Partnership not Persecution: A Modest Proposal for the Future of China and her Christian Intellectuals

Why the current spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses may offer China with its best hope for a future of peace and prosperity.

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD | Senior Editor

Obama’s current visit to China for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit and his call for improved human rights in China at the same time when Chinese officials are in the midst of a crackdown on both student protests in Hong Kong and student-filled Churches in Beijing has thrown a media spotlight on the future of Christianity in China among its young intellectuals. (See, The rise of Christianity in China and Cracks in the Atheist Edifice.)

The Great Wall stretches for over 4000 miles, nearly as wide as the current divide between China’s government and her Christian intellectuals.

While the government has worked hard to erase public memory of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, images of crowds and tanks continue to haunt Chinese officials, especially in light of the global phenomena of social media driven revolution. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Political analysts have speculated that the government crackdown is a reaction to the protests across the Middle East, which leaders here fear could encourage similar uprisings.”

Since university students played a key leadership role in those protests, it is only natural to assume that Christian university students are a potential threat to political stability in China. However, as the number of Christians in China begins to surpass the number of communist party members, the broad spiritual awakening on Chinese campuses could actually offer a bright hope for peaceful engagement of Christian intellectuals in the future of Chinese culture-making. (See, Vibrant Faith Among Future Chinese Culture Makers: Christians Now Outnumber Communists, especially on Campuses.)

By working against a new generation of Christian leaders on many of China’s leading universities, the Chinese government may actually be working against the very intellectuals who might become their strongest allies against an Egyptian-style revolution.

A Call for ‘Faithful Presence’ Among Chinese Christian Intellectuals

While some Chinese Christian intellectuals may indeed choose to embrace “power-based” approaches to culture-making, many espouse the “faithful presence” advocated by University of Virginia Christian public intellectual James Davison Hunter. Based upon Jeremiah’s prophesy to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, Hunter calls for Christians to “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”[1] (See, CT’s excellent interview with James Davidson Hunter below.)

While written for the American cultural context, Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ theology clearly applies to China’s current political situation as well.

Hunter’s faithful presence approach to culture-making emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. As Hunter asserts in his Oxford University Press volume To Change the World:

“If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”[2]

While Hunter wrote ‘To Change the World’ for the American cultural context, his ‘faithful presence’ approach to culture-making is clearly applicable to China as well.

The presupposition that the goal of Christian intellectuals is regime change is as mistaken as it is foolish. Christians intellectual leaders primary concern is only that “the will of God be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[3] They serve to remind God’s people to follow the scriptural admonitions to: (1) “be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,”[4] and, (2) pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”[5]

Do you not need such citizens to make China great?

A Call for Restraint Among China’s Government Officials

Sadly, the current government crackdown could force Christian intellectuals into the unenviable position of choosing revolution over cooperation. As former Wheaton College professor Dennis Ockholm asserts: it is not Christians but governments who force the church to choose between “Christ Against Culture” and “Culture Against Christ” positions. [6] The last thing the Chinese government should do at this time is force their Christian intellectuals into this a position of cultural opposition.

Crackdown or Cooperation? Police usher worshippers onto bus at the site of a planned outdoor prayer service led by the Shouwang Church so popular with Christian intellectuals and top university students

Instead, I would propose that the Chinese government pursue a different strategy altogether. When Jerusalem’s first century political leaders first faced the powerful social-disruption often caused by Christian spiritual awakening, their initial instinct was a crackdown similar to current events in Beijing–incarceration, inquisition, and threats.

However, Gamaliel—a wise and honored leader—proposed a different strategy: let the Christians alone. He said in essence, “If the Christians are wrong, then their movement will eventually collapse on its own. However, if they are right and we persecute them, then we may not only find ourselves on the wrong side of history, we will be the ones who lose in the long run.”[7] Sadly, Gamaliel’s counsel prevailed only the briefest season when Jerusalem’s leaders quickly returned to their reign of terror—a reign that only served to strengthen and spread Christianity across the Roman world. Still, Gamaliel’s counsel is very much in keeping with the wisdom of China’s ancient tradition of the responsibility of each regime to act virtuously toward their citizens lest they lose their Mandate of Heaven to rule.

Two hundred years of Christianity in China have only proven the wisdom of Gamaliel’s counsel concerning Christianity in China. When Mao Zedong made it his personal mission to eradicate the one million Christians in the Middle Kingdom, the intense persecution he sponsored only served to strengthen and scatter Christianity throughout China. Today there are no less than 87 million Protestant and Catholic Christians in China, and no reason to believe that their numbers won’t continue to grow.

