What Chairman Mao Can Teach Us About Spiritual Warfare

March 8, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

A few weeks ago we traveled to Beijing to visit one of our sons who is teaching English in China for a year. We set aside one day to do some sightseeing we hadn’t been able to do on our first trip a year earlier. After a quick visit to the Temple of Heaven, we took a cab to Tiananmen Square, a large plaza in central Beijing adjacent to the Forbidden City and the site of massive pro-Democracy rallies in 1989. On one side of the vast square there is a museum showcasing China’s thousands of years of civilization. On the other side you find the building housing the Chinese parliament. On the end opposite the Forbidden City there are several ancient gates currently undergoing renovation. In front of the museum they have erected an enormous clock that counts down the years, months, days, hours and seconds until the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

As you wander around the square, you see soldiers here and there, quite a few police, and (if the weather is good) families with children taking pictures, couples strolling, and you continually run into vendors hawking everything from “genuine Rolexes” for $20 (although you can bargain them down to less than $2) to kites, postcards, buttons, medallions, t-shirts and camera batteries. The middle of the square is dominated by a statue honoring the “heroes of the Chinese revolution,” meaning the supporters of Mao Tse-Tung and the Communist Party. To the right as you face the statute, Chairman Mao lies in state in an enormous mausoleum, thirty years after his death in 1976.

No Pictures Allowed

This is why we had come to Tiananmen Square on a cold morning in January. Beijing in January is just like Chicago in January, only without the snow. But it is equally as cold. We came because I wanted to view the preserved remains of Chairman Mao. Upon approaching the entrance, we encountered the kind of line you find at an airport security checkpoint. The Chinese have one rule above all others regarding Chairman Mao’s body. No pictures. They are ironclad about it and apparently make no exceptions. If you have a camera, you must surrender it before you get in line. A guard came up to me, patted down my thick overcoat, and pointed me forward. We stood in line (outside) for a few minutes with approximately 100-150 others, mostly Chinese with a few foreigners in the mix. I noticed quite a few families with young children. When the word was given, the soldiers allowed our group to go forward. Signs and a voice from a loudspeaker repeatedly warned us not to take pictures. After being herded around a corner, we stopped near a kiosk where an announcement was made (in Chinese) that we could buy flowers to place at the base of Chairman Mao’s statue inside the mausoleum. We had been told earlier by a friend that the flowers are a good money maker because the government sells the flowers, people put them at the base of the statute, and after everyone is through, workers pick up the flowers, take them outside to the kiosk, and sell them again. It seemed like twenty or thirty people in our group brought flowers.

Then we entered the building. Everywhere there were guards watching us and moving us along. In the first room, a rotunda of sorts, we passed by an enormous statue of Chairman Mao. He was seated on a chair with his legs crossed. It reminded somehow of the Lincoln Memorial with its massive statue of President Lincoln filling the building. The statue of Chairman Mao wasn’t as big but the effect was the same. As we passed by the statue, people with flowers came forward, bowed before the statue, some knelt in tribute, placing their flowers at the feet of the chairman. It was an eerie, surreal scene.

Very quickly the line moved to the next room where we would see the mortal remains of Mao Tse-Tung. The line split in two as we filed past the dimly-lit casket. A grim-faced woman moved us along very quickly. No one had time to stop and look. The casket rests on a platform behind a thick glass barrier that runs from ceiling to floor. As we passed by, I caught a glimpse of Mao’s face, frozen in death, pallid, grayish-brown, and waxen in appearance. In fairness I suppose you would say that he looked about as good I will look thirty years after I’m dead. Even as I type these words, a shudder came over me as I thought about my brief encounter with one of the greatest dictators of modern times.

The Little Red Book

As soon as we entered the next room, the guards disappeared. This was the gift shop where we could buy all sorts of Mao-related souvenirs. As we descended the stone steps at the rear of the mausoleum, we were surrounded by enterprising Chinese vendors who, seeing that we were foreigners, offered us various items. One friendly chap wanted to sell us Mao’s famous Little Red Book. We dickered with him for a minute or two, then went on our way. He followed us, lowering his price as we walked. Finally I purchased a copy of “The Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” for 15 yuan (about $1.86). The book is pocket-sized, with a red plastic cover bearing the face of Mao embossed on the plastic, surrounded by little yellow rays of sun. The book contains 590 pages, the left-hand pages in Chinese, the right-hand pages giving the English translation.

I had more than a passing interest in the book because of its historical importance. There was a time in China when everyone had his own copy of the “Little Red Book” and everyone studied it religiously. That was especially true during the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and early 70s. I wanted my own copy for another reason. According to a recent survey, Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book” is the second bestselling book of all time. We all know that the Bible is the bestselling book in history, with at least six billon copies in print. But the “Little Red Book” has sold over 900 million copies. For that alone, it deserves to be read and studied.

70 Million

A recent biography called Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday begins with this sentence:

Mao Tse-Tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader (p. 3).

Mao was one of the greatest killers of all time. As I perused the “Little Red Book,” I ran across one of his more famous sayings where he puts it very plainly:

Every Communist must grasp the truth, ’Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ (p. 121).

He speaks forcefully of the brutality necessary for a revolution to succeed:

Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall (p. 21).

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another (p. 23).

Then he adds this word to the fearful:

If you are afraid of war day in day out, what will you do if war eventually comes? (p. 131).

How to Win Against a Superior Force

He speaks at one point of the importance of not going into battle unless you have overwhelming numerical superiority. This matters because in the beginning, the Communists were a minority on the battlefield. The only hope was to pick those spots where they could win one battle at a time.

In this way, though inferior as a whole (in terms of numbers), we shall be absolutely superior in every part and every specific campaign, and this assures victory in the campaign (pp. 185 & 187).

This he immediately follows with two other pieces of battle advice:

Fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not assured of winning (p. 187).

Give full play to our style of fighting–courage in battle, no fear of sacrifice, no fear of fatigue, and continuous fighting (that is, fighting successive battles in a short time without rest) (p. 187).

A few pages later I found this intriguing thought:

Without preparedness superiority is not real superiority and there can be no initiative either. Having grasped this point, a force which is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy by surