Whiskey Priest vs. God's Chinese Son

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by Tom Smedley by Tom Smedley

Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory traces the final few weeks in the life of a “whiskey priest” in 1930's Mexico. It's a grim but ultimately hopeful tale. The protagonist, who views himself as unworthy of his calling, nonetheless persists, endures, and finally earns martyrdom from a rabidly secular provincial officer. The question remains: who truly has the best interests of “the people” at heart? The poor slob who does his best to represent a transcendent order, or the sharp military man who intends to impose a secular paradise? To us, a half century later, the answer is obvious. When Graham Greene wrote, however, coercive utopianism still looked credible.

The grandiose plans that second-rate people make for others can lead to incredible misery. Nerds who create computer viruses or commit digital vandalism, for example, typically exhibit a pronounced discrepancy between their real and their imagined places in the scheme of things. Hitler was a failed artist, Stalin a failed monk, and Hong Xiuquan's Bai Shangdi Hui (God Worshipping Society) followed a cadre of men who had taken, and failed, Confucian civil service exams.

Jonathon D. Spence published his landmark book on a neglected millennial movement, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan in 1996. Consider it required reading for any scholar of liberty and popular uprisings.

To paraphrase the setup to a traditional American joke, “What do you get when you cross – American protestant ‘roll your own’ Christianity with the Chinese love of bureaucracy?” In this case, a social revolution that left behind at least 20 million corpses.

True, the holocausts of the 20th century make those numbers conceivable. But the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan happened a hundred years before communism turned China, Russia, Africa, and Cuba into charnel houses. The man who viewed himself as “God’s Chinese Son” reigned between 1845 and 1864.

Towards the end, on a bleak January 20th, American Baptist faith missionary Issachar Roberts stole away from the Nanjing palace of his one-time protg and sought refuge on a British ship. Nearly two decades earlier, this independent minister had coached Hong Xiuquan through the Bible and the basics of the Christian faith. Then, the two fell out. Soon thereafter, Hong started down his own path. As author Jonathon Spence reports,

    It is 1837 when Hong ascends to Heaven. While there, he is charged by God, his Heavenly Father – attired in black dragon robe and high-brimmed hat, his mouth almost hidden by his luxuriant golden beard – to slay the demon devils who are leading the people on earth astray. … Returned to his home village in south China, he resolves to carry on the struggle against the evil polluting humanity. He knows himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, God’s Chinese Son. (dust jacket)

Hong apparently loved harmonious order. His interpretation of “every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid” goes thus:

    Let every family in each unit rear five chickens and two sows, and see to their breeding. Let mulberry trees be planted in the shelter of every house, so all can work at raising silkworms and spinning silk. Of the products of this labor – food or cloth, livestock or money – let each corporal see to it that every family under him has food for its needs, but that all the rest be deposited in the public treasuries. And let the sergeants check the books and tally the accounts, presenting the records to their superiors, the colonels and captains. For “all people on this Earth are as the family of the Lord their God on High, and when people of this earth keep nothing for their private use but give all things to God for all to use in common, then in the whole land every place shall have equal shares, and every one be clothed and fed. This was why the Lord God expressly sent the Taiping Heavenly Lord to come down and save the world. (p. 173)

When he wasn't in heaven getting introduced to Elder Brother Jesus' multiple wives, or imitating that example on earth, Hong led a popular revolt against China's Mongol overlords. Created a movement literature. And “organized” his people into mass graves.

This is a good time of the year to celebrate the Messiah who stays in heaven, out of our lives, unless invited in. And a good season for looking askance at messianic political movements of left or right. People who are secure in the embrace of a heavenly Savior walk at liberty, and disregard the blandishments of impostors. The heavenly King demands only the tithe. His earthly rivals demand far more than that, to save us from ourselves at our own expense!

Tom Smedley [send him mail] is a technical writer living in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina with his wife and four children. Visit his web site.

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