After Imperialism: Christian Identity in China and the Global Evangelical Movement

After Imperialism is the fourth volume to be published in the series GCC Studies in Chinese Christianity, following Salt & Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China, Volumes 1-3. Although I had little to do with the publication of this book, as co-editor (with Carol Lee Hamrin) of the series I should not commend it in these pages. Instead, I shall try to give an indication of its contents and respond to a few of the issues that the contributors raise.Arising from a conference held in Hong Kong in 2008 with the theme, “Beyond Our Past: Bible, Cultural Identity, and the Global Evangelical Movement,” the book contains a dozen chapters from as many contributors. Half the authors are Caucasian, and the rest are Chinese, giving the collection a good balance of ethnic perspectives.The editors believe that “Evangelicalism possesses assets with explanatory power able to address significant theological and cultural issues arising out of the churches in the global south,” including that of identity, the focus of this volume. They are also convinced that evangelicals should use both the social sciences and “thorough biblical inquiry” to investigate issues pertinent to Christian identity for Chinese; indeed, this is a major focus of several papers.

Historical studies with current relevance

The first section contains four chapters on “the history of evangelicalism, its continuing value…, and its future utility in an increasingly global church.” Douglas Sweeney opens with “Modern Evangelicalism and Global Christian Identity,” in which he traces the history of modern evangelicalism from the 18th century revivals to the present. He identifies the true identity of evangelicalism in its theology, which calls for constant evangelism. Noting evangelicals’ tendency to ignore history and downplay doctrine, he calls for a renewed awareness of evangelicals’ identity as both global and local. Contextualization is necessary, but must be undertaken cautiously.In “Missions, cultural Imperialism, and the Development of the Chinese Church,” Ka Lun Leung appears largely to agree with the common charge that Western missionaries to China were willing agents as much of Western culture and even imperial expansion of the gospel. Leung believes that most conflicts between Christian teaching and the local culture are cultural and not really religious, and that opposition to Christianity in China, in the past and in the present, stems not from rejection of its religious teachings but from fear of its being used as a tool by foreign governments to undermine society and government. American Christians should take note of the latter reality.For more than one hundred years, Chinese have faced two questions: How to reform the nation politically, and how to reform the culture. The government resists any pressure to reform politically, but cannot stop the globalization – what Francis Fukuyama has called “Americanization” – of culture, which is creating an identity crisis in China and elsewhere. Leung calls for a local Christianity that preserves the core biblical message while addressing concerns of the Chinese people now.Frankly acknowledging the close connection between 19th century Western missions and imperialism in China, Richard Cook seeks to answer three questions: “How can we as Evangelicals in the West today relate to our missions past? How can we identify with this past? How can we get beyond Western guilt stemming from imperialism” The same three questions face Chinese Christians.His studies have convinced Cook that “a complex context comprised of multiple factors influenced missionary behavior” in the age of imperialism, and that “the missionaries involved may be deserving of a better understanding of the sometimes excruciating circumstances surrounding the decisions they made.” Specifically, when missionaries like Robert Morrison were asked to serve as interpreters for the British after the Opium War of 1840 (and later in 1860, when his non-missionary son John also interpreted), they faced a difficult choice. Should they insert provisions insuring protection for Chinese Christians who were being brutally persecuted for propagating the faith? Did they have an ethical obligation to do what they could to relieve the plight of their beloved brothers in Christ?They thought so, and thus became inextricably involved in the “unequal treaties” mess that has forever tainted missions history in China. Cook does not necessarily endorse their decision, but he calls for a greater sympathy for their motives as we try to move on.In the larger context of evangelicals’ involvement in society worldwide, Kevin Xiyi Yao surveys the situation in China in “Chinese Evangelicals and Social Concerns: A Historical and Comparative Review.” He opens with a brief introduction to the growth of Protestantism in the 20th century, tracing the rise of the two distinct camps which have marked the scene until recently: On the one hand, “liberals” both downplayed the saving work of Christ and the authority of Scripture and placed their emphasis upon “social transformation as the new goal of mission work.”On the other, fundamentalists and evangelicals upheld traditional Christian doctrines and poured their energies into evangelism and the maturation of believers in the church. They did not entirely neglect the national crisis unleashed by the Japanese invasion, however, but pointed to the wars and chaos of the era as proof that human progress is myth and that social transformation will take place only when the Lord returns. Meanwhile, the only hope for China was for people to repent and trust in Christ and then to live lives that reflected the character of God. Conversion of individuals would “naturally” bring improvement to society, they taught.In the past couple of decades, overseas Chinese Protestants, who are mostly evangelical, have begun to call for more social involvement. Meanwhile, the leaders of the new urban unregistered congregations (sometimes called “house churches”) have also begun to “exhibit some significant new features. In addition to a new openness to intellectual life and theological education, strong social and cultural concerns definitely distinguish these churches from the old generations and churches of the 1980s.” Today, three different approaches can be discerned:1. A few churches hold to the old separatist convictions. 2. A few, influenced by Reformed theology, vigorously advocate human rights and political activism, understanding the church’s prophetic role in highly political terms and tying the human rights agenda closely to the church’s mission and calling. For this group, to live out one’s Christian faith is to defend religious freedom, fight for social justice, and push for political reform in China.” Though a tiny minority, because “of their popularity and celebrity status they enjoyed among overseas churches and human rights groups … they are often considered the spokespersons of the house churches in China” by American evangelicals.By far the majority of urban unregistered churches, however, firmly reject such a politicized and confrontational approach. Committed both to the Pietist theology of their forebears and also to a generally Reformed world-and-life view, they prefer to focus on the unique mandate of the church to propagate the gospel, spiritual growth of believers, and a “salt- and light” approach to cultural engagement and social involvement. They reject the “Christendom” model of Western Christians and of the politically-minded urban church activists. Yao supports this last group as “More akin to the Chinese churches’ evangelical heritage, more relevant to their context and status, and more beneficial to their future.”

