The seditious attack on the US Capitol earlier this month shook the nation and tarnished the idealistic image held by many around the world who had looked to America as a beacon of democracy.
Widely shared images of protestors with signs proclaiming “Jesus Saves” and “God Bless America” also called into question the meaning of America’s status as a “Christian nation.”
As I wrote in my previous post, the various narratives employed by evangelicals to make sense of China and its church grow out a larger covenantal meta-narrative rooted in the belief that certain nations are uniquely chosen by God to further his purposes in the world. In this meta-narrative, Christian America sets the bar for religious freedom in stark contrast to the government repression of believers in China. As the “city on a hill,” America is quick to respond to the needs of other nations, as evidenced by the generosity of US Christians who have engaged China in myriad ways over the past four decades. Its Judeo-Christian values have produced a unique culture that has inspired generations of Chinese believers to pursue the dream of a “Christian China.” More recently the missionary church narrative has envisioned a wave of cross-cultural workers from China receiving the baton from the American church and completing the gospel’s circuit all the way back to Jerusalem. In many respects these China stories reflect the aspirations inherent in the notion of a Christian America.
Most foreign Christians serving in China understand the need to leave their politics at the door. They lead not with partisan loyalties but with a genuine love for China’s people. Their China stories speak of the real power of the Gospel to change lives. When students or colleagues seek to draw them into political conversations they wisely resist. Being halfway around the world makes it easier to separate relationships in China from the political rancor back home.
Yet the scenes that unfolded in Washington this month are a stark reminder that it is not possible to separate U.S. Christian efforts abroad from the realities of Christian life in America. The same ethos of a “Christian America” that inspires extraordinary altruism overseas can also give rise to an unrestrained lust for power coupled with dangerous claims of divine authority.
In the minds of Chinese who know their history, the spectacle of banner-carrying Christians mobbing the Capitol steps likely stirs up images of Baptist convert Hong Xiuquan and his Taiping army rampaging their way toward Nanjing in the name of building Christ’s heavenly kingdom. The suggestion that “law and order” Christians who decry the persecution of believers in China are nonetheless able to stand by and give tacit approval to the savage beating of Capitol police officers begs the question whether China really needs what American believers have to offer.
Granted, most Christians in America did recoil in horror as these sequences were played and replayed on nightly newscasts, and many were quick to denounce the violence. Yet the reluctance of so many to also denounce the widespread lies and conspiracy theories that led to the violence raises serious questions about the American church’s commitment to truth.
In the words of Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore, “The truth is that many of the people making these claims knew they were false, and thought that some outcome—raising money, establishing their political futures, assuaging their egos—would make those lies alright. God forbid.”
More disturbing than the voices of a few outspoken evangelical leaders who actively pushed such claims upon a sympathetic Christian audience has been the continued silence of those who, whether in the name of “staying out of politics” or because they themselves were sympathetic, have allowed these falsehoods to spread unchecked.
Equivocating and holding out false hope with platitudes such as “the truth will eventually come out” only served in the run-up to January 6th to further inflame the disaffection and resentment of those who believed the system was rigged against them. When the evidence refused to cooperate, they gravitated toward even more bizarre conspiracies to explain away the evidence. Many refused to rethink their positions even when the various apologists for these theories turned on one another and began offering opposing versions of the truth. Instead, the component parts of these disintegrating narratives became like pieces in a diabolical Lego set that could be pieced together at will to form new more elaborate explanations of events that never took place.
When it finally became clear that the expected vindication would never happen, the underlying resentment feeding this frenzy of misinformation exploded into violence.
This disregard for the truth has implications for Christians engaged in China. It has implications when the political culture of American evangelicals undercuts the effectiveness of their message abroad. Rooted in the myth of a “Christian America,” evangelical China stories ring hollow when the claims they make about the power of the Gospel to transform China are not borne out in the lives of Christians at home.
Russell Moore asks what kind of message American Christians are sending when, in the name of some greater political good, they appear willing to forsake the essence of Christ’s teaching:
“Let us sin all the more that grace may abound” or “Let us lie our way into the truth” or “Let us riot our way to peace” or “Let us murder our way to life”—these things are all completely contradicted by the words of our Bible, by our gospel. Does our mission field know that? If not, is it our fault?
Image credit: hollow_log by grace_kat via Flickr
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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