Richard Mouw and the Chinese church

Richard Mouw and the Chinese church July 21, 2017

Christian Occupation of China Title Page (Book), 1922 - PD-US, via
Christian Occupation of China Title Page (Book), 1922 – PD-US, via

At least among the friends I keep, the piece that the Reformed evangelical theologian Richard Mouw wrote for his Religion News Service column last week on Christians in China did him no favors. I alluded to this, alongside the news about Josh Harris’s new documentary, when I was trying to contextualize Eugene Peterson’s being for same-sex marriage before he was against it earlier this week in his evangelical place. In keeping with the theme of disparateness in evangelical newsiness over the last week, I thought I’d give Mouw a deeper read here too, as I want to say something next week about why I write about evangelicals as an Eastern Catholic.

Speaking confidently as an American observer in Heilongjiang Theological Seminary (Mouw spells it ‘Heilongjian,’ which I hope is not a different province from the one I’m thinking of), Mouw declares that he at least didn’t see any evidence that Christians were being persecuted in China, notwithstanding all the reports that are coming out that persecution is intensifying in the Xi Jinping era. A seminary is operating in the open. Its married co-presidents are pastors of the 11,000-person Hallelujah Church – not only hardly the size of a church that can be hidden, but also where Franklin Graham preached to an overflow crowd in 2010. They are registered as an official religious group with the government and doing very well. Mouw knows people in the State Administration for Religious Affairs (read: Beijing’s religion office) who have audited courses at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he was president until his retirement; one of them, he recalls importantly, even took a picture wit him. He is fairly confident, both from his observations of the ‘harmonious society’ ideology and his conversations with a European scholar of China, that there is no way that Xi and his people would be politically stupid enough to openly persecute Christians. Local Christians, he said, corroborate this story by speaking only of pressure as opposed to persecution. He then concludes optimistically: ‘What impressed me in all of this was the notable absence, at least among the Harbin Christians with whom I talked, of a sense of victimization. No persecution complex — but, yes, some new “pressure.” But not of the sort that detracts from a mood of experiencing new opportunities.’

Any self-respecting person who cares about religion in China will tell you that as far as working with the official Protestant church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (or the Catholic one, the Chinese Patriotic Association, for that matter) is concerned, Mouw is in the clear; the lines between official and underground churches in China are fuzzy at best, and their relations are much more complicated than a black-and-white account can give. But in this piece, Mouw is doing much more than justifying his work with the official church; he is making claims about China that are very difficult to take seriously. Heilongjiang, for example, is a province in which the famous city Harbin is located, and one province does not represent all of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC, after all, is a very large nation-state. Certainly, it has a political centre in the Central Government housed in Beijing, but practically speaking, it has to be governed with what geographer Carolyn Cartier points out is a diffuse network that has key nodes and agents at the provincial, subprovincial, urban, and even neighbourhood levels. What happened, say, with the destruction of churches in Zhejiang Province, or the report in the Global Times (a subsidiary of People’s Daily; hardly an anti-PRC publication!) that party officials are being told to be strictly nonreligious ‘Marxist atheists’ using the central government to ‘sinicize’ religions, or the strange conversations between the Vatican and Beijing about episcopal appointments, is happening at other nodes; they are not knowable from a field trip, and thinking that one’s conversations with a few sympathetic party officials, scholarly observers, and on-the-ground Christians in one city is good enough to draw a conclusion only serves to demonstrate that Mouw thinks that everyone in China thinks the same way – maybe even harmoniously (instead of, say, dialectically).

Indeed, when it comes to analyzing Beijing’s ideology itself, Mouw’s frame of reference is the ‘harmonious society’ of the Hu Jintao era of the late 2000s. Even though Mouw provides more contemporaneous musings on Xi’s pragmatic political ideology and his attempt to control the market forces unleashed in China (not least through his anti-corruption campaign, which Mouw doesn’t really mention), he basically seems to see Xi as more of the same, even though he lets on that he kinda-sorta also knows that the current regime is operating with a bit of a heavier hand because of those market forces. On whether this heavier hand might result in persecution for Christians specifically, he talks to a few people and concludes that pressure is not the same thing, even though the question that might be raised by the end of the article is: if these people know that they are being pressured and know that there are other instances of persecution, why would they expose themselves for more pressure or persecution or whatever it is by talking to you?

