III. The Diaspora Chinese Christians in North America: Finding the theological context for the Chinese churches

Part III:  Chinese Christians from Mainland China


            It must have been five years ago when I listened to Dr. Carver Yu, the president of China Graduate School of Theology (CGST) in Hong Kong, speaking in California.  Yu gained his ThM from Fuller and later earned his doctorate degree from Oxford, then finishing up as a Research Fellow in Princeton before serving full-time in CGST.  The audience this world-renowned theologian faced that day made up of mostly lay Chinese-American Christians who had no formal theological training whatsoever.  Anything that came out the mouth of Yu would be profound for this group.  Yet, he opened by saying this:  “I speak before you today with much apprehension because I don’t know your context.” As a preacher, I understand exactly where he is coming from.  No sermon can be a cookie-cutter message fit for everyone.  If you don’t know the context of your audience, you might have lost them before you have even begun.  At the time of writing this essay, I have just finished reading an article in Christianity Today that describes how Joel Van Dyke and his church ministered to prostitutes in the streets of Dominican Republic.  It tells stories of how street prostitutes responded to these Christians who have chosen to embrace them.  I cannot help but to imagine how Van Dyke’s church would interpret the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 and how a middleclass white American church would understand the same passage.  The point is this:  Our context shapes our understanding of God.  That is the starting point of my four-part series on the theological context of Chinese Diaspora Christians in North America.   


A Historical Categorization

           The first time I took notice of the different generations of modern China is from reading The Good Women of China.  The author, Xin-Ran, was a well-known radio talk show hostess from Nanjing in the late 80s.  Her program, Words of the Night Breeze, gave her opportunities to meet with different women, each carrying her own stories.  These stories describe three generations in the past sixty years separated by two historical events—the Cultural Revolution[1] in the sixties and the Economic Reform in the eighties.  The resulting cultural contexts vary so drastically that even Xin-Ran appalled at the different world portrayed by the people she interviewed.  “I did not feel that we came from the same century, let alone the same country.”[2]

            The Cultural Revolution, which started as a political struggle among government leadership, later extended to a national movement had tormented an entire generation.  The wound was so deep that it makes the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre a minor crime.  The massacre was a massive quick death.  The revolution was a day-to-day torture that lasted ten years.  It took the lives away from hundreds of thousands, and destroyed the mind and spirit of the remaining—of both the oppressor and the oppressed.  There was no winner.  The survivors from that time reminded me of the victims of the Holocaust.  They are largely silent to their experience of the great atrocity.  They have developed a general sense of distrust, and largely wish to be left alone to the remainder of their quiet lives. 

            For those who were born after the Economic Reform, they are completely cut off from that horrific past.  They know only of the “new” China. Every day is another chance for progress and opportunities.  New companies are formed.  New products are imported and exported.  The goods of the world are “made in China”.  This young generation has adopted the best and also the worst of western capitalism.  A consumeristic materialism, along with economic growth, has surpassed that of the west.  A single dimensional mindset dominates this generation—to become rich fast regardless of the means.  Some of the young girls in prestigious universities openly admit that their goal is to become a rich man’s mistress or escort.  The most appalling thing is that this kind of confession was made without any sense of regret or shame.  At the same time, those who have achieved their goals have also found a new kind of emptiness.  They have discovered the reality of an old truth that says “Money cannot buy everything.” And then there is the middle generation sandwiched between the Cultural Revolution and the Economic Reform.  

The in-between generation comprises of people like Xin-Ran.  They have witnessed the suffering of their parents and the drastic change of their nation after the government has adopted capitalism.  Life has turned from hunger to full, “have-not” to “haves”.  Unlike their children, this middle generation is looking into China’s future with a deep appreciation of their history.  They understand “there is no free lunch.” They understand the horrifying implication of going back to the past.  They are the intellectuals of China.  However, I have also witnessed how they have lost a sense of how to move forward other than financially.  They often strive to better themselves in academic studies and career development.  They work very hard, and they reap what they sow.  At the same time, while still loving their country and even approving of some of the things that the leaders are doing, they no longer believe in all the promises.  At this level, there is a loss of focus in life and maybe even a sense of security.  Another form of struggle is that they often fail in family and inter-personal relationship.  After living decades in an environment of value vacuum, they lack models of successful marriage and parenting.  When I pondered on the modern history of this nation that comprises of both extreme tearing down and rebuilding of values, I realized a period of ancient Israel may well define the theological context of the modern China.  


