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Review: Harvey, Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao's Stand for the Persecuted Church in China

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Thomas Alan Harvey's Acquainted With Grief is a very interesting short book. In it, he discusses the significance of the life and ministry of independent Chinese church leader Wang Mingdao for both the Church in China and in the world. The book both benefits and suffers from its positioning at the intersection of biography, history, doctrine, and policy with theology. The benefit is Harvey's ability to connect these issues theologically; the suffering follows as the opened cans of worms have inhabitants crawling in divergent directions. Given the importance and relevance of the subjects, it is good that the benefits far outweigh the book's shortcomings.

Although many readers will not be familiar with the protagonist, Wang Mindao (I myself was not), they may have their attention drawn by the book's subtitle, "Wang Mindao's Stand for the Persecuted Church in China." (I believe that the subtitle is really a keyword-grabber, a work of clever marketing gnomes.) In the Introduction, Harvey alerts the reader that Grief is not essentially a biography, although it does covers Wang's life and work. His description is of "a timely and thorough account as well as an analysis of the issues that divided Chinese Christians fifty years ago and their continued relevance to China today." (p. 8) These issues are theological, and therefore political. As inspirational as some aspects of Wang's life are, the lessons to be drawn from the eventsare theological. Harvey's Acquainted With Grief reaches beyond simple cheerleading and advocacy to a very ambitious agenda:

Theological debate over this conflict has not been restricted to China. From the conflict's first tentative volleys to the present, sides were drawn both in and outside China for and against Wang's stand. These voices are crucial, for they expose the universal nature of the issues raised and their relevance far beyond the bamboo curtain that descended on China at mid-century. Of special note will be issues raised by Barth and Bonhoeffer that have been curiously forgotten or simply ignored when relocated from Nazi Germany to contemporary Asia. Such amnesia arises from hidden assumptions and reflexes of our modern age that many believed collapsed with the demise of the Third Reich. As I will show, the very ideology and theology that sanctioned Nazi suppression of Christian dissent remains alive and well in modern theological discourse and is utilized by those who defend Christianity's embrace of political ideology and justify the persecution of Christians who resist it.

Harvey, p. 8-9

The above paragraph is a most intriguing aspect of Harvey's discussion; to his credit, he does not begin with analogy, but explains to the reader the course of events and the relevant problems.

Wang Mingdao's formative years and background are covered in the first chapter, illustrating various aspects of Wang's personality and character. Wang did not have an ordinary upbringing, but not unusually so. In the second chapter, more general background trends are discussed: nationalism, modernizing, idealizing. The impact of modern and nationalist ideas on China and their influence on social transformation and the Western church in China are discussed. In the latter, the liberal/evangelical split becomes very important. Chapter two becomes rather belaboured, with extended discussion of the "modernist" problem; this is almost surely to show the bones beneath the face, so to speak, and relate these issues to the larger issues (as above) Harvey ultimately wishes to raise.

The relationship between Church and Communist Party is illustrated by a quote from Mao, as the opening of chapter three: "Communists may form an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal united-front for political action with certain idealists and even with religious followers, but we can never approve of their idealism or religious doctrines." (p. 47) Harvey discusses the CCP strategy and tactic of the "united front"; in short, the Party would work with elements of society amenable to cooperation with the Party, and use them to accomplish their overlapping goals, while attacking the uncooperative as "enemies of the state". Working with non-Communists was forming a "united front" on an issue, but was merely instrumental. The united front strategy would lead to the formation of the "Three Self Reform Movement" of Protestant churches (later the TSPM), and the issuance of "The Christian Manifesto" (p. 59ff). The thrust of the Manifesto, of course, was to proclaim that the organizations of churches were to be dedicated to the national political goals of the Chinese Communist Party. Harvey walks through the document's issuance, its meaning and implications, and includes it in translation as Appendix 1. The document is the application of the united front strategy to the churches, and the basis for the conflict between Wang and the State.

Chapter 4 of Harvey's Acquainted with Grief is "Strange News: The Nation as Gospel". Here he covers Wang's denunciation and his counterattack, a discussion entirely concerned with the existence of the church. Through his public writings, Wang completely dismantled the TSPM rhetorically and theologically (if Harvey's selection are at all representative). The debate was one within the church, about the church, and therefore conducted in biblical terms, especially from Wang's side. Harvey gives us a keen observation about the next phase of response:

Certainly several avenues were open to Wang's opponents. Wang's interpretations of Scripture could have been challenged on a variety of biblical or theological grounds, yet his opponents did not strike here. Rather, they focused on Wang's "counterrevolutionary" character. In short, Communist political ideology provided the foundation and rhetoric in their case against Wang Mingdao. If one assumes, as Wang's opponents did, that political essence is the ground of human existence, then profession, religion, clan affiliation, and the like are mere cloaks veiling an individual's true identity.

p. 79

This, as Harvey reiterates later (p. 83), is the critical shift in the discourse about the church; the fundamental issue addressed by the TSPM and the Communists was not the theological, but the political. The political was always addressed as the underlying reality, over which theology was merely a smokescreen. Wang's issue with the TSPM was theological: he objected to a forced union with liberals who were essentially willing to sign away doctrines of Christology and Biblical faith which Wang considered non-negotiable, and the renunciation of which he considered the mark of apostasy.

Here I want to break in and address something I think Harvey overlooks. The issue here is an institutional question, a problem of the union of organized bodies. Wang objected to being a member of an organization which was officially unified, but which in fact was divided on essential questions (although the Communists saw political questions as the ultimate questions). To what extent is the confrontation a side-effect of the formal, externally visible organization of the church in China? I wonder to what extent a policy of persecution might not have developed, had the church in China from its beginnings identified itself not with the externalities of buildings, especially with European structures. It is, of course, correct to say: "It shouldn't matter. People ought to be free to worship, building buildings if they like." And I concur. But as a theologian, I have to wonder if the driven-underground church which now flourishes in China is a more Biblical non-church than those "churches" which have seemed to have and be more, visibly (both in China and elsewhere). Is the faithfulness which is bearing fruit there not merely the fruit of faith under duress, but also a faithfulness to the church at its more real and meaningful level: personal, interpersonal, and local. In spite of the house churches' suceptibility to cults like the 'Lightning from the East' sect, heresy doesn't seem to have gained more of a foothold there than in the USA, to think locally for a moment. This is perhaps far afield from Harvey's thesis, but I think that the questions of theologians like house-churcher and Christian Anarchist Vernard Eller deserve serious and sober consideration, especially where they intersect with exactly this problem.

Returning to Acquainted with Grief's account of Wang Mingdao, Harvey show how great a gulf there was between the modernist TSPM leadership and the 'conservative' Wang. For Wang, it was impossible to concede the essentials of Christian confession that the TSPM was willing to sweep under the rug, to avoid disunity. Above this fray, the political considerations of the Communists loomed; their agenda was the achievement of the Party's social vision for China, and as long as the Three Self Patriotic Movement contributed to that, they would back it, according to political considerations alone. Harvey pulls no punches in showing the ironic end of the liberal social-gospel heirs: by 1958, they were merely concerned with the "spiritual needs and eternal yearnings of the human heart" (p. 90). Allowing their position to be defined by the political discourse, they were written out of the plot once they had served their role as handmaiden to the Revolution, becoming socially irrelevant.

The latter half of Acquainted with Grief discusses Wang's arrest, the aftermath, reactions, and the significance of those reactions. His 1955-6 arrest and public confession are discussed in chapter 5. The arrest of the pacifist pastor was a nighttime raid, taking him and his wife away at gunpoint. Shortly after his arrest, Wang determined to give a cooperative confession of misjudgment, though not of criminal behavior, in order to end his imprisonment swiftly. He miscalculated, and through a long process of interrogation was convinced to confess his misdeeds to the public. Wang's "confession" is translated by Harvey and happily included as Appendix 2; his analysis of the speech is extremely useful in showing the Communist perspective which informs the self-examination of Wang's faults. The fundamental conflicts between Wang's church and the State are spelled out by Harvey (p. 101ff), succinctly and clearly. The succeeding chapter deals with the reaction to Wang's imprisonment, and the situation of the non-TSPM church of China generally. Harvey demonstrates clearly how much of the reaction was based on concerns which led to Wang's situation being constructed variously as:

  • anti-communist resistance
  • failure to adapt to a changing social setting
  • an example of the hard choices the church always faces
None of the above really had much contact with Wang's own stand or positions, but were strongly motivated by the concerns of international and WCC politics. Each reaction imposed upon Wang a position which he did not take, and which defined him within a political struggle which was not his. Imprisoned through the rest of the 50's, the 60's, and until 1979, he was unaware of the debate framed around him. Once released however, he continued to adamantly oppose the TSPM and union with its churches. Finally in Chapter 6, Harvey criticizes Philip Wickeri's Seeking the Common Ground, a 1988 defense of the TSPM. Harvey's dissection is short but comprehensive, so I'll leave it for the reader, but it shows the non-theological underpinnings of a defense of the TSPM, a State-controlled organization for churches, a foreshadowing of Chapter 7, "Christian Suffering."

