Not a Christian Movement

[Updated on May 6, 2016]

This is a long overdue post. Seeing a high school friend at a Christian tent on the first anniversary finally motivated me to get the job done. (See reflections one year on.) Here is her t-shirt that says “shouldering the cross” on the back:


Given that I teach at a Catholic university whose motto is “God, country, and Notre Dame,” many people have asked me if the Umbrella Movement is a Christian movement. My colleague Daniel Philpott argues that the third wave of democracy was a Catholic Wave, so is the wave hitting HK? Other colleagues have read about Christian participation in the movement and have asked about Christianity-motivated reasons. I have been saying “no” for a year. The umbrella movement is a Eurasian movement, a cross-class movement, and a social media movement; but, no, it is not a Christian movement.

It is understandable why people are tempted to connect HK’s democracy movement to Christianity because some democracy leaders are Christian and because Christian groups are conspicuous at many protests. Thus there were these stories about the movement:

[Sep 26, 2014] Christians back HK democracy protests with food and faith:

Although secular, Hong Kong’s largest-ever student rallies have been fueled by significant Christian participation. Amid fears over creeping interference from religion-resistant Beijing, the large-scale involvement of Christians is a clear sign of Church support for the pro-democracy movement… As Hong Kong fights for its political future, God and politics have become increasingly blurred…. many leaders of the pro-democracy movement are Christian. The three initiators of the Occupy Central movement are Protestants including Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Joshua Wong, a student protest leader who mobilized 1,200 students to join the rally on Friday, is also Protestant. Former chief secretary and high-profile protester Anson Chan, founder of the pro-democrat Apple Daily Jimmy Lai, and founder of the Democrat Party Martin Lee are all Catholics. Along with Zen, they have regularly been branded the “four troublesome gangsters of Hong Kong” in pro-Beijing newspapers in the territory.

[Oct 27, 2014] Religion on the Occupy Central front line puts faith into practice

Christianity in particular has long been entwined with Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and genuine democracy, and Christians can be seen at all three protest sites, holding prayer services and Catholic mass, and offering counselling and prayer… The Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and Benny Tai Yiu-ting – two of the three Occupy Central co-founders – are Christians, as is Scholarism leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

[Oct 3, 2014] Hong Kong Democracy Protests Carry a Christian Mission for Some

Hong Kong’s churches are playing a quiet but important role in the city’s protests, offering food and shelter to demonstrators, with some organizers and supporters citing Christian values as inspiration in their fight. At least three of the founders of the main protest groups are Christians, including the 17-year-old leader of a student group and two of the three heads of Occupy Central … and the city’s former Catholic bishop is a vocal supporter [that is, Archbishop Zen] 

[Oct 28, 2015] Hong Kong Protest Leaders Recall Spiritual Motivation

[May 3, 2014] Democracy and Faith: A Dialogue with Martin Lee

[Jan 28, 2015] The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong: Part II

Besides the pro-democracy political parties and community-based pressure groups, Hong Kong Christians played a visible role in the democratic struggle.

[Oct. 16, 2014] The Catholic Umbrella in HK. Despite the title, this last piece also gives more nuances to the role of Catholicism in the umbrella movement:

… there are Catholics who work at all levels of the government, and there are Catholics who are deeply involved in the democratic protests…

… At an official level, the Church neither endorses nor condemns the protests. At the same time, the Church neither officially endorses nor condemns the government…

…when [Archbishop Joseph] Zen accompanies the protesters and calls for C.Y. Leung’s resignation, he is speaking for one faction of the Church, and when [Bishop John] Tong opposes occupation as a tactic but has remained relatively silent on the current Umbrella Movement, he is speaking for another faction of the Church.

Nevertheless, this piece insists on the importance of Catholicism, thus the title “Catholic Umbrella”:

However, referencing the parish formation tactics in “March into the Bright Decade,” the Church is actually speaking with one voice against state-sponsored violence.

It is true that the Catholic Church preaches social justice even if it does not endorse civil disobedience. In May 2015, Bishop Tong urged legislators to vote with their conscience in the service of justice.

