The deep black leaves of holly,
the stiff exclaiming pine—
Winter green
which pricks my fingers stickily, mysteriously.
Why, Lord of Life, this severest vestige
of earth’s warm life
left to us in winter?
Do you disapprove the raucous spring,
the rush of summer,
the soft greens growing where they will?
Does winter’s sluggish cold
demand the suitable demeanor
and show its rasping winter-life as warning?
No, Resurrection Lord, No!
It is to show the secret hardihood.
To those who have the gift of life
there is no law of season:
tough curls and rays of green
offer hymns of praise to God
Who never leaves us desolate.

Teng Hsiao-ping’s visit to America has focused attention upon the far-reaching changes taking place in China at this time. Visitors to China before 1978 could never have imagined that the changes of the past few months were possible. Less than two years ago a prominent Christian leader, after returning from China, wrote: “What of the future? One can assume that the leadership of China will hold to its present policy of self-reliance, declining all offers of aid and assistance from mission societies, Peace Corps volunteers, United Nations agencies, and other persons or groups bearing gifts and services. Chinese government representatives in Peking and foreign capitals politely declined offers of help at the time of the earthquake disaster in Tangshan in the summer of 1976. Liberated from a century of humiliating foreign incursions and dependence, the Chinese will not easily surrender their present self-sufficiency.”

The principle of self-sufficiency advocated by Mao Tse-tung has now been laid aside in favor of Teng Hsiao-ping’s drive to modernize China. Instead of struggling against the “Four Olds” of the Cultural Revolution (ideology, customs, habits, culture), the people are now called to unite in a struggle to achieve the “Four Modernizations.” Industry, agriculture, technology, and the armed forces are all to be modernized. To attain this goal the country is being opened to foreign investment, Western technicians and teachers, and tourism. Thousands of Chinese students are preparing to study in the universities of Europe and North America. Huge loans are being negotiated with capitalist countries. Not only engineering firms, but also Coca-Cola and American hotels are being welcomed.

With the normalization of relations between China and the United States it seems certain that there will be increasing opportunities for communication between the two countries. For the first time in many years it is possible to correspond with friends in China. Only a few months ago Westerners living in China complained of the difficulty of making meaningful contacts with Chinese friends. But now, at least in the larger cities, which are visited by tourists, people are eager to talk with those whom the government describes as honored guests.

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In the summer of 1978, on a short trip into the mainland, I was impressed by the people’s friendliness. Young people were delighted when I stopped and talked to them in Chinese. Sometimes I was invited into homes, and interesting conversations developed. There was a keen desire to have contact with the outside world. Having been isolated from it for so long, the Chinese are eager for opportunities to be exposed to ideas and thought patterns that have long been forbidden.

We must, however, realize that tourists and business people visit only a few carefully chosen centers. Our tour group visited one rural commune, which is a showplace for thousands of visitors. The gracious and very gifted deputy head of the commune described the improvements that had been made, and skillfully handled the diverse questions. Heads of families entertained groups of tourists in their homes. This commune was well prepared to give a good impression to their honored guests, but thousands of villages and vast areas of China are hidden from the outside world. A few of those villages will be visited by overseas Chinese, who will receive a much more realistic view of Chinese society.

It is obvious that the people of China are enjoying the relaxation that has come with the opening up of communications with the West. Many are asking if the “Great Leap Outward” may also result in freedom for Christian witness in China.

The reversal of Mao’s policies during the Cultural Revolution has led to a great reduction in the amount of time required for political discussion and self-criticism. This, together with freedom from constant political campaigns (in which Christians were frequently targets of attack), has made life easier for the followers of Christ. Current campaigns are aimed at bringing about modernization of the country and are less concerned with ideological orthodoxy and revolutionary zeal, though a person’s political views still play an important part in determining his or her position in society. The relaxing of pressures against religion has resulted in some Christians being released from prison and labor camps.

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Another hopeful sign for Christians has been the permission given for some selected Western literature to be made available to the people. As publishers from Europe and America tour the country and Western books again appear in the shops it will be less dangerous to be found reading the Bible. A Chinese Christian who had sent two pages of the Bible to a friend in China in 1977 gave me a copy of the notice which his friend received from the local customs office. It simply stated that “as anything detrimental to the political, economic, social and ethical good of the people is not allowed to enter the country, the two pages of the Bible cannot be received. Please tell your friend not to send such materials in the future.” A few months ago an overseas Chinese Christian was taken to the police station because he was found giving out portions of the Scriptures to people in a Chinese city park.

