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With God on Their Side
One of the privileges of living in Tokyo 20-odd years ago was being able to read Ian Buruma’s movie commentaries in the Japan Times. In a paper that too often was a refuge for cliché-ridden gaijin angst he shone through with a freshness, a humanity, an original perspective on the world and a clarity of expression that made him required reading.
His coverage has broadened since then. He’s the author of half-a-dozen books and numerous articles, on all manner of themes, and remains required reading. He’s one of those writers, like, say, Andrew Sullivan, who’s always worth checking out, even when the topic in hand is not especially interesting.
His latest book, Bad Elements, was published last year, and is a guided tour of the Chinese dissident movement. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when the demonstrations of students and others nearly ousted the government, the dissidents have been scattered in a worldwide diaspora. Buruma tracks them down, and he makes an interesting discovery - a surprising number are in church.
I had been troubled by a cliché that kept popping up in conversations about China: the “spiritual vacuum”. Again and again, this alleged vacuum was blamed for China’s current ills. The Chinese, I was told, were in dire need of religion.
I think it’s worth noting that most reporters you meet in Asia seem pretty secular in their outlook (as was I, when I was a reporter in Japan). Most wouldn’t notice a religious revival, or other religious phenomenon, unless it belted them over the head (which is what happened to the world’s media on September 11).
One thing that Friedman doesn’t do is address issues concerning religion. In fact, if one rolls back the clock a few years and reads the “future-hype” books, few of the secular writers pay any attention to religion. What are we seeing today? We are seeing globalization affected more by religion than by just about any other factor.
Buruma is different. He is such a good reporter that he doesn’t need to be belted over the head. (Though he’s not entirely bereft of presupposition or condescension. For example, he writes: “People smiled at me in that beatific way of religious converts.” Gee, I and many in my church are religious converts. I guess we’re all going to have to start standing in front of the mirror to practise that particular smile.)
He recognises Christianity as a significant force at work in the lives of many Chinese, and he follows the story. Two of the book’s 12 chapters are largely on the spread of Christianity, including a lengthy account of a visit to a house church in a remote country town. (By contrast, Buddhism scarcely features in the book, except in connection with Tibet.)
The main appeal of Christianity, over the last hundred years or so, to many Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Japanese, is that it provided an egalitarian challenge to the Confucian tradition. It promised to break the hierarchies that dominated East Asian societies. Christian activists like to think that universal and unconditional love are essential to the establishment of democratic freedom. That is why rebellions against dictatorships have often been initiated and led by Christians.
However, he also notes that a previous attempt at mass conversion to Christianity of the Chinese – in the 1850s and 1860s by a failed Confucian scholar, who became convinced he was Jesus’ younger brother – ended in war and the death of millions.
What might happen now to China?
Buruma is convinced that Communist rule is ending. He finds:
There was an unmistakable stink of political, social and moral decay in the People’s Republic, the smell of a dynasty at the end of its tether.
But there are still perhaps more questions than answers:
Encounters with Chinese dissidents and protesters threw up new questions. Why were so many of them Christians?…Is it perhaps true, as Christians often claim, that a faith which came of age in Europe can be the only basis for liberal institutions that also ripened there? Is there something about Christianity – its egalitarianism, perhaps – that lends itself to struggles for political freedom? Or will other faiths, more in tune with Chinese traditions, provide the spur for political change? What, if any, is the connection between spiritual and political change?
Dissidents featured in the book who have become Christians include Yuan Zhiming, now chief director of the China Soul for Christ Foundation, and Xie Xuanjun, a writer. They were two of the five authors of the explosive River Elegy television series, which helped spark the Tiananmen protests. Others are former student leader Zhang Boli, now a pastor, and Han Dongfang, previously a worker’s representative.
These people almost overturned the Chinese Communist dynasty on their first go. Which raises a final question: What might happen now that they have God on their side?
June 3rd, 2002