I paid for two nights, ascended several flights of stairs, and came to room #312. The door, swinging inwards, just had space to clear the bed, which occupied most of the floor. Windows filled the adjacent wall, beyond which I could see the outline of a multi-peaked temple etched against the dark sky. I unclasped the curtains, wiping away the scene, and crossed to flick on the nearest lights.
Thank You, Lord, for getting me safely to this hotel in the first communist country I’ve ever entered! This. Rocks.
I pumped one fist backward in a quick happy dance but suddenly realized that the room was still dark. Perplexed, I tried every switch on the wall, to no avail.
A circuit box projected from the shadows alongside the door, so I began experimenting with every combination of its switches. Nothing. Power out came to mind, but from the orange light glowing on the box, I knew this couldn’t be the case.
Well, this is silly. Here I was, having made it halfway across the planet in my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences—and I couldn’t even turn on the lights!
I plunked down my massive green backpack, quite in the dark. How had God brought me here, again?
Crossing Closed Borders
I hadn’t expected to visit this country. But through a series of divine appointments, Christians I’d met elsewhere in Asia had connected me with campus ministers here, who invited me to visit on two conditions. First, I couldn’t name the country online. Second, I had to stay at a hotel so as not to draw attention to local contacts.
Why all the secrecy? Because this country welcomes the gospel like swimming pools welcome sharks. Not only is it culturally Buddhist, with serious taboos surrounding conversion to Christianity, but it’s also politically Marxist. And if ever a man stood for building a society on the foundation of man’s word instead of God’s, it was Karl Marx.
Cultural Foundations, Evolution, and Communism
As some of my previous articles explain, Western societies—including Marx’s Germany—largely began abandoning God’s Word as the foundation for their thinking when the idea that rock layers are millions of years old supplanted people’s trust in the bedrock of Christian theology, Genesis 1–11. Widespread belief in millions of years meant “science” had overturned the biblical timeline in many people’s minds and in turn had laid the groundwork for belief in Darwinian evolution, which required long ages. Together, these ideas’ acceptance catalyzed the West’s widespread rejection of God’s Word as trustworthy in all things, leaving human reasoning as culture’s go-to authority for truth. And few Westerners presumed the task of defining their own truth, morals, ethics, and social systems more seriously than Marx.
Marx, like all atheists, founded his worldview on the premise that nature is all there is. So, when Darwin published Origin of Species, promoting evolution as a naturalistic framework to explain the world apart from God, Marx proposed Darwinism as the scientific scaffold for his politics. In Marx’s words,
Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural selection for the class struggle in history . . . not only is it [Darwin’s book] a death blow . . . to “Teleology” [the interpretation that something shows purpose as if it were intentionally designed for a specific function] in the natural sciences but their rational meaning is empirically explained.1
The ideological roots which connect Darwinism and communism at their deepest levels—and the bitter fruits those roots produce—are thoroughly documented in many Answers in Genesis articles. To this day, some of those fruits include religious persecution, as communism champions the abolition of religion. The idea is that when workers embrace human existence as an evolutionary blip rather than God’s masterpiece, they are morally free to commit bloody revolution, overthrow their oppressors, and thereby attain the truest happiness possible in their brief, meaningless lives.2 Bingo, humanity’s problems solved.
But wait—if communism shuns religion, then how could a communist country be Buddhist? This question stems mostly from people’s tendency to equate a religious worldview with belief in a divine creator. Remember, however, as my articles from Thailand explain, Buddhism is at its core an atheistic worldview, accommodating evolution while denying a Creator God or an eternal afterlife. So, Buddhism and communism can go arm in arm. Yet for all that, dwelling in the conjoined shadow of these ideologies, Christ’s local Church still stands. I was now about to meet some members of that Church face to face.