A Partnership for Peace and Prosperity

If China’s political leaders forswore persecution and instead looked to partner with Christian intellectuals committed to a ‘faithful presence’ theology, the implications for China’s future could be earth-shaking. Under-girding Communist egalitarianism and Confucianism ethics with the soul-strengthening power of authentic Christian spirituality could result in exactly the kind of revolutionary society the communist party first envisioned when it came to power.

Contrary to current Beijing policy, the specter of 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square is the best reason NOT to keep Christian intellectuals at arms length.

Such a synthesis might even form the foundation for the same kind of greatness that supported American society in its earliest days. The United States was not founded as a ‘Christian nation,’ so much as an unusual fusion of Christian ideals and Enlightenment intellectualism. America’s Christian/Intellectual synthesis (now nearly completely abandoned) helped form one of the strongest nations in history.

Might a similar synthesis be key to China’s future peace and prosperity?.

The World’s Next Great Nation

Western civilization is cracking under the weight of a rampant materialism made possible by our own failure to produce Christian citizens. It is a moral failure we invited upon ourselves by jettisoning our own Christian/Intellectual synthesis. And it is the same materialism that now threatens to devour China’s youth as well.

The moral strength provided by genuine Christian intellectualism could help shape the People’s Republic of China into the greatest nation on earth.

Yet in your very midst is the one community who might yet possess the key for a different future for China. Don’t destroy them. Embrace them. Foster an ongoing dialogue between government leaders and Christian intellectuals. Trust will be hard-won on both sides. But with so much at stake, it is trust that simply must be forged. Perhaps invitations to include top international Christian intellectuals might eventually enrich the conversation. [8]

No matter who the conversation partners might be, they need to listen carefully to one another in order to find the peace and prosperity so desperately desired by Christians and Communists alike. Who knows what fruit such a conversation might bear?

Who knows what a great nation might emerge from such a partnership?

 

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Faithful Presence

James Davison Hunter says our strategies to transform culture are ineffective, and the goal itself is misguided.

Interview by Christopher Benson in Christianity Today

Over two decades have passed since Allan Bloom’s famous polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, shook up the American academy. The time is ripe for another shakeup. Enter James Davison Hunter, whose latest contribution, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World(Oxford), promises to shake up American Christianity. An endorsement for Bloom’s book applies just as well to Hunter’s: It “will be savagely attacked. And, indeed, it deserves it, as this is the destiny of all important books … Reading it will make many people indignant, but leave nobody indifferent.”

Hunter, professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, is author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children.

To Change the World comprises three essays. The first examines the common view of “culture as ideas,” espoused by thinkers like Chuck Colson, and the corrective view of “culture as artifacts,” as recently argued by Andy Crouch in Culture Making. Both views, argues Hunter, are characterized by idealism, individualism, and pietism.

Hunter develops an alternative view of culture, one that assigns roles not only to ideas and artifacts but also to “elites, networks, technology, and new institutions.” American Christians—mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical—will not and cannot change the world through evangelism, political action, and social reform because of the working theory that undergirds their strategies. This theory says that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called ‘values.’ ” According to Hunter, social science and history prove that many popular ideas, such as “transformed people transform cultures” (Colson) and “in one generation, you change the whole culture” (James Dobson), are “deeply flawed.”

The second essay argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”

The third essay offers a different paradigm for cultural engagement, one Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

Christopher Benson, a writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado, spoke with Hunter about To Change the World. Benson’s work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christian Scholar’s Review, Image, and The City. Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, assisted in the interview…

CT: How does your paradigm of cultural engagement differ from the others?

JDH: All the paradigms speak to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be relevant to the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, “common” and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.

Christians need to abandon talk about “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” and “changing the world.” Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

Continue Reading

 


[1] The Prophet Jeremiah: chapter 29, verse 7

[2] Hunter, James Davison.  To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[3] The Gospel of Matthew: chapter 6, verse 10

[4] The Apostle Paul’s Letter to Titus: Chapter 3, verse 1.

[5] The Apostle Paul’s First Letter to Timothy: Chapter 2, verse 2. (See also, 1 Peter 2:13-17; Romans 13:1-7)

[6] “Culture against Christ,” Evangelical Theological Society, San Francisco, November 1992.

[7] The Book of Acts: Chapter 5, verses 33-39

[8] Conversation partners as diverse as James Davidson HunterMiroslav Volf, Vishal MangalwadiGeorge Weigel, NT Wright, etc.

