China has recently detained hundreds of practitioners of a fringe cult. At first glance, it’s easy to read this as just another case of religious persecution against Chinese Christians. But that interpretation is wholly wrong.
Those arrested are allegedly from the Eastern Lightning cult, which calls itself Christian but, in reality, is something very different. The group teaches that Christ has come back to earth in the form of a Chinese woman named Deng, who lives in Henan province. It has also apparently latched on to Mayan Doomsday prophesies.
Eastern Lightning is notoriously violent, in many ways resembling a terrorist organization or a gang more than a church. Members have often resorted to kidnap and torture to force conversions. Real Christians are among Eastern Lightning’s primary targets. The group assaults or kills defectors, and it also has politically revolutionary tendencies; calls for members to “exterminate the great red dragon,” a reference to the Communist Party, reportedly prompted today’s crackdown.
To be sure, China’s legal system leaves much to be desired, and it’s possible that some of those detained are innocent of Eastern Lightning’s characteristically criminal behavior. There’s also good reason to expect that if there are any innocents, they won’t get a fair hearing.
Yet a crackdown on Eastern Lightning could justifiably happen even under a liberal, Western legal system that acknowledges religious freedom.
Context matters here. The Chinese government remains uncomfortable with religious practice. Unable to get rid of religion altogether, Beijing instead attempts to manage its practice with an elaborate bureaucracy. Any believers who worship outside the state-sanctioned system risk intense persecution.
Yet almost no unsanctioned Christian groups are revolutionary or political. For the most part, they just want to worship in peace. To associate them with Eastern Lightning is to do them a profound disservice.