For an American sitting at home, the problem of freedom in other countries is a bit like looking through a telescope. When finished looking, the problem stays at a distance. However, for the Christian, that problem cannot leave us indifferent because the power of the Spirit that unites us to others cuts the distances between us. Therefore, the issue of freedom in China, and religious freedom in particular, calls the Christian to reflect and consider the options for responding.
Recently, the writer Frank Ching, in an article published by The Globe and Mail on March 17, (and to whom I am indebted for the title of this article) cited examples of the discrepancies reported between the rights of the Chinese people as indicated in their constitution and the way these are respected in practice. He lists the rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, such as freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, to name a few. Now, we can add that included among the victims of the abuses reported over the years are fellow Christians, from bishops and pastors, to the lay faithful. We think of Cardinal Kung, who was imprisoned in China for 30 years, and who died ten years ago this month. With him, and with the others, we form one Body in Christ. If they are injured in their rights, then so are we, since we belong to the same Body.
Catholics look to the Second Vatican Council for a clear and excellent teaching concerning religious freedom. Regarding the basis of that freedom, the Council Fathers say “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” (Dignitatis Humanae,2) What does the revealed word of God tell us about that dignity? That man is made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis chapter one). What does reason tell us? That each person is born free at the level of spirit, is unique in his personal history, and thus, is full of possibilities for contributing to the good of society.
The Chinese people possess the same human dignity as the rest of the human race, and for that reason, they are free, at least in spirit. That is why they have rights - in reality. That’s also why it’s only honest to have them recognized in law, as the Chinese government has so wisely done. Now, for peace to last within its borders, the Chinese authorities must begin to recognize those rights in practice. Otherwise, the plot is already written on the topic: any authority that systematically suppresses rights on a large scale ends in failure. How many times does a Soviet Union have to fall before people finally get the idea? How times do we have to read variations on the Gulag Archipelago?
People like Mr. Ching and those operating the Cardinal Kung Foundation do a service to us all. They do so by calling our attention to injustices that concern us because they affect our fellows far away and in particular, those brothers and sisters of the house of faith. We can do more than read articles on the topic because we are free to pray. Not only that, we are free to collaborate with those who urge China to recognize human rights in practice. No one wants to see tragedy befall a nation, but tragedy is the only ending to the story of suppressed rights. Are the Chinese doomed to repeat Egypt’s side of the Exodus? We pray that they are the wiser.
Michael Maciborski, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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