A Biblical Parallel

            Many Christians view 1 & 2 Kings as merely the historical background to the Prophets and the New Testament, little do they know that the author was answering an enormous question that haunted his generation.  In ancient times, when two peoples were at war, they believed that their gods were also doing battle in the heavenly realm.  Therefore, the victory or defeat of the people also reflected the result of the heavenly battle.  We can immediately understand the struggle of the Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.  With Israel destroyed by Assyria and Judah by Babylon, does it mean that Yahweh, the Lord of the Host, was also defeated?  To the exilic remnants, the answer was unfathomable.  The task of Kings was set out to answer this question.  While the author utilized history as his material to construct the answer, he was less interested in recounting the course of events than interpreting those events in the eye of God.  In essence, the author performed the duties of not a historian but that of a prophet.  The depiction of Omri and Jehu Dynasties of Israel makes a good illustration. 

            The throne of the northern kingdom was rarely passed on through peaceful successions.  Instead, conspiracies, assassinations, and murder tainted the king’s seat for a long time, and the author of 1 & 2 Kings made no effort to hide that fact.  It was his way to depict how the nation has fallen to corruption when it disobeyed the Lord.  In the eye of the prophet, a king’s political and economical achievements do not define the prominence of Israel but his obedience would.  Jehu founded the longest-lasting dynasty in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel—a total of five generations from 841 to 753 B.C.  When Jeroboam II, the third descendant of Jehu, inherited the throne, he led Israel to the most prominent time since the David-Solomon era.  Not only he recovered Damascus, extending the borders back to almost the way they were, the economy was so good that many indulged in their wealth to the point that the prophet Amos rebuked them with severe judgment messages.  However, the author of 1 & 2 Kings did not care to spend too much time commenting on Jehu Dynasty compared to what he did with the preceding one—the Omri Dynasty.  While Omri might not be the best known king in Israel’s history, his son, Ahab, was the infamous ruler who brought in Baal worship throughout the entire northern kingdom.  The author spent quite a few chapters to record the ministries of Elijah and Elisha because of this king.  The whole point of recounting Israel’s history was to highlight that the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God by worshiping idols.  While Jeroboam I had led the nation into sin by building the calves at Bethel and Dan, Ahab brought it to a climax by erecting a temple for Baal and an Asherah pole.  Other Israelite kings might have committed syncretism, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, actually tried to wipe out the prophets of the Lord (1 Kings 18:4, 13).  In the end, the author’s message was a prophetic one.  Israel and Judah were destroyed not because the gods of Assyria or Babylon had defeated the Lord, but because Israel had brought their destruction upon themselves by sinning against the Lord.  They had broken their side of the covenant; thus, formed the beginning point for Latter Prophets and Writings that spoke to the post-exilic remnants of “repentance” and “hope”.    


A Theological Context

            Although God has never enacted a covenant with China the way He did with Israel, a parallel can still be drawn at the historical level where the two nations sojourned.  Modern China has walked through her shadow of valley of death that took away lives, tore down human spirits, and stripped away hope.  The Cultural Revolution is arguably the darkest time in modern Chinese history, because it took away the best of China.  The virtues of her people accumulated in four-thousand years were replaced by a foreign god of Communism.  The passion of the people blinded them in what they were doing when they abandoned their own culture and committed great atrocities.  The current government works hard in redeeming the nation from her painful past.  Some main keys include economical growth and finding a new international prestige.  To be fair, all these work to some extent.  But, spiritual wisdom must gain perspectives from higher resources.  I would like to draw a biblical parallel with the two dynasties.  Omri Dynasty did many of the same of what I have described above.  The worship of a foreign god of Baal smothered what was scarcely remained in Israel’s faithfulness to the Lord.  Voices of truth had to be hidden in caves (1 Kings 18:13).  Jehu Dynasty brought Israel to her greatest prominence in wealth and power since Solomon, but that did not impress the prophet.  He prophesied to the post-exilic remnants about the failure of their forefathers that ultimately caused the destruction of their kingdom.  I believe China is also waiting for a prophetic voice.  Whatever gospel message we prepare to preach to her people must address to her historical context.  We must make relevant of spirituality and what China has gone through.  In other words, we need to bring to their understanding (i.e. theology) of what God has been doing in the midst of their suffering and seeming prominence.  A prophetic voice would be one that re-interprets China’s history from a divine spiritual viewpoint.  We must compel ourselves to address to each generation of China separately and tell them how they have come to where they are today.  Otherwise, we will be either satisfying only their felt-needs or missing them completely. 



[1] For those of you who are lucky enough not to know what Cultural Revolution is, you may get a quick reference from Wikipedia. 

[2] The Good Women of China, p.46

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