After humbling himself before his followers by washing the dirt from their feet (the task of the lowest of servants), Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, explained his view of ruling, literally: “The kings of the Gentiles [all of us who are not Jewish] ‘lord’ over [kurieuō – a word for ‘rule’ constructed from the word for ruler – kurios – ‘lord’] them and, the ones having the power over them, are calling themselves benefactors. But, you, do not do thusly, but the one greater among you become as the youngest and the one leading as the one serving” (Luke 22:25-26).[i] This is simply good advice on how to ensure one rules a happy and contented people.
When Jesus was giving this advice, he and his hearers were not part of a democracy. Their context was being part of a captive people under the overlordship of Rome, itself subject to an emperor. His advice was applicable to that as well as every form of legitimate rule. Leadership that cares for people it is entrusted to lead is not dependent on any particular form of government. Any type of governing system can be abused. Whether their citizens are living under an empire, as was the Rome of Jesus’ day, a dictatorship, as in the Dominican Republic in the days Aίda was growing up on that island, a democracy, as here in the United States, a communal, state-oriented system, as in China, or any other governmental system, good rulers do not “lord it over” their subjects in the name of ideology, but serve them, mindful that, as leaders, they are responsible to those they rule for the well-being of the people in their care.
This week, disturbing news came out of China’s mainland, making many of us who heard it wonder about the commitment the governmental officials of Wenzhou have for the well-being of their people. Reported “plans to completely or partially demolish at least 10 other places of worship”[ii] were begun by demolition crews destroying the newly built Sanjiang Church of Wenzhou, an action supported by “police vans, military trucks, and security agents”[iii] in this heavily Christian seaport. Known popularly as the “Jerusalem of China,” Wenzhou had benefitted from the Christian spirit of hard work and tranquility helping the area to become wealthy, so much so that Christians were able to construct a beautiful new church building at a cost in excess of U.S. $4 million. Constantly in communication with officials, church leaders had believed that, being a congregation of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the government’s officially recognized Protestant Church, their church building could avoid a government outburst, such as that back “in 2000 that saw hundreds of churches and temples demolished across Zhejiang province.” [iv] Observers claim that recent complaints by the province’s “Party chief”[v] and by the head of Zhejiang Province’s “ethnic and religious affairs committee” precipitated the destruction, since the former was “unimpressed by the prominence of a church built to house thousands of worshippers”[vi] and the latter concluded that church growth had been “too excessive and haphazard.”[vii] With estimates ranging up to “100 million mainland believers,” and, therefore, “more Chinese Christians than Communist Party members” in China today, fear has apparently replaced China’s constitution, which “guarantees freedom of religion,”[viii] in the minds of these provincial officials. While one Christian appealed to China’s president, Xi Jinping as espousing “society should be harmonious,” and claiming, “he is very open-minded about disciples of the Christian Church,” others believed provincial party chief Xia Baolong was behind the demolition,[ix] positing a conflict between the ideals of the constitution, the policy of the nation’s president, and the response of communist leaders in the Wenzhou area. The official explanation, as preparations to bulldoze began, was given by Zhang Biyao, a government official of the Province, who claimed the action was done “to protect ‘people’s safety,’” since the church was “illegally built” and “structurally unsound.” Perhaps, that was also the explanation proffered for the hundreds of churches and temples destroyed in 2000 as well.
The world is not a simple place, if it ever was one. China does not have the luxury at this late date to seal itself off from the rest of the world and claim what it does to its own people on its own soil is solely its own affair any more than any of our nations have that right. Last year, China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Limited bought the United States’ corporation Smithfield Foods, Inc., the USA’s “biggest pork producer,”[x] famous for a dozen prominent brands, including Armour pork products. This is but one U.S. industry that China now controls, since “Smithfield” has become “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Shuanghui International.”[xi] By China investing so heavily in the United States and benefitting so thoroughly from the United States’ support of its industry and economy, the two nations have now partnered together. The United States is by no means a perfect nation. It is, however, a conglomerate of the people of many nations, since the bulk of its citizenry and permanent residents is drawn from immigrants from all over the world. Our native population, which probably itself emigrated across the Bering Strait, has been joined by people of all nations, including countless Chinese people. While we are not by law a Christian nation, the most Christians per nation are estimated by “Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China” to be in “Brazil, Mexico and the United States,” but China’s Christians are rapidly overtaking these in number.[xii] In more than finance, China and the United States are linking up.
In his letter to the Romans, 13:1, the Apostle Paul explained the Christian viewpoint toward government, literally: “Every person must be subordinate to the authority as having power [that is, “governing authorities”], for that authority would not exist except under God.”
This is why the demolition of the Sanjiang church was able to take place with only peaceful protest. Christians believe that Paul is telling them to obey whatever government is in place. In Jesus’s time, it was the emperor, and the civil authorities, were comprised, among others, of the procurator of the Romans and the king and high priest and Sanhedrin council of the Jews. Jesus did not organize his disciples into a militia to oppose these.
By the same token, the rule of China’s government is not threatened by the growth of Christianity. It should take cognizance of the fact that the area that is most Christian is an area that is prospering and thriving. Taking away the impetus for that success is foolish, certainly, but more than that it is self-destructive. It is essentially bad governing. As Dr. Kevin Xiyi Yao in an informative and insightful article in the latest issue of the free online Africanus Journal (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/boston/africanusjournal) observes, “After almost thirty years of the communist attempts to eradicate religion, religion is not only alive, but actually flourishing in China today. And religion is playing an increasingly important role in that society. It is so much so that I would argue that it is no longer accurate to say China is a communist, atheist country. Instead, what we see in China is an increasingly religious society, even though the communist party is still in power.”[xiii] In this light, officials should be asking themselves, why does Christianity grow and Communism shrink in our country? Why are Christians good citizens? Why are they being blessed in what they do? And Who is it that is blessing them? Why are our businesses investing in companies like Smithfield Foods, Inc. in nations with a great deal of Christians? Why are those nations that allow full freedom of worship, like the United States, the envy of all the world? On the other hand, why do we ourselves have to destroy so much to continue to maintain our ideology? Why did that ideology not work in our partner nation, Russia? Why are other Communist countries in such economic trouble? Why is a main source of income in Cuba Cubans living in the United States, many, if not most of whom, are Christians? Why is North Korea such a disaster in so many aspects from the lack of electricity right on to its dismal human rights violations? Does this theory of Karl Marx really work in the long run, or is it, as a potent book-length critique once dubbed it, “a god that failed”?
As for Christians outside of China, obviously we will not be smuggling arms into China. We cannot do this and Chinese Christians would not accept them because such a course of action is antithetical to our faith. It is not the Christian way to overthrow governments with violence. What we can do is be proactive in several areas. First, for Christians, the power of prayer for the persecuted people of Zhejiang Province is foundational. If God is a living Being who has come to earth in Jesus, then that God should be entreated to act in this situation. Second, we should understand that Jesus’s command to rule well is not only the Christian mandate but the guide that all the officials of China from the president on down to the officials of the Province should be seriously considering following. It is a rule we should be recommending to all governments. In the case of China, if it were applied, perhaps all China would begin to look like Wenzhou. All China’s Christian people believe that God has permitted the present government’s rule, but abuse by the present rulers is, by Jesus’s words, not part of God’s plan. Further, such repression can hardly convince people that their government is acting on behalf of their well-being. As a strategy, such measures hardly foster responses of contentment, appreciation, and loyalty. How can they not cause sorrow, discontent, depression, resentment, and a loss of productivity, which is the opposite of what any healthy government would want to promote? Third, each of us around the world needs to tell our own nations’ leaders we are not happy with the destruction of places of worship in China or in any country where that happens. That message needs to be communicated through our embassies, in this case our embassy to China.
China has chosen to invest in United States’ businesses. After World War II, the United States has helped China’s economy by buying its products. If the nations are to grow together rather than apart in “mutual distrust,” as the New York Times summarizes recent opinion polls about the drop in “China’s approval rating in the United States,”[xiv] China needs to demonstrate a greater support, not just a tolerance, of what makes its own Christian people happy. There is a connection among all of us who are believers in Jesus Christ across the world. In many ways, Christians feel closer to one another than to those who espouse other faiths or no faith at all in our own cultures. But, at the same time, we are called by our faith to be loyal to our own nations, just as the Chinese Christians continually prove themselves loyal to their own nation. No government official has anything to fear from true Christian followers of Jesus Christ. But these officials are still responsible not to “lord it over” the people they were put in position to care for and certainly not claim in the face of the persecution that they are inflicting that they are their “benefactors,” seeking only to “protect them.” Such hypocrisy is convincing no one, and probably not even fooling themselves, but it is threatening China’s leadership’s approval rating among all who see clearly what they are doing, annulling their own credibility and reputation for integrity as people-oriented leaders, undermining the denomination they are claiming demonstrates their commitment to religious freedom, violating their own national constitution by sending a message that they themselves doubt its workable validity, thereby undermining the well-being of their own people, losing face among all people of good will across the world, and ultimately impeding their nation’s as well as their own prosperity.
(Dr. William David Spencer is co-editor with Dr. Aίda Besanҫon Spencer of The Global God [Baker] and Global Voices in Biblical Equality [also edited with Dr. Mimi Haddad, Wipf and Stock Publishers House of Prisca and Aquila Series) and author of the new novel, Name in the Papers, Winner of The Southern California Motion Picture Council’s 2013 Golden Halo Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature.)
[i] Bible translations by the present author.
[ii] Tom Phillips, “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begins,” 1, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10792386/Chi..., accessed April 28, 2014.
[iii] Tom Phillips, “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begins,” 3.
[iv] Tom Phillips, “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begins,” 2.
[v] Tom Phillips, “Christians form shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat,” 3, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10745248/Chri..., accessed April 28, 2014.
[vi] Tom Phillips, “Christians form shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat,” 3.
[vii] Tom Phillips, “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begins,” 4.
[viii] Tom Phillips, “Christians form shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat,” 3-4.
[ix] Tom Phillips, “Christians form shield around church in ‘China’s Jerusalem’ after demolition threat,” 3.
[x] Jane Perlez, “In China and U.S., Mutual Distrust Grows, Study Finds, 1, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/world/asia/in-china-and-us-mutual-d... , accessed April 28, 2014.
[xi][xi] Smithfield Foods, Inc., “Shuanghui International and Smithfield Foods Complete Strategic Combination, Creating a Leading Global Pork Enterprise: Combined Company to Have Greater Access to Large and Growing Chinese Market and Retain World-Leading Food Safety and Quality Control Standards, 1, http://investors.smithfieldfoods.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=793522 , accessed April 28, 2014.
[xii] Tom Phillips, “China accused of anti-Christian campaign as church demolition begins,” 4.
[xiii] Kevin Xiyi Yao, “Religion and Church in China: Trends and Dynamics,” Africanus Journal, vol. 6, no. 11 (April 2014), 23, (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/boston/africanusjournal) .
[xiv] Jane Perlez, “In China and U.S., Mutual Distrust Grows, Study Finds,” 1.