[May 30]  湯漢籲各方修補政改方案不足 望議員秉持良心投票天主教香港教區主教湯漢樞機發出牧函,湯漢指出,指在目前情況下,與其要求立法會議員斷言否決政改方案、或視乎情況「袋住先」,教區建議,各方應同心協力對現有方案的不足之處、或缺陷作出修補。湯漢重申,在政改上,除非提名委員會真正有廣泛代表性,而且所採用的程序確實符合民主,否則基本法所規定普選的最終目標就不能實現,行政長官候選人的產生,不應受到不合理或不公義的限制。

The Christian Council likewise called on the government to uphold justice:

[Sep 24, 2015] ‘Don’t forget justice’: Christian Council chair calls on Chief Sec., Liaison Office to improve gov’tYuen later added that “if weasel words and blatant lies continue to exist in society… and [the government] forgets about the spirit of justice and does not care for the poor, there’s no way for society to achieve harmony.… During last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protests, Yuen opened the doors of the Methodist Church in Wan Chai to demonstrators in need of refreshments, a place to rest, medical treatment or access to social workers.

And there are other very prominent Christian leaders who support “genuine universal suffrage”, esp. Rev. Yuen Tin-yau: Govt must listen to all voices in society

Even prominent pro-umbrella artists:

鍾氏兄弟 The Chung Brothers: 時代的鐘聲《鐘聲》(The Chimes)

Yet, such Christian participation does not necessarily support any claim to direct connections between Christianity and the umbrella movement. We can say that X is related to Y only when we can establish a) that X goes with Y and b) that X does not go with non-Y. We cannot make that argument when we find that Christians are split between democracy activists on the one hand and government officials and regime supporters on the other. We certainly cannot establish causation if we cannot even support correlation. (Just to be clear, all the above pieces argue for correlation but not causation.)

Consider this: [Nov. 2, 2015] Chief Sec. Carrie Lam says there is a place reserved for her in heaven

Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor said at a Catholic charity event … that she attended mass prior to the event and that the eight Beatitudes were discussed. “Some said that the eighth blessing applies very well to me – it says, ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ – there is already a place reserved for me in heaven.”… “Working in the SAR government, when you insist on doing the work of righteousness, you’ll often be given a hard time,” she said as the crowd applauded.

If this logic is disappointing to my Christian friends, let’s think about the Roman Catholic Church’s evolving attitudes toward “liberation theology”  — without suggesting that the two cases are alike. The question for Catholics in Latin America was “how to proclaim God as Father in a world that is inhumane.” (See Gustavo Gutiérrez at Notre Dame, “the godfather of liberation theology.”) Asking this question led many individual Catholics to engage in activism in order to transform brutal military regimes and predatory economic structures. Archbishop Oscar Romero and many other Catholic leaders spoke out against injustices brought by dictatorship. Priests were so hated by military regimes that a Salvadoran death squad had this motto “be patriotic–kill a priest!” The participation of leading Catholics, however, did not mean that Christianity was directly related to the pro-democracy struggles. The Church hierarchy was not pleased with liberation theology and only toned down its opposition over time. Romero’s beatification finally took place on 23 May 2015, decades after he was killed. 

If Catholics do not speak with one voice in HK as elsewhere, then Protestants are even more divided — and more conservative. HK’s Protestant churches are as conservative as (if not more conservative than) those in the American South. (See A bittersweet tale of prejudice, overcome and enduring, in the deep SouthMany church leaders told their followers to oppose the occupy movement as well as the campaign for LGBT rights last year (including the Anglican church that my high school friend attends and the Baptist church that my sister attends). (Likewise, John Tong urges Catholic to reject election candidates who advocate for gay rightsLGBT groups slam Catholic leaders for adding insult to injury;  Let Hong Kong’s religious pluralism and diversity be a model for LGBT inclusion;  Church invasion: scuffles as Hong Kong LGBT activists storm Catholic talk on anti-sexual discrimination laws)

It is also a mistake to claim that “The proportion of Christians supporting the movement is higher than the proportion of the Hong Kong population in general.” (Christians back HK democracy protests with food and faith) My former classmate laments that pro-umbrella Christians are in the minority. The Facebook group “HK’s Christianity Under the Umbrella Movement” — a community with serious debates on the role of Christianity in society — had only 1,368 “likes” as of Sep. 30: 雨傘運動下的香港基督教」文獻資料庫Indeed, the commemoration service at Admiralty denounced what they called “establishment theology”: [Sep 28, 2015]  九二八週年紀念崇拜百人出席 胡志偉斥「建制神學」以安穩代信靠 

How many Christians are there in HK?

