China, under the Chinese Communist Party, is an appalling religious train wreck.
This China section of the latest annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says China's government is guilty of "systematic, ongoing (and) egregious violations of religious freedom."
And this latest annual report on global religious liberty from the U.S. State Department noted that China's "constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to 'normal religious activities' and does not define 'normal.' The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned 'patriotic religious associations' (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices."
Other than that, things are going swimmingly. Or not. (Ask the Muslim Uighurs in China. Or ask children whose school books in China are being edited to remove religious references, according to this report.)
What's the backstory to religious persecution in China, especially in the 70 years since the communists took control of the country? And what does that story tell us about preserving and protecting religious freedom elsewhere in the world, including here in the U.S.?
To begin to answer that question, I want to alert you to two 2018 books, Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: A Sociological Portrait of Christians in Mainland China, by Li Ma and Jin Li, and The Chinese Exodus: Migration, Urbanism and Alienation in Contemporary China, by Li Ma.
The authors are Christians interested in the many ways Christianity has spread across China despite the government's efforts to control and even crush it. Li (Mary) Ma has a doctorate in sociology from Cornell University and is a researcher on the staff of an institute at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Jin Li is a doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary.
The Surviving book provides some valuable history of how, after Christian missionaries were driven out of the country, "Christians had a marginalized and even criminalized status in new communist China, for they belonged to the lowest social class because of their religious ideology and affiliation with the West."
And it is full of fascinating personal stories from individuals who had to decide between being an active Christian and somehow living under a government that wanted its people to worship the country's leaders instead of God, a leadership choice enforced by what the book describes as "secret spying (on) and open monitoring" of citizens, to say nothing of other forms of harassment. In fact, the personal stories in this book are engaging and one of its greatest strengths.
The Exodus book focuses on the huge rural-to-urban migration inside China that has raised many questions about why citizens often are treated as mere cogs in an economic wheel and what response to such dehumanization faith communities should offer. It's a compelling story that you probably haven't read much about elsewhere.
"Just like ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt," Li Ma writes in that book, "rural migrants comprise the backbone of China's working force and economic boom. And, like slaves, they are also an acquiescent and underclass suffering from both cruel market forces and the whims of communist policy-makers. Even though they sustain the urban economy, rural migrants remain a faceless, disposable group."
One of the problems with Christianity in China is that, the authors say, it seems to be focused almost entirely on personal salvation and individual spirituality and not on the common good: "In China, discussions among Christians about social injustice have been confined to only small circles. The indigenous church's understanding of mission seldom has social justice in its vocabulary, much less in publishing."
That's also been a problem in the U.S. with some branches of Christianity. A desire to be stroked and loved by President Donald Trump has caused many Christian leaders who identify as evangelical to abandon a lot of what they once stood for. It's been shocking to watch.
In thinking about the Chinese Communist Party's antipathy toward religion, I was reminded of this 2007 column (reprised in a 2012 blog post) I wrote from Nova Huta, Poland, a new community there designed to be a Soviet dream town for steelworkers.
"What was missing?" I wrote. "Exactly what you’d expect these Utopian lunkheads to leave out — houses of worship. They purposefully built no churches. Not a single one for the people of this mostly Catholic nation."
Eventually the people won out and churches were built. It's hard to crush religion with soulless bureaucracy.
But as these books on China attest, a lot of people get hurt along the way even if the religion flower eventually finds a way to bloom.
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HOW PEOPLE OF FAITH LINE UP POLITICALLY
Our religion, if any, helps to determine our politics and the way we view political parties. As this RNS piece shows, the way political parties and operatives talk about other parties and operatives helps to define the way people of faith line up politically. Which just means we all need to be discerning about what is propaganda and what is truth.