Accordingly, the pushback was quick and, for the most part, severe. How could Mouw be serious, when there have indeed been reports of religious persecution elsewhere in China? Is he ignorant or malicious when he throws the persecuted under the bus? Did he really think that he could say all of these things based on one field trip and a few conversations? What does this mean for diplomats, activists, academics, and other persons of good will who are concerned about human rights in China? Doesn’t Mouw know how tone-deaf he is to release this piece on the same week that the democratic activist Liu Xiaobo, whatever one thinks of his political efficacy or sympathies with American neoconservative foreign policy in the Middle East, was released from prison with such severe liver cancer that he died a few days after his release? What has possessed Mouw, a scholar with some reputation for seriousness and commitment to civil conservation within the rather unserious and uncivil soup of evangelical Protestantism, to say such idiotic things at the risk of his own reputation?

While frustrations might abound for many as they grapple with the implications of Mouw’s piece for human rights activism, all this pushback suggests that few are taking Mouw’s piece seriously – small mercies, indeed. Most, in fact, saw this as coming right out of left field, the statement of a white man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about behaving like an ugly American bull in the literal China shop. But in pushing back, there is also some slack; his non-Chinese racial and ethnic status is his de facto salvation from accusations that he is actually in league with the party-state.

The trouble with that interpretation of Mouw, however, is that this is not his first rodeo. In 2012, Mouw gave a talk to the third iteration of the Asian American Equipping Symposium, co-sponsored by Fuller and the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC), in which he tells almost the same story as he does in the current piece in question, about the same place, in almost the same words, drawing the same conclusions; allow me to quote the relevant paragraphs in full:

Recently, I read a piece in the Economist about religion and government. Ten percent of the members of the Chinese Communist Party are Christians, but there is some fear that the Chinese government will begin to crack down a bit on the believers within the Communist Party who are trying to maintain both roles. Those of you who spend a lot of time in China know that it is a very complex situation. There are always things to worry about and there are always things to criticize and complain about, but there are also some very good things. As some of you know, I preached a year ago in Harbin in the Hallelujah Church. 11,000 people gathered there to sing praises to the risen Christ. It was a wonderful experience. It will be very hard to suppress all of that in a Three-Self church. Wonderful ministries are taking place in China and wonderful gains for the Kingdom of God are presently taking place there. So there are some good things happening. In fact, we have a group of psychologists in China right now in response to an invitation we got a number of years ago from the government itself. When a group of us were there, there were six members of the faculty, two from the school of psychology. As many of you know we have a PhD program and masters program in faith-based biblically-based clinical psychology, and marriage and family studies. Members of the religious affairs bureau in a specific province were hosting us at a dinner one evening. When they found out that two of our people were psychologists, they told us that that is what is needed in China right now. This is needed especially in the cities, with new urbanization, and the introduction of the new market system that they were not complaining about. In those urban contexts especially, there are increases of addiction, suicide, intergenerational conflict, and divorce. They said that as government officials, there was not much they could do, but that faith communities are needed to provide that kind of counseling. We have been providing this now for about fifteen years, working with pastors and Christian workers in China. We have been working at introducing different patterns of faith-based counseling, therapy and community psychology informed by the Word of God. We have been doing that with the approval, and in many cases the blessing of the government.

In this room several years ago, we had a group from a number of seminaries in the United States (including Dallas Theology Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary) we hosted along with Chinese government officials, representatives of the Three-Self churches, and representatives of a number of the seminaries and Bible institutes in China. It was a young government official who stood right here, talking to the group about the attitudes towards religion in the government that he represents. He said, “When I first started studying for government service, the official words was, ‘Religion is a bad thing. We have to get rid of it.’ After I first got into government service, they began to say, ‘We are not going to be able to get rid of it. We have to tolerate it.'” He said, “Today the official line is, ‘We need to partner with faith based groups because without them we cannot achieve social harmony.'” Here was a government official using a Confucian term. I was very pleased to hear that because to hear the government saying, “help us promote social harmony,” is at least a parallel to hearing Jeremiah say, “seek the shalom of the city in which I have placed you in exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its shalom you will have your shalom.” China needs the shalom that can come only from the living God. Korea needs the shalom, including and especially North Korea where I was able to visit last summer. North Korea and South Korea need the shalom that can only come from the living God. All of the countries in Asian need that shalom. North American desperately needs that shalom today. Those of you who come from a heritage that has had a strong overarching emphasis on the idea of social harmony have much to reflect upon. You need to heal those memories of social harmony by having them, by reflecting upon them, by processing them, and by bringing them as gifts from the honor and the glory of the nations in to the kingdom of Jesus Christ in anticipation of that day when all of the honor and glory of the nations will be brought into the holy city. (Mouw, in Society of Asian North American Christian Studies 4, 2012-3, p. 61-2).

