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Why TBN's Paul Crouch Does Not Understand China

Friday, August 24, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags: ,

Commentary by Alex Buchan

Paul Crouch got it wrong. In fact, Christian leaders only get it that wrong once or twice a decade. The last time a Christian leader visited China and swallowed and disgorged official propaganda so obligingly for his Chinese hosts was Dr. George Carey, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, in September 1994.

Carey, with 10 days' experience of China behind him, exited by rebuking all those who smuggle Bibles into China, only to return to the United Kingdom oblivious of the colossal irony that it was the 500th anniversary of the birth of William Tyndale, martyred for smuggling the Bible into England.

Crouch is president of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which has its headquarters in Southern California and carries mainly -- though not exclusively -- Charismatic Christian television programming, often with a prosperity-gospel slant.

On May 16, Crouch concluded a week-long visit to China with a now infamous press conference. One thing emerged from his remarks: He was taken aback at the progress China had made in the area of religious freedom. That Christians could actually meet in churches, print and buy Bibles legally, and meet in homes for Bible study unmolested by police clearly came as a revelation to Mr. Crouch.

As he mentioned each "freedom" he said, "This could never have happened a number of years ago." He was moved to declare, "I believe many Americans and people around the world have a distorted and unbalanced view of China from reporting on Chinese progress in human rights and religious freedoms."

But one must ask, where on earth did he get the idea that things had NOT changed in China since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when churches were closed, pastors imprisoned and Bibles banned? Are there really organizations making the case that it is just as bad in China today for Christians as it was then? How could he, in an age of the information explosion, have managed to avoid a more nuanced presentation of the realities of present day China?

What may have happened to Crouch is that he swallowed some Western extremist propaganda about the Chinese church, which gives the impression that all Christians in China are either in jail, just out of it, or about to go into it again. Perhaps he sat on his couch on his "Praise the Lord" TV program and heard only of martyrs, of beatings, and of arrests.

When he finally arrived in China and saw that this was not the case everywhere, he fell into the same trap and swallowed the exact opposite propaganda, that there was complete religious freedom for all.

But even so, there is no excusing this kind of naivete. Most evangelical leaders get themselves properly briefed on the nuances of the situation before entering the country. Dr. Luis Palau made his first visit to China at the same time as Crouch, speaking in official churches in Shanghai, and despite some speculation about the possibility of holding a crusade in a Shanghai stadium, was careful to avoid the gaffes made by his more infamous evangelist colleague. And nuanced presentations are readily available from such staid sources as the U.S. State Department.

But it does raise the issue of whether a nuanced appreciation of the realities of the Chinese religious situation is getting across at all to the likes of Crouch, especially over the Western media. How do you report in 30 seconds that, while not all China's Christians face persecutions, they all face restrictions? How do you communicate to the Western mind the essential paradox of the Chinese religious situation -- that there is more freedom AND more persecution?

Crouch was rightly criticized upon his return to America for giving an overly optimistic assessment of the state of religious freedom. But his critics must be careful not to repeat the same simplistic propaganda that may have caused the problem in the first place, that all the house church millions meet in hushed rooms in fear of constant harassment and jailing. The reality is paradoxical, and complicated.

In the very week that 10 house church leaders were arrested in Guangdong province, I visited two house churches in Xian and Chengdu. Both were filled with between 30 and 70 young people, crowded into a flat and all singing at the top of their lungs.

"Aren't you afraid the neighbors will complain to the police?" I asked the organizer. He replied, "No, there's no problem; the police don't bother us if we stay under a hundred in size. We are free."

Both are realities deserving of equal reporting, yet only one will make a headline ... the arrests. One cannot write an article entitled, "House church in Xian meets freely again for the 300th time since 1994."

Yet neither are the members of the house church free. They cannot evangelize on the street corner. They are not free to grow higher than 100 or they will be coerced into registration. Neither are they free to build their own church, or start their own seminaries.

So China's religious policy remains restrictive for every Christian, even when they are considerably better off now than 30 years ago. Progress does not equal freedom. Just because a church has no martyrs does not mean it is no longer a suffering church!

There was definitely more religious freedom in the late eighties than in the late nineties. And the summer 1999 crackdown on the indigenous folk religious movement, Falun Gong, has resulted in greater surveillance on Christian house church activity since then.

One has to say it loud and clear. Things are better for the majority of China's Christians, but they are worse for many other Christians, especially leaders who demand the freedoms we in the West take for granted. There is more freedom AND more persecution ... at the same time.

For Li Dexian, house church evangelist in southern China, it is not better today than 10 years ago. Then he was able to lead a small house church without interference. Now he is arrested every time he wishes to hold a Bible study. For Lin Xiang Gao (Samuel Lamb), pastor of Guangzhou's largest unofficial church, it is better than 10 years ago, when he was constantly harassed and threatened with closure. Lin has not been strongly harassed in the past few years. For Xu Yongze, leader of the Born Again movement, nothing has changed. He was in jail in 1989; he is in jail in 2000.

More freedom AND more persecution -- the China paradox that Crouch does not yet grasp.

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Used with permission.

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