If it be possible, as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men… Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that be are ordained by God. Whoever, therefore, resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and they who resist will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom. 12:18; 13:1–2)
I write this as one who is of Chinese descent but also who could, by education and religious affiliation, be considered very “Westernised.” Singapore, like Hong Kong, was a British colony for nearly one and a half centuries. Whatever else may be said of colonialisation being fundamentally unjust, it is without doubt that it opened up our nation to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlike a number of formerly colonised countries in Southeast Asia, we eventually gained our independence in 1965 without having to resort to any violence and have had a good relationship with our former colonial masters ever since.
All this to say that I speak largely as an outsider to these matters, but one who has at least more cultural proximity to and some direct contact with those who are experiencing what is happening in Hong Kong and China. I am, of course, not at liberty to speak of who I know within that country. But our church has been praying constantly regarding the persecution that those we know are facing and, needless to say, I in no way approve of what the Chinese government is doing to churches. Our prayers often go along the lines of Psalm 2. That should say enough.
However, as I observed how some Chinese churches have responded and also how some Western commentators have reacted to the demolishing of church buildings for refusal to comply with the government’s demand to take down the large crosses constructed on top of them, I have mostly shook my head in silence and with a measure of disappointment and fearfulness, knowing the backlash that many other churches are now facing because of it.
As an old-school Presbyterian, I am no fan of hanging crosses anywhere, but even granted that it is lawful to do so, it is certainly not required in God’s Word. It would be, if lawful, a matter of religious liberty, and one that we may choose to relinquish. I do not know the reason and do not wish to judge unkindly the zeal of my brothers and sisters who refused to take down the crosses. However, whatever the reason was, this bringing of unnecessary attention to the church as one who would dare to openly stand up against the government resulted in even more harassments and tighter restrictions in many areas where local governments had previously been willing to simply “close one eye” to the presence of the church.
Christians ought to be known as those who, although uncompromising on principle when it comes to God’s clear commandments, and yet are those who would, out of love for neighbour and in order to be peacemakers as our Lord commanded us, bend over backwards when it comes to their own convenience and liberties, to be “made all things to all men” so that they might by any means save some (1 Cor. 9:22). Many of the so-called “human rights”—the right to free speech, to determine your own government, etc.—would fall into this category. If the government sought to prevent us from preaching the Gospel or to determine how the worship service is to be conducted, such as having the congregation sing the national anthem at the start of the service or, at any time, to bow before the portrait of the king or president, we must flatly refuse. If the government requires us to kill our second child in the womb, we must firmly resist. But when it comes to matters that are not either commanded or prohibited by God, we are to apply the law of love—of charity above liberty. If the government prohibits us from broadly publishing fiercely critical views of communism, we do not have any warrant from the Scriptures to insist on disobeying. We must not conflate our modern notion of “human rights” with the commandments of God. The church is to obey God’s commands and teach others to do so, not to fight for free political speech or to use political leverage to twist the government’s arm into complying with our desires. Christians are not to resort to disorderliness even to preach the Gospel, much less to achieve political aims (1 Cor. 14:33, 40).
The riots in Hong Kong have accomplished little more than be a shameful stain on the island’s reputation, and it should greatly grieve us as Christian that the name of Christ should be dragged through the mud when church leaders are not only unwilling to denounce the chaos and use of violence or to encourage their members to distance themselves from the mobs, but some are even willing to find theological excuses for such blatant lawlessness. This is nothing new as we read of how the 16th Century Protestant leader Martin Luther condemned the peasant revolts of his time for cloaking their terrible sins of robbery and murder with the Gospel and thus becoming the worst blasphemers of God. Another Reformer, John Calvin, would later criticise his Scottish counterpart, John Knox, for writing a pamphlet inciting violent uprisings against the female monarchs of England and Scotland of their time (one of them being Bloody Mary, the cruel persecutor of Protestants), calling it “the inconsiderate vanity of one man”, and making it clear that “it is not permitted to unsettle governments that have been set up by the peculiar providence of God” (Tracts and Letters, 7.47).
More and more today, Christianity is again being identified as a revolutionary force, and that not by the influence of preaching the Gospel, but by political uprising. I again do not wish to judge unkindly, but I fear that most of this unrest is not motivated by a love for Christ, but fuelled by anti-communist sentiments among some revolutionary-minded Chinese church leaders, spurred on by the same hatred among Western church leaders. Again, I personally have no good feelings for the present government in China, but I certainly do not wish that they will be overthrown by a mob, by civil war, or by an American invasion. Chinese Christians must certainly have no part in any of these. No, they and we have much more powerful weapons than these—the Gospel, godly lives, and prayer.
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ… (2 Co. 10:3–5)
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conduct honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. (1 Pet. 2:11-14)
Chinese Christians do not need Christianity to be any more associated to the West and its own history of violent revolution, but to be identified simply with Christ and his Cross, not by erecting physical crosses on top of our churches, but by being willing to suffer and die with him; not for our use of violence and wrongdoing, and not with reviling in our mouths, but to suffer for well-doing and peace-making while committing our souls unto God and speaking only the truth in love. This is our greatest revolutionary act. This is how we are to imitate Christ, witness to his meekness and mercy, and bring souls and glory to him. Our brothers in the free West also need to be careful and considerate that your well-intended words of support do not end up encouraging a spirit of unrest and further resentment in those who are already carrying the heavy burden of oppression and for whom more provocative words against their civil authorities are not helpful.
A version of this article was first published in a church bulletin on 15 Dec 2019.