CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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A cross too far

 A church without a cross is a bit like a government office without a coat of arms. Both symbols are powerful and reflect a strong identity.

The cross symbolises a call to the selfless love Christ showed and the coat of arms the promise of law and order in society.

An attack on either is an assault on the core identity of those who revere them.

Acknowledging the sacred nature of both symbols is not contradictory. Chinese Christians have long pointed out that they are good and patriotic citizens, who obey the law, serve their neighbour, love their country and pay taxes.

In a healthy state, there is room for different groups to draw inspiration from a great variety of sources, which leads to a plurality of ideas on how to contribute to the common good.

Each one uses its own signs and symbols to inspire, and a healthy society has room for all. A healthy state does not adopt a Church or religion as its own, and does not impose a belief, be it theistic or atheistic, on its citizens.

The Chinese government has issued guidelines on the size of crosses on the outside of churches, limiting them to one-tenth of the height of the building and sitting on the façade of the structure, not reaching into the sky.

In some ways, this sounds reasonable, as it is more in line with the hammer and sickle emblem on government buildings which, although prominent, is not big, and usually displayed above the main entrance. Nevertheless, they do fly flags.

Although aesthetics have been cited by the government as one reason for removing the crosses, its way of going about it places its purge in the realm of a struggle over who is to define the common good.

The president of China, Xi Jinping, has said that he wants to see more Sinicisation of religion, a term that is usually defined as bringing non-Han Chinese societies under the influence of Han Chinese authority and way of life.

Xi’s use of the term is not clear, but what is clear is that concurrently, attacks are being made by the government on Christian Churches; human rights lawyers, around 25 per cent of whom are Christian; Buddhists; the Falungong; and the Muslim Uyghur population.

What all have in common is that they insist on their right to their own beliefs (including culture and language with ethnic groups). Human rights lawyers also insist that the government should obey its own laws. In other words, all are espousing their own dream for the common good.

This is seen as a threat to one-party rule, which proclaims only one way for everyone.

A healthy society accepts that both religion and atheism are important. But when an authoritarian regime sets out to impose its own way uniformly on everyone, people have to struggle for the opportunity to contribute the values of their own vision.

In the words of a rights lawyer, a society where authoritarianism is judged to be not guilty, freedom can never be innocent, so all who challenge the party line are guilty by default.

But judging by the uncharacteristically vocal reaction of Christians in Zhejiang, the purge may well have gone a cross too far. JiM