Thursday, August 7, 2008

In and Out of Christianity with a Chinese Immigrant

by Ji Haidong

Introduction: The
spiritual journey presented in this article is quite representative of what many Chinese immigrants go through. It raises questions on the modern role of religion, and whether churches serve primarily social or spiritual needs. For almost everyone from China, western religions have been unknown, and it is interesting to see how perceptions evolve as that novelty is explored.

I found this article in Chinese, posted in four parts, on I translated parts of this into English with the author's permission. If you can read Chinese, the original posts have more humor and flavor. Too bad certain things always get lost in translation. – Xujun

[In translation]
For a period, from middle school in China till a few years after I came to the US, I held in my subconscious admiration for Christianity. Perhaps this had something to do with the Western world's advancement and the reverence evoked by the Chinese translation of names from religious literature. Sometimes when I was a poseur or dubious or unsure about things, as part of making selfish wishes I would add the words "God bless." In Xiamen University, where I was a undergrad, the library, near to the Chemistry College, had a foreign language reading room on the second floor. There I once read American Presidents' English speeches. When I read the ending line “god bless America,” I felt my heart throb from the appeal of America. (America, like every country in the world, has many good things we can learn from, but also many lessons that we can draw from.) Now, whenever Junior Bush has a chance, he adds "May God continue to bless America." Please note the word "continue," as if America were God's favorite. A few years ago I asked my Swedish wife, in the more democratic, freer Sweden, would leaders say "God bless Sweden" in their speeches? She had a flabbergasted look of incomprehension: "Are you making sense? Such irrelevant fudge would make most citizens laugh to death."

During my undergraduate time at Xiamen University, the feeling of novelty made me turn the pages of a Chinese translation of the Bible, but it did not convert me. In 1997, after receiving my Master's degree in the US, I worked for a consulting company. Through a customer I met a lady from Hong Kong, who – with her husband – was an eager proselytizer. During the 1998 Memorial Day weekend, a few Chinese churches organized a Gospel camp in Indiana, which provided free food and board. They invited me to join. I happened to have time at hand, and was somewhat lonely and bored. That made a few free meals and an opportunity to make friends sound pretty good. In addition, my new Dodge Neon hadn't had a chance to travel far from home.

So I went. Those were okay days. The preachers were mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, while the audience was mainly Mainland Chinese. The attractive things to me were the food to eat and the basketball games to play, plus other outdoor activities and more or less acceptable music. But, of course, more time was spent listening to preaching and "testimonies" proving that God, and the resurrected Jesus, loved and cared for them, and fiddled all kinds of miracles on their torsos. At emotional points, some clapped hands, some sobbed, some said "amen." Any little thing would cause people to pray. The pray was formative – thank the Father in the heaven and his son on the earth; hope you bless this thing we are about to do together. At this point the prayer would insert his or her personal wishes and views, but still say it all in the name of God. Thank my Lord for bringing the strayed sheep Ji Haidong here; then again thank my Lord. Then "amen"; the prayer ends. If the prayer is before a meal, now it's time to pick up your chopsticks. Though I haven't participated in other Gospel camps, my guess is the format is largely identical (perhaps without the chopsticks).

The day before camp finished, a Ph.D. in physics who emigrated from Mainland China joined us. It seemed he had just gotten a theology diploma, now single candle serving the Lord having abandoned science. He was an older man, who spent his youth during the Cultural Revolution. He talked about his experiences and struggles, and the calmness of his soul after converting to Christianity. At times he even choked with sobs. I don't think he was acting, but in retrospect he seemed to have too much self-pity but lacked self-examination, self-renewal, or self-determination.

Anyhow, regardless of race, complexion, nationality, or financial condition, who doesn't have anguish, struggle, and vacillation? Listening to him, I did feel a certain resonance and was somewhat touched. Following his speech was the usual process of showing resolution: those who would accept the unconditional love from Jesus and gain rebirth and eternal life etc., etc. were called on to raise their hands.

I sat there, feeling the gaze from the family who brought me in and the imperceptible influence from the benefits of Christian belief, and I bashfully raised my hand.

