New Temptations for North Korean Christians

I recently did an interview with VOM Radio. The folks at Church in Chains  transcribed part of it. Much of this information I haven’t previously shared. Please receive it as guidance for your faithful year-end prayers on behalf of our North Korean brothers and sisters. As I note below, North Korean Christians are facing new, even more challenging temptations, no matter whether they live in Seoul, Pyongyang, Russia, or China.

 

Q. How have things changed for underground North Korean Christians?

A. There really hasn’t been any change for underground North Korean Christians or for most people in North Korea. The peace talks are not at all related to their daily situation. God has raised up a church in North Korea of about 100,000 believers; 30,000 of them are in concentration camps. Our responsibility is to be one body with that church. There is no political deal that can be made that entitles us biblically to sever ourselves from the body of Christ that God has raised up in North Korea.

Q. Has the peace process been affecting your work of VOM Korea?

A. In the 17 years since my wife and I founded VOM Korea this was by far the hardest year. Our situation has become so challenging in South Korea, because everything we do, as the South Korean government says, “fouls the air for peace”. We have always considered that everything that we do is unpolitical. But keep in mind that in 2014 the North Korean government responded to the UN annual report related to religious freedom by calling what missionaries do “acts of terror”. As the South Korean government tries to make peace with North Korea we become people who are associated with known terrorists. These are underground believers who, according to the North Korean government, are actively seeking to undermine the government in North Korea. So this year we faced active opposition to our work on a daily basis from not only North Korea, not only China, but from our own government in South Korea. The forecast is that things won’t get better, but will get harder.

Q. What is the greatest need of the church inside North Korea?

A. The first is to pray for the Lord to strengthen it in its current isolation. North Korean underground Christians are more isolated at this moment than they ever have been. The Chinese church for the most part has broken off relations with the North Korean church because of China’s own crackdown and the religious regulations that took effect in February.

Second, I don’t think we will see a change in the human rights situation. I think what we will see is a Chinese style move to capitalism and many in the West will breathe a sigh of relief and say: “Ah, wherever capitalism goes, the church is going to have an easier time.” Someone forgot to tell the Chinese Christians that because they are living in a world of hurt.

The challenge we see is North Korean Christians who were tortured for Christ inside of North Korea and who, when they come to South Korea, literally every single one of them, is struggling in their faith. When they have come into a situation of prosperity, they feel pressure to work, to make money for their family back in North Korea, they get caught up in the things of the world. Interestingly what they have said to me is: “When we were being beaten, we could withstand that because we had an inner strength. Now it’s the inner strength that is being attacked because we are feeling these temptations. Temptations to focus on money and saying that ‘I have to be the one to provide for my family and my relatives.’” All of these things are of course true, but Satan has a way to working those temptations up inside of us.

It’s an odd prayer request, but we are trying to help North Korean Christians to be prepared for facing economic prosperity. Unfortunately that is often held up as a God and they can participate in those things to the degree that they are loyal to the government. It is a bit of a “mark of the beast” action going on. South Korean Christians are giving economic opportunity that is being mediated to the North Korean people through the North Korean government. The North Korean government is saying that if you participate in the Juche ideology, you can have access to these things. This is a whole new set of challenges for North Korean believers.

Pray for North Korean Christians in their isolation, pray for them in their temptation. Pray for them in these “mark of the beast” moments, that they will remain faithful. They are still being beaten externally and I don’t see that changing any time soon. But pray that as a new set of temptations dawns on them, this will not overwhelm them.

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The True Sinicization of John Ross and the Counterfeit Sinicization of the Chinese Communist Party

Today the Chinese government is officially working to“Sinicize” Christianity. This kind of Sinicization is best defined as “the program of forced assimilation of religions to Chinese culture, which includes submission to the Chinese Communist Party.”[i]

But for more than a millennium before the Communist Party of China began their project, Western missionaries like John Ross had already been “Sinicizing” Christianity. At issue, of course, is what is meant by Sinicization. The future of Chinese Christianity and global Christianity (since China will soon be home to the largest number of Christians of any country in the world) will be shaped by which understanding and method of Sinicization the global church comes to accept.

The Christian faith is, by definition, always a contextualized faith. In the words of Yale Professor of Missions and World Christianity Lamin Sanneh, “Christianity could avoid translation only like water avoiding being wet.”[ii] There is not even an “original” Christian language, since most likely the founder—Jesus—spoke a different language than the one in which his words were originally recorded. All of the expressions of the Christian faith—the Bible, the prayers, the worship songs, the commandments—are always expressed in vernacular. When Jesus comes to us, he comes speaking our language.

As translators know, translation is never a mechanical process. Translation is theology. Even the decision to translate is theological. In our own Voice of the Martyrs Korea ministry to North Koreans, we use the North Korean dialect Bible. We prefer it to the much more established and widespread South Korean one because North Koreans listen with greater attention and respond with greater passion when Jesus sounds like them. John Ross chose popular over scholarly language for the same reason when he completed the first translation of the New Testament into Korean. When we work with the minority tribes in China, we use the Bible in their tribal language whenever it is available. Decisions like this are consistent with the Bible’s proclamation: The Word becomes flesh. And the word doesn’t just become any flesh, but becomes the most common and ordinary flesh available—our own. The Word speaks like a tax collector, a prostitute, a sinner. That is the only language we know, and Christ is gracious to speak it.

The Chinese government portrays their new program of Sinicization as a new and significant step in the transformation of Chinese Christianity. But the fact is, the only kind of Christianity China has ever known is Sinicized Christianity. There never was a “baseline” form of the Christian faith from which minor adaptations could have been made in order to have introduced Christianity to China in the first place. Even when Western Christianity was the dominant expression of the faith, there was not even such a thing as “Western Christianity” but rather only Western Christianities. Even within a seemingly monolithic expression of the faith like Roman Catholicism, Jesuits and Franciscans engaged in spreading very different conceptions of faith (and even within these orders there were significant differences regarding even the basics of the faith, e.g., whether Chinese Christians would be permitted to worship their ancestors).[iii] This does not even begin to consider the differences between Nestorianism and Catholicism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Protestantism and Pentecostalism, each of which presented Christ with a considerably different accent to the Chinese people.

If anything, missionaries were more likely to contribute to the Sinicization of Christianity than the Westernization of China. As Sanneh notes,

Often the outcome of vernacular translation was that the missionary lost the position of being the expert. But the significance of translation went beyond that. Armed with a written vernacular Scripture, converts to Christianity invariably called into question the legitimacy of all schemes of foreign domination—cultural,political and religious. Here was an acute paradox: the vernacular Scriptures and the wider cultural and linguistic enterprise on which translation rested provided the means and occasion for arousing a sense of national pride, yet it was the missionaries—foreign agents—who were the creators of that entire process. I am convinced that this paradox decisively undercuts the alleged connection often drawn between missions and colonialism. Colonial rule was irreparably damaged by the consequences of vernacular translation—and often by other activities of missionaries. [iv]

Eloquent testimony to that truth is found in John Ross’ Mission Methods in Manchuria. Ross’ recounting of his missionary philosophy and the methods used in his work reminds us that even at the height of the humiliation of China by Western powers, Christian missionaries were not humiliators bent on the forcible submission of Chinese converts to some purported superior Western wisdom. As Ross writes,

We should never legislate, or introduce measures which are binding, where the Chinese conscience is not trained to follow us. Under such circumstances legislation is worse than useless, for it adds deceit to neglect of the command. The Chinaman is intensely practical; and if he does not clearly see the necessity for or the duty of doing or leaving undone anything, he will not do or leave undone simply because we may think it right.

There are several external observances which we think important, but whose importance is not evident to the Chinese. When these are of serious consequence, the Chinese must be continually instructed till they perceive the duty. They should never be compelled to act in a certain way merely because it is the will of the foreigner. Coercion is unwise. True religion is ever voluntary and hearty. Whatever is opposed to this makes religion a bondage and a burden. Obedience to a purely arbitrary rule, whose living principle does not evoke a corresponding response in an enlightened conscience, is of no moral value. Nay, is it not true that “whatever is not of faith is sin”? Faith, to be worthy of the name, must be intelligent. It is worthy of the name only when the man is “fully convinced in his own mind.”[v]

 In reading Mission Methods in Manchuria, it becomes clear that Ross had no interest in Westernizing Chinese culture. His focus was not on Chinese culture at all. Instead, his focus was on ordinary Chinese men and women, whom he longed to see transformed in Christ. In this, he was probably more typical of missionaries of his time than extraordinary. In Sanneh’s words, missionaries “made field criteria rather than the values of empire-building their operative standard.”[vi] Missionaries may have ridden gun boats and trading vessels into foreign ports but did so as a matter of expediency, not patriotism.

This did not mean that national differences were inconsequential to Ross. He clearly neither sought nor expected the Chinese Church to become culturally homogeneous with the Western Church. In fact, as Sanneh notes, “Christian missions expanded and deepened pluralism—in language, social encounter and ethnic participation in the Christian movement. Missions helped to preserve languages that were threatened by a rising lingua franca.”[vii] It is ironic that the Communist Party of China undertakes the “Sinicization” of Christianity purportedly to cleanse Christianity of its Western cultural cast while simultaneously enforcing a nationalist Chinese cultural cast upon its minority populations. It is a level of national partisanship that Western missionaries of John Ross’ time would have found wholly inappropriate and ineffective.

