South China Morning Post covers church split over democracy movement

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Three years ago, we covered the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and how many Christians were involved in those protests. Three years later, churches are still split over it and the South China Morning Post provides the latest update.

As you read it, think of the similarities between the stories of these Chinese and the more familiar (to us in the States) stories of Americans who likewise got involved in politics during last year’s elections.

In both cases, the questions are the same. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar?

It was a Sunday in late September and Reverend Philip Woo was enjoying his day of rest, taking afternoon tea with a friend at the Admiralty Centre, blissfully unaware of the higher plan God had for him that day – to play his part in a movement that would go on to shape Hong Kong’s political history.
Across the road from Woo, a founder of the civil disobedience movement Occupy Central, Benny Tai, was preparing to rally protesters outside the Central Government Complex, setting in motion a 79-day demonstration in which tens of thousands of Hongkongers would block roads in the business district to demand the right to democratically elect their leader, the chief executive. It was a demonstration that would polarise Hong Kong, strain the city’s relationship with the mainland Chinese government, and leave a question mark for years to come about the political future of the famously free-wheeling former British colony.
Back in 2014, from his table on the second floor at the Admiralty Centre, Woo could not see Tai and the protesters gathering – any more than he could have foreseen the countless twists and turns the political saga would one day take. But he could hear them, and a little voice inside him told him to investigate.
Once on the street, he could see clearly. He could see the crowds forming, and he could see the mounting ranks of riot police. And when he saw those same policemen firing tear gas into the assembled masses one thing became clear in his mind: that his faith in God demanded he act.

What follows is a fascinating look at several of the clergymen involved –- or refusing to be involved –- in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy fight with mainland China.

But Christian leaders have, at least until now, largely kept silent on the issue. Many have no doubt been dissuaded by the vociferous response that met those few preachers – including Hong Kong’s Archbishop Kwong – who dared put their head above both parapet and pulpit to comment on the movement.
But there are other reasons for their reticence, too. While most of the soul-searching analysis of the past three years has focused on the political significance of Occupy Central – specifically, the future of democracy in Hong Kong – religion’s role in the protests throws up troubling questions for the territory’s Christian leaders, not only regarding the influence of their religion on politics, but questions of a deeper, more personal and philosophical nature.
Is it faith that should inform one’s politics, or politics that should inform one’s faith?

The story goes on to set Woo, a former Presbyterian, against that of  Peter Lo, a Pentecostal who was ordained by Woo two years ago, yet has turned against him on this one issue. We also meet a Methodist pastor whose church was next to where demonstrations were being held and whose decision to merely give demonstrators water to drink put him in the crosshairs of the authorities.

What these Chinese Christians are facing is what German Christians faced in the 1930s and what Christians in Central and Latin America faced in the 1980s. At what point do you go along with the government and at what point do you seek to undermine it? The ones who worked against the Third Reich, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid for it with their lives but ended up on the right side of history.

Ditto for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, whose 100th birthday was last month. One of the reasons that the cause for his sainthood was held up for so long was the debate over whether he was martyred for his beliefs or assassinated for his politics. 

Back to the South China Morning Post, its article also tells about a battle within a parish after the local Anglican archbishop gave a sermon criticizing the democracy movement. Reporters interviewed several Anglicans who either left the church over the archbishop’s remarks or know people who did.

The article did a very credible job of showing the nuances of the debate and the humanity of the people on both sides. It concludes:

The debate thrown up by Occupy Central goes far beyond the boundaries of Hong Kong. It speaks to universal themes about religion, politics, about how and why people choose to live their lives in one way rather than another. It not only poses the question of whether religion should inform politics, or politics should inform religion – it goes beyond this to question whether it even makes sense to separate or distinguish the two, or whether politics and religion can be two sides to one coin – ways in which people decide their lives.

Oddly, none of the protagonists brought up how Christ himself handled politics. Although he took pains to remain above the fray, his enemies used politics to get him arrested, then crucified.

So, it’s a 2,000-year-old debate. Kudos to the Post for untangling the debate for the English-speaking world, identifying the major players and helping us to understand the competing world views behind them all.

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