About 480,000 Protestants and 363,000 Catholics live in Hong Kong, a city of about 7.2 million, according to government figures from 2013. (Hong Kong Democracy Protests Carry a Christian Mission for Some)

In 2009, … Francis Yip conducted a phone survey … Of the 2,002 people polled, 5.6 percent identified as Roman Catholic, while 18.7 percent identified as Protestant. A 2012 report … found that of the 1,505 respondents, 16 percent were Protestant and 3.6 percent were Catholic. The numbers correspond with surveys done for the Hong Kong Transition Project at Hong Kong Baptist University… it found Catholics make up 7 percent of the population while Protestants make up 16 percent. Combined, the total population of Christians is about 23 percent.  Yip said the discrepancy between the official numbers and the survey findings is based on how the data was gathered… the government most likely collected the data from ecumenical bodies that survey church membership lists and worship participants. But those lists leave out Christians who don’t regularly attend a specific church. (How many Christians live in Hong Kong?)

The presence of Christians at protest sites, though eye-catching for observers, is highly controversial among Christians in HK. Supporters and objectors have had bitter debates over whether or not Christians should be involved in the occupy/umbrella movement. At the risk of oversimplifying the controversy, those who support civil disobedience tend to cite the church doctrine of social justice, while those who oppose tend to cite another doctrine of church-state separation. Overall, pro-umbrella Christians feel that they are marginalized and have to justify their activism.

[May 6, 2016] Hong Kong’s Anglican church distances itself from liberal-leaning divinity school at Chinese University, sparking fears of political pressureAnglican Church drops Chung Chi to show loyalty to Beijing ; 聖公會退出崇基神學院「支持教會」

[April 10, 2016] Kevin Lau’s letter to pro-establishment vs pro-umbrella Christians 給香港教會的兩封信

[Dec 22, 2015] Occupy divided Hong Kong and violence has become more frequent, says Abp. Paul Kwong

[Jul 31] 為何香港的大型教會總是保守? 香港中產階級的特性本已不是關心政治的動物,加上本土基督教容易離地的特質,便造成一間「終極」離地及保守的教會。一方面,他們物質富裕,收入穩定。所以香港人面對的慘況,如樓價高、通脹高及收入低等,皆與他們及他們的下一代完全沒關係,反正他們的下一代必定能置業(爸爸總會幫手)。另一方面,他們關心的基督教信仰只是如何令生活更安定,內心更平穩,注重少埋怨多感恩,所以任何影響內心平靜,影響身心健康的事情,皆不過問,即使他們表達關注,也只會勸其他信徒多祈禱多等待上帝工作,不要對政治議題太上心及自以為是(例如,爭取真普選,關心言論自由等)。 (Most of HK’s Christians belong to the middle class who don’t have to worry about daily struggles. They focus on internal peace, thus stay away from the political struggle for democracy.)

[Jul 20, 2015] UCC 講經培靈奮興會: 一隻蛋也不能少 (We can’t miss even one single egg: Do we protect the eggs when they are fighting against the high wall or do we stand behind the high wall? A church in Causeway Bay refused to open its door on the night of Sep 28 when one of its followers requested to come in to take a rest from the tear gas. Have churches become nothing but elite clubs?)

[June 2015] 重奪基督教發言權──雨傘基督徒後政改新目標:「因此,談復和不能忽略政經權力關係,也要分辨是非善惡,例如雙方的權力關係是否對稱?誰是強勢和弱勢的一方?當中有否壓制、扭曲和暴力的情況出現等。」(We have to pay attention to power structure–which side is powerful and which side is weak? Which side is right and which side is wrong?)

[Sep 16, 2015]  崇基神學院 政治紛爭下的證道(二)「當事情涉及生死存亡,涉及公義自由,涉及上帝的權威,就不能僅靠息事寧人…」(When justice and freedom are involved…)

[April 2013] 更高的命令:公民抗命的信仰反思 (Civil disobedience is a higher calling)

[Sep 2014] Christians Watching Over Hong Kong Confession; [May 27, 2015]「反對假普選 堅拒政治謊言」 一群香港基督徒聯署聲明 

[Apr 2013] 港福堂吳宗文-信徒不應公民抗命爭政治權利 (Christians should not be involved in civil disobedience for political rights)

[Jan 19, 2016] 基督徒只能有理想,不能甘心成為強權的奴隸

[Jan 1, 2015] 教會牧師:人權不是我們追求的理想 : 2014年基督教牧師的維穩言論… 其中位於荃灣的知名靈恩派教會「611靈糧堂」主任牧師張恩年牧師曾於於講道時強調「我們相信人權不是我們追求的理想,民族自由也不是我們終極的追求」亦勉勵會友不用追求世上政權的改變,因為「神的國臨到,社會就改變,就會融洽。耶穌教我們先求祂的國,我們不是求世上政權的改變,而是求神的國臨到,這是教會的立場。」 … 而相對傳統的宗派聖公會,大主教鄺保羅亦於聖誕文告中提及社會充滿抗爭和不合作「絕對是一種災禍和悲劇」,教省秘書長亦在訪問中提出「若本港有公民提名,或會令新疆、西藏等地爭取獨立時「照辦煮碗」,最終令國家分裂」… 知名牧師林以諾在一篇講道中亦將雨傘運動中出現的情況與「文革」作為對比,並認為今天出現的,其實與「文革」時期所出現的情況「是一樣的」,信仰群體所追求的,其實並不是政制,甚至不是民主。信仰群體所追求的是「為主而活」。所以,民主不民主,不會成為是否能「進入天堂」的條件。(A long list of Protestant church leaders argue against civil disobedience)


[Oct 2014] 基督徒反對公民抗命的八個原因 ; 對反駁《基督反對公民抗命的八個原因》一文的回應 (Why Christians should be opposed to civil disobedience)

[Apr 23, 2015]  林以諾:聖經無講過支持或反對佔中: 他強調聖經從沒提及政制改革,甚至沒談及民主,所以大家如欲表達意見,應以個人身份發表,不應凡事利用聖經。(The Bible does not say anything about “Occupy Central” or democracy.)

[April 19, 2016] Being a member of the pro-establishment camp is a role assigned by God 梁美芬:建制派是神給予我的政治角色

[July 8, 2014] 十年樹木,百年樹人在今次這一輪討論裡,從教報或神學院院訊可見,絕大部份意見是批評年青人看事物片面和衝動。(Many Christian publications criticize young people for being reckless)

[Feb 2, 2016] Leaders of all six religions urge young people to abide by the law and steer clear of online news 六大宗教領袖發新春賀詞 籲青年守法自律 免受網上不良信息污染

In addition, Christian activists argue that Christians should cultivate not only personal salvation, but also social transformation toward social justice. This sounds more Catholic than Protestant. It is worth noting that there is a parallel debate about the role of Christianity in society in the US. Is Catholicism a “living religion”? Many liberal Catholics left the church in droves over the years but are now electrified by the more socially conscious Pope Francis, who is immensely popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

[Aug 17, 2015]  葉菁華:教會應帶動社會轉化 : 信徒…往往將屬靈爭戰限制於品德、私人的領域內,而忽略同時政治、經濟、社會等均是爭戰的場所。(Also 權勢讓人失去自由 信徒參與社會轉化, and video ) (The church should take the lead in social transformation.)

[Sep 16, 2015] 崇基神學院 政治紛爭下的證道(一)宗教面臨博物館化,與現代社會頻起衝突,教徒又想跟原典,又想跟時代,時或取捨。結果基督教的立場,從眾多領域中退卻。…「一手拿聖經,一手拿報紙」。吳說教會的講壇,要與信眾在世的生活相應,信仰不能與生活倫理切割,神要進入人生所有範圍… (Churches have become museums, irrelevant to real life. We should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another hand.)

[Sep 16, 2015]  崇基神學院 政治紛爭下的證道(二):  他說華人教會早就習慣明哲保身,潔身自愛,不沾世俗。自問信仰和更好的社會有何關係?若沒有關係,教徒就淪為旁觀者,拍手附和。待別人去爭取大家都蒙利的公義、民主、自由,教徒才出來唱「哈利路亞」,感謝主,但一條汗毛未動過。(Chinese Christians have always been mere spectators in social movements.)

[Mar 27, 2015] 佔領之後的新類型教會 : 教會追不上新時代。香港教會只是以自身的存在作為使命,而放棄去尋找上帝的使命(missio Dei)──簡單來說就是由前幾年反高鐵運動突出的「人先於發展」以至反國教運動「本土先於國家」到「命運自主」的雨傘運動這條政治覺醒的主線。當我們不再以社會公義、公共議題甚至整個社會的命運為思考的中心時,我們就被時代放棄了。(HK’s churches have become irrelevant to social issues of the times.)

佔領區的靈性 落地的信仰 (Faiths that were grounded at occupy sites as opposed to faiths that preach abstract doctrines)

I also find it interesting that Christian activists refer to the political struggles of Jesus and early church leaders:

[May 20, 2015] 爭取政教分離的先賢是一班抗爭者面對香港目前動盪的時局,很多堂會的牧者和領袖們都以政教分離原則作為藉口,避談政治,對很多在社會上激烈討論的事件也不予回應,並認為教會領袖們基於政教分離原則,不應對社會事件多加評論。(The very church-state separation taken for granted today had to be fought for by early church leaders.)

