One of the oldest Benedictine monasteries of Southeast Asia is nestled in the lush highlands of central Vietnam. As we travelled on a small road surrounded by an extensive variety of fruits and vegetables through picturesque farmland, we glimpsed into the simplicity and serenity of monastic life. We were being taken to one of the holiest sites in their monastery: a crucifix standing at the far edge of the property. But now the large metal cross lay on the ground, the shattered pieces of the body of Jesus barely attached.
We listened to the story. The government and the monks, we were told, were in an intense debate over the ownership of the land. Things had heated up just a few weeks earlier. A mob broke into the monastery one night, harassing the monks and their property in the name of communism. The thugs tore down this symbol of Christianity and began breaking apart the body of Christ with hammers and clubs, scattering the pieces throughout the woods and river. As reported by UCA News, extensive damage was done to the property. Many of the monks were emotionally and physically assaulted, leaving several in need of medical attention. In the aftermath, the monks retrieved what they could from the desecrated cross, searching the property for the broken pieces of Jesus, and re-bound the body of Christ back on the cross. It remains there as a site of prayer.
The worst part of all? This has happened three times.
It was a powerful experience to hear this story, but even more so to look upon the broken body of Christ re-bound on the cross. These communist attackers no doubt saw a powerful symbol standing in the way of state progress. And yet by tearing it down and destroying the crucifix, they made it an even more powerful symbol for the faithful. Christ remains on the cross, a reminder that through the cross comes new life: resurrection out of crucifixion. Looking upon this image with this context, I had a new awareness of just how deep the bond is between Christ and the Church.
Those thugs tore down Christ on the cross because they know Jesus is not a communist. But Jesus isn’t a capitalist, either. Jesus loves all with a love transcending every ideology. Unfortunately, some Vietnamese see the crucifix as a symbol of foreign influence: of the West and its capitalist democracy and its complicated colonial history, never mind the Vietnam War. But the Catholics of Vietnam are anything but foreign. The local Church in Vietnam is strong and distinct. Their faith is marked by sincerity, depth, and devotion. Cities and communities in Vietnam are enriched by the Church, for people are more generous with each other and with those in need because of their faith in Christ. The Vietnamese Catholics possess an inspiring hope in Christ and have the endurance to live it out, and they are no doubt a gift to the progress of their country.
We hope and pray for peace and cooperation for those involved as the Vietnamese work for the good of their people. But as I continue to reflect on that image of the broken body of Christ on the cross, I am challenged by this question: Do my politics shape my faith, or does my faith shape my politics? Which do I cling to when I am challenged? Being a Christian can feel quite comfortable in the US. Often, it’s easy to think that my politics and faith are simply the same thing. But this window into the life of the Vietnamese faithful challenged me to remember that the Christian vision can and does come into conflict with our political systems.
The Kingdom of God is unreachable through any secular policies or political and economic schemes. In living out the Christian life, however, our faith must still be marked by works of justice. Even after these attacks suffered by the monks in Vietnam, they continue to pray, to minister, to live out their faith. Their faith endures, and we know what the end of the story will be: resurrection.
Photo courtesy of author.