PRISON BREAK EXTRAORDINAIRE
The question raised by Brother Yun, The Heavenly Man’s, most famous miracle - a spectacular prison escape hard to contest seeing it was reported on the news and people lost their jobs over it - is less did it happen than would its occurrence have to constitute one of the best attested, most remarkable miracles since the Book of Acts? I mean…there are usually limits!
Not to know about Brother Yun is to perhaps to miss out on something, something beyond St Peter and Jackie Chan - of which in a sense Yun is the Christian version without making it to film. It is also something to run against ideas like those of the sceptical philosopher, David Hume, on the miraculous. The celebrated Humean maxim is: "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish...” Well, if not miraculous it would be extraordinary to deny Yun is out of Chinese jail seeing he’s now residing in Germany. His wanted status appears sufficiently attested by arguments with Chinese authorities over him by the embassies of Germany and Myanmar. And if improbably the biographer of the best-seller, The Heavenly Man, was lying about diplomatic incidents wouldn’t the Chinese government, which doesn’t exactly shine in the book, and other governments be keen to deny the facts?
THE HEAVENLY MAN, BROTHER YUN’S ORIGINS
Liu Zhenying, Brother Yun called “The Heavenly Man” was born in poverty in 1957 in Nanyang in the central and most highly populated Chinese province of Henan. It is the province from which since Hudson Taylor’s work in the nineteenth century Protestant missions have spread out into China. His farming family had traces of Taoist allegiance through the father and a vague awareness through his illiterate mother of a Christianity she later resumed following the cure from cancer of her husband. After conversion and deep religious experiences during adolescence Yun rose to a degree of prominence as preacher and organizer within the Chinese House Church movement which especially at the time of the Cultural Revolution in the seventies was persecuted – it still periodically is so today but less so and less widely as a major threat to the nation.
If you want to have an impression of rural China and the hidden world of house churches you only have to read The Heavenly Man by Paul Hattaway (Monarch Books, 2002). It’s emphatically not a story for the faint hearted due to details regarding torture of which Yun would have more than his share and surviving which is part of a larger aura of miracle around him.
Chinese media was reasonably familiar with Yun either because of his supposed threat to authority or wanted status. He was the subject of many a public poster, had been arrested thirty times, escaped custody many times but done a couple of stints in jail and on one occasion was - sort of - miraculously released on the distinctly exceptional basis his stubbornness suggested he was too unteachable to do anything with. Other escapes or releases however don’t begin to compare with the escape of May ‘97. When he was arrested and imprisoned in March that year his judge and everyone was determined he would not escape so he was sent to a maximum security jail in Zhengzhou, Henan. Yun had been arrested because he had attended a meeting of leaders aimed to achieve greater unity of the Christian groups, something interpreted by spies of the secret police as a political move opposed to national stability. The Chinese government seems never to feel very secure in itself!
The arrest was both photographed and videoed. Trying his luck as usual Yun had jumped from a window but this time injured his feet. Police then kicked and trod on Yun fracturing his legs and once inside jail in the course of innumerable interrogations and beatings his broken legs get beaten leaving him screaming in agony and the result was that his legs turned black and presumably would have gone gangrene and needing eventual amputation. His judge had in fact said to Yun when he admitted he would try to preach the gospel again if he escaped and was given the chance: “ You delinquent! I’m going to break your legs permanently so you’ll never escape again”. Yun got known in the jail as the “crazy cripple” who was regularly carried everywhere by three prisoners designated to the job. His pain was so intense that to sleep at all he had to rest with his legs up against the wall. His situation and long term prospects were so ghastly that finally he felt let down by God.
THE DAY OF ESCAPE, MAY 5th 1997
Two months later on May 5th, a Christian prisoner in an adjoining cell gave Yun the message God intended him to escape which at the time seemed absurb - short of crawling out to be shot in the back it what could it mean given Yun’s personal condition and his jail?. Rather than encouraged by the message it only brought out all of Yun’s gathering depression and triggered an intense argument with God based on passages of Jeremiah which he was reading though he knew whole tracts of the Bible by heart, Chinese style. When he reached a certain passage of warning and promise to Jeremiah Yun suddenly had an intense vision (such seem to feature widely in Chinese culture and Christianities). He saw his wife, who had also been arrested, out of prison and making medicines. He asked her about her release; her only reply was to ask why not open “the iron door”. The vision ended there and Yun heard the voice of God say “this is the hour of your salvation”. Acting on the instant in obedience almost blindly Yun did the only thing he could which was knock on the wall using the signal to be taken to the toilet for which he would have to be carried outside the cell.
Brother Xu appeared at his cell to carry him but promptly commanded him, before returning to his cell for toothbrush and bathroom regalia for himself: “you must escape now”. This was hardly feasible when crippled Yun would need to pass down through 3 floors with 3 iron gates each regularly watched by two armed guards, then cross a prison yard with a further guarded gate to the outside world plus the time was 8 in the morning when there was a lot of activity in the prison. Whenever a prisoner left a cell for anything a gate to the corridor was locked from the outside so there was no chance of exit.