I was told when I was in China that it was dangerous to be found reading the Bible. But now there are signs of change and it is quite possible that the Bible may be regarded as a legitimate piece of Western literature. Chinese journalists returning from a tour in America have reported back home on the important place that the Bible holds in American society. They found it in their hotel rooms and on the desk of the President in the White House.

For the first time since 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, the Institute for Religious Studies in Peking has opened its gates. The director, Jen Chi Yu, told an interviewer that “religious studies helped develop an understanding of history, philosophy, art, literature, and political thinking,” adding that “religion cannot be separated from politics.”

While it may become easier for Christians to read the Bible, that does not mean that the basic government attitude toward religion has changed. Chao Fu San, deputy director of the Institute for Religious Studies and once known as a Christian leader, told a visitor that “Gods arise from fear.” He went on to say that the Chinese no longer need religion since scientific knowledge of nature has brought a better understanding of life and death. “The relationship between man and man has changed in a Socialist society which is not self-centered. Everyone in China today has a purpose in life—to help the revolutionary cause—and no longer has the personal fears of the past.” Many young people who have become extremely disillusioned by the political power struggle of the past twelve years would not accept that optimistic view of life.

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So, in spite of the present trend toward a more liberal attitude, we may well ask whether there will be a place for the Christian faith in modern China. Some believe that there will be a return to the pre-Cultural Revolution policy: “The United Front” will be emphasized, promising freedom to the Christians, and urging that those who believe in God and those who do not should work together in the building of the new China.

The government-sponsored “Three Self Movement,” which was used to control the church up till the time of the Cultural Revolution, has never been completely dismantled. It practically disappeared under the onslaught of the Red Guards, but some of its top leaders were protected. One who has long been a leader of the “Three Self Movement” is the main government spokesman for Christianity in China today. He frequently reminds visitors of the church’s link with Western powers and describes missionaries as “tools of Imperialist aggression.”

In an interview with visitors from America he described Christians in China as decreasing in numbers. He attributed this decline of Christianity first to the Imperialist background of the church and, second, to the fact that, in the past, people went into religion mainly because of suffering. “They wanted to get medical help, education, support. This drew them into the churches. Another reason for people to be religious in those days was the disharmony among families. In the new China the life of the people has improved a great deal.”

When asked “Would you agree that Christianity will die out in China when today’s Christians die?”, he replied “I would not be too surprised if that were to be the case, but I think there are bound to be people, if in small numbers, who with all their political enthusiasm will still believe that it is Christian faith and teaching that will give them answers about ultimate questions. A Christianity which has divested itself of harmful background things can satisfy the needs of these people. But such people will be few. I do not foresee the evangelization of all or even half of China. Protestants are about one-tenth of one percent.”

This leader of the “Three Self Movement” probably knows very little about the hundreds of house churches and small groups of believers who have been meeting secretly. On one occasion he told a visitor that there was no need to bring Bibles into China, the churches had plenty—whereas in fact Bibles are desperately scarce and have to be shared among many people.

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The church in China today has been purified through suffering. Although without church buildings, regular times of worship, or the organizations that we associate with institutional Christianity, the Chinese church continues as the living body of Christ. Rooted in the home and integrated into the family system, it is free from the Western trappings of the past. It is unlikely that Chinese Christians would want to return to the old church buildings.

It is also unlikely that today’s Christians would want to be organized by the “Three Self Movement.” In the 1950s the government used the “Three Self Movement” to introduce political indoctrination into the churches. Many young people became so dissatisfied with the mixture of politics and religion taught by pastors who had been constantly undergoing political training, that they left and joined small house groups which were considered illegal.

According to the constitution of the People’s Republic of China (Article 46), “citizens enjoy the freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion and to propagate atheism.” That freedom of belief, however, is limited to personal belief and does not include freedom to hold meetings for worship or for the propagation of religious beliefs.

During my visit to China, I was told by one of the guides that individuals may believe privately and the government cannot control all that goes on in the home. I shall never forget being greeted by an old man in China with the words, “I am a Christian but I cannot tell anyone.”

On another occasion a young man was explaining to me that although old people might believe in religion, the young people are all Marxists. He went on to say that they did not have any opportunity to study religious faith and then added “We’re free to believe or not to believe.” A few minutes later, however, one who had listened to this conversation came up to me and said “We are not free to believe.” There had been a Bible in his home, but it had been destroyed. He described his sense of frustration and spiritual hunger—which could be satisfied only by Christ.

During the Cultural Revolution, religion was regarded as one of the “Four Olds” to be struggled against. Temples, mosques, and churches were desecrated. The institutional church completely disappeared. I visited a number of church buildings closed or used for other purposes. Only in Peking and Shanghai will the visitor see churches in which services are held (mainly for the benefit of foreigners). Probably similar churches will be opened in other centers in the near future. Although the cross has been removed from church buildings, one is very conscious that the true cross of Jesus is still found in the lives of disciples, many of whom have suffered greatly. One Christian doctor who has now come out of China told me that his city originally had eighteen churches. Under the leadership of the “Three Self Movement” these various congregations were finally consolidated into one church. At the time of the Cultural Revolution this church was also closed and a great bonfire was made up of a thousand Bibles collected from the homes of Christians. YMCA secretaries were made to kneel around the fire, and some who were badly scorched took their own lives. Christians throughout China suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution.

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Last summer I was introduced to a friend who had just come out of China. As soon as he heard my name he recognized me: thirty years ago he was a student attending a conference arranged by the China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. As he told the story of these past thirty years, I realized how costly it had been for him to remain true to his Lord. Because of his active Christian witness he had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Some of his colleagues who greatly respected him because of his professional skills managed to get him released after five years, but with the arrival of the Red Guards he was in trouble again and was sent to hard labor in the country. Through it all he and his wife remained true to their faith in Christ. The violence and excesses committed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution are now repudiated by the present government, and blame is placed upon the influence of the “Gang of Four.”

Before the Cultural Revolution, two schools of thought contended with one another inside the government. One party believed that with adequate atheistic education religion would naturally die out, while the opposition insisted that religion is a poisonous influence in society and must be forcibly suppressed. With the Cultural Revolution the “strong arm tactics” prevailed.

If the government today recognizes that Christians have the right to meet together for worship, the “Three Self Movement” may become more active. One of its leaders says, “The Party thinks that religion itself is bad, but building up Socialist China is a task for all people who can be united in it, and is more important than struggling against religious faith.” Therefore, when the government needs the support of the church or desires to be known as maintaining religious freedom, Christians will face less opposition. They can, however, never be sure that the situation may not change and bring further persecution. There always has been an ebb and flow in the church’s relationship with the government. This was seen in the early days of the Revolution. During the “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign, people were encouraged to speak out, and some criticized the government for oppressing Christians. Later they found themselves in trouble.

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Communism uses different strategies at different times. It has one clear overall goal to which it is striving but there are also limited objectives. Strategies may be changed for pragmatic reasons, in order to achieve one of those limited objectives. Mao Tse-tung believed that religion and dialectical materialism are like fire and water and cannot coexist. Russia was criticized on the grounds that the Soviet Union permitted too much religious freedom and entered into a dialogue with Christianity. But Teng Hsiao-ping sees another limited objective and realizes that, in light of it, it is advisable to allow more freedom for the religious elements in society.

In view of increasing communications between China and Western nations, Christians in North America are asking what they can do to encourage the church in China.

First, we must clearly understand what is taking place there, and the tremendous task that confronts any government of so large a nation. To bring unity and to provide basic material needs for daily living for such a vast population presents greater problems than we can fully imagine. Although the standard of living is still very low, we can be thankful that in most parts of the country people have food to eat.

Second, we need a balanced view of what has happened during these past thirty years under Communism. Glowing reports of an almost perfect society from people who visited carefully prepared situations are now being questioned by more realistic reporting. Crime is still a problem in the cities, and corruption in high places has been reported in the Chinese press. At the same time we should recognize the material progress that has been made and appreciate China’s pride in its independence and freedom from foreign domination. Although the freedom of the individual has been very much curtailed in China, it is also true that the country is not plagued with the extreme individualism and selfishness which characterizes so much of our own society. We must approach our Chinese friends with humility, recognizing the terrible failures and corruption in Western civilization, and willing to listen to their explanation of positive aspects of life in China.

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Chinese journalists and students coming to study in America will be impressed by the high standard of living and personal freedom, but may well be appalled by the decadent life style, wastefulness, selfish individualism, and constant media bombardment of sexual propaganda and stories of violence. At the same time they will find all kinds of religious programs and see churches filled with prosperous people on Sunday. What kind of impression will they receive from Christianity in America?

Awareness of our own failures must not, however, prevent us from seeing the tragedy of a nation seeking to build on a purely materialistic basis, with the rejection of all spiritual values. Freedom to have sufficient to eat and wear is not enough; there must be freedom from the bondage of thought control. A closed system destroys creative thinking and imprisons the mind, not allowing even the possibility of other world views, to say nothing of the existence of deity outside of man himself.

The idealism behind the frequently quoted slogan “Serve the People” can easily be destroyed in power struggles and conflicts between various factions such as those that followed the death of Mao Tse-tung. Secular humanism, on which China today is seeking to build her society, so often confuses technical ability with moral capacity. In the end, it finds that the selfishness of the human heart is the greatest obstacle to success.

As Christians we must be deeply concerned to see the spread of the gospel of Christ throughout China. We recognize the overruling hand of God in the history of these past years and we affirm his love for all the peoples of China. God uses non-Christian governments to fulfill his purposes. But we also hold fast to the conviction that salvation is in Christ alone and it is through the church that the manifold wisdom of God is to be made known (Eph. 3:10).

Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations is binding on the church today and requires our obedience. That does not necessarily mean a return to the methods of the past. The door is not open to foreign missionaries. It is open to Chinese Christians. Christians from other nations who enter China as businesspeople, technologists, teachers, or students can display the love of Christ through humble service and witness to their friends and colleagues. Whatever steps are taken to help the church in China must be taken at the request of Chinese Christians. To help in the preparation of radio programs and literature we need men and women who have a thorough understanding of Chinese culture and the thought patterns of the people of modern China. They will have to understand the prejudices against Christianity resulting from the fact that more than half of China’s population has lived all their lives under Communism. From kindergarten they have been taught to struggle against Imperialism. On the first day of our visit to China we went to the museum. While the guide gave a talk in English, I wandered around reading Chinese explanations of the exhibits. Under a picture of a mission hospital was the statement that “the missionary came not because he loved the people nor wanted to heal them, but because he wanted to manipulate them for his own political ends.”

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Chinese students who come to study in America may express amazement that intelligent people should still have religious faith. They have been taught that, on the basis of scientific materialism, religious superstitions have been proved false and are quite irrelevant to the new Modern society. If, however, they are invited into Christian homes they may see the reality of faith in the lives of those whom they may come to love and respect.

Often these opportunities to witness to international students are missed by Christians who express great interest in foreign missions. A Chinese friend told me a few days ago about another Chinese student who some years ago became very bitter against America. After taking his Ph.D. in engineering he was refused permission to travel to mainland China. My friend, with whom he counseled, urged him to get to know Christians. He visited an American church, but they thought he was a laundryman and suggested he go to the Chinese church. Later while attending a conference in Europe he slipped away to Switzerland and made arrangements to go to China. He returned to his own country with a deep prejudice against Christianity and wrote an article in one of the leading newspapers criticizing American Christians. He had found, however, that his mother was a devout believer in Christ. When he was sent by the government to Africa his mother begged him to bring her back a Bible. Being constantly surrounded by other Chinese, it was very difficult for him to inquire about a Bible. One day, however, he entered an African food shop and saw some Christian literature on the table. He asked the proprietor if he could get him a Chinese Bible. This Christian man promised to try, but on his return the next day the owner of the shop told him he could not find one. Rather, he gave him one in English, suggesting he translate portions of it for his mother. He did this when he returned to China, and, as a result, became a Christian himself.

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Another Chinese with a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry had a completely different experience. It was through a Christian family in America that he became a Christian. After attending several Inter-Varsity conferences he felt he must return to his family in China. In his last letter to me, written just before reaching Shanghai, he quoted the words of Paul, “but I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” … “It does not matter,” he said, “whether I live for six weeks or six years, if only I may finish the task given to me by my Lord.” If we are to share his vision and finish the work committed to us, we need to give ourselves to prayer for China.

China today presents the greatest challenge that the church of Jesus Christ has faced in all its long history. Over nine hundred million Chinese, almost one quarter of the world’s population, constitute the world’s largest bloc of unevangelized people.

China is not a closed country. The hearts of Chinese Christians scattered throughout the land are open to heaven, and the Spirit of God continues to work in and through their lives. But their witness is given in the midst of great difficulties. Except in the case of some Islamic nations and smaller communist states, no other country has been so closed to the gospel of Christ as China. Now that doors are opening for more communication with the West, churches outside of China should respond to these new developments by forming “study-prayer groups” through which they will seek to understand the situation in China and give spiritual support to Chinese fellow members of the body of Christ. God’s purpose, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” has not changed. It includes China.

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