“But look at the context,” said Max, turning the Bible around for his friend to read. “It’s clearly not talking about you.”
“I don’t know…” says his friend, shifting uneasily in his chair. He seemed unwilling to even look down at Max’s Bible. “I’m no expert in reading the Bible. Who can say we are doing it right? But I feel that this is what God is saying to me…”
You might have had several conversations that went just like this over the years.
Ever wondered what’s behind this kind of conversation? Ever wondered what drives this approach to Scripture?
2. Scripture is both a human and a divine document
Our conviction is that Scripture is both a divine word, as well as a human word. And this conviction influences how we end up reading Scripture.
Because we believe that Scripture is a human word – this means that we read it using the normal tools of exegesis for understanding a human document such as a newspaper, a letter, a textbook. We read it in context, we observe how the author builds his argument, we look at the logical flow of the passage.
But because we believe that Scripture is also a divine word – this means that we read this word as having a unity that comes from one divine author, and we submit to it as being God’s truth.
This conviction that Scripture is both human and divine is based on exegetical grounds. Exegetically, we can see that human authors did write the books, and their humanity is reflected in the writings. We can clearly see that this letter was obviously written by Paul to Corinth. Yet exegetically we can also see that these human writings are treated as coming from God (eg. 2 Peter 1:20-21, 3:16).
But this conviction is not solely based on exegetical grounds – it is also based on theological grounds. What is true of the Word of God when he comes in the flesh, is also true of the word of God on paper. As you can see in the following diagram, our Christology (doctrine of Christ) actually parallels our doctrine of Scripture.
Just as Jesus is fully man and fully God, so too is Scripture fully a human document and fully a divine document.
3. Scripture as human document, and Scripture as a divine document
But not everyone reads the Bible with the conviction that it is both 100% a human word, as well as 100% a divine word – and this influences what they do when they read the Bible.
The following diagram outlines three approaches to the Bible. Firstly the conviction that it is a human document, secondly the conviction that it is both human and divine, and thirdly the conviction that it is a divine document.
Among Western liberals the tendency is to approach the Bible as an entirely human document. An interesting, and at times inspiring historical artefact which we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow today – but which can shed light on the devotion of others in the past, and which might be a useful resource for our devotion today.
But in contrast among some Eastern believers there is a tendency to approach the Bible as an entirely divine document. While newspapers, letters and textbooks are read in the normal way, the Bible falls into a special category which is not read that way.
In some instances regular believers are hesitant to interpret Scripture for themselves, and instead rely on more spiritual people to interpret it for them. And in other instances interpretations are based not so much on the context and logical flow of the passage – but on the impression that is left on their heart, from being in communion with God.
This of course fits in well with Watchman Nee’s approach to spirituality (see previous post). He disparages the ‘carnal’ resources of exegesis in favour of the more spiritual approach of communing with God, where God who is spirit speaks directly to our spirit.
This approach is called the devotional hermeneutic. It will tend to ignore the context and the logic of the passage, drawing applications out of a passage that might be personally uplifting – but which the author never intended, and which misses the main point of the passage.
Ever had one of those strange conversations with fellow Christians where you couldn’t work out why the context and logic of the passage weren’t driving their interpretation? You can see that it actually stems from the conviction that the Bible is a divine document – and so is exempt from the normal ways in which we read human documents!
1. Human nature
One of the most important areas in which Confucianism exerts an influence on the faith of Chinese Christians is anthropology – that is, what we believe about the nature of human beings.
Our anthropology is important because what we think is the nature of people influences all manner of things: it influences how we preach to people, how we do evangelism, how we believe people grow as believers. And so it’s important for us to get our anthropology right!
In this post we’re going to consider the anthropology of Confucianism. We’ll do this by firstly considering Confucius himself, before we also look at Mencius and Xunzi, two significant Confucian writers. This will give us a good handle on the kind of things that are in the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism.
2. Confucius – silence on human nature
Confucius (551-479 BC) taught his disciples very clearly about the use of rites to train oneself to become a virtuous man. As he went about doing this, his focus was not at all on theoretical questions such as original nature of humans. Instead he concentrated on practical questions such as how one perfects oneself. In 1.15 of the Analects, we find the Confucian metaphor of carving horn, sculpting ivory, cutting jade and polishing stone – metaphors that describe the process of perfecting oneself. In that string of metaphors, the important factor is the process of caving, sculpting, cutting and polishing – processes which are equivalent to learning and observing the rites.
