Wall Street Journal: China rewrites Bible



Thursday, June 11, 2020




Wall Street Journal
By Matthew Taylor King

With the world distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party has restarted its long-running campaign against Christianity. Provincial authorities have banned online religious services. Officials in Anhui province reportedly removed crosses from two churches in April, adding to a tally of defaced churches that stretches into the thousands.

Believers in China already are under more pressure than at any time since the Cultural Revolution, and a new phase is beginning. Beijing no longer wants simply to repress religion but to transform it. Xi Lian, a professor at Duke University Divinity School, tells me that the Communist Party wants to “create a new version of Christianity shorn of its transcendent visions and values.”

The centerpiece of this campaign is a major new undertaking to rewrite holy scripture. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency said late last year that Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang had presided over a meeting of so-called scholars and “religious people from the grassroots level” to discuss “making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times.”

It would take years to create official state translations of the Bible, Quran and other religious texts. Purging passages deemed incompatible with “core socialist values” while retaining a measure of the original poetry—this would require literary achievement and deep religious knowledge, both of which are lacking in the party’s handpicked experts. Even entertaining such an idea reveals Beijing’s staggering “arrogance of power,” Mr. Lian says, noting that Chinese emperors never attempted such a feat. The Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Why does Beijing seek, as Mr. Lian puts it, “to drain Christianity of its spirit”? One explanation is generalized hostility to religion. The Communist Party “sees religion as an enemy,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. The country’s constitution nominally guarantees religious freedom, she says, but Beijing wants religion “to be either eradicated or co-opted.”

Other religious minorities have suffered greatly in recent years, most notably Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. But the party sees Christianity, which some estimates suggest is the country’s fastest-growing religion, as a unique threat. Mr. Lian cites three major reasons. First, Christianity is an international religion. Bonds of affection and solidarity link Christians around the world to their brethren in China. Second, it is congregational: “You have this ability to mobilize a stable, reliable community.” Congregations helped topple dictatorships in South Korea and Poland. Third, and perhaps most important, Christianity’s “transcendent vision, transcendent values” present the Communist Party with an insuperable “moral and ideological rivalry,” Mr. Lian says, because Chinese people largely see the party’s Marxist-Leninist foundation as a spent force.

Xi Jinping says his goal is to “sinicize” religion. But Christianity already has been sinicized, Mr. Lian argues—and not by the party. Over decades Chinese evangelists leavened the staid faith of the missionaries with millenarian themes and charismatic practices, sustaining believers through the cataclysms of Mao’s rule and the post-1978 “reform and opening up” period’s wrenching social changes. This helps explain why the religion—especially in its unregulated, underground form—is winning so many converts. Christianity in China has grown from about four million believers in the early 1950s, when Mao expelled Protestant missionaries, to more than 60 million today. Beijing’s problem isn’t that Christianity is too foreign; it’s that it’s become too Chinese.

The U.S. can’t dictate events on the ground in China, but the White House would be wise to make religious freedom a pillar of its China strategy. President Trump should speak out for freedom more often. Rhetoric is not an idle thing. Words give hope, and hope shared widely can remake nations. The Trump administration should back up its strong words with action. It can build on its Xinjiang sanctions and punish those responsible for persecuting Christians. And the State Department should closely monitor threats to house churches, seminaries and the Nanjing Amity Printing Co., the main producer of Bibles in China.

If Christianity is to survive in China, the country’s Christians will have to summon the virtues that sustained the faith in other times of persecution: integrity of witness, solidity of friendship, faithfulness unto death. For those of us raised in a free society, their burden is hard to imagine. But Christians know no greater comforts than the cross and the Bible—reminders of weakness transmuted into victory, testaments of God’s love for a fallen world.


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