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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, July 03, 2009

Persecution in China 

I have always had a certain feeling of ambivalence regarding the persecution of Christians in China. The reason for this is because the cases I hear about are decidedly political in nature. It is true that certain activities of Christians that would not be cause for trouble with the police in any western country are enough to get you arrested here. But it is simply not true that Chinese people are being rounded up just because they are Christians. They get into difficulty when they categorically reject any control of religion by the state. A pastor being apprehended by the police because he is attending to the spiritual needs of his flock is just not the same as a pastor being apprehended by the police because he wants to see President Bush and lodge a protest, especially when his protest is not about the right to worship God freely, but the right to build his own inter-church organization in competition with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

But recently, some of the cases that have come to my attention have had more to do with Christians who are technically violating the government policy, but who are not in any way political. This has caused me to wonder if perhaps it isn't time to have a discussion about the policy itself, especially since it is enforced so unevenly throughout China. I'll tell you what the scoop is, and you can decide. The government policy requires all churches to register. But house churches are expressly exempted from this requirement:There is no registration requirement for, to quote from Chinese Christians, "house services," which are mainly attended by relatives and friends for religious activities such as praying and Bible reading.The problem, of course, is that if this house church is successful, you will have a few more relatives and a few more friends and pretty soon you are pushing the limits of the policy. A recent case in Henan Province illustrates this situation. The case concerns a house church that was ordered closed by the police in December of 2008. The court judgment does not state why the church was shut down, but one can deduce that it was probably because the church in question, although not large, was clearly more than just "relatives and friends."

So here's the question: When the church was closed by the police in December of 2008, should the house church Christians have accepted this action, and ceased meeting, or were they right to deliberately defy the order? Nothing would have prevented them from continuing to meet in small groups in compliance with the government policy. Yet, while the public meeting they were conducting was clearly more than just "relatives and friends," it really wasn't that large, and certainly not more than many, many informal house churches throughout China. I visited a "house" church just a couple weeks ago that was held in a rented room in the Central Business District here in Beijing. There were fewer than a hundred people there, but the room could have held a couple hundred quite easily. I don't attend house churches very often, because they are not set up to accommodate foreigners (no English translation), and they often meet on Sunday mornings, which takes me away from my home church. But I have been to several, and I can tell you for sure that an informal church meeting with a hundred or so members is not at all unusual in China. Most of the time, the police look the other way. The largest unregistered "house church" I have attended was Samuel Lamb's church in Guangzhou, which accommodates several thousand worshippers a week in four services. When confronted by the police, Samuel Lamb (Lin Xiangao) insisted that he was in full compliance with the government policy ("this is my home; these are my friends").

I suppose I should mention that the case I have singled out here took place in Henan Province. Henan has a special reputation in China. I was not aware of this when I first came to China, but you can't live in this country very long without hearing about it. They are viewed as shifty, underhanded and willing to say anything to get out of a tight spot. A friend from Henan said, "Henan is to China what China is to the rest of the world." I was amused by this statement, because it expresses two stereotypes at the same time. Henan people would no doubt dislike the first one, and Chinese people in general, although endorsing the first one, would be insulted by the second one. I am a bit wary of stereotypes, because there are always notable exceptions. But I suppose it would be safe to say that Henan seems to have been characterized by a unique hostility to the Christian message. The Heavenly Man chronicles the brutal suppression of house churches throughout the eighties. And Henan's hostility to the gospel is not new. When Jonathan Goforth, the 19th Century Canadian missionary announced that he was going to do work in Henan Province, Hudson Taylor wrote him a letter:We have been trying, unsuccessfully, for ten years, to get into Honan [pre Pinyin spelling]. We’ve been beaten, stoned, and turned back time and again. Brother, if you would enter that province, you must go forward on your knees!The year was 1888. As I said, Henan has a reputation.

There is a bright side. The persecution in Henan has produced a rich, vibrant Christianity. There is a peasant woman in Henan who has written more than a thousand hymns--beautiful melodious hymns rich in worship and praise to God. So I do not have fears for the church. The hostility toward Christians in Henan has had the effect of making the church stronger, not weaker. But China is more and more interested in being seen as a normal country within the community of nations, so it remains for us to discuss how this policy could be adapted to effect a more fair and uniform enforcement throughout China. I must confess to having mixed feelings about this. In one sense, it seems very unfair that these Christians are singled out for trouble, when house churches of this size are almost routinely tolerated throughout this country. But it is just as true that the restriction on large meetings has had the effect of building a very strong Christian community in China. I attended a mega-church in Arizona for seven years. Every once in awhile, they would have a big push for development of small groups. The idea would take off for awhile, and then people would gradually lose interest. They would come for one of the big weekend events, but didn't bother to join a small group. Mega-churches in America tend to follow a rock concert motif, where the audience is largely being entertained. And, of course, church discipline is virtually nonexistent (except in the case of church staff). This does not make for a healthy, robust church community. American mega-churches tend to be materially rich and morally feeble.

China is very different. House churches tend to be small, because that keeps them "under the radar," so to speak. Church discipline is intense (sometimes excessively so), and people know each other, so they are less likely to slip through the cracks, as happens so often in large American churches. But much of this would also be true in churches up to say, about 150 or 200. You don't need to be small enough to fit in a living room to be personal. It seems to me that there wouldn't be any harm in allowing house churches to grow to a moderate level. It is quite apparent that the cops in most places agree with me, because, as I said, there are many such churches in China, and they are not shut down, or harassed, and their pastors are not sent to labor camps.

So what would you do? If you were going to write the policy, how would you word it? Remember, China is not a Christian country. There are lots and lots of very "interesting" people in this country. If you get to loose about allowing any group to meet and organize without government supervision, you could be opening a "Pandora's box." Or am I too worried? Just let people do whatever they want? You see, when you put the responsibility on your own shoulders, it does compel you to view the problem a bit more comprehensively. I think China needs to change. But what kind of change? I do think that America, as a (formerly) Christian nation, has taught the world much about the importance of faith in the life of society. But I also fear that American style religious freedom, with all of its excesses, is probably not the best model for China. China needs to find Chinese solutions to Chinese problems.

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