Camp China – reminders of what really matters…

It had been years since I’d thought about Tienanmen Square until last night.  Like the rest of the world, I thought about it when it happened, and then I thought about again a few years later when I was speaking at a retreat of international students.  I was sitting with some of the students and each of them were sharing in turn why they did or didn’t believe in God.  I remember this man from China, then studying Physics at University of Washington.  He said, “I was in Tienanmen Square during the protests.  After the bloodshed, I somehow ended up reading ‘The Brothers Karamazov” and I will never forget what Dostoyevsky wrote:  ‘If there is no God, everything is permitted'”.  Silence hung in the air as we waited for his next sentence:  “I have seen with my eyes how humans behave if there is no God – and so I believe that there must be a God.  Otherwise, why would there be any love or justice at all?

It was a powerful word, resuscitated from the recesses of my memory last night because at the special meal we have during this Bible conference, my wife and I were privileged to sit with a couple, she from China, he Canadian.   Conversation ranged, as we lingered over a beautifully prepared meal, from American, to Chinese, to Canadian politics.  WTO and the riots when Vancounver lost game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals; attitudes to wealth in China and how different and similar attitudes are over here.  The benefits of democracy, and the benefits of dictatorship (along with the liabilities of each, of course).  This woman was in high school during the Tienanmen Square protests and “understands both sides of the argument”, a statement that’s nearly incomprehensible to western ears.

“There are two sides?”  we think to ourselves, filled as we are with stories of the destructive affects of totalitarianism and Communism.  But, as it turns out, there are two sides, and wise is the person who’s able to see both.  I’ve been privileged to know people who’ve grown up in the midst of totalitarian regimes, and I can tell you this much:  they see our brave new world through an entirely different lense than we do.  Consider the words of Malcom Muggeridge in “A Third Testament” (read them slowly)

Standing on the Berlin Wall I tried to imagine what would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s feelings if, instead of being martyred, he had lived on into post-war divided Germany. Eastwards, I could see the familiar scene of desolation and oppression, the bedraggled houses, the empty shops, the somehow muted traffic and people in the streets; westwards, the other sort of desolation and oppression, equally familiar, the gleaming neon and glass, the exhortations to spend and to consume, the banks for churches and the erotica for dreams. The pursuit of power versus the pursuit of happiness, black-and-white television versus color, the clenched fist versus the raised phallus, guns before butter and butter before guns. And in between, the no-man’s land or limbo of vigilant sentries on watch-towers, dogs and land-mines and armed patrols. Was there anything here to risk eternal damnation for, or for that matter to live for? The strip-tease joints and the garish posters announcing the mighty achievements of the triumphant German proleteriat, equally fantasy. Plastic flesh and fraudulent statistics – where’s the difference?

Nowhere – that’s where the difference is.  They’re simply different forms of depravity.  And yet I sometimes get the feeling every election season that one party is closer to Christian ideals than another – purer, better.  I think I thought that for a season about each party.  I don’t know if its because I’m older or for some other reason, but I care less and less about who wins, and more and more about what it means to make Christ visible in my life, family, city, and world.  That commitment is both freeing and constraining:

1. Freeing – It clear that Christ’s life can be made visible no matter what the regime.  Sophie Scholl and Dietrich Bonhoeffer revealed Christ right in the midst of the nightmare of 1942 Germany;  Desmund Tutu, the same in South Africa;  John Perkins, the same in Mississippi.  If Christ can be revealed in the midst of all this, I promise you this:  I’ll be unfazed by the election results in November, knowing full well that whoever wins, and whatever major or minor tweaks happen in the political structures of my country, the ability to fulfill my calling won’t be hindered.

When people don’t believe this, they’ve ceded power to the state that it doesn’t deserve.  Left or Right, my calling is the same:  do justice, love mercy, walk with God – make Christ visible whenever and wherever I can.  What’s more, this will happen, if I’m walking with God.  This, I think, is the point of Romans 8, which promises me that there are no contingencies – God can shape us to look like Jesus, no matter our circumstances.  Because of this, I’ll take a deep breath and relax.

2. Constraining – On the other hand, taking my calling to make Christ visible seriously will mean that I need to I need to take Christ’s life seriously.  I need to pursue friendship with Jesus relentlessly, pruning that from my life which doesn’t contribute to that important goal.  Frankly, that means less debates about chicken eating, and more conversations about how to love people with whom I disagree.  It means less time wringing my hands over Obama’s and Romney’s negative ads, and more time wrestling with what it means for me to cross social boundaries the way Jesus did; less time arguing about health care, and more time helping people be and become healthy.

I see the problem already.  Blaming policy people in the other Washington is way easier to do than taking up my cross and following Jesus.  Plus, arguments about “the gays” or “the gay haters” gain a much wider readership than conversations about faithfully pursuing intimacy with Christ – day after familiar day.  Let’s face it: We love pontificating and throwing stones from our supposed moral high ground – or at the very least I’ve been guilty of that at times.

A meal, though, with people from around the world, reminds me that my moral high ground isn’t all that moral – or high.  In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the only moral high ground that exists is at the foot of cross, on top of a hill called Golgotha.   May we learn to go there often.

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  • David Braun

    Thank you for this word, I was blown away by the comparison and similarity between the two cultures and political systems. Your words are helping me realize that life is more “grey” than I often admit, as my ideals and opinions start to matter less and less. You have taught me to worry less and less about those issues that captivate most and focus entirely on pursuing Jesus and desiring Him to work through my life in the ways that matter most, through simplicity and relationship.

  • Tom Denham

    Thank you for a word of construction and not destruction.

  • Chad Allen

    Sobering words, Richard. Thanks!

  • Graham

    Last two lines = awesome.

  • Justin

    Richard, these words rang true and my prayer is that for me to live is Christ and to die is gain. Thanks for the reminder that we need Jesus and to fulfill His mission above all.

  • Lamont

    “On the other hand, taking my calling to make Christ visible…”
    Could mean eating chicken and taking a stand against a destructive liberal and homosexual agenda?

    “… more conversations about how to love people with whom I disagree.”
    Could part of “people love” be protecting people from a harmful ideology like Bonhoeffer did?
    Perhaps Christians going to a chicken “EAT IN” to support another mans stand against a destructive ideology and in support of a God ordained institution that is a blessing to mankind may be an opportunity to “make Christ visible?”

  • Graham

    I can’t see Dietrich Bonhoeffer doing an eat in at Chic fil A…personally. But Lamont raises an interesting point that one can take biblical snapshots or a sentence from a sermon and twist it to reaffirm their own viewpoint or “agenda”. I think that is the danger of taking (I.e. Laying claim to) the moral high ground.