All the Tea

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.

Image credit: Wu Youru, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future. 

Analyze This

Reading other people’s scripture is a privilege. Although somewhere in my long study of the history of religion I must have read excerpts of The Analects, I have not concentrated on reading them through before. Reading other people’s scripture is like being invited into their houses. You can learn a great deal in a little time, but that doesn’t make you an expert. Confucianism is about the same age as classical Judaism. The foci of the belief systems are clearly culturally bound, and those of us raised in cultures heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity find scriptures like The Analects somewhat bewildering. For those raised in Confucian cultures, the Bible must also be like coming into an unfamiliar country. That’s the way scriptures are, and it doesn’t mean that any are more or less valid than others. That’s often difficult to accept.

I don’t know much about Confucianism, but it is clear that The Analects are intended as a guide particularly for those who seek public office. In Confucian thought, unlike that of the current United States, only the brightest are believed to be worthy of high office. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Analects at this time in history and not see that Trump is so wrong in multiple languages. Master Kong’s description of “the small man,” the petty sort who has no business governing, is the job description of the GOP right now. Is it possible that one political party has ruined two religions? Probably far more.

Learning—even in small increments—of the religions of others takes away the need to feel superior. In fact there are many commonalities between religions, particularly on the ethical front. Reading other people’s scriptures isn’t easy. There’s so much that’s foreign in them. But like the fact that foreign trade brings desirable things from abroad for us, so should be the study of other religions. There is much of value here. I don’t read Chinese. I’ve never been to China. Reading The Analects, however, demonstrates that the noble minds of different cultures have much to learn from one another. No scripture is perfect. All are necessary. It’s only when one faith decides that it alone is true that religious strife begins to replace religious respect. I’m not about to become a Confucianist, but I do have a a slightly better sense of what it might mean to be one. And small steps can lead to impressive places for those willing to learn.

Beyond Measure

Thinking back to my first course in World Religions, I recollect learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism for the first time. It is likely that Taoism was also mentioned, but I had to do a ton of research before I taught the course for the first time at Oshkosh. I remembered learning nothing about Sikhism or Shinto, not to mention Jainism or any host of religions boasting smaller numbers, by gosh. Now that I’m in the business of commissioning books on world religions, I have come into a quandary. As I know from experience, those who teach world religions are faced with a classic case of TMI: too much information. These religions I’ve mentioned only begin to scratch the vast surface of human religious expression, while your typical semester is only 14 weeks in duration. How do we cover all the smaller religions, some of which may have even a million or more adherents, and may be, at times, geared toward violent behavior? There’s simply no way.

This is where the quagmire grows thickest—are “major religions” quantified by numbers alone? From comments of readers of this blog it is quite clear that Christianity is no uniform religion. The differences go deeper than Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Most of us follow rather idiosyncratic blends of various religions we’ve experienced. It is not unusual for a Christian to practice yoga or to engage in meditation. And there are thousands of smaller religions as well, and the beliefs are deeply embedded in the lives of those who hold them. A good example would be Native American religions. There isn’t just one. Various tribes held their own beliefs and yet try to find a textbook that covers the differences between them. (Ah, but publishers are bound by the need to sell many copies to make such books profitable, and what professor is going to have the time to parse out different belief systems of these small, sometimes powerless groups?)

It is the curse of categorization. In our free market economy bigger is always better. Religions, on the other hand, do not always concern themselves with winning the most tricks. The Zoroastrians, who gave us the concepts of Heaven and Hell and much else that became standard theology in the monotheistic religions, continue to exist. In small numbers. So small that, as a religion major, I didn’t really learn about them until I began teaching classes exploring the origins of our modern religious concepts. When the modern eye assesses the importance of something, it does so by crunching the numbers. Religions have been our human means of seeking the truth since civilization began, perhaps even before. Often numbers and truth just don’t align.