Huangshan, China

Chinese Society & Politics

The Bible and Harmonious Society

D
oes the Bible have anything to say about creating a harmonious society? Yes, according to a number of scholars who convened recently in Beijing for an international colloquium entitled, “Ancient Wisdom and Harmonious Society.” Co-sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Society in Asia (IRSA) in Oxford and the School of Foreign Language and the Institute of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Peking University, the meeting was held in Beijing in early June.

Most of the papers explored ways in which the Bible and other ancient Middle Eastern and Chinese writings offer insights into ways in which harmonious relations among persons might be forged.

In a sense, the conference itself mirrored the theme, as people from different countries, cultures, and convictions engaged in cordial, though often spirited, conversations for four days. While frankly admitting differences of opinion, all the scholars expressed appreciation and respect for others’ views and stated their own positions with charity and humility. That, in itself, may have been the major achievement of the colloquium. With only a few exceptions, a genuine attempt to listen with understanding preceded courteous requests for clarification or statements of disagreement.

The following report will merely highlight some of the points made; there is no attempt to be comprehensive.

Dr. Christopher HANCOCK, Director of IRSA and co-sponsor of the colloquium, led off by welcoming those who were not biblical scholars to this conversation. As a systematic theologian, he can identify with other non-specialists, and yet he believes that other disciplines have something to offer to the discussion of ancient wisdom and harmonious society.

Dr. Hancock then made two important points: First, the meeting is “premised on the value of history.” Though the discipline of history is under attack from many quarters, it retains value as a form of respectful remembering of ancient wisdom, itself a key component in true wisdom. We are also assuming that history is to a significant extent accessible. It is not “a mirage of human projections, nor a meaningless jumble of unrelated fragmentary facts, nor a conglomeration of power struggles that achieve little of lasting significance, nor a pleasant but purposeless distraction from the business of living life in the present, but an intelligible and intelligent bank of human knowledge and experience that can be accessed by careful scrutiny” of the records of the past.

The incomplete and allusive nature of the evidence we have, however, is a “challenge to the interpreter to be wise.”

He then set forth some general theological considerations for such an inquiry: First “Humanity is not the beginning of history.” We must remember our contingency, frailty, and ignorance, and recognize that “humans are as unlikely to be the ‘first cause’ of an harmonious society as they are of society at all.” No, we must “look to ‘Heaven’ for help.”

Furthermore, “Humanity is not the end of history.” There is more to come, for Christians believe that humanity is “neither the ‘author’ nor the ‘finisher’ of history.” Therefore, “if the quest for an ’harmonious society’ now is best rooted in God, it is, and will be, ultimately fulfilled in God, as the God of the ‘new heaven and the new earth’ envisioned by the Apostle John in Revelation 21.”

These words of both caution and hope set the parameters for the very fruitful conversation that ensued.

Of course, if we are to benefit from “ancient wisdom,” we must “listen” to what our forebears have taught us. In particular, if we are seeking “ancient wisdom” from the Scriptures, then we must learn to listen respectfully to its words. In a challenging and provocative presentation, Bin YOU demonstrated “the Significance of Comparative Scriptural Studies for the Construction of Sino-Christian Hermeneutics: by Using Zhu Xi’s Confucian Scriptural Reading Strategy as an Example.”

Though the title of his paper sounds arcane and esoteric, in reality he was appealing to modern biblical scholars to learn from the way that Zhu Xi, the great medieval Chinese Confucian commentator, read the Classics. In a word, Zhu Xi was attentive and respectful, rather than proudly critical. When questioned by others whether this approach implied a return to a pre-critical approach to Biblical research, Prof. You acknowledged the impossibility of a such a move, but suggested that we switch to a post-critical mode, in which we sit before the Scripture as learners, rather than standing above the Bible as critics.

Such a change, he implied, would enable us to benefit from the “ancient wisdom” contained in the Bible as we face the challenge of building a harmonious society today.

“Wisdom”

Since the topic was “Ancient Wisdom and Harmonious Society” a few speakers focused on the meaning of “wisdom” itself as a prerequisite for further discussion.

Comparing the Bible, especially the book of Proverbs, with Chinese views of wisdom, Milton WAN noted that one gains a perspective of totality mainly by listening to advice, and especially by humbly receiving rebuke. We gain a perspective of depth by receiving from God a still heart and tranquil mind that enables us to restrain our anger, control our lower impulses, and learn to be self-reflecting. Only then can we avoid the self-centeredness of the fool. The root of such perspective, of course, lies in the fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom. This engenders a kind of humility that forms the foundation for harmonious relations with others.

