(Most of this post was originally posted on my Croaking Cassandra blog – mostly economics, but with quite considerable content on NZ/China this year – on Christmas Eve.)
When I was young, the plight of persecuted believers in eastern-bloc countries attracted considerable interest in Christian communities in the West. There were the stories of Brother Andrew, getting Bibles into these countries, but the accounts that particularly seized my youthful attention were those of Richard Wurmbrand in Romania. Decades earlier the persecution, against those who took their faith seriously rather than something state-accommodating, had been in Nazi-ruled Germany. These days it is in the People’s Republic of China.
Perhaps only a small minority of all my readers – though probably most on this (too-infrequently updated) blog are Christians, but tomorrow is Christmas Day and whatever the beliefs of those who now observe it in some form or another, it is a Christian festival – one of the greatest (with Easter and Pentecost). Since some 95 per cent of my readers are from New Zealand, Australia, the United States or the United Kingdom, I’m assuming almost all of you will, in one form or another, be celebrating Christmas.
Plenty of citizens of the People’s Republic of China are Christian too – tens of millions of them by most estimates. The regime does its best to domestic, sinify, or even eliminate Christianity. They attempt to portray Christianity as somehow un-Chinese – heedless to the origins of (say) Marx and Lenin, and unbothered by the fact that Christianity has a much longer history in China than the Communist Party does. But, in many ways, they are right: Christianity isn’t Chinese, it isn’t British, or French, or Kenyan, or Samoan, or New Zealand. It is a gospel – good news – that transcends boundaries of culture, race or whatever, and involves a higher loyalty than to any earthly ruler or authority. And that is the real problem for the Chinese Communist Party, as it was for the Nazis or the Soviet Communists before them. It is a radical creed – these were Mary’s words
Luke 1:46-55 King James Version (KJV)
46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
As you celebrate Christmas in your own way over the next few days (twelve of them!), perhaps you might consider sparing a thought, or a prayer if you pray, for Wang Yi, the pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu (a major city in south-west China) and his congregation.
Wang Yi hasn’t been a Christian all his life. Less than 15 years ago, a publication in China was lauding him as one of the top “public intellectuals” in China. He was a lawyer and legal scholar. In 2005 was converted and baptised, founding the congregation (in a Presbyterian tradition) a few years later. The congregation has hundreds of members. Wang Yi has been an outspoken preacher and writer.
Two weeks ago, the party-State acted, closing down the church, sealing off its building. They arrested Wang Yi and his wife, and perhaps 100 other congregants. There will be no open Christmas services for that congregation, although perhaps small groups will gather in homes to celebrate this great Christian festival.
Another Christian in Chengdu …. described the scale of the operations against Early Rain as “unprecedented” but said more could be expected, adding: “I’m very lucky they haven’t found me yet.”
The Early Rain community would survive, he said, but would now go further underground.
“We will continue the gathering. The church is shut down so it’s impossible to have a big gathering, but there will be small gatherings on Sunday and on Christmas Day.”
Wang Yi, his wife and many of the others won’t even have that option. They will wake instead in a PRC prison and although each of them will no doubt give thanks for a Redeemer come into the world – God become man in Jesus – they’ll be isolated, perhaps taunted by guards, agents of the PRC party/State. And wondering what further trials are to come – the pastor and his wife already face charges (in a system with no rule of law) carrying a potential 15 year jail terms. Because they chose to follow a call and worship, not allowing the state to dictate when or how they follow God.
You might think this is a story of no wider interest. If it has been reported in New Zealand, the references must have been few and fleeting. Overseas, it is a different matter. Here are stories from such beacons of the liberal media as the New York Times and the BBC.
Wang Yi and his fellow church leaders prepared for, anticipated, persecution. They knew the character of the regime they were dealing with. This letter was written initially for the congregation by one of the elders – one of the last to be taken – just before his own arrest. He ends
Beloved brothers and sisters, I am writing this letter in “hiding.” May you all be filled with joy in the gospel of Christ. May you welcome, filled with hope, the even heavier cross and more difficult lives that lie ahead of you.
“Christ is Lord. Grace is King. Bear the cross. Keep the faith.” This is the vision Early Rain Covenant Church received from the Lord. May we all obtain it, cherish it, put it into practice, and live it out!
And this letter was written by Wang Yi himself in advance, to be released if and when he was taken into captivity and held for more than 48 hours. It represents his 14 decisions for how he will respond to the coming persecution, not resiling from his faith in Christ. This is an earlier, inspiring and humbling, statement from Wang Yi.
Wang Yi doesn’t operate in isolation. Here is a statement from the association of Presbyterian churches of which his congregation is a part, including these extracts.
Please pray for the members behind bars. May the Lord grant them confidence and strength so that they would be as bold as Paul and Peter to preach to the kings and prisoners about Christ who died and was raised.
Please pray for the members who are frightened and for those who have been released but are still being monitored. May the Lord keep them, whether free or bound, from losing heart, so that they may testify to the true, trustworthy, and glorious gospel before their family, neighbors and law enforcement.
Please pray for the members who are facing pressure to sign the pledge not to attend the church. May the Lord guide them through the Holy Spirit in all circumstances so that whether they turn left or right, they will hear the voice that says “that is the right way,” so that they can walk in it.
In this episode, as so many others (whether around Xinjiang, the Falun Gong, or abroad), we see something of the true face of the Chinese Communist Party and the brutal regime it controls. And yet officeholders in our country (and others) cosy up to the regime (boasting of their good relationships), scared to name evil, cowering without principle.
If you were so motivated, you might wish to register your concern about this persecution – as so many others – with the PRC Embassy in New Zealand. Here is the face in New Zealand of an evil regime. Here are their contact details.
I pray for Wang Yi, his wife, the elders and congregation, in prison or in hiding tomorrow. My confident hope, as I’m sure theirs is too, is a verse perhaps not often read at Christmas, one day
Philippians 2:10-11 New King James Version (NKJV)
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
As Wang Yi has put it, quoted in the New York Times article I linked to earlier, “There is no eternal power [on earth], there is only eternal faith.” One day the CCP will be, in Kipling’s words, at one with Nineveh and Tyre.
This was Martin Luther’s firm assurance, reflected in one of the great Christian hymns
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
He’ll help us clear from all the ill
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
Hath risen with purpose fell;
Strong mail of craft and power
He weareth in this hour;
On earth is not his fellow.
And though they take our life,
Goods, honor, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all:
The City of God remaineth!
One of Wang Yi and his congregants facing persecution – and who knows what else – this Christmas. And a challenge for each of us who own the name of Christ, as to how ready we are to sacrifice for our faith. One way to prepare ourselves is to listen to the voices and stories of the persecuted in our own age – people like us, but in another country, right now. I’m struck instead by how little attention the persecution of fellow believers gets in our own congregations (total silence in services I’ve attended this month).
Since most of this post was written, the New York Times has put up a fresh report from Chengdu, including on the situation of some of the members of Early Rain, striving to be faithful. Pray for them.