Tuesday, June 9, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, June 9, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Rewriting the Bible? The Crackdown on Christianity in China
We'll continue to look at headlines in the United States in days to come, and some of them with great moral urgency, but it's also important to understand that on the world scene, the globe has not stood still over the course of the last several days as Americans have been understandably rather preoccupied with domestic affairs. As we look at the international scene, one of the things we need to keep in mind as Christians is the fact that in a sinful, fallen world, a sinful people will seize an opportunity if they perceive cover to advance sinful purposes. Let's consider as evidence right now, exhibit A, China.
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Matthew Taylor King, his article entitled, “The Gospel According to Xi.” This means Xi Jinping, the leader of the Communist Party, thus the autocrat of red China. He writes, "With the world distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party has restarted its long running campaign against Christianity. Provincial authorities have banned online religious services. Officials in one province reportedly removed crosses from two churches in April adding to a tally of defaced churches that stretches into the thousands." The background to this is very long. The background to almost any part of the history of China is very, very long.
This has to do with the fact that China is one of the longest existing civilizations in one place at one time with an ethnic and linguistic tradition. It also has to do with the fact that China ever since 1949 has been under the control of the Communist Party, and the Communist Party by definition in every single state is at least at its base, if not in every dimension, anti-theistic or atheistic. This gets to the very heart of Karl Marx's theory behind communism and his worldview that began with materialism.
That is the fact that all that exists is the material world. There is no soul. There is no spirit. There is no God. There is no rescue from the human predicament, and for that matter, there is no objective morality to which all human beings are beholden, a moral authority, a moral truth outside of ourselves with which we have to do. The very idea of Marxism, especially as developed by Karl Marx, and throughout the experiments of the 20th and 21st centuries, the very base idea is that the material world is all that exists. Human beings are merely material creatures. Therefore there is no legitimate spiritual need. There is no legitimate spiritual worship. There is no legitimate spiritual reality.
Furthermore, the communist revolutionaries understood full well that if there is a moral truth outside of us, an objective moral truth with which we have to do, if there is a God to whom we will give an answer, if there is a spiritual dimension, it by definition has greater importance than the demands made by the Communist Party. The communist revolutionaries could not abide the idea that there would be a higher allegiance than to the party itself and to its purposes. It is interesting that during the period of the Chinese Communist Party opening itself at least partially to the West and when the Chinese Communist Party was adopting some form of a market economy decades ago, China, for reasons that probably had some internal motivation, but mostly for external international consumption began to relieve some of the crackdown that the Chinese Communist Party had exerted upon all forms of religion, but in particular against Christianity.
In the time of the communist revolution in China, Christians were martyred and the record books simply do not even give us an accurate number of the thousands, if not more than thousands, who were martyred for their Christianity during the time of the revolution and its aftermath. Similarly, when later Mao Tse-Tung undertook what he called the cultural revolution, it meant a crackdown upon all subversive organizations and the Christian church was identified as one of those subversive organizations. Over the course of the last several years under the leadership of Xi Jinping, there has been a severe crackdown when it comes to Christianity in China. We have seen church buildings destroyed. We have seen some church buildings reduced radically in size, and by the way, this is often come by the Chinese communist authorities is destroying the building and allowing it to be rebuilt partially if at all.
Then there have been the highly symbolic actions of removing steeples from churches. Now you think about that for a moment. What would be the purpose, just to embarrass Christians, just to insult Christians? No, it has to do with the fact that those steeples towering over a skyline, even perhaps just dotting the Chinese urban skyline in place by place were a reminder that there were at least some in that city and thus some in China under communist domination who understood a power greater than the Communist Party. That symbolism simply could not be tolerated.
Matthew Taylor King back at The Wall Street Journal wrote, "Believers in China already are under more pressure than at any time since the cultural revolution and a new phase is beginning. Beijing no longer wants simply to repress religion, but to transform it." Xi Lian, a professor at Duke University Divinity School tells him that the Communist Party wants to, "Create a new version of Christianity, shorn of its transcendent visions and values." As King then tells us, "The centerpiece of this is a major new undertaking to rewrite holy Scripture." He goes on to tell us, "China's state run news agency said late last year that the Politburo Standing Committee had presided over a meeting of so-called scholars and ‘religious people from the grassroots level to discuss making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times.’”
Now let's just pause here for a moment. This deserves a closer and perhaps even slower attention. What are we talking about here? It's not simply an effort to remove Christianity, to expunge Christianity, but rather basically to neuter Christianity by removing it of all of its theistic truth claims. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party has decided that it isn't in its interest just to oppose Christianity, but rather to allow it perhaps eventually even to embrace it, but a Christianity that is perfectly in sync with the Chinese Communist Party. Now here we find a very strange parallel. The statement that was made by this member of the Politburo Standing Committee was that the effort was now undertaken, "to discuss making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times."
Now, the parallel I want to demonstrate is between classical Protestant liberal theology, Protestant liberalism in the European and American context, and what is now undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party. The pressures were actually different, but the patterns turn out to be the same, and so do the rationales. Back in the time after the enlightenment in Western cultures and particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as a spirit of anti-supernaturalism, a basically secular worldview began to set in amongst the elites in Europe and eventually also in the United States. The argument was that what the Christian church needed to survive was an updated theology. To use the standard by the Chinese Communist Party member here, it is Christianity that has doctrines, "to keep pace with the times."
Now in the European and American context, the liberal theologians then said, "To keep pace with the times we need to eliminate, and if not eliminate, reformulate classical Christian doctrines that appear now to the modern mind, a secular mind as ridiculous." That meant out with claims that God is directly involved as the divine sovereign in human activity. That means that the virgin birth is simply out, claims of the supernatural, affirmations of Christ as truly God and truly man, bodily resurrection. You go down the list, the miracles, they simply needed to be either removed and repudiated or just reformulated in an anti-supernatural manner. That was the project of Protestant liberalism and it led to the absolute evacuation of those liberal churches of their members. There's no reason to be a Christian if Christianity is not biblical Christianity.
At least back in the early 20th century, the liberals said, "Look, you can have all of the cultural goods of Christianity without those pesky Christian doctrines." But by the end of the 20th century, it became very clear that there were no social goods that the liberal society valued enough to have respect for Christians who didn't believe in Christianity. The key issue here is the effort undertaken by the modernists and the liberals to try to update Christianity for the times. The Christianity they produced as the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen pointed out was not a reformulated Christianity. It was another religion entirely. That's exactly what's now going on in China.
But it's very interesting to see here the plans of the Chinese Communist Party presented so transparently: to reformulate Christianity, to redefine its doctrines in ways that will be absolutely in agreement with the basic worldview of the Chinese Communist Party. But it is also extremely important that we recognize that the next step will be necessary, and that is to rewrite the Bible.
The crackdown in China has to do not only with Christianity, although that is our main concern here, but also with Islam and other religious groups. Matthew Taylor King writes, "It would take years to create official state translations of the Bible, Quran, and other religious texts, purging passages deemed incompatible with core socialist values while retaining a measure of the original poetry. This will require literary achievement and deep religious knowledge, both of which are lacking in the party's handpicked experts."
He then asked the question, why does Beijing seek, as Mr. Lian puts it, "To quote drained Christianity of its spirit"? One explanation he says is generalized hostility to religion. Later in the article King makes clear that as we understand the pattern in China, the Chinese Communist Party sees Christianity as a particular threat. The greatest explanation for that may well be numbers. We're talking about millions, by the tens of millions of believers who identify as Christians in communist China right now, and that is one of the most amazing statistics of the 21st century. If you look back at the effort undertaken during the revolutionary period, and then under the period of the cultural revolution, the efforts to expunge Christianity, it turns out that those efforts had exactly the opposite effect.
But in a way that blends both theology and sociology, the professor at Duke Divinity School says that there are issues here that have to do also with the fact that Christianity is an international religion that creates a brotherhood of believers across lines of political ideology, and of course, of political boundaries. That also is unacceptable to China that now insists upon Sinicizing, everything, and that's in a way consistent with the Sinicizing definitions of the Chinese Communist Party.
But it is also pointed out in this article that there is another sociological-theological principle of Christianity that is considered deeply suspicious by the Chinese communist authorities and that is the congregational nature of Christianity. Christian congregations produce deep bonds, communication networks, all the rest, all of this understood in a sinister way by the totalitarian regime, by the Chinese Communist Party. Professor Lian points out that the most important issue here is theological, and that is that Christianity's "transcendent vision, transcendent values present the Communist Party with an insuperable, moral, and ideological rivalry." Indeed, of course it does. Belief is always at war with unbelief and unbelief is always at war with belief.
Of course, right now, one of the biggest stories in international relations anywhere is increasing friction between the United States and China. That dominates most of the headlines and it's intense in most of the concern in the international arena right now. Matthew Taylor King of The Wall Street Journal says, "The U.S. can't dictate events on the ground in China, but the White House would be wise to make religious freedom a pillar of its China strategy."
An Essential Stewardship of American Foreign Policy: White House Issues Executive Order on Religious Freedom
But next, in an action that due to other headlines received very little attention, the White House released a major statement, a policy statement on the 2nd of June, indicating that the United States government in a document signed by the president of the United States has declared religious freedom to be a major issue, a criterion of primary concern in American foreign policy.
In this statement that was released from the White House by the president, the president affirmed that religious freedom, America's first freedom, "is a moral and national security imperative." He went on to say, "Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom." Now you might say, "Well, this is just an American presidential administration doing what presidents do." Not exactly true. Over the course of the last several presidencies, there have been a few very brave moments for religious liberty, and there have been presidents that have had religious liberty as an ongoing concern.
But in this case, we are looking at something a bit different and we need to recognize the difference, and that is that in this statement and its orders to the State Department of the United States, the White House is being very clear about elevating religious freedom to a national security issue for the United States. The most important paragraph of the statement is known as section 4. The statement says, "The secretary shall direct chiefs of mission in countries of particular concern, countries on the special watch list, countries in which there are entities of particular concern and any other countries that have engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom as noted in the annual report on international religious freedom, goes on to say that the State Department is to "develop comprehensive action plans to inform and support the efforts of the United States to advance international religious freedom and to encourage the host governments to make progress in eliminating violations of religious freedom."
The policy also stipulates certain actions that are to be undertaken by American diplomats, and also mentioned some possible financial sanctions. But my point in drawing attention to this statement that was released by president Trump on June the 2nd, is to say that this is a substantial act. Of course it has symbolic value, but it's a substantial act. It reminds us of the power and the stewardship of American foreign policy and of the vital importance of America making religious liberty a core issue of its diplomacy. What's going on in China right now is all the evidence we need of why this emphasis in American foreign policy is not only timely, but absolutely necessary.
The Achievement of Stable Order in Peril: U.S. Troops Leaving Afghanistan
But next, another story on the international scene that has not received adequate attention, and that is the fact that the United States is preparing one way or the other to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan. A headline just a few days ago in the New York Times was this: "After 18 Years of War, Taliban Sense Victory Over a Superpower." The subhead: “Using grit and carnage to outlast the United States.” Now there are some vast worldview issues here that should attract our attention. For one thing, let's just think about the history of Afghanistan. We're talking about a strategic part of the world that is between Europe and China, the Far East and India, as you're thinking about the Silk Road, and that was the most famous of all of the ancient roads of commerce.
Of course, if you had to pass through Afghanistan or territory now known as Afghanistan in order to do business along the Silk Road, you had a lot of power. But Afghanistan has been an unruly portion of the world now for over a millennium, indeed, you could say over two millennia. It has been a very contested territory, never more so than in the modern age. Afghanistan was conquered by forces of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, but even Alexander the Great could not hold onto the administration of what is now known as Afghanistan. Islam eventually came to Afghanistan in the 7th and 8th centuries, and ever since then, Afghanistan has been populated by what are best described as rival Islamic clans.
At time to time, Russia being rather close to Afghanistan has been at war in that nation. During the 19th century, Britain went to war as the British empire in Afghanistan, several times, at least three major wars between 1839 and 1919. The British empire was at that time at its zenith and its armed forces appeared to be virtually unconquerable, but in Afghanistan, the unconquerable eventually became conquered. The British learned three times over that what appeared to be wins in battles or wars in Afghanistan soon turned into long-term defeats. Fearing the influence especially of Islamic militants coming from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union undertook war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. That became actually one of the wars that led to the end of the Soviet Union and is one of the periods of Soviet history that is most bitterly remembered by those who are still living.
During that time, the United States and its allies sought to undermine the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by siding with those who were understood to be freedom fighters, but in a matter of just a generation, the Americans found themselves with allies once again fighting a military incursion against some of those former allies within Afghanistan. The ironies just pile up one atop the other. Historians would date the period between 1979 and 1992 as a period of near constant war in Afghanistan. But the tribes themselves were often at war within the nation without regard to any kind of military action that involved from anyone outside the nation. By the time you reached the beginning of the 21st century, the Islamic extremist group known as the Taliban were largely in control of Afghanistan, and the Taliban, enforcing Sharia rule, that is the rule of the Quran enforced a most brutal form of Islam throughout the nation.
At the same time, the Taliban gave cover other Islamic extremist groups and that included Al Qaeda. So after the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda upon the United States, the United States targeted Afghanistan as the source of the problem, and military action against hostile Islamic forces within Afghanistan began shortly after the September 11 attacks. The bitter fact is thus that the United States has been involved in direct military activity within Afghanistan for 18 years, leading some historians to define the war in Afghanistan as the longest war in American history.
But the point of this front page article in The Times is a profound truth we need to recognize, and that is that when American forces finally and completely withdraw from Afghanistan, Afghanistan is likely to revert to being Afghanistan. Worst of all, it is likely that the Taliban with whom the United States have been negotiating a peace agreement, that the Taliban will be in power once again, and regardless of whatever assurances they have made to the United States, they are likely, and we all know it, they're likely to revert to the same brutal repression that we saw before the first United States forces landed in Afghanistan after 9/11.
In the period of those 18 years, the United States has made a good faith effort to try to create a provisional government and then a lasting government and then to support that government, but the reality is it is very unlikely that any of that stability will last for long. So what's the purpose of talking about this issue on The Briefing today? Well, it's to point back to that peace agreement that was signed between the United States and the Taliban in March and to recognize that in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation just might begin to look exactly like it did before the United States ever arrived. That raises a fundamental question. What's the big lesson here?
Well, the most profound lesson is this, civilization and order requires certain pre-conditions. It also requires a certain worldview amongst at least the vast majority of those who make up the population. It also requires a government that is answerable to the people. It requires all kinds of preconditions that still do not exist in Afghanistan.
It also reminds us that civilizations in a fallen world tend to follow their own logic. But it's just extremely important that biblical Christians understand that in a fallen world, the natural state, the state of nature is disorder rather than order. It is anarchy and mayhem rather than human dignity and respect for that dignity. It is murder and violence rather than peace. We have to understand that in a fallen world, sin becomes so pervasive and is set loose to such a degree that it becomes like an acid burning through civilization after civilization. Now there is no sinless order. There is no sinless culture. There is no sinless state or sinless civilization. Christians, first of all know that.
But we also understand that order, any political order, any civilizational order comes only as a massive achievement. But here's where we have to take the argument further, an experiment in ordered liberty, rather than say totalitarianism, as we see in so much of the 20th century and right now in places like North Korea and China, any form of ordered liberty, of constitutional self-government that is based actually on human dignity and human rights requires a massive set of preconditions and very careful attention to those preconditions. We have to honestly acknowledge the fact that the world is a hostile place, and we understand why. We understand that the world is in one sense is a fallen world, hostile even to the very notion of civilizational order, and especially to realities like human dignity and human rights.
The modern secular worldview is a dream. It's a dream that you would think would have been dashed on the realities of the 20th century and into the 21st century. It was a dream that somehow you can have human dignity and human rights and ordered liberty without any fundamentally theological preconditions. But if we're intellectually honest, that is not how the Western experiment in ordered liberty came about, and it is extremely unlikely that such an experiment can continue and survive without those basically theological preconditions.
But that raises a final issue. Does this mean that the American military action and all of the billions and billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan were a mistake? No, that's not to say that at all. We also understand that in a fallen world, sometimes you just have to do what seems to be, if not right then least wrong at any particular time. The United States has not suffered the kind of massive attack of September 11, 2001, since then, and for that, we should be very grateful. But the world is still a hostile place, and that liberal dream of some kind of everlasting cosmopolitan peace has turned out to be just that, a dream. But as Christians, we're not the seekers of that dream. We're those who are praying for the coming of a kingdom that will never end.
Until then we pray as our Lord taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We'll be praying that prayer that Jesus taught us in just those words and in just that way until Jesus comes.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
By the way, the challenges I talked about just now are part of the reason why I wrote my latest book released last week, entitled The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church, and I hope you'll find it helpful. I hope you find it interesting. I hope you'll find it thoughtful and truthful. You can find more information about the book by going to your local bookstore or by going to the website, TheGatheringStormBook.com. That's TheGatheringStormBook.com.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/AlbertMohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to BoyceCollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.