Day 3: God Is Not in China

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

China has an interesting relationship with religion. As far as the government is concerned, atheism is the official religion of the People's Republic and most people don't believe in God—so it's not even that culturally insensitive to call the Chinese a bunch of godless heathens. After all, God isn't the effusive staple in China as it is in America, evidenced by our national currency and our “one nation, under God”-state of allegiance. That notwithstanding, however, the Chinese constitution does state that its citizens are free to practice any religion they choose. What it neglects to mention is that this so-called “freedom of religion” only exists so long as the government still gets to decide what does and does not pass for appropriate.

Recently, a group of 35 students were arrested and taken into custody by the Taigu police after getting caught reading the Gospels in a rented hotel room in SAU's North Yard. All of the students were tried and forced to pay a hefty penalty as punishment in addition to vowing no longer to continue practicing Christianity on campus. Apparently, this sort of practice is not uncommon. Though theoretically by law all people have the right to worship their own God, there is a loop-hole in the constitution—churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues need to get explicit permission from the government to hold religious services. All non-state sponsored forms of religion are strictly forbidden in China. Without certification from the state, they are operating unlawfully and punishable by the full force of the law. As an individual, simply owning a Bible can be grounds for police intervention.

Exhibit A: a bilingual Bible.

It's interesting, then, the culture that has unwittingly been built around religion. Students throw around “Oh my God” at least as much as we foreigners do, and in skits and performances for class, there is almost always a redemptive scene where someone goes to Heaven to ask God for advice. Favoring the generally safer topic of religious difference, I have never explicitly taught religion in class, fearing what may come of me and the school's relationship with Shansi if word got out to the higher-ups. So I was surprised when Rafe, one of my students from last year, approached me after class one day, curious to learn more about Christianity. Though I read most of the New Testament in 6th grade, I must confess that I haven't picked up the (good) book since. But knowing that my roommate James is a practicing Christian, I directed Rafe in his direction.

I don't think it would be giving too much away to say that my Chinese tutor is also Christian. He and James have held Bible studies (albeit, secretly) at the house and have been to the state-sanctioned church in town. James doesn't go very often, sighting the heavy amount of propaganda, and, most discouragingly, the constant hawking and spitting in the pews during services. It would appear that even the House That God Built wasn't ready for China. Recently, another former student of mine, Fred, asked to borrow his Bible, and James relented, swearing Fred to secrecy as he did Rafe. Two weeks later, Fred returned late one night with the Bible in tow.
Fred: “James, I wanted to return your Bible.”
James: “It's alright Fred, you can return it to me tomorrow.”
Fred: “No, I've kept it for too long, I want to give it to you now.” Beat. “I've read it.”
James: “Read it? You mean, like, all of it?”
Fred: “Yes.” Beat. “I have some questions to ask you.”

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