[Jul 20, 2015] UCC 講經培靈奮興會: 一隻蛋也不能少 

This reminds me of Reza Aslan’s Zealot (be warned: Aslan’s book is controversial among American Christians)

“the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity: the politically conscious Jewish revolutionary.” (p. xxx) “led a popular Jewish movement… Rome crucified him for doing so… in the religious and political turmoil… Crucifixion was a punishment… reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition.” (xxviii) “implying revolt against Rome” (xxix)

“in the aftermath of Jesus’s failure to establish God’s reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus’s mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah.” (xxx) “transforming Jesus from a revolutionary Jewish nationalist into a peaceful spiritual leader… That was a Jesus the Romans could accept… orthodox Christianity was born.” (xxx) the gospels as “testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they described… tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man.” (xxvi)

And Aslan’s advisor Mark Juergensmeyer: “… Christianity’s origins. The tradition emerged in the context of revolutionary struggles against the Roman occupation of Israel. The New Testament indicates that at least two of Jesus’ disciples were members of the rebellious Jewish party, the Zealots… the New Testament clearly records that the Roman colonial govt charged Jesus with sedition, found him guilty, and executed him for the crime. Did Jesus in fact support the … overthrow of the Roman occupation? … the controversy has hounded the Church from its earliest days… When Christianity vaulted into the status of state religion in the fourth century CE, Church leaders began to reject pacifism and accept the doctrine of just war. ” (pp. 24-25)

Also Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite; Frontline, “From Jesus to Christ” 

Activist Christians are also alarmed by the persecution of Christians in China, which they fear may spill over into HK:

[Sep 24, 2015] Religious freedom: What the Chinese Catholic church can teach us

[Sep 1, 2015] China expands crackdown on Christianity to Hong Kong: Chinese authorities are now exerting pressure on Christians in Hong Kong, the latest blow to freedoms and religious liberties in the city, which has traditionally enjoyed some autonomy from the mainland… In recent months, Chinese officials have barred mainland residents from attending some religious conferences in Hong Kong, increased oversight of mainland programs run by Hong Kong pastors, and issued warnings to outspoken leaders.

Also of note:

Protesters campaigning for greater democracy in Hong Kong sing subversive Christmas carols :The carol singers were organised by the Narrow Church, a politically active Christian church, and were closely followed by around 100 policemen, who occasionally warned them to stay on the pavement. (Hong Kong protesters adopt new weapon: Christmas carols

雨傘與天國 : Christians who camped out at occupy sites found brotherhood there.

Photos by 黃傘街頭基督徒基層團體 / Yellow Umbrella Christian Base Community


Most of all, calling the umbrella movement a Christian movement suggests that only Christianity cares about social justice. Pro-regime church leaders indeed argue that democracy is a Western value and so Chinese Christians should stay away from the democracy movement (wait a minute, is Christianity more Chinese than Western??). I beg to disagree. Justice is a universal value–and injustice has been a major cause of resistance through human history. E.g., I discuss the state-society bargain of justice in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe:

To motivate the people to fight and die in war [during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods], ambitious rulers made three major concessions: first, freedom of expression, as testified by the “Hundred (meaning many) Schools of Thought”; second, the right of access to justice and the right of redress before higher judges; and, third, economic rights in terms of land grants and welfare policies.


documentary on Christian activism was shown on Sep 28, 2015:


A book documenting Christian participation:



Don’t count on Buddhist and Taoist leaders either:

Hong Kong people should embrace mainland China, Buddhist Association leader says

Hongkongers should take reference from Buddhist teachings and embrace integration with the mainland, a Zhejiang-born Buddhist leader has said… Asked what the biggest problem facing Hong Kong was, Hong Ming said: “Hong Kong was quite special in the way that it was ruled by a foreign country … Some people received quite a Westernised education, they lacked an understanding of Chinese culture, and had a different way of thinking and handling things … This creates some conflicts and the phenomenon of disharmony.”

Divided Hong Kong needs traditional Taoist values, says religion’s leader in city


Similarly, in Singapore and Taiwan:

[Oct. 23, 2015] What is Honour Singapore’s “value-based” agenda?


I thank Daniel Philpott at University of Notre Dame and Francis Yip at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at Chinese University of HK for comments and suggestions on an earlier post, though they may not agree with what I have to say. (See Dan’s blog.)

This post is dedicated to Francis Yip and Yuen-man Chan, my long-time Christian friends in HK.

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