May 25, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, May 25, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
History lessons not learned: Mao's bloody communist revolution still grips China today
One of the most tragic and momentous events of the 20th century marks its anniversary—that is, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966. It became one of the darkest blots on the 20th century in which, eventually, upwards of 60 to 70 million Chinese directly were affected by the purge that was led by the Communist Party and by an absolute declared warfare of the Communist Party upon its own nation, the most massively populated nation on earth. All this is traced back to the communist revolution that brought modern China into being, led by Mao Zedong and his colleagues. It was an explicitly communist revolution that took place amidst massive bloodshed in the years following the conclusion of World War II.
The fate of China is no small question for the world, not to mention for the numerous inhabitants of that country, now over 1 billion in population. But the brutality of the Mao regime during the years of the Cultural Revolution is one of those human experiences that must not be left to the ash heap of history. That’s why thinking Christians need to think very carefully about what the Cultural Revolution sends to us now as a signal from the past. For example, Hannah Gardner, writing about the Cultural Revolution and its anniversary for USA Today, begins with this,Show Full Transcript
“When Zhang Hongbing was a young man during China’s Cultural Revolution, his loyalty to Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong knew no bounds. He even denounced his mother for speaking ill of the iconic leader and sent her to death.”
In numerous articles published in the Western press, stories like this have recurred, telling us, in this case, of a 16-year-old boy then who was so committed to the communist regime and to the idol worship of its leader Mao Zedong that he turned in his own mother for speaking ill of the communist leader and eventually even advocated her being executed by firing squad, which she was. Looking back to that moment when he was a 16-year-old fiercely committed to communism and to the Communist Party and to the worship of Mao Zedong, USA Today explains,
“The moment he regrets most came one night in February 1970, when his mother, Fang Zhongmou, criticized Mao for unleashing the wave of chaos and violence.
“Zhang was furious. He called the police and denounced her as a counter-revolutionary. In a report he wrote a few days later, he recommended that she be shot.”
“‘It took me 10 years to realize that what I did was wrong,’ he said. ‘At the time, I believed I was doing my duty as a member of the revolutionary proletariat.’”
This absolutely unspeakably sad story comes to us from China, but it could be replicated in other revolutionary regimes of the 20th century. This kind of idolatry of communism, of the Communist Party, and of the communist leader was found not only in Mao’s China, but also in Stalin’s Russia, also in other places such as the Khmer Rouge government that had been in place in the nation of Cambodia.
But what we’re looking at here is one of the most important features of the 20th century that should continue to haunt us into the present. How could so many people be so deluded by a secular promise such as the revolutionary promise of Marxism that took the shape of communist revolutions? It is hard for us in the 21st century to answer that question. How could so many millions upon millions have been so deceived? What kind of ideological conversion can explain how a 16-year-old young man would turn in his own mother merely for making a critical statement of the communist leader and then days later to recommend that his own mother should be shot? How did it take this young man 10 years, by his own words recorded here in USA Today, to come to the conclusion that what he had done was wrong? But he then explains it,
“At the time I believe that I was doing my duty as a member of the revolutionary proletariat.”
Human history is replete with the fact that when revolutions like this are set loose, they usually turn on the revolutionaries. This was true in terms of the French Revolution and it was also true in terms of the Marxist revolutions, though there it took a great deal more time; and in the case of China, the Communist Party is still very much in charge. But that points to the difficulty of the current generation of Communist Party leaders in China to deal with their own past, and in particular with the Cultural Revolution. How in the world do they explain the behavior of their own government of their own party during these years that continue to mark so much of China’s present, not only its past?
In an article marking the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution inside the Financial Times published in London, the Communist Party tried to recast its judgment that the Cultural Revolution was, in its words, “a total mistake.”
This came in a statement from the party published in the People’s Daily, that is a major Chinese newspaper that is understood to be a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party. But what we need to note here is that this very same government has had different narratives about the Cultural Revolution. It is now quite concerned about disunity in the Communist Party and is trying to establish a unity on this side of the Cultural Revolution by coming to the judgment that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake. And yet they are saying that Mao Zedong himself was, according to the verdict of the party,
“70% correct and 30% wrong.”
