Christmas in China: Why the Communist party will never control the church
The young Chinese student was enthusiastic. She had only been attending church for a few weeks but she wanted to say how much she loved it all. But why, I asked, was she as an atheist attending a Christian church in a foreign country? 'Because it's the nearest thing to the Communist party I can find in Scotland!'
It was not exactly the answer I was expecting. Her parents were leading Communist party officials and what she saw in the church was a sense of community that she was missing.
Over the years I have found the Chinese to be the most open of peoples to the Christian gospel. And I 'm not the only one.
The Chinese church is going the same way as the Chinese economy – well on its way to being the largest in the world. It is an extraordinary story with up to 100 million Chinese now professing to follow Jesus Christ – more than are members of the Communist party – which is now getting concerned.
China is an authoritarian totalitarian state in which control is everything. Before the post second world war Communist revolution 75 per cent of the Christian church was Catholic. Now it is 80 per cent Protestant/non-denominational. And the latter are much harder to control.
So this Christmas the Chinese government is trying to do the reverse of what the Church in the West would like to do – bring Christ back into Christmas. In a fascinating article in The Spectator Caroline Binney explains how a country which until recently banned Christmas is now officially embracing it – while at the same time trying to remove any semblance of Christianity from it. Binney argues that the Chinese authorities are worried that Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to God, not Xi Jinping.
The Communist party knows its history – that it was uncontrolled Christian communities who offered the biggest threat to the Nazis and in Communist Poland/East Germany were the core of the resistance that brought Communism down. So the Chinese are doing what they can to limit and control the spread of the Christian church. And that includes recognising the festive and commercial possibilities of Christmas while trying to prevent people remembering the birth of Christ.
As Binney puts it, the Communist party is 'seeking to drown the Christmas message in a sea of tat'.
Communism and Capitalism could unite in that goal.
I once asked the Chinese author Jung Chang (Wild Swans, Mao and The Empress Dowager) about the role of Christianity in China. Her answer was revealing. She argued that the missionaries in the 19th century had not been very successful in reaching the ordinary Chinese population, but that they had been largely responsible for changing the structures of the government and sowing the seed for a future growth. It was only after the 1949 Revolution that those seeds really began to grow – even under the midst of a repressive regime.
Not long after I started work in St Peter's Dundee, known throughout the evangelical world as the church of the famous 19th century evangelical Robert Murray McCheyne, an elderly Chinese gentleman came into my vestry and asked if he could have the old photo of a man called William Chalmers Burns. Burns as a young man had been a replacement for McCheyne while the latter was in Israel. During his time in Dundee an extensive and long-lasting revival broke out.
Burns himself was an irrepressible character who ended up going to China as a Presbyterian missionary. The photo we have of him is a very early one of him dressed in Chinese clothes. 'Why do you want that photo?' I asked my visitor. 'Because that man is the founding father of the modern Chinese church,' was the unexpected reply.
This Christmas let's reflect upon the untameableness of the life that the baby Christ brought into the world. He cannot be domesticated. Whether it's a zealous young Scottish minister in the 19th century or the millions of Chinese saints serving Christ today in that great land, the Chinese Communist party needs to grasp that Christ cannot be contained.
As Binney remarks: 'Try as it might with the snow, Santas and saxophones, the government may not be able to keep the real Christmas message under wraps for much longer.'
If the shepherds of Bethlehem were able to proclaim the good news that brings great joy to all the people in the midst of Roman Empire, you can be sure that neither the communists of China, nor the capitalists of the West, are able to stop that news today.
David Robertson is Associate Director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea.