You may remember from my previous post “A Changing Perspective” that I have lived in China long enough now that I am having experiences that are changing my understanding and perspective of life in China from what I originally created. I am learning that in some ways China is similar to other freer societies in the West. There are people here who have been Christians for generations; a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. I have been conversing with a colleague that has been exposed to Christianity all of her life. I learning about how her experiences here in China are different from other Chinese just as my experiences are different from other Expatriates living here.
There are two categories of churches in China, those that are officially recognized as Churches by the government and those that are not. Some of the churches that are recognized by the government include the Roman Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians (they are collectively called Protestants but I am assuming that the various Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, etc. fall within the same grouping although Americans would say that they are not the same). Some of those that are not recognized that you might recognize are Jews, Mormons, Russian Roman Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, etc.; these churches would fall into a group that is called “family churches” in China because they really aren’t allowed to do any real religious work outside of their own family relationships. There is also another subgroup of religions in these not recognized by the government that bears mentioning, the actively persecuted churches such as Falun Gang.
So how do you bring up religion in a conversation in a country that really doesn’t tolerate religion well? In our western society it is a much easier topic to bring up, I have lived in places where it was routine to ask someone you have just met if they have a “church home”, meaning have they found a place to go to church. I have been in places where the method includes a plate full of cookies or a newly baked loaf of bread. Those methods really don’t work well in communist China especially in a society that doesn’t really know how to react to those kinds of questions or gestures from complete strangers. In most cases I try to avoid the topic of religion altogether because it is against the law for Expatriates to passively or actively preach the gospel in China. It is much more challenging for any kind of religious conversation to happen in China between Chinese nationals and anyone that isn’t. There doesn’t really seem to be a good way to talk about religion here for an Expatriate so it going to be challenging to get the topic of her experiences going to be tough to get this topic into the conversation.
A quiet spot to eat and deepen friendships.
During nearly every conversation I have with new colleagues in China away from work I always try to cover one of my favorite topics, identifying who the communists are. My thoughts and understanding about China before coming here really aligned with and were indistinguishable from my feelings about their neighbor to the north, Russia or The Soviets as I have called them most of my life. Most of my life has been lived believing that the world would be a better place without communism, period. I still haven’t moved much from one of those “cute” little phrases from my days in the military: “Kill a Commie for Mommy”. Having said that, I have decided after living here for four years that I haven’t meet too many Commies that I would now consider enemies. I am sure they are still out there somewhere but I consider all the communists I have meet so far to be my friends. An interesting change that I would never believed I would say even just 5 or 6 years ago.
Interestingly in the group we had together there was only one communist, none of the new people in the group that I was learning more about were communists. During our discussion about being communist I learned about a unique conflict that I hadn’t expected for my Christian friend, she could not be a communist because she was a Christian. There is an apparent “water and oil mixing” problem between communists and Christians, one is water and one is oil and they don’t or aren’t allowed to be both. Now like everything else in these kinds of situations in China, sometimes that policy is very strict and other times it is more lenient. So there are likely Christian communists or is that communist Christians.
Now, my American brain really doesn’t comprehend how this can happen or why it would happen. I know that China has in their “constitution” that it has “the freedom of religious belief”, which I have mentioned several times in early posts that “the freedom of religious belief” is not the same as “freedom of religion”. I don’t claim to be able to describe the difference but I can tell you that there is a difference and it is obvious when you are here. I still don’t understand the “freedom of religious belief” distinction from “freedom of religion” but I will say that I would never trade “the freedom of religion” for the communists’ version of “freedom of religious belief”. My first reaction to learning this new tidbit of information is astonishment and I express that I can’t quite wrap my brain around how the communists know you are Christian. In order to understand this problem it requires her to tell us something that I hadn’t known before.
When she was baptized into her “state approved” Christian religion she had to declare to the government that this is what she was doing. No, I am serious; she had to tell the government that she was getting baptized to become a Christian. Because she was baptized into one of the approved churches the government now has a record that she is a Christian. My mind is blown. Since the government also gets to control who the communists are it now seems rather easy to make sure that your water and oil don’t mix and to make sure that you can’t be both a member of a state approved church AND a card-carrying communist party member (unless, of course, you are which is one of those “drive me crazy” things about China).
Not even sure how I feel about that.
As I think about the prayers I say each day, asking for God to bless this nation, to allow more of its people to have the opportunity to learn of the Savior, to learn of His plan for their happiness, to have the fullness of His gospel preached to them, I can’t help but think about the complications of life here when your government keeps track of your membership in religious groups. I know that God loves His Chinese children as much as He loves the rest of His children here on this earth. I know He wants them to have the opportunity to choose whether they will follow Him or if they will ignore His call. I also know that men do not by nature enjoy the kind of scrutiny about such personal beliefs as religion. I can’t imagine how it might feel living in a communist country that limits what other organizations you may participate in because you also have knowledge of a Savior that loves you and you have chosen to heed that call. I ponder whether I would be strong enough to withstand that extra scrutiny.
This new perspective is another reminder to me that God’s ways are not man’s ways, that God’s time does not follow my perception or the perception of other men on earth. God knows what is best for the Chinese people, when they are ready to have His gospel in its fullness here they will receive it. I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is reaching people in this country, it is happening now in a way that works with all the crazy dynamics of 60 plus years of communism. It works so that these followers and believers can build and grow their personal testimonies and can reach others who are ready to make the changes in their lives to become more as He would have us be. It doesn’t really make sense to me but it works and while I don’t have any real idea about those pieces of the puzzle I am beginning to understand more. I now have an idea of the kinds of pieces that exist in that part of the puzzle.
I attended the October 2014 World broadcast of the LDS General Conference.
I am looking forward to having more conversations with my friend. Her perspective on life here is one I would never get without speaking to her or someone like her. I wonder what I will learn next? Still lots of questions that I want to talk about with her. Lots of things that I am sure I will learn. The most interesting thing about this is that the best questions I am sure to have, I don’t even know yet.
I really love being in situations where I am learning so fast that I don’t even know what the questions are but am super excited to know the question and the answer that will go with it. China is great for that, there is so much that I don’t know that I don’t know.
In the Salt Lake City temple visitor’s center
My photo with the Christus statue in SLC.