But what did Confucius believe about that original nature of humans? did he believe that we are originally good in nature? or that we are originally evil? It’s not clear what Confucius thought, as this was one of the areas that he remained quiet about. Here is a famous passage from the Analects:
Tzu-Kung said, Our Master’s views concerning culture and the outward insignia of goodness, we are permitted to hear; but about Man’s nature (xìng, 性) and the ways of heaven he will not tell us anything at all.”
Analects, 5.12 (tr. Arthur Waley).
As a result, there is great debate among scholars, with some finding slender threads of support in the Analects for one position or another (eg. Analects 6.16-17). But really, the closest Confucius ever seems to get in talking about nature are passages such as this one:
The Master said, “By nature (xìng, 性) , men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”
Analects, 17.2 (tr. James Legge).
Even in this passage you can see that his focus is very squarely on practice – and not on nature. And so when it comes to human nature, the consensus is that Confucius never really gave a solid answer, but simply left the question open.
3. Mencius – the goodness of human nature
After his death however, the question of man’s nature became a point of debate between the disciples of Confucius. One of the foremost disciples of Confucius was Mencius (372-289 BC), who believed in the essential goodness of human nature. He believed that humans become evil when they fail to develop that potential, or cultivate what goodness there is. He taught that the seed for the virtues (such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge) are already inside us at birth, and only need to be encouraged.
The feeling of commiseration belongs to all men; so does that of shame and dislike; and that of reverence and respect; and that of approving and disapproving. The feeling of commiseration implies the principle of benevolence (ren); that of shame and dislike, the principle of righteousness (yi); that of reverence and respect, the principle of propriety (li); and that of approving and disapproving, the principle of knowledge (zhi). Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished (duan) with them.
For Mencius, virtue was not a far-off goal to journey towards, but the home (or ‘tranquil habitation’) to which a person is to return:
To say—”I am not able to dwell in benevolence or pursue the path of righteousness,” is what we mean by throwing one’s self away. Benevolence (ren) is the tranquil habitation of man, and righteousness (yi) is his straight path. Alas for them, who leave the tranquil dwelling empty and do not reside in it, and who abandon the right path and do not pursue it!
In 6A.8 Mencius makes use off the analogy of a mountain that was once covered with luxurious trees – but which is now bare because people from a nearby town constantly cut down its trees, and by the constant grazing of sheep and cattle. He comments that,
People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of the mountain? Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. When the trees are lopped day after day, is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?
The point he is making is that like the tree-covered mountain, humans begin life as essentially good persons, and it is only by exposure to bad examples that a person turns bad. Yes, if you look at people now they appear bad – but that is not their original nature.
How then can a person be made restored to his original goodness? Here Mencius picks up on Confucius’ thought much more explicitly, believing one can perfect oneself through proper education. Here is Mencius again, carrying the metaphor of the mountain further:
Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.
For Mencius, the rites (li) were the means by which humans preserved and further cultivated that goodness that already resides inside of them.
4. Xunzi – the evil of human nature
However Mencius was not the only one who attempted to fill the void left by Confucius. In stark contrast to Mencius, another disciple named Xunzi (312–230 BC) believed that human nature was essentially evil. He lived and taught just after Mencius, and explicitly interacted with Mencius’ belief in the essential goodness of human nature.
Mencius states that man is capable of learning because his nature is good, but I say that this is wrong. It indicates that he has not really understood man’s nature nor distinguished properly between the basic nature and conscious activity.
Xunzi taught that humans are born with natural instincts – evil ones – that, if not guided and controlled, led to bad behaviour and social disruption. He writes unequivocally that,
Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity.
The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.
He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.
Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into license and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost.
Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.
However Xunzi believed that it was possible for humans to be transformed through observing ritual practices (li), so that harmony rather than disorder would prevail in the world. According to Xunzi, these ritual practices served to restrict and control human appetites and desires that rage within ourselves, giving them their proper, orderly expression.
