A demolished underground church / AP
In early 2017, conservative American pundit Rod Dreher published a bombshell of a book called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.
He argued that conservative Western Christians should give up their futile war over the cultural mainstream and withdraw into tightly-knit communities centred around their faith and their church. This would be the only way to survive a coming persecution of conservative Christian values.
Many articles have been published about Dreher’s controversial proposals, most of them centred on the West.
But what about the East? For more than a century the “Benedict Option” has worked in China, a nation which has never been overly friendly to Christianity. These communities in China pre-date Mr Dreher by many decades. Christians in the West will do themselves a favour by pondering their brethren’s experience of survival.
Who are these Chinese communities? Catholics and Protestants in China can be roughly divided into two camps: a faction loyal to the government and an independent faction.
Protestants can worship in the government-sanctioned Protestant “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (三自爱国运动). Or they can join defiant house churches, which have been long subject to persecution and produced many heroic examples of resistance. Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, for instance, was sentenced to nine years in prison late last year for “inciting subversion of state power and illegal business operations”.
For Catholics, the underground movement loyal to the Pope has long suffered harsh persecution and has had a bitter relationship with the official Catholic Patriotic Association (天主教爱国会). Its government-approved bishops were even excommunicated by the Pope until the recent controversial Sino-Vatican agreement.
All of the above has been well covered by Western media — but what has it to do with the Benedict Option? Well, Dreher believes that in an age where anyone who does not toe the progressive line of thinking is at risk of being excluded from the cultural mainstream, minority Western Christians must huddle together for warmth.
Newsflash, guys! Chinese Christians were never in control of the cultural mainstream. Ever since the days of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and even in the years before that, Chinese who converted to Christianity were brutally oppressed and many were murdered. Catholics, who outnumbered Protestants before the 1900s, had to endure the wrath of not only the Qing Empire but also of their ancestor-worshipping neighbours.
It was the Boxer Rebellion that marked the emergence of Chinese “Benedict option” communities. The Boxers were virulently anti-West and anti-Christian, and thousands of Chinese faithful were slaughtered along with Western priests. Many Catholics had to retreat to places deep in the mountains and build settlements which were easier to defend and harder to attack; they formed militias of their own to protect themselves.
Thousands fled to communities like these throughout northern China and especially in the Shanxi and Hebei Provinces. To this day they make up the bulk of northern Chinese Catholics. This is the origin of the so-called “Catholic laity villages” (教友村)，hundreds of which still exist. Even today, the Provincial Religious Bureau monitors these villages and publishes lists to help local party cadres to increase surveillance of these areas.
Many of these communities unwittingly mirror Dreher’s vision. Life centers around the Church and all the villagers are raised as Catholics, in stark contrast to most of the neighbouring villages. Fortifications (many still visible) were built to defend themselves from the wrath of their fellow countrymen, who viewed them as traitors to the Chinese nation. From a point of weakness, these early Chinese Catholics gathered together in a vision of strategic retreat and managed to survive years of violence.
Some of these communities thrive today, even after 70 years of Communist rule. During the Cultural Revolution, many Catholic villagers in Hebei, Shanxi and other Chinese provinces hid statues of the Virgin Mary which they venerated in secret, at a time when religious eradication was government policy and churches and pilgrimage sites were being bulldozed.
After enjoying a brief revival, the Chinese Catholic faithful are once again at the crossroads. Many regard the Vatican negotiation and eventual agreement with Beijing as a betrayal. But as a Hong Kong media (RTHK) documentary broadcast in February 2019 shows, the rural villagers in Hebei show amazing resilience. They set up makeshift altars and chapels in decrepit village factories and fields. Defiant underground priests performed services in the most unremarkable of rural courtyards. Hundreds of villagers came to worship in bitterly cold nights after the police and party cadres have gone.
Chinese Catholics also have larger families. Many young children can be seen even in the makeshift chapels — yet another act of defiance against a law banning all minors from attending religious services or activities, as well a snub to China’s population control.
This is the true resilience of faith. Westerners accustomed to freedom of religion may be shocked at the sacrifices Chinese underground Catholics have endured. But Catholics in China are benefitting from adversity. It only strengthens their faith, at a time when Westerners seem to have lost their way. It is very similar to Rod Dreher’s strategy.
Protestant house churches fill in the other half of the picture. Unlike Catholics, whose strength is in rural strongholds, Protestant house churches draw their strength from urban China. The recently jailed Pastor Wang’s Early Rain Covenant Church is one of the best examples.
Started barely a decade ago, Early Rain grew and challenged the Chinese government’s authority. The church held commemorative services for the June 4 crackdown, a huge taboo in China. It had a pro-life department which openly went onto the street every Children’s Day (June 1) rolling out banners protesting abortion. Early Rain also aggressively planted churches in its native city of Chengdu and beyond and sought to form a “Calvinist association” of sorts in Southwestern China, a direct snub and rejection of the Chinese government sanctioned Three-Self Association.
Early Rain is another facet of the “Benedict Option”. Even though it is urban and its followers do not necessarily live in the same compound, it is an amazingly tight-knit community in a country where everyone feels that he has to fend for himself and the government is omnipotent and omnipresent.
Early Rain was a pioneer in establishing unsanctioned church schools catering for its congregants’ children (illegal according to Chinese law). It operates a seminary of its own instead of sending people to government sanctioned seminaries (again, illegal). It even operates its own online video and radio channels with recorded footage of Mr. Wang and other pastors preaching.
At its peak, Early Rain had more than 700 congregants.
Of course, this was never going to be tolerated by Beijing’s mandarins. Thus in December 2018, the church was raided (the last of many raids), Mr. Wang and his wife, together with key congregants, were arrested, and the church was shut down for good.
But in a true show of strength, many congregants continue to form prayer groups and still attempt to worship together in apartments, backyards and bathrooms. The faith still lives on.
In short, something very much like the “Benedict Option” has worked to the advantage of the Chinese faithful, both Catholic and Protestant. The difference between them and American Christians like Dreher is that Dreher can still ponder his options for a survival strategy.
For many Chinese Christians, the Benedict Option is their only option.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.