I appreciate the observations and analysis of the contributors to the spring 2023 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly. They painted a picture of the changes and restrictions that are occurring in China from the perspective of individuals, which is quite valuable. I would like to zoom out a bit and share my perspective with respect to the tightening on Christian activities within a different framework.
What Are the Components in Religious Restriction?
In order to review different levels of religious restriction, the Pew Research Center has conducted a survey of 198 countries over the world for 14 years. The report provides a clear picture of the trends of freedom and restriction, which show where there is room for Christianity to advance and where impediments are imposed, country by country. In the survey, they consistently measure two major factors: government restriction and social hostility.
A few articles in the Quarterly have painted a gloomy picture of the tightening government control on church and evangelizing activities. However, we must not forget that government control is just one factor. Social hostility is another key component affecting religious freedom. Yes, government control in China is on one extreme end. But social hostility against Christianity leans towards an extremely low end at the same time. We need not feel too pessimistic.
Let us look at Japan. Among the 15 most populous countries in the world, it ranks the lowest in government restriction. Many missionaries have been actively preaching in Japan as an open access nation. In terms of percentage of Christians in the population, Japan is much lower than China. Government restriction does impose challenges in preaching, but it is not the most critical factor in certain circumstances.
How about social hostility? Both China and Japan show the same ranking in this factor. In both Japan and China, your neighbors probably would not harass you just because you have a different religion. In fact, compared to Japan, Chinese people are much more tolerant of a foreign religion. Social and familial cohesion in Japan is very strong.1 For a Japanese person, personal identity is tied to the nation, community, family, school, and corporation.2 Their identity is also closely knitted to Japanese religious beliefs. To turn to Christ means that, in their mind—and in the minds of their family—the person is no longer Japanese, and the proselyte has relinquished Japanese cultural values by refusing traditional Shinto and Buddhism.
In China, on the contrary, the Communist Party’s promotion of atheism has broken the tie between Chinese cultural identity and religion. Most of the younger generation in China do not associate their social identity with religion, unlike their Japanese peers. Chinese people usually do not despise a friend in their social circle just because he is a Christian.
In the diagram below, restrictions on religion among the world’s 15 most populous countries are plotted, according to social hostility and government restrictions. The countries in the green zone are safe and free for people to practice religion. Countries in the yellow zones are risky for believers. Countries in the red zone are dangerous for believers.
India, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia stand out as having the most restrictions on religion when both government restrictions and social hostilities are taken into account. Japan and the US have the least restriction and hostilities. Scores are for calendar year 2020. Note that larger circles represent higher populations in proportion.
To summarize, the maintenance and advancement of Christianity is highly correlated to three main factors: government control, social receptivity, and culture. Comparatively, China is not the most difficult place for Christianity to develop. In the diagram above, India and Egypt both have much higher social hostility than China, along with high government restriction and lower level of prosperity. In China, while government control is highly averse to religion, the other two factors do not obstruct the development of Christianity.
Looking at the “New Era” and the History of God’s People
There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). God’s people, in their long history, were subject to the three impeding factors more often than times without hindrance. Perhaps a review of the history of God’s people from the exilic period to the early church—a period of 900 years—based on these factors will shed light on how we should respond to our modern challenges.
In the chart below, I have used dangerous, risky, and free to correspond to the red, yellow, and green color coding in the diagram above.
|Year||What Happened?||Factors Threatening Religious |
Freedom and Identity as God’s People; Risk Level
|What Did God’s People Do?|
|587 BC||The Southern Kingdom was conquered. The Jews in captivity would be accused if they did not follow pagan rules.||The king: forcing all people to worship the golden image.|
Social factor: The Chaldeans tried to find fault to accuse the Jewish elites. Dangerous
|The prophet Daniel served pagan kings with loyalty and wisdom. He won the trust of the kings and convinced them of God’s sovereignty.|
|538 BC||King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to rebuild the house of the Lord.||Social hostility: On-going local opposition forces tried to ruin the progress despite the approval of the kings. Risky||Some of the Jews returned and rebuilt the altar and the temple.|
|536 BC||Samaritans opposed the construction. A letter was sent to Artaxerxes, stopping the reconstruction for 16 years.||Social hostility: On-going local opposition forces tried to ruin the progress despite the approval of the kings. Risky||The returned Jews stopped and waited for the Lord’s hand to change the situation.|
The Jews who did not return would develop their families, businesses, and livelihoods in the foreign land following Jeremiah’s advice to establish a shalom relationship with their communities.
