First, They Came for the First Commandment
“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3 ESV)
These words were displayed underneath the pulpit of a church in China until November, when provincial authorities forcibly removed them.
An outlet focused on human rights in China has reported that in November of last year a squad from the “patrol inspection team” for supervising religious practice in Henan Province arrived at a Three-Self Patriotic Movement church in Luoyang city. The squad combed through the church, and a member of the squad stopped and settled on a display of the Ten Commandments under the pulpit. The official determined that the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” was inconsistent with Chinese policy, and they proceeded to strike it from the display.
According to the outlet Bitter Winter Magazine, the Chinese official responded to the pastor by saying, “Xi Jinping opposes this statement. Who dares not to cooperate? If anyone doesn’t agree, they are fighting against the country. This is a national policy. You should have a clear understanding of the situation. Don’t go against the government.”
This effort by Chinese authorities to censor the scriptures is an outrageous attempt to assert control on not just the practice of Christianity but the meaning of Christianity itself.
There are several striking elements to this story. First, this incident happened at a Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) church. The TSPM is the official, state-sanctioned Protestant movement of churches in China, and the TSPM operates under the provincial and municipal councils’ control. This means the state, mediated by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, already controls the churches that are a part of the movement because the TSPM already has the right to censor and control its churches.
It is therefore striking that the government, which already has mechanisms for control of and influence over TSPM churches, felt it was necessary to enter a TSPM church and censor its message. We might expect this kind of egregious, direct interference at an unsanctioned house church, but this kind of intimidation at a TSPM church represents a dramatic escalation of pressure on freedom of religion in Henan Province.
The TSPM is certainly not monolithic, and the churches that are a part of the movement vary in terms of their commitment to orthodox Christianity. However, this incident should provide a cautionary tale to churches in China and elsewhere who may be tempted to allow the government to control aspects of their churches in order to appease government demands. Once the government has a foothold, a more authoritarian regime can always exploit and expand existing control mechanisms for its own purposes.
Second, the Chinese government is attempting to alter and control the doctrine of TSPM churches directly rather than mediated through the TSPM structure. Since 2017, there have been reports of demolition and consolidation of TSPM churches and the removal of crosses and other identifying markers. But this move represents a new escalation into the way the government is controlling content of the message being shared at TSPM churches.
Since 2017, there have also been reports of this kind of pressure on the unauthorized house churches—burning Bibles, forced recantations, and the installation of sophisticated surveillance devices. China, of course, has also cracked down on Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province, imprisoning them in “reeducation camps,” conducting mass surveillance, and forcing some to criticize Islam or renounce their faith entirely. And so, while it has been clear that the government has been ramping up efforts to control and intimidate Christian house churches and Uighur Muslims, it was less clear the extent to which the Chinese government had intended to apply similar pressure to TSPM churches.
Evidently, President Xi’s program of “sinicization” of religious practice in China is expansive, dramatic, and continuing to unfold since his 2016 speech announcing the program.
Third, Chinese authorities took this action just one week before the government’s hearing as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a sort of comprehensive human rights review with input from a panel of the UN Human Rights Council, civil society organizations, and the rest of the international community.
By all accounts, the Chinese government made it through this hearing with near universal praise, particularly from parts of the developing world that have enjoyed the government’s deepest foreign direct investment. This is due in part to China pressuring these countries in the months leading up to the public hearing.
If the Chinese government is brazen enough to walk into a state-sanctioned church and remove one of the Ten Commandments the same month it will endure scrutiny from the international community on its human rights record, there may be dark times ahead for the faithful in China.
One of the most troubling questions this raises is, where do we go from here? The UPR review illustrated the international community’s lack of willingness to confront China’s flagrant violations of its citizens’ religious freedom rights, including those of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. Chinese economic power—not just through trade but also international investment—is on the rise, and the Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness and capability to effectively deploy that power to insulate itself from international criticism and pressure.
Confronting China on its human rights abuses will require individual members of the international community to take risks and demonstrate that the principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are worth defending and advocating for. The next year will be a crucial test of the international community’s resolve to do so in the face of an ascendant and emboldened Chinese regime.
Travis Wussow is vice president for public policy and general counsel at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington, DC, office. He received a BBA in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a JD from The University of Texas School of Law.
Photo Credit: Police and authorities in Henan, China, raided a Christian church on Sept. 5, 2018. Church crosses were removed and Christian slogans on the walls were erased. Photo by J Jonathan Liu, shared by Voice of America.