In a pagan land ye were enlightened by the Orthodox Faith,
and having lived in the Faith but a little time,
ye inherited the eternal Kingdom.
By the purity of your Christian ways
ye put to shame the false Confucian piety
and trampled demon-inspired Buddhism underfoot as refuse,
sanctifying the Chinese land with your blood.
Wherefore, we pray:
Entreat the Master of all
that He enlighten your land with Orthodoxy in these latter times,
and strengthen us therein.
- A troparion written about the Orthodox Chinese Martyrs, carried on the Internet last month
What sets Christianity apart from all other religions is its universality. It is the faith for all time, for all people. And indeed, Christianity has spread all over the world. A good tree is known by its fruit.
Christianity is universal because it is the True Faith, not because it is the front-runner in a contest among religions. The whiff of gunpowder that is palpable from the troparion above is regrettable not just because it smacks of a darker age of crusading religious wars and bigotry, not even simply because it is deeply offensive to the nation for which the troparion is purportedly praying, but because it is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts, and possibly of the Faith itself. To pursue this type of mentality while attempting to preach the Faith will take one down a slippery road leading to a dead end, or worse.
The Boxer Uprising caused the deaths of many Christian missionaries and Chinese converts, including the 222 martyred Orthodox. It was a catastrophic tragedy during a cataclysmic time in China, when the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty was going through its death throes. It embodied a political struggle between conservative forces rallying around the Empress Dowager (Cixi) and reformist forces grouped around the Emperor (Guangxu). It brought to the surface conflicting cultural currents sweeping across the nation, those in tune with opening up the country and those cresting with a backlash against Westernization. It engulfed the Mandarinate and the masses alike. But it was not a religious war. It was not a concerted attack by the Confucianst scholar-gentry on Christians, nor was it an organized assault by the Buddhist sangha on missionaries. The worst elements of the rabble came to the fore in the conflagrations, but that did not mean there were not many decent and responsible people who adhered to Buddhism or Confucianism who were unsympathetic to the violence. It would be simplistic and immature to label the problem as conflict between religions.
And certainly the solution did not lie in seeking or extolling the triumph of Christianity over other religions or ideologies. The True Faith has no rival. To speak and act as if it had defeated threatening competitors is to betray a deplorable lack of confidence and understanding about one's own faith. We might learn from the 222 Martyrs themselves, who were political and religious innocents who died in full confidence of their Faith.
The solution lay, and still lies, in the healing of hatreds and rifts through Christ's love, grace and forgiveness. There are no more powerful weapons than these gifts we have from the Lord Himself. Healing is itself a form of forgiveness; it does not seek to perpetuate blame. The saints themselves are examples of forgiveness. No unforgiving person can ever become a saint. We should bear in mind the last words of the first martyr of the Church:
And he (St Stephen) knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
- The Acts of the Apostles, VII:60
The Protomartyr learned his lesson well. He learned it from his Lord on the Cross (Luke XXIII:34). We would do well to learn the same lesson, by God's grace.
Unfortunately, there now seem to be some people in the Church who put a stronger emphasis on combativeness than on forgiveness, on accentuating rifts rather than on healing. Nowhere in the troparion set out above does one see the forgiving face of Christ. One catches, not the heavenly fragrance of the Holy Spirit, but the jarring smell of gunpowder and of blood, of years of hurt, of bitterness in a wilderness of non-believers.
One must open up one's heart to loving, before one can feel loved in return. The Church has been blessed with saints for two thousand years. They do not hold grudges in Heaven. We would not be properly honoring them - and particularly not saints martyred in missionary lands - if we linked their names and memories to assaults on others. Martyrdom is an emblem of faith and saintliness. It is not to be used as a political or ideological tool.
There is a further dimension to the orientation of the troparion. It betrays a woeful lack of understanding of the realities of the missionary territory concerned (China). No Christian missionary worth his salt who has spent time in Chinese society will draw conclusions about Confucianism and Sinitic Buddhism as evidenced in the troparion. To assume an attitude so antagonistic to the teachings of Confucius and of the Buddha is to willfully blind oneself to features of those faith traditions which are positive, and to show an amazing insensitivity to the feelings of Chinese in general. No Christian mission which takes this attitude can hope to grow in China.
Confucianism and Sinitic Buddhism have become part of the fabric of Chinese civilization. Bringing the Gospel to a missionary land does not entail "bombing the country back to the Stone Age" in a spiritual sense and then imposing a carbon copy of Byzantium or Kievan Rus on the devastated new land. The early Church did not stamp out the heritage of Homer or Virgil. The Church is a living organism and she Christianizes different peoples in different ways, all the time drawing each culture closer to the Gospel message. Much of the ethical and social content of Confucianism is compatible with Christian teaching and may be incorporated into a Chinese Christian culture. The spiritual and compassionate qualities of proper Buddhist practice may also enrich the experience of Christians.
When Communism first took hold of Mainland China it adopted a "scorched earth" policy vis-a-vis Confucianism and Buddhism. It was thought that their elimination would usher in a new era of Marxist truth. Now the truth is there for the whole world to see - the beliefs and methods of Communism were misguided. For the Church today to adopt the tactics of a misguided man-made ideology would be the height of absurdity.