Confucius and Jesus are compatible
The initial contact between China and the United States was between American missionaries and the Chinese people, primarily Confucian scholars. Many small misunderstandings in the 19th century led to bigger conflicts. My purpose is to examine the cultural roots of the conflict.
What Jesus said in the Four Gospels and Confucius said in the Analects about the role of education is compatible. The similarities are worth focusing on. Ontologically, they both embrace spiritual humanism where the human being is special and unique. Education is about the change of the inner heart. The way to clean up the polluted mind and return to the innocent mind is similar.
Both men taught the golden rule. Knowing their views on the role of education is one small step in the process of overcoming the past misunderstandings and replacing them with trust and friendship. The benefit is a renewed sense of mutual trust between China and the United States, based upon a better understanding of Jesus and Confucius.
The Chinese government is in the process of building 100 Confucius institutes globally to promote Chinese culture, including one at the University of Hawaii. China attaches a great deal of importance to Confucius as a symbol of modern China. An anti-Confucian attitude in the past contributed to the May 4th Movement and the Great Cultural Revolution.
Today, however, China is embracing Confucius as the symbol for education in China, and he has been for more than 2,000 years. Confucius is an ideal symbol to usher in an age of prosperity and mutual understanding for China.
Jesus occupies a similar position in the West.
Confucian scholars saw Christianity as incompatible with Chinese culture. Just as the American missionaries tended to avoid the literati because they were often antagonistic and well educated to boot, the literati tended to concentrate on what the missionaries did, not what they taught, believed or said. Actions spoke louder than words. Both sides were often well educated, but not usually about each other. The literati and the missionary usually agreed on one thing: The other side was often viewed as inferior, superstitious and in need of education.
Misunderstandings sometimes occurred because the missionaries were narrow-minded and legalistic, using a doctrinal approach that they insisted was based upon the infallible Bible, when it was actually based more on their own interpretation of American Protestant doctrine.
These eager missionaries in the 19th century tried to convert the Chinese people, using an altered version of the original teachings of Jesus, displaying ignorance and disdain for Chinese culture and sidestepping the prevailing wisdom of the Confucian literati.
The most educated Chinese scholars were also operating from an altered version of what Confucius said. Confucian scholars, under the influence of Buddhism through Nagarjuna (Madhyamika) and Zen (Ch'an), in talking about heaven and jen (humanity), tend to avoid the personal agency of God because of Buddhism's influence. But if one returns to pre-Confucius Confucianism, this is clearly not the case.
The missionaries, on the one hand, in an irritatingly authoritative manner, wanted the Chinese to study the Bible. But the Chinese needed extensive knowledge of Confucianism to pass the civil examination system and get a good government job.
This illustrates just a few of the misunderstandings that erupted into major conflict including the Taiping rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion and the May 4th Movement.
Today Christianity is spreading rapidly throughout China, and the Chinese government is promoting a return to Confucian values. It is time for our two nations to replace the mistrust with mutual understanding and friendship.
The Rev. Don Eads is senior pastor of Aloha Christian Fellowship Hawaii. Eads, who just received a master's degree in the China-U.S. Relations program at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, wrote his thesis on the role of education in the teachings of Confucius and Jesus.