How in the world do you quantify right and wrong when you’re talking about a leader that was personally responsible for tens of millions of deaths? In the Cultural Revolution, Mao decided to create chaos in his own country by ordering peasants and farmers to leave one area of China for another, and he tried his very best to keep the population moving and under a constant state of fear in order to leave the Chinese Communist Party as the only unchallenged authority in the entire nation. Andrew Browne, writing for the Wall Street Journal, explained it this way,
“Fifty years ago, on May 16, Mao Zedong unleashed an attack aimed at smashing his own Communist Party apparatus from top to bottom, having concluded that it was going capitalist. “Bombard the headquarters!” he urged the masses in a famous People’s Daily article. Millions of young zealots responded, becoming Mao’s Red Guards, his fanatical foot-soldiers. Thus began China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a period of murderous insanity that ended only with Mao’s death a decade later, in 1976.”
What we’re looking at in the present is the Chinese Communist Party trying to redefine communism and to define itself over against Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But this is one of the most important verdicts of history. The current Chinese communist leaders could not exist in power without the explanation of Mao and his revolution. They cannot separate themselves morally from the Cultural Revolution, even though some of the current generation of Chinese communist leaders actually suffered along with their parents during that tumultuous time. One of the saddest lessons of history as we now face this anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution is that so many lessons of history are simply not learned. The lessons of the Cultural Revolution that should point to the inability of any secular ideology to deliver on its promises—that is the lesson that the current generation of Chinese communist leaders have clearly not learned.
One of the most important lessons of the Christian worldview is that no secular philosophy can deliver ultimate promises. It can never deliver liberation. No revolution established upon these political terms can ever lead to human happiness and human flourishing, but rather inevitably come with tragic human cost. In the case of Mao’s revolution and later his Cultural Revolution, once again, let’s remind ourselves, we’re talking about the Communist Party mandated deaths of tens of millions of human beings. That cannot go without our notice.
In attempt to subdue Christianty's growth, China's Communist Party removes crosses from churches
Meanwhile, staying in China, but shifting from the past to the present, we need to see very clearly that the Chinese Communist Party understands Christianity to be a great threat to the regime and its singular authority. Ian Johnson, reporting for the New York Times, runs a story that is headlined,
“Decapitated Churches in China’s Christian Heartland.”
“Along the valleys and mountains hugging the East China Sea, a Chinese government campaign to remove crosses from church spires has left the countryside looking as if a typhoon had raged down the coast, decapitating buildings at random.
“In the town of Shuitou, workers used blowtorches to cut a 10-foot-high cross off the 120-foot steeple of the Salvation Church. It now lies in the churchyard, wrapped in a red shroud.”
This is an absolutely amazing story that indicates that the current Communist Party leaders in China are now mandating an effort to remove the symbolic authority of Christianity by decapitating steeples and church towers of their crosses. As is so often the case from China, the numbers are absolutely astounding. Johnson reports,
“Over the past two years, officials and residents said, the authorities have torn down crosses from 1,200 to 1,700 churches, sometimes after violent clashes with worshipers trying to stop them.”
The current head of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping, has announced an absolute campaign to “resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means.”
That is to say, the Communist Party and the nation’s President has declared himself absolutely committed to try to minimize the influence of Christianity. Why in the world would a national leader make that statement? It is because, quite honestly, he fears the influence of Christianity and understands rightly that is a threat to his regime—a threat in this sense: you cannot have Christianity standing alongside harmlessly while a nation and its leader attempts to deify themselves and to claim absolute authority. The President had warned Christians and others in China recently saying that religions in China must, in his words, Sinicize—or, that is, become Chinese. That means, most particularly, accept the absolute authority of the Communist Party in China. That is something that Christians simply cannot do.
