Two Types of Trees

Michael Metzger

If you stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building and look two miles due west, you can see the Lincoln Memorial.  Two miles is the same distance the Gobi Desert in central China creeps toward Beijing every year (it is now less than 200 miles away).  Sandstorms now buffet the city every summer, sending particles drifting as far as South Korea.  Air pollution is so bad that breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

The government has a plan to clean the air and arrest the desert’s creep.  I witnessed some of their solution last fall, traveling from Beijing to the Great Wall.  Lining both sides of the highway, for miles and miles, are tens of millions of saplings, getting ready to be transplanted in Beijing prior to the 2008 Olympics.  But some environmentalists believe China’s environmental problems are so vast that this will prove insufficient.  I’m not familiar enough with the scope of Beijing’s crisis to comment; but I do know there are tens of millions of new “trees” already planted in Beijing that could also contribute to solving this problem.  Maybe it requires two types of trees.

Beijing’s losing battle against the Gobi Desert began long ago.  But it was exacerbated by the 1960s Cultural Revolution when Mao removed most of the city’s trees (he considered them a sign of bourgeois affluence).  The “clear cutting” of Beijing is only a small part of China’s vast environmental crisis.  Elizabeth Economy, a Council on Foreign Affairs scholar, says at least six of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in China.  In her book “The River Runs Black,” Economy writes that 50% of the forest cover in northern and central China has been ripped out over the past two decades.  Five of China’s largest rivers are dangerous to the touch, causing skin diseases.  600 million Chinese — half the population — drink water that is contaminated with human and animal waste.  Transplanting tens of millions of trees seems to be a step in the right direction.

But a further step would be the involvement of some of the tens of millions of believers in Beijing in environmental reform.  A recent observer of the awakening now taking place in China is David Aikman.  His new book, Jesus in Beijing, was reviewed by Joshua Kurlantzick in the September 6, 2004 The New Republic.  Aikman reports there are hundreds of millions of new believers in China.  Interestingly, the Scriptures often refer to believers as trees, because we can be a specific and stabilizing influence in culture (e.g., the environment).  But as Socrates pointed out, Generalities are the refuge for weak minds.  These Chinese believers would have to promote specific programs that make a difference.

I’m treading lightly here.  Religious people are still imprisoned in China for going “public” with their faith.  How do believers engage the wider world without being overtly religious?  Is there evidence that the fruit of western missions’ endeavors has produced Christians who strategically engage the wider world (such as these environmental problems)?

I wouldn’t know.  Protestant missions in China began in 1807 with Robert Morris.  Throughout China’s history, there are wonderful instances of Christians contributing to cultural reform.  But the chief legacy — inherited largely from western Protestant missionaries — is evangelism and church planting; not cultural reform.  Kurlantzick’s review of Aikman’s book points out that few house church leaders understand how their faith shapes public life (e.g., public policy or environmentalism).  Instead, they are “focused on evangelism.”  I believe we need both.  Remember that — in the 1980s — Eastern European environmental groups formed alliances with church groups to challenge their governments’ looming environmental crises.  Within a few years, the disaster of Chernobyl proved cataclysmic in bringing large-scale reform throughout the Soviet system.  In that case, Christians were powerful “trees” — planted in specific issues of cultural reform.

Now Beijing — and China’s cities — have new “trees” planted everywhere.  We should pray for our brothers and sisters in the faith that both types of trees play a role in renewing China.

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