This is a Sunday in Easter Season. while Christianity is part of the patrimony of the United States and of the West and a fading and failing patrimony of the Middle East. While it expands in Africa but is challenged there it is also a force and institution that is undeniably about all people and is oriented that way at every level since its founding. That at least makes it one of the great religions and also a challenge that cannot be merely overlooked by other forces without a largely Christian influence which have their own agenda in the world. American Christianity struggles both with its relationship with larger American society and with the relationship of Christianity and Christians in America to the non-Christian world. One of the big questions in all of this process of dealing with the pandemic and its accompanying phenomena is understanding what China’s role and responsibility might be. I am a long way from answering any of those questions meaningfully. Today I am just posting about my time in China and what it makes me think of most at this time. In this post I want to discuss what I as an American Christian saw of China and in a minimal way begin to address the larger issues of relations between America and China. I will do that through a somewhat Christian lens.
Today’s readings at Mass were all from the New Testament except the psalm. The psalm was Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd, is the first line and title of the Psalm in English. The Gospel was from St. John’s Gospel the tenth chapter where Jesus Christ describes himself as the Good Shepherd. The first reading was from Acts that Where the Apostles proclaim the crucified and risen Christ s Lord of Glory. There was a reading from the letters of St. Peter to all Christians describing the sacrifice and Judicial element of the death of Son of God. As I mentioned all the major readings were from the New Testament. I think that happens more often during the Sundays of the Easter Season than at any other time.
The truth is that the essence of the Gospel as proclaimed at Easter is not always easy to hear. Not every Christian is int he place where he or she is spiritually focused and able to pay attention to the Good News in the Gospel. For many of us more than once in a while there is a sense of the stumbling block in a crucified Christ. He who was to reign should not have suffered so as to be made to bear our sins it seems if we truly relate to him, if he is truly the Firstborn of all Creation..
China has a variety of burdens in the society which are not related to evaluating that scandal of the cross but are related to a path which has never fallen much under the influence of Christ. I have spent a lot of time studying China and Chines culture and would have spent more if I had it to spend, Although at this time in my life I study less of most things than I would ever have believed that I would.But my vision of China comes mostly from the time I lived and taught there. Some of it seems rather like here and some of it did not.
But the differences were real enough. finding something in common across those differences was the wonder and the struggle of being there. Being there meant being open to China and being a Christian, an American, and an Anglo-Acadian from Louisiana. I was serious about trying to be authentic there and trying to be authentically present to the place I was living and the people I was with Some times the two kinds of authenticity worked well together and sometimes they blended less easily.
This Sunday I did not got to mass. I was too busy and otherwise disadvantaged to watch a full mass on TV. I did stream part of EWTN’s mass on my laptop. But in an effort to conserve data ( a desire made more intense by the lack of tech support in recent weeks) I did not watch the whole mass. I just skipped around hitting the entrance,the three reading the sermon and part of the Eucharistic prayer. When I taught in China I got up early every Sunday and climbed over the wall f the locked compound at the University and either alone or with a few others I made my way to the Catholic Concession Church across town and went to Mass. Like giving Christmas gifts to every student I had and displaying the American flag on my wall, this was a small way of staying true to who I was. China was a challenging place in many ways. I lived in China as it was preparing to host the Olympics and the openness to foreign influence like mine was a at one of the highest points it has ever been in the country’s history. I liked China and felt a special connection to the little congregation in the church I attended. Although, I gave some rosaries and a few other things to the underground church I tried to be a strong member of the legal congregation. I felt that within the context of the largely discouraging history of Christianity in China my involvement was both fairly blessed and fairly effective. But there was evangelism and much more there was the kind of dialog that I once viewed with some suspicion when it came to religious matters.
So what I have not done yet is discuss anything about the current crisis and what my background tells me about those people and that country, China was a place where I felt I was giving my best effort to make a difference. It was not the difference of trying to erase all that they are in favor of something else. I tried to serve American interests and I tried to serve the Gospel in a more direct way than I usually do now but as I have tried to most of my life. In some ways my time in China was one of the great crises that has marked my life. I tried to follow up on my life there with years of correspondence sending and receiving gifts and other activities. I also tried to report to my Congressman, law enforcement and other American institutions about some of my concerns that arose there. BUT I NEVER EMBRACED THE LINE THAT TRUMP AND HIS PEOPLE HAVE EMBRACED THAT THEY WERE MAKING TOO MUCH MONEY IN WORLD TRADE. I have not objected strenuously to that policy or to the building of a wall across the Southern border which is very different in every way from the buffer zone I proposed. I have not objected strenuously to Trump’s rhetoric about immigration because I think controlling immigration is vital to national survival although our views diverge on countless points. President Trump just wants “more for me and to hell with you” to be a respectable policy. Well if it is then one can yell but not make a reasonable argument if in fact the persons or countries one is consigning to hell are able to visit hell upon you. The limit to how dark that view is comes from the fact that the profit system is a system of mutual benefit. But we all know it does not always work out that way and in international trade it can get even more dangerous and toxic. Their has to be a constant reference to the rubrics of the trade system or it can be devastating to everyone.
The truth is China takes very little for what it does and is underfunded and that is what is somehow unfair. The Chinese people and interests make mistakes and do bad things and the two together have consequences but they sacrifice more for the national good and the collective good and what remains of their family goo in so many cases. When I was there I took some comfort in the advancement of women compared to the historic Chinese norm, in good quality housing and transport for many and in the planting of trees and the preservation of parks. Working with American companies to make products for the world was a very powerful engine of good cultural exchange in many ways. I have long advocated for supports for American industry but China was not the enemy in my analysis. China was a complicated player in an extremely complicated game and sometimes American and Chinese interests would blend well and sometimes not so much. There were also many protesters sacrificing in a search for the elements of liberty. But there was a tapestry woven through the land of hunger, legal executions, surveillance of the people, cannibalism, the persecution of Christianity, forcible efforts to control by contract behavior not allowed in most civilizations under law, dueling, protests with ritualized martyrdom, and a different kind of struggle between foreign and domestic organized crime and the police. This would fill a book or two that I will never write. But there was a lot I could see while working hard as an English teacher. But this was a world that was not directly involved in the world of work whether creating products or educating students. It was a dark world that for all its darkness and terror was clearly visible lurking at the edges of the open society and sometimes boldly bursting in upon it. Even after all these years it is hard to know what to do in terms of naming specifics.
I had mixed feelings about Trump’s hard line with China because there were dark forces there that I know will never forget me and Trump’s lack of caution kind of made me feel a little safer even though I am not sure that is rational. I felt less good because of the good people of China who would suffer, because American farmers were losing markets and because various people were left out of the planning process. But Trump lives in a world where if one wants something he does not need to examine what would be fair most of the time. It is simply a matter of negotiation. The two players acting on each other without a referee, The art of the deal is not about making a context that works for both, but rather simply both parties seeking their own interest. The people in power in China today are also less responsive to some sense of larger ideal than those in power when I was there. The suffering caused in China by the trade war was massive, the disruption horrific. China is not a monolith, Could the government,organized crime, an agent of North Korea or a technician whose family starved to death because of the trade struggle have released a lab bug on the world to shake things up? Maybe that happened.
My situation at the moment is personally that I am grateful for the relief aid the United States government has provided to me. I am not sending any of the that money to friends in China because I have let all those relationships lapse. But the world goes on, I am grateful to Trump for the part he played in the relief effort. I am suspicious of China as a basis for forces which are dangerous and not always Chinese. I stay busy with matters of my own life and family and even where these are concerned I feel that I only have a limited amount to offer.
But I do not relate to the vision of America as mostly the target of a vicious selfish and corrupt China. Chinese business is mostly pretty ethical, honest and even humble. There may be half a million Chinese businessmen who are willing to murder, steal and lie to cheat Americans out of an honest dollar. But a vastly larger majority of Chinese in commerce or very ethical whether they are committed to the same moral view as I hold or not. I may return to this subject or not. I am not going to like how this works out but life is not usually kind in my experience.
I did tell my friends in China that I cared about them and liked China and loved some of them even but that it was possible that America and China could end up in conflict and even war and we might be on opposite sides of that conflict. That was just part of the overall reality. However, I hoped for positive paths forward. We will see what comes out of the current crisis. I am no longer in touch with what happens here but I know it is not the country the China-haters describe and neither is the America they describe the one I know.
Whatever the future holds, I will be an American all my life. But I will have a part of me which is always in the memories and hopes of my time in China.