Looking back to the Old Testament we find the example of Daniel who refused to bend the knee to an idol and we are now seeing modern examples of this, even as the 20th century was replete with examples, especially under the dictates of communist regimes.
Once again, the Chinese president seems himself to define the issues rather clearly. As Johnson reports,
“Mr. Xi’s campaign to promote ‘core socialist values’ — a slogan meant to offer a secular belief system that bolsters the party’s legitimacy.”
Exactly. The New York Times has described this in precisely the right terms. Here you have the head of the communist party in China who is insisting on an entire worldview based upon a secular ideology of Marxism and communism because he understands that this will offer “a belief system that bolsters the party’s legitimacy.”
Turn that around and what he understands is that biblical Christianity would deny that very legitimacy to his oppressive government. While thinking about this, Christians should also understand the power of the gospel, even—and sometimes especially—in the face of this kind of persecution. When the communist revolution took place, there were any number of American Protestant missionaries in China. Some of them lost their lives, others were simply ejected from the country. It was estimated at the time that there may be as many as 3 or 4 million Chinese Christians at that time. It is now estimated that there are between 60 and 80, perhaps as many as 100 million Christians in China. It is now well documented that it is almost certain that there are more Chinese Christians than there are members of the Chinese Communist Party, which is to say in another way, perhaps the President of China understands the threat very clearly. But even as he insists upon deifying his own party, you might think at least he would learn another of the lessons from history. Opposing the church, persecuting the church, imprisoning the church, and trying even to bring the church to an end—it turns out that that doesn’t have the effect that autocrats, beginning with Caesar, have tried to bring about.
The Chinese Communist Party may be effective in decapitating crosses from the top of steeples in China, but what they can’t do is dislodge Christ from within the hearts of Chinese Christians. That, frustratingly enough to the Chinese Communist Party, is beyond their power.
Technology outstrips morality in closed-door meeting where scientists discuss creating synthetic DNA
Meanwhile, shifting back to the United States, in recent days a group of scientists met in a really secretive meeting in which they were attempting to discuss whether or not they could or should create a synthetic human genome. This is one of the stories that sounds like it might be the fodder for some kind of science fiction or it might sound so unlikely that many Christians would think this really isn’t much of a threat. But what’s interesting to note is how many scientists who are not themselves operating out of a Christian worldview who do understand that a great deal is at stake and that this is a very real threat.
Andrew Pollack, reporting for the New York Times tells us that,
“Scientists are now contemplating the fabrication of a human genome, meaning they would use chemicals to manufacture all the DNA contained in human chromosomes.
“The prospect is spurring both intrigue and concern in the life sciences community because it might be possible, such as through cloning, to use a synthetic genome to create human beings without biological parents.”
There’s a great deal of controversy here not only about the nature of this conversation, but the fact that it took place in private. And there has been no shortage of criticism of the fact that this private meeting was discussing something that is at its very heart a matter that strikes at human dignity.
Anjana Ahuja, writing in the Financial Times, tells us that this could forecast a dystopian future in which all human life is commodified. As the Financial Times notes,
“It was not surprising that a meeting held at Harvard Medical School last week to discuss building a synthetic human genome caused a furor. There is something disquietingly reductive about constructing something as complicated as a person using just a computer, bottles of chemicals and DNA synthesis machines.”
Now before we go too far with this we need to recognize that it is not clear that this kind of scientific expedition is going to be effective, that this kind of experiment can be realized in creating an entirely synthetic human genome by means of synthesized DNA. However, there are scientists who believe that it actually could be quite possible and, not only that, but it could happen in fairly short order. The reality is we don’t know how far this technology is going to advance and how soon some of these technological advances might become available. But the reality is this: clearly the technology has outstripped the morality. We are now looking at the fact that scientists themselves are increasingly worried about the uses of these biotechnologies in terms of redefining human dignity and the very essence of what it means to be human.
