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Carrying the Torch

May 2008

Carrying the Torch

 

From its introduction at the 1928 Amsterdam games, the Olympic Torch has become an iconic symbol of the Olympic Games. It is intended to convey a promise of hope, peace and unity among the athletes and participating nations of the world.

 

Every four years a flame is carried by relay runners from Athens, the ancient home of the Olympic Games, to the host city for the opening ceremony. There, it is used to light a beacon which burns for the duration of the games.

     This year’s torch carrying ceremony was designed to be the biggest ever. From Athens the Olympic flame would pass through more than twenty nations and some 120 Chinese cities in a relay lasting 130 days and covering 137,000 miles. There is even to be an attempt to carry the torch to the summit of Mount Everest.

     The journey would be a ‘call to the nations’ to send their fastest and strongest to compete in the Beijing Olympic Games.

 

Journey of contention

 

This year the torch logo reads ‘Journey of Harmony’. Sadly, it has proved to be nothing of the kind. The torch is due to arrive in Beijing on August 6 but no one is quite sure whether it will make it.

     Despite massive security, human rights protestors have turned the torch-tour into a journey of contention – embarrassing both Olympic officials and the host nation, China. Opposition has mainly focused on China’s involvement in Tibet, but the country’s support for Sudan and North Korea, and its overall human rights record, are also in the spotlight.

     From the very start in Athens, activists and protestors have used the torch’s passage as an opportunity to convey a message of their own. As a result, the official Olympic Torch Relay has descended into chaos and been cut short. In London the torch was grabbed by one protestor and in Paris the flame had to be carried by bus and extinguished several times – a symbolic victory for the protestors.

     The protests have provoked debate about the moral case for attending or boycotting the Olympiad. China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) clearly want to distance the sport from politics, but few politicians can resist grandstanding on one side of the debate or the other.

     The British Prime Minister, as leader of the next hosting country, will definitely attend the games, but the French President has made his presence conditional on concessions from Beijing.

 

Irony

 

Christians will have some sympathy with those who oppose the human rights record of the Chinese government. For many years this paper has been reporting how Christian believers in China’s cities and provinces have been repeatedly harassed and persecuted by police and local government officials. In recent months we have reported the break-up of church meetings, the arrest of pastors and the abuse of Christians in police custody.

     It is something of an irony, therefore, that the Beijing government is angered by those who would extinguish the Olympic torch, while at the same time it suppresses another flame of peace within its own borders – the flame of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

     As Tibet’s troubles demonstrate, China’s communist leaders have never lived easily with religion of any kind. The Christian church in China is tolerated up to a point, but ‘on the ground’ is often subject to repression and persecution.

 

Crackdown

 

As a result, it is hard to establish how biblical Christianity fares among China’s 1.3 billion people. China does have an official  state-authorised and state-monitored church, but much of China’s Christian activity is unregistered and underground, and estimates of church size vary greatly. However, many reports suggest that the gospel cause is thriving in China today and that there is an unprecedented demand for Bibles.

     It should not surprise us, therefore, that last year, as preparations for the Olympics were in full swing, several Christian organisations were reported to be planning evangelistic outreach during the games. It is even less surprising that these reports were met by a sustained crackdown on known churches in an effort to intimidate pastors.

     At least one Christian bookshop owner in Beijing was arrested and imprisoned in an attempt, no doubt, to curtail the availability of Christian resources. There are also reports of ongoing house-church raids and arrests, and an unprecedented number of foreign Christians have been expelled from China in recent months.

 

A brighter light

 

Repression of religious minorities because of their faith certainly breaches most measures of human rights. But Scripture warns Christians to expect persecution, especially when the power of the gospel seems to threaten state control over people’s consciences and liberates individuals to acknowledge the Lordship of a higher authority (while submitting to every just ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake).

     The Olympic Torch has suddenly become not so much a symbol of peace and hope but a magnet for protest and chaos. Perhaps this is a timely reminder that even the highest ideals of men and nations can easily crumble.

     Fortunately, there is a light that shines brighter than the Olympic Torch, and a commission that extends further than the most ambitious relay and reaches every corner of the globe. Moreover, it bears a flame that cannot be extinguished by those who oppose it, because the fire is that of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God.

     There is a message of peace and hope in Jesus Christ that woos and wins the most ardent opponents when it comes in life-giving power. We do not know what will happen in Tibet, or how the persecuted Chinese church will prosper. But prosper it will, for once the flame of God’s grace ignites a sinner’s heart it can never be extinguished.

     The continuing persecution of Chinese Christians and, indeed, believers of other nationalities around the world – be they in communist, Muslim or secular states – demonstrates that God is still calling out his people and gathering his church from every tongue, tribe and nation. Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

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