Like many Chinese Christians of his generation, Brother Bai had a stirring autobiography shaped by China’s tumultuous 20th century. He told me matter-of-factly that he had been imprisoned twice for his religious beliefs. The first time he had been sentenced to five years, the second time to nine. He made a surprising admission: his nine years in prison had been much easier than the earlier five because he had learned how “to call on the name of the Lord.”
When taking an interest in Chinese Christianity, the Western media usually focuses on conflicts between Christians and their government. If we seek out the words and testimonies of Chinese Christians themselves, however, we find that most have never experienced direct persecution. Furthermore, even those who have undergone significant personal suffering often explain their persecution in unexpected ways.
While the events recounted by Brother Bai were especially dramatic, during a recent research trip to China, I talked to a number of Christians who had similar stories. Although they had been singled out for their faith, they were resolute and calm. They explained that they harbored no grudges and frequently prayed for the Communist government as well as for the neighbors, officials, and others who had accused, persecuted, and tormented them.
Though it captures audience share, the Western media’s narrow attention on Chinese government crackdowns does a disservice to that country’s Christians. The focus on persecution offers a one-sided depiction of their experiences and fails to convey their core values. When asked specifically about government oppression, one Chinese Christian leader defined “persecution” as secularism, materialism, and greed. Such a response gets closer to the heart of the actual concerns of Chinese Christians.
Even if they do not convert, many Chinese consider Christianity to be an effective antidote to rampant corruption and moral vacuity. The main barrier to the spread of Christianity in China is not official opposition but the common woes faced by human beings trying to survive in a globalized, hyper-capitalist society. Millions of Chinese work in urban factories, doing uninspiring work for low wages. At the same time, they face increasing evidence that material success does not bring joy. Even among China’s economic elite, there is a growing sense of spiritual emptiness.
In contrast to Western philosophy, Chinese metaphysics tends to emphasize the ethical and practical over the speculative. Like many contemporary Christians throughout the world, Chinese Christians insist that God is concerned with the quotidian details of human life: financial pressures, family problems, and so on.
In particular, Chinese Christian theology is marked by the kind of paradoxical ecstasy achieved through discipline and self-denial. The ethical rigor typical of Chinese thought is a natural complement to Christianity’s tradition of asceticism and mysticism. This explains why a middle-aged Christian who had spent substantial time in prison asserted that it had been a salutary experience, arranged by God, through which Christ had dealt with his “self”—by which he implied his ego, self-centeredness, and natural hubris.
Many factors have contributed to the equanimity and even joy with which self-denial is preached and practiced. For one thing, the Chinese emphasis on “doing” over theory led to the development of a number of popular spiritual disciplines. For instance, Brother Bai referenced the practice of invoking Jesus’ name audibly, a spiritual discipline widely associated with the teachings of Witness Lee (1905-1997, 李常受, Pinyin: Lǐ Chángshòu), one of the most profound and important Chinese Christian thinkers of the 20th century.
Lee and the local churches that followed his teachings pioneered various forms of private and public worship that were easily accessible to lay audiences. In so doing, they introduced lay believers to the virtuoso mysticism of traditional Christianity and infused it with new vibrancy.
More importantly, Chinese Christians understand that mystical ecstasy is not an end in itself. They see their actions as directed toward a higher goal. In particular many believe themselves to be part of the final chapter in a long Christian story, the closing act that will usher in Jesus Christ’s return. This belief bestows profound meaning to their lives. Living in a society in which they observe that pleasure and money do not fill the soul, their theology is decisively self-sacrificial and purposive.
Chinese Christians have discovered powerful theological responses to the apparent insignificance and grinding pressures of modern human life and they are enthusiastically seeking to share this message with the world. For most Chinese Christians, the story of their faith is not one of imprisonment, but of liberation.
References and Further Reading:
Fulton, Brent and Jan Vermeer. “China Isn’t Trying to Wipe Out Christianity.”Christianity Today, February 25, 2013. Views/Speaking Out.http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/february-web-only/china-isnt-trying-to-wipe-out-christianity.html.
Johnson, Ian. “Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong.” The New York Review of Books, March 24, 2014, NYR Blog.http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/mar/24/chinese-atheists-pew-gets-wrong/.
Gardam, Tim. “Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?” BBC News, September 12, 2011, Magazine. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14838749.
Hardenberg, Donata. “Christianity: China’s best bet?” Aljazeera, July 1, 2011, In Depth Features.http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2011/06/2011629646319175.html.
Image Credit: Olear / Elmer Anthony (flickr Creative Commons)
Author, Paul H. B. Chang, is Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a 2013-14 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. Chang's dissertation focuses on 20th Century Chinese Christianity and its implications for the development of World Christianity.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.