In only one area did Ross believe it was important for Chinese converts to become more like the Western missionaries who taught them; namely, Christ-likeness. He writes herein, “[I]n everything affecting the moral character and conduct their mind will become more and more assimilated to ours the more thoroughly it becomes leavened by the spirit of the teachings of Jesus.”[viii] It is a sentiment that derives not from Western imperialism but from the nature of the Christian faith itself. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Thus, the measuring stick of the missionary is not whether their work results in greater Westernization or Sinicization but whether through it people of every nation, tribe, and tongue are saved.

Herein lies the difference between true Sinicization of Christianity advanced by John Ross, and its counterfeit advanced by the Communist Party of China. The true Sinicization seeks neither to advance nor to retard the goals of the Chinese government but instead seeks only to advance individual men and women on the road to Christ. The counterfeit Sinicization of Christianity seeks to domesticate Christianity, to make it one more road that leads to the same destination: The so-called Chinese Dream of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. But a domesticated Christianity cannot save individual men and women from sin, and a Christianity that cannot save individual men and women from sin is no Christianity at all.

Christians are called to submit to those in authority over them, but not to conflate the goals of those authorities with the purpose of Christ. It is true that Christians are often better citizens, but this is not because we are more mindful of politics but because we are less so. With minds leavened by the spirit of the teachings of Jesus, we become less focused on ourselves and more focused on loving our neighbors. It is neighbor-love, not nation-love, that makes us better citizens. John Ross’ Mission Methods in Manchuria shows us what that looks like in practice. It is a practice that varies little with time and is thus as challenging and relevant today as it was when it was written.

 


[i] AsiaNews.IT, “The fruits of sinicization: worshiping the ‘god’ Xi Jinping,” AsiaNews.IT. Accessed November 24, 2018 at http://www.asianews.it/news-en/The-fruits-of-sinicization:-worshiping-the-‘god’-Xi-Jinping-45496.html.

[ii]Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 99.

[iii]Cf. David H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), especially Chapters 1 and 2.

[iv] Lamin Sanneh, “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” Religion Online. Accessed November 22, 2018 at https://www.religion-online.org/article/christian-missions-and-the-western-guilt-complex/).

[v]John Ross, Missionary Methods in Manchuria (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1908), p. 131.

[vi] Lamin Sanneh, “Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex,” Religion Online. Accessed November 22, 2018 at https://www.religion-online.org/article/christian-missions-and-the-western-guilt-complex/).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]John Ross, Missionary Methods in Manchuria (Edinburgh: Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, 1908), p. 131.

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If you happen to run into me 35+ years ago, deliver this letter from me to me

If there is anyone who can’t plausibly take any credit whatsoever for their salvation–even for their purported “decision” to follow Christ, or for cooperating with Christ in any helpful way in the wake of that decision–it would be me.

I have previously written a little (and with equally little insight, I might note) about my coming to Christ:

When I was saved in my late teens, I turned to the person who had just led me through the sinner’s prayer and asked, “So what do I do now?”

My guide replied, “Well, that’s the great thing: You don’t need to do anything.”

Though I knew nothing about Christ or Christianity at that moment, I intuited that my guide’s answer was likely true but trivially so. However, after 35+ years of reflecting on these “baby’s first words” of my Christian life, I have concluded that it was actually my own intuition that was trivially true, while the words my guide spoke were spoken from the mouth of Christ himself.

Therefore, if you happen to run into me 35+ years ago, and you see me sitting across from my guide at precisely the moment the above conversation took place, please deliver this letter from me to me:

Dear Me,

Congratulations! You have just discovered what will become the title of your spiritual biography and the theme verse for your life: “So what do I do now?” This conversational exchange–your question and Craig’s reply–the very first utterances of your Christian life–you will never move beyond. You will continue to ask that question and hear that answer for 35+ years. At that point you may begin to understand it. And that will prompt you to ask the question again, as if for the first time. And you will hear the answer as if for the first time, too.

First, some news that will be most difficult for you to hear: Everything you will misunderstand and mishandle in your life (which–and don’t let this be a cause for alarm for you–will be most of it) will be will be rooted in your misunderstanding of this conversation with Craig.

But here is good news: Everything that will ultimately come to blossom in your life will likewise be rooted in this conversation, too. And not because of your understanding but in spite of it, because of the grace of God.

Essentially, the meaning you intend behind your question about what to do next is this: “OK, I got Step One of the Christian life right. Now what is Step Two?”

And essentially Craig is answering, “There is nothing for you to contribute to your salvation. Christ did the whole thing. Your part is just to receive it, be grateful for it, and trust in it.”

Even in your limited understanding and patience, you know that this is true. And yet you are also right to intuit that Craig is omitting a few of the more important parts.

But that’s hardly his fault. The most profound things we are ever given by God to say to other people are things that we don’t even have the faintest clue what they will really ultimately come to mean; they are God’s words, planted in the middle of our mundane human sentences like divine land mines designed to go off only in the midst of trespasses decades hence. (Yes, God really is like that.)

