Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Balancing with the Book

Beijing-branded Bibles distributed in China will highlight the government's volatile stance on civil liberties.

China's human rights critics have had ample fodder for attacks in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. Concerns over the handling of riots in Tibet, arms deals with a genocidal regime in Sudan and arrests of key religious leaders in unregistered churches and groups all seem to indicate that China has not lived up to the human rights promises it made when awarded the bid to host the Games.

China's defenders, however, have a picture of their own to paint. The government's swift and effective response in aiding grieving citizens the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake, its designated areas for approved protests during the Games and handling of supposed terrorist threats in remote areas have all been lauded as signs that the country is moving in the right direction. All this, and the fact that China’s economic situation and the daily degree of personal freedoms have improved dramatically since the country opened its borders three decades ago.

The challenge for those examining these conflicting portrayals of the world's most populous country is to figure out whether one is a mirage distorting reality, or whether both have semblances of truth that fuse to form an entirely new image.

In light of a few recent developments and conversations, I can only support the latter idea. With a land as huge, dynamic and varied as China, nothing is set in stone, and the only thing it's safe to be dogmatic about is that dogma here is the height of arrogance and a sure precursor to a lesson in intellectual humility.

The question of the dissemination of the Bible and the treatment of underground Church leaders in China highlights this unpredictable environment. Last year, the Catholic News Agency reported that Bibles were on the government's list of banned items for Olympic athletes. That article, which was actually false, ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian groups. Authorities quickly denounced the rumor, saying that athletes were allowed one Bible in the language of their country.

Now, in an apparent effort to allay concerns that China is not friendly toward religion, the government has made an extra step that at least looks like freedom. A recent China Daily article announced that thousands of Christian texts will be distributed freely to athletes and visitors to the Olympic Village. Some 10,000 bilingual Bibles, 30,000 New Testaments and 50,000 books featuring the four Gospels have been ordered, as if to scoff at those who warned of China’s intolerance.

This sounds encouraging, but as I kept surfing the Net, I came across an article that noted the crackdown on unregistered house church pastors and foreign missionaries over the past year. According to the article, which cited experts on the subject, the Chinese government expelled more foreign missionaries in 2007 than in the entire 59 prior years of communist rule combined. Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that tracks persecution of Christians around the world, is asking supporters to buy bracelets that remind them to pray for the mistreated Christians of China during the Games.

Only a nation as complex as China would leave us to reconcile the conundrum of a government that simultaneously persecutes a faith and disseminates its texts. The danger from a Western perspective is to chalk the Bible plan up to a ploy and completely ignore its potential for helping to spread the Gospel. And the government would be well-advised to realize that Christians can’t be duped into thinking that printing the Word erases trespasses against it. As a Chinese friend from Shanghai told me tonight, “In China, there are many sides, and you have to look at them all.”

Photo: Mao keeps watch over tourists at Tiananmen. Copyright Trevor Williams, 2006

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