Wang Mingdao's stand encapsulates the theological problems of nationalism and adaptation to it (to modernity); the problem, for Christians, is a matter of 'who is to judge', a la Humpty-Dumpty:

For Wang Mingdao, Scripture and doctrine formed the critical lens by which the church should construe modern existence and gain its distinctive insight by which to engage secular society through the Word of God. In contrast, secular reason, culture, conscience, and national progress form the critical lens of Wang's critics. Accordingly, secular society presents an identity for and an authority to the church. Wang's failure to defer to that authority led to "the judgment of history on a theological point of view, and on a theology that did not allow for the betterment of the society of man.7"
Society (in China especially, the State) sets, according to the secular rules of discourse, an identity for the church which will fulfil its chosen ends. A theology which internalizes those rules of discourse and chosen ends may add the social rules to the church's critical lens, and subordinate rules peculiar to the church. The church should listen to the 'progressive' worldly elements of the day, those transforming the world in a positive way. Such theologians see the work of God revealed in events, in movements in history, and understand them as revealing the mission of the church for the contemporary situation. Harvey quotes Paul Althaus as an example:
Today we are an utterly political species and our quest for "salvation" comes alive in the political dimension. People of our day are not concerned about peace with God, but with overcoming political calamity in the broadest sense -- the mortal distress of a people, the destruction of the national community, the freedom of the Volk for its own life, the fuflfilment of its particular mission.
Althaus wrote the above in a 1933 essay. Like Emanuel Hirsch, he would criticize theologians such as Karl Barth on an insistence that the Jesus Christ of Scripture alone defined the revelation of God. (I would question, as Harvey does not, whether Barth's particular position was entirely too 'Other'-worldly to have real impact, but although the question is far afield, I would be interested to know what Harvey makes of Barth's "Nein!" to Brunner.) Harvey in this chapter at last draws the parallel between Wang's stand and the declaration of Barmen which has long been foreshadowed. Harvey aligns against Wang and Barmen, Althaus, Hirsch, Y. T. Wu, and Wayne, but omits, inexplicably, Philip Wickeri. The tradeoff these theologians were willing to make was to accept "relevance" in exchange for conformity. Wang Mingdao made his stand and suffered, "rather than subject the church to the ordoof the nation" (p. 145). Acquainted With Grief demonstrates the costs, both personal and doctrinal, of selling the birthright of the church for a chasing after wind.

In his conclusion, Harvey returns to China today, in its state of "ideological erosion" and cynicism in a society rife with corruption. As China has changed, and as both traditional social values and ideological fervor fade in power, Christianity is perceived as a force filling that vacuum. For the State, the encroachment of the church on the hearts of the people makes the churches, in particular the uncontrolled house churches, a threat subject to crackdowns, which continue to this very day. Harvey makes in his conlusion an appeal for "a True Three-Self Policy" (p. 152-6). Although probably a futile gesture, were Harvey's policy adopted it would vastly improve the lot of Christians in China, and actually fulfill Communist rhetoric about freedoms of religion, while allowing the Chinese goverment some confidence that Christianity is not a front for various types of 'imperialism'.

Acquainted With Grief is a terrific example of the usefulness of the trade book; it combines moderate length with depth in its specific topic, and allows Thomas Alan Harvey to explore the significance of an overlooked witness for not only his own era and country, but for the church throughout the world. Despite my quibbling about Barth and questions about a more de-institutionalized church, this is a quality book. Harvey has done what many evangelical authors never do: theologically discuss the ramifications of liberal-modernist theology and its relationship to nationalism and modernity, in contrast to a biblically-centered understanding of the church. I highly recommend Acquainted With Grief for any audience prepared for in-depth reading and reflection on the relevant subjects. Readers not theologically grounded may need access to background information, although Harvey does try to give context his main discussion points. High-level undergraduate courses could use the book profitably as a seminar text. Seminary courses could incorporate it into the curriculum in various contexts: in the discussion of liberalism and its opponents, in a "perspectives" course combined with background context, in church/state relations questions, or in a seminar on sources of revelation. Churches would need to have a sure audience for book studies or in-depth adult studies. Youth, however, are probably more open to expending the energy required to grapple with the lessons, if they are equipped for maturing in Christ (i.e., probably not your junior high kids, nor as a first retreat-study at your new job). Highest marks for Acquainted With Grief.

Thomas Alan Harvey, Acquainted With Grief. Brazos, 2002

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