I am not saying that Mouw’s trip to Heilongjiang was not recent; it’s just that it wasn’t his first time – that was in 2011, according to this piece, and that was preceded by contact with government officials and the Three-Self church going back fifteen years before that in the mid-1990s. In 2017, his observations are the same as the ones related in 2012 about 2011 and going back into the mid-1990s: China is opening up, new market forces have been released that people are generally happy about, there are some psychological problems that the government wants to tackle, and because the government is seeking the welfare and social harmony of the people, American evangelical intellectuals should team up with them. Trusting the word of a government official (instead of, say, looking at the back-and-forth dialectics in religious policy in Chinese state documents, party memos, and position papers from the 1950s to the present), Mouw presents a straight-forward, linear teleology of religion in the PRC: first they were against it, then they tolerated it, and now they work with it, and here we are, triumphant at the end of history. My last reference here to Fukuyama’s much-derided piece ‘The End of History,’ which is about the triumph of liberal democracy and a global market economy over its ideological struggles with communism and fascism over the last two hundred years, is an apt cognate to Mouw’s musings on religion, because ‘the end of history’ is also Mouw’s position on China’s market society: in the speech above, he stresses that these communist government officials were not complaining about the market (one wonders if he realizes that market socialism has been around since 1978 and by some accounts was in part what the protesters at Tiananmen were in fact complaining about in 1989) and in First Things, he confesses that he is not ‘completely pessimistic about the new consumerism in China,’ mostly because of the shiny new architecture, access to good coffee, and a funny Justin Bieber T-shirt he saw in 2015 (read the piece yourself; I kid you not). And, finally, of course, the Communist Party’s ‘harmonious society’ Confucianism simply is Chineseness, even Asianness, both now and ever and for ages of ages, never mind the political scientist Suisheng Zhao’s analysis of the party-state’s adoption of Confucian rhetoric as a pragmatic form of state legitimization. It turns out that Mouw was not saying anything he hadn’t already said before in last week’s Religion News Service piece. It’s what he’s been saying for a while, and about the same places, sometimes even verbatim.

Both then in 2012, and now in 2017, it might be asked what on earth is motivating Mouw’s longstanding commitment to work not only with the official Three-Self church, but with the PRC government directly, to the point of lavishing effusive praise on Chinese government officials by pretty much calling them the new Confucian class, which has been pretty much the party-state’s strategy of self-legitimization as the self-proclaimed heirs of imperial China. For this, perhaps it is important to remember that Mouw has a larger agenda here as a theologian of culture located primarily in the United States. The philosophical core of Mouw’s work, it must be remembered, lies in his longstanding commitment to civil dialogue as good politics, especially for American evangelicals but also just as a matter of the common good. Given the often raucous state of American evangelicalism – put especially on full display by white evangelical support for Donald Trump’s vulgar politics – Mouw might even think of his non-confrontational, dialogue-first approach as courageous.

It might be said, then, that this China piece – and the longstanding engagement with the PRC that has come with it – is Mouw working out what this civil dialogue means in Asia. This requires, as Mouw puts it in a telling passage from an interview reflection about his time as president of Fuller, courage in the midst of controversy:

We’ve reached across barriers—but without compromising, without denying our convictions—in places like China, where evangelicals have often been very resistant to the very idea of working with a church that has official ties to a communist government. We’ve taken the controversial stand of going into China and working with the Three-Self churches, engaging in positive diplomacy and dialogue with the government of China, and we’ve seen wonderful results. The gospel is flourishing in China, and many of the churches there that are very large and very evangelical are precisely those churches that in the past many evangelicals wouldn’t touch because they had official sanction from the government.

The controversy that Mouw highlights here, of course, is his rejection of the longstanding evangelical dichotomy between the ‘good’ underground church and the ‘bad’ official church, mostly because communism is supposed to be bad in evangelical-land. Things are not so simple when one thinks and acts civilly, Mouw suggests, because communist party officials and Christians in the official churches are just as much people as folks in the underground churches. Putting people before ideology, Mouw knows that he is flirting with controversy because he is working with an ideological entity that is supposed to be rejected by evangelicals, but he is willing to do it to acknowledge a common humanity with which dialogue can always be had. (This view is remarkably similar to some of what Pope Francis has said about China, about which Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun has advised caution out of loyalty to the Latin Church, and the Vatican seems to have stalled on its agreement with China about bishops.)

As with China, then also with North Korea: as he relates also in the Fuller/ISAAC speech, one of Mouw’s proudest achievements is also to have preached and taught in Pyongyang. In the same interview above, Mouw recounts his relationship with people in North Korea:

Then I had the privilege of going to North Korea, and actually standing at the pulpit and sharing some thoughts at one of the very few legally permissible worship services there, in the city of Pyongyang. Afterward, as I came down the aisle, I heard somebody say, “Dr. Mouw, what are you doing here?” I asked, “Who are you?” and he said, “I’m a graduate of Fuller Seminary.” I thought, wow, David Hubbard really had it right—you can’t even land in Pyongyang in North Korea and not run into a Fuller grad who’s serving the cause of the gospel. And that’s true all over the world.

