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