Chinese Church Voices

Poverty and Spiritual Backwardness

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In addition to church leaders and ordinary Christians using online forums to discuss matters of faith, academics are joining the conversation as well. On his blog, Professor Liu Peng recently wrote about the relationship between poverty and “spiritual backwardness,” which refers to a spiritual void, or lack of spiritual beliefs. Writing from the perspective of sociology, Professor Peng argues that the most serious type of poverty in China is the “poverty of faith,” and unless that is addressed the problem of material poverty cannot be solved.

And while the terminology used, such as spiritual and cultural “backwardness” may be jarring to the western reader, it is an acceptable part of Chinese discourse.

The post is translated in full below.

Spiritual Backwardness is the Root of Poverty

Wealth and resources that flow from a fixed ethical framework do not transform ‪rural communities; rather a community is transformed through religious belief and a system of values. This is a new paradigm of social construction of China's rural areas and is worthy of exploration.

Poverty is not a consequence, but a phenomenon. The cause of poverty is a backward spiritual faith and consciousness that inevitably leads to backward behavior. If a person, region, or even people group does not have a religious belief or religious awareness, then backwardness is inevitable.

Samuel Pollard [1864-1915, a CIM missionary to China] transformed Shimenkan, not by investing large amounts of money and resources, but by transforming the hearts of the people. He started by transforming people's ideas and their religious beliefs to establish a pillar of religious faith. After changing the hearts of the people, new actions flowed from these new beliefs.  Pollard's weapon against poverty was not money; he brought faith, hope, and love.

‪Pollard's experience brings to mind a quote from Mao Zedong: “In all the world, people are the most precious (世界上人是最可宝贵的).” The spiritual becomes material and the material becomes spiritual, but not with a truckload of flour or fertilizer.

Pollard began with the transformation of the person. The Big Flowery Miao (大花苗) [a sub-set of the Miao ethnic group] were very backward, not in the material sense – (other Chinese people were also very backward); – the backwardness of the Big Flowery Miao lay in its cultural roots and consciousness.

Pollard changed the religious beliefs and convictions of the people so that they became "new persons." While it’s true that money is important for getting things done, if Pollard had instead used money to buy people off in Shimenkan, then he would have failed.

Lifting people out of material poverty is not an easy task. It requires a great deal of effort, such as building roads and teaching people to develop good manners. But even more difficult is lifting people out of spiritual poverty. Is lifting someone out of poverty a matter of taking off their work gloves and dressing them in a suit and tie? Not necessarily.

‪Today, Chinese people can say that on the material level they have lifted themselves out of poverty; however spiritually they have sunk into an even deeper poverty. To put it bluntly, that there is no faith. People witness unfaithful actions and get used to it because of the overwhelming numbers of corrupt officials who have no faith. Under these circumstances, if, for a time, you obtain material success while there are no spiritual beliefs, you can still afford to lose prior gains.

China wants to become powerful and escape from poverty. To do this, it of course needs culture, education, and material achievements. But what we need even more is religious faith. Without religious faith material power is temporary. Without a pillar of faith, countless powerful empires have been wiped out in the end.

The lessons of history are worth pondering. In the end, what does China need? What kind of poverty is the real poverty? In my opinion, the poverty of religious faith, or spiritual poverty, is the most fundamental poverty.

If we achieve a highly developed civilization, but do not guarantee the political system, the economic system, and especially the legal system, then all these civil achievements can still be wiped out in a day; falling backward will be inevitable.

In the 1920s and 30's, Shimenkan was famous in China as the cultural capital of the southwest, producing many talented and top-notch people. Even soldiers of the warlord forces lost in sporting competitions with the ordinary people there. If such a place were to fall back into poverty today there would be some profound lessons to learn.

Why is it that places which had previously achieved rather good material and spiritual culture fell back again into poverty? Prior to China's reform and opening up, Weining county, in which Shimenkan is located, was an extremely poor county in China. Can this poor area achieve a high level of civilization? After it does achieve it, will it regress back to ignorance and backwardness? I believe that if there are no institutional safeguards and no institutional reforms then success is temporary. Shimenkan gives us very profound inspiration.

Original article: 精神的落后才是贫困之根
Photo Credit: Miao flute festival dance Zhouxi S0615 by Spencer, on Flickr, cc

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