It's a saying that I have heard repeated time and time again by people who study China or work there on issues of human rights: Anything that you want to say about religion in China is true, somewhere in China. You want persecution of minority religions? Check. You want look-the-other-way toleration of minority religious groups? Check. You want gigantic underground Pentecostal house-church networks and loyal-to-Rome Catholic parishes? Check. You want strict enforcement of laws that push believers toward the state-recognized religious bodies? Check.
So where did this gigantic earthquake hit, on the religion-in-China map?
So far -- in my rush through the New York Times reports -- I have not seen the kinds of, yes, theodicy questions that you would expect to see in stories about a similar tragedy in predominately Christian or Islamic settings. So if there are people there crying out to God, what are they crying out and to whom?
It is a real struggle to work through this story, in particular, that ran with the headline, "'No Hope' for Children Buried in Earthquake." This focuses on the collapsed school in Dujiangyan where hundreds of children are dead:
Little remained of the original structure of the school. No standing beams, no fragments of walls. The rubble lay low against the wet earth. Dozens of people gathered around in the schoolyard, clawing at the debris, kicking it, screaming at it. Soldiers kept others from entering.
A man and woman walked away from the rubble together. He sheltered her under an umbrella as she wailed, "My child is dead! Dead!"
As dawn crept across this shattered town ... it illuminated rows and rows of apartment blocks collapsed into piles, bodies wedged among the debris, homeless families and their neighbors clustered on the roadside, shielding themselves from the downpour with plastic tarps. The earthquake originated here in the lush farm fields and river valleys of Sichuan Province, killing almost 10,000 people and trapping thousands more.
Click here for the longer Times report containing even more basic facts about the tragedy. But the story, again, lacks a second layer. It's that "Why?" question that would be asked in some cultural contexts, but not in others.
Is that a statement about China? This part of China? Mainstream media assumptions about China? Are the people simply weeping, with no cries to the heavens for answers? Is that kind of silent acceptance -- that that is the reality on the ground in China right now -- a piece of some larger religious or secular view of life and death?
I have questions. I'll keep looking for some answers. Right now, if you search Google News for "China, earthquake, God" this is what you get. Notice the reactions from Iran and from Catholic leaders. Notice that Los Angeles Times report on earthquakes as expressions of the "wrath of God."
The silence is unnerving, to me. Then again, I am a traditional Christian in a culture where the "Why?" question would be automatic.