In her response to my recent Christianity Today article about the narratives foreign observers often use to describe the church in China, Hannah Nation of China Partnership takes issue with the idea that these characterizations—in particular the “persecuted church” narrative—represent attempts by foreign Christians to superimpose their political constructs onto China. Nation points out that suffering is an integral part of the Chinese Christian experience, both historically and in today’s China. To minimize this reality overlooks the profound role that persecution has played in forming Chinese Christians. It disregards the identity of “house church” believers who willingly choose to bear the consequences of worshipping outside the bounds of legal religious activity set by the government. It also misses an important component of China’s theological legacy that sees not just political persecution, but suffering of all kinds, as integral to union with Christ and foundational to Christian discipleship.
As I wrote in my article, each of the common China church narratives is rooted in reality. I am in no way suggesting that persecution is not important, much less that it doesn’t exist. Nor am I attempting to “rewrite” history. We need to respect the experience of believers in China and to learn from their perspective on suffering. My concern is that politicizing the church’s identity prevents us from doing so. Too often China’s persecuted church is mentioned as a pretext for rehearsing the widespread abuses of the Chinese party-state. As a political issue, persecution of Christians becomes a proxy for the myriad evils wrought by China’s atheistic leaders—forced abortions, intellectual property theft, lost American jobs, belligerence toward Taiwan, repression in Hong Kong, mishandling the coronavirus, or the threat of encroaching socialism. Using the persecuted church as a way of channeling anger toward the Chinese government depersonalizes Chinese Christians and, by defining their experience solely in political terms, precludes learning from the deeper lessons of their suffering.
In this respect I agree with Nation when she asserts:
To better understand the actual persecution and suffering of the Chinese church, the answer is not to gloss over politics, but rather to seek to better and more accurately understand the very different political and cultural context of the Chinese church and how the various theological commitments and beliefs of Chinese churches inform their stances.
In proposing that we need to get beyond the “persecuted church” narrative, I am not advocating, as Nation suggests, that we leave it behind completely, but rather that we recognize its limits. The way forward is to recognize the role of persecution within a larger narrative of how Christ is forming his church in China:
We need the Chinese church to be defined not by its limitations or what it does, but by how it is being made into the image of Christ. The personal transformation taking place in the lives of Chinese believers is the key to this new narrative.
In this light, the familiar themes of our common narratives don’t go away; they take on new meaning. China’s government is repressive, and its church has many struggles. But within these harsh realities there are new stories to be told and, if we are listening, lessons to be learned that address concerns of Christians globally. In this new narrative, China’s church does not change, but our perception of it does.1
The question is not about seeing different things, but about seeing things differently. In this regard I echo the encouragement of Chen Jing, who wrote in a recent ChinaSource post:
If we intentionally, or unintentionally, see the Chinese church and their context primarily through the lens of politics and ideology, we risk forgetting our top priority: the kingdom of God, which unites us from different contexts together.
- Brent Fulton, “Chinese Christians Deserve a Better Label Than ‘Persecuted.’” Christianity Today, October 9, 2020, Chinese Christians Deshttps://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/october-web-only/chinese-christians-persecuted-narrative-church-xi-jinping.htmlerve a Better Label Than ‘Persecuted’ | Christianity Today.
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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