A brave pastor courageously witnesses against an all-powerful government, knowing he cannot prevail in the secular sense of the word. Stories of this genre almost always appeal to me, even though sometimes I disagree with the cause in question. This week I include two such accounts, both fresh and contemporary. How do you react to them?
Chinese Christian pastor Wang Yi was sentenced by a Chinese court to nine years in prison in December 2019. This is not surprising in authoritarian China. As you can imagine, the charges have nothing to do with sexual misconduct, embezzlement of church funds or anything deserving of real punishment.
Pastor Wang is going to prison because the congregation he serves ignores the extremely narrow limitations placed on Chinese Christianity. Wang’s church in Chengdu, the Early Rain Covenant Church, is an unregistered church, meaning it has no government permission to exist. This Protestant congregation annually has a worship service commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, an event the Chinese government has tried to erase from memory. The congregation also initiates repeated petitions to the Chinese government asking for more religious freedom.
Many members of the Early Rain congregation have been detained, harassed and even tortured; the Chinese government has shut down and razed many unregistered churches.
Wang was convicted of inciting citizens to subvert the government and also of conducting an illegal business operation, presumably because his church operates a seminary, a school and a bookstore. Wang, reflecting on what was inevitably going to happen to him, wrote prior to his trial, “Regardless of what crime the government charges me with … it is merely a lie and temptation of demons.”
Much closer to home, seven Catholics (six laypersons and one priest) were convicted in Brunswick last October for breaking into the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base, home to our nuclear submarine fleet. The group, known as Swords into Plowshares, stretched crime scene tape over portions of the base, sprayed graffiti messages (such as “Disarm,” “Love Your Enemies”) and poured human blood on the base to protest our nation’s nuclear armaments. They entered the base on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. One of the protesters was the granddaughter of the famous anti-war activist and welfare reformer Dorothy Day.
These seven activists were convicted of conspiracy, trespassing, destruction of federal property, etc. The Jesuit priest, 70-year-old Steve Kelly, refused bail, spending Christmas in prison, often in solitary confinement for refusing to participate in work requirements. The group has not yet been sentenced, but the charges carry a maximum punishment of 25 years in prison, and it is likely they’ll spend at least two or three years in prison. The judge refused to allow religious motivation to be introduced into the trial as a mitigating factor.
What do you make of these stories? Do you gravitate more sympathetically toward one than the other? In terms of secular power each action was doomed to failure, but in both situations a witness has been made. There are hundreds of ways to be committed to the life of Christ and the Kingdom of God. What is yours?