Part 1: A Few Thoughts on Security
by Phil Martin
This is the first post in a series that is long overdue. The intersection of security and missions, particularly in China is a crucial topic for me. What I believe about the questions faced by any long term worker in this country will influence hundreds of other decisions I make down to the basic details of our daily life. As such, this isn’t a topic that I haven’t thought about it. I’ve spent countless hours thinking, discussing, arguing, and praying about what a missionary in China can and should do. The conclusions I’ve come to at this point are probably not very popular. But I feel I owe it to our supporters to give an honest explanation of what we believe and why we believe it.
Before we get started, a few disclaimers as I am about to commit a few cardinal sins among the missionary community.
- I am 27 years old. I’ve only lived on the mission field for about 20 months, and less than three months in the current location. I’m not supposed to have an opinion yet, and certainly shouldn’t voice it.
- Secondly, I’m going to write about “China” a lot. China is a massive country with more complexities than anyone can wrap their head around. To speak of the country as one unit is misleading at best.
- Some of my conclusions fly in the face of the common sense wisdom here in China. I guess that at least 90% of long term workers will strongly disagree with me. Many of them understand what I will talk about much better than I do.
For this post, I’m going to write some of the basic principles that guide my actions. In this post I’m not going to defend them. My goal is rather to give you an idea of where I’m headed and then show my work in the following posts.
Basic Principles (From Minor to Major)
A: Perceptions of Persecution in China are Often Exaggerated
This is really not the main point that I want to make, but we need to start here. If I don’t make this clear, some of things I want to say later won’t make a lot of sense. Here I’m arguing that the frame through which many Christians (not just missionaries) view China is distorted. The following are all misperceptions.
- 2018 is exactly like 1968 or 1988. This is perhaps the most common misperception and the easiest to correct. There have been periods in China’s recent history in which suffering at the hands of the government was intense and widespread. That isn’t the case today. Today it is not the norm for Christians to be beaten, sent to labor camps, or even killed. Nearly all foreign Christian workers now realize this change, but many at home in states still need to update their understanding of the current situation.
- Persecution in China = Persecution in Yemen. There are degrees of persecution. On both the global and historical scale, what is happening in China is mild. There are places where getting baptized will get you killed. China is not one of those places. There were times in history (probably more often than not) when Christians experienced intense economic, social, and physical persecution. To imagine modern China in the same way is to dishonor those martyrs who boldly declared allegiance to Christ in the face of certain death. Not to mention to severely misunderstand the challenges that Church here is actually facing.
- Every Christian in Every Church is Facing Daily Persecution. There are instances of persecution, but it is not the norm. In our city, which is less Christian than the average Chinese city, there are supposedly 2,000+ house churches. These house churches are all technically illegal as they don’t cooperate with the government Three-Self movement. Yet, every Sunday these churches gather to sing, read the word, pray, and fellowship. Surely, many have had run-ins with authorities but the vast majority of the time they continue without restriction. From a China Source survey of over 1000 Chinese Pastors “To put these figures into perspective, it is important to note that, except for having to move the church location and, in the case of full-time workers, of being interrogated, the majority of China respondents indicated that they had not directly experienced any of the specific restrictions mentioned in the survey.”
- A Crackdown is imminent. I’ve been following news on the Chinese church for 9 years. Every 3-6 months there is an article somewhere that the government is preparing for a large-scale crackdown on religious activity. An anecdotal story is related, and then one of two or three people is quoted who invariably paints a very bleak picture. The article usually ends along the lines of, “How will the Church survive this crackdown.” I’m sure there are times when the word crackdown is appropriately used, but most that I’ve seen are nothing more than sensationalism. There have been and will be periods of greater restriction, but crackdown implies that there is a new serious effort to change the status quo. In general, the status quo (if it does change) has changed slowly and inconsistently. The problem is that the current status quo involves the government occasionally making examples out of churches in attention grabbing ways.
- They are listening to our conversation right now. There is no doubt that the Chinese government has the ability to do all sorts of things. They have some of the world’s most advanced hackers who have repeatedly broken into secure US Federal Agencies. I’m sure they can do many things that would terrifying me if fully understood. However, having widespread surveillance ability is not the same as actually surveilling everyone. There isn’t compelling evidence that the saying the word “church” or “Jesus” near your cellphone will lead to persecution. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of Skype conversations being recorded or text message transcripts used in the process of someone getting kicked out. Certainly there are articles that get censored on WeChat. But it doesn’t follow to extrapolate from these exceptions to an Orwellian China complete with thought police. All of the data our team has gathered has confirmed that teaching the bible in Chinese in an unregistered church is 10,000 times more likely to lead to persecution than any online activity or WeChat conversations.