In another comparative study, Yexiang QIU looked at “James Legge’s Translation and Comments on the 20th Chapter of ‘Yung Yey’ in the Confucian Analects.” According to Legge, when Confucius said we should “keep our distance” from the spirits, he meant to inculcate respect for the spirits of departed ancestors, not to encourage idolatry. This is the first step toward wisdom

The second component of true wisdom can be found in Confucius’ exhortation to “give oneself earnestly to the duties due to men.” Two points can be made here. 1. Giving others their due would go a long way toward establishing harmonious relations in a community. 2. Legge’s openness and willingness to learn from Confucius “can be seen as an effective attempt for crossing cultural "boundaries.” This kind of openness and tolerance “may be a very useful resource for constructing harmonious society.”

Paulos HUANG examined the reasons for bitterness against those who have offended us, the varieties of negative emotions connected with bitterness, and practical ways in which we can clean up the rubbish in our own hearts. One key step is to recognize that we, too, are guilty of serious faults and failings, and thus are in no position to act as self-righteous judges of others. Only then can we hope to build harmonious relationships with those around us.

Damon SO, in elucidating what Jesus meant by the stark command, “Love your enemies,” showed that it includes both compliance (without retaliation) and a positive love, which seeks the other’s well-being. Jesus himself provides the best example of this sort of love, which is impossible for ordinary people. The key to Jesus’ own love for his enemies lies in his intimate relationship with God as Father, and his dependence upon the Father. He likewise instructs his disciples to learn from him, and to rely humbly on the Spirit for grace to obey his commands and imitate his pattern of unconditional love. So’s paper thus develops the idea that inner harmony – especially resting in God’s love and relying on his power – is necessary before we can pursue harmonious relations with others.

Family harmony

Shoufu JIN offered a very striking exposition of “Listening as a medium of achieving harmony in ancient Egypt.” Though he emphasized the importance of listening for government officials, we could just as well apply his findings to the family, where listening carefully and patiently is as necessary as it is rare. He pointed out that young men aspiring to be officials were trained in the art of listening, and those in authority were evaluated largely on how well they listened to those under their care. As we all know, sometimes a person just needs to talk; you don’t have to express agreement or grant their request; you just need to allow them to pour out their hearts. Imagine how much misunderstanding and conflict would be avoided if people just listened to each other!

Wenjuan YIN’s “Comparative Culture Approach” to Ruth and Yong Quan Yue Li spoke to a perennial problem in Chinese society: conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Both of these documents record the virtuous conduct of a daughter-in-law towards her husband’s mother. The Book of Ruth gives an example of biblical love within the family, while the Chinese classic focuses on the Confucian concept of filial piety, as it is seen in a primary duty of a woman. Love is the central ethical value of the Bible, while filial piety “was the root of all virtue” for Confucianism. While Yin also recognized differences between Confucian and Christian views, she noted that each ethical system believes that one should practice virtue in the home, the basic unit of society, before social harmony could be realized.

Greek myths also spoke of family life. In particular, the famous group of tragedies known as the “Oedipus Cycle” depicts a family utterly shredded by conflict that led to murder across several generations. Not only fathers and sons, but mothers and wives, turn against each other, to the extent that Liang GONG asserts, “Greek literature could not describe a gentle woman.” Religion, rather than bringing harmony, actually exacerbated the conflict.

When we turn to the ancient Hebrew story of Abraham’s response to God’s command to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, we see a different dynamic: Faith in God enables Isaac to submit to his father, and bring ultimate relief to Abraham, as God intervenes to restore father and son to each other. Prof. Gong suggested that these core stories from two different cultures highlight the biblical belief that God can intervene to overcome conflict and bring family harmony. (“Harmony and Confrontation: Differences between Hebrew Fiefdom Traditions and Greek Myth with Regard to Family Concepts”)

Nothing can shatter family harmony more abruptly or painfully than sexual infidelity. In “Ancient Israelite Wisdom and Harmonious Community: Exploration and Reinterpretation of Proverbs 6:20-35 with Contemporary Chinese Social Context,” Hui LIANG explored the damage inflicted upon the family, and indeed upon society as a whole, by prostitution.

