A New Religion

Where Communism was once a religion for many, the Chinese are now looking for a new faith. Barry Petersen discusses prayer groups and their rising popularity in China.
I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. Unlike Americans, the Chinese have no right of assembly, which makes these people gathered in this suburban Beijing living room already outside the law of their country. But that's nothing compared to why they are here. They've gathered to exercise another right that Americans take for granted: the freedom of religion.

This is a weekly bible study class. While China allows its government controlled church to operate openly, these people want to practice a faith of their own. People like this, operating outside the official church, are often persecuted. But still, across China in private homes, people gather like this group. Tonight, they are studying the concept of turning the other cheek.

One gentleman in the group understands the concept very well; he lost his leg in 1989 in Tiananmen Square when Chinese army bullets ended the pro-democracy movement. "What happened in 1989 gave me a new life," he says. "I don't hate the party or anything. We should love others as we love ourselves."

You can sense, in this getting-rich-quick China, an unusual need for religion. We discussed that need with one man - a distinguished professor who was fired for writing articles critical of the government. "As human beings," he said, "besides food, you need a spiritual life.

When the communist took over China in 1949, one of the things they wanted was to rid the country of foreign religions and foreign missionaries. One way of doing it was to turn communism into a kind of religion. But as people suffered through the abuses of communism and now find their lives getting much better thanks to capitalism run rampant, the creed of communism has withered. According to the professor, "If your spiritual life goes blank, as our previous belief in Communism disappears, there is a crisis of belief, an emptiness of belief."

That explains why religious groups like this are spreading. Even in a country where material life gets better by the day, people are learning that money is not all there is.

By Barry Petersen