More Than Martyrs

Popular American novels about China are chancy things. In Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon, characters from the President down refer to the Chinese people as “Klingons”—a word that takes on the symbolic weight of racial epithets that would never be tolerated in the American media. Popular Christian novels are often no better. So I opened the cover of evangelical author Randy Alcorn’s Safely Home with some trepidation. Red pen in hand and notebook at my side, I was expecting to catch another influential evangelical in the act of China-bashing. The vivid inside-cover illustration of a heavenly Christ welcoming home a Chinese martyr did not bode well for a balanced treatment.At the end of chapter one, I jotted down several points, but kept reading. At least there had been some positive remarks about the Chinese people—perhaps Alcorn was not going to add too much to the demonizing of the Chinese government that is fueling an anti-American backlash among younger Chinese.At the beginning of chapter two, I tensed up again. “Here it comes,” I thought, as the book’s underground Christian hero, Li Quan, asked himself, “Is this the day I die?” Due to his faith, he had been relegated to a life of manual labor and rural poverty, bicycling along a road of frozen mud to a Spartan one-room house. And yes, here came the scar-faced police with guns drawn, quoting Chairman Mao and demanding recantation of faith and threatening death to two dozen believers for meeting illegally. Oh dear . . .But by the time I was a quarter of the way into the story, I began to relax. There were moments of surprising realism, as when Li Quan tries to educate his former Harvard roommate Ben Fielding, an American businessman with interests in China, about the complexities of China and the lives of believers there. Any book that acknowledges the growing problem of heresy and pseudo-Christian cultic movements in rural China has a chance of demythologizing the romantic view of “house churches” some ministries foster for fund-raising purposes.Along with the earthly realism, Alcorn regularly offers scenes that let readers in on a parallel spiritual universe. In chapter seventeen (these are, of course, short chapters), Li Quan’s martyred father joins the “Watchers,” who observe events on earth from the perspective of heaven. Having recently encountered an old book recounting visions of heaven experienced in a mission orphanage in China in the 1910s, I welcomed these glimpses of the cheering of angels and saints that accompanies our efforts at faithfulness in the midst of suffering.As far as it goes, Alcorn’s depiction of China’s house churches is largely accurate. Safely Home focuses on the empty half of the cup—on the discrimination, repression, and persecution faced by believers in the unregistered (and therefore illegal) rural Protestant house church networks, “underground” Catholic churches, and the smaller, but growing urban house churches.Indeed, the majority of Christians in China, roughly estimated to number 30 to 70 million, belong to one of these groups. Organizations like those sponsoring The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church have documented the ways in which police, assisted by the leadership of the authorized “patriotic” religious organizations, are attempting to destroy the largest networks under the guise of an anti-cult campaign. These networks cover multiple provinces, and their leaders aspire to play a role as spokesmen for church interests through a national “Unity Movement,” challenging the political prerogatives of government Religious Affairs Bureaus and official Christian organizations.But Alcorn’s novel (and most other Christian media outlets) does not tell the other half of the story. Safely Home greatly exaggerates the scarcity of Bibles and the secrecy required to own one. The reader would never imagine that the Chinese government has authorized the printing of more than 28 million Bibles and other materials in a joint venture with the United Bible Societies. Continuing shortages are due to the exponential growth of demand, along with price and distribution obstacles, not government oppression.In this book, we see little of the vibrant life and relative freedom enjoyed by many grass-roots churches and prayer groups. We do not learn of the more independent thinking among younger and better-educated seminarians, pastors and lay leaders. We certainly get no inkling of the growing tacit cooperation between official and unofficial congregations in many parts of China, nor do we learn of the rapid growth of emerging churches among urban professionals.By setting his novel in a rural area (though his Chinese hero has a degree from Harvard), Alcorn neglects to show us the rapidly growing fellowship groups among scholars and students on campuses, especially overseas, and their alumni in the Chinese marketplace. In the United States, Mainland Chinese are by far the majority of internationals involved in campus ministry activities. Many keep in close touch with family and colleagues in China, visiting frequently for lecture tours or projects and starting Christian work in their hometowns. Political exiles from the Tiananmen era have been influenced by Christian thought as they are learning democratic principles for future return to China. Many have responded to the gospel.All of these groups deserve support, though that support requires study and strategy, and above all incarnational service in China, not political pressure from the outside. Much of the untold story of Christian vitality in China has been made possible by growing economic ties between China and America, which keeps China’s door opening wider in social and political arenas as well. Here again, Alcorn’s simplistic message, echoing many poorly-informed sources, does more harm than good, pitting its American businessman’s corporation against the cause of religious freedom. To be sure, both business people and consumers need to pay attention to the effects of their choices on the lives of Chinese believers, not to mention factory workers in general and women in particular. But business activities are by far the most promising avenue for creating the independent resources that can underwrite greater freedom, whatever obstacles the state may put in the way.It’s not hard to see why Alcorn presents a onesided picture. Heroic Chinese believers provide a handy foil to teach some important lessons to Americans (personified by the handy American protagonist, Ben): faith is central to life’s purpose and prayer is central to faith, comfort must be set aside in favor of courage, churches should be mutually supportive communities, self-centered Americans should care about the plight of fellow believers overseas and take action against injustice. And so on. Alcorn has his own ministry, Eternal Perspectives, which seeks to communicate these commendable goals to often-complacent American evangelicals. We can hardly fault him for wanting to present an alternative to what passes for discipleship in North America.But idealized portraits can actually inhibit our ability to learn from the spiritual life of Chinese brothers and sisters. As a Chinese friend of mine put it, “Americans seem to think of Chinese Christians only in terms of persecution, as if they have nothing else to offer.” Furthermore, the heroic portrayal tends to obscure the great need among Chinese believers for outside resources, not only in leadership training and theological education but also in family counseling, administration, accountability, and training for effective witness and service in the wider society.Even martyrdom itself deserves a more complex treatment than it receives in evangelical works like Alcorn’s. To be sure, most American Protestants have lost their sense of connection to Hebrews’ “cloud of witnesses.” Other Christian traditions, which venerate martyrs and other saints as still alive and active in the work of the Kingdom, would understand the mindset of the older generation in the Chinese church. Alcorn reflects this mindset when he portrays Li Quan’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father—martyrs all—sending him spiritual support in his trials from their vantage point in heaven.But this fascination with Chinese martyrs can inadvertently burden Chinese believers with an artificial and constricting role. The writer Alex Buchan recounts pressing an elderly Chinese woman for her “real” feelings about suffering, after others had left the room. She finally admitted that she didn’t like it much at the time, but couldn’t admit this to others who expected to hear a testimony about the joy of suffering.Buchan also tells of a well-known Chinese preacher whose brother died in prison. After his brother’s death, he was introduced everywhere as the brother of one counted worthy to suffer a martyr’s death. “My brother’s martyrdom put him in a completely different spiritual category from me in most Christians’ eyes, and this began to disturb me.” He was angry at God for years because he hadn’t been counted “worthy” of martyrdom. Eventually, “I came to the full realization that it is as much an honor to be spared as to be martyred. . . . We in the suffering church make too much of those who have been killed for their faith and too little of those who have been spared. . . . Not all God’s words must be written in blood.” The Chinese church’s martyrdom mentality may be blinding their eyes to important new roles they are able to play again for the first time in decades: as moral models in a corrupt society, as peace-makers in a fractious land, and as the binders of wounds among those left behind by the raw capitalism sweeping China.There are certainly families of martyrs like Alcorn’s fictional Li family—but I also think of the four generations of believers in the family of a Chinese friend. The grandfather, a poor country doctor, was converted by missionaries and subsequently killed during the 1950s land reform. His murderers were ignorant peasants, urged on by Communist officials, who expected that a doctor must have gold buried somewhere.His son, whom he had sent to seminary, became a leading pastor in a provincial capital until the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. Along with his five-year-old son (my friend) he was forced to live in a shed in the former church yard, and worked as a prison laborer in the factory that took over it property. In the 1980s, he resumed his pastoral work in the registered church system and served parishioners in the surrounding counties, in official and house churches alike. Always, he prayed for his only son to come to faith.My friend for years sought to distance himself from his “bad class background” and tried to convince his father to quit church work. Eventually he gained a university and post-graduate education, and even a high-level official staff job requiring party membership. Today, he and his wife are members of a local unofficial fellowship group that holds major celebrations on Christian holidays. He travels frequently to Europe and America for academic and business purposes, assisting and advising many Christian ministries along the way. His son, a fourth-generation believer, is active in his local Chinese congregation while studying at a Christian university overseas.Perhaps the story of my friend’s family wouldn’t have made as good a novel. But they are grateful for the privilege of escaping the political maelstrom and leading more normal lives of faith. Their story is just as true as the martyrologies that have arisen among both Chinese and American Christians. While doing justice to those who still suffer for their faith, Americans need to ensure that our activism supports, rather than hinders, China’s next generation as they seek to add to their hard-won freedoms.

ReviewsJason Truell