A sort of dream sequence now takes over which if the book has so far periodically made the reader nauseous with its tortures might now leave one feeling a bit dizzy. No longer thinking how and why he is even moving Yun propels himself towards the first gate and because someone is entering it accompanied by one of the two guards of the gate he manages to slip through unobserved because a telephone suddenly rings temporarily distracting the other guard of the gate who runs off. Moving down to the next floor Yun picks up a broom from the wall which makes him looks like he’s on a working job. The next floor has an iron gate that is occasionally left open because a guard would always be on duty day and night beside it. The voice of the Holy Spirit now tells Yun “the God of Peter” is his God and he must go through. The guard is staring straight at Yun but somehow dazed with it so that Yun passes straight through this second gate after which no other guards either on the descent or out into the yard manage to see him as he carries his broom (or if they do they presumably decide he must be a worker).
Yun is still human and realistic enough to fear he must surely be shot in the back as he crosses the open yard in full view of the prison compound towards the main entrance yet still nobody sees or stops him. When he reaches the main gates these are mysteriously ajar. Just as he exits, a yellow taxi stops at the gates of the prison and he automatically gets in giving the address of a Christian family in the city he knows who will need to receive him and pay for the fare he doesn’t have. When he arrives at their home there is great excitement but minimal shock as the family had been told in a vision while at prayer the day before that Yun would escape and call on them as the first thing. Knowing this they had already arranged a secret hiding place for him. Meanwhile…
It’s not long before alarm is raised road blocks are put up around the city, a hunt is on and Yun’s escape is on the news but Yun has already left on a bicycle with a member of his protector’s family steering him down small alleyways to avoid the blocks that were set up. The city hunt is then made more difficult by the intervention of a sudden violent storm which brings on near darkness and torrential rain washing away traces which sniffer dogs could otherwise have used in pursuit. It’s only as he pedals the bike that Yun finally absorbs that his legs must actually have been healed, something a prisoner later said he had realized had to be the case when he saw Yun slip upright through the first of the three gates.
In its way the miracle, whether of healing or escape, can be seen, and has come to be seen, as a divine reply to authorities who had challenged Yun’s God with the prospect of the prisoner’s permanent injury and incarceration. Even those who have questioned this story because, “well, it’s just not possible” have no way of accounting for the simple fact of escape. If one presumes to say (as no one has) that Yun had the resources to bribe or drug all the guards we would only begin to arrive at the Humean situation where explanation finishes as or more remarkable than the given story. The loudest voices against Yun have at one time, distressingly to churches inside and outside of China who rushed to his defence, have come from a small group within the house churches pushing their own apostolic type authority as fifth generation Christians from the times of Hudson Taylor.
To be precise, what happened is that a Chinese in Germany put out a nasty report which some reasonably well known and influential house church leaders, (who when questioned later admitted they hadn't personally met and knew virtually nothing about Yun), were willing to endorse, apparently on the basis of "no smoke without fire" (and perhaps because they sensed a threat to their standing if some upstart seized the international limelight). With the venom of the Pharisees or those Nestorians who tried to wreck the work of the Franciscan, John of Montecorvino in medieval Pekin, these people concentrated not on the escape story but simply the character they were happy to assassinate portraying Yun as a modern Judas, intent on dividing and betraying churches, a greedy con man (though it is well known he and his family lives very modestly within prosperous Germany), a liar and thief. At one time Yun’s self righteous enemies thought nothing of putting his family’s lives at risk by betraying their whereabouts within Myanmar.
Yun’s breakout story is so extraordinary one feels it could well be celebrated in the kind of poetry that concludes Keat’s celebrated St Agnes Eve with its purely mythic, dreamlike tale of escape of another kind from which I excerpt lines:
Down the wide stairs a darkling way they found…
In all the house was heard no human sound.
A chain-droop'd lamp was flickering by each door….
And the long carpets rose along the gusty floor.
They glide, like phantoms, into the wide hall;
Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide,,,
The wakeful bloodhound rose, and shook his hide,
The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans.
And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm….
Yun too may have fled into a storm but it wasn’t ages ago and it wasn’t myth because he went on to escape China causing scandal among embassies.
YUN GENERATING POWER AND MIRACLE
There is understandably much controversy, perhaps even more, over another of Yun’s reported miracles, namely his 1984 seventy four day fast, allegedly of both food and water - for which he would needless to say require to be supernaturally sustained as he claimed to be! There is no question he was on some kind of fast, the authorities had tried to torture him out of it with beatings and electro-shock and people knew and saw he was reduced to skin and bones.
Unless you dismiss him and especially this story as a total fraud so far as one can tell Yun does earn his popular name of “Heavenly Man” because beyond his own bodily survival in so many situations of danger it looks suspiciously as though his fast was if not the trigger, then one of the major triggers to what has become the virtual spiritual explosion of Christianity within China. This is something that followed soon upon his fast seriously accelerating after 1989 when the faith moved beyond peasant circles to more middle class and intelligentsia ones.
