Olympics, the Church & Critique

BY LUE-YEE TSANG

I’m ethnically Chinese, but not Tai­wan­ese, nor mainland Chinese, nor as­si­milated American – I happen to be Cantonese with relatives mostly from Hong Kong. My concerns, then, are chiefly about neither Taiwan Straits issues nor the West’s interests. Given the prejudices on the field, I ask that the reader set aside for a moment what he believes that I think and ought to think.

Last spring and summer I was troubled by the response of Chinese Christians in America to the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in Běijīng. Since this was a city that had been the capital of two dynasties in China, many Chinese naturally felt vindicated before the world as members of a people no longer held in the contempt of the early 1900s. Yet while we were willing to accept the world’s respect, in our sense of triumph we were unwilling to hear its concerns, instead labelling these as ignorance and hatred against the Chinese people. Suddenly, in our minds, all that didn’t line up with the Communist Party’s vision of national unity was illegitimate: for many this included the existence of unregistered churches, dissidents working in China against the régime’s abuses and concerns about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.Not complying with or questioning the régime seems to be at odds with Hu Jintao’s vision of a “Harmonious Society” (和諧社會). More high-profile opposition to the Party’s actions tends to be put down as disorderly or evil. This response was almost exactly replicated by Chinese people in the church.

I took exception and boycotted the Olympics, believing it conferred unmerited legitimacy. Now, I was entitled to my own opinion, many of my Chinese brethren in Christ believed, but only as long as my decisions were private – because, of course, faith was just something in the head or the feelings, whose mention must never be imposed on anyone.Except those times when you try to convert people or whatever. Then Christians like it. For saying anything in hopes of bringing issues to people’s attention, I’d face their censure. What I held, people believed to be an overly politicized position: I opposed the Olympics being held in Běijīng because the régime in mainland China was known for egregious human rights violations and had broken promises it had made as conditions for being Olympic hosts. But this “politicized position” was trumped in public by another position that was no less political: that the régime in Běijīng properly represented China. Indeed, I heard that in some Chinese churches people wanted to show the Olympics on church time, not realizing that was itself a political statement (mis)representing the nature of the church as part of the city of God, which, though in the world, is not beholden to the world’s means.

Is it wrong, then, to have “no tact” To many Chinese people, including myself, the only “tact” sometimes seems to be that of silence. For the sake of harmony, then, we often acquiesce to what seems to be the consensus. in saying something that must be heard, that corruption, lies, and human rights violations cannot be ignored? Or will the world, and the church, prefer that we all keep our judgments to ourselves to now corrode our minds in the realm of pure thought, now lie silent and still – all while saying we should refuse to judge? Accurately or not, one judges another; then he is judged for judging, and he judges back for judging for judging: this is just what happens. Such is the price of silence, unless a man shall instead lie to himself and be before the eyes of his own heart a hypocrite of the second order, posturing to himself that he thinks nothing of what clearly does trouble him. Grand indeed! So will the church flood itself with the warm, welcoming, vibrant colors of urine and blood and shit: it may look nice when it says nothing nonconformist and so appears to embrace “diversity,” but it doesn’t actually serve the interests of peace and beauty.

But no, I suppose none of it matters: no tragedy, no injustice, no evil matters if we’re to have “peace” while fulfilling our sole mission of converting the world. For isn’t that what rolls off the tongues of all those Christians who talk about China? Whether we’re Chinese or not, all we seem capable of saying about it is that God is to be praised for numbers, for statistics, for sheer population of souls being daily converted to the gospel of converting more people so that all can escape to heaven, never mind the problems of the real world. After all, God makes 1 × 10⁴ new believers daily in China!  A church consisting of numbers doesn’t need much thought: if Chinese who believe in the gospel are numbers, no one needs to give any thought to what a Three-Self church is and what an unregistered “house church” is and what lies in between,The “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” is a number of churches ruled by the Communist Party. Many churches believe it’s wrong to allow the church to be essentially part of the temporal civil power apparatus, so they remain unregistered with the Běijīng régime. This often doesn’t sit well with the Party: if the world is to change, they want it to be under their direction. nor to what can head the church, nor to what orders are unjust for all, nor to what constitutes authority that must be obeyed. Has the gospel anything to say about other matters than “saving souls,” or is it a message unrelated to this world entirely? Is the “pure and simple” gospel about not really having anything to do with this Earth because it doesn’t matter because we’ll magically be raptured and escape to heaven without having anything to do about Earth but tell people how to escape to heaven? The message of the gospel is of Christ’s coming and resurrection: does it impinge on the world’s destiny?

Biblical redemption is redemption for fulfillment of the mandate in Genesis to fill the earth, govern it under grace (Gen. 1:28ff), and enjoy God in it, all to his glory. This deals with real nitty-gritties of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:3–5) and real moral needs and real prohibitions. By grace we are chosen (Eph. 2:1–10): we are wholly unworthy of this mission, in which we of our own diseased nature have no qualification or ability to partake, and of whose fruits we would be too corrupted to receive without tasting dust and ashes in our throats, as the creature Gollum chokes on the elven waybread lembas in The Lord of the Rings (i Cor. 11:23–31). We must realize: Yes, the church isn’t a temporal civil polity. And true, it isn’t a means of Enlightenment progress. But neither is it a way to escape the material world with its injustices and suffering. St Paul calls it the body of Christ (Eph. 3:4–6; 4:15–16), something as substantial as the bread and wine we take in holy Communion, as real as the body and blood of Christ we’ve taken when we’ve eaten the bread and wine in faith. So we don’t look bitterly upon the duty of being for the world the proleptic glimpses of God’s kingdom (ii Cor 3:12–18), because bearing hope isn’t a burden. Instead, we know Christ’s body and blood, the Christian’s waybread, is for us to take gladly by a power outside of ourselves, by a word not our own, for the purpose of the world’s consummate redemption. The church is the presence of God’s kingdom on earth: it belongs to God and no one else, even as Christians submit to their temporal authorities.By not failing to report crime, for instance, and by protesting injustices.

I call on the Christian world to make useful critique of prevailing theory and practice. “All nations are equally sinners” is no critique, only a withdrawn, pale wraith of one: a barren cliché if ever there was one. America’s problems don’t negate China’s troubles. The church must be willing to have a controversial position, not for its own sake but for the sake of rightly representing God’s sense of justice and mercy even when no one else sees it that way. Failure to mount a substantial critique that gets beyond time-honored, tame clichés about “not being judgmental” is failure to articulate any but an impoverished gospel that tells people how to escape into a disembodied heaven: this would truly be, as Karl Marx said, the “opium of the people.”Karl Marx. From the Introduction to Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844). Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994. 28. So what are the gospel’s consequences for China, as for this earth? Is China’s worth limited to the role of populating the catholic church with converts? If good Christians make good businessmen in China, is the message of Christ simply to be appropriated into the dealings of money and matter by serving as the basis of commerce? What’s the spiritual significance, in the Christian view of well-being, of Olympic-sized extravaganzas? of ethnic strife? of the laogai (勞改) system? laogai: in China, a system of labour camps, many of whose inmates are political dissidents. The name comes from Chinese, meaning “reform through labour,” and is recorded in English from the 1990s.
A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ed. Elizabeth Knowles. Oxford University Press, 2006.
of a regulatory regime that kept news of melamine-tainted milk under wraps until after the closing of the event of nationalistic pride? 

We may not have the answers, but we cannot hide the questions and so deny that the world has any need of being saved. Will the church have what it takes to be an effective outpost of the kingdom of heaven here on earth? I believe our Lord will be gracious. 

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