Years later I discussed this with my wife and she asked if it was because the unconditional love has so much emotional appeal for me. This makes some sense, but isn't it also true that, to most of us, the love from our parents is unconditional? Have we gotten it wrong somewhere in the way we express love? Isn't it also true that making a person feel shame, guilt, and humiliation are all means of controlling?

After returning from the Gospel camp I often drove to the Chinese church. Though it was a bit far from where I lived, it was good to chat with the others I had met there. I felt that, for most Chinese, belief was due to loneliness and social need, in this sense an alumni association or townsmen association might actually do better than the church.

I was also interested in some local churches but was told not to go to a Catholic Church.

Later we moved, so I joined a Baptist church in northern Chicago, which didn't have many Chinese. This church was more interesting: beside the rostrum was a bathtub. A converted "sinner" was to soak in the bathtub, to wash off sins and live anew. Of course there wouldn't be a pedicure or massage, otherwise its door would be as crowded as a marketplace.

During my visits, I didn't see one person baptized.

I also joined the church's Sunday school. The instructor was quite good. I liked to chat with the black, Philippine, and Latin American members. Objectively speaking, it was beneficial, because communication is always a good thing.

Then we moved again. Where we live now, within 500-meters there are as many as ten churches. Next to our apartment is a small church, each Sunday it offers three services, and every time it is overcrowded, so much so even our car can't park in the church's parking lot. A mega-church, its believers are well-dressed in suits and ties or elegant dresses. Every Wednesday evening members of a study group gathered for discussion. In addition, the church runs a kindergarten, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, with the priest's wife the principal, to ensure that religious roots are ingrained from a young age.

The priest's voice is as sonorous as a large bell, the tune can linger around the beamed ceiling for three days. Standing on the stage, he talks bombastically, nothing he doesn't know, nothing he can't address. Before preaching he will issue an outline, similar to the handouts for Mao Zedong Thought or Dialectic Materialism classes we had in China, only the content is switched. On the pages of the outline are blank spaces for believers to take notes. By the time he finishes, his face is radiant with red and he is soaked with sweat. He instructs the multitudes to hold up high the flag of Jesus Thought, follow his instructions, and pray the way we Chinese did with our "morning request for instructions" from Mao and "evening reporting" to him everyday during the Cultural Revolution.

Then someone will sing a song, signaling that it is time to give money. Usually a tray is passed around. The Bible says you should contribute 10% of your income. When the tray reaches me I would throw in bills from $3-$10. You don't have to pay, but you might suffer a supercilious glance. Some churches are even equipped with ATM, to put an end to excuses that you forget to bring money with you.

I went to this marvelous church several times, but soon lost interest. After the service, seeing flyers of anti-abortion and unconditional avocation of gun ownership everywhere, my appetite was spoiled. I also went to different churches but found the priests hypocritical. Later I drove to the Baptist Church again, but the feelings had changed.

Gradually I saw some church members' obscenity, selfishness, hypocrisy, and menace: self-righteous, intolerance, fierce attacks of dissenters. There have been men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority, and evil people who molest children and rape young girls and boys. Further, history shows no shortage of wars and killings in the name of religion.

So now I’m again an atheist for most of the time. Sometimes I still feel the existence of a higher power or powers that might be taking care of us, but that is only a temporary consolation. George Carlin put it very nicely here in this performance: George Carlin on religion

Though I am an atheist, I firmly support freedom of religion. Whether or not to have a religion, or which religion to choose, is a personal matter. Everyone needs love, care, tolerance, and relief. Religion, at its best, can provide such relief. Many of my friends and family members are Christians or Buddhists. When they gather together for a religion-related activity, I often join them. When touring temples, I light incense to pay respect. Relax, that makes me feel good. I don't mind others trying to convert me either, though I gently decline. In fact I look back with gratitude on the Hong Kong couple who brought me to the Gospel camp, because I can still feel their good intentions.

However supporting religious freedom does not mean supporting all activities that take place under the cover of religion. No need to mention the many cults in America, because we Chinese already have a conspicuous example – the broken wheel cult (Falun Gong). I deeply abhor its ugly performance in the United States. Let me state this clearly – I'm not an "angry youth." But when I see broken wheel's poorly trumped-up propaganda, baseless rumor mongering and slandering in the newspaper and on the TV, it makes me puke. During my last visit to China, I learned that a high school classmate of mine went berserk after joining that cult, and he ended up chopping his wife to death then killed himself. Frankly, I feel the cult members are pitiful and lamentable but also hideous. I wonder where they get so much money to support their filthy activities here.