In several places Xunzi makes use of the analogy of how a bent piece of wood may be straightened, or how a piece of metal may be sharpened, as a way to explain the role of this moral education. He writes that,
A warped piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape before it can become straight; a piece of blunt metal must wait until it has been whetted on a grindstone before it can become sharp.
Similarly, since man’s nature is evil, it must wait for the instructions of a teacher before it can become upright, and for the guidance of ritual principles before it can become orderly.
If men have no teachers to instruct them, they will be inclined towards evil and not upright; and if they have no ritual principles to guide them, they will be perverse and violent and lack order.
You can see that in line with both Confucius and Mencius, Xunzi also acknowledges the place of education in training a person to become good.
On first glance, it can seem as though what we have here is a debate about human nature that is similar to the debate in Western theology between Calvinism and Arminianism. After all, within Confucianism we seem to have two poles of opinion: one which holds to the essential evil of human nature (Xunzi), and another which holds to the essential goodness of human nature (Mencius).
However it’s important for us to note that this is not really the case. Because both Mencius and Xunzi believe in the perfectibility of the person through means of education. While it is true that Xunzi teaches that human nature is evil, he still believes in the essential rationality of the person, and the ability to choose that which is good. In Xunzi’s thought, evil resides in our passions – but it does not touch our mind.
Here is a contemporary assessment of Xunzi’s teaching about the mind. Notice how the mind is able to choose to do good:
By stressing that human nature is evil, Xunzi singled out the cognitive function of the mind (human rationality) as the basis for morality. We become moral by voluntarily harnessing our desires and passions to act in accordance with societal norms. This is alien to our nature but perceived by our mind as necessary for both survival and well-being.
Tu Weiming, “Confucius and Confucianism”.
By contrast, Reformed Christians believe that the Bible teaches that our will, and even our thinking is affected by the fall (eg. Romans 1:21ff), and so unregenerate people are unable to choose to do good. In theology, this is referred to as the noetic effects of the fall and makes essential the work of regeneration.
And of course Mencius’ understanding of the goodness of humans is clearly at odds with the Bible’s understanding of the fall. Far from being ‘naturally good’, passages like Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5 argue for a much bleaker assessment of the human condition. Mencius’ position actually shares similarities with a Christian heresy called Pelagianism.
Therefore while the poles of thought in Confucianism might seem to be analogous to the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, it is actually more analogous to the differences between Arminianism and Pelagianism.
This means that the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism may actually lead to a tendency towards Arminianism at best – and Pelagianism at worst. Because historically, these have been the classical categories for understanding human nature.
Could this account for preaching and evangelism which only addresses the will? rituals that highlight human decision making? Could this account for preaching styles that holds up moral examples for people to follow?
In any case, it highlights that, at the very least, in discussions about Calvinism vs Arminianism, we won’t simply be contending with exegetical questions. We will also be striving against a long-standing, historical commitment to the ability of the mind to choose to do good…
Here are Chinese Church English ministry moves for Sydney for 2013:
Joanne began a women’s ministry role at EFCA East Lindfield. She had previously been studying at MTC.
Jason Cho joins CABC West Ryde. He is in his final year of SMBC and was previously from Sae Soon Presbyterian Church.
Andrew Bardsley becomes full time youth pastor at WSCCC. He was previously serving in a part time capacity.
Alistair Chiu moves from St George Anglican Church, Hurstville to minister at Watermark Community Church in Hong Kong. He is their Associate Pastor of Church Community.
Ola Odejayi becomes pastor of the English Ministry at Baulkham Hills Chinese Alliance Church.
Steve Turner left Central Baptist Church and takes up a ministry role at Grace CCC Kogarah.
In August Richard Chiu began ministry at Lidcombe Anglican Church. He has formerly served at Hebron Chinese Alliance Church, and studied at SMBC.
Megan Du Tuoit moves from Beverly Hills Chinese Baptist Church to Gordon Baptist Church in October as an Associate Pastor.
Alan Au began studies at Moore College, and also serves at North Side Chinese Alliance Church. He has been doing HGP with the Sydney Uni EU.
Simon Nagel began studies at Moore College, and also serves at Hurstville Chinese Baptist Church.
