‘I Forgive Them’: On the 23rd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989
By Chai Ling (Founder of All Girls Allowed)
Two decades ago, the Chinese government’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square left hundreds of my fellow students dead. Since then a new generation has grown up in China, and many of them are kept in the dark about what happened on this day in China’s history.
To me it seems like just yesterday. I began that day with great hope and anticipation for a new China, but it ended as a day of unspeakable sorrow. Now, 23 years have passed. Many things have changed: people grew older, and some key Communist Party leaders from 1989 have passed away. But many people — whether they say this openly or not — know that this chapter of China’s history has not closed yet.
How will this chapter be written? How will the story end? The world still watches China with great interest, as the recent cases of Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai proved. For the past 23 years, I too, have tried to understand the meaning of Tiananmen. I vividly recall that last hour: standing at Tiananmen Square, watching in disbelief as a disaster unfolded around us.
As I was writing A Heart for Freedom, I finally understood. There could only be two futures for China: an outcome of continued fear, or a destiny that opens the door to true freedom — and forgiveness.
In the Hebrew scriptures, King David’s son Absalom rebelled and took the throne from his own father by force. Even in the face of this betrayal, David forgave his son. He told his generals that they should show mercy if they overcame the rebel army and captured the wayward son: « For my sake, deal gently with young Absalom. » (2 Samuel 18) But when Absalom was found alone and vulnerable, the generals chose to ignore David and kill Absalom — thus continuing the pattern of violence.
I know that those responsible for oppression in China will also find themselves vulnerable one day, just like Absalom did. And so the question stands: When that day comes, will China continue with a pattern of harsh retribution, or a will it begin a path of grace, mercy and compassion?
You may wonder how China’s seemingly immovable leadership will ever be vulnerable. The answer is: it is human, it has always been vulnerable, and it is more vulnerable now than ever before.
There is little true security in China, even for leaders. Power, money and military or police forces can give a few people temporary wealth and stability, but these things cannot provide lasting security.
In 1989, the number two leader Zhao Ziyang lost all his power and freedom for disagreeing with Deng Xiaoping’s decision to use force against students at Tiananmen. Later, so did a strong hardliner who initially supported the move: former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong was sentenced to 16 years in jail. And now Bo Xilai has fallen from grace. These leaders may have looked invincible from the outside, but they lost everything. As Chen Xitong confessed recently in a Chinese interview, « In all those high level political battles, each side is trying to outdo the other side by being more cunning, more malicious, and more brutal. »
The system in China suppresses humanity and compassion. It imprisoned and persecuted Chen Guangcheng, a blind attorney, for advocating on behalf of 130,000 women who underwent forced abortions and forced sterilizations. The climate of fear and self-preservation can affect all levels of society. A woman named Mei Shunping testified last month that two of the five forced abortions she suffered in China came after her co-workers reported her pregnancies to officials. Last fall, over a dozen people walked right past a dying toddler after she was run over by a van in a street.
This is the atmosphere that we students wanted to see end at Tiananmen. It is painful for me to remember what happened on that June 4th, 1989, when I witnessed the death of a dream. I still mourn for what « could have been. » And for a long time, I battled bitterness and anger whenever I thought of the leaders who chose to take a path of destruction that day.
But then I was confronted with the example of Jesus. He loved women, children, the poor and the oppressed in a way that was radically countercultural — and he called me to do the same.
He also forgave the very people who ridiculed him and nailed him to a cross: « Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. » (Luke 24:34)
And again, he called me to do the same. (read more)
For those who did not know, Chai Ling is the Chinese expatriate (currently residing in Washington DC) who is renowned for her leadership and involvement in the Tiananmen Square incident 23 years ago. After exiling to the USA, she became a believer of Jesus Christ, which consequently dramatic transformative effect in her personality. Jesus Christ has has purportedly set her free from her hatred (against the Chinese government) and guilt (for the death of her compatriots/companions).
However, her public self-disclosure of such an attitude has provoked the Chinese people and the media. On the one hand, her speech is diametrically against the grain of those 180,000 demonstrators just rallied in Hong Kong at the night of June 4th, which is about undoing the injustice. On the other hand, the fact that she just forfeited her accountability to those dead demanded on her part -in plain conscience- sounds obnoxious to those who expect her to fulfill her part in bringing justice to the victims/martyrs.
To be honest, I I sense that I am on the same page with Chai Ling. As my life is honed by God and as I genuinely take Christianity inside of my heart, I no longer consider poverty, failure, and celibacy a curse or something unbearable. I totally understand how and why she is encouraged and impelled to say these by the sort of gospel she receives.
The Apostle Paul in Romans 12:19 says, ‘Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: « It is mine to avenge; I will repay, » says the Lord.’
