Chinese Conviction & American Apathy

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In 2018, the Chinese government acted to crack down on unregistered Christian churches. These churches are sometimes called “house churches,” which is a misleading term, since many of these churches have hundreds, even thousands of members and own their own buildings.

Chinese law requires Christians to worship only in congregations registered with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, a government-sanctioned organization which manages churches. Millions of Chinese Christians meet in unregistered churches which defy these government regulations, seeing them as compromising the church, especially considering the Communist government’s atheistic agenda.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has stepped up their persecution of Christians by destroying crosses, burning Bibles, confiscating religious materials and closing churches, even demolishing their buildings, as can be seen in this video:

In December 2018, more than 100 Christians who attend a Reformed church in Chengdu were arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chinese Conviction

The pastor of that church, Wang Yi, a former human-rights lawyer and law professor, who has been an influential intellectual in China, issued a statement along with other Chinese Christian leaders titled: “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” in which they stated that they would not cease gathering together for worship and studying the Bible.

Additionally, around 500 Chinese Christian leaders have signed a document called “A Declaration for the Sake of the Christian Faith,” in which they stated that they were prepared to bear all losses, even the loss of their freedom and their lives, for the sake of the gospel.

For Chinese Christians, gathering together for worship and Bible study is an act of resistance and social disobedience. It brings with it the possibility of arrest, punishment and persecution. And yet – believers are resolute: they will not stop gathering for public worship services, no matter what the cost.

American Apathy

At the same time, on the other side of the world, the American church is seeing a rising wave of apathy.

Some of the reports of the decline of Christianity in the United States are misleading, as I’ve written about here: Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1 & Part 2.

However, other reports show that while reports of the decline of Christianity in the US may be overstated, there is a growing sense of apathy in regard to church attendance.

Christianity Today recently published these infographics based on data from Pew Research Center:

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Read the full report here: Pew: Why Americans Go to Church or Stay Home

Two significant things that these infographics reveal: 1) Americans view Christianity as being important for the purpose of moral formation, 2) Americans tend to think that church is superfluous when it comes to Christian faith.

The Irony

Comparing the Chinese situation with the American one, what we see is that the people who stand to lose the most from going to church (the Chinese) are the most resolute in doing so, even though doing so will likely hurt them financially, socially, and even physically. Conversely, those who have the most freedom and stand to lose nothing are the most apathetic about public worship.

Whereas many Chinese Christians see gathered worship as central to their faith, something they absolutely cannot give up or do without, and an act of resistance – many American Christians see it as extraneous.

Who is Right?

I believe that we in the West can afford to learn something from our brothers and sisters in the East.

Christianity was formed and grew in the crucible of persecution, and perhaps the worst thing for Christians is to experience such ease and comfort that we lose the understanding that following Jesus is a radical and subversive thing in this world.

Perhaps the greatest danger our faith can face is not direct persecution, but patronizing “pats on the head” and people thinking that Christianity is “nice”.

Sinclair Ferguson has put it this way:

“We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people, and we are saved when by faith we become part of the people for whom Christ died.”

Recently I read an article by Simon Chan from the theological journal Pneuma, in which he very astutely wrote this:

[Western Christians] have a very weak sociological concept of the church. This has two negative consequences. First, the church tends to be seen as essentially a service provider catering to the needs of individual Christians. Rarely are individuals thought of as existing for the church. When the church is seen as existing for the individual, then the focus of ministry is on individuals: how individual needs can be met by the church. But when individuals are seen as existing for the church, the focus shifts from the individual needs to our common life in Christ: how we as the one people of God fulfill God’s ultimate purpose for the universe, namely, to glorify and enjoy God forever.

Chan is challenging us to ask the question: Contrary to our consumeristic mentality, isn’t it actually true that the church does not exist for us as much as we exist for the church, and the church exists for God?

I believe that we in the West can afford to look to the East and learn from our Christian brothers and sisters in China about the importance of gathered worship.

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A Refugee Story of Our Own

60 years ago this week, the Hungarian people rose up against the Stalinist government of Hungary and the Soviet occupation.

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Toppled Statue of Stalin in Budapest

The revolution ultimately failed, and in the wake of it, my wife’s father, Ferenc, fled Hungary along with some 200,000 people, and became a refugee. Ferenc was able to escape across the border into Austria along with a friend thanks to the help of a local villager who helped them navigate the minefield at the border. Unfortunately they later received news that this man had been caught and executed.