Lucy He began an MTS traineeship at FOCUS UNSW.
Dave Martin of Hebron Chinese Alliance Church was ordained.
David Chen of EFCA East Lindfield was ordained.
Mark Leong graduates from Moore College. In the new year, he begins ministry with the City Bible Forum.
Mark Boyley is leaving WSCCC. In the new year he will return to MBM Rooty Hill to minister.
Vincent Cheung is leaving Hurstville / Riverwood Chinese Baptist Church. In the new year he will take up further studies.
Here are other Chinese ministry moves
North Shore Community Christian Church Sydney (NSCCCS) merges with Gordon Baptist Church (GBC) on 1 January 2013.
Candy Leung begins ministry as Children’s Ministry Worker at CABC Thronleigh in Feb 2013.
Annie Chen begins ministry as Mandarin Ministry Worker at CABC Thronleigh in Feb 2013.
Daniel Wu left MBM and takes up a role in the Old Testament department at Moore College.
Tim Hu left FOCUS UNSW and is now producing Mandarin resources for Moore College and Matthias Media.
Kevin Chien takes up the role of Mandarin pastor at FOCUS UNSW.
Sam Wong leaves Baulkham Hills Chinese Alliance.
Sylvia Yeung begins ministry with the English side of Perth Alliance Church. She formerly served at Gracepoint Lidcombe and studied at SMBC.
Raymond Leung leaves Bankstown Anglican to do Mandarin ministry at St Andrews Kowloon.
Lorinda Chick served for a while at Chinese Lutheran Church in Epping.
Got any corrections? Know of any other ministry moves? Let me know!
Okay, I also recently worked up some stats on Vietnamese in Australia, so I thought I might as well share it here too. It might help some of you be strategic in your ministry… although really, the stats really shocked me. I do hope it spurs us into prayer and action!
At the 2011 ABS census there were 199,248 people of Vietnamese ancestry living in Australia. This represents 0.93% of the overall population.
First of all, here is the age profile of the Vietnamese population in Australia (click all graphs for a larger version).
Here is the age profile, but this time broken up into the different states. As you can see, the Vietnamese population is predominantly found in NSW and Victoria.
Here is another graph showing the distribution as a pie chart. NSW and VIC together account for almost 74% of all the Vietnamese in Australia.
In Sydney, here is a map of where the Vietnamese are living. As you can see, it’s predominantly in the South-West of Sydney, around the two geographic centres of Bankstown, and Cabramatta / Canley Vale.
Here is a listing of the top areas in NSW (these are SA2 ABS geographic divisions, which are larger than suburbs). If you’re looking to plant a Vietnamese ministry, then these are the areas to target!
How has the Vietnamese population grown over the past few years? Between the 2006 and 2011 census dates, the Vietnamese population has grown from 158,036 to 199,248. That’s quite a significant growth of 26.1% – by comparison, Australia as a whole grew by only 8.3%!
Here is a graph built with data from the Department of Immigration showing historic migration levels from Vietnam – you can see there the huge influx after the Vietnam War in the late 1970’s and through to the 80’s. But since then there has still been steady growth in the Vietnamese population.
Here is a graph of the age profile from 2006 and 2011 (I’ve aged the 2006 figures by 5 years). People who have migrated between those two census dates would be represented by the area between the two lines – and you can see that migration growth has particularly been in the 15 to 29 age bracket – and especially in the 20-24 age bracket.
But here is where it gets really concerning… This pie graph shows you the religion of the Vietnamese in Australia. A huge 50.5% identify themselves as Buddhists, and 29.2% identify themselves as Roman Catholics. But by comparison, the number of Protestant Christians (including Pentecostals) is very, very small – overall, it’s about 3.25% (or 6,466 people).
Here is a graph showing the age profile of different religions – you can see (or rather, not see) how tiny is the number of Protestants across the whole age range. However if you compare to the overall age profile (the very first graph) you can see that there is perhaps some sign of dissatisfaction in both Buddhism and Catholicism (note that the colours of this line graph are not the same as the colours in the pie graph above).
Here is a graph from showing church attendance for one Christian denomination – the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA). The C&MA are the major Protestant denomination among the Vietnamese. However you can see that there has been negligible growth among these Vietnamese congregations over the years.