And King David instructs us in Psalms 37:1, « Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong. »
Again and again, the Bible plainly discourages any kind of negative attitude that was somehow paradoxically the uniting theme among the 180,000 demonstrators rallied in HK. In addition, the Bible also discourages any association with earthly power as a means to achieve justice, because otherwise we just won’t have genuine peace- either externally or internally.
As a reward of our Christian faith, I am granted inner peace that frees me from resentment, anxiety, and jealousy, as Chai Ling’s inner peace frees her from hatred and guilt. Common to both of our spiritual pilgrimage is a phase of conversion called ‘inner healing’ that is supposed to take away our negative feelings and hurt in exchange for a sense of tranquility in our heart.
However, there is no denial that genuine peace could by no means be divorced from the pursuit of justice. Justice requires concrete actions to attain and maintain.
The real challenge for Christians (Chai Ling and me) is to be no less radical in our insistence for social justice while being less committed/passionate in matters of the world. For the more I can endure hunger, poverty, pain, loneliness, and failure, naturally, the less I tend to feel compassionate to those who suffer from shortages of food, wealth, medical care, and want of upward social mobility. My faith has alleviate my negative feelings about these things. And as I see no need of bothering myself so such and striving so hard to get myself rid of these « miserable » condition (since I no longer feel ‘miserable’ being as such, and now my motivation of life is to imitate the mind of Christ, instead of ‘getting fed, getting rich, getting well, or getting successful), I naturally feel less urged to identify myself with these [leftist and materialist] causes.
It boils now to this: Can we still be for the world as much once we feel that we are only in the world but are not of the world?
Karl Marx has a reason to think that we are victimized by spiritual-opium overdose, if the cure which the Christian belief brings to us is through making us more insensitive/numb to pain.
However, this should not be the case and is never the case for Jesus, Son of God and Founder of Christianity, who, according to the Epistle of Hebrews, is perfectly capable of empathizing with us precisely because He also suffered and endured. His passion drives His Passion as he acts out to redeem us with His life- not just praying for us.
Divine impassivity is a big doctrinal lie, a foreign (Greek) notion to the revelation of the Christian scripture, and our modelling after God should not be built upon such a lie.
Back to Chai Ling, we might say that since she prays for external peace, her faith is far from inactivity. But if this means that the divine justice she longs for has to be brought out by others committing their lives and getting their hands dirty, then she is really closer to Anabaptists than she is to Jesus.
In this sense, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is closer to the example of Jesus- he is willing to get his hands dirty, but such a willingness is driven by compassion- for people’s lives, rather than hatred- against the Nazis.
As Mirosalv Volf correctly says, reconciliation could never be achieved without the repentance and a degree of justice being done.
Thus, it is one thing to say that we are ready to forgive (ourselves as well as the offenders), but quite the other to say that genuine reconciliation could take place in this way. Reconciliation requires forgiveness on the victim’s part, repentance on the offender’s part, and justice on the external structural level.
As we can see from the gospels, Jesus’ forgiveness of the tax collector Zacchaeus is only the first step to set his relation right with God, but his reconciliation with God and the whole world did not take place until his true repentance led to corresponding actions (sharing his wealth and repaying fourfold for those unjustified gains).
We Christians all enjoy the soft and loving gospel, and it is a temptation:
- we forgive ourselves and everyone (but we are not fixing it with concrete, in-person, measures);
- we pray for those who suffer (but we do not feel compelled to fight for them as we cannot identify with their ‘un-Christian’ and overly ‘materialist’ causes);
- we pray for those offenders (but we are not as committed in taking their wicked claws/power off as if God could not make this happen without human collaboration on our part).
These are all good. Nonetheless, the gospel is more than these. If we have not grappled with the controversial gospel of Jesus, we probably have not gotten our Christian faith right.
Controversial gospel and spiritual sensitivity, hum? Indeed. Let’s remember, God in Jesus Christ never loses His spiritual sensitivity. He is by no means of incapable of identifying with our groaning and mundane causes (all the while he could never be subdued to it). He feeds the hungry, heals the wounded, liberates the oppressed, and vindicates the wronged. There is also no compromise to structural evil in the cause of Jesus Christ.
Our imitation of Christ is far from the real deal, if we cannot « rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who. » (Romans 12:15)
Specifically, Chai Ling might not need to become the ‘queen’ over the HK crowded who rallied under the Tiananmen cause. As a follower of Christ, she should not.
However, she must not let her speech discourage such causes: justice and vindication. A step further for we Christians after attaining inner peace must lead us to act more resolutely and [com]passionately for the broken souls of the world.
That is the one extra mile we need to walk with our Lord and with the world.