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Those who fought and those who fled were known as 56-ers (Ötvenhatosok).

Time magazine named the Hungarian Freedom Fighter the Man of the Year in 1956.

The revolution began on October 23, 1956 with rallies and protests. When the  ÁVH (Hungarian secret police) fired into the crowd of protesters in front of the parliament building, people formed militias, armed only with rocks and molotov cocktails, but were later able to break into military weapon storage and get guns. The revolution spread throughout the country, and on Oct 28, 1956 Soviet troops withdrew from Budapest. The Hungarians thought they were free, and began to establish a new government, but on Nov 4, in the middle of the night, the Soviet army rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution completely and finally.

One of the saddest parts of the story of the revolution, was that the United States had been broadcasting into the Eastern Block via Radio Free Europe, telling people there that if they were to rise up against the Soviets, the US would support them. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, because at the exact time when the Hungarians did rise up, the US was in the middle of negotiations about the Suez Canal and needed the support of the Soviet Union, and they weren’t prepared to turn the Cold War into World War III.

My father-in-law, Ferenc, was able to get refugee status in Austria and petitioned for asylum in the United States, and was among those who were accepted. The United States said they would accept 100 young men who were willing to work. They took them on a B-52 Liberator, and after a stop-over somewhere in Africa, they were brought to a military base in New Jersey. Asked where they wanted to live in the United States, they chose Chicago, because it was the only American city they had heard of.

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B-52 Liberator, the plane Ferenc and other refugees were brought to the US in

Ferenc later gained US citizenship, got married and had 2 kids. He went to college and worked in the tech industry. He loved Hungary, but understood he couldn’t go back. He also loved America, because of the opportunities and the freedoms he enjoyed here.

It was also in the United States that Ferenc heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and became a Christian. He was born in Hungary during World War II and raised in the Stalinist era of communist Hungary, which meant that although he identified as Roman Catholic, he never practiced it. Upon coming to the US, Ferenc began attending Catholic mass, but the real turning point in his life came when his son, my brother-in-law, was invited as a teenager to a church by some friends. My wife and her brother had gone to Catholic church growing up with their parents, but as they got older they had stopped attending. Tony, my brother in law embraced the gospel message of who Jesus was and what he did: the Divine Son, dying in our place, for our sins, so we could be forgiven, justified and redeemed; rising from the dead that we might have eternal life through him.

Tony invited Rosemary, my wife, to come to church with him, and she did. He also invited his mom and dad, who were much more hesitant to come because of the charismatic nature of this particular church.

Ferenc, however, listened to what Tony said about Jesus, and so Ferenc looked for a church where he felt comfortable going and learning more. He ended up finding Calvary Chapel in Vista, CA – and Rosemary began attending with him.

Rosemary remembers the time when her dad really understood the gospel for the first time. She says that he was emotional, having been touched deeply by the love and the grace of God towards him, and at the same time somewhat angry, saying: “I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me that I needed to repent of my sins and put my faith in Jesus, and that God extends grace and mercy and eternal life to those who will receive it?” 

I went to church for years…but I never heard the gospel!   Why did they never tell me…? – Ferenc Kovács

Ferenc attended Calvary Chapel in Vista for years. While he attended there he met another man, István, who was also a 56-er. About this time, the great changes were taking place in Eastern Europe which led to the end of Communism in those countries. Calvary Vista led the way in sending teams to preach the gospel and to plant churches, first in Yugoslavia and then in Hungary.

Ferenc was so excited to see what God was doing, and he wanted so badly to go to Hungary and tell his fellow countrymen the good news of the gospel, and the message that God loved them and that Jesus had died for them. Unfortunately, he never got that opportunity. Ferenc suffered from Juvenile Parkinson’s Disease, a devastating condition for a man who had formerly been an avid athlete and soccer player. Ferenc died from complications from Parkinson’s in 1996, at the age of 59, but not before seeing his daughter go on mission trips to Hungary. His friend István did go to Hungary and spent years working with Calvary Chapel in Budapest.

We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp

In 1998, Rosemary moved to Hungary to work with Calvary Chapel, spreading the gospel and planting churches. It was there that I met Rosemary in 2001. We ended up working together in, of all places, a refugee camp, in Debrecen, Hungary where we ministered several times a week to people mostly from muslim countries, who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. We provided for them materially through donations, and we also offered them Bibles and held Bible studies, translated into several languages. Over this period of time, we saw people from Kosovo, Iran, Afghanistan and several African countries become Christians after hearing the gospel clearly presented for the first time in their lives and having the opportunity to read the Scriptures for themselves.