I have yet to read his book but according to former Time magazine journalist, David Aikman, in The Beijing Factor (2002,2005), about the rise of Christianity in modern China, the situation of the rapidly growing movement he analyses is complex. There is both severity and indulgence in different regions for different reasons as the government essentially tries to limit and contain, or if possible canalize to national benefit, the trends it sees this religion, - which is probably now the main religious future of China - as encouraging.
HEAVENLY MAN CHARACTER - BEYOND NORMAL ASSESSMENT?
It is hard to encompass and assess a figure like Yun who in some respects could be seen as an Asian St Francis of Assisi - certainly his character and experiences are more impressive than seriously flawed modern saints like Mother Teresa (see Sept archive). At the same time the Heavenly Man’s honestly recounted human side surprises. One wonders if even the average believer with far less experience of the divine than Yun would quite, as he frankly admits, have ignored and disobeyed the divine voice as he did over the issue that brought on such fiascos in Myanmar. It seems that Yun can be a bit exasperating by virtue of stubbornness or insensitivity (as his own very devout wife virtually attests) and in the style he himself accuses some of the best Chinese Christian leaders of being. Yun’s wife, Deling, mentions being troubled by the reckless generosity which has thought nothing of giving to strangers what to herself were treasured mementoes or what could have contributed to make a home for her and her children (who have of course greatly suffered and whose story in some respects justifies St Paul’s preference for the celibacy of evangelists). Women often have it rough from male saints!
I don’t doubt too that Yun has caused unnecessary guilt and anguish to quite a few women on subjects like abortion - which many women are forced into in China by government policy or resort to after falling victim to what seem like the periodic outbreaks of rape and violence in rural areas - which Yun calls “a great sin” and “not even an option”. He sought to avoid it for some distressed women by arranging for dirt poor families to raise infants they could not really manage as again Yun’s wife more realistically attests. Without approving all abortion or policies of the Chinese government in relation to it, such absolutist ethical positions are controversial and as I indicate in Sense and Nonsense in Right to Life (June archive) the Bible Yun knows largely by heart seems anything but a good and clear support for any unqualified right-to-life claims (these owe more to philosophy and tradition than scripture). And that’s without considering the frequency of stillbirths and miscarriages (as God’s will?) before the days of modern medicine!
But then I don’t quite appreciate Yun’s use and understanding of some biblical texts. In the case of such persons it’s perhaps a matter of just what works and at a rather visionary plane. And Yun has heavenly man saintly characteristics. He attests and it must surely be an achievement to think:
God is my witness that through all the tortures and beatings I’ve received I have never hated my persecutors. Never. I saw them as instruments of God’s blessing and his chosen vessels to purify me and make me more like Jesus.
Heroically admirable though this is, even here one has a few questions because this looks like conflating a possible result (that God can use evil for good) with divine intentions and so to arrive at the kind of Buddhist position that teaches your enemies are your greatest friends. Christianity never teaches that belief and is more nuanced about both opposition and forgiveness. Even Jesus who forgave those who crucified him called some of his enemies “vipers”. Surely Yun must believe at least some of his torturers were simply evil, a sort of devil’s agents who must be called to justice. If not, then the martyrs under the altar in Revelation who call on God to be avenged (Rev 6:10) would be wrong and Jesus should never have told the apostles they can pronounce or refuse to pronounce forgiveness for some evils. So there’s forgiveness and forgiveness in Christianity and criminals must be called to justice, a justice Christians don’t get enough of in China.
But that’s to be theological and cerebral about this whole subject and if Yun’s super saintliness releases spiritual energies in China and he has healing powers he has directed upon people including in some cases his enemies one should not be too easily critical. There’s room in the world for more saints and miracles and perhaps Yun is in himself more a miracle than even his certified one of the Henan jail.
FROM HEAVENLY MAN TO APOCALYPSE MAN
Presently Yun is travelling the West where he is a prophetic gadfly to the churches –he is understandably enough a critic of America’s “prosperity gospel” . He is also behind the peculiar and ambitious Back to Jerusalem movement which is training believers in China and Asia to evangelize back towards Israel along the old Silk Road and other regions west minimally reached by Christianity. Christians of the Sinim Fellowship which have been the original backbone of this movement believe, not without all reason, that the biblical Sinim or Syene, whose people from “far away” will in latter days come to Israel according to Isaiah 49:12, is China. (Sinim would be ancient Hebrew’s only possible rendition of Chinim and China is named from the Chin of the Chin dynasty). Yun believes it is a Chinese destiny to reach out to the Asian nations between China and Israel before the apocalypse he anticipates.
This of course in itself belongs to the radicalism and protest position Yun has always represented within his native land. The Three –Self Patriotic Church movement which the House Church movement has always distanced itself from and formed itself in reaction to due to the high levels of political control Three Self tolerates, has not until quite recently even been permitted by the Chinese government to mention Second Advent as any belief within Christianity. The Book of Revelation, it seems, remains one of China’s more censored works just as Yun remains one of its more censored, if celebrated personalities.