Documents from the closed meeting that were eventually in the hands of the press included the fact that the invitation stated that the meeting at Harvard would have as its primary goal “to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”
So what we now know is that the meeting was held behind closed doors. It was a private meeting that was limited so that no outsiders could be present. George Church, one of the professors behind the endeavor explained that this was because there was an embargo on the research because it had been pledged to a scientific journal. Other scientists aren’t buying that argument. As is so often the case, a scientist behind this kind of experimentation assures us that there’s no real threat and that they’re not actually doing anything all that significant. That’s what they tend to say on the front end. As the New York Times reports,
“George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.”
Speaking of critics, Church said,
“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project.”
Well, we need to recognize that his own invitation is what set off all the alarms and there is no reason to believe the scientists will keep themselves, even to the limited aims that Professor Church has here identified. There is every reason to believe that, like Pandora ’s Box, once this kind of knowledge and technology is created, it will be used. Medical ethicists have pointed even from a secular perspective to the fear that this kind of technology would be used to commodify human beings, to create human beings who could be designed upon order.
One of the bioethicists that responded to this particular meeting with concern asked the question, What kind of genome is going to be synthesized here? Perhaps it would be Albert Einstein. Who is then going to decide how many Albert Einstein’s we need? Or who, given the kinds of therapies that could come out of this project, would be designed to be the next Albert Einstein? We’re talking about a reduction of human dignity by the very fact that you’re talking here explicitly in the national media about a scientific meeting held at Harvard University in which there is the potential of at least, according to this argument, creating and synthesizing human beings who would have no parents.
The writer in the Financial Times set the issue clearly:
“My hunch is that the construction of a synthetic human genome is inevitable. Biotechnologies,” said the writer, “has become a playground for entrepreneurs who can pursue their dreams relatively un-scrutinized.”
Well, there’s the warning. Here you have a secret meeting and the announcement that so much of this is being undertaken now by entrepreneurs outside any kind of moral scrutiny. When you have even secular bioethicists concerned about a meeting like this, then Christians who understand what’s at stake in human dignity in a way the secular worldview cannot, we should be even more concerned and for that matter more aware.
There's a 91% chance Hawaii won't get hit by a mega-tsunami in next 50 years—and it's making headlines
Finally, when it comes to science, Christians need to be very careful as we think about how the so-called scientific studies and other kinds of data are reported to the public. We have to look beyond the headlines. For example, The Atlantic recently ran a headline, it’s this,
“Human Extinction Isn’t That Unlikely.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash.”
Well, that’s alarming news. Are we actually being told that we’re more likely to die in an extinction to the human species than we are to die in a car crash? Well, as it turns out, the numbers don’t add up. Inside the article, we are told that the chance of dying in a global cataclysm is about 0.1%. No one knows exactly how they came up with that figure by the way, and even as The Atlantic notes, that may sound low, but it also adds up when extrapolated to century-scale. Well, you take any risk and extrapolate it over a significant amount of time and it becomes something that looks rather likely, but even the presuppositions here are to be questioned.
Meanwhile, there was another major story, it came out also in recent days, headlines telling us that Hawaii is bracing for a mega-tsunami in the next 50 years. This is another one of those stories that requires a closer look. And it turns out as Scientific American reported that there is now extrapolated by scientists a 9% chance that over the next 50 years there will be an earthquake off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska that might register 9.0 on the Richter scale or greater that could lead to a tsunami that might within 50 years threaten a matter of devastation in Hawaii. Now that’s not good news for Hawaii, but it’s also really not news. As a matter of fact, this is one of those scientific studies that merely tends to quantify, or at least attempts to quantify, what just about anyone living the Pacific already knew. But if you were watching the headlines the day this report came out, you would think that Hawaii is right now bracing for a tsunami, when of course it is not. And as a matter fact, even the report says there is a 9% chance that this might happen over the next 50 years if all other conditions predicted in the study take place at the same time. Christians understand that science can reveal a very great deal and can—and we should be thankful for this—explain much. But it can’t explain everything. And that is especially true when it tries to explain the future.