Freedom of belief
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5 min read

Understanding authority from Rome to Beijing

As geo-political tensions between China and the West rise, K.K. Yeo explores authority and religion in China, finding complex questions and nuanced answers.

K.-K. Yeo, a diaspora Chinese, lectures widely in majority world including China on cross-cultural understanding of civilization and religion.

Haidian Christian Church
Haidian Christian Church

Is the West Christian and China Confucianist? Or is the West secular and China communist? Binary understanding of our world in conventional terms, such as East versus West, or the sacred-secular divide, is superficial and confusing. Given the biases, divisiveness and, at times, toxic geopolitical reality today, the topic of government and Christianity in China today is more complex than meets the eye. A much better option is a meaningful cross-cultural perspective that enables constructive conversation, while honoring different contexts and nuanced understandings. 

Does it surprise you that, an atheist, and at times anti-religion, ‘party-state’ China is the world’s largest Bible printer? Christianity in China has existed since the seventh century when the Syrian Church of the East had rigorous cultural, religious, and commercial exchanges with many nations as far as those in East Asia. Recently the regime in China has become concerned about the growth of the Christian population that might be outnumbering the Party’s members. There has been the suppression of believers, burning of crosses, and demolition of churches across the country. The Communist Party eliminated the State Administration for Religious Affairs in 2018, and the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party now has direct control on all religions.  

Does it surprise you that, an atheist, and at times anti-religion, ‘party-state’ China is the world’s largest Bible printer?

Churches in China exist in a harsh reality similar to that of first century Roman Empire, so they inevitably find the teaching of St. Paul in the Bible to be of great interest. Chinese Christians have long had nuanced responses to their government. The house church remains committed to love Christ only - rendering to God the things that are God’s, and only then would they render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. This ‘separation of religion and government’ position (preservation of religious freedom from government intrusion) is considered to be politically subversive to the authoritarian rule of the Party. Therefore, the house churches have long distanced themselves from politics, while acknowledging that their Christian behaviour, such as loving their neighbor as a religious duty, is ‘the best politics’ for nation building.  

By contrast, the Three-Self Patriotic churches—and also the current Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of Chinese bishops—do not find a serious discrepancy in loving Christ and the communist state. They seek to work with the government primarily in the matter of social welfare but have range of mixed views on the scope of combining patriotism with Christian belief. To maintain no or minimum separation of government and religion is becoming more and more challenging as the government centralises its control of all aspects of national and personal lives. 

Christians in China are asking harder questions than those in churches outside China. 

Can a Christian church adopt a state ideology or become a member of the Communist Party to support Christian identity and social harmony in China?  

Are church attendance and participating in church activities politically subversive?  

And what does it mean to say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ in that land?  

I remember teaching at Peking University and seeing the students debate a scenario in the Bible in which the Thessalonian crowd was charging the apostle Paul and his colleague Silas for contradicting the decree of Caesar, for ‘saying that there is another king named Jesus’. Paul was surely preaching neither about insurrection nor subversion of the Roman Empire. However, Roman audiences then, and Chinese crowd or government today, are more likely to have perceived the belief in ‘Jesus as Lord’ as a political threat.  

A case in point concerns Wang Yi, the pastor of the Early Rain Church in the city of Chendu, who preached Jesus as the Lord of lords - thus implying that the current political ruler is subsumed under Jesus Christ. Yi was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2018 ‘for inciting subversion of state power’. Cardinal Joseph Zen, a 90-year-old Catholic bishop in Hong Kong, was arrested in 2022 for criticizing the Vatican’s unwise deal with China, and for being an advocate of democracy in Hong Kong. 

Christians in Hong Kong are treading similar water regarding their religious faith clashing with the politicized perception of such faith as treason, such as in the Umbrella Movement or the Occupy Central with Love and Peace that protest the will of the Chinese Communist rule in Hong Kong. 

Can a Christian church adopt a state ideology or become a member of the Communist Party to support Christian identity and social harmony in China? 

Using the teaching of St Paul in his letter to early Christians in Rome as a resource, the Chinese argue that he encourages these Roman Christians to critically reflect on government power so as to bring all nations to obedience of God’s justice. The popular reading of Paul as asking Roman Christians to ‘be subjected to the governing authorities’ for the reason that ‘for there is no authority except from God’ is a weak English translation. To the Chinese church, Paul admonishes Roman Christians to ‘subject themselves to the governing authorities’, and that is not a passive submission but a voluntary involvement as good citizens in the process of bringing about change to their government. The Chinese church sees that Paul challenges government politics, first by stating the principle that, ‘it is not an authority if not from God’, i.e., ‘unless from God’. In other words, there may be some governing authorities that are not appointed by God, thus begging the question: how does one know if governing authorities are from God and those not from God?  

It seems that Paul is not concerned about whether a government or the head of state is Christian or not. What matters to Paul is not what the government says but the way the government or the head of state acts in accordance to the following principles:  

  • Rulers are not to terrorize good conducts and good citizens; the rule of law is meant to approve the good-doers and punish the evil-doers; 
  • Rulers are ‘ministers’ of God for the common good of the people, even though Roman Empire has its mythic origin from Jupiter, a Roman god; 
  • Rulers are ‘worship leaders’ of God as they administer collected taxes not for their own concentration of power, but for the dignity and flourishing of the citizens, thus realizing God’s compassionate justice on earth, promoting the welfare of the city.  

Churches outside China read Paul on government politics based on their assumed cultural context of Christian values. Yet, the Chinese church’s courage and humility to ask hard questions for themselves is an enlightening conversation. For those outside China, a cross-cultural and global understanding of government and religion can shed light on the promotion of a robust public life.  

 

Further Reading 

K. K. Yeo, The Created Universe and Naturalistic Cosmos: A Cross-cultural Conversation with a Chinese Theologian

 

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.