|458 BC||King Artaxerxes sent Ezra to his homeland.||Cultural corrosion: Intermarriage with gentiles.|
Social hostility: opposition kept on the attack. Risky
|Ezra put the law back into practice. He put forth great effort to keep the people separate from pagan corruption.|
|446 BC||Building of the city wall was again stopped due to opposition and resumed two years later, when Nehemiah returned in 444 BC.||Cultural corrosion: Intermarriage with gentiles.|
Social hostility: opposition kept on the attack. Risky
|Nehemiah led the Jews to rebuild the city. They carried weapons to defend themselves during the construction.|
|336 BC||Alexander the Great conquered the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.||Cultural corrosion: Hellenization changed the culture and religion throughout the region. Risky||The Jews kept on building synagogues to retain their religious and cultural traditions in various parts in the Mediterranean Basin.3|
|332 BC||Egyptians ruled over the territory of Judea.||Government: Policy of toleration meant Judaism and Hellenism coexisted peacefully. Free||The Bible was translated into Greek (285-247 BC).|
|198 BC||The Syrians defeated Egypt, and Judea was annexed to Syria.||Government: At first the Jews were allowed to maintain their local rule under the high priest. But later Antiochus Epiphanes IV persecuted the Jews and demanded full Hellenization. Dangerous||Two religious parties emerged among the Jews: the pro-Syrian Hellenizing party, and the Orthodox Jews. A struggle for power between these two groups resulted in the polarization of the Jews along political, cultural, and religious lines.|
|164 BC||Maccabean Revolt||Government and social culture were fully aligned with Judaism. Free||They retook Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, restored biblical worship, and established Hanukkah as a commemoration forever.|
|63 BC||The Romans took over the whole land. Gradually warfare ceased.||Government: highly tolerant of Jewish religion while Hellenism was reinforced. Free||The sects of Herodians, Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law emerged with diversified socio-political roles under the same religion.|
|4 BC||King Herod killed all babies under two years old after the magi’s visit.||Tyranny: eliminating any kind of leadership superior to the governor. Risky||Joseph brought Mary and Jesus out of danger and fled to Egypt.|
|AD 30||Jesus preached to and served in both public communities and private individuals.||Caesar: tolerant of different faiths.|
Social opposition: persecuting the newly emerged faith. Risky
|Some Jews were enlightened and accepted Christ but some used violence to oppress followers of Jesus. Apostles and disciples spread the good news courageously. Paul even pursued going to Rome to preach to Caesar.|
|AD 64||The government instigated a social movement to blame, accuse, and persecute Christians.||Caesars: Merciless, high-handed persecution.|
Social response: High respect for Christians’ sacrificial love and witness. Dangerous
|Confidential gathering places for fellowship and worship, defending faith through apologetic advocacy, witnessing to Christ through serving in communities and martyrdom.|
|AD 313||Edict of Milan issued by Constantine legalized Christianity.||Empire: Treating Christians benevolently.|
Culture: Social cultural transformation took place.
Community: High receptivity. Free
|Continued to uphold charity development in society and build churches.|
The dangerous label means that Jewish or Christian religious activities were highly prohibited. The risky label represents an environment that did not fully outlaw religious practice but was not completely safe, while the label free denotes freedom and safety to practice Judaism or Christianity. Most of the time, religious practice was at least risky, if not dangerous or illegal. But God’s deliverance ensures the eventual growth of Christianity. If I were to pick a label for China, it would be risky, not dangerous.
Martyrs were highly honored by the early church Christians. However, this was not the only way for followers to remain faithful to the church. Martyrdom was a last resort in the most difficult situation. We should not seek out needless sacrifices. There were a variety of ways God’s people dealt with risky and dangerous periods. There was not a standard solution for every situation. Believers responded in ways ranging from keeping silent to overtly revolting, from retreating to Jerusalem to spreading synagogues throughout the territories, from serving kings with wisdom to fleeing from the tyrant. Each approach has value for believers facing the current challenges in China.
Note that even in the most difficult times, Christians refused to be marginalized in society. They served the poor and widows. Likewise, in our modern struggles, we should not retreat from the public sphere. Prohibitive laws can never restrict us from serving our neighbors with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Such fruit of the Spirit is so transformative in a culture that the soil will become well cultivated for faith to grow.
I used to ask why God permits persecution to befall his people. I thought perhaps it was to distinguish the sheep from the goats and the weeds from the wheat. After looking back at the history of the challenges faced by God’s people, I find that I have a better question to ask: “What should we do to act in concert with God’s plan?” He works in all scenarios to accomplish his mission, and his wisdom is higher than ours.
- Noriyuki Miyake, Belong, Experience, Believe: Pentecostal Mission Strategies for Japan (Gloucester: Wide Margin, 2005), 12.
- Kosaku Yoshino, Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan: A Sociological Enquiry (London & New York: Routledge, 2015), 22.
- Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (London: Yale University Press, 2000), 42-44.
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