by David Pence
In Taiping Theology: The Localization of Christianity in China 1843-1864, Carl Kilcourse, a young lecturer in Chinese history at Nottingham University in the UK, explores the Christian theology of that bloody rebellion in a sympathetic way that has eluded most of the historians of the event. There are several recent histories that are excellent military accounts of the war and place the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) in the context of great power exploitation. Chinese nationalists and Communists appropriated the story of the revolt as a cry of the Chinese people for equality and nationhood against the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They saw no reason to emphasize that the movement’s promise of Harmony rested on a restoration of the Chinese to the proper worship of God (Shangdi). The Communists saw only "the people" as the supreme actor fighting for justice. Ethno-nationalists emphasized the conflict was a mass movement of the majority Han race against the minority Manchu rulers of Qing. None of these historical paradigms revealed the heart of a powerful intersection of biblical Christianity and Chinese culture which inspired Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), the creator of the movement and the Taiping Heavenly King. Protestant missionaries were particularly notorious in dismissing the movement as a bizarre demonic distortion of Christianity. The missionaries were a major influence in turning the British public away from their earlier support of the rebels to favoring a decisive military intervention in favor of the decaying Qing.
As a young graduate student, Carl Kilcourse decided there was a need to "systematically analyze the Taipings' religious world (theology, ethics and ritual) as a legitimate response to the Chinese Christian literature." (This literature included the word of God in Chinese bibles and a long influential tract by Liang Fa: Good Works to Admonish the Age, 1832). It is not clear if Kilcourse is acting out of a modernist relativism which sees Christianity as whatever a social group wants to call it, or if he believes the universality of the Gospel is best revealed through the multivalent receptions which different nations bring to complete the Body of Christ. Whatever his motives, he has uncovered a key that will unlock many doors. He explains, "This link between vernacularization and localization demonstrates both the religious identity of the Taipings and their wider significance in the history of world Christianity." Kilcourse argues that the Taiping war against demons who had blinded the Chinese to their previous relationship with God is certainly as scripturally defensible as the varied responses of Calvinists, Lutherans, and Quakers to the Word of God. He has much to say about the role of filial piety, an elder Divine Son and other non-Divine sons in establishing the brotherhood of men under God. Hong Xiuquan’s depiction of his mission as the younger brother of Christ never claimed a virgin birth for himself. Before he is dismissed as a crackpot, western Christians should examine our own anemic sense of filiation and fraternity in Christ's patriarchal social order. These Christian categories are deeply embedded in Confucian culture and the author asks if the foreignness of the Taiping is not due to their ignorance of Scripture, but their more culturally embedded reception of it. Consider Christian Brotherhood. This was not a plea for the equality of the French revolution, but an extension beyond kin of the Confucian hierarchical duties of sons and elder brothers to God our Heavenly Father. Christ "did not seek equality with the Father." Brothers can be linked in love and respect and never seek "equality." We can be brothers and still have elder brothers. Are the Chinese "bizarre" or are the westerners too individualistic to really comprehend fatherhood, filiation, and fraternity?
Fifty years after the repression of the Taiping (20 million Chinese died), there was a large indigenous uprising of local spiritual-military male groups against Christian Chinese converts and all westerners in China. The Boxer Rebellion (1898-1901) was brutally initiated and more brutally extinguished by the Eight-Nation-Alliance. There is still a reverent memory of the Righteous Fist purging the foreigner and killing the traitorous collaborators marked by the cross. The religion of the Taiping must be carefully studied and the communal hatred of the Boxers must not be forgotten if Christianity and China are to flourish together in the next century. That is certainly the hope of the Bishop of Rome. A new relationship between Rome and China is at the heart of his prayers.
Pope Francis is channeling his inner Matteo Ricci -- the 16th-century Jesuit who traveled to China and advocated a deep inculturation by Catholics in the tradition of Confucianism. Father Ricci thought this was the best path to meet the Chinese and eventually explain the uniqueness of Christ in terms of their own civilization. (Here is a terrific thesis paper by a Jesuit scholar on Ricci, Confucius, and Christianity). Pope Francis is forging a respectful approach. Hopefully he will understand the Taiping event as an indispensable school of theology and culture.
Father Ricci (1552-1610) largely lost his battle to present the faith in a Confucian idiom with the Catholic hierarchy of his age. That injustice is not lost on the first Jesuit pope. Pope Francis has been criticized in conservative Catholic circles for not "speaking up" to the Chinese in his first-ever interview on China with 'Asia News.' Conservative Catholics want him to ritually protest human rights violations at any meeting with Chinese leadership. Once again, Pope Francis shows an understanding of politeness and ritual in drawing together the Church and this "great civilization" which eludes his critics who pose as his intellectual and moral superiors. Pope Francis is talking to a nation first as a civilization deserving of respect. When he seems to be criticizing, he steps back and says he doesn't want to sound like a "meddling mother-in-law." One can understand why many who have suffered in the Catholic Underground Church are wary of his approach and even contemptuous. The pope, who prays often to Mary the Undoer of Knots, however will concede much to the government to try to get China and the Church on a new footing. He understand the fears of the government that Christian revival can lead to a new Taiping. He is also aware that a certain kind of intransigence by Rome can leave Chinese Christians vulnerable to a Boxer-like cleansing pogrom in the name of Chinese nationalism.
A new meeting of Christianity and the Asian nations is unfolding. The Eucharistic Church which seeks the renewal of the human species in the Body of Christ must be respectful of the organic social bodies that will fight to maintain their identity and authority structures. She knows she has been commanded to baptize the nations, not break them up. Let us pray the Holy Spirit will guide us in reconstituting the full Body of Christ while respecting the legitimate and necessary claims of civic authorities and national cultures. We can be sure our Christian mission of ordered loves will transcend the militaristic saber rattling of the Social Darwinists now leading Americans to an inevitable war in the name of "foreign policy realism." We can also be sure there is much more to learn from the Taiping Movement about Christianity and China than we have thought before. An insightful approach to the religious tradition of Asia is found in this review of Simon Chan's "Grassroots Asian Theology." Christopher Dawson addressed the Asian nations in his The Movement of World Revolution (reviewed here). We discussed an American foreign policy alternative to armed encirclement in "A New Paradigm for China." (next week).