The Forbidden City, Beijing

Christianity in China

Article Review of “Mission, Millennium, and Politics: A Continuation of the History of Salvation from the East”

Tobias Brandner, “Mission, Millennium, and Politics: A Continuation of the History of Salvation from the East.” Missiology, Volume XXXVII, Number 3, July 2009. Pages 317-332.

F
rom his position on the faculty of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Tobias Brandner has access to nearly first-hand sources from which to construct a critical analysis of a key component of the “Back to Jerusalem [BTJ] Movement.”

As the abstract says, “The article introduces the Back to Jerusalem Movement, a missionary vision from the East, and explains how this movement merged with a broader historical vision of Pentecostalism. It also shows how the movement, linked to a millennialist understanding of history, adds new interpretation to the history of millennialism and covenantal theology. Finally, by describing this movement’s stance in the context of a parallel westward political outreach, the article critically reflects on the cultural and historical background of this interpretation of history and on its political implications.”

Let’s note the key components of this analysis:

The global internationalization of Christian mission finds a major expression in the missionary enterprise known as the Back to Jerusalem Movement, found mostly, but not solely, among the house churches of China. BTJ sees itself as a “new chapter in the unfolding of God’s history of salvation, and of how God’s covenantal relationship keeps moving in a westward direction…” God “continues to anoint people for roles in His historical plan. The goal of God’s history is that the original blessing and special covenantal relationship that started in Israel and have moved to the West will eventually return to Israel through the East,” i.e., China.

After this conceptual introduction, Brandner sketches the history of the BJM, insofar as it can be known, and then moves to his main point: “The Salvation Historical Self-Understanding of BTJ.” Its proponents see themselves as heirs of a tradition of the westward transmission of the gospel by Christians who are usually suffering persecution. Most of the remaining large blocs of unevangelized peoples lie south and west of China, so that the goal of Jerusalem actually represents a call to “preach the gospel and establish fellowships of believers in the whole area between China and Jerusalem” (emphasis original).

They also see practical reasons why this momentous task should fall to the Chinese church:

  1. “China has no traditional enemy in Central Asia and the Middle East.”
  2. “Christians in China have experience in clandestine religious activities.”
  3. “Their traditional mode of mission as used in China – hospitality, visits, and one-by-one evangelism – needs no modification to be applied in the countries concerned.”
  4. “Chinese Christians are used to practicing a simple form of Christianity” that can easily be applied in these areas.
  5. “The spread into the 10/40 window by Chinese business people or through full-time missionaries from China is more cost-effective than traditional mission from the West.”
  6. Chinese Christians know and accept suffering as part of Christian mission.”

The author then shows how BTJ has grown from a specific movement linked to particular groups to “broader vision supported by a wider range of Christian groups.” In particular, it has merged with Pentecostal and charismatic elements in the house churches, with their almost-universal premillennialist eschatology. The Chinese, in turn, “added a new interpretation” to the traditional premillennialism that they inherited, a perspective that “became an essential element with the broader missionary vision that extends from the East to Christians outside China.”

Accepting the premillennialist view of evangelizing all the peoples of the world before the Lord returns, BTJ “understands this particularly difficult task as a special inheritance from God for the churches in China.” Here BTJ becomes really interesting, for it links the postmillennialist view held by the Puritans that America played a special role in the transformation of the world before Christ’s return to the premilliennialist sense of crisis and pessimism about history.

The enormous, even momentous, changes in China since the beginning of the modernization campaign in 1978 have greatly unsettled the entire society. On the one hand, China’s 150 years of humiliation and technological backwardness have come to an end. The rapid rise of the nation contains “a new blessing: They are now entrusted by God to become important actors in the fulfillment of His history of salvation.” All the suffering of the recent past now receives its deeper meaning – to prepare Chinese Christians for this moment in history.

On the other hand, “Economic growth and the revived political power of China support a broad optimism, which also shapes Christians in China.” In what Brandner terms “postmillennialist optimism,” there is also “an underlying belief that God’s covenant has moved to China.” From Israel, then Rome, then the West, and finally America, the covenant has moved westward. At each stage, the favored nation(s) lost the covenant blessing because of moral failures, with America’s decay and history of political aggression being the latest example.

Now, as God’s new chosen people, the Chinese have been given great wealth and power, and Chinese Christians, as the new bearers of the gospel torch, can, and must, carry the light all the way back to its source.

In a very interesting move, Brandner notes the difference between “emancipatory” and “hegemonial” forms of national self-understanding and missionary vision. Just as Israel and the West, including America, tended towards pride, producing concepts like “manifest Destiny” and the “White man’s burden,” and justifying ministry from a position of power, so the same shift can be seen in the BTJ movement.

The author describes the rapid expansion of China’s economic and political (and, one could add, military) power in its own region, but also increasingly westward, as the context for BTJ’s new conceptual turn. No longer the persecuted church in a humiliated nation, China’ s Christians, like their country, are going from strength to strength, their wallets filled with wealth and their positions protected by China’s growing might.

“Seen in this perspective, BTJ…can also be understood as part of the broad movement of China reaching out through economic, political, cultural, and spiritual contacts to a geopolitically important area.” At this point, “the emancipatory dimension” of BTJ’s humble origins “may turn hegemonial” in two ways: BTJ may begin to rely on power rather than prayer, proclamation and suffering, and it may be used by China’s government as a tool for its own expanding presence.

Now Brandner returns to the crucial role which premillennialism plays in this whole scheme, and points out a number of its political implications, the most signficant one being that it “sees the foundation of the state of Israel as…an immediate sign of the last days.”

Here Brandner’s thesis links up with the speculation of David Aikman in Jesus In Beijing that an influential Christian presence in China might move its government away from its current friendly stance towards Muslim nations and towards a pro-Israel policy. Such a sea-change would, obviously, radically alter the original vision and assumptions of BTJ. He urges the leaders of BTJ, therefore, “to recover the emancipatory dimension of mission and prevent it from being swallowed by hegemonial interests.”

In a footnote, he repeats other criticisms of BTJ, which seem to have been taken seriously by its leaders in recent years, resulting in significant adjustments and improvements in what was, admittedly, a rather naïve strategy.

Leaving aside matters of strategy and practice, as well as the dubious reading of church history behind BTJ, what obviously concerns the author most is the ethnocentrism which seems to have captured the minds of many Chinese Christian leaders. A citizen of Switzerland, he would be aware of how misguided - and dangerous – has been the notion that America was God’s chosen nation. As he implies, and as recent studies have demonstrated, American Christianity has been “hijacked” by politicians and merchants almost since the beginning, with disastrous results for the spiritual life of individual believers, and the health of the church, the nation, and even the world, as Christians have supported policies that are cloaked in messianic terms but really pursue very worldly goals. Do we need another such mistake, only on a more massive scale?

Although the growing numbers of Christians in Africa, India, and Latin America will probably laud the zeal and commitment of Chinese Christians and pray for their success as missionaries to the peoples of the 10/40 window, one wonders how they will view a vision that puts the Chinese church, like its nation, at the spiritual center of the world.