What does a good communist ‘People’s Liberation Army’ soldier have to do with agape love? Everything, it seems. The eyes of the people on the train had lit up with understanding as we chugged between field after field of sunflowers. “Oh, they’re just like Lei Feng.”
We’d just finished our first pilot training programme as part of a Christian non-government organization there in northern China. It had been a steep learning curve on many fronts. We’d risen early that morning and happily piled into the back of the education department jeep. We were going home at last. This was one of the poorest counties in the province, and the road attested to that fact. To make matters worse, we were held up for over an hour where a truck ahead had jackknifed on a sharp bend and lost its load of coal over the edge of the deep ravine, the coal dust blackening the water below flowing to join the Yellow River. Our driver then did his best to make up lost time and get us to our train, still an hour down the road. White knuckled, hair literally on end, black coal dust and yellow road dust through every pore, the effect complemented by a good layer of sweat, we made it! Never was I so happy to clamber aboard a slow-moving train and sink into my seat.
“Who are you?” “Where are you going?” “Why are you on this train?” “Here, have some sunflower seeds.” I grunted non-committal answers and left our wonderful Chinese assistant to handle it. Linda, my extroverted friend, was a seeker but not a believer. She was studying at university and working with us during her summer vacation. And she was very excited about all we’d done during the previous week to ‘serve her people’.
My ears pricked up when I saw the wave of understanding ripple through the carriage as the message made its way down the seats. “They’re just like Lei Feng.” Later, brain somewhat restored, I asked Linda, “So who is Lei Feng?”
Lei Feng, it transpired, was a communist ‘People’s Liberation Army’ soldier who deeply loved his people. Born to poor peasants in 1940, he witnessed first hand suffering and oppression while still very young. His father was killed by the Japanese and his mother driven to suicide after indecent advances by the son of the local feudal landlord.
At age six, Lei Feng was an orphan and a beggar, living hand to mouth. However, in 1949, the communist army swept through his town and, in his own words, became like parents to him. He drank in every word spoken by the great leader, Chairman Mao, and made every effort to live a life of frugality, a life devoted to others, a life where community was first. Before long, although still a child, he became a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army.
There was no single great deed for which he was remembered, but his short life contained countless good deeds – giving away resources to those poorer than himself, washing and mending the socks of his colleagues, teaching villagers to read and write were just a few. Lei Feng also loved to write and kept a detailed diary.
In 1962, Lei Feng was working with others to erect electricity lines in the countryside when a terrible accident occurred. That was the end of this idealistic young man’s life, but his good deeds and other-person-centredness lived on through his writings. The army, in honour of such a fine young man, published his diary and urged others to follow his good example. Even the great Chairman Mao wrote an inscription for the book, penning the words, “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng”.
Years later, the country was in disarray. People had lost that early glimmer of hope of a community working together and serving one another. Instead, everyone was out to save his own skin. These were the tumultuous days of the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had to find a role model for the people – but where could a genuine other-person centred communist be found? He thought back to those early glorious days of communism and remembered … Lei Feng! He ordered the diary of Lei Feng to be republished, he ordered the masses to study it in their communal study sessions, and the catchcry, “Learn from Lei Feng” was heard throughout the country.
The people who lived through those uncertain years of the Cultural Revolution are now older and wiser. In their hearts, though, Lei Feng still holds a special place. And so it was that as my friend, Linda, explained to the passengers on that train the nature of our work, their eyes lit up with understanding. “Oh, they’re just like Lei Feng.”
To be truthful, we’re nothing like Lei Feng. We are regularly given preferential treatment because of our foreignness. We are far too concerned about our own comfort and safety on many occasions. And while I love the story of Lei Feng, I look to a far greater One as my model for true love. I tried to explain this to my friend, Linda.
“We serve others in obedience to One who was truly great, but who became nothing, taking on the nature of a servant.”
“A servant?”, cried Linda. “He lived in a feudalistic society?”
“Well … actually, yes … and many of his followers thought he’d help the nation throw off the shackles of that feudalistic society. But he did something even greater and far more selfless. He allowed the people of that society to crucify Him in order that our sins could be dealt with. But that wasn’t all – because He really is God, He came back to life.”
My friend’s eyes glazed over…. Surely this was what those superstitious Christians believed. It was their stubborn belief in a foolish gospel that led to their public ridicule and punishment during the first few decades of communism. Many of them had been sent for thought reform out to the far corners of the country. Some of those stubborn men and women continue to propagate the ‘opium of the masses’ to this day. No, she couldn’t explain our teaching programmes that way. Far better she state, “They’re just like Lei Feng.”
The basis of our love directing our efforts is different, but people like Linda cannot yet accept that. She has a point though. While ever we seek to follow in the footsteps of the our Saviour, we are indeed rather like Lei Feng.