Providence in the Press

As a church and government employee, I earn just enough airline miles every year to remind me that I’ll never have enough of them for anything significant.  All I can usually afford (especially from United) are subscriptions to periodicals I’m not really interested in: Sports Illustrated (with the exception of the NFL season), Golf Digest, The Economist.  And The Wall Street Journal.  For the evil cabal that (I have no doubt) Mr. Murdock and his News Corporation represent, I have been impressed lately by the coverage the editors at The Journal have devoted to religion.  Two articles, and what they have to say about the place of providence in global Christianity, caught my attention in particular.

The first was a front-page article on the Chinese church printed on July 28, 2011.  The headline read “China’s Banned Churches Defy Regime.”  Recollections of American Presbyterians becoming caught up in the zeal of the American Revolution immediately came to mind.  But there was more.  The photo directly below the headline was of a Chinese pastor (Protestant, of course) praying fervently while seated with his congregation (recalling the practice of Korean Protestants, for those of have experienced it).  I thought to myself, “He looks American!”  At least as pastors go, anyway.  Pastor Jin Mingri wore a short-sleeved blue dress shirt with a yellow tie.  He hair was well-groomed, and he wore glasses.  Unlike the Chinese subject of photojournalism from a generation ago, he was well-fed, almost a little chubby.  Most disarming of all, his comments immediately following the lead paragraph sounded eerily like something from the pre-scandal Ted Haggard: “Let your descendants become great politicians like Joseph and Daniel.  Let them influence the future course of this country.”   Such (American) evangelical language from a struggling, down-trodden Chinese pastor (his church is 16 times the size of mine) forced me to keep reading.  I came to learn that in April 1999, 10,000 followers of a non-Christian group called Falun Gong descended upon the fortified compound of the Communist Party’s leadership to demand legal recognition via silent protest (China has a policy that all legal religious organizations must be recognized by the state).  The response was brutal.  Tens of thousands were detained, some were sentenced to time in hard labor camps, other died in custody.  The fear among Chinese Protestants is that something similar may happen to them if they continue to defy the regime by meeting in churches not sanctioned by the government.  This fear seems reasonable, especially since a recent editorial in the government-run Global Times newspaper said, “A church should not become a power which can promote radical change…  Otherwise, the church is not engaged in religion but in politics, which is not allowed for a church” (personally, I can’t get over how these words, spoken in unbelief, prophetically speak against the teaching of Pastor Jin, but I digress…).

The other article I read was published two days later in the weekend edition of The Journal.  The article itself did not concern religion, but rather the state of medicine in India.  In many respects, the article paralleled the first one very closely.  It had a catchy headline on the front page: “The Failing Health of a Growing Nation.”  A captivating image of a grieving young woman dressed in orange appeared adjacent to it.  After the introductory paragraph, quotations followed.  The story began as the account of a woman, Ruksana, who was to have her first child by Cesarean-section in India’s public-health system, infamous for both its infant and mother mortality rates.  Her husband reassured her the day before, “You’re going to deliver on Valentine’s Day.”  Her response?  “Everything will be fine, with God’s will.”  As it turned out, it was not God’s will was that everything would be fine.  Seven days later she died of a blood infection caused by contaminated saline solution.

After I finished reading Ms. Ruksana’s story, the differences between her response and Pastor Jin’s haunted me.  In part, the differences haunted me because Ms. Ruksana (if her husband’s name, Mohammed, is any indication) was Muslim.  And yet as she faced her very uncertain future, she simply reaffirmed her faith in the sovereignty of whom she understood to be God.  She placed herself in the hands of God’s providence.  When faced with similar uncertainty, however, Pastor Jin called his congregation to influence Chinese government by devoting their sons and daughters to politics.  Ms. Ruksana, the presumed Muslim, turned to God; Pastor Jin, the Christian clergyman, turned to government.  How did this happen?

I am tempted to answer that question by launching into a diatribe about how evangelicalism has become one of America’s biggest exports to China.  But I’m going to resist that temptation.  Why?  Because it overlooks the deeper spiritual matter raised by these two stories: namely, that Christians have largely lost their doctrine of providence.  Obviously, that includes Christians in China.  And since the Chinese church’s knee jerk toward politics has obvious American influences, so also the American church no longer has a practical theology for how God works out his will in the world.  Sadly, Reformed and Presbyterian bodies have not avoided this trend either.  Even I, as a minister, was pleasantly surprised to read in the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the sixth commandment that one of our duties as Christians is “patient bearing of the hand of God.”  Who knew?  I didn’t.

The prooftexts given for this statement make the case as plain as toast.  In James 5:10-11, the Lord’s brother writes, “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.  As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered.  You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”  Likewise, Hebrews 12:9 admonishes us, “Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!”  This instruction is clearly borne out in the attitude of King David toward Shimei son of Gera and his curses: “It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

These two WSJ articles do not raise a problem with Christian or biblical or Reformed and Presbyterian doctrine.  They raise a problem with what passes today for biblical, Christian, and sometimes even Reformed and Presbyterian practice.  Our doctrine of providence is certainly not second to Islam’s.  In fact, it is much greater, considering that even providence ends in grace for those who have been chosen for faith in Christ Jesus.  But unfortunately, our practice often betrays a serious lack of trust upon God in Christ when it comes to his ultimately mysterious movements in the world.  If we understood better portions of Scripture like Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, we would be less enamored with the prospect of infiltrating (…err…”influencing”) government, and more concerned with simply being faithful in the stations and circumstances in which God has placed us according to his secret will (which sometimes includes high posts in government as with Jacob and Daniel).  We would be less concerned with the Europeanization of America, and more grieved at the pervasive spiritual weakness within the American church, which American Christians often do promote and have promoted (sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not) throughout the world.  Unlike Pastor Jin, we would avoid carelessly associating biblical figures like Joseph and Daniel with our own concerns as citizens of this world.  And like Ruksana, we would confess that, despite all the benefits of modern life, life and happiness still only come “with God’s will.”

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