What Christians can learn from China’s recent Church-State clash over Sanjiang Church’s demolition

In case you are not all too familiar with the subject of Sanjiang church, here is an event recapitulation from a recent New York Times report:

For nearly a year, the Sanjiang Church was the pride of this city’s growing Christian population. A landmark in the fast-developing northern suburbs, its 180-foot spire rose dramatically against a rocky promontory. Wenzhou, called “China’s Jerusalem” for the churches dotting the cityscape, was known for its relaxed ties between church and state, and local officials lauded the church as a model project.

Late last month, however, the government ordered it torn down, saying it violated zoning regulations. After fruitless negotiations and a failed effort by the congregation to occupy the church, on April 28 backhoes and bulldozers knocked down the walls and sent the spire toppling to the ground.

“People are stunned,” said one member of the congregation, who asked that she be identified only by her English name, Mabel, out of fear of government reprisals. “They have completely lost faith in the local religious authorities.”

This urban area of nine million in eastern China, nestled between rugged mountains and a jagged coastline, has moved to the center of a national battle with a Communist Party increasingly suspicious of Christianity and the Western values it represents. Since March, at least a dozen other churches across Zhejiang Province have been told to remove their crosses or have received demolition orders, a significant escalation in a party campaign to counter the influence of China’s fastest-growing religion. (read more)

 

Though diverse legal excuses and defense accounts were offered by the bureaucracy, an internal government document reviewed by The New York Times makes it clear the demolitions are part of a strategy to reduce Christianity’s public profile.

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The Sanjiang Church, torn down in April, is now a pile of rubble on a hillside. Officials said it violated zoning laws, but a government document talked about reducing Christianity’s profile. (Credit Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times)

So do Christian learn from Beijing’s unease over their rising influence in China? Let’s analyse the recent church-state developmental twist step-by-step:

1) President Xi praised Buddhism for its contributions to China and vows to take Confucianism seriously.

2) However, state-sanctioned Sanjiang ‘Three-Self’ Church was brutally torn down of its building of $5.5 million worth, allegedly for its ‘obtrusive’ cross symbol seen from nearby highway.

3) Other churches were also told to low-profile their Christian symbols to avoid a similar fate.

 

The apparent rationale, offered by Rev. Matthew Zhen at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, is because “Buddhism and Daoism are embedded in Chinese traditional culture,”while « Islam, Christianity and Catholicism have a relatively short history in China. »

But we all know what « time » and « history » mean in this context. It means cultural integration and contextualization. 

A culturally integrated religion poses a smaller threat and is easier to harness for political gains when the government wishes to rule through culture.

However, borrowing Richard Niebuhr’s paradigm laid out in Christ and Culture (1951), it is obvious that only a « Christ of Culture » mode of Christianity would succumb to full cultural integration, while the « Christ above culture » and « Christ and culture in paradox » branches/elements of Christianity would be in no way compromise their essence.

This is not to say cross as a symbol per se is the quintessential to the Christian expression. On the other hand, Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions have been so deeply culturally integrated so as to leave no capacity in drawing a critical distance from the Chinese culture and make themselves plastic to other cultures.

It is here that I see great pertinence in one of Dr. Alex Shaokai Tseng’s recent post, in which he warns the danger of a new form of idolatry perceived as discursive and pervasive among Chinese ministers. This idolatry is characterized by an eagerness to shoe-horn the gospel into all kinds of Chinese situations, as every attempt to renew the culture with the gospel (apparent ‘Christ transforming culture’) is indeed serving the cause of China instead of Christ.

Elsewhere, Tseng expressed his [ironic] cheerfulness to see the Chinese government brutally tore down the Sanjiang Three-Self Church, quoting reformed professor Richard Pratt’s saying, « consider it your glory if your seminary gets bombed by terrorists. »

Prima facie it may seem hard to swallow. So I have a few things to add. The old Chinese proverb from Mengzhi has this: « life springs from sorrow and calamity, death comes from ease and pleasure. (生於憂患,死於安樂) »

That suffering for the Lord, for justice, and for the things you did not really do wrong could serve as a ground for Christian joy is warranted by various biblical witnesses (Acts and 1 Peter in particular).

However, human weaknesses as expressed in Rev. Matthew Zhen and other ministers working locally should also be addressed with empathy and not blamed harshly. Zhen apparently sees that « insufficient integration » is the cause for this [avoidable] church-state clash, especially when Islam and Christianity have been seen as associated recently with separationist movements and historically with imperialist agendas, respectively. On account of this, no wonder many Chinese ministers would dive themselves into the enterprise of loosening the church-state tension with attempts to ‘hasten’ the contextualization process and to make « contributions » (tributes?) to the Chinese society, competing for constitutional/institutional favors against Buddhism and Daoism.

I am reluctant to say that this enterprise is wrongheaded, but our Chinese public theology endeavor must be more theologically ordered and nuanced, which should first remind us that, as Stanley Hauerwas said, « the distinction between church and state is the theologically primitive distinction, just to the extent that Christian theology must insist that we can only know the truth about who we are by attending to a story(Performing Faith, Brazos:2004, 16; emphasis mine).

This story is the church’s election and redemption in Christ, and a Christian public theology, with the belief that Christians’ responsibility extend beyond the church walls towards the public sphere, nonetheless cannot live up to this public (« creative ») call unless this theologically primitive distinction is maintained by a church faithfully undergirded in God’s elective (« redemptive ») call for her.

This boils down to three attitudes from us Chinese Christianity observers:

  1. We display indignation for the unjust and dishonest ruling communist party
  2. We show sympathy for the suffering and the human resort to ease them by the Chinese church leaders
  3. We express envy and hope for the purified faith and joy the suffering members of Christ shall be awarded in their unrelenting proclamation, « Christ is Lord! »

 

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