The first chapters of Proverbs are addressed mostly to men, and this section condemning connections with prostitutes is no exception. Prostitution hurts a man’s family; undermines society, which is built upon the family; attacks male leadership; and attacks God’s male leadership, since, by extension, foreign gods are other “husbands” whom one shouldn’t love. Adultery was forbidden in the Bible, but prostitution flouts that clear command.

Likewise, prostitution is illegal in modern China, but widely allowed. Many men have a second wife, or several mistresses; many more indulge in visits to prostitutes, who ply their trade openly. All of this denies the equal value and rights of women, and calls out for reform.

Harmony in the church as God’s new society

In addition to the papers already mentioned, in his own wide-ranging discussion John YIEH stressed both the necessity of peace with God and peace with those around us. As part of a larger study of social relations, he pointed out the emphasis in the New Testament upon the fundamental unity of Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the Body of Christ. Thus, living sacrificially for other believers must characterize all those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

He concluded that “To apply the wisdom of the Bible to the construction of a harmonious society, we may have to combine several sets of binary options: (1) to remember God’s amazing grace to us and imitate his faithfulness, compassion, and justice in all our dealings with other people; (2) to obey the biblical laws of justice, the prophets’ teaching of kindness, and follow Jesus’ example of self-sacrificial love; and (3) to cultivate personal moral character and as a society to develop a fair and just legal system; and (4) to consider political, social, and cultural realities and to pursue biblical ideals to ensure justice for all and practice kindness in society.”

If we can learn to resolve conflicts and promote harmony within the church, this will also affect society at large. Wenhua SHI looked at “Paul’s Quest for a Harmonious Community” as a model for our efforts today. In the Roman Empire, the rich were privileged; all others were at a social and legal disadvantage. As we see from the Corinthian correspondence, these distinctions were carried over into the church as well, and threatened to disrupt peaceful relations among those from different classes.

Paul sought to overcome these obstacles to harmonious community life, both by his teaching about the Cross of Christ and also by his own example. Rather than receiving money from the believers, he worked with his own hands. In this way, he demonstrated humility and a willingness to identify with those from lower strata of society. In other words, he applied the Cross to his own life. If we followed the same cruciform pattern of life today, we would have a revolutionary impact on society. By renouncing force and compulsion, Christians can help to promote a society based on truth and justice, not power.

Harmony in society as a whole

For biblical concepts to have any impact upon society, proper translation is a prerequisite. Lemei MA traced the ways in which the words “righteousness (yi)” and “mediator (zhongbao)” were used in Chinese literature and in the Union Version of the Chinese Bible. There are similarities, of course, but also differences. In the Bible, God is the source and standard for righteousness/justice, whereas Chinese culture focuses on human conscience and conduct. For humans, biblical righteousness is a religious concept, and begins with fearing and worshiping God, whereas for Chinese, it is a matter of doing good towards others. Biblical righteousness is absolute, in contrast to the relativism of Chinese tradition.

“Mediator” in the Bible carries much freight. The Holy Spirit mediates between us and God, and Jesus is the Mediator. We need such mediation, because we have offended against a holy God and must have pardon for our offenses. In the Bible, Jesus enables us to draw near to God as our Father because of his saving work on our behalf. In traditional Chinese society, the zhongbao was merely a middle man.

Clearly, for Christianity to impact Chinese culture, translation of key terms is necessary. In particular, these two words apply to our need for reconciliation with God and with each other, through the work of Jesus Christ.

As in ancient Israel, relations with people from other national, cultural, and even racial backgrounds has posed difficulties for Chinese for many centuries. Zhenhua MENG compared “Intermarriage in Bible and Heqin (Peace Marriages) in Ancient China. In the Old Testament, such unions were prohibited, but that did not keep them from taking place. The most fruitful example is that of Ruth, the Moabitess who became the ancestor of King David and then of Jesus.

Chinese emperors married their daughters to “barbarian” princes in order to establish peaceful political links; this is not the same as the intermarriages we find in the Bible, but it does raise the question of cross-cultural intermarriage in general. More work needs to be done on this subject, which touches upon daily reality in modern China. Sometimes, romantic love breaks down cultural, national, and even racial barriers in a way that politics and laws cannot.

