Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, September 03, 2006

When is Christianity dangerous?

Howard W. French, respected journalist based in Shanghai, fluent in Mandarin, recently visited a Chinese Protestant congregation in Zhejaing province. He has a heartbreaking (and challenging) story to tell in the August 18, 2006 issue of The New York Times. Mr. French writes that the largely poor, peasant congregation is one of many underground churches in China that continue to experience "booming growth" in spite of harsh repression from the Chinese government. These Protestant churches are not registered with the authorities and do not recognize the authority of church leaders appointed by the state. (This Protestant stance was mirrored recently in the Roman Catholic Church in China. In April 2006 the Chinese government elevated its own Roman Catholic bishops in spite of protests from the Vatican, who regard this move as invalid. Vatican-Chinese relations have been tense as a result.)

Mr. French reports that the Protestant congregation in Zhejaing had almost finished building a new church for its 3000 members when 500 police officers came and surrounded the building, complete except for its roof, and demolished it. Parishioners who argued or resisted were arrested.

Mr. French's attention was drawn to the situation in Zhejaing province when a reporter for a local newspaper wrote a story about the repression of the congregation and the government demolition of their almost-finished new church building. The reporter, Zan Aizong, was arrested and then fired from his job after he posted a story about the demolition on the Internet.

We have always known, in a theoretical way, that the Church gains strength during persecution. Experiencing it directly and remaining personally faithful in spite of oppressive measures is quite another matter. The Chinese tiger perceives unregulated Christian faith to be dangerous. The congregation of the destroyed church is mostly made up of poor peasants; what does the government fear? "The Chinese government is an atheistic government," said a lawyer for the congregation (who obviously risks persecution himself); "they do not want to see Christianity develop." It would also seem that the government feels free to quell any movement that seeks to empower the provincial poor.

Why is Christianity dangerous in one country and not another? Many American Christians would reflexively say that there is no danger in being a Christian in a free, democratic country. Yet let us remember some examples. Martin Luther King was bugged by J. Edgar Hoover with the permission of Robert F. Kennedy. Daniel Berrigan was jailed. American Catholic nuns were murdered in El Salvador by death squads trained by the CIA. Clergy friends of mine were wiretapped for their anti-Vietnam war activism.

Why is the church in America so quiet these days? Those who feel strongly about the war in Iraq, the CIA's secret prisons, the "renditions," the clandestine tortures that are known to be going on today can scarcely gain a hearing. Randall Balmer of Columbia University has some new information in his recent book, The Kingdom of God. Professor Balmer, a well-known author who is a self-identified evangelical, wrote to a number of evangelical organizations and denominations and asked them what their position on torture was. Most of them never bothered to answer. Those few who did respond had not taken any position at odds with the Bush administration and, indeed, Balmer reports, were "eager to defend the administration."

What is the matter with us? The left wing within the church seems to be preoccupied with homosexuality and the right is consumed by abortion. Why is this? Has the American church lost its nerve? or its biblical perspective? No matter what a person has done or is suspected of doing, once that person is taken into custody, he or she becomes defenseless. The Old and New Testaments alike are clear: abuse of a defenseless person is an abomination in God's sight. The defenselessness of a fetus is a central argument advanced against abortion. This conviction about defending the defenseless lies at the very heart of our faith. There cannot be any doubt about this...yet we are silent.