Local Challenges for Christian Students
Having accepted the secretive terms of my visit, I connected with a local who led me to a certain house outside the city. Inside, several Christian students encircled on a reed floor mat welcomed me to their campus ministry meeting! There, and at the university I later visited, I learned that local Christian students face challenges on at least three levels:
As in many of the other countries I’d visited, Christian students here face the social struggles inherent to living for God in a culture that founds its thinking on man’s word. However, like students I’d met in Thailand and Japan, Christians here also experience the challenges of being non-conformists in a collectivist society, where group conformity means everything. So, students who become Christians risk rejection from their closest friends and family—the very ingroup which, in collectivist cultures, equals a person’s identity.
For instance, one physics student told me how as soon as he came to know Jesus, his family commanded him to stop being a Christian.
“I have someone spying on me all the time,” he said, “so I cannot open up to my family that I still believe in God and go to church.”
He also mentioned the bullying that Christian students can face from friends. “They’ll say that you’re stupid for becoming a Christian,” he relayed, “that you’ve lost your brain, you’re against the country, and you’ve sold yourself to the Americans.”
The political tension associated with “foreign religions” means that after graduation Christian students are unable to work government jobs. But the laws against Christianity go even further than that.
“Here in this city,” explained one student, “the law says that we can believe the gospel, but we can’t preach it. But in other cities—no. You can’t preach; you can’t believe. If you do believe, you could be kicked out of your village. Some Christians just live in the mountains.”
These pressures, however, don’t stop Christian students from sharing the gospel. One such time, bystanders called campus security to tell the Christian students to stop. Another time, the ministry group had to pause their evangelism upon realizing that they were being followed around campus.
“It’s quite dangerous to share your faith in the school,” the physics student told me. “The law is that you can maintain your faith, but you cannot share your religion or invite people to it. If you do, and the teacher knows about it, you will get in trouble.”
“What would happen?” I asked.
“They would call you to their office and tell you that Christians are not good—that Christians will take your brain. Then, the school will make you sign a promise that you will stop sharing your faith.”
Every student, he explained, also has a “behaviour score.” Ways to lose points include missing class, littering on campus, and sharing your faith after being warned to stop.
“If you lose all your points, then what?” I wondered.
“You have no right to continue studying at the university.”
“So, you might have to stop studying if you keep sharing the gospel?”
“Yes, if the teacher knows.”
Despite these risks, the tenacity with which the group continues sharing Christ’s goodness on campus makes these students some of the most missional I’ve met! For instance, when I asked this student what advice he’d offer a first-year Christian student, he replied,
I’d encourage them to live out their faith and not be scared because God has prepared them for this university already. So, I want them to not only go to church and study but also to share their faith.
How Churches Support Local Students
As it turns out, churches themselves are indispensable for supporting Christian students to share their faith—even in such hostile settings. For example, an accounting student explained that at her church, students meet with an older mentor from the congregation every week, report how their campus ministry is going, and receive feedback to make that ministry even more effective.
Meanwhile, the church also trains the rest of its congregation to make disciples in the broader community. Then once a month, the congregation—including university students—comes together for a team meeting to evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. That way, the whole church partners with the local campus ministry to operate as a community mission team.
This model, I realized, exemplifies how interpersonal foundations, or a strong Christian support network including church connections and mentors, can help students not only keep their faith in a non-Christian culture—but also share that faith to change their culture.
The Moral of the Story
Certainly, these insights from local Christians had given me much to consider by the time I reached my hotel. But I still needed to figure out how to switch on the lights.
An “illuminating” journey to the front desk soon taught me that inserting my key into the circuit box would activate the room’s electricity. Let there be light! Yet as the temple drums across the street reminded me, darkness still reigned outside—the darkness of a culture that founds its thinking on man’s word instead of God’s.
Compared to the other cultures I’d visited, this nation builds even further on man’s foundation, framing the iron beams of communism within the naturalistic scaffold of Darwinism. Plaster this entire structure with a spiritual veneer of Buddhism, and you’ve built a culture that poses serious social, legal, and academic risks to the Christian students living in it. Yet even amidst these uniquely imperiling challenges, students propose some of the same solutions that help campus Christians keep their faith in other countries—particularly the importance of interpersonal foundations and mentorship.
As I journeyed further into lands where the gospel is contraband, what other lessons would “come to light” for Christ-followers in non-Christian classrooms and cultures?
Stay tuned for Part 14!