Saturday, October 22, 2011

Christianity in China

Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, China
How many people will come to listen to a lecture on “Women and Christianity in Chinain a small liberal arts college in the Midwest in the United States?

More than 500 showed up and some students had to sit on the floor. Was it about China? Was it about Christianity, since St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, is Catholic? Was it about me, the speaker?

It helped that some professors had assigned my articles for their classes and asked the students to attend the lecture. But still it was amazing to see so many faculty and students.

My lecture was part of St. Ambrose’s University’s China: The Awakening Dragon, a year-long exploration of China’s global impact.

Why the interest in China?

The President and some faculty of St. Ambrose will travel to China next year to explore possible partnerships. Next year 15 Chinese students will arrive on campus to begin a pilot project. With the economic boom in China, many parents want to send their children abroad to study and some of American colleges and universities are eager to court these international students.

I have not been invited to speak about China often because I have mainly spoken at seminaries, divinity schools, and departments of religious studies. These institutions have not awakened to the impact of China in the twenty-first century yet. Many are still very Eurocentric in their curriculum and outlook. Some have just caught up with the American century in the 20th century, and it will be some time before they will finally wake up to face the Pacific Century.

So what about Christianity in China?

We have heard about the shift of Christian demographic to the South, because of the growth of Catholicism and the Pentecostal movement in Africa. Yet China is poised to become the country with the largest number of Christians. And this is happening in a Communist country with a staunch atheist stance.

According to the official statistics from China Christian Council in 2010, there were 23 millions Protestant Christians in China, more than 30 times the figure for 1949 (about 700,000); 56,000 churches and meeting points; and 21 seminaries and Bible schools. But there are a few hundred thousand of house churches that are unregistered, with anywhere between 50-55 million adherents.

The Catholics are estimated to be more than 12 million, worshipping in 6,000 churches, and there are well over 3,000 priests and 5,000 religious sisters.

Relation between the Chinese Catholic Church and the Vatican has been strenuous because the Chinese Catholic Church selected their own bishops, who are not recognized by the Vatican. There are many Catholics who belong to the underground church, which remains loyal to the Pope.

I first visited the churches in China in the early 1980s. The churches were reopened after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the turbulent years when the Gang of Four ruled. All religious activities were suspended; pastors were denounced and sent to be reeducated and church properties confiscated.

When the churches reopened, they decided to stay together and form one post-denominational church. Most of the people who came to church in the 1980s were older people, who have been Christians. The pastors were middle-aged or older. I was impressed by their steadfast faith and perseverance during the Cultural Revolution.

In the fall of 2009, I visited the Chinese churches again and I was surprised by the phenomenal church growth. The priest at a church in Suzhou was only about 30 years old and the preacher was a young woman in her twenties! Some 2,000 people attended church that Sunday and the church could not accommodate all. Latecomers had to go to the conference rooms to participate in worship by watching close-circuit TV.

The largest church in China is Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, which can sit 5,000 people. It is located inside the city, surrounded by tall buildings. Dedicated in 2005, the Church has a nice choir and different programs for different age groups. Before the service, I went to the church’s bookstore to buy the Chinese hymnal, religious books, and CDs of sermons and hymns.

Chinese Christians love to sing and many come to church an hour earlier to learn to sing Christian hymns. Since the reopening of the churches, many new hymns have been composed by Chinese musicians. I was delighted to see that a bilingual version (English and Chinese) of the hymnal was published. This was a labor of love of the late Dr. Wong Wing Hei, who supervised the project when he was in his late eighties.

I wish I would be invited to speak about Christianity in China in seminaries and divinity schools to a large audience, even though it may not be 500.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Boston and the Minjung

Yesterday I went to visit Occupy Boston in Dewy Square by South Station in downtown Boston. Occupy Boston began on September 30, inspired by the much larger Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.

Occupy Boston is a tent city with 40-50 tents. It has its reception area, kitchen, portable toilets, and an elevated area used as the stage. Dewey Square is filled to capacity. The attempt to expand to a second camp met with strong resistance from the police. Nearly 150 were arrested on October 11.

One of my students has camped out at Dewey Park since the very beginning. He is an anarchist and has longed for participating in a movement to bring down capitalism for more than 10 years. He cannot believe that there are thousands of people like him who want to challenge corporate greed and the neo-liberal economy.

What is most exciting for him is the leaderless, horizontal organization that is developing. During the general assemblies when they gather for discussion and for decision-making, hand gestures are used to indicate “like,” “dislike,” “yes,” “no” and so forth. This is taking a page from the anarchist’s playbook.

The media at first did not pay much attention to the Occupy movement, describing it as a movement of privileged students. But the people at Occupy Boston are much more diverse: homeless people, older people, and members of the unions. Clergy have shown up and church members have visited the site. It is a coalition of many sectors of the community. Time magazine says it represents “the return of the silent majority.”

The movement declares, “We are the 99 percent.” In the U.S., the top 1 percent gets over 20 percent of the total income.

It was amazing to see that people in more than 950 cities worldwide have organized protests on the International Day of Solidarity with the Occupy Movement on October 15, 2011. In Hong Kong, around 500 protesters gathered outside the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Most of the participants were young and they also used the “We are the 99 percent” slogan.

Several years ago, I have read Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Multitude. Instead of class, they used the term multitude to denote the heterogeneous mass of people who will rise up against Empire. The multitude is linked by the Internet, the social media, and mobile devices. Since Empire is transnational, the multitude must also be a global force and represents a new form of politics.

I thought at the time the idea of the multitude is too abstract: who will organize them? And where do they come from? But we have seen the force of the multitude several times in the last decade: during the global demonstrations against the Iraq War and now the Occupy Movement.

Will the multitude have the sustaining power to effect structural changes? It might be too early to tell about the Occupy movement. But one thing I am certain: conversations have begun in the kitchens, classrooms, and living rooms. Our school had a teach-in session facilitated by our President and another professor, who are veterans of social movements.

The Bible has a word for the crowd of people following Jesus. They are called the ochlos (e.g Matt. 4:25; 8:1). In South Korea in the 1970s, minjung theologians used this term to describe the mass of people who are oppressed by society. Minjung comes from two Chinese characters 民众, which mean mass of people. Similar to Hardt and Negri, minjung theologians do not limit minjung to the working or lower class. Women are the minjung when they are oppressed by the patriarchal society. The colonized are minjung when they are dominated by the colonizers.

Minjung theologians say that for too long, the church only pays attention to the laos (laity), and leave out from its purview the ochlos.

Minjung theology was developed during the dictatorial regime of Park Chung-hee. Today South Korea has become much more democratic with significant economic growth. I am not sure that minjung theology is as popular as it once was. Furthermore, the tactics used by minjung theologians, focusing on national political struggle, may not be adequate to fight against Empire.

We will need a more globalized minjung theology, which can speak to the issues of our time. This minjung theology must be transnational, heterogeneous, fluid, and responsive to local needs and issues. This cannot be written by the elites alone, but must be a participatory theological movement from the bottom-up.

I wonder why did Jesus attract great crowds following him? What did they see in the promise of Jesus? Why do the churches not attracting the multitude today?