Returning to the topic of the Bible – there is both cream and dross in it. Speaking of its cream, I like this passage about love very much:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Last but not least, I feel many of my countrymen in China are very ignorant about religion. I think the Chinese textbooks for middle and high schools should include the basics on the world's major religions. That will certainly help the understanding of, and communication with, different cultures, races, and nationalities.


Unknown said...

I happen to work at the Gospel Camp he mentions just south of Chicago in NW Indiana. I have been there since October 1998, so was not there when he was, Memorial Day 1998. We are a Christian conference center, and host several different church groups year round as well as doing our own camps and programs. The Chinese come out about twice a year, once with a Cantonese group and once with a Mandarin group.
I have been to China 4 times myself on missions trips and volunteer with Chinese students and scholars at the University of Chicago every week. I am saddened by the reputation some Christians have, especially in the academic community. I agree with his Biblical quotation on love. I also agree that coercion and humiliation is no way to reach someone for Christ. In many respects, what I have observed of Chinese church services reminds me of growing up in Tennessee in the seventies--all hellfire and brimstone. So the challenge to me is how do I demonstrate the love of Christ to everyone, so that someone wants what I have, not how do I browbeat or threaten or intimidate someone in to raising their hand to be saved. I don't really know the answer.
One final point is that I worry about Chinese becoming Christians just because of their aversion to saying "no" or because they want to adopt Western ways. I want their Christian experience to be real. I do appreciate the article.
Joe in Indiana

Unknown said...

Great points, Joe! Thanks for the comments.

Yes, the camp was at Cedar Lake, Indiana. Small world!

I'd also like to publicly acknowledge Xujun's excellent rendering of my little blog posts into English!

Anonymous said...

"The system produces men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority, and evil people who molest children and rape young girls and boys."

This is NOT entirely true.

There are people who have INSINUATED themselves into a system that basically stands for helping those who are lost find their way to spiritual renewal via the love of Christ and God. In the same way that some cops are racist and manage to pass through psyche screenings at the academy, it's the same with men of religious standing who do wrong. There are far more good cops than there are bad--it's the bad ones who make the news. Likewise, there are far more good priests(I've been friends with many of them, and never had one attempt to shove their penises where they don't belong) than bad.

Don't get me wrong: There are definitely better ways to screen applicants to the priesthood, and the Church hierarchy(at least here in America, where most of the news broke) was entirely in the wrong with how they attempted to sweep the revelations of pedophile priests under the rug...but the INTENTIONS of the Church and the greater MOTIVATIONS to do good in the world prevail.

"Further, history shows no shortage of wars and killings in the name of religion."

Yes...and there've NEVER been any wars based solely on economics, oil, territory, or just plain human greed.

This is a very weak argument against religion of any kind. Or didn't the Boxer Rebellion or the Cultural Revolution contain any acts of violence within them(the former, incidentally, including the attacks upon/murders of Christians)?

Based on such shoddy reasoning, I'm certain I could find a news article where the rumor of Richard Gere having a gerbil up his butt caused an outbreak of violence somewhere at some point.

On the subject of hypocrisy, it is a HIGHLY hypocritical and disrespectful thing for you--as a self-proclaimed atheist--to partake in a "religion-related activity"(unless it's anything as minor as a church social event) if you don't BELIEVE in it. This is, for all intents and purposes, a different than if a person steals or commits some other crime, then goes to church and takes the communion wafer(the body of Christ) into his mouth the next day. It's an affront to the religion(s) of your friends, which you claim to respect.

Also, when touring temples, who or what are you paying respect to, if you don't BELIEVE in the faith of whichever temple you are visiting?

