Benedict and the Development of Hong Kong

Last week, about Hong Kong, Chandran Nair urged readers to look at the big picture and acknowledge that solutions to the city’s problems lay far beyond the choice to become more democratic or less. Even as a strong supporter of the Occupiers’ goals for full ‘universal suffrage’, and even with their general method (in view of the government’s failure to listen to anyone but the National People’s Congress), I agree with Mr Nair. I believe Hong Kong does need the rule of law protected, but I know the rule of law can only maintain the conditions the people need to create and hold viable jobs. To think about one and neglect the other would be foolish and short sighted.

As Mr Nair says, Hong Kong needs to adapt to changes in the world and reform its œconomy:

At present, the reality is that Hong Kong’s economy has only two main pillars – the property sector and financial services. Most of the other elements that once existed, such as agriculture, light industry or textiles, have been hollowed out. This is not a healthy or sustainable situation. The financial sector alone cannot offer job opportunities to everyone, especially in an economy where most positions are open to global competition.

And an economy based on property speculation will inevitably result in the housing crisis Hong Kong currently faces. With property prices pushing decent accommodation out of the hands of most, and astronomical rents pushing up the prices of everything else, there is a real question of whether the next generation will be able to afford to live in the city of their birth.

Hong Kong has a population of 7 million, greater than that of Scotland. It is clear that the finance and property sectors cannot bear the weight of the livelihoods of 7 million persons living in the same city. When these sectors are expected and compelled to do so, the system cannot avoid gross injustices and gross distortion of humanity. Such a population as Hong Kong’s is a great number of mouths to feed, but also a great number of hands to help. Even in the Occupy movement of the past three weeks, the world has seen what Hong Kongers are capable of. I am sure that, given the freedom, Hong Kongers can also figure out what they need to live again.

But there is the rub. Hong Kong not only is denied the freedom of constitutional liberalism, but even under the power of a communist régime it also is wedded to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The same class interests that profit at the people’s expense are the same that join with the Chinese Communist Party to strangle the people’s freedoms, freedoms they enjoyed when Hong Kong was a liberal autocracy and not the illiberal democracy it is becoming today. The gods who rule Hong Kong are its haute bourgeoisie, and so it is bound to finance and speculation. The problem is œconomic, but the œconomic problem is spiritual.

A city whose god is the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not in bondage to cruel Mammon. If Hong Kong is bound by gods who keep it from finding and taking a better way, a just way, then it needs what Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection:

There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world – either by a demonstration of the world’s vanity, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon simply to withdraw its regards from an object that is not worthy of it; or by setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment. Love may be regarded in two different conditions. The first is, when its object is at a distance, and then it becomes love in a state of desire. The second is, when its object is in possession, and then it becomes love in a state of indulgence. Such is the grasping tendency of the human heart that it must have a something to lay hold of – and which, if wrested away without the substitution of another something in its place, would leave a void as painful to the mind as hunger is to the natural system. It may be dispossessed of one object, or of any, but it cannot be desolated of all.

Perhaps the world’s vanity has already been shown by the tyranny of the gods who lord it over Hong Kong, but that is not enough:

You have all heard that Nature abhors a vacuum. Such at least is the nature of the heart, that though the room which is in it may change one inmate for another, it cannot be left void without the pain of most intolerable suffering. It is not enough then to argue the folly of an existing affection. It is not enough, in the terms of a forcible or an affecting demonstration, to make good the evanescence of its object. It may not even be enough to associate the threats and the terrors of some coming vengeance, with the indulgence of it. The heart may still resist the every application, by obedience to which, it would finally be conducted to a state so much at war with all its appetites as that of downright inanition. So to tear away an affection from the heart, as to leave it bare of all its regards and of all its preferences, were a hard and hopeless undertaking – and it would appear, as if the alone powerful engine of dispossession were to bring the mastery of another affection to bear upon it.

What is wanting in the city is God. Only if it has this loving God will it be free of its former gods. Only if it is baptized through the parting of the Sea will it be free of the house of bondage. Only if it is shown the beauty of the holy God will it be free of tyrannous power.

The way that the Lord has appointed is the witness of the Church. Already, we know, the Occupy movement has prominently included leaders who know the Lord: Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) of Scholarism is a Christian, as are Benny Tai (戴耀廷) and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming (朱耀明) of Occupy Central with Love and Peace; Joseph Cardinal Zen (陳日君) has also been involved. But Hong Kong needs a longer-term witness to show what obedience to the Lord is like.

As highlighted by Jake Meador last month in relation to what some people in the Church are calling the Benedict Option, one way in which the Church has borne witness about the God who is there has been the L’Abri ministry.

A student’s typical day at L’Abri is spent working around the property, sharing meals with the other students and workers, discussing topics of interest with workers and students, and taking time for quiet reading and reflection on one’s own. Noticeably absent from the routine is internet access, TV, or extensive involvement in the surrounding community outside of L’Abri. During my time as a student there, I didn’t check email or read anything online for the duration of my stay.

Yet what makes L’Abri so interesting as a model for the Benedict Option is its openness, a value not inimical to the Benedict approach but one certainly not often discussed by its proponents. L’Abri is a place where literally anyone can come and join the life of the community. During my time there I roomed with one student who was a fairly convinced evangelical and four or five other men who didn’t really know what they thought of Christianity, but were there because they were curious. The women there were similarly diverse – young Christian women from home-schooling families with close L’Abri ties to a singer-songwriter from Amsterdam (who was Christian) to a ballet dancer from the upper midwest who, at the time, was not Christian. My roommate and the guy I was probably closest to during my term now describes himself – last I heard anyway – as a ‘Lockean realist’.

What sustains the life at L’Abri then is not that the community is closed or that it has many gatekeepers that ensure only a select group of people can enter into it. L’Abri tends to be rather allergic to such things. (The Benedict Option doesn’t require such an approach, of course, but one can detect a certain exclusivity in the language used to describe it by some.) Rather, it’s the quiet confidence embodied by the leadership in the goodness of the Christian way of life and their desire to invite others into that way, regardless of whether or not they actually believe in the claims of Christianity. The effect, as I mentioned the other day, is that non-Christian students experience the fruits of Christianity while they wrestle with the claims of Christianity.

There are L’Abri communities in Korea and Australia, but I think Hong Kong and the rest of China would benefit from a new one established in Hong Kong. The hospitality essential to L’Abri, rather than cloistering anyone, could support the existing witness of churches all over Hong Kong. Such a community in the city could also find new ways to work and contribute to the larger œconomy, just as the monasteries of Europe copied books, taught people, and developed cheeses, wines, and ales: I imagine that, as China develops œconomically, Hong Kongers will have the opportunity to contribute to œconomic growth, and Christians can lead the way with work in GIS, architecture, and sustainable agriculture. In many ways, both by living good lives in the presence of enquirers and by contributing directly to the Chinese œconomy, a L’Abri community and Christians setting up shop nearby could help Hong Kong grow in a godly way.

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