What you are missing at the moment is this: In entering the waters of baptism you have exited your own life and been welcomed into Christ’s. This does not mean that you have forfeited your autonomy. But your initiating action will not serve you well from here on out.

I mean, really not serve you well.

Let me be clear: Everything you undertake–from your college to your seminary to your first marriage to your employment to your church service to many of your most treasured relationships–will not turn out as you want. And I don’t just mean that these things will turn out differently but successfully. To say it plainly, flatly, you will fail beyond anything you can presently conceive. And by fail, I mean, fail miserably and painfully.

That is because the Christian life is all about our giving up the right to know and initiate Step Two. And our efforts to anticipate each next step and bring it to pass, these Christ is not obligated to honor, no matter how noble and rightly ordered our initiative may appear to be. (Our initiative only appears noble and rightly ordered to us because our hearts are deceitful above all things. Christ is under no such delusion about us and cannot afford to be.)

But take heart: The words of your question itself are strikingly correct, even if the frame of reference (and thus all of what you will undertake accordingly) is cockeyed. Walking on the road to the Cross with Christ will necessarily adjust your frame of reference so that you may come to understand that “So what do I do now?” means that Christ has initiated an action in your life that is so unusual, so alien to all you have known, that you have no human way to respond. Grace, in other words, does not enable responsible human action. It disables it altogether.

And so, welcome to the Christian life. Christ will continue to initiate unprecedented (and, by any human measure, especially yours, often quite undesirable and unwanted) actions moment by moment for the rest of your life.

And I do not mean that he will do this occasionally, at the major crossroads in your life. And I further do not mean that he has commenced to do this now that you are a Christian. I mean that Christ, the Lord and Creator of the world, has been doing this since the moment you were born, and he will do so until the moment you die. In becoming a Christian, you did not initiate a process. You simply stopped kicking against the goads.

It is called The Way of The Cross: Christ, the master carpenter, applying to your life in all its minutiae and ordinariness the sole tool in his toolbox, namely, his Cross.

For vast stretches of your life he will be undertaking “detail work”, which involves his virtually undetectable cutting away tiny flecks of flesh that you may not even notice and will hardly consider consequential until much later, but which will prove surprisingly crucial to his overall design. At other times he will swing that cross straight into your torso like the un-peaceful sword he warned he came to wield, and you will beg for him to stop, or at least slacken the pace so that you can mop up a little of the blood.

At times he will cut away things that you will be delighted for him to cut away–things like illness and sin and all that uncomfortably hems you in. At other times he will cut away things that will have you swear (literally) that he is going much too far, much farther than certainly God ought to go. He will unceremoniously turn into sawdust all that you hold to be good about you, and all that you believe to be good about life. Despite your protestations, he will continue to cut, and dig, and pierce. And you will not be consulted or consoled by him on any of it.

This is why about halfway between where you are and where I am now, in an effort to encourage yourself through the onset of difficult times, you will write down on a yellow lined notepad everything you know to be good about yourself, and every good thing you are on the way to accomplishing, and every good thing about life. And then one by one, in a matter of months, you will in absolute amazement strike through each item, and all that will be left of you are the strike-throughs, and near-overwhelming embarrassment, sadness, and fear.

And then the question you are asking today will finally be able to be asked from the right framework: So what do I do now?

And then Craig’s words to you will become Christ’s words at last: You don’t need to do anything. Because, in truth, even if someone handed you a book that showed you in perfect detail what you were supposed to do, and what the purpose of everything is, and how things will end, you would still fail spectacularly, and you would be fully culpable in the process. Because in fact you do have this book–the Bible–and you do fail spectacularly even as that book becomes the center of your world, and there is only you to blame.

Then and only then can you really hear what Christ is saying to you through Craig, which is what he said to Peter at the apostle’s own nadir“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 

That someone is Christ; that leading is grace; where you do not want to go is out of the kingdom of self and into the kingdom of God. When you are old, you will at last let yourself be led, not nobly, but because you can no longer stand on your own, and he alone remains to keep you from falling.

And then, divine blossoms will unfold from that Tree of Life, that Cross that he has dug down deep in the dead foundations of your life; and you will be amazed, and grateful, and not responsible for any of it.

But in this happening do not suppose that you will somehow at last become “better” than you are now. In fact, you will become weaker; balder; less sure of your speech; your charisma will depart to younger men; you will be humbled, though not yet truly humble; your shortcomings will become more evident than your virtues; you will cease to trust yourself at all. Sin rustling in the leaves will not cause you to stand more manfully but instead set you to flee to Christ quickly. You will not become a valiant under-shepherd, but instead a dependent old sheep.

And that is as it should be.

So, to answer your question: What do you do next?

“His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.'” (John 2:5)

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