In the summer of 2004, LifeWay Publishing released “Rickshaw Rally: Racing to the Son,” a vacation bible school curriculum that was saturated with stereotypical images of Asians, mixing of different cultural heritages, and in general, a heaping pile of racism with a little “Jesus” sprinkled on top. When Asian American community members complained they were told that the offense was not intentional and furthermore: “this curriculum is really about preaching Jesus, and I wouldn’t want you to do anything that would stop Jesus from bring preached.” Non-Asians Americans also voiced their frustration with Rickshaw Rally, but LifeWay brushed these objections aside. Nearly ten years later, at the 2013 Mosaix Multi-Ethnic Church Conference LifeWay released this 1-1/2 minute apology for Rickshaw Rally: http://vimeo.com/78735039.
But this apology is not as simple as it sounds, nor is it necessarily a viable entrée into further dialog as some may have hoped…
“You’re here because you know something…that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” –Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, “The Matrix” (1999)
Life is a story. And how we tell that story says as much about us as it does about the world we are trying to describe.
Every story has a protagonist. In our westernized mind set, the protagonist is always an individual, even if that individual is one among many working for the same goal. However, something about that protagonist will stand out, or be made to stand out. He may be a wounded soul, or extraordinarily dumb; she may be particularly intelligent or particularly impetuous.
The story of Rickshaw Rally cannot be told in its entirety without recounting the prominent activism of people like Soong-Chan Rah. This is the story of a small band of Asian American Christians that dared to challenge the juggernaut of Christian publishing, and won: it was their risk-filled ten-year struggle that precipitated the apology delivered on November 7th, 2013, at the Mosaix Conference by LifeWay president Thom Rainer.
Or is it?
Every story has an antagonist. Sometimes the antagonist is a specific person, but it can also be something less anthropocentric, like a storm, a shark, or a mass of zombies. LifeWay, at the time, refused to alter or remove the offensive Rickshaw Rally curriculum from circulation. In fact, some churches within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) were compelled to purchase and used the material even after members of the SBC voiced their own objections to the material. Nor did any particular LifeWay leader stand out to answer for or defend the decisions which led to Rickshaw Rally’s genesis or publication.
“Relax, you’ve been erased”—US Marshal John Kruger, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Eraser” (1996)
LifeWay’s November 7th apology made no mention of the heroic activism by members of any ethnicity who opposed their original Rickshaw Rally curriculum. When specific members of the Asian American community, including Soong-Chan Rah and others challenged the curriculum, LifeWay plodded forward as an uncaring, impersonal, unknowable, faceless, amorphous and unaccountable force of nature. But in LifeWay’s November 7th “apology” Thom Rainer is the focal point, and those who dared act as speed-bumps before the steamroller of evangelistic racial stereotyping that was Rickshaw Rally are reduced to the mere mention of “some.” Now it is those “many in the Asian American community” that are the faceless mob. Furthermore Rainer makes no mention of who LifeWay will be accountable to with only a vague reference to future dialogue with “ethnic leaders.” In fact, the curriculum itself receives more mention in the apology than those who fought against it.
By replacing Asian American activists with a white CEO in the role of protagonist, LifeWay has fundamentally altered the structure of this narrative. In effect, the tale has gone from David v. Goliath, a story of under-dog protest, activism, suffering, and risk, to one of self-realized/actualized repentance. Yes, LifeWay apologized, but did they apologize because they suddenly decided they were wrong? or because they truly valued and listened to the concerns that were raised by Asian Americans and other people of color? Thom Rainer states “LifeWay will continue to train our staff to be aware of and sensitive to ethnic and cultural difference so that our materials continue to respectfully represent all people groups.” Really? Where is the continuity? If LifeWay’s material had respectfully represented all people groups ten years ago, then what were my Asian, African American, and some white brothers and sisters protesting about all this time? Doesn’t the erasure of Asian American activism from this story form a second offense: further reinforcing Asian invisibility and insignificance?
You see, how we tell the story matters.
“Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view” –Obi Wan Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guiness, “Return of the Jedi” (1983)
Film schools sometimes use an interesting exercise to teach students about story-telling. The assignment will be to take a film of a certain genre and cut/splice scenes to fit a completely different genre. An example might be cutting “Bridge Jones’s Diary” (a 2001 romantic comedy) in such a way as to convince the audience that the film is actually a 007-esque techno-spy thriller. Within our individualistic culture, protagonists are always individuals. The individual carries the story. Therefore, in a story with only two individuals, deleting the protagonist always results in the antagonist becoming the new protagonist. Like the film school exercise, but with far greater historical implications: LifeWay’s apology conveniently slices up past historical events, and recasts their CEO as the individual, personal, relatable activist/protagonist while Asian Americans become the faceless complainants. In doing so LifeWay has not simply erased the true hero-activists of this story, but has replaced them with a pretender of its own creation. A more thorough corruption is difficult to imagine.
“Some of the most successful relationships are based on lies and deceit. Since that’s where they usually end up anyway, it’s a logical place to start.”—Yuri Orlov, played by Nicholas Cage, “Lord of War” (2005)
But is this where we as Christians want to start our dialogues? What kind of relationship can be built on such a corrupt foundation? The erasure of my activist uncles and aunties troubles me far more than any race-mixing stereotypes. I refuse to sacrifice the prophets of my people before the idol of LifeWay’s “apology.”
Now playing: “Revenge of the Rickshaw Rally” where the white supremacist system that spawned such racist curriculum seeks to supplant the very heroes who fought to banish it. This is one show I won’t be buying tickets to, and neither should you.