I’ve argued in various contexts that the sheer existence of the church forces a choice on political powers. They can try to suppress the church, they can accommodate and make room, they can try to bound off the church and keep it safely private. But once the church exists, and just by being the church, the church forces political change. (If – to quote Robert Jenson – if she does not forget herself.)
Jillian Kay Melchior provides a case study of this phenomenon in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. She reports on the political effect of Christian charity in China following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. In the aftermath of the earthquake “Catholics and Protestants alike volunteered bravely, searching for survivors despite aftershock fears. Nationwide, Chinese Christians donated millions of yuan to help those in need.”
The earthquake exposed the inability of the regime to serve its citizens, and likewise demonstrated the willingness and ability of the churches to pitch in to help.
As a result, “Christian churches in Sichuan saw a dramatic increase in conversions after the earthquake. But the conversion of the government might be more dramatic. Despite its long antipathy toward Christianity, the government appears to realize that the churches fill a glaring gap in Chinese society. Beijing has taken some promising steps this year to encourage Christians and other believers to continue expanding their philanthropic pursuits.”
Melchior concludes: “Opening the door to religion is inherently liberalizing. The government can’t expand the charitable works of Christians without also expanding free speech, free assembly, and even property rights for believers. If liberty ever comes to China, Christian charity—along with a natural disaster—may prove to have been one of the most important catalysts.”
Without trying to force political change, by being herself, the church forces political change.