Among American visitors to China in the 1990s and 2000s, it was fashionable to wear a friendship pin displaying the respective flags of the two countries as a symbol of the positive relations between China and the US. The friendship narrative promoted by many Christian visitors to China was supported by prevailing national narratives on both sides of the ocean. Within this larger shared political narrative, foreign Christians serving in China were viewed as one link in a larger chain of cultural interactions that brought the two countries together.
Were you or I to sport a friendship pin in China today, we would quite likely be met with considerable suspicion, perhaps even hostility. The same would be true in the United States, where anti-Asian sentiment continues its pernicious rise. This year the number of Americans who have unfavorable views toward China reached a new high of 82 percent, up six points from a year ago.1 Both sides see the other as the enemy. The Chinese government’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy gives China a menacing face on the world scene, while its domestic propaganda organs promote a warped, dystopian view of life in the West.
In the United States, Christians are understandably offended by the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign to “Sinicize” the faith. They are angered by the Chinese regime’s impunity in violating the rights of religious believers and ethnic minorities within its borders. Many gravitate toward conspiracy theories that blame China for maliciously spreading the coronavirus, hacking into voting machines, and plotting to take over America, among other offenses. In this atmosphere of manufactured distrust, Sino-US relations continue to deteriorate in a downward spiral.
When our friendship storyline is out of step with the larger cultural narrative, whether in China or in the West, how do we as the body of Christ continue to build bridges of understanding? Now is not the time to retreat into the comfortable trenches of our respective national culture wars. It is, instead, time to speak against hatred and intolerance, to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Christians who have spent decades cultivating cross-cultural friendships are uniquely positioned to face this challenging moment. To begin with, we need a clear-eyed view of the very real differences that divide—whether competition in a race toward technological superiority, unresolved territorial disputes, or fundamental differences in how we view the relationship between church and state. Believers who are active in the arenas where these differences are being contested have an opportunity to rewrite the script, at least on a personal level. Being able to cogently articulate the views of people with whom we may severely disagree on these and other issues is a significant step forward. But we also need to declare that these differences do not define us, for our citizenship is not of this world. We serve a God who transforms all cultures by the power of the gospel. Only as we are willing to be transformed ourselves will we be fit to be his agents of transformation in this world. Part of that transformation process is building resilient friendships with those who are different from us.
Turning from what divides us to things that have the potential to unite, Christians in the East and West alike have much to learn from one another as they discern what it means to live as faithful witnesses in cultures that are increasingly hostile to the gospel. In the wake of a pandemic that has called into question basic assumptions about how churches function, there is an opportunity to rethink together the shape of Christian community for this new era. Increasing numbers of diaspora Chinese around the world suggest new possibilities for partnership. So does the emerging mission movement emanating from the church in China.
We have yet to fully understand what these oases of friendship will look like. But we know what the alternative is, for we are already being pulled further apart by established political interests as they drive their wedges of misunderstanding and build walls of animosity.
Living out this alternative China story will certainly be countercultural. It will likely be misunderstood. It will be costly.
The ministry of Jesus was all these things as well. It culminated in the sacrifice that broke down the wall of hostility between cultures and made our friendship stories possible. As he gave himself to reconcile his own to the Father, so we are called to devote ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation. The mark of our calling is not a pin we wear on our lapel—the symbol of a passing fad and a reminder of the fickleness of human relationships. Rather it is “the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), the wounds of sacrificial love incurred in our battle for enduring friendship.
- Christine Huang, Laura Silver, and Laura Clancy. “China’s Partnership with Russia Seen as Serious Problem for the US.” Pew Research Center, April 28, 2022. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/04/28/chinas-partnership-with-russia-seen-as-serious-problem-for-the-us/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axioschina&stream=china
Image Credit: Nina Strehl via UnSplash
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio
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