Do you know what it means to be lonely? It is to be the only Christian in a Chinese family when a parent or close member of the family dies. Automatically the family is united in expressing their grief through the prescribed funeral rites. In Malaysia and Singapore this could mean anything from simple Buddhist rites expressed primarily through chanting, to the more elaborate rituals informed by Confucianism and popular Daoism. You are in grief. You want to show your solidarity with the family in this time of loss. And although Christians differ as to where to draw the line — the difference between honouring the memories of our loved ones/ancestor veneration/ancestor worship is not always that clear — we all draw the line somewhere.
Therefore there will be times when we stand alone. At best the rest of the family shows us kindness and accepts that we are different. At worst, we are chided for betraying family and for being a traitor to the most fundamental value of Chinese living — filial piety. Jesus did warn that there will be times like this.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their living will lose it, and whoever loses their living for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39 NIV)
These are some of the hardest verses for a Chinese follower of Jesus to embrace. Filial piety is fundamental to all cultures shaped by Confucianism.
Filial piety matters in Judaism, but honouring your parents is even more central to Confucianism. The opening lines of the Analects refer to filial piety as the “root” of ren. Of the Five Relationships, the first each of us learns (or fails to learn) is that between parent and child. (Stephen Prothero, God is Not One, New York, NY: Harper One, 2010, 116)
Filial piety is important in biblical faith too. Followers of Jesus are commanded to honour their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3). Here Paul quotes the Ten Commandments. But it is the same Ten Commandments that begins by reminding us that we should have no other gods before us (Deuteronomy 5:7). Here is the source of the Christian’s dilemma. We are ordered to honour parents but our ultimate loyalty can only be given to God. And popular Daoism and especially popular Confucianism give god-like status to parents and ancestors.
I recall visiting the graves of my grandparents on my dad’s side during Qing Ming (annual Chinese festival to honour family that have passed on). My aunts would “talk” to my grandparents, reminding them that I had been a good grandson, I had come to visit, and to please bless me in my upcoming exams. I must have been 15 or 16 then. I was already a follower of Jesus as was my dad. We did not take part in any of the religious rites but felt it was ok to help the family clean up the graves and reminisce about family who had passed on.
There was no way I could take part in the religious rites. I did not believe that I was visiting my grandparents nor was I waking up early to go visit them to prove my filial piety so that I would be rewarded with academic success by grandpa and grandma from beyond the grave. Everyone knew that dad and myself were Christians and did not put pressure on us to participate in the religious rites. And no one dared question dad’s love for his parents. He had sacrificially cared for them while they were alive. Everyone knew that.
Hence in the Christian circles in Penang, we talk about an “uak eh hau,” which is Hokkien Chinese for a “living piety,” that is, a piety demonstrated while the recipient of the care is still alive. We want to make it clear that followers of Jesus Christ are also committed to filial piety, but we demonstrate our piety by sacrificially taking care of our loved ones while they are alive. There may be certain funeral rites that we can’t join in because of our convictions but that does not mean that we love the deceased any less. Indeed we would argue that sacrificial care for family members while they are still alive trumps dramatic expressions of grief when they die. Our goal should be a track record of “living piety” that is clear and unchallengeable. Like my dad’s.
Indeed the Bible is actually concerned that Christians are not to be seen as less committed to caring for family. The apostle Paul is emphatic on this point.
Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8 NIV)
In his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Gordon D. Fee points this out:
It fits with the concern expressed throughout the letter . . . that Christian behaviour be circumspect before the outsider and therefore at least be ethically equal to theirs — although obviously more is expected as well. Paul is not condemning unbelievers; on the contrary, he is saying that they do in fact take care of their own widows. To do less is therefore to be less than an unbeliever; it equals a denial of the faith since it is to act worse than a person who makes no profession of faith. (Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988, 118.)
To choose Christ is to choose to carry our cross. There will be times when we end up as misfits in this world and for some of us that includes having to make tough choices as to what we can and cannot do where traditional Chinese funeral rites are concerned. But some things are utterly clear. And should be clear to all.