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The Christian Virus,

January 19, 2010

An article showed up in my email last week with nothing except a link to an internet page. It was three pages, actually. About Christianity in China. I almost didn’t read it. I have heard about Chinese Christians before, but nothing to make me think they could do any more than struggle along. But I opened the file, and when I got started, I couldn’t stop.

Something important is happening in China that is so counter to what one might expect that it sounds like, well, a miracle. And the miracle is remarkably similar to the one that turned the Roman world upside down in the days of Paul and Barnabas. But there is no Chinese Paul. There isn’t even a Chinese Billy Graham, or Rick Warren. Christianity is not on television, or even radio as far as I know. There are no mega-churches. But there are now some 70 million Christians in China. How on earth did that happen?

It has happened in the way Christianity has always thrived: person to person, like a virus.


          Oh, they have pastors and teachers, of course. But their influence, like that of Saint Paul, is limited to the people they can meet in person.

I was so caught up in the article that I didn’t notice that it was dated, June 22, 2008. It had taken 18 months to get to my mailbox.


          Written by Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune, titled: “Jesus in China: Christianity's rapid rise.” Footnote


          What has happened in China is that a Communist government, atheist by definition, has come to realize that Christianity may not be a threat to the country, but an asset.


          Here is what Evan Osnos wrote:

China's top leaders have taken unprecedented steps to acknowledge religion. At the country's highest political gathering, the 17th Party Congress, [held October, 2007], the word "religion" was added to the Communist Party constitution, bringing it closer in line with the national constitution.


That official recognition is giving some members of the government the confidence to publicly acknowledge their faith for the first time. Judge Diana Zhou presides in China's maritime court in the eastern city of Qingdao . Since she joined the court 11 years ago, Zhou has come to believe that Christianity could hasten the country's goals of clean government. "If there are more and more people who pursue morality who are able to enter the party," she said, "then they can be a very healthy force within the party, which is already seeking to prevent corruption."


          It is an astonishing moment in the history of Communism.


                      It is an acknowledgment that faith is practical.


                      Even a dedicated communist has to come to see that his secular faith is empty.


                                  It has no moral basis, no system of ethics, that prevents corruption.


                                  That cannot be done only by laws.


          It was Os Guiness who observed that you can’t stop a moral landslide with laws.


                      The soviet union couldn’t do it, and the highest expression of communism there only led to millions of the murders and corruption that has survived the fall of the old union.


          I wouldn’t have thought it, but it begins to appear that the Chinese have a more forward looking view than the Soviets.


          To be sure, the response of the Communist party may be cynical, but at least they have come to see something in the Christian faith that Soviet communists never saw.

The Christian faith is based on the world’s oldest system of ethics, and those who embrace it have a reason for moral behavior. Life has meaning, a meaning that no atheistic system can provide.


          And the moral and ethical system of a country cannot be imposed from on high.


          It has to live in the hearts and lives of ordinary people.

Some Chinese Christians argue that their faith is an unexpected boon for the Communist Party, because it shores up the economic foundation that is central to sustaining party rule.


"With economic development, morality and ethics in China are degenerating quickly," prayer leader Zhang Wei told the crowd at Jin's church as worshipers bowed their heads. "Holy Father, please save the Chinese people's soul."

What sort of people are these who are making a difference in china?


[One example is a man who was born in a poor village. He grew up through years of famine in the countryside and, while still a teenager, he concluded that living off the land would forever put him at the mercy of the harvest.


"But I found that barbers were the freest people," he said. "In summer, they could work in the shade under a tree. And in winter, in a warm room. No barber ever died of hunger."


He married a preacher's daughter, who introduced him to Christianity. But it wasn't until Zhang's business foundered that he decided that religion would be his future. He began evangelizing wherever he could: to customers in his barber's chair, to passengers on the bus. In 1998 he spent four months bicycling from province to province, meeting church leaders and hearing tales of fights over religious expression. Local preachers, he concluded, were being treated "like drug dealers."


"During that time, I saw ordinary people complaining of injustice everywhere. No one spoke up for them," Zhang said. "I realized that nobody but Jesus can save this country and save the people."


          Do you realize how close this is to the way a virus is spread? From a barber to a customer in his chair?


          It reminded me of a phrase by C.S. Lewis: “A good virus.”

We have, over time, lost touch with the way the first Christians did their job.


          Paul and Barnabas did not have a radio program or a printing press.


          And yet.

(Acts 17:1-6 KJV) Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: {2} And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, {3} Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. {4} And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few. {5} But the Jews which believed not, moved with envy, took unto them certain lewd fellows of the baser sort, and gathered a company, and set all the city on an uproar, and assaulted the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. {6} And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;


          Just two men with news, that is all that they were.


          And Paul apparently was not that good a preacher.


          You wouldn’t think that reading his letters, but Paul knew it well enough.

He acknowledged that people thought his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible.

He wrote to the Corinthians:


(1 Corinthians 2:1-5 KJV) And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. {2} For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. {3} And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. {4} And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: {5} That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

Just two men with news from the East, were Paul and Barnabas, and they knew the secret did not lie in their own persons, but in the power of God.

The article from the Tribune continued. What is happening in China . . .


. . .embodies a historic change: After centuries of foreign efforts to implant Christianity in China, today's Christian ascension is led not by missionaries but by evangelical citizens at home. Where Christianity once was confined largely to poor villages, it is now spreading into urban power centers with often tacit approval from the regime.


