China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Jul

Orderly ritual versus uninhibited religion

Every year on Teachers’ Day (September 28) at major Confucian temples (孔子廟), 64 dancers in ancient yellow costumes celebrate the birthday of The Sage. The music is slow and solemn, closer to Gregorian chant than to jazz. The gestures are carefully rehearsed, not improvised and the tempo is that of an extremely slow waltz, not the frenzy of breakdancing. What does this tell us about the self-control and discipline of traditional Chinese society?

People associate Daoism (道教) with detachment from urban society, contemplation of natural beauty, and an inner journey towards harmony and long-life. True enough, but the Yellow Turban Rebellion (黄巾之亂) of 184AD provides a glaring counter-example. The corrupt Han Dynasty (漢朝) was overtaxing the peasants. Daoist faith healers preached the coming of a new era and launched an unsuccessful rebellion.

Buddhism gets favourable media coverage in China today. In an overly competitive, stressful and money-hungry society, millions of people are turning to Buddhist meditation and scripture for serenity and peace. Outside of Tibet, Buddhist monks and nuns are highly detached from political issues. Yet when it first arrived from India via central Asia, Buddhism was viewed with suspicion as a foreign faith and celibacy was denounced as deeply unfilial.

And Christianity? Officially recognised Catholic and Protestant Churches preach good citizenship, faithful service to both Caesar and God, and serving the nation on its path of scientific development. The number of believers had been growing rapidly for the past decade, but now it seems that membership is reaching a plateau. Migrant labourers from the countryside are finding too many temptations and frustrations in the cities, and many are quietly drifting away from the faith of their parents.

Noisy and ecstatic believers

However, other Christians are anything but quiet. The True Jesus Church was founded in Beijing in 1917. This Pentecostal Church made its first converts in Taiwan in 1926 and is now found wherever there are overseas Chinese.

Watchman Nee’s Little Flock was founded and grew as an all-Chinese denomination, without any foreign missionaries or funding.

By 1949, the Little Flock claimed 300,000 members. Believing that Jesus Christ is the direct head of every local church, the Little Flock would not submit to government leadership, especially not that of an atheistic state. Huge doctrinal differences led other Christians to label the Little Flock as unorthodox or even a cult and its members refused to join the Protestant Three-Self Movement of the 1950s. So it was severely suppressed.

Driven underground, the new denominations splintered. Some offshoots mutated, picked up bits and pieces of Chinese folk religion, and became syncretic. By the 1990s, local and even national religious and security officials were sounding alarms about the Shouters, White Sun, Holistic Church, Crying Faction, and Eastern Lightning.

Emotional and enthusiastic religion appeals to some people. Not every believer feels satisfied sitting still in a pew, listening passively to a homily, and singing a couple of old hymns. Jumping up and down, waving arms, shouting “Amen! Alleluia!” speaking in tongues, and even fainting from emotion delights some believers as much as it frightens Public Security.

Uninhibited circulation of bibles

In April and May 2000, Li Guangqiang of Hong Kong, tried to smuggle 33,000 bibles into China by boat. They were intended for the Shouters, an unorthodox Christian sect and an offshoot of the Little Flock. Li made his first trip with 16,000 bibles without any problem whatsoever, but he failed miserably in his second attempt to deliver the remaining 17,000.

Li was arrested and soon found himself confronted with the possibility of facing the death penalty for his crime. According to the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Li’s crime was “using an evil cult to damage a law-based society.”

Why was bringing bibles into China such a horrendous crime when they are well stocked in China’s bookstores and millions of copies have already been sold with government approval? The answer is simple. The version that Li was smuggling was not one approved by Chinese authorities. It did not have the imprimatur or the approval of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, nor that of the Three-self Patriotic Movement.

Li’s particular edition bore certain characteristics that were neither Chinese nor Christian. It was the Recovery Version New Testament published by the Living Stream Ministry. The footnotes in the smuggled bibles claim that Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Judaism are all organisations used by the devil as a tool against God. The Shouters strongly condemn all religions except their own.

The bibles served as a cover to import literature for the Shouters’ cult into China. Bowing to international pressure, China eventually dropped the idea of executing Li Guangqiang and instead sentenced him to two years in prison.

In an unrelated case, bookstore owner, Shi Weihan, was arrested in November 2007 for distributing bibles without a license. The problem in his case had to do with “illegal business practices” – a bookstore can only sell books which have a government registration number. That Shi had been giving the bibles away, not selling them, was not accepted in his defence, and he was later sentenced to three years in prison and fined heavily.

The charge heretical cult did not figure in Shi’s court case. Perhaps his real offence was distributing bibles without informing officials where they were going. China still has a fear of the rise of religion in general. Officials are exceptionally wary of any movement that they do not have under their eyes and in their total control.

One prominent cult: the Shouters

Who are the Shouters for whom Li Quangqiang was willing to put his life on the line? Also referred to as the Yellers, their origins are somewhat unclear. Some maintain that they were founded by a certain Li Changshou, who had broken away from The Little Flock. Li had founded Churches in Taiwan and even one in the United States of America (US). As early as 1967, Li initiated yelling as an essential part of the religious service.

The yelling, or mantra-like shouting, was to be interpreted as a sign of sorrow for sin and a public confession of sinfulness. His aim by 1978, was to infiltrate China with his unique religious ideas. He directed his two envoys to contact Christians. They brought tapes and a tape recorder. The contents of the tapes carried Li Changshou’s religious doctrines. The men soon gathered a following that went out two by two preaching this new doctrine. In the process, they set themselves up against the established Protestant Church that followed The Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM).

By 1983 the Shouters had made spectacular inroads into several provinces and gained a goodly number of adherents. Several years ago they boasted a membership of some 500,000. This made them one of the fastest growing underground Protestant Churches in China. The sect’s strange ecclesiology managed not only to arouse the fear and anger of the communist government, but it set the sect on a direct collision course with the mainstream Protestant Churches that follow the established TSPM and the religious policies of the government.

By 1982, the Shouters were causing a great deal of trouble, especially in Zhejiang (浙江). The Public Security Bureau declared them illegal and counter-revolutionary. Some followers were arrested, but later released. In 1983, the Religious Affairs Bureau notified all Churches to resist the Shouters. In 1995, the government again banned them as “an evil cult and an aberrant religious organisation.”

The charismatic founder and his Shouters

Li Changshou, is the Shouters’ acknowledged founder. He is no ordinary guru. His followers have elevated him to a kind of divine status, one that even seems to surpass that of Jesus. His influence has been nothing short of total. His death in California in 2002 has only intensified the ardour of the adherents.

What makes the Shouters so controversial is their outlandish notions of the world and of other religions. Some, it has been reported, give up working altogether since they believe that the coming of the Lord is imminent. Some consider everything to be evil except prayers and worship services. They yell out a condensed original version of the Lord’s Prayer. Since the Age of the Word is past, it is now the Age of the Spirit. The Spirit will be released into the world by shouting out the name of the Lord.

The members of the sect resist anything that they see as the world and shun human relationships. They break bread together in communion, and women always cover their heads when attending meetings. Shouters developed doctrines and concepts completely different from those of all other Christians. They do not pray in the name of Jesus, nor do they believe that Jesus was the Son of God until after his resurrection.

Shouting at the top of their lungs, they launched personal attacks against ordinary Protestants. They disrupted regular Christian activities and upset public order. They violently attacked other Christian Churches, while threatening to bring them down by shouting like Joshua in the Battle of Jericho (Judges 6).

The drawback to banning a movement

When cults like the Shouters are driven underground, it becomes harder for China to keep a watchful eye on them and their activities.

As underground groups of all kinds began to flourish, someone exclaimed, “These groups are the government’s worst nightmare, since they operate beyond the arm of the government.” Once discovered, however, the long arm of the Public Security Bureau has ways of reaching out to the adherents. That arm can go a long way towards helping people break away from cults, resist their control and influence, and persuade people to obey the state law.

The Second Coming of Jesus is subversive

The Apostles’ Creed contains a subversive line: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Why is this belief a threat to anyone? If Jesus will come soon, then the Party does not have 10,000 years to perfect socialism and to create heaven on unearth. Jesus is a foreigner. Who is Jesus to interfere in China’s internal affairs and pass judgment on the People’s Government?

Not much has been heard about these groups in the past five years. Have they been thoroughly suppressed, or are they fading away because of their own internal contradictions?

When preachers predict the Second Coming of Christ “any day now,” and the world goes on as usual, their flocks diminish. For example, on 22 October 1844, tens of thousands of people in the US stayed awake until midnight to see Jesus return. The next day, they spoke of the Great Disappointment and their neighbours laughed at them.

The US government took no steps in 1844 to censor news of the pending return of Jesus, nor did it arrest any of the preachers involved.

Over 1,800 years earlier, Gamaliel urged the Sanhedrin to ignore a new religious movement focussed on Jesus of Nazareth. “So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go. For if this endeavour or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.” (Acts 5:38)