China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2016/May

Zacchaeus and China’s religious question

In Luke’s Gospel account there is a story about a man whose encounter with Jesus tickles our imagination (19:1-10).

It took place in Jericho, the oldest known fortified city dating back to 9,000BC. In Jesus’ time, it was a thriving oasis along the important trade routes of the Mediterranean. Herod the Great built his winter palace there. It was cosmopolitan: Cleopatra and Herod quarrelled over the ownership of plantations.

Jesus was walking through the city. But Luke focuses on something else: “Suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance.”

Who was this man? The evangelist describes him as a senior tax collector and wealthy. His wealth bought comfort, but not respect or popularity, for tax collectors were regarded as traitors by the people.

Zacchaeus must have heard about Jesus and was curious about him. But we are told, he “could not see Jesus for the crowd” because he was short in statue.

The name Zacchaeus means pure or innocent. In addition, And there was something childlike about him. Never mind his social station, he climbed a sycamore tree.

There is humour in Luke’s account. When Jesus reached the spot where Zacchaeus was perched, he called out to him as he would to a buddy: “Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.”

How do you break the ice with someone who feels somewhat insecure and who has few friends? Jesus took the unusual step of inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home.

Zacchaeus “hurried down and welcomed him joyfully.” Something is changing in this curious bystander. When the crowd complained that Jesus had “gone to stay at a sinner’s house,” Zacchaeus, his humanity and dignity restored, now stood his ground. Freely, he offered to make amends. He repented.

Zacchaeus said to the Lord, Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.

And Jesus said to him, Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost (Luke 19: 8-10).

Declaration on religious freedom

The Second Vatican Council declaration On the Dignity of the Human Person (Dignitatis Humanae), the landmark document that lays out the Church’s position on religious freedom.

Far from insisting that every state should worship God according to the Catholic religion, the Church has learned to respect human conscience.

Human beings are “endowed with reason and free will, and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility” (2). For that reason, they are bound to seek the truth, especially religious truth – to understand who they are, why they are, who and where God is, and with whom they belong.

Like Zacchaeus, the person who is curious about Jesus is free to come and take a closer look, or walk away (as the rich young man did in the same gospel; when Jesus invited him to come follow him, he was “overcome with sadness for he was very rich” (18:18-23).

Jesus welcomes, but does not impose. Following his example, it is “one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free” (10).

Religious freedom covers not only personal choice, but also religion as a social institution:

The social nature of man… requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion; that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed (3).

The Church emphasises “the just demands of public order” (as opposed to the totalitarian shut-up or shut-down). Where just order is observed, religious communities should be free to “assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction” – for lip-service is not enough, believers have to live their lives according to their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered … in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties (4).

As Pope Francis famously said the Church is not a non-government organisation. Neither is it a ladder upon which the ambitious or the fittest climb.

Religious ministers are responsible for the spiritual growth of believers. Unlike secular leaders, they are chosen and trained not to wield power, but to love, especially those who are nobody. And love transcends all boundaries, including national boundaries.

The separation of religion and state is sometimes interpreted in the most restrictive way, meaning that religion can operate in a temple or a mosque, for instance, but has no place in the public sphere.

Such rigid separation actually weakens society by depriving it of spiritual values that can heal and reconcile. Religious communities should have the right to teach and witness to their faith publicly, provided such activities are not coercive or manipulative.

Members of religious communities are equally members of society. They should bring values of their faith to discuss “what concerns the organisation of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity” (4).     

Basic viewpoint on the religious question

In 1982, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued Document 19: The Basic Viewpoint on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period. It raised the issue of freedom of religious belief.

The state and the party learned it the hard way. Violent purges before and during the Cultural Revolution wiped away not only organised religions, but also human dignity and trust – the bedrock of civil society and economic development.

Document 19 specifically affirms:

.The crux of the policy of freedom of religious belief is to make the question of religious belief a private matter, one of individual free choice for citizens.

.Under socialism, the only correct fundamental way to solve the religious question lies precisely in safeguarding the freedom of religious belief.

.The party’s basic task is to unite all the people (and this includes the broad mass of believers and non-believers alike) in order that all may strive to construct a modern, powerful Socialist state (IV).

.The document upholds the party’s primacy: “religion will not be permitted to meddle in the administrative or juridical affairs of state, nor to intervene in the schools or public education… Nor will religion be permitted to… oppose the party’s leadership or the Socialist system” (IV).

.Patriotic religious organisations “implement the Party’s religious policy”; they are tools for normalising religious activities (VII).

Document 19 underlines the policy’s orthodoxy:

All Party members must clearly understand that the Party’s religious policy is not just a temporary expedient, but a decisive strategy based on the scientific theoretical foundation of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought (XII).

But there was a deference to the Chinese experience. “Only after a long period of history, after many generations have passed… when the Chinese people, on Chinese soil, will have thoroughly rid themselves of all impoverishment, ignorance and spiritual emptiness, and will have become a highly developed civilisation of material and spiritual values” – then, the document projects, there would be no need for religion.

Under new circumstances

On April 22 and 23 this year, a National Religious Work meeting was convened for the first time in 15 years. As general secretary of the party, president of the People’s Republic and chairperson of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping gave a speech that highlighted the importance of religious work:

All levels of party members must increase their competence in handling the religious question, include religious work in their agenda, take to heart the theory and strategy of the party’s religious policy, acquire more basic knowledge about religions… build a strong leadership mechanism to guide, regulate, teach and inspect religious work.

The speech targeted not just officials traditionally charged with religious affairs (the United Front Work Department and the State Administration for Religious Affairs), but all party members. “All relevant offices, unions and people’s organisations, such as the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, China Association for Science and Technology, must together grasp control.”

Xi’s speech took some ideas from Document 19 (“In treating China’s religious relations, we must firmly grasp the leadership of the party, consolidate the party’s rule”; “build a politically reliable, democratic style and efficient religious leaders… who can exert proper influence at critical times”).

But the crux of party policy – freedom of religious belief – received passing reference.

The focus is on “socialist religious theory with Chinese characteristics – under new circumstances.” What are they?

“Resolutely counter foreign infiltration through religious pretexts, beware of religious extremism, pay close attention to Internet religious question.”

The language is strikingly similar to that of new laws being passed, for example, on national security, foreign non-government organisations, charities and cyber-security.

There is a tone of urgency: speed up the Communist agenda. China has made great economic strides since the 1980s. But wealth has not bought security or friendship. China still falls short of the goal of “a highly developed civilisation of material and spiritual values.”

Xi demanded, “Communist members must be firm Marxist atheists… Strengthen the scientific worldview in the ideological formation of youth.”

According to the China Religion Survey 2015, released by Renmin University’s National Survey Research Centre, Islam has the largest number of young believers, with 22.4 per cent of them aged below 30. Catholicism ranks second with 22 per cent. Buddhism has the most followers, but 54.6 per cent are aged over 60.

There are an estimated 100 million Christians in China. Catholics number between nine and 10.5 million. There is a curiosity about the Christian faith, especially among young people.

Jesus says to Zaccheus: “Come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.”

Will China respond by building mightier forts? Or will it choose freely?