II. The Diaspora Chinese Christians in North America: Finding the theological context for the Chinese Churches

Part II:  Taiwan Churches in North America

 

Introduction

            A Chinese theologian once defined “history” as the self-perception of a people.  It is from this philosophical perspective that I attempt to write this series of articles.  The contemporary history of China is so complex that a fair examination of all significant events belongs to a separate discipline apart from the purpose of this essay.  And, fortunately I am not engaging with this enormous task.  What I am interested is that part of the historical force that shapes the common factor of spirituality of Chinese immigrants in North America, who now form a significant part of the Christian church.  In every case, the common factor almost always has to do with the subject of “identity.” Modern psychology helps us to understand why an abused child may grow up feeling distant from the Heavenly Father, or someone who had to keep earning his favor with his parents would grow up seeing God as legalistic and without grace.  These self-perceptions form our world, and often become the contact point where God reaches out to heal us and make us whole.  For a nation, one does not speak of the “childhood” like one does with a person.  It would be her history—that is the theological context which I speak of. 

 

A Brief History

            The official name of Taiwan is Republic of China (ROC).  The then-leaders of its political party before the World War, the Nationalist, once ruled the mainland.  The ROC was founded in 1911, ending the monarchial government by the Qing Dynasty.  However, the success of the revolution did not gain peace for long because of the rise of a new rival called Communism.  The conflict of the Communist and the Nationalist ceased temporarily for WWII but was soon resumed after the defeat of Japan.  After many long hard battles, the Communist gained control of China, and the Nationalist retreated to an island to the east, called Taiwan.  Since that time, the ROC never built enough political or military power to regain control of the mainland.  They settled on the island and created great economic achievement in the next fifty years.  Today, the world largely acknowledges Taiwan economically rather than politically on the international stage. 

            A unique political environment breeds a unique people—one that shows a polarized loyalty to her root.  On the one side there are those who see their close link to Mainland China.  Their love for the homeland has not changed over the decades of exile.  To these people, the water of Yangtze and Yellow River defines who they are.  On the other side, there is the younger generation who has pretty much cut their ties with the mainland.  To them, Taiwan is their home.  Taiwan is their main land.  They do not see the rationale of the faint wish of re-uniting with China, but the aspiration of independence excites them.  Nevertheless, both sides suffer from the same identity loss.

 

The Loss of Identity

            The bigger question is:  Is a Taiwanese Chinese?  If we approach this question ethnically, the answer is obviously ‘yes’.  However, the history—the self-perception—of Taiwan forces her people to think of this question at a deeper level.  Dr. Lung Yin-Tai, a well-known scholar from Taiwan, vividly describes this complex in one of her letters to her son.  In this letter, she describes how a Taiwanese government official was making a comment on television about how Chinese people would go by doing something.  He started off by saying “We, Chinese…” then catching himself off-guard, became embarrassed at the expression, changed his wording to “We, Taiwanese…” The graphic depiction of this scene clearly exposes the identity complex of her people.  While they are one-hundred percent ethnic Chinese, they have lost their international representation of China.  While they pride themselves in attaining great achievements internationally, they are saddened by the loss of recognition that these achievements are attained by the people of China.  To this people, ethnicity does not encompass the entirety of Chineseness.  The political implication may supply a greater meaning to the word.  But, why would this be an issue with spirituality?  It is because God does not make us Christians out of a vacuum.  He forms us through our history.  He shapes us from our past experience.  Through this encounter with God, our Christian identity is formed.  Therefore, his truth contextualizes in our culture.  In other words, nobody is just another Christian.  What an African Christian looks like might be very different from a Latino Christian.  And, how a Haitian-American Christian expresses his faith might differ from how a Jewish Christian goes by it.  The difference in the cultures forms different contexts.  The late Father Vincent Donovan made this point clear when he described his evangelistic work with the people of Mesai in Christianity Rediscovered.  For the people of Taiwan, the loss of international identity forms the stage of spirituality—much like Israel in the post-exilic era.      

 

A Biblical Parallel

            586 B.C. was a very important year in the history of Israel.  It was the year when Babylon destroyed the last standing kingdom of God, Judah.  The devastation of the Israelites was beyond description.  In the mindset of the ancient people, the conflict of two nations was more than the battle of the people—it was also the battle of the gods.  Has the LORD, the God of Israel and Judah, lost the battle to the gods of Babylon?  Not only was that the theological question of the Jews, it consisted of enormous implications on their self-identity—whom do they serve now?  One kingdom later, during the Ezra-Nehemiah period, there were only the Jews but no more Israelites.  The LORD became “the God of heaven” instead of the God of Israel.  Although the new title seemed even more glorious, the fact remained that “the God of Israel” would be politically incorrect.  In short, the Jews had now lost their international representation among the nations.  However, I find it strikingly amazing that the Jews remained as a people.  The post-exilic diaspora drew resource from their first exodus experience and strengthened themselves from the tradition that they retained from the Mosaic Law.  This task was not an easy one.

            There are at least two versions of Old Testament we know exist today.  One is the commonly known Masoretic Text, which ends with 2 Chronicles.  The other version, like the Codex Leningrad, ends with Nehemiah.  Old Testament scholars often refer to the former as the text with a “theological” ending; whereas the latter has a “historical” ending.  The redaction of the biblical book-sequence reflected the struggles of different communities who tried to cope with their contexts.  Such was the same endeavors of the prophets and priests who worked through the history of Israel and ascribing the failure of the nation to her sins and not her God.  In the end, the Jews found their place in God’s history through the prophets, therefore defining the value of their rebuilding the temple and the wall of Jerusalem, that they might continue to assemble “as one man” when they listened to the Law of Moses (Nehemiah 8:1).

 

A Theological Context

            I cannot help but to compare the modern and ancient people with their similar contexts.  Both have lost their international representation as a nation resulting in a common need in rediscovering their identities.  And, the political environment formed the backdrop.  For the Jews, the Persian emperor granted them the right to gather in Jerusalem to worship their God.  In a similar way, the People’s Republic of China is tolerating the existence of Taiwan as long as she does not openly refute her role as a ‘vassal.’ Therefore, both must live up to the expectation of the ‘suzerain’[1]. In the ancient time, the Jews were able to remain as a people not because of land or political power.  Rather, they preserved their existence because the prophets found their historical standpoint (their purpose in history), which helped them to hold on to their culture and tradition—such was the work of God in history.  In the same way, the people of Taiwan need to learn to become Chinese of the world beyond political or geographical means.  They need to learn of their own historical purpose.  They need to find their calling in what to preserve outside the mainland of China.  Only till then, they will rediscover the meaning of Cultural China. 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Technically, Persia was not the suzerain because Judah did not exist anymore.  However, I am attempting to draw a parallel between the two. 

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