But note, then, what he also says in First Things about his trip:

A few years ago I attended one of the few legally sanctioned worship services in Pyongyang. (Why I was there in North Korea is a story too complicated to tell here.) The choir in that small church, originally constructed by Presbyterian missionaries in the early twentieth century, sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” I was moved to tears, thrilled to see in the flesh people who have the same divine Friend that I have. Whatever I think about the North Korean regime—and those are not happy thoughts—I can never hear a mention of Pyongyang since then without recalling that I have fellow friends of Jesus there.

Mouw thinks the world of the persons he meets in cities around the world – Pyongyang, Harbin – where the governments of the PRC and North Korea have a reputation among evangelicals for persecuting Christians. While much less happy about North Korea than about PRC, Mouw thinks of those people as governed by a regime – the place is tied in his mind to a government because that government is responsible for the social conditions in that place, and the people need to be understood as contextualized by the actions of those government actors, institutions, and policies. To have civil dialogue with the peoples of China and North Korea, then, is to converse with their governments.

One could say that this view of these post-communist-but-not-quite Asia-Pacific nation-states is a white man’s fantasy of an Asia where people there just have to serve somebody (apologies to Bob Dylan), but it is also remarkably similar to other Chinese Protestants who have been theorizing on terms that are strangely similar to Mouw’s: peace and harmony come from civil dialogue, and in China, that means working with the government on behalf of the governed. The Hong Kong Anglican archbishop – and now chair of Canterbury’s Anglican Consultative Council, as well as member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – Paul Kwong lays out precisely this view in his book Identity in Community, where he argues that Hong Kong people will only be able to develop social harmony under Chinese sovereignty as Christians lead the way in developing a Hong Kong-within-PRC identity in conversation with the Chinese government (no wonder he opposed the Umbrella Movement). So too, the Chinese Regeneration Research Society (CRRS), led by another CPPCC member Thomas Leung Insing, has also advocated a soft approach to the Chinese government through his radio programs, church talks, and program organization, keeping in mind that China as a latecomer to modernity should be regarded as a baby to be coddled as well as an old man to be tolerated; friendly relations with the government can only be maintained, Leung has long held, by keeping your voice down about the human rights violations. More vulgarly, one of Media Evangelism Association’s newest projects after its decade-long quixotic quest to find Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat is to collaborate with Beijing’s state-sponsored CCTV to make a series of documentaries about Christians on the Silk Road, in large part attempting to christianize Xi Jinping’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.

It is in such an ideology, one that is internal to the world of Chinese Protestantism, that Mouw is probably better located. He is not an ignorant white man, so to speak; he’s right at home with what might be called the pro-establishment camp of global Chinese Protestantism where ideologues, clerics, and scholars feel that they might have a stronger influence on China, especially for evangelization, by praising its government, celebrating its leaders, collaborating with its ruling party, lauding its market society, and keeping their voices down about the brutal excesses of its centralized market economy (this is not your grandpa’s communism). Presumably, this is why Mouw forged an alliance with Three-Self leader Bishop K.H. Ting, even inviting him to speak at the inauguration of his presidency at Fuller in 1993. Mouw is no white outsider to China here; he is, ideologically speaking, a Chinese Protestant theologian of pro-establishment ilk in his own right. Credit must be given where credit is due.

Certainly, the facts of religious life in contemporary China and Beijing’s changing paradigms in the age of Xi can all be disputed when it comes to Mouw’s account last week of religious persecution versus ‘pressure’ in Harbin. Moreover, working with the Three-Self church and having conversations with government officials is hardly in itself an indication of one’s politics with regard to the PRC; that is simply acknowledging the practical complexity of everyday religious life in a very large nation-state where governance, like everywhere else, is interwoven with local, personal negotiations. But Mouw has been doing and saying much more than that for quite some time, and pretending that he is somehow an outsider when he has been working with the Chinese party-state since 1994 with the same ideological framework as other pro-establishment Chinese Protestants is to reinforce the bad habit of thinking that only people with Chinese phenotype can be actors in the global circuit of Chinese Christianities. All of us, Chinese or not ourselves, must be more open-minded than that. Mouw’s facts may be all up for dispute, but his place in the global network of pro-establishment Chinese Protestantism should not be disputed.

"I can't believe you would consider the theological lightweight Kilby as a proper critique of ..."

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum: on ..."
""Milbank criticizes Balthasar for being apolitical in his aesthetic reflections, and I can see how ..."

Reading Sobrino on Óscar Romero and ..."
"the word is receptive, which has nothing passive about it but could be the most ..."

Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum: on ..."
"One can never "go home," not in this life."

I’ve found my way home: on ..."

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad