Between the demands of Christ and Caesar: A review of God is Red
Unlike its Abrahamic cousins, Christianity have an ambiguous relationship with the state. Indeed its founding was precipitated by the Roman Empire crucifying its founder while the early Christians faced persecution by the Empire. Even after becoming the official religion of the Empire, the altar remained separated from the throne although both worked closely together. And there have been times when some within the Church who voiced unease about this close relationship.Indeed throughout the history of Christianity, this pattern have always been repeated.
Perhaps this unease have to do with the collective memory of the Church where Jesus was crucified by the Romans and the persecution of the early Church. Perhaps it have to do with the fact that Jesus himself holds an ambiguous relationship with the earthly powers of his day.
As a result, there is a variety of positions within the Church with regards the relationship between the Church and state. This in turn is complicated by the historical circumstance which the Church finds itself in. For example, all Western states takes for granted that it will not interfere in the business of the Church. Nonetheless, this position is not taken by all post-colonial states as in the case of China.
Since the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the Communist state have always taken the position religion falls under its jurisdiction. With regards to churches, they are regulated by the state through the Three-Self Patriotic Church. Churches that falls outside the ambit of the state is not tolerated and are constantly harassed and its followers arrested. Yet these churches (Protestants and Catholics) are flourishing despite the constant surveillance and repression by the state.
Why is this so? This is the question which Liao Yiwu, a dissident activist who is not a Christian himself, attempts to answer in his book “God is Red.” The book contains narratives of ordinary Christians from the official and dissident churches on why they hold on to the faith.
Almost all the stories being told here touch on the tumultuous period of the early years of the Communist Party imposing its rule over the land which saw the door being showed to foreign missionaries in the nation as well as the persuasion and coercion of Chinese Christians to either abandon their faith or accept the Party’s primacy over their heavenly master.
Through the narratives in the book, we find different responses to the demands of the Party. Inevitably, some abandoned their faith but others struggled to preserve it either by agreeing to accept the Party’s right to direct the church or struggling to keep the state out of the church. Perhaps, the most moving part of all the narrators here is their personal struggle to stay true to what it means to be a Christian in the historical context which they find themselves in.
Although all the narrators here claimed they have no interest in politics, yet a political subtext runs deeps in each narrative. In their own way, each narrator struggles with the question of how do we reconcile the demands of Caesar with that of Christ? Should one draw a line in the sand and says with Luther “Hier stehe ich” (Here I stand) or should one obey authority as Christ commanded: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is to God’s” (Mark 12:17).
Almost all the narrators here lived through the Mao era and its tumultuous history. Each story is heartbreaking and yet surprisingly give hope that faith can survive the harshest of environment.
It would be interesting to see the kind of political theology that comes out of China in the near future. How will Christians respond to the demands of the state while remaining true to Christ?
More importantly, I believe the significance of this book for Christians who live in Asia, we need to look not to our traditional Northern brethren but Latin American, African and Asian brethren for answer. Perhaps a good place to start is South Korea where the authoritarian conditions there sparked the creation of Minjung theology which was inspired by the Liberation Theology of South America or even South Africa as the church responded to apartheid.