Before you get to thinking I'm some overzealous, Bible-belt thumper, I'm not. I follow the doctrines of Christ as best I can, but I don't go to Church regularly...partially because my time doesn't permit it, and also because I don't believe that one NEEDS to go to church to worship God. Like yourself, I don't believe in the anti-abortion stance, and I don't believe God would create an entire species of human(homosexual) and then tell others not to love them as their brothers/sisters. I'm appalled at the fact some churchs do have ATMS, and if ever mine were to place one in it, I'd personally tell the pastor to fuck off and I'd never return. Each human has their own relationship with God, and I honestly believe he'd understand in this instance.

The reason I seem riled to you is because your article is so anti-religion based, which in turn seems in some respects a declaration against having any faith in a higher power at all.

"So now I’m again an atheist for most of the time. Sometimes I still feel the existence of a higher power or powers that might be taking care of us, but that is only a temporary consolation."

You're either an atheist or you're not. You either believe in God or you don't: there's no in-between. There just isn't. The two are morally/psychologically/fundamentally diametric opposites that cannot connect at any point.

I'm not trying to convert you(Surprise: I don't believe in forcing religion down other peoples' throats, either), but in all honesty: if there are times when you are feeling the presence of a higher power(or powers), the way to be certain of the sensation is to STOP what you're doing at the moment, shut out all the bullshit you've been taught/told/force-fed(people giving you poor glances when not putting money in a collection plate, or feeling intimidated into raising your hand...these are more detrimental to people's perceptions of faith than almost anything else), and PAUSE.

Listen in the moment of stillness. At times, God is like one's own conscience...He speaks to us when we NEED him to, and lets us know in our heart what's right.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Lance

Xujun said...

Hey Lance, you sound like a preacher. :-) I totally understand your position, and I certainly know you are a good guy. But I think it's okay that some people don't believe in God. The world needs all kinds of people to be healthy, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

Phew . . is it ok to come out now?

Anonymous said...


I have absolutely no problem with anyone who doesn't believe in God.

The problem starts when ANY atheist tries to attack my(or any) religion based on a few bad experiences, their own inability to believe in any type of higher authority, or begins to cite generalized stereotypes of religion {"The SYSTEM produces men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority, and evil people who molest children and rape young girls and boys."/history shows no shortage of wars and killings in the name of religion."} in an attempt to make their point seem stronger.

There are many atheist leaders who have it set in their minds that they must "destroy" religion, in order to live more comfortably in this world, whereas most religious people I know don't feel that way at all. Yes, many just think "Oh well, I guess you just won't be going to heaven", whereas my belief is, "You'll find out soon enough." I totally believe in the live-and-let-live mindset between the two, and I by no means believe your friend falls into the category of wanting to destroy religion.

However, when someone puts forth a point of view with such vitriol, I feel a need to defend what I believe in, as most would.

I believe in God, and such belief comes from some intensely personal, tangible, spiritual occurrences within my life. Do I feel sorry for someone who doesn't believe the way I do? No. I think it's a shame that someone can't find it within themselves to make a leap of faith in the possibility of there being more beyond the world we can see, but I have no pity. Let them keep their belief if it comforts them...but don't tread on mine to do it.

Xujun said...

Lance, that quote apparently was my error in translation. I just checked the original Chinese post again and that wasn't exactly what he said. I think a more accurate translation should be "There have been men who are a human scourge in the guise of moral authority,..." I apologize to both you and Ji Haidong for the inaccurate translation and I'm going to correct that soon.

The purpose of this post is to have a discussion on the modern role of religion. It is not meant to hurt your (or anybody's) feelings. It is also not meant to single out Christianity for criticizing. You mentioned the Cultural Revolution - and I'm glad you did. That movement was very much like a religious movement, only the religion was Maoism instead of Christianity.

I'm also not sure if it is fair to call a largely atheist who takes part in a religion-related activity hypocritical. He went because he was invited, and those who invited him knew his position. The churches invite non-believers all the time. Would you call the churches hypocritical then? It seems more a trial-and-error process: the churches are trying to convert non-believers, while the latter are trying to explore alternative views or seek tolerance and understanding.

Linda Austin said...

There are many different types of Christian religions, many different styles of churches within a religion. Even among one church there are different beliefs among its people. You cannot make a blanket statement about Christianity or Christians. And by the way, IMO a real Christian church welcomes agnostics and unbelievers - don't we think they are children of God, too? Lost, but they can be found.