On cages and evangelization in China

Joshua Wong is a young Chinese human rights activist, recently sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison on the Orwellian charge of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly” – meaning, in Chinese Newspeak, urging others to protest peacefully the tyranny now throttling Hong Kong. In his first letter from prison, the uncowed Mr. Wong wrote, “Cages cannot lock up souls.” Indeed, they cannot. But the failure to defend the caged by standing in solidarity with them can do the gravest damage to evangelization.

Jimmy Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Catholic defenders of religious freedom and other basic human rights, was back in jail in early December; his bail in a civil lease dispute was revoked on the grounds that he might flee and is a national security risk to boot. The real reason for his incarceration, of course, is that keeping Mr. Lai in prison stifles his ongoing challenge to repression. In numerous interviews, Jimmy Lai has emphasized that his Catholic faith undergirds and sustains his commitment to human rights for all, even as the Xi Jinping regime tries to ruin his business and threatens his life. Has Jimmy Lai been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against his persecution since he became a prime target of China’s overlords? No.

Martin Lee is another devout Catholic, a distinguished barrister, and pro-democracy activist, who has seen his work undone as Beijing tightens its stranglehold on Hong Kong in brazen disregard of the commitments it made in 1997, when Great Britain reverted sovereignty over the territory to China. Profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lee rebuffed any suggestion that he would ever leave Hong Kong: “If I have the choice of dying peacefully in bed outside Hong Kong, or dying in pain in a Chinese jail, the question for me is not how I die, but will I go to heaven? Dying without my convictions is what would really give me pain.” Has this Chinese embodiment of the spirit of St. Thomas More been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against Beijing’s tyranny? No.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Vatican initiated a meeting between Pope Francis and a group of NBA players and their union representatives, evidently to discuss issues of justice in the United States. Has any similar outreach been made to Chinese Catholic human rights activists – or even to the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and another courageous defender of religious freedom throughout China? No.

Attempts to defend this shameful Vatican reluctance to support beleaguered Chinese Catholics publicly remain unpersuasive, even ludicrous. Some argue that current Vatican China policy is necessary to regularize the Catholic situation in China, which suffers from a deficit of bishops; how a method of appointing bishops that leaves the opening moves in the process to the Chinese communist party, in violation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which was given legal effect in Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law), is not self-evidently clear. Others argue that the Church must take thuggish regimes as they are and try to create open space for Catholic life under those circumstances; but this makes no sense in today’s Chinese situation, where the Xi Jinping regime uses intimidation and torture to impose on the entire country what amounts to an alternative religion – canine fealty to the Chinese communist party and its maximum leader. As for the risible claim that the arrangement begun in 2018 is an advance because it recognizes the pope’s position as head of the Catholic Church: Of what use is that recognition of the obvious, in the face of ubiquitous regime propaganda touting Xi Jinping as a quasi-divine figure to whose benevolent wisdom all must defer?

Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. The Ostpolitik of the Vatican in the 1960s and 1970s never grasped this; John Paul II did, and the self-liberation of Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries followed in 1989. 

Chinese communism is not immortal. When it ends, China will be the greatest field of Christian mission in centuries. A Catholicism identified with the old, despised regime will be at a serious evangelical disadvantage in post-communist China: not least because it will be seen to have failed Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Joseph Zen, and so many other noble and courageous confessors of the faith. 

Featured Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.