Reflection on “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by Michel Chambon

Recently I was reading an article in the April 2019 edition of Sojourners magazine called “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by theologian and anthropologist Michel Chambon. I found the article fascinating as it reflected on the ongoing relationship between Chinese Protestant Christianity and the government under which they live. I found it fascinating because it had a greater level of reflection on the relationship between the church and state in a land I know little about in general.

I read various things about Christian practice I did not even realize where are part of the practice of my beloved family in another nation. Did you know that Christians lead large calisthenic groups in places like Nanping? Did you know that the Chinese are also facing the crisis of an aging population? I did not know that was happening. Most of the news I have seen over the years has focused on trade issues, pollution issues, or religious-freedom issues. In particular, they taught me growing up that the Chinese church was consistently and constantly under pressure. In fact, the church that the sources I read taught me about growing up could never exist openly–a public gathering of Christians to exercise was beyond my comprehension.

What makes this interesting is how Mr. Chambon presents the information. Mr. Chambon states:

“The Chinese state–like every other state–operates under its own political tradition and in relation to its own national culture. Chinese religious police is not only defined by a supposedly coherent national law but also through the agency of local officials who play a key role in its implementation. In practice, state control is heterogenous and varies from district to district. It relies on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.

In some places, local officials have imposed stricter regulation and monitoring on Christians and other social actors. In other places, they have destroyed Christian churches and jailed a few leaders. But in my view, this does not represent a general crackdown on Christianity. It reflects instead the Chinese policy of ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys’–applying a heavy hand on one group is publicized to push others toward self-limitation and censorship.”

Michel Chambon in “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” (Sojourners, April 2019, pg. 8)

At some level, this should have not needed to be spelled out to make sense. Part of the struggle of the United Methodist Church is the belief we can set an international policy on human-sexuality without understanding that there needs to be a reliance “on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.”

At some level, the attempt to apply one set of laws across the board internationally is to engage in the same idealistic hubris which I felt must apply to Chinese culture of my imagination for decades of my life. The attempt to enforce such legislation without balancing the needs of the local area is at least naïve. I am certain there are folks who believe the “coherency” of church law requires uniformity, but that may be misguided. Yes, there are those moments of persecution which are regrettable and terrible, but what if that is a part of the policy of applying a heavy hand to push others towards “self-limitation and censorship?”

What really struck me and threw me for a loop was that I recognized this policy of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys” in my culture. I have seen this policy my entire life. In my context as an European American Protestant Christian, I have not seen this policy enacted from the top down. Our government says there is freedom in this land. I have seen this policy enacted at the grassroots and in the middle of society. I have seen it applied in the way we treat indigenous tribes, immigrants, and the descendants of our own hunger for slavery.

In June 2015 when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was it to put an end to every group of African American Christians? Clearly, Dylann Roof did not end the African American church when he murdered nine of the Christian family. In my experience, the church surrounded the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church regardless of denomination or race. That is my perception. Did Dylann Roof’s violence lead folks to self-limitation and censorship?

Photo of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2008. Photo by “Cal Sr” and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

Here’s the thing: as a part of the dominating culture of American Imperialism, I am uncertain I can say that Dylann Roof accomplished the same goal as the Chinese policy. I can say I refuse to use an honorific to refer to him, but how did his actions affect those in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did the people like those gathered in other communities similar to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church walk away with a message? Did people who worshipped in synagogues or mosques hear the shots of a member of the dominant culture towards a group of African American Christians and hear a message? Did they see violence against a subset of the dominant religion (Christianity) and fear for their own future when they do not share the same experience of God?

Thinking back to those moments, I realize that I took part in an ecumenical memorial for those family members in faith down south, but I did not reach out to people who might have received just as violent a message. I did not stand alongside those who might also have been intimidated. The African American Christians were the chickens who were slaughtered, I rushed to the hen house to soothe the flock, but ignored the rest of the surrounding people.

When I reflect on Mr. Chambon’s article, what really strikes me is that I have been blind. I was not only blind in my understanding of Chinese culture. I have been blind in the way I have treated my own neighbors. I was blind as a teenager every time I was silent when a friend would drive to the nearby Native American reservation to act like hooligans. I was blind as a college student when I stood by ignoring the Muslim community after September 11, 2001. I was blind to injustice when people grabbed anyone who was not pale (like me) out of the line in airport security lines.

The challenge Mr. Chambon’s article leads me towards is a difficult challenge. When I know that African American males are disproportionately jailed, who else is hearing that message? How do be in ministry with those folks who are disproportionately jailed and those who are also given those messages? When I hear that folks are labeled as coming from s%#thole countries, how do I not only build up the people I meet from those places but also the others who hear words of disparagement? How do I open my eyes further? How do I honor my own principles and ethics? How do I stop letting blinders fetter my sight?

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