Overall, the figures look quite troubling: a growing population (26.1% between 2006 and 2011) – yet with few Protestant Christians (3.25% at 2011), and negligible growth among ministries over the years.
What implications do these stats have for ministry among the Vietnamese? What does this mean for evangelism? And what role will the next generation of Vietnamese Christian leadership play?
I recently worked up some stats on Koreans in Australia, and thought I’d share it with others who might also be interested in getting access to this information. Some of this data is based on the 2011 ABS census, and some is drawn from more recent data from the Department of Immigration.
At the 2011 ABS census there were 84,632 people of Korean ancestry living in Australia. This represents 0.39% of the overall population.
This first of all is the age profile of the Korean population of Australia. As you can see, it is very strong in the 20 to 40 age bracket.
Here I’ve split up the age profile into the different states. You can see that NSW is the place to be.
Notice also the significant showing in the 0-4 years section of the graph – this suggests that people are having kids.
Here is another graph showing the distribution of Koreans across the different states. A huge 58.3% of Koreans live in NSW alone!
And in Sydney, here is a map of where Koreans live. You can see significant clusters in the Strathfield, Chatswood, Lidcombe, Eastwood areas.
Here is a table with numbers for the top 12 areas on this map:
|Strathfield||2614||Hornsby – Waitara||1379|
|Lidcombe – Regents Park||2140||Canterbury Sth – Campsie||1346|
|Chatswood East – Artarmon||1697||West Ryde – Meadowbank||1304|
|Epping – Nth Epping||1674||Carlingford||1256|
|Eastwood – Denistone||1625||Sydney – Haymarket – The Rocks||1237|
|Concord West – North Strathfield||1480||Homebusy Bay – Silverwater||1174|
There has been significant growth in the Korean population between the 2006 and 2011 census dates. Here is a graph that shows you that growth:
That’s a growth of 44.8% over five years from 58,441 at the 2006 ABS census, to 84,632 at the 2011 ABS census. By comparison the general population of Australia only grew by 8.3% during this same time!
And this one shows you that it is primarily the younger segment that is experiencing growth. Here I’ve shifted the 2006 age profile five years across so it sits right under the 2011 age profile – and you can see the growth in the population over time (represented by the area between the graphs).
Here is another graph, this time drawn from data from the Department of Immigration. This one shows the permanent additions to the Australian population from Korea, from 1996-97 all the way to 2011-12. You can see that there has been increasing growth in the Korean population from 2000-2007, and sustained growth since then.
What about in terms of religion? Here is what Koreans indicated in terms of their religion.
Significant numbers of Koreans identified themselves as Presbyterian & Reformed (23.2%), so that just under 45% profess to be Protestant Christians of some kind.
A significant proportion also identified themselves as Roman Catholic (22.6%), and No religion (23.1%).
Given all that – what do you think are the implications for ministry and evangelism? What are the implications for student ministry, workplace ministry and kids ministry into the future?
In a previous post I wrote about the the doctrine of the mean (中庸) and how it might influence Chinese Christian leadership. This is one part of the overall Confucian worldview, and significantly influences how leaders conduct themselves. Here is a key passage that speaks about it:
The Master said, “There was Shun: He indeed was greatly wise! Shun loved to question others, and to study their words, though they might be shallow. He concealed what was bad in them and displayed what was good. He took hold of their two extremes, determined the Mean, and employed it in his government of the people (執其兩端，用其中於民). It was by this that he was Shun!”
Doctrine of the Mean, 6.
Rather than giving themselves to extreme positions, the superior man holds to the mean (or middle position). And the virtuous leader makes use of this in the exercise of his governing.
Here is another quote, this time from the Analects where James Legge translates 2.14 as:
The Master said, “The superior man is catholic (周) and not partisan (比). The mean man is partisan and not catholic.”
Analects of Confucius, 2.14.
The idea here being that the superior man doesn’t take one particular side, but is able to be friendly and conciliatory and understanding of all sides. This is seen as a virtue – the virtue of being zhong (中). In the Doctrine of the Mean, this is spoken of as a “friendly harmony.”
Therefore, the superior man cultivates a friendly harmony, without being weak. How firm is he in his energy! He stands erect in the middle, without inclining to either side. How firm is he in his energy!
