The Chinese government has recently moved to close churches that defy the government. Tens of millions of Chinese Protestant Christians worship in thousands of banned underground churches. By some estimates, the thirty to sixty million Protestants are approaching the size of the Communist Party’s membership of eighty million.
The message heard in many of the illegal Protestant congregations contrasts starkly with the ideology of the Communist Party. Pastors encourage their flocks to become politically active, pointing to Joseph and Daniel as role models, and call for religious freedom. Organizationally, the church also appears to pose a threat to the Party. Hundreds of students study in church operated schools. Pastors are braving jail and work camps to continue their ministries. Pastors and members both find strength in a new unity among the underground churches. (Brian Spegele, “China’s Banned Churches Defy Regime,” Wall Street Journal, July 28, 2011)
Probably more than anything, the Chinese government fears that the churches pose a threat to government power. Scholars believe that the growing popularity of the Falun Gong movement prompted the government crackdown on it several years ago.
In the United States, skeptics tend to focus on the negative contribution of religion to public discourse. Religion is certainly responsible for some terrible prejudices and events. However, religion is also responsible for tremendous positive changes in attitudes and history. In this country, the most dramatic of these is the great progress toward establishing civil rights for all regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, or gender orientation. We’ve not yet arrived, but we’re closer to the mountaintop than when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the 1963 March on Washington.
In a pluralistic secular society like the United States, religion should not dominate public discourse. Religious people, however, remain citizens. They are therefore entitled to express their opinions, even if those opinions include religious ideas or ideas shaped by religious belief. Banning religious people from speaking about their beliefs or how their beliefs shape their ideas is to establish atheism as a de facto religion, similar to what now exists in China.
The strength of the underground churches in China is a sign of hope that forces within China are moving it toward democracy and greater freedom. Christians, and others, from around the world should applaud and support Chinese Christians in this effort. Support can constructively encompass publicizing the challenges that Chinese Christians face, praying for Chinese Christians, and seeking to include Chinese Christians in international ecumenical gatherings. I find it exciting that Christianity can still function as a powerful revolutionary force for positive social change.
More often, my observation of Christianity in the West is that Christians want the power and status associated with being, formally or informally, an accepted part of the established order. Instead, Christianity belongs on the margin: in society but not of society. The Church’s ethic is one of transformation rather than capitulation. I hope that we someday will recapture the revolutionary potential and excitement for Christianity in the United States and Europe that the banned churches have in China. For all of the rights and progress that people have made in the West, we still fall far short of the ideas Jesus lived and taught.