I’ve been reading a lot about China lately. Political scientists have been interested in its economic growth for some time and it has rivaled the GDP of the United States in such a way that it’s an open question as to which is the larger. With so many things to keep track of in daily life, I’m loathe to add poli sci to the list, but I’ve always found history fascinating. China has long been the target of Christian missionaries. Finding a culture that had developed quite differently, in some sense socially distant, they were anxious to make them in their own image. China had its own religious heritage of folk traditions, Confucian beliefs, and Taoism (as well as Buddhism and Islam), and Christianity’s claim of being the only true religion caused considerable social turmoil. One such event was the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century.
A complaint of evangelical pastors, even in the United States, after Billy Graham had come through town was that local people, all riled up on revivalism, had unrealistic expectations for what their local churches could do. Viewing this from a different angle, the issue was that one outlook on Scripture could lead to consequences that others didn’t understand. The same thing applies to Taiping. Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, had read his Bible (the activity encouraged by missionaries) and became convinced he was the brother of Jesus Christ. He set about trying to establish what is called the Heavenly Kingdom. This clashed with the government of China during the Qing Dynasty. Eventually foreign powers even got involved. The end result was between ten and thirty million deaths. That’s right, ten to thirty million.
Religious ideas are powerful. This is one reason that repressive governments often try to outlaw religions. Other governments (including some not too far from here) use religions for political ends. True believers are great followers. I first learned about the Taiping Rebellion only relatively recently. I’ve been reading snippets about China for several years now. Its economic power may well be greater than that of the country in which I grew up. Perspectives are shifting. Vast numbers of people die because of religious conflicts. If you’re one of them the real tragedy is that, in Stalinistic terms, you become simply a statistic. There’s a reason authoritarian governments try to keep the opium from the hands of the people. I’m no political scientist, but history reveals much about religion and its discontents.