Doctrine of the Mean, 10.
It’s important to note that it is not seen as cowardice to avoid either position – it is actually seen as virtue to see all positions, and to be ‘catholic’ (周).
2. The Doctrine of the Mean in conversations
Today what I want to do is flesh out what this looks like in conversations, and hopefully shed light on some of the strange conversation dynamics you might come across in Confucian-influenced cultures. Because it could well be that what is driving your conversation partner is actually the Confucian virtue of zhong (中)!
Notice what happens in the following conversation. In these conversations, there is a conflict between the blue people, and red people. They are at two extremes. But notice what happens when a green person speaks to them…
The green person identifies that there are two extremes – but doesn’t want to take either position. Just like Shun in Doctrine of the Mean 6, this green person has identified the mean and now adopts it as his position. And it’s a position that does not ascribe any real blame to anyone – in this case, it’s just a matter of miscommunication.
But on hearing this moderate response from the green person, the blue person is startled. Why can’t this green person see what is clearly going on? And so they press their case a second time.
The blue person wants to argue the green person over to his side – but for the green person, there is no virtue in that. Instead it is actually virtuous not to hold either position. It is virtuous to remain in the middle, exhibiting the virtue of being zhong (中).
Notice also that when pushed further, the green person now begins to assign blame – and it’s to the one who is arguing forcefully. He is the one who is seen to be causing trouble. Frustrating for the blue person – but it makes sense within the Confucian worldview.
Notice now what happens when the green person goes over to speak to the red person. In a similar way, the red person puts forward his view, painting the situation in polar extremes. How will the green person respond?
The green person responds in the same kind of way – he notices the extremes, identifies the middle position, and adopts it – which appears conciliatory and virtuous. And once again, it’s a position that doesn’t assign blame to anyone – he affirms that both parties have a good heart.
However it’s not always the case that your conversation partner will take the middle position. And it has to do with whether you ‘belong’ with them or not. If they think you don’t ‘belong’ to their group, then you are essentially seen as an outsider – and they will play the Doctrine of the Mean game with you to be virtuous. But if you are seen as an insider, then you already belong in their eyes, and they will not feel compelled to play the Doctrine of the Mean game. Instead they will feel free to echo what you feel.
In this scenario notice how the dark red conversation partner doesn’t feel the need to identify and embody the mean. And it’s because they already belong. They are already part of the group.
This also means that the way in which someone speaks to you can also tell you a lot about how they see you – whether as an insider, or as an outsider to their group.
This dynamic could mean that adopting a more moderate position yourself in conversation might lead to quite different outcomes. In the following conversation we are back to the conversation between the blue person and the green person. But this time the blue person identifies with what the red person says. However the green person is smart enough to identify that there are two extremes at play – and the position the green person adopts is much more helpful.
3. Differing values in conversation
This dynamic may help explain what is going on in otherwise strange conversations. It could be that conflicting values are at play – on the one hand the arguing for and scoring of logical points, and on the other hand the identifying of the middle ground and embodying the virtue of zhong (中). And so you may find that conversations become less about rightness, and more about position. And you may find that discussions are concluded less on evidence, and more on moderation.
Should the virtue of zhong (中) play the determining factor in the making of decisions? should it subvert the place of evidence and good argumentation?
From the Christian point of view, I don’t believe so. Because ultimately the form of revelation given to us does not discount evidence and good argumentation, but instead has a good place for it. Paul is at pains to lay out evidence for the resurrection (1 Cor 15). The apostles are careful in their argumentation in the letters. The apostles went to the temple courts and reasoned with those who would listen (Acts 17). The form of God’s revelation to us shows that good reasons and sound thinking do take pride of place.
At a supporting level the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean does alert us to the relational aspect of conversations. It’s not just a matter of winning the argument – but of winning over the other person. And so in this regard it’s interesting to see how Paul’s strong command to stop the false teachers in 1 Timothy 1 is paired with his strangely quiescent encouragement in 1 Timothy 4 to win over his detractors by his exemplary manner of life. It doesn’t negate the public directive in chapter 1 (and even in chapter 4 he is to “command and teach these things” v.11) – but at a supporting level Paul is aware of the power of personal example.
