For Christian audiences, I hope this essay encourages you to reflect on your faith in the context of history’s tragedies.
For secular audiences, I hope this essay encourages you to reflect on the possibility of a God of love who can supersede history’s tragedies.
For both audiences, I hope this essay broadens your perspective of both history and China, and inspires you to serve and promote international understanding.
The students I taught one weekend were in seventh grade. They were from Yi Village in Anhui Province, had taken one year of English, and were so poor that even their Standard Mandarin was lacking.
Outside, chickens roamed free. Some of them were arrayed for sale on cloth in the street. Freshly killed and stripped, they glistened, organic like giant white spiders. The Yi Village school had received the benefits of China’s economic growth; plasma touch screen computers graced the blackboards of each classroom. But the principal clanged a rusted cowbell to signal the beginning and end of classes.
The weather was unbearable. The students busied themselves by fanning their shining faces and necks rather than listen to my presentation on American cities. Trickles of sweat ran down my face, and the students gave me the faintest of expressions. Their complete silence bothered me. No matter how broadly I smiled or loudly I talked, they gave no reaction of any kind.
I abruptly ended the lecture and announced a game of Hangman. Dividing a class between boys and girls usually got the students energized – at least it had in the city schools. In the countryside, however, this gimmick did not work. The word we played was “political,” a word I had just taught them, yet as the letters fell into place they could only point and make gestures. In spite of my earnest explanations and deliberately glacial pace, the worst had happened – my students had failed to understand a word I said.
When I remember those bright-eyed children sweating profusely in their wooden chairs, something inside me collapses with pain, understanding, and humility. I say this not with the air of an Ivy League humanities student returning after a simple summer in China. I believe I am part of the problem; I am part of this system that enslaves humanity. The vast, vast majority of people in the history of the human race never had a chance to attend any institution of higher education, much less Harvard. They tended the fields, suffered the plagues, fought the wars, sweated it out, grueling their lives away, were disfigured, scarred, stamped out, beaten, lived lives teetering precariously, lived lives that oppressed their intellect, emotions, potential, and happiness. No matter what happens in the future, there is no escaping this legacy.
I remember seeing a student ride to school in the back of a pick-up truck. He sat sternly in a low plastic chair like the emperor of some minuscule domain, a corner of Yi Village, a monarch, but with a kingdom the size of a courtyard. To me, he represented the precarious hope of these students and the beautiful simplicity of their lives.
Modernity and all our pretensions might seem to fall away, shriveled and meaningless and too late, in the face of all who have lived and died uncelebrated, unhappy, and unloved.
For many secular audiences, it is precisely our dark history that is a hindrance to accepting the existence of a loving God. Later, when I discuss the nature of history and the power of larger, contextual narratives, I will try to reconcile this problem.
For now, I hope both Christian and secular audiences understand deeply and without a doubt that the vast majority of humanity lived nowhere near the types of lives we may regard as basic or normal today.
Indeed, clouded by our norms, we may see Harvard University as a difficult place to become and remain a Christian; the environment is secular, skeptical, worldly. Yet this is a fundamental fallacy. Christians who attend Harvard probably have every reason to declare that God is good and loving. Harvard friends, we live in the House of Privilege itself.
It would be no surprise if Harvard University turned out to be the easiest place in the world to become and remain a Christian. Our needs are met. Our life trajectories seem satisfactory. There is peace, tolerance, and hope. Being Christian at Harvard is no impressive achievement.
How do we proclaim the Gospel to other Americans, much less the world’s poor, when we stand on such an unequal playing field in the grace that has been shown to us? The answer, of course, is that our proclamations will not ring hollow from our positions of privilege if we visibly transcend the world, if we give as God gives, if we serve as God serves, and if we love as God loves. Our actions and behavior must supersede our words to the point that words are no longer necessary.
