05 February, 2006

Christianity and Communist regimes

I recently read a thoughtful weblog entry attempting to explain why the Chinese Communist Party does not allow any religious activity that is not approved and controlled by the state. The author, who I think was Chinese, used late 19th-century Chinese history to argue that the Chinese view much religious activity, especially Christianity, in the light of foreign imperialism. One of the more intriguing arguments he provided was that during the 19th century, European Christians had a habit of "converting" certain towns with a reputation for banditry, then calling on their European allies in the particular "sphere of influence" to prevent the Chinese government (in the person of the Qing dynasty) from bringing Chinese-style punishment to the town in question. Things like this led to the Boxer Rebellion.

Perhaps. I wasn't entirely impressed by the first of two examples he cited of this, which ended with a sentence along these lines: "And the townsfolk, once converted, conducted themselves in admirable fashion from then on, abandoning their ways of banditry." Not an exact quote, but you get the idea: the Christians weren't just layering a veneer of piety over a corrupt, intransigent village. They were actually changing their hearts. Such an argument does not strike me as a viable example of the ills of imperialism.

In any case, the fellow's argument struck me as interesting, until I reflected on the fact that, well, every Communist regime has been hostile to any organized religion that it didn't control. Imperialism is nothing more than icing on the cake, as far as Communists are concerned: in the Soviet Union, throughout Eastern Europe, in North Korea, in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in Vietnam — shall I go on? — and yes, in China as well, religious people who exercised their religion without state approval were routinely harassed. Publicly practicing Christians were forbidden from attending universities, and were excluded from good careers. Churches were watched, and in some cases dynamited; monasteries were closed, and cemeteries desecrated. Whatever language this may be, it is not an amicable one. It doesn't have to be Christianity, though; anything that does not acknowledge the state as master is stamped out, and in a Communist regime, the state is identified with the Communist party. Buddhists, Christians, Jews, and others have all suffered under Communism.

I'm not sure that "Imperialism" can account for all these examples of religious repression, and I am unaware of a single Communist regime that ever allowed Christianity to practice freely. I have known Communists who claim that Christianity and Communism can work together, and they point to examples. I remain unconvinced, since (a) they occur in nations where Communism comes nowhere close to "regime" status, and (b) it strains the limits of credulity to suggest that the two were "working together" on, say, improving the conditions of the poor. I know for a fact that in some countries, the Church and the Party worked simultaneously on improving conditions of the poor, while simultaneously anathematizing the other's solution as worse than the current situation, or even the cause of the current situation. This does not suggest model for cooperation, but I am open to other examples.

Fundamentally, Communism preaches a New Man, wholly material. This is one reason Communist regimes were so given to mass murder during their early decades; they believed that they could hasten the advent of this New Man by removing the corruption of the old. Religion was something to be used and tolerated only as long as it benefits the revolution. Communists today tend to explain this away as a misinterpretation of Marxism, but I have read the same Communists admit that their interpretations of Marx's writings have changed over the years, then later state that democracy is only a tool to bring about the revolution. I read recently of a meeting of Stalinists in Britain who continue to argue that yes, Stalin did murder tens of millions of his own subjects, but there is the "mitigating circumstance" that he sought to bring about the New Man.

Christianity also preaches a New Man, both material and spiritual, where the rebirth of the spiritual is necessary for the rebirth of the material, and where the rebirth of the material can come only through the cessation of its existence. Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and dies, it does not bear fruit. Christ's words cannot be reconciled to a philosophy that promises a material paradise on earth.

Because of this, Christians (and other religious people) tend to say and do things that people don't like to hear. Sometimes this gets extreme, as we have seen throughout history, and of course in current events. Many people are afraid of religion — or, at least, of other people's religion — and not without merit. The desire for control passes quickly from judicious law enforcement to brutal repression when placed in the hands of an ideological regime, religious and anti-religious alike. Ask the Christians who initially supported the French Revolution, then found themselves targeted as enemies of the Jacobin state; or ask Jan Hus.

Many nations impose limitations on religious expression, not only the Chinese; even a country as "liberal" as Germany has a reputation for throwing faith healers into jail on charges of practicing medicine without a license. The Chinese, being one of the few remaining Communist regimes, are as extreme as Communist regimes have always been. Missionary activity in the context of imperialism may have contributed somewhat to this, but I seriously doubt it would be very much more than post-Maoist propaganda.

Unfortunately, I've lost the link to the post on the Boxer Rebellion's relationship to the current situation. If anyone expresses interest, I'll look it up. (I can retrace it.)


花崗齋之愚公 said...

I think you are correct in saying that "imperialism" doesn't quite explain the Chinese Communist Party's present-day suspicion of Christianity. Of more importance, perhaps, is the long history of millenarian rebellion in China. The Qing dynasty alone (whom the PRC, after a period of instability, eventually succeeded) witnessed the White Lotus movements (a millenarian form of Buddhism) as well as the devastation of the Taipings. This quasi-Christian movement, lead by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus, went to war against the Qing in the middle of the 19th century. In the end, over 30 million people died as a result of the fighting and resulting dislocations. Fear of instability caused by religious movements has caused the PRC to suppress not just Christianity, but also Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Dafa (Falun Gong). The behavior of the missionaries and the foreign guns that protected them certainly left a bad taste in the mouth of the Chinese (as the many acts of anti-foreign violence in the 19th century--not just the Boxers--can attest). But you are right, it's not the whole story.

jack perry said...

Thanks for the comment. In case it's unclear, my point wasn't that Christian missionary work didn't cause unrest in China, or even that religious movements didn't cause them. Rather, the main point was that there is nothing surprising about a Communist regime suppressing religion, even one so nominally Communist as China's modern regime. While Communism has a particular nasty streak when it comes to religious intolerance in the modern world, it is also true that societies truly tolerant of religion are recent historically, rare even today, and reconciled to it only fitfully.

jack perry said...

Oh -- and I won't argue Chinese history with someone who writes his name in Chinese characters, and who discusses the cultural problems at Disneyland Hong Kong. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid. :-)