Christians in Hong Kong have for many years been very aware of the issues that they faced in preaching a gospel of freedom in China right under the watchful eyes of an authoritative communist regime. While under the more accommodating leadership of Deng Xiao Ping the socially responsible benefits of Christianity in China were welcomed with the mantra of ‘one more Christian, one better Chinese’, under the strong communist party leadership of Xi Jinping any burgeoning religious activity is considered a potential threat to social stability unless it is closely supervised by the party.

When the Hong Kong protests started to gain momentum in June this year and gradually acquired a more anti-China overtone many Christian leaders found themselves in a conflicted position. Many of them are part of denominational groups that had invested long years of church planting in various parts of China and in the process had developed favourable ‘guanxi’ with local officials. To be openly supportive of the protests in Hong Kong risked losing all the good work they had carried out and more importantly opened up local leadership in China to retribution and potential persecution.

Flow Church gave refuge to protesters. Photo: Flow Church.

Thus most of the Christians who have been actively involved in the Hong Kong protests are not there as leaders representing particular churches or denominations but are there as ordinary church members protesting as individuals. Many of the young millennials, for instance, are part of unofficial Christian groups working outside of the walls of the traditional church. However some statements have been made by various groupings of well respected Christian leaders, but in general, no denominational names or church names were used. Thus official church responses and statement have often tried to strike a more conciliatory note calling on all parties to act responsibly and peacefully. The Catholic Church and the Hong Kong Council of Churches who have direct access to government have made joint statements along these lines speaking for the majority of Christians.

Some Christians have also been conflicted on whether it is morally acceptable for them to be involved in what have essentially become anti-government protests. The apostle Paul does say in the New Testament that “everyone should submit themselves to the governing authorities..” but theologians point out that the Greek language used here does not imply blind, unquestioning obedience. As a result, Christianity has a long history of civil disobedience and conscientious objection being adopted by people such as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jnr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The acquiescence of the German church under Hitler is one example where the blind obedience of silence permitted a mass extermination to occur with hardly any moral objection being raised by the church.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong, No.2 bridge, on November 13. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The issue of civil disobedience itself has caused concern if it involves breaking the law even when just taking part in a peaceful protest. In Hong Kong, there is a statutory right to demonstrate which is subject to a police ‘letter of no objection’ (LONO), so such protests are not breaking the law. However, a mass demonstration without a LONO or with a police ban will be breaking the law. The question for the Christian then is a matter of conscience determining what constitutes sufficient concern to justify breaking the law and in what manner it should be carried out. Determining whether there is sufficient concern will involve making many detailed considerations. But when a response to break the law in this way is made, most Christians will adopt two principles. Firstly to conduct any protest or action using non-violent methods and secondly to be prepared to bear the legal consequences of breaking the law as a just response to an unjust situation. This approach is based on biblical teaching and has been well documented by Martin Luther King Jnr and demonstrated in his racial discrimination protests of the 1960’s as well as largely followed by Occupy Central in 2014 after the initial skirmishes.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University at Hung Hom on November 17. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Christians are also increasingly aware of the importance of human rights to society in providing a benchmark for their own ability to be able to engage freely in worship, religious practices and social justice, but also their importance as a safeguard against the excesses of an overbearing government trying to control social unrest and criticism. So far churches in Hong Kong have remained free to preach, teach and conduct services without any obvious sign of monitoring, pressure, or control. In the long term, however, it may be a mistake to discount such a possibility based simply on the continuing right to freedom of worship and religion contained in the Basic Law as we know it now. During Occupy Central, for instance, there was a proposal in Legco (which was not followed up) to investigate churches that opened their buildings to be used as places of refuge. It is also known that a catholic church was subjected to considerable politically motivated pressure (not directly from government) to close its doors during one of the current series of protest marches. More recently Wenwei Bo has posted articles naming and shaming some churches who have kept their doors open during protests in their area to be used as resting places. However Chinese churches see this more as part of the CCP propaganda machine designed to intimidate and divide the Christian community in HK than a reflection of the Hong Kong government trying to exert influence.

There may be a fine line where the pastoral preaching of a sermon passes over from the theological into the political but it would require an extensive and detailed

analysis to come anywhere near defining where that line is with any authority. Indeed such concerns may be largely redundant since history shows us that when churches are closed down it is simply because they are not actively supporting the status quo or are refusing to comply with certain requirements rather than because of what is being preached. It is usually because a government’s political line has encroached into the theological territory of the church rather than the other way round. Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu was arrested on the political charge of subversion simply because he was preaching the gospel not because he was preaching dubious politically charged theology. It Is important to remember that no matter how carefully a church tries to position itself and protect itself from criticism, in the end, it will be the view which others outside the church (namely those in power) take that will determine what action is taken, and they will not be using a theological yardstick.

Pastor Wang Yi. Photo: Early Rain Covenant Church, via Facebook.

All these constraints and issues faced by Christians have inevitably meant that many denominational churches have not been in the habit of taking the lead to speak up over day-to-day social justice issues as a regular part of their ministry. Instead, they have preferred to take a low profile remaining largely passive thus delegating their role as moral gatekeepers to the NGO’s even with major government policy issues involving structural and economic injustice. So when it comes to a major social issue such as the present mass protests accompanied by the violent exchanges which we are now experiencing they have been struggling to know how to respond publicly. What is certain is that the somewhat artificial social stability that Hong Kong has enjoyed in the last 20 years under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is not going to return in a hurry and that churches are going to have to get used to responding to events in a rather more supercharged atmosphere than previously. All this will be good preparation for the inevitable tightening of restrictions if Hong Kong’s special status ends in 2047.

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Tony Read is a pastor who writes on social justice issues in Hong Kong.