For those interested in China, seeing rural poverty and understanding its oppression have long been a rite of passage. The rural peasants have been the back that bore Chinese civilization since the Neolithic, China being an agrarian state from its beginning to the 20th century. Entire traditions of Chinese literature are built on the question of what to make of the masses that have come and gone in the countryside. Contemporary Chinese leaders usually experience a few years of rural life and governance before they are given higher leadership posts. The concerns and questions I have raised are nothing new, and I am a naïve amateur with little experience and qualifications to answer these questions. I can only offer what witness and testimony I have.
Tragedy exists in Chinese history on colossal scales. The poverty I witnessed during a summer in China is a picnic in the park compared to the human suffering that enveloped China time and time again. A comparatively recent and little known example is the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Started by a peasant claiming to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 20 million people. And in world history, there are the wars, the famines, the plagues, the genocides.
But on a cynical level, one might ask does it matter? Life is an endeavor with an unavoidable one hundred percent casualty rate.
Also, who am I to discern the dark nature of human history? After all, the people of the past lived with dignity and happiness; they need none of my arrogant first world concern. Many were smarter than me, kinder than me, wiser than me.
Most importantly, what does all this mean for Christianity? We can call suffering in the world a product of sin, but this is not altogether comforting.
Dr. William Cronon, Professor of History at Yale University and past president of the American Historical Association, has this to say about history:
All historians . . . configure the events of the past into causal sequences –
stories – that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings.
We do so because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning
in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality.
Indeed, much of human understanding is based on narrative. We live in a world of competing narratives for everything. Is the United States a beacon of freedom for the world or has it strayed from its supposedly founding principles? There are competing stories for both sides. Is modern Western civilization an enlightened utopia or an environment-destroying industrial machine? There are competing narratives for both sides. Who are you, as an individual, where have you been, and where are you going? There are competing autobiographical narratives inside your head for that as well.
The Bible itself is one big story about God and humanity. Jesus Christ taught mainly in stories. Our understanding of the world is made of competing stories. Christianity is a story, and people become Christian when the Christian story is more compelling on all evidential levels than other stories.
Crucially, the human story has not ended. We are still here. And because the meaning of stories depends largely on how they end, the meaning of us is still up for grabs. We are continuously reinterpreting the past in light of what happens in the present.
And, my friends, who gets to decide what happens in the world today? We do. We bear not just the history of China, but the history of the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, on our shoulders. It is a staggering responsibility. When we make our individual and collective choices, we bear not just the pressings of the present, but the enormous legacy and imprint of all our ancestors. The meaning of all humanity today and the past is in our hands.
Even though 99.9 percent of humanity may have lived and died in the fields, illiterate, uncelebrated, many unloved and unhappy – even though we may never escape that legacy – the meaning of that legacy will change if one day world poverty is ended and all who live are loved. The meaning of our legacy is up for grabs. We can shape the meaning of the boy who rode to school in the back of a pick-up truck. We can shape the meaning of those Yi Village schoolchildren.
There is a remaining point about the narrative of history that is worth rejoicing over, and that is the power of larger, contextual narratives. In this case, it is the larger story of God and humanity that supersedes human suffering and human history. All suffering, personal and collective, is alleviated when put into the story of a larger context, with meaning and purpose behind it. God will judge all humanity, and God has saved all humanity. We do not know what happens to those who die without hearing the Gospel, but we can point to the character of God as proved by loving, gentle, humble, meek, servant Jesus Christ, and trust in God.
Christians cannot prove God exists, because that is what faith is for; faith does not mean certainty. Christians only give witness and testify to the God of love and make our actions compellingly support our testimony. But this is a discussion for another time. For now, I hope secular audiences consider the narrative of Christianity and how it offers a solution for the problems of our collective narrative. For Christian audiences, I hope you continue to love and serve the Lord, and strive to further the Christian story. For both audiences, I hope you understand better the burden on those today to serve and make our part of the human story a worthy response to history. The dignity of the people past depends on it.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Taiping Rebellion.” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/580815/Taiping-Rebellion
 Cronon, William. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” The Journal of American History. 1992.