Several people pointed out that the Bible acknowledges the fact of discord in society, and even shows that the presence of God’s people in the world can bring strife, though not of their making. Two papers discussed the Book of Revelation, which paints vivid portraits of a world at war with God.

Common CHAN’s “The Apocalypse of John and Harmonious Society” pointed out the stark conflicts recorded in the Revelation between this world and God’s kingdom. On the one hand, Chapter 5 shows that Christ will ultimately unite all sorts of people into one new people in himself. On the other, Roman society was wracked with conflicts among different groups, and between them and the imperial government.

Christians were not the only ones trying to figure out how to relate to Rome; the Jews were, also. Furthermore, various forces created, or aggravated, tensions; these included both economic and political power. Those in authority use both economics and religion to control their populations. The Dragon can employ both persecution and deception to draw us away from allegiance to God. The situation was quite complex then, as it is for us today. We do know, however, that the Lamb of God is also a critical voice against Rome and all other oppressing powers.

Kuo-wei PENG distinguished between the kind of resistance offered by Jews against oppressors in the Maccabean period and that pictured so vividly in the Revelation: Rather than taking up arms, followers of Christ resisted the religious claims of the Emperor cult by sacrificial martyrdom. In this, they were following the example of Jesus who conquers his enemies first by being slaughtered as a sacrificial lamb. For Christians, the Roman Empire brought persecution, tribulation, and even temptation to worship its glory and power. As in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, however, the real enemy is not an oppressive state, but the spiritual forces of wickedness who oppose God’s purpose of establishing a harmonious society. Christians will stand against economic exploitation and the claims of absolute political power, not by armed revolt, but by non-violent, prophetic critique, the example of a good life and, if necessary, innocent suffering, as they follow in the footsteps of the Lamb.

As Dr. Choong Chee PANG observed, the Pax Romana – which bears some resemblance to the role of the Chinese state – had to place a priority on social order. At the same time, the Bible insists that true social harmony requires the establishment of equality and justice in society. There is a difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. Christians possess a “dual citizenship” which leads them to obey the rulers and authorities, but give their primary heart allegiance to God alone. Conflict can sometimes result from this tension. Their existence and growth poses no political threat to China’s rulers, but it does challenge them to adhere to standards of honesty and integrity, as well as respect for differences, just as did certain elements of the Confucian tradition.

International harmony

As Zongqiang JIANG explained in “Neither shall they learn war any more,” both the prophet Isaiah and the Chinese poet Du Fu spoke about an end to warfare between nations and the creation of peace, or international harmony. Obviously, “if there is no peace, there can be no harmonious society.” For Isaiah, righteousness is necessary for peace. So is love, especially in the ruler.

Comprehensive harmony

Finally, we may observe the beautiful scope and depth of the Bible’s teaching on harmony by studying “The Foundations of Harmonious Society in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians,” as G. Wright Doyle briefly outlined.

In this short but sweeping letter, Paul addresses our fundamental problem, which is alienation from God. Our conflicts and estrangement from others flow from our severed relationship with God. Through the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit, we are brought into union with God as Father through faith. This personal reconciliation with God is part of God’s plan to unite all things in Christ, because we are thus, as individuals, incorporated into the Body of Christ, which is an organic community formed of individuals who have received God’s grace.

Within this new society, a fundamental unity (or peace) already exists as an ontological reality, but it must be worked out in daily life through strenuous efforts to maintain unity through love and truth. Paul focuses on relationships with the church, which is the primary locus and focus of Christ’s uniting work. He calls us to love others as God and Christ have loved us, and to fight hard against all that divides us, such as lust and greed and pride. But Paul also speaks of loving relationships in the family, between husband and wife and parents and children, as well as in the work place, between masters and slaves.

In the end, Paul affirms, God will unite all believers with himself and the holy angels. This is the hope to which we look, even as we struggle against all that divides us now, in the assurance that someday there will be true harmony in a new heaven and a new earth.

A few papers did not directly address the theme of harmonious society, but did offer interesting information about the history, and current state, of Christianity in China: Sze-kar WAN, “Christianity and Politics: Two Contemporary Chinese Approaches”; Thomas G. OEY, “Walter Henry Medhurst, Bible Translation, the Chinese Confucian Classics and Harmonious Society”; and Yiyi CHEN’s “What is Preventing Me from Understanding the Relationship Between the Bible and Harmonious Society – a Self Methodological Critique.”