China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2006/Apr

Heaven and the forgiveness of sins

A frequent visitor to China reports that people ask him two questions: Do you really believe in heaven? Do you really believe in the forgiveness of sins? Two important questions indeed! And for Christians they are linked by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Revenge versus reconciliation

A number of recent movies and television shows feature the duty, or even the joy, of revenge. However rational or irrational revenge may be, it has always been a strong human urge. Yet when Jesus rose, he did not appear first to Pontius Pilate in order to scare him to death and have the last laugh. Rather, Jesus appeared to a select group of witnesses, to those who were with him “from the time when John was baptising until the day when he was taken up” (Acts 1:22) Jesus’ first word in his Resurrection appearances was consistently “Peace.” After Easter, the closest Jesus came to reprimanding anyone was asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Yet Jesus concluded by saying “Follow me,” not “Get lost, you coward!” (Jn. 21:9-15). Simon Peter did not have to write and rewrite a confession to get back in Jesus’ good graces, nor did the other Apostles join in a struggle session against Peter for having denied his Lord.

In China, the term qingsuan (清算) originally was a neutral term meaning “settle accounts.” Yet during the Chinese Civil War and the early years of the People’s Republic of China, it was used extensively for “to liquidate.” In 1980, a foreigner with an old phrasebook visited China. After a meal, he told the waitress he wanted to “settle accounts” with her. She winced and said, “Sir! We don’t say that anymore! We now say maidan (買單), buy the list (of dishes ordered).” During the Cultural Revolution, the terms fendou (奮鬥) “struggle” and zenghen (憎恨) “bitter hatred” became part of the daily vocabulary. Not only talk of forgiveness but also old-fashioned polite language became politically incorrect. The scars from that period are not always visible, but they are still there.

A priest chooses not to get revenge

A Chinese priest who had studied overseas spoke excellent English. At the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, a group of Red Guards confronted him and gave him a vicious beating. Years passed. The priest was released from labour camp and got a job in a university. He worked beyond the usual retirement age since there was such a shortage of English teachers. One day he interviewed high school seniors in English as part of their entrance exam. He walked into the waiting room where the nervous students were seated with their even more anxious parents and called the teens inside one by one for the oral exam. He made eye contact, and recognised several of the parents, who hung their heads in despair. Now the time had finally come for revenge! Yet to the amazement of some parents, their children passed. His old tormentors took him aside and asked, “After what we did to you, how could you give our child a passing grade?” He replied, “I was tempted to repay you, but then I remembered that Jesus ordered me to love my enemies.” Those parents studied the Catholic faith and were baptised.

Resurrection, not reincarnation

Central to the message of the New Testament is the Resurrection of Jesus. His tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning. “The Word was made flesh,” (Jn. 1:14) and we hope that our earthly bodies will one day share in the glory of the resurrection. “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless… If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people” (1 Cor 15:14, 16). Pope St. Leo the Great commented: “Our Saviour’s victory would have profited us nothing if his battle had been fought outside our human condition.” We only live once, so our time our earth entails an urgent battle against sin, yet we hope in God’s assistance and mercy.

A missionary in Korea once talked to a murderer. The killer admitted his guilt and said, “In a future life I will be murdered. That is my karma and I cannot escape it no matter what good I do during the rest of this life.” The priest spoke to him about the forgiveness of sins, but could not convince him. While he was sorry for the killing, he believed firmly in reincarnation, so he could not imagine anyone paying the price for his sins, especially for his sin of murder.

A condition is attached to forgiveness

The Lord’s Prayer contains a hard saying: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” (Mt. 6:12). Jesus made it clear that the heavenly Father grants or withholds forgiveness depending on whether or not we forgive others (Mt. 6:14-15). The challenge is not to forgive those who ask for our pardon seven times, but seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:21-22).

Evangelisation begins with the witness of our lives

How does the story of Easter become believable Good News to anyone? To do a complete, integral job of evangelising, a Vatican statement stresses the need to cover five points. First there is Christian witness, setting a good example. The Chinese phrase yi shen zuo ze (以身作則), “set an example with one’s body,” conveys the meaning. If practising what we preach is the hardest part of spreading the message, it is also the most effective. Next, we work together for the common good. The Church must not be a ghetto, withdrawn from the world. Rather, Christian need to play their part in building a harmonious society. Third, we pray with fellow believers. Prayer is incomplete without praying for forgiveness. On Easter Sunday night, Jesus linked the gift of the Holy Spirit to forgiving or retaining sins (Jn. 20:22-23), so the Catholic Church has developed the sacrament of reconciliation. Any Church that excommunicates members left and right makes a poor impression on outsiders, as does a church with bitter internal divisions.

People are quite perceptive. They notice whether or not the Christians they meet love one another. Fourth, we dialogue respectfully with those of other religions or no religion, for mutual understanding. Fifth, when the time is right, we invite others to come to church with us, study our faith, to believe and to be baptised. Yet sometimes, people are so impressed by the first four points, as in the above case of the priest who did not take revenge on his old enemies, that they will take the initiative, step forward and ask: “How do I become a Catholic?”

Evolving towards greater cooperation and love?

Globalisation is producing an ever more competitive world. While a moderate amount of competition is an antidote to complacency and laziness, cutthroat competition makes for a brutal world. A century-and-a-half-ago, people linked competition in society to the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Yet Social Darwinism is an ideological misreading of biological evolution. It offers a justification for the strong trampling on the weak. People often speak of “competing until one of us dies” pin ge ne si wo huo (拼個你死我活) or in English, “dog eat dog” – which is actually libelous to dogs. In nature, animals often cooperate with others of their kind and they peacefully coexist with many other species. Even carnivores rarely kill more than they can eat. The idea of a war of all against all, of every corporation and nation needing to destroy all rivals or else be killed by them, is a misreading of nature, and a justification for hegemony.

In Catholic circles, there is debate about how to harmonise the evidence for biological evolution with God’s plan for creation. But there is no debate on the need to restrain exploitation of the poor. The Catholic Church has a large body of social teachings for a more just, participatory and sustainable society. We have a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:1-4). Admittedly we are not there yet. We will not have a perfect world before the Lord returns. But we are challenged by a vision of a better society.

China wants to build a more harmonious society, with less conflict, corruption and pollution and with more cooperation, fulfilment and happiness. China also wants to be a constructive partner in a peaceful world, eventually realising the Confucian ideal of Great Harmony, Datong (大同) Wonderful! Yet if life is based on an unending struggle for existence, if the first law of life is “I live, you die,” then what hope do we have for a more harmonious society? A materialistic worldview says that we are here by accident. Alone in the purposeless universe, it is hard to feel at home on this fragile planet and at peace with those around us.

But Christians rejoice in the Risen Lord. In his final hours, Jesus took upon himself not only the disharmony of society but also the spiteful sin of the world. By his cross and resurrection, he offers us forgiveness and enables us to forgive one another. A new fellowship has been born. We are in the church and in the wider world not because of random events but because of God’s love. We do not have a solution to every problem, but we belong here and we have Good News of reconciliation to share. Happy Easter!