It reaches into the most influential corners of Chinese life: Intellectuals disillusioned by the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square are placing their loyalty in faith, not politics; tycoons fed up with corruption are seeking an ethical code; and Communist Party members are daring to argue that their faith does not put them at odds with the government.

This is another one of those corners where I sense a connection between Chinese Christians and the Roman Christians of the first century.


          Paul wrote to them:


          (Romans 13:1-5 NIV) Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Note well, he said established, not approved.


It was important that the Christians go along with the Roman state as far as they could without disobeying God.


          {2} Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. {3} For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. {4} For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. {5} Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This makes a lot of sense, in practical use.


          If you are going to call the police when an intruder comes into your home, it makes no sense to turn right around and reject that government.


          In a country like ours, we can work to change the government, and Paul would take no exception to that.

Christians enjoy a luxury in our country that the Chinese Christians cannot afford.


          We can argue and bicker over doctrinal issues, many of which have little to do with the way we live our lives day to day.


          We can reject a brother in the faith over when the rapture of the saints will take place, and some feel they can do that with absolute certainty.


          The Chinese Christians have to concern themselves with more fundamental issues. There are Catholic, Protestant and evangelical Christians in China, and they all share a common crisis.


          It is not a doctrinal issue that endangers their faith, but a government that, if they aren’t careful, will view them as a threat.


          Rome, at times, saw the Christians as a threat, and killed a lot of them.


                      I suspect that is the reality that lies behind what Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, that I referenced earlier.

Here, I think, lies a fundamental lesson we can learn from the Chinese and Roman Christians:


          When people make the smallest turn to Christ, it makes a difference.


          They don’t have to understand every nuance of Christian doctrine and law.


          There will be time for that later.

When Peter finished his sermon on the day of Pentecost, men in the crowd asked what they must do now.


          Peter replied: (Acts 2:38-42 NIV) Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. {39} The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call." {40} With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." {41} Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. {42} They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.


          They got a lot of exhortation from Peter on that day, but the starting point was “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ to get your sins forgiven.”

There are two very big ideas here: Repentance, and the name of Jesus Christ.


          You have become on this day his disciple. A disciple is a learner. He sits at the feet of his teacher and he learns how to live his life.

So I don’t think we have to conclude that some of the Chinese Christians are heretics because they don’t believe what we believe.


          They have made a start, and they deserve the prayers of every person who names the name of Jesus.

The article in the Tribune referenced one very interesting fellow:


From the balcony outside his spacious office, tycoon Zheng Shengtao surveys a vast factory clanging with workers producing high-tech printing equipment. It is one of the plants that have made him rich. At 56, Zheng has worked his way up for a quarter-century, from a no-name supplier to CEO of a manufacturing giant, the Shenli Group, and head of the chamber of commerce in the prosperous eastern city of Wenzhou. A chauffeur squires him around town in a silver Rolls-Royce.


But like a growing number of other business owners, he believes China's sprint to the free market—the very process that created his wealth—has weakened his countrymen's sense of ethics and imperiled future growth.


"So what happens if I am trustworthy, but others are not trustworthy?" he asked. "Wouldn't I end up the loser?"


Indeed, many of the church's new adherents profess a common belief that 30 years of ungoverned capitalism, amid the fading of communist ideology, has opened a yawning spiritual gap.


                        A public debate in China over ethics in business has bloomed in recent years from an unlikely source: the same unsafe products that have bedeviled U.S. consumers. In the most infamous case, 13 Chinese babies died and 200 were sickened in 2004 when a manufacturer skimped on the ingredients in infant milk. The case became a symbol of an economy so out of control that people could no longer trust their countrymen to adhere to the most basic ethical standards.


Since becoming a Christian five years ago, Zheng has launched a campaign to raise ethical awareness and revive a "system of trust" among his colleagues. "For example, we do not evade taxes," said Zheng, who serves on the provincial government's advisory body known as the People's Political Consultative Congress. "We do not make fake or substandard products. We will not change the contracts and promises made to customers."


"We are not only doing business for man," he added. "We are doing business for heaven."


This awareness is taking root not only in the trenches of China's new free market, but also among those who are helping to shape the country's economic reforms.


          Perhaps the most striking thing that this man said:


In lectures and writings, Zhao now argues that promoting the 10 Commandments would cultivate "a civilization based upon rules." Likewise, providing business owners with "a motivation that transcends profits" might keep them from seeking shortcuts that have fouled China's environment or cheated workers. And encouraging tycoons to donate some of their wealth would develop China's civic institutions, Zhao argues, just as early American Christians founded Harvard and Yale Universities.


When Zhao took his theory public in lectures to political elites, he braced himself for criticism; as a party member, discussing his newfound faith could stymie his career. Instead he was stunned to discover that many people agreed with him.

What lessons can be learned from what is happening in China?

          Sometimes, more is less. There is no Billy Graham there.

          People can't rely on organizational genius from men like Rick Warren.

          They have to do it themselves.

          Not to criticize mega churches, but that isn't the way the Christian church got started, either in Jerusalem or in China.

          They were originally, house churches.

          Chinese Christians have arisen in a situation where increased power can only get them into trouble.

          The moral basis of Christianity meets a need of the state. Without it, they can only rely on coercion and fear.

And that system, tried for nearly a century in the Soviet Union, failed. Spectacularly, and at a very high cost.

One gets the feeling that there are a few people in high places in our own country who are willing to use coercion and fear to improve the system.

It won’t work.

Only the freedom granted by God will work in the end.

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