Today, we have a modern-day refugee crisis. We’ve been told that they are a “Trojan Horse” – and maybe some of that rhetoric has some truth to it, but I also know that people were sceptical of people like Ferenc, my father-in-law, who came from a Communist country – and guess what: during the Cold War, some spies and people with bad intentions against America did come to the US pretending to be refugees. It doesn’t change the fact of Ferenc and many other refugees’ stories of escaping oppressive regimes and not only finding freedom, but also having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to hear the life-transforming message of the gospel.

I see the current refugee situation through this lens: the lens of my wife, her brother and my late father-in-law. I see it through the lens of the many people who became Christians in the refugee camp I worked in, who had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to become Christians in their home countries. I see it through the lens of the Iranian refugees I met in Budapest last year, whom White Fields church bought Bibles for, because they were hearing about Jesus and getting baptized, changing their names and evangelising other refugees.

I’m not afraid of refugees – my father-in-law was one. The mass exodus of people from Syria is a difficult and messy situation, but here’s what I’m going to do if Syrian refugees move into my neighborhood: I’m going to befriend them, love them, show them kindness and seek to share with them the life-changing message of the gospel, a message which they likely have never heard before. I hope you’ll do the same.

 

The Rise of Christianity in China

I read this interesting report from the Financial Times on the rise of Christianity in China.

Here are some highlights:

There are now about 100 million Christians in the world’s most populous nation, eclipsing the 86.7 million-strong membership of the ruling Communist party.

Christianity (particularly the Protestant variety) has been the big winner in the competition for Chinese souls. If it continues to spread at its current pace, the country is very likely to be home to the world’s largest Christian population within the next 15 years.

“By 2030, China will almost certainly have more Christians than any other country and the Communist party is very alarmed,” says Fenggang Yang, director of the centre on religion and Chinese society at Purdue University. “Chinese officials often cite the experience of Poland, where they believe the Catholic Church helped destroy communism and, although the two situations are not really comparable, the party still sees Christianity as a very serious threat that it needs to suppress.”

The truth is that, as this article reports, for all the news of the decline of Christianity in Europe, Christianity is still spreading quickly around the world, particularly in the developing world. These are exciting times!

How Effective was Government Persecution of Orthodox Churches in Russia During the Communist Period?

I have been toying with the idea of posting some of the articles I’ve written for seminary up on this blog for people to read and discuss. A few friends mentioned they would be interested in this one in particular. The following is an article I wrote for a class on Twentieth-Century Church History. Feel free to chime in and leave a comment below. (Just a heads-up that it’s written in UK English; those aren’t misspellings!)

The twentieth century, along with being a time of great technological development, was a period of some of the most intense persecution of Christianity the world has ever seen. Multiple sources have estimated that more Christians were killed for their faith in the twentieth century than in all other centuries combined. Much of this persecution happened under the rule of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Asia. Not least among the persecuted churches was the Orthodox church in Russia. However, the Orthodox church did not cease to exist, and now enjoys a constitutionally privileged position in Russia. Tertullian famously wrote, ‘the blood of Christians is seed’; the implication being that persecution, rather than causing the extermination of Christianity, actually causes it to become stronger and to spread. Was this the case in regard to Orthodox Christianity in Russia during the communist period, or did the persecution ultimately reach its objective?

First of all, we must consider what the objectives of the government persecution were. As the largest and most influential religious organisation in Russia, the persecution of the Orthodox church by the Soviet government was both ideologically and politically motivated. Ideologically, one of the ultimate objectives of Marxism was the elimination of all religion. Politically, the Orthodox church had been very closely tied to the ruling houses of Imperial Russia, and thus, in the minds of the communists, was part of the old system which they were trying to overthrow. The fact that during the Russian civil war many prominent Orthodox supporters fought on the side of the ‘Whites’ certainly contributed to the persecution of the church once the ‘Reds’ eventually triumphed. Although all religions and Christian groups suffered persecution during the communist period, the Orthodox church was often treated uniquely; there were times when non-Orthodox were allowed greater freedom in the hope that their growth would weaken the Orthodox church, and there were times when the government sought to work through the Orthodox church as it did through its puppet regimes, to influence people or gain popular support for its agendas.

