Thursday, August 07, 2008

Faith Works 8-9-08
Jeff Gill

Where the President Will Worship Tomorrow

Last night the Olympics began in Beijing (or Peking or however you’re used to seeing the capital of China spelled).

Many human rights activists have said that world leaders should boycott the opening ceremonies because of Communist China’s human rights record, especially in regard to religious minorities.

Among Christians, and particularly evangelical Christians, the image of house churches or “the underground church” is the vivid picture carried of China. Contemporary Christian music heard on local CCM radio stations and in some congregations’ worship services offer phrases like these from the Newsboys’ hit, “He Reigns,”
“the song of Asian believers, filled with God’s holy fire . . . Let praises echo from the towers of cathedrals, to the faithful gathered underground.”

What may well be confusing over the next few days is that the religious reality of modern China is really does range from “the towers of cathedrals, to the faithful gathered underground.”. There absolutely is an underground church, often meeting in houses without official government sanction, hence “underground.” Some may meet in caves and basements, but “underground” here mainly means “without government approval.”

There is, though, a “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” Christian church that operates with government license. Hard numbers are not easy to come by in China’s authoritarian culture, where most statistics are considered state secrets, but there seem to be 10 million members of the “official” church at minimum.

That’s like the United Methodist Church for size, so they’re a distinct force in Chinese society. But the underground church, obviously, doesn’t have official numbers. The best estimates for the number of regular house church worshipers runs to 50 million. That’s like . . . well, it’s like nothing since the early Roman empire and the beginnings of the Christian faith. What else can you compare this movement with?

As for the much-debated official church -- the “three-self” does not have anything to do with the Trinity, but is a working abbreviation for “self-governance, self-support, self-propagation.” That’s window dressing for “we don’t publicly advocate from the pulpit anything that makes the Communist Chinese government feel itchy,” such as doctrines like the second coming of Christ or the resurrection of the dead.

So to have public worship and buildings they can call their own means that the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” trims their beliefs, or at least their preaching, to suit political winds. That also means many underground, or non-sanctioned Christian groups say that the official churches are not authentically Christian.

That’s harsh, but not entirely unfounded. And it gets even more confusing.

There is also an official Chinese government Catholic body, the “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.” They are not entirely in communion with Rome and the Vicar of Christ in the papacy by government decree, which says that the Vatican has not sufficiently apologized for “imperialistic actions” in the 19th century, though Rome has tried to avoid a total break with the bishops of the “legal” church given the circumstances. Meanwhile, there are underground Catholic groups in China who are strongly affirming that they are in communion with Rome, but that the “state church” with Catholic forms is in fact not truly valid, or really wholly Christian. The BBC estimates that there are 5 million “state” Catholics, and 8 million underground Catholics.

If you’ve been keeping track, this all means that there are over 70 million Chinese who are claiming Christian affiliation of one sort or another – and before you dismiss the appeasing “state” church folk, remember that to make a public confession of even the “approved” faith is not looked upon with favor by the Communist Party, or by most of the other billion Chinese. Underground or in the open, to claim any Christian faith at all is a bold and lonely step. 70 million have taken it in one form or another.

President Bush said some weeks ago that he would split the difference, diplomatically, by going to the very, very official opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics, and then attending a house church worship on Sunday morning.

The Chinese government responded by fairly successfully identifying the leaders of most of the Beijing area “house churches” and sending them en masse off to an involuntary vacation far, far away from the capital and site of the Olympics.

So President Bush’s staff has identified an official Protestant “Three-Self” church where he and Laura will worship tomorrow morning, the “Kuanjie Protestant Church,” which is one of the most prominent officially government registered churches in Beijing. His staff indicated that to re-do their plans for this week would just impact and damage even more innocent pastors and church members than they already have.

How should a leader set a proper example in a place like this, where the state sill controls most of the image-making machinery and media outlets? Just as the US Olympic team has selected a young man who grew up as a Darfur refugee to carry the flag into the opening ceremonies, the opportunities to make symbolic gestures are many. To make a speech with specifics could endanger some of those millions “gathered underground” even more than they are now, and staying away loses you any leverage at all to help them.

Where and how the president goes to church tomorrow will be an interesting statement worth “reading” closely – let the games begin!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he got a medal once for fourth place in the long jump in eighth grade. Tell him your Olympian tale at

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