Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
— Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)
This past week, on CBC Television’s The National, I watched with much interest (and an equal measure of unease) as host Adrienne Arsenault interviewed Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai.*
Who is Jimmy Lai, and what does he have to do with the gospel reading for Proper 14, Year A? First, let’s answer the “who” question.
For those of you who haven’t heard of him, 71-year-old Lai Chee-Ying (known professionally as Jimmy Lai) is a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and publisher. He founded clothing retailer Giordano, media company Next Digital, and the popular newspaper Apple Daily.
Following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Lai became a pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the People’s Republic of China government. In 1990, he began publishing Next Magazine, which combined tabloid sensationalism with no-holds-barred political and business reporting. Lai proceeded to found other magazines, as well.
In 1995, as the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China approached, Lai began publishing Apple Daily, spending $100 million of his own money on the startup. Within two years, the newspaper’s circulation had reached 400,000 copies, which was the territory’s second largest among 60 other newspapers. Lai’s stated intention has always been to maintain freedom of speech in Hong Kong through Apple Daily.
Ahead of the globally-reported pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong during July of 2003, the cover of Next Magazine featured a photo montage of the territory’s chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa taking a pie in the face. The magazine urged readers to take to the streets while Apple Daily distributed stickers calling for Tung to resign.
Needless to say, Lai’s high-profile support for the pro-democracy movement has drawn strong condemnation from Beijing. He has been arrested several times, most recently for his participation in the June 4, 2020 vigil marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Police had banned the annual candlelight gathering for the first time in three decades. Lai and a dozen other activists are scheduled to appear in court to face “incitement” charges on September 15.
Lai has also become the target of repeated hostile attacks and disturbances. He’s been threatened by assailants wielding machetes and axes. He’s been rammed by a car. Menacing notes have been left on his driveway, and his home has been firebombed several times.
During his interview with Adrienne Arsenault, Lai admitted he realizes that his every move is now monitored, and that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will marshal every resource at its disposal in order to silence him.
“You don’t sound scared by that,” Arsenault said.
“I can’t be scared,” he replied. “If I’m scared, what can I do? I cannot say anything. I cannot do anything. Because the most skillful thing that the CCP can do is to induce fear in you, to subdue you.”
Arsenault asked, “Is there not a chance that you could be spirited away in the middle of the night to a prison in mainland China?”
“Yes,” he said. “But what can I do? Just keep quiet?”
Keeping quiet doesn’t appear to be an option for Jimmy Lai. Hong Kong, he suggests, will effectively be finished if the rest of the world doesn’t speak up.
“If we are complacent, if we just let them do whatever the dictator values, the world will one day have to be changed to the image of China. How mistaken we have been, thinking that when China grows richer [it] will be more like us. And how wrong we have been.”
So that’s who Jimmy Lai is. What an amazing man. As for the second question … what does he have to do with our gospel lesson …
In the 14th chapter of Matthew, we hear the familiar story of Jesus’ stroll across Lake Galilee to meet his disciples, who are in a boat being tossed about by a violent storm. Of the 12 men, only Peter dares to step out of the boat’s precarious sanctuary to take a few tentative steps upon the roiling waves. He makes a bit of progress, but when he looks around at the chaos surrounding him, his courage fails, and he begins to sink beneath the surface.
“Lord, save me!” he cries out. So Jesus grabs his hand and catches him. Then he asks Peter why he allowed his faith to be shaken.
Jimmy Lai is a practicing Roman Catholic. He converted to Christianity in 1997, but it seems to me like he’s been walking on turbulent water since long before that. His prophetic determination to speak truth to power—no matter what the personal cost—inspires and humbles me. I can’t imagine ever having the strength to do what he’s been doing for so many years now. I’m sure I would vanish beneath the waves.
Let’s all pray for Jimmy Lai. Let’s pray for the bolstering of his courage in the face of danger, and the preservation of his love of freedom, and of his commitment to the truth. Let’s pray that his faith remains unshakable—especially his faith in the idea that circumstances in Hong Kong may yet improve.
More than that, let’s do whatever we can to encourage our western governments—in Canada and elsewhere—to do whatever they can to support those who are risking everything to preserve freedom of expression and human rights in the former British colony. Let’s pray for an outstretched hand. Let’s put our prayers into action.
* You can watch Arsenault’s conversation with Jimmy Lai here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8goj5uGKtc