Some historical context is helpful for understanding the place of the Orthodox church in Russia prior to the communists coming to power. The official christianisation of the Russian people is recognised as having taken place in 988, when Vladimir I led the citizens of Kyiv to the Dnieper river for baptism. One of the factors in Vladimir pronouncing Christianity to be the official national religion was that he believed it would be a means of unifying his divided people by giving them a common sense of identity. Vladimir aligned his people with Constantinople, the ‘second Rome.’ Vassily III was the first Russian ruler to take the title of ‘tsar’, which comes from the Latin ‘caesar’. In 1589, the Patriarchate of Moscow was established; the Patriarch of Constantinople recognised Russia as the political but not ecclesiastical successor to Constantinople, and the tsar was acknowledged as successor to the Byzantine Emperors, but Moscow was not acknowledged as the ‘third Rome’, though its form of Christendom and church-state relations followed that model. Russian history after this point was marked by a struggle for authority between church and state; at some points church leaders claimed supreme authority, while at others the church was reduced to a department of the state and the clergy as state servants. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Peter the Great suppressed the Moscow Patriarchate in favour of a synod which ran the church as a department of the state, limiting its freedom. Thus, in Russia there was a tradition of autocracy reaching back several centuries, in which the Orthodox church, while enjoying considerable privileges, was subjected to the state. When the communist regime made the churches answerable to a government department, this was nothing new to the Orthodox church. The traditional patterns of church-state relationship in Russia meant that the Orthodox church was surprisingly able to adapt to life under communism, where they found themselves once again in a struggle with the state for authority and once again subjugated to the state. In some ways the situation the Orthodox church found itself in under communism was one they were well-prepared to cope with because it was more familiar to them than, for example, Western-style pluralistic democracy would have been.

The Orthodox church suffered great losses during the communist period, but they also received some surprising benefits. After the Bolsheviks took power, a prolonged period of repression began, rising steadily throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Orthodox church was virtually ‘decapitated’; between 1918 and 1926, over 100 bishops were executed and thrown in prison, along with tens of thousands of priests—85,000 clergy were put to death in 1937 alone. Stalin, a dropout from an Orthodox seminary, continued Lenin’s policy of persecution. During the first decades of Soviet control, the number of functioning Orthodox churches was reduced from around 55,000 to about 500, and the number of monasteries was reduced from 1,025 to 0. The Orthodox church, at least on the surface, ceased to exist; it was forced underground, with believers being led by clergy who took up ordinary occupations to mask their religious activity and to support themselves. We are only left to wonder if the Orthodox church in Russia would have survived at all had this level of persecution continued, because in 1943, Stalin introduced a reversal in policy and allowed the Orthodox church a limited amount of freedom in exchange for their support of the war effort. Such changes in policy happened a number of times during the communist period, with bursts of persecution and moments of reprieve, but it was always generally suppressive, and it was clear that the view of the future held by the communist powers was one which did not include religious groups of any kind, much less the Orthodox church. However, the Soviets were not opposed to using the church in the short term as a mechanism for influencing and controlling people in their empire, as Stalin had in 1943. Furthermore, it was easier to control centralised institutions than underground bodies. Thus, from 1940 the Uniate churches of Ukraine and Central Europe were forcibly united with the Russian Orthodox church and the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate was extended after 1945 to include Orthodox churches in Bulgaria and Romania as they came under Soviet political domination. The Russian Orthodox church had a history of attempting to extend its influence, and ironically, it was the Soviet regime who helped them to do so during the communist period.

The way the communist government of the Soviet Union approached the Orthodox church in Russia differed from policy of the communist government in China towards Christianity. The main reason for this is because communist social thought did not have to undo Christian cultural influence in China as it did in Russia, which had been shaped by centuries of Christian allegiance. In China the Christian community had always been a minority; it was smaller, less influential, and closely associated with foreign influence. Russia, on the other hand, had experienced centuries of Christendom, in which the Orthodox church, far from being considered a foreign entity, was part of the historical and national identity of Russia and the Russian people. This is precisely what Soviet policy sought to undo, as well as the reason why this was as incredibly difficult task, which they never fully succeeded to accomplish. It seems that this was ultimately accepted by the Soviet government, who in 1988, at the millennium of the christianising of Russia, not only allowed, but even participated in the commemoration by minting a gold coin. In the newfound liberty after the end of communism, the Orthodox church rushed in to fill the void in national identity left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Symbols and paraphernalia of Orthodox worship began to reappear and the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family were disinterred and reburied in an Orthodox cathedral in Saint Petersburg. In 1997 a new law in Russia put the Orthodox church in a constitutionally privileged position and limited the freedom of other religious groups. Orthodox priests have been seen blessing Russian army recruits going off to war in breakaway provinces. It would seem that these are signs of a return to Christendom and the failure of the decades-long Soviet policy of persecution.

Statistics, however, suggest that the government persecution of the Orthodox church was not without effect. It is estimated that by 2000 there were around 80 million self-identified Orthodox Christians in Russia—about half the population. The other believers of all religions made up roughly 15 million, leaving approximately 65 million Russians professedly without any religious belief—an astonishingly high proportion compared with countries outside the former communist lands. Of that 80 million, somewhere between 3-15 million actually attend church even once a year. This disparity between practice and professed identity has led some to suggest that Russia is in fact one of the most secularised societies in the world.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, one of the greatest challenges that Orthodoxy has faced is how to cope with Western-style pluralistic democracy. The collapse of the Soviet state, while allowing the church far greater freedom than it had had at any time since 1917-1918, came at the expense of its ability to influence many of the churches once under the Soviet sway. One of the great legacies of communism has been internal church division. The reappearance of the Uniate churches and the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as well as schismatic Orthodox churches in Russia, Ukraine and abroad have significantly weakened the Moscow Patriarchate. Whereas the Orthodox church in Russia, for many centuries under tsarist rule and then still under communist rule was one, unified, ‘national’ church—Orthodoxy in Russia and its former areas of influence is now splintered and divided. Thus, it seems that the vision of a renewed Christendom is something which can never again exist in the same way it did during Russia’s imperial period. The legacy of the communist era is that it forced Russia out of Christendom in an irreversible way.

How effective was the government persecution of the Orthodox church in Russia during the communist period? On the one hand, in the wake of the communist era, an astonishingly high number of Russians profess no religious belief and the once-united Orthodox church is now splintered, divided and weakened. In this sense, the persecution was effective. On the other hand though, it failed to accomplish its ultimate objectives of destroying the church and its role in society. Although there is evidence that church attendance was in decline during this period, it was also in decline in the West; state persecution did not make much difference. In fact, in some ways, Soviet policy helped to strengthen the church by keeping it united and by increasing its sphere of influence. Considering the rapid decline of Christianity in Western Europe—and even more recently in countries like Poland, which remained extremely loyal to the Roman Catholic Church throughout the communist period, but has seen decline in that area since it has become more of a Western-style democratic society—one is left to wonder what would have happened if the communist authorities would have not persecuted the Orthodox church, but had treated it as irrelevant and quietly excluded it from public life, as the democracies of Western Europe did as they transitioned out of Christendom. If the Soviets would have done that, I expect that Orthodox faith in Russia would have gone the way of Lutheranism in Sweden and Anglicanism in England—and maybe it is now, but the transition would have been, I believe, quicker and easier. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter; persecution only strengthens the resolve of the faithful. The real way to kill a religion is not through persecution, but by making it appear irrelevant and making its adherents complacent and uninterested in it.

Bibliography

  • Ferguson, S.B., D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer, eds, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
  • Grass, T., THY305 Twentieth-Century Church History (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2013)
  • Graves, D., “Tertullian’s Defence”, Christian History Institute, <https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/tertullian/> [accessed 06/12/13]
  • Jackson, E. and T. Grass, THY206 The Early Church to the Enlightenment, ed. by J. McKeown (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2011)
  • Morris, J. N., The Church in the Modern Age (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006)
  • Noll, M.A., Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1997)
  • Norris, F.W., Christianity: A Short Global History (Oxford: Oneworld, 2002)
  • Pell, G., “Persecution of Christians is still rife today”, The Telegraph, 24 August, 2013 <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/persecution-of-christians-is-still-rife-today/story-fni0cwl5-1226703406943> [accessed 06/12/13]
  • Vos, H.F., Exploring Church History, Nelson’s Christian Cornerstone Series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)
  • Walters, P.M., ‘Russian Orthodox Theology’ in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. by S.B. Ferguson, D.F. Wright and J.I. Packer (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), pp. 599-605

East German Trabant car in Longmont

I spotted this Trabant car on Hover street in Longmont today.
If you aren’t familiar with the Trabant, it is a masterpiece of East German engeneering, still common on the roads of Eastern Europe. The Trabant was the true “people’s car” for those in the eastern block.
This is only the second time I’ve seen one in the US, and the first one I saw didn’t run – this one seemed to run well and had Colorado plates – and a DDR sticker on it. I’d be curious to know the story behind how this guy got it over here.

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