Religious and Political Contestation in Chinese Contexts
Whilst religion and politics are not meant for polite dinner conversations, they have frequently been present at the table amongst scholars of world Christianity, and especially for those who research Chinese contexts. To a great extent, religion and politics have been intertwined throughout Chinese history. We see this in the three major religions or teachings of China – Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism – all of which have vied for space amongst the masses and in the political arena. This has been complicated even further with the rise of the Communist Party of China, which has since the 1980s held a position of tolerance for religion as being a ‘private matter’ with little to no public significance. Adding Christianity into the mix only complicates the picture, given its own multifaceted relationships with religion and politics. Christianity’s historical emphasis on evangelism inevitably invokes reaction in this pluralistic society. Furthermore, despite any restrictions imposed by the ruling party, strands of Chinese Christianity have always had a significant proclivity to exist as a public religion. The four articles in this issue of Studies in World Christianity offer snapshots into various aspects of Christianity’s religious and political contestation in Chinese contexts.
By the time this issue of Studies in World Christianity goes to press, in March 2021, it will have been a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. At the time of that declaration, the Director General of WHO stated that there were 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, with more than 90 per cent of the cases in China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Even at that early stage, the danger of COVID-19 seemed remote to those living in other parts of the world. Yet soon after, regional and national governments began to close borders and implement different lockdown procedures. Certain people would be identified as ‘key workers’ as their jobs were seen as essential support for society. However, these individuals would be more readily exposed to the virus, which revealed inequalities across gendered, racial and socio-economic groupings. Furthermore, frustrations around the public health crisis resulted in forms of racial conflict. Many Western countries would see increasing reports of anti-Asian racism, as those of East Asian extract were scapegoated as causing the so-called ‘China virus’. Following the death of George Floyd in May 2020, major cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world would burst out in protest against police brutality towards blacks. It appears as though humanity has become more and more ‘socially distant’.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will, for generations to come, constitute a point of reference for many endeavours, issues and social institutions, including religion. Some of the most public responses to the pandemic have been of a religious nature. The pandemic has also obviously affected our understanding of world Christianity and its contextual expressions and responses, especially in the face of the enigma of evil. Historically speaking, the pandemic has permanently inserted itself into how the Christian life is lived and expressed. It struck at a time on the Christian calendar when Christians worldwide were preparing to celebrate the major landmarks of the faith – Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost.
In non-Western contexts in particular, these historical Christian events occasion major celebrations in various church activities with some of them culminating in social gatherings in the holidays associated with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in particular. In some parts of Europe where traditional church services are no longer the norm, the Monday after Pentecost is a public holiday. Whether these Christian landmarks were to be celebrated in religious services, Masses or as social gatherings, the coronavirus ensured that in-person meetings had to be aborted. In many cases, media technology of various sorts came to the rescue as churches and their leaders looked for innovative ways in which to stay in touch with the faithful.
We have dedicated this and the next issues of Studies in World Christianity to the study of how select Christian churches and communities from different continental contexts responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly regarding church services. Religion is itself a mediated phenomenon, and modern media technology has evolved as a major means of religious practice. In virtually all the studies relating to the church and the coronavirus scourge, media technology had to play a critical role in religious mediation and communion. The spread of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of events, negatively affected economics, disrupted political and social life and, most importantly for our purposes, religious life as well. When such negativities strike in terms of affliction, people search for answers. The Christian religious context, on account of its promises of salvation and deliverance from evil, became one of the main sources of appeal as people sought to make sense out of the pandemic situation.
World Christianity is a discourse about Christianity as a worldwide reality. It is not merely about the growing numbers of the faithful ‘out there’, juxtaposed against the falling numbers in the West. Part of the demographic changes of Christianity include the migration of peoples from the majority world to my world, next door. In a recent Ph.D. thesis on Christianity in Glasgow, where 126 Church of Scotland churches operate within the presbytery, 110 new churches were established between 2000 and 2016; of those new churches, 65 per cent primarily work with minority populations of African or Asian origins. Scholars may be quick to discuss the implications of the secularisation thesis or the so-called post-secular. But for those Christian communities on the ground, they may be more readily concerned with addressing practical needs related to migration, ‘integration’ into the dominant society, and negotiation of identities. From the first century until today, Christians have been a people on the move. However, another part of the picture is that changes in a given locale often happen irrespective of the Christians who have come or gone. As the four main articles in this issue of Studies in World Christianity demonstrate, such migratory and demographic patterns demonstrate how societies are rarely homogenous, but, in actuality, quite pluralistic.