- China is basically the matrix. I’ve come up with some analogies to explain the different perspectives that missionaries have on security in China. They aren’t mutually exclusive and may be caricatures, but they get the point across.
- The Matrix: Every minute inside the matrix the agents are pursuing you. There are probes watching everywhere and every unusual action is dangerous. Covert action is a must. Use burner cellphones, walk home in different ways each night, talk in code, tell no one but your closest friends of your real intentions. (Believe it or not I’ve been told to do all of these.)
- A Dragnet: The government is constantly conducting a coordinated search for bad apples. They are combing through everyone’s data, trash, visa applications, and stopping everyone on the street to ask questions. Anyone suspicious is booted.
- Whack-A-Mole: There is a line which you can not cross. Every activity below the line is fine, but venture your head out into the real world and BAM! you’ve been whacked. The best way to ensure a long ministry in China is to follow the rules and keep your head down, even if that means sacrificing ministry opportunities or changing convictions. From my experience this is the most common perspective.
- Occupational Hazard: This is the one I find most helpful. Soldiers are at a higher risk of physical injury or death, and yet the vast majority of soldiers experience neither. War is still dangerous, but it isn’t whack-a-mole dangerous. Physical injury is an occupational hazard of being a soldier. It certainly doesn’t mean that soldiers aren’t supposed to do their job. Please don’t hear that I’m comparing myself to soldiers in terms of courage or selfless sacrifice. The guy at the back of the supply line in the least danger is much braver than me. Comparing the worthiness of the cause we fight for and theirs, however, I think the risks we face are miniscule.
To the best of my knowledge, everything I’ve written above is true. However, even if I’m wrong about all that, the rest of my convictions wouldn’t change. That’s kind of the point. There are some convictions about church, preaching the gospel, and missions that shouldn’t change regardless of the circumstances.
B: Visits by the Police and Deportation are likely
After reading everything above, some think I’m trying to say there are no risks. Maybe I’m simply naive and uninformed. If I only heard what happened to so and so in such and such a city I would understand and change my conclusions. It is very possible that I am naive. It is more than possible that I’m not fully informed. Nonetheless, we have had friends in China experience many trials on behalf of authorities. They have also heard accounts of government intervention from other missions around China. From what we’ve gathered, we expect that our chances of leaving on our own volition are low. If the status quo continues, and we follow through with our plans there is a good chance that sooner or later we will be asked to leave the country.
C: Longevity on the mission field is not the same thing as faithfulness
In America, Pastors generally compare themselves using one statistic. How many people go to your church. A high number is professional currency that can be traded for influence, respect, and better pay. When a missionary is introduced, however, immediately following his name is, “on the field for X years.” This isn’t all bad. Living on the mission field isn’t easy and the statistics tell us that most workers leave quickly. Staying for 10+ years in hard place in service to Christ does mean something. By itself, however, it doesn’t mean anything. It is quite possible to live somewhere for 20 years and not put any significant effort towards ministry tasks.
As long as longevity on the field can be traded for respect, influence, and better jobs back in the states there will be pressure for missionaries to prioritize staying on the field. When this goal is elevated, any task that risks deportation is immediately invalidated. If we remove any hope of praise from men for staying for a long time, our day to day actions and priorities can be governed by scripture.
The primary question is what constitutes faithfulness as a missionary. How do we develop biblically solid convictions on this issues? Almost every missionary I know would agree with this in principle. In practice there is a huge spectrum of convictions.
It needs to be noted that the opposite is also true. Getting kicked out of a country doesn’t prove faithfulness either. There are some (not many) who celebrate suffering in a presumptuous manner by seeking out persecution. Both extremes need biblically nuanced correction. I hope to make an effort in that direction in the following posts.
D: There are non-negotiable convictions
- Acknowledge Christ.
- Do not live in fear.
- Preach the Gospel personally and corporately.
- Gather and associate with the people of God.
- Prioritize teaching, training, and mentoring.
I’ll write more to flesh out what I mean by each of these in the following posts. First I want to relate what happened the other week that prompted this series.