Biblical considerations

The send part of the book contains four chapters on various biblical issues more or less pertinent to Chinese Christianity. K. Lawson Younger, Jr., writes on “The Old Testament in Its Cultural Context,” showing why “contextual criticism” of Old Testament passages is essential for understanding their application to Christian identity.Tremper Longman, III, examines “Holy War and the Universal God” in the Old Testament and concludes that “the holy war texts in the Old Testament provide no justification for warfare in the present redemptive era.” Zealous advocates for assorted military “crusades” in the name of Christ should take note.Writing from the standpoint of a Chinese living in Hong Kong, David Pao looks at “New Testament Conquest Accounts in a Post Colonial Setting.” He reminds us that 19th-century missionaries benefitted from the “unequal treaties” signed at gunpoint, a legacy that still haunts Christianity in China. Careful examination of several passages convinces him that the New Testament provides no warrant for privileging one group over another; calls all of us to submit to God as the true Victor; and makes any distinction between colonizer and colonized “problematic.”Frank Thielman responds to the frequent complaint that Western Christians have all too often preached a gospel of individual salvation only in “The Group and the Individual in Salvation: The Witness of Paul.” He freely admits the corporate element of Christian salvation, but proves that in Paul’s message there is also a clear and fundamental component of the individual’s personal response to God through faith and obedience. In other words, “the individual is critically important in the soteriology of Paul.”In another biblical study, Maureen Yeung examines “Paul’s View on Table Fellowship and its Implications for Ethnic Minorities” in “Boundaries in ‘In-Christ’ Identity,” with a particular focus on ancestor worship. Accepting Thielman’s assertion of the individual’s identity in Christ, she states that “the hard question is how this new ‘in Christ’ identity relates to a person’s ethnic identity.” She concludes that “in-Christ’ identity can be attained only through justification by faith apart from works. This identity takes priority over ethnic identity.” With regard to ancestral worship practices, those that merely express neutral cultural traditions may be allowed, while “ethnic expressions should be abandoned if they are idolatrous or immoral.”The final three chapters consist of “three cases studies of contextual theology.” From a perspective of anthropology and intercultural studies, Robert Priest looks especially at the word “dragon” as used in Chinese culture and in the Bible. He concludes that the translation of the Greek drakon as long (dragon) plunged Chinese Christians into a profound identity crisis, since Chinese see themselves as “children of the dragon.”David Y. T. Lee argues for the validity of using “Chinese culture as an interpretative tool or communication vehicle” in an alliance with the Bible to understand and convey important biblical concepts. He follows Kevin Vanhoozer’s method which, while insisting that the Bible has “epistemic primacy,” also seeks to understand and communicate biblical ideas in terms of the local culture as well as the evangelical community of wisdom, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.Carver Yu concludes the volume with a wide-ranging, challenging essay, “Forging Evangelical Identity: Integration of Models of Theological Education in the Global Context.” He clearly describes the loss of identity in post-modern culture, which has stripped away an enduring core for the self and replaced it with a concept of identity that is “a reflexive project, an ongoing story that proceeds by continually sorting out and integrating events in the external world.”He rejoices in the rapid expansion of Christianity in the global south, but questions whether Christianity will be able to withstand the onslaughts of post-modernity, including a narcissistic culture that seeks not “personal salvation but psychological well-being.” Theology and the authority of the Bible are being undermined; we must recover the idea of theology as a critique of culture and of the church. Education for Christian ministry should include careful cultural reflection, an awareness of history, and a clear sense of purpose. Reflecting the church’s nature as charismatic community, ministerial training must be personal, reflective, missional, and even properly Pietistic, in keeping with traditional Chinese notions of knowledge as more than the acquisition of information. The entire chapter deserves careful study.


The comments above will indicate the overall value of this path-breaking volume; here I must confine myself to a few critical remarks.Leung’s assertion that conflicts between Christian teaching and the local culture are cultural, and not religious or moral, needs much more evidence to be convincing. In the middle section of biblical studies, one or two chapters will require “translation” by the reader into the Chinese context, since the authors spoke in general terms. Yeung’s otherwise very helpful essay suffers from the common mis-identification of circumcision and other Old Testament regulations as simply ethnic customs, whereas the real issue for Paul was justification by works of the Old Testament Law versus by faith alone.Priest’s “’Who Am I?’: Theology and Identity for Children of the Dragon” raises an extremely important question and makes a powerful case for using a variety of disciplines in cross-cultural communication of the Gospel, but suffers from several weaknesses, including setting up straw men; the same confusion about “ethnic” customs noted in Yeung; and a rather superficial treatment of whether drakon should be translated as “dragon.” He would have done well to address such issues as, Given the deceptive nature of the “serpent” in the Bible, might the positive connotations of “dragon” in Chinese culture actually pose a threat to faithful Christian discipleship? And, To what extent might the “dragon” as symbol of the Chinese state fit the image of the beast that persecutes Christians in the Revelation, at least in previous eras?Several of the chapters would have been stronger if they had interacted with Lit-sen Chang’s Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism and with Carl Henry’s extensive treatments of issues such as hermeneutics, culture, sources of theology, and the nature of revelation in Volumes 2-4 of God, Revelation, and Authority.Even with these criticisms, however, one must admit that all the contributors have offered serious discussions of important topics for the vital subject of Chinese Christian identity.

ReviewsJason Truell