 

Muslim Extremism or a New Pharaoh? The Future of Free Speech, Democracy and Religious Freedom in Egypt

Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square celebrate the resignation of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak on Friday. (Reuters / February 11, 2011)

The streets of Cairo erupted in celebration as 18 days of protest led to the surprise announcement that president Hosni Mubarak had resigned after nearly 30 years of iron-fisted rule.

What now for Egypt? Sharia Law, Democratic Society, a Military Dictatorship, or something else altogether? Will the freedom and unity afforded by nationalism and Facebook hold? Or will Egypt’s military or the Muslim Brotherhood make a play for greater power?

Excerpts from four of the best pieces I’ve read on the coming new order in Egypt.

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Avoiding a New Pharaoh

By Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times (@NickKristof on Twitter)

Eighteen days of protests lead to rejoicing in Tahrir Square Friday night. (Photo: Moises Saman for The New York Times.)

So Hosni Mubarak is out. Vice President Omar Suleiman says that Mubarak has stepped down and handed over power to the military. This is a huge triumph for people power, and it will resonate across the Middle East and far beyond (you have to wonder what President Hu Jintao of China is thinking right now). The narrative about how Arab countries are inhospitable for democracy, how the Arab world is incompatible with modernity — that has been shattered by the courage and vision of so many Tunisians and Egyptians.

It’s also striking that Egyptians triumphed over their police state without Western help or even moral support. During rigged parliamentary elections, the West barely raised an eyebrow. And when the protests began at Tahrir Square, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Mubarak government was “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Oops. So much for our $80 billion intelligence agency. On my Facebook fan page, I asked my fans (before the Tahrir protests began) what the next Tunisia would be. A surprising number said Egypt — if you were among them, you apparently did better than our intelligence community. Indeed, Egyptians in Tahrir told me that they were broadly inspired by America’s example of freedom, but that their greatest inspiration came from Tunisia and Al Jazeera. On Tahrir Square, there were signs saying “Thank you, Tunisia.” So, all of you Tunisians and Egyptians, “mabrouk” or “congratulations”! You’ve made history. The score in Egypt is: People Power, 1; Police State, 0.

But the game isn’t over, and now a word of caution…

Continue reading: Avoiding a New Pharaoh

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Egypt’s Christians After Mubarak

By Cornelis Hulsman in Cairo, with additional reporting by Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan for Christianity Today. (@CTmagazine on Twitter)

A two-year wave of persecution preceded Muslim-Christian unity in the protests: Will it continue?

There is much to make Christians in Egypt anxious about their relationship with Muslims. On January 1, a suicide bomb killed 23 people at an Alexandria church, and today’s resignation of President Hosni Mubarak signals changes that may make Christians’ presence more precarious. It’s no wonder that the country’s Christian minority is praying for peace more fervently than ever.

The demonstrations demanding Mubarak’s resignation, which began after the January collapse of Tunisia’s authoritarian government, were a rare instance of the country’s Muslims and Christians uniting in common cause. Many pastors and church leaders had urged Egyptian Christians, traditionally known as Copts, not to participate in the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. [Some] …even stood guard when Muslims paused for prayer.

Coptic Orthodox Bishop Markos told Christianity Today that he walked out on his neighborhood’s streets and was soon surrounded by friendly protestors. Markos said, “We are all one. There are no tensions between Muslims and Christians at all in this uprising.”

The bishop’s statement highlighted the unity between Muslims and Christians over democratic reform. But the underlying issues of religious conversion, intermarriage, and new religious buildings will continue to fuel deep tensions…

Christians are Egypt’s largest minority, representing 6 to 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people. About 90 percent of all Christians in Egypt are Orthodox, [but] Egypt also hosts a small but influential population of Protestants and evangelicals (more than 250,000), mostly located in Cairo and other major cities.

Many Christian leaders believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political group banned in Egypt, will grow in political power with Mubarak’s ouster. The brotherhood maintains strong support among some Egyptians. Religious-freedom analysts believe the leaders of the brotherhood, famous for the slogan “Islam is the solution,” could very well usher in repression of all minority religious groups…

Continue reading: Egypt’s Christians After Mubarak

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The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gospel of Christ

By Bob Kubinec for Christianity Today. (@CTmagazine on Twitter)

Once an openly radical group, the Muslim Brotherhood now espouses a moderation that might bode well for Egypt's Christians

The recent protests by Egyptian opposition movements have revealed a deep and abiding prejudice in the U.S. foreign policy community toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These feelings are shared among many evangelicals who tend to view all Islamic groups as prone to violence and militantly hostile to Israel and the Christian church.

While it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s views on a range of policy issues fall short of the American ideal of political liberalism, it is unfair to paint the group as the biggest threat in Egypt to the safety of Christians and the survival of Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative tendencies pale in comparison to the current regime’s persecution of their own citizens.

Although it may appear at first counter-intuitive, Egypt’s Christians could well be safer if the Muslim Brotherhood were a part of the ruling government….

Continue Reading: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Gospel of Christ

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Egypt’s Facebook Revolution

By Catharine Smith of The Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost on Twitter.)

Activists credit Facebook and other social media with success of peaceful coup

Shortly after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek stepped down from power on Friday, activist Wael Ghonim spoke with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and credited Facebook with the success of the Egyptian people’s uprising.

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I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him […] I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. […] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started […] in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet. […]

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Continue reading:  Egypt’s Facebook Revolution

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Muslim Brotherhood and Secular Reformers Join Forces to Support ElBaradei

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader, joined the protesters in Liberation Square in Cairo. (NYTIMES)

Culture-making and faith connections in Egypt’s turmoil became clearer as Muslim extremists joined secular reform movement leaders in supporting  Mohamed ElBaradei as spokesman for opposition to president Hosni Mubarak.  Two New York Times articles highlight the “good news – bad news” elements of this coalition that make it difficult for President Obama and the U.S. State Department to discern if they are helping or hurting Muslim extremism in the region.

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Opposition Rallies to ElBaradei as Military Reinforces in Cairo

CAIRO —Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition banded together Sunday around a prominent government critic to negotiate for forces seeking the fall of “President Hosni Mubarak, as the army struggled to hold a capital seized by fears of chaos and buoyed by euphoria that three decades of Mr. Mubarak’s rule may be coming to an end.

The announcement that the critic, Mohamed ElBaradei, would represent a loosely unified opposition reconfigured the struggle between Mr. Mubarak’s government and a six-day-old uprising bent on driving him and his party from power.

Though lacking deep support on his own, Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a program for a potential transition. It suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.

In scenes as tumultuous as any since the uprising began, Dr. ElBaradei defied a government curfew and joined thousands of protesters in Liberation Square, a downtown landmark that has become the epicenter of the uprising and a platform, writ small, for the frustrations, ambitions and resurgent pride of a generation claiming the country’s mantle.

“Today we are proud of Egyptians,” Dr. ElBaradei told throngs who surged toward him in a square festooned with banners calling for Mr. Mubarak’s fall. “We have restored our rights, restored our freedom, and what we have begun cannot be reversed.”

Dr. ElBaradei declared it a “new era,” and as night fell there were few in Egypt who seemed to disagree.

Dr. ElBaradei also criticized the Obama administration, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the message via Sunday news programs in Washington that Mr. Mubarak should create an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt, while she refrained from calling on him to resign. That approach, Dr. ElBaradei said, was “a failed policy” eroding American credibility.

“It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go,” Dr. ElBaradei said.

The tumult Sunday seemed perched between two deepening narratives: a vision of anarchy offered by the government, and echoed by Egyptians fearing chaos, against the perspective of protesters and many others that the uprising had become what they called “a popular revolution.”

Read entire New York Times article here: Opposition Rallies to ElBaradei.

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Egyptian Army Says It Will Not Fire on Protesters

There appeared to be more protesters in Liberation Square in Cairo on Monday than on previous days. (NYTIMES)

CAIRO —Egypt’s new vice president said on Monday that President Hosni Mubarak has authorized him to open a dialogue with the opposition for constitutional and political reforms. The vice president, Omar Suleiman, did not offer any further details.

It was not immediately clear who Mr. Suleiman was addressing his offer to, or whether the opposition would accept. Throughout the protests, the overriding demand of the protesters has been Mr. Mubarak’s resignation.

The Egyptian Army announced Monday for the first time that it would not fire on protesters, even as tens of thousands of people gathered in central Liberation Square for a seventh day to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The extraordinary announcement — delivered on state TV with no elaboration by the Army’s official spokesman — declared that “freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.” Yet, coming from a government dominated by former military officers, including Mr. Mubarak, it raised as many questions as it answered.

Experts said it could reveal cracks in the ruling elite, or perhaps reflected an evolving strategy to resurrect the police, who were back on the streets Monday for the first time in days. Others took it at face value, as a straightforward promise to abstain from any violence against Egyptians, but others saw a veiled threat to those who would go beyond “peaceful means.”

Whatever the motivation, the opposition was not prepared to celebrate the announcement as the turning point it was in Tunisia…

Read entire New York Times article here: Egyptian Army Says It Will Not Fire on Protesters