A City Upon A Hill
By Jinghong Cai
On Sunday, July 6, I attended a church service imbued with patriotic sentiment—my first time to commemorate the Fourth of July in church in the United States. Church members from different countries together sang a special liturgical song—the first and last verse of the American national anthem. As we raised our voices to intone “…Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust,’” I burst into tears. Although I am not a U.S. citizen yet, I can’t help being enormously proud of this country, the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” over which that Star-Spangled Banner is waving.
This emotional celebration of freedom, however, evoked painful recollections of the hardships that fellow Christians in my native China are enduring in their pursuit to have a true Christian church in my home city of Beijing. On June 2, 2011, Time magazine reported such a story. Every Sunday at 8:30 a.m., skinny young girls dressed in jeans and wearing ponytails, elegant couples in their 40s, distinguished men who look like retired teachers all gather with a funny mix of hesitation and bravery on their faces at an unwelcoming square in the middle of the university neighborhood in Beijing. Minutes later, antiriot police intervene and arrest them without encountering any resistance. On the bus that takes them to the police station, they open their prayer books and start singing worship songs.
Those Chinese Christians belong to a non-government Protestant church in Beijing. The name of the church is Shouwang, meaning “keeping watch.” The church leaders’ aim is for their church to be “a city upon a hill,” as Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: the light of the world and a city that is set on a hill, which cannot be hidden.
Members of the Shouwang were detained 1,600 times, 60 members were evicted from their homes and more than 10 lost their jobs because they attended the church’s outdoor worship services or simply because they refused to change their membership to a government-sanctioned church. Many others were sent back to their hometowns, and some were confined to their homes during the weekends. Every time the church members were arrested, the police recorded their phone numbers and addresses. Then they were tracked, blocked at home by the police from Friday evening to Sunday night, and prevented from attending Sunday church service. The church members and their families were constantly intimidated and harassed so that they would give up their true Christian faith. Some of them were tortured and forced to sign a disavowal of their spiritual guide before being released.
Why can’t the church have a specific building to house its congregation and hold services? Chinese law does not explicitly state that churches cannot own property and land, but the Communist Party rules that all land belong to the country and the “people,” and the government gives itself the arbitrary right to give land to or take it away from anyone without due process.
Shouwang started meeting at the founding pastor’s home. With more and more members joining the church, they had to rent a larger place, such as a restaurant or office building, to hold Sunday services. By 2011, the church had more than 1,000 members, and rejected the government’s demand to segregate members into smaller groups, deciding to congregate together. After paying $4 million for a meeting space in a Beijing office building, the church could not get the keys to the building because the authorities pressured the sellers, who were afraid and refused to hand over the keys. Meanwhile, the government threatened other landlords into not leasing any space to the church, leaving the congregation with no place to meet and worship.
Determined to be that “city on the hill” of which Jesus spoke, the church leaders continue preaching in a public park. They said, “We only want one thing: to freely practice our religion.” Becoming a government-sanctioned church means that the pastor has to be chosen by the government, what the pastor preaches is censored by the government, and evangelism is completely banned. As the worshipers at the church said, “we only take Jesus Christ as the head of the church and the Bible as the only moral standard.” This is fundamentally against the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.
Even before coming to the United States, I knew this country was a “Shining City upon a Hill,” just as Puritan John Winthrop preached to the first wave of migrants to America in 1630. I fled from the grip of the Chinese Communist regime and joined the Assembly of God; here I can attend every Sunday church service, freely and joyfully.
In the 20th century, at least two American presidents quoted the “city upon a hill” passage to remind us of our spiritual obligations, not just to each other, but to the whole world. That sense of spiritual obligation is encouraged by the example of the Shouwang Church, an example that moves Chinese Christians and should move Christians all over the world to only serve God as our one and only Master, not the Communist Party or any other anti-Christian form of government, for that matter.
I pray for my brothers and sisters of this church in Beijing. I encourage you to pray with me.
Jinghong Cai is a PhD Candidate in the field of Education at a university in the U.S. and a guest contributor at China Aid. You may follow her on Twitter at @jhcai613