Chinese engagement

I was recently in Asia, speaking in a variety of settings. I had the chance to meet several young Asian mission leaders, including many who work in mainland China.
In one setting, I shared a reading of Acts 16 – highlighting how Paul carried Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God to a colony of the Kingdom of Caesar. In particular, I highlighted the word “saved” – spoken first by a slave girl and then by a jailor. What would they have meant by the term? They certainly weren’t thinking within the theological framework many of us have been trained in, derived largely from 5th century Mediterranean and 16th century northern European theological debates … with assumptions about original sin, total depravity, hell, etc. I proposed that the words “saved” and “salvation” used on their tongues would have meant very much what it did to the ancient Jewish people – liberation, as in liberation from Egypt in Exodus. When you read the whole chapter in that light, you see the gospel of the kingdom of God starting at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder and then spreading upwards – ultimately confronting the local political authorities with a holistic message of liberation: spiritual, personal, social, economic, etc.. And of course, Paul ends up proclaiming this gospel of God’s kingdom in Rome itself by the time we reach the end of the book of Acts.
I recently received this email from a sharp young Chinese leader (details changed for obvious reasons) who heard me speak on this subject:

Dear Brian,
It has been a few weeks since we have met each other in Hong Kong. Hopefully you have had a pleasant journey in Cambodia afterwards and are safely back in the US now.
I was grateful for the time we have spent together. Thank you for being such a good listener to my story. Likewise, thank you for your teaching on the day.
Meanwhile, may I have an inquiry regarding your teaching during the conference, please. I was sharing the other day the story of the girl in slavery described in Acts who asked the apostles what she must do in order to be saved (even thought I could not find that particular verse in the Chinese Union version Bible but I clearly remembered you quoted that scripture twice at least in ICA and the Vine. Please kindly let me know again if possible). However, the only other place that could be found is Acts16:30 when the jailer appealed to the apostles what to do to be saved.

Thanks for writing. Just to clarify – the jailor asks “What must I do to be saved?” The girl simply shouts out “These men are slaves of the most high God. They will show you the way to be saved.” Acts 16:17

I did remember in an afternoon workshop you challenged all of us to contemplate what that slave girl meant to be Saved even though she was unaware of the Jewish tradition of the Messiah prophesy. In the small group discussion I shared that she was talking about the abomination of her slavery identity to be set free in an earthly sense other than being set free in an spiritual sense. And this speculation echoed with your personal explanation afterwards.

Again, just to clarify – I wouldn’t say it exactly this way. I wouldn’t say that being set free in an earthly sense is “other than being set free in a spiritual sense.” I would say that being set free in the biblical sense includes all dimensions – spiritual, social, economic, etc. Also, it’s important to ask what assumptions we bring to our definition of “the spiritual sense” of salvation. I believe that Western Christianity has defined “spiritual salvation” in ways that are very foreign to what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the gospels. I also think that Western Christian readings of Paul are then colored by this misunderstanding. (I try to address this in some detail in my most recent book.)
Nevertheless, when I was sharing this message yesterday in a house church meeting in mainland China, my idea has been questioned in a way that the current dominating theology in where I am insists on the salvation by believing in Jesus alone (by grace, through faith) as the answer the jailer received from the apostles – believe in Jesus Christ and your household will be saved. No one ever preached on the Christianity penetration on social justice or reformation of the order of this world on earth as nobody dared to. The church in China has been modified into a patriotic state-church as part of the structure of the government system since its communist movement. Now that even the rather-independent underground house church are self-disciplined not to touch any social manner in order not to get into any trouble.
Yes, this is a problem not just in China, but also in the US! For example, almost no Christians speak out against wars launched by the US … or about US economic policies that hurt poor people around the world … or about the growing anti-Arab racism that is growing in the US … or the US use of torture in Iraq, and so on. If people speak out on these subjects here, first they will be criticized by some within the Christian community … and they will be called unpatriotic, etc. So the “patriotic state-church” problem isn’t unique only to China.

What would you suggest the Chinese Christians to work out this dilemma in order to play its part to transform this nation at this stage before the dawn?

This is a really important question. I need to think and pray about this more, but let me offer five simple first steps.
1. People like you need to gently bring up the subject through preaching the Bible – passages like Acts 16:6-40, Luke 2:51-53, and Luke 4:16-30 can be a starting place. This must be done with great sensitivity – I think one of the reasons Jesus spoke in parables (and one of the reasons the Book of Revelation is in such cryptic language) is that he needed to get the truth out without getting arrested too soon.
2. Then, some people – probably younger people, and maybe more second and third-generation Christians who have a concern for poverty, peace, and the environment – will show an interest. Those are the people you can go more deeply with.
3. At that point, it’s important to create “safe space” – environments where interested people can ask honest questions and talk openly about issues.
4. Groups like this provide good space to share books to further and deepen the conversation. I think it would be important for people in your context to read Christians from the non-Euro-American world … Latin Americans like Rene Padilla and Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff, for example, or Africans like Kwame Bediako and Mabiala Kenzo, or Middle Easterners like Naim Ateek. I know there are important Asian voices as well, but I need to find recommendations for you. Of course, I would hope books like mine would be helpful too.
Some of my books are in Chinese …
5. Where there are Chinese leaders eager to engage with these issues, it would be wonderful to connect them with emerging leaders from other countries – in Asia, and around the world – who they can converse with. They would have an important, essential contribution to make, as well as much to gain. Please keep me informed about this … and let’s stay in touch. God bless you, my brother!