Yet in Christianity this never gets in the way of speaking the truth, and having discernment in church matters. In Christianity there is truth that exists irrespective of the positions people hold. And in Christianity we are never meant to exemplify zhong (中) - but instead to choose. To choose gladly that which is good, to love fiercely that which is good, to proclaim passionately the one who is good.
In imperial China district magistrates were placed all over the empire in order to administer the realm. Their position combined both judicial and administrative roles – and as such, these local magistrates collected taxes, settled disputes, tried criminal cases and ensured public order.
But because of the very size of the empire, these local officials held considerable power in their area. By and large, their word was law. And so if you had a problem with your district magistrate – if you felt they were corrupt or abusing their authority or levied unfair taxes – who could you go to?
Nevertheless there was an awareness that local officials were not always going to be fair and impartial in the exercise of their duties. And so if a citizen felt that they could get no justice in their part of the kingdom, they had one recourse open to them – and that was to petition the emperor directly through the petition system (xinfang, 信访).
Petitioners would travel from the countryside to the court of the emperor and present their petition before him as a last resort. It could be the case that the official in your village was corrupt – but at least the ruler, the one endowed with the mandate of heaven, at least he would have the fairness to hear your case. At least he will have the power over the local official to bring you justice.
And the place where people with grievances would go to present their petition? That is known as Tiananmen Square (天安門). That is the significance of Tiananmen Square for the Chinese – traditionally, it is the place where you would bring your complaint before the emperor.
While it has its origins in imperial China, the petition system was revived in the 1950s under Communist rule as a means for people to make suggestions, find redress for their grievances against local authorities, and highlight corruption. The modern xinfang system includes a whole network of petition bureaus in provincial centres, and the idea is that people can seek help at the local level, and then at the provincial level, before heading in to the capital. They may do this through emails, calls, and faxes, or meet an official in person. And today many petitioners still travel from the countryside in order to have their grievances heard.
Because there are implications for local authorities when groups of people petition at higher levels (shangfang, 上访), this practice is actively discouraged by local authorities. Large signs have been spotted in the countryside warning people against “illegal petitioning” (see below). Hard men loiter around railway stations to identify and waylay people from the provinces who are coming in to the capital to petition the government. And petitioners who do eventually make it to the capital often find it an unbearably slow process.
It is a sign of desperation that people pursue the petition system. But for a man who has unjustly lost his livelihood due to some corrupt dealings, or whose only child has been killed by a careless official, this is often their avenue of last recourse.
It is interesting to reflect that the ancient xinfang system reveals an awareness that local officials may still be prone to moral failure, and consequently the need to build a kind of check against the abuse of authority. Much of Confucian society is predicated on the essential goodness of humans – yet here is one instance where that is not the case.
At the same time it also reveals an overwhelming trust in the uprightness and willingness of the ruler to step in and act justly. One can see that this reflects the doctrine of the mandate of heaven (tianming, 天命) – that the ruler alone is entrusted with a divine mandate to rule. And as such, there is the implicit trust that he will always be right, and can do no wrong. That is why the petitioner appeals to him – and not a jury of his peers.
What it also reveals is the strong awareness of injustice, and a yearning for justice, even if it means going against cultural norms – leaving one’s village, going over the head of the local official, creating trouble in the capital… We are built to want justice. However it is doubtful that petitioners always got the justice they sought after – both in ancient and in modern times.
Despite our longing for justice, and the structures that we build – both ancient and modern, Eastern and Western – it is a reality that evildoers sometimes do escape justice on this earth. Often they dine well, often their sleep is untroubled, and often they die a comfortable death. Despite our best efforts, justice is often elusive. This is the harsh reality that Asaph so hauntingly gives voice to in Psalm 73:1-14.
For those who long to see justice done, the news that there is a judgment after death can in fact be welcome news. This is partly why the message of the New Testament is such good news. Because it is good news that there will one day be a righteous judge who cannot be corrupted. It is good news that there will be a judge who sees every hidden act, and who will judge the world with justice (2 Timothy 4.1).
In the end it will be the Son of God – and not the Son of Heaven (tianzi, 天子) – who will bring us the justice we have longed for on this earth.