China's Christian Martyrs and Ourselves

With some trepidation, I opened the cover and began reading chapter one of Safely Home. My red pen in hand and notebook at my side, I was ready to mark down any egregious errors in depicting the life of fellow believers in China. Expecting yet another dose of China-bashing by an influential evangelical who has never been to China, I was relieved to find some positive remarks about the Chinese people, at least. This gave me some hope that Alcorn was not adding to the demonizing of the Chinese government that is fueling an anti-American backlash among younger Chinese. (In Tom Clancy’s recent novel The Bear and the Dragon frequent references to the Chinese people as “Klingons” by lead characters, including the President, began to take on the symbolic weight of other racial epithets that would never be tolerated in the American media).At the end of chapter one, I jotted down several points, but kept reading with interest. Starting into chapter two, I tensed up again. “Here it comes,” I thought as I read the book’s underground Christian hero, Li Quan, asking himself “Is this the day I die?” and I learned that – due to his faith – he has 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 one-fourth the way into the story, I began to relax and enjoy the dialogue, as Li Quan tries to educate his former Harvard room mate Ben Fielding about the complexities of China and the mixed realities of believers living there. For one thing, Li points out the huge and growing problem of heresy and pseudo-Christian cultic movements among the rural population. In several such passages, the novel calls into question the mythology that some ministries use to romanticize the house church for fund-raising purposes.In chapter 17 (these are short, fast-moving “chapters”!), I smiled as Li Quan’s martyred father joins “the Watchers” observing from Heaven what is going on down below on earth. In my recent reading, I have been challenged to look at suffering on earth from God’s perspective rather than ours (in Phillip Yancey’s outstanding book Disappointment with God), and inspired by an old book recounting visions of Heaven experienced in a missions orphanage in China in the 1910s. So I welcomed more glimpses of the cheering of angels and saints that accompanies all our efforts to be faithful through hard times.

The Complex Story of the Church in China

Alcorn’s depiction of the house church in China is largely accurate – as far as it goes. The main criticism would be of his exaggeration of the scarcity of Bibles and secrecy required to own one. The reader would never imagine that the Chinese government has authorized the printing of 28 million Bibles and other materials in a joint venture with the International Bible Society. (The continuing shortages are due to the exponential growth of demand, plus price and distribution obstacles that still justify bringing Bibles in from the outside).Basically, Alcorn is giving us a “cup half empty” portrayal, focused on the discrimination, repression and persecution faced by the unregistered (and therefore illegal) believers in the huge rural Protestant “house church” networks, “underground” Catholics, and the smaller, but growing urban house churches. These are the majority of Christians in China, with very rough numbers estimated from 30 to 70 million. With the active assistance of the government-approved leadership of the authorized “patriotic” religious organizations, police now are attempting to use an anti-cult campaign to destroy the largest networks. (See These networks cover multiple provinces; leaders aspire to play a role as spokesmen for church interests through a national level “Unity Movement,” thus challenging the political prerogatives of government Religious Affairs Bureaus and official Christian organizations.What the novel (and most other Christian media outlets) doesn’t tell us is the rest of the story:

  • the vibrant life and relative freedom of many grass-roots churches and prayer groups associated both with the house church and with official religious organizations
  • the strong evangelical and more independent thinking among younger and better-educated seminarians, pastors and lay leaders
  • the growing tacit cooperation between official and unofficial congregations in many parts of China, and
  • the rapid growth of a newly “emerging church” among urban professionals.

There are rapidly growing fellowship groups among highly-educated believers out in the work force, among scholars and students on campuses, and especially on overseas campuses. In the United States, mainland Chinese are by far the greatest majority of internationals involved in campus ministry activities. They are beginning to grow their own churches with seminary-trained leaders, film and video, and speaking tours. Many keep in close touch with family and colleagues in China, visiting frequently for lecture tours or projects and starting Christian work in their home towns. Political exiles from the Tiananmen era have also been greatly impacted by Christian witness as they are learning democratic principles for future return to China.All of these groups deserve our support, and how to help them requires study and strategy, and above all incarnational service in China, not political pressure from the outside. Moreover, we should recognize that this “untold story” 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. The simplistic message of Safely Home, echoing many of the poorly-informed sources Alcorn uses, is that there is a stark choice between business profit and Christian principles. Certainly, both business people and consumers need to pay much more attention to how their behavior affects the rights of believers, labor and especially women in China (and elsewhere). But a black and white picture fails to acknowledge how business activities have created the independent resources for rebuilding society and beginning to improve human rights. Global economic activities keep the door open for continued progress by new social forces as they work hard to gain greater freedoms, despite state obstruction.

Lessons from the Chinese Church

The reason for a one-sided depiction of the Chinese church by Alcorn (and others) is clear. Heroic Chinese believers provide a foil for lessons to be taught to Americans (in this case, through Ben): faith is central to life’s meaning and purpose, comforts should be set aside for doing what is right, the church should be a network of mutually-supportive communities of faith, prayer is central to the life of faith, self-centered Americans should care about the plight of fellow believers overseas and take action against injustice, family relations should trump career, fairness to employees and colleagues should outweigh “efficiency” in work decisions, and so on. Clearly, this novel serves the highly commendable goals of Alcorn’s Eternal Perspectives Ministries. The author stresses that this novel is part three of an artistic trilogy under the name Safely Home that includes Steve Green’s song and Ron DiCianni’s painting (used on the hard cover) by the same name. These uses of artistic talent to raise the consciousness of American Christians, especially about the persecution of believers overseas, are fragrant offerings. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has just released its second statement of conscience on this issue, calling for Christians to go beyond just the first stage of “consciousness-raising” to practical measures of fighting injustice.To answer this call, we need to recognized the several ways in which the idealized heroic portrait of the Chinese church does a disservice. For one thing, it inhibits our learning from the spiritual life of Chinese brothers and sisters, bought at such a price. As a Chinese friend of mine put it, “Americans seem to think of the Chinese Christians only in terms of persecution, as if they have nothing else to offer.” (Read Kim-Kwong Chan and Alan Hunter, Prayers and Thoughts of Chinese Christians, London: Mowbray Publishers, 1991) For another, the heroic portrayal tends to obscure the great neediness among Chinese believers for outside resources, not only in leadership training and theological education but also in family counseling, administration and accountability, legal aid, and outreach to society for both apologetics and humanitarian service. Americans need to be encouraged to pursue creative non-governmental and non-politicized efforts in partnership with Chinese believers in many diverse fields -- business, academia, culture, non-profit social services, tourism, and the media. We need to use our influence in China to make a practical difference for the health of the church as well as religious freedom.

What About Martyrdom?

Having just returned from travel in Italy and other parts of the former Roman Empire in France and Germany, I was reminded of the strong tradition of martyrdom in the early, pre-Constantine church, from which seeds the global church has grown. In one cathedral in northern Germany, an underground chapel is centered on the crypt of St. Victor, a Roman legionnaire who was martyred for refusing to worship the Roman gods. The chapel also memorializes three parishioners martyred by the Nazis in three different death camps. An opening in the ceiling (the floor of the 11th-12th century cathedral above) keeps open the intimate connection with today’s worshippers.Most of us American Protestants have lost all such sense of connection to the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before. Other Christian traditions which venerate martyrs and other saints as still very much alive and active in the invisible work of the Kingdom would be much more understanding of the mindset of the older generation in the Chinese church as well as Alcorn’s portrayal of scenes in Heaven. There, Li Quan’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father all participate in sending him spiritual support in his trials, culminating in his own son’s fourth generation martyrdom. We need such reminders that what we do on this earth may have its greatest, even its sole importance in affecting His-Story and the building of His Kingdom.But is our fascination with Chinese martyrs inadvertently burdening Chinese believers with a role that is not the only one they can play within the universal Church? Alex Buchan, in Quotes to Live By! Learning to Listen to Those who Suffer for Christ (Open Doors International, Inc., 2001), recounts pressing an old Chinese woman saint 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 again and again her testimony about the joy of suffering. Another story from Buchan tells how two brothers in central China preached powerfully to crowds until persecution came and one died in prison. The other continued preaching, being 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 Christian’s eyes, and this began to disturb me.” Angry at God for years because he too hadn’t been counted worthy of martyrdom, this brother had his eyes opened while reading how Jeremiah had been spared death by the intervention of another, just as he himself had once been spared by a gang leader who admitted, “China needs people like you to live.” Finally, “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.” A martyr mentality may be blinding the eyes of the Chinese church 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 out in the lust for money-making in the new raw capitalism sweeping China.In my mind, I contrast the four generations of martyrs in the Li family with the four generations of believers in the family of a Chinese friend:

  • The grand-father, a poor country doctor, was converted by missionaries and subsequently killed during the 1950s land reform by 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 major provincial capital until the churches were shut down 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 its property. In the 1980s, he resumed his pastoral work in the registered church system and served parishioners throughout surrounding counties…in the official church and house church circles 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 to convince his father to quit church work. After tumultuous times as a Red Guard sent down to work on a farm and then in a factory, he was able to gain 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 large scale celebrations on Christian holidays. He travels frequently to Europe and America for academic and business purposes, assisting and advising many Christian ministries.
  • His son is a fourth generation believer, active in his local Chinese congregation while studying at a Christian university overseas. Pray the Lord will lead him into fruitful ministry in China or elsewhere for the Kingdom.

This family history is as much a part of the truth as that of our fictional heroes. More mundane perhaps, but they are grateful for the privilege of getting out of the political maelstrom and leading more normal lives of faith. Don’t we have equal responsibility for encouraging such brothers and sisters in their walk with the Lord? Shouldn’t we make certain that our political activism supports rather than damages their continuing efforts, along with others in the Chinese church, to add to their hard-won freedoms?

ReviewsJason Truell