdom.

Warmly,

Moe

The above statement was sent to me via e-mail from Zondervan.  It reflects a genunine repentant spirit and a deep willingness to hear and to act.  I am moved by Zondervan’s willingness to act in this decisive and dramatic manner.  Many thanks to the authors Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite and to Moe Girkins, Zondervan’s CEO and the team at Zondervan that have spoken in a decisive manner with a high level of integrity.

It was more than a week ago that four Asian-American leaders engaged in a conference call with executives from Zondervan, regarding their recently published book, Deadly Viper Character Assassin: A Kung Fu Survival Guide for Life and Leadership. While the authors of the book have issued a public apology for the offense and harm their material has caused, we have yet to hear officially from Zondervan.  In that conference call, Zondervan promised to act upon the conversations with members of the Asian-American Christian community.  There is no reason to suspect that Zondervan will not act upon their promise. To some extent, it is understandable that they would take some time to deliberate their course of action.  However, we must continue to make our perspective clear to Zondervan.  As they are formulating their response, I would ask that they consider the following:

(1)    A very significant outcry from the Asian-American community (pastors, ministers, academics, lay leaders, etc.) has called for a public apology and the dropping of the entire theme of the book. If there is no or a limited response from Zondervan regarding this material, it would be a slap in the face of the Asian-American Christian community (and many others as well), who spoke in a very clear and unmistakable voice asking for the cessation of this theme.

(2)    Please do not look for the easy compromise. Changing a font here and a photo here would only be cosmetic change to something that was misguided from the onset.  We have already seen the evidence of where this theme leads. Some of the more egregious examples arose from what may have been good intentions at the beginning, but deteriorated into caricature and stereotype by the time many of us encountered this material.  In other words, simply excising the external product minimizes the immediate damage, but does not prevent future damage from occurring.  We have seen the fruit from the poisonous tree.  By allowing the tree to stand, we may see more damaged fruit from this venture.

(3)    Because of the book, there has already been significant damage to the credibility of Christian witness to non-Christian Asian-Americans.  On this blog, I have stopped a number of responses from non-Christian Asian-Americans who expressed through profanity, their perspective on the book.  Their ire was oftentimes directed towards Christians and towards Christianity.  A significant portion of the Asian-American community remains an unreached people group.  This book provides a significant barrier to the gospel for many unreached Asian-Americans. There are some who have asserted that there are many who are connecting to the material and that the martial arts theme is the only way to keep these individuals engaged in this important issue of Christian character.  I would challenge the creativity of the authors to come up with a way to continue to engage their target audience without denigrating and stereotyping the Asian-American community.  I would ask that the authors and Zondervan to consider whether it is justice to alienate and marginalize an unreached population for the purpose of titillating those who are interested in the marketing gimmick more than the issue of integrity and character.

To Mike Foster, Jud Wilhite, and the executives of Zondervan: “Do the RIGHT THING.”  Not the “financially expedient” thing.  Not the “minimizing the damage” thing.  Not the “we have to protect our interests” thing.  But as Christian leaders, do the right thing.

A range of voices from the academy continue to chime in on the issue.  Bo Lim, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University provides his perspective on the DVZ controversy.

Bo Lim

The authors of Deadly Viper and Zondervan have heard from Asian American Christians that the book is hurtful and have apologized, but they continue to sell the book.  By their actions it appears they do not believe that the book itself is harmful.  I believe the authors and Zondervan do not believe that the book is harmful because they do not understand that the U.S. is a racialized society and the how negative ethnic stereotypes function within such a culture.

The U.S. possesses a legacy of inequities based upon race.  In America black means something different than in Africa.  Yellow in the U.S. means something different than in Asia.  Because of this the authors cannot bypass the concerns of Asian Americans when they employ Asian stereotypes.  A recent event in Seattle demonstrates the harm in importing foreign cultural symbols without the consent of Americans of the same race.  The Seattle Zoo constructed an East African village within the zoo grounds complete with people from the Maasai culture.  The Maasai were proud to display their culture in the US, but it is African Americans who have had to deal with a history of being caricatured as primates.  It is African Americans who have to deal with comments like, “Your people are in a zoo?”  The use of Asian cultural symbols by the authors of Deadly Viper may possibly flatter Asians, but it may cause harm to the Asian American community because we are a racial minority in the U.S.

Certainly negative stereotypes are insulting, but are they actually harmful?   Yale historian Matthew Jacobsen observes that the phenomena of “pan-whiteness” which emerged in the 20th century is defined by the following two characteristics:  one had to shed ethnic identity markers that were traditionally not white; and one had to perpetuate acts of violence against non-whites.[1] I can attest to an example of this from my youth.  At the middle school I attended in San Francisco we had so many recent Chinese immigrants that Cantonese and Mandarin could regularly be heard in the school yard.  I recall when a white friend of mine grabbed a hold of a smaller student speaking in Chinese, slammed him against the wall, and screamed in his face, “This is America!  Speak English!”  I am ashamed to say that I laughed consentingly at his actions in my desire to be accepted by my white friend.

Will Deadly Viper encourage acts of violence against Asian Americans?  I should think not given its target audience.  But what it does do is objectify Asian Americans in the same demeaning manner as those who do engage in acts of violence against Asian Americans.  While not encouraging violence, Deadly Viper does support Jacobson’s definition of what it means to be white in America.  Viewed in this manner the book is harmful to not only Asian Americans, but also to white Americans since it reinforces a destructive identity of what it means to be white.

A couple of weeks ago while shopping at a Game Stop in a Seattle suburb I unintentionally annoyed another white patron.  He and I were both in search for good deals on used PS2 games and apparently he didn’t appreciate the fact that I was in competition with him.  He was there with his son and I was with my children.  He grew so angry that he openly began to boast of how he was going to beat me up, punch me out, and smack me down while his son giggled gleefully at the machismo displayed by his father.  Unsurprisingly, he referred to me as, “That damn Chinaman!”

The man did not assault me, but I do wonder if his son will grow to one day assault my children or another Asian American.  Unfortunately Asian Americans continue to be objectified as “damn Chinamen” or “Chicka Wah Wah” (see ch 5).  I am particularly troubled by the depiction of Asian women in the book.  They are stereotyped as the submissive and sexy Geisha girl, the martial arts mistress, or the dominating Dragon Lady.  They are exotic objects either to be feared or mastered by men.  While the authors and Zondervan are not responsible for causing injustices against minorities, they are responsible for how they respond to them.  If Christian discipleship involves seeking justice and righteousness (Amos 5:24), our responsibility is to fight against hurtful stereotypes in order to bring harmful acts to an end.

To my Asian American sisters and brothers I remind us that if we are going to claim that an injustice has taken place then we must advocate for others who are in similar need.  Otherwise we are merely engaging in identity politics and the accusation is true that we merely show the race card when it conveniences us.  To the authors and Zondervan, do not recall the book due to political pressure.  Recall it if you believe that is the just thing to do.  If you do recall the book please educate the masses of people who comprise your audience why you chose to do so lest blame fall on Asian Americans.


[1] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color:  European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998).  I am indebted to Jonathan Tran for introducing me to this work.