In 1998 three prominent U.S. religious leaders visited China at the invitation of then-President Jiang Zemin. The purpose of the delegation’s visit was to discuss religious freedom issues with government officials at various levels.
About halfway through their three-week itinerary, the visitors found themselves in a meeting with the mayor of Shanghai. The Catholic representative in the group raised the case of an elderly bishop who had been imprisoned for his allegiance to the Vatican.
“You want us to release him?” the mayor retorted angrily. His sudden change of countenance shocked his guests. “That would be like my coming to New York and demanding the release of Sheikh Abdel Rahman!”
That the mayor would compare Rahman, one of the masterminds behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, with an elderly Chinese Catholic bishop, left the delegation members dumbfounded. The bishop was a peace-loving prisoner of conscience. Rahman, on the other hand, was a terrorist.
The mayor’s uncharacteristic outburst brought to mind an incident that had taken place in Nanjing a couple days earlier. The Protestant leader in the group had repeatedly brought up the question of giving legal recognition to China’s house churches. After touring the small museum commemorating the Taiping Rebellion and hearing the curator expound at length on the atrocities of Hong Xiuquan and his army of “Christian” rebels, a foreign affairs official accompanying the group said pointedly to this pastor, “Would you want to register that?”
The underlying mindset was, and is, of course, that any religious group not under the supervision of the state poses a threat to society. As Tony Lambert points out in this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, Chinese history lends support to this assumption. The Taiping are but one example in a long litany of religiously motivated political movements that have wreaked havoc through the centuries. In this issue we look at several modern-day examples, along with practical ways in which the church is seeking to face the challenge posed by these cults.
We give particular attention to the Almighty God sect (formerly known as Eastern Lightning), whose members were responsible for last year’s savage murder of an unsuspecting McDonald’s customer in northeast China. Officials were quick to take action against the attackers and have since launched a crackdown on the sect nationwide.
Since this particular cult has been ruthless in its attacks on unregistered churches in China, the current government crackdown comes as somewhat of a relief to China’s Christians. But it is a double-edged sword. As has happened during such crackdowns in the past, Christians who are otherwise law-abiding citizens will likely get caught up in the net as officials, who have no way of distinguishing one religious group from another, go trawling for cult activity.
China’s Christians potentially find themselves under attack both by suspicious and sometimes hostile officials who see their role as defending the security of the nation and by vicious cults intent on infiltrating and destroying the church.
Their best defense, as Ronald Yu suggests in this issue, is not to go head-to-head with the myriad quasi-Christian cults that have arisen in China since the 1980s; nor is it to oppose the state. Rather, it is to exalt Christ. In this way the falsehood of the cults will be clearly revealed in the light of His glory, and the witness of the church’s purity will effectively silence those who would accuse it of wrongdoing.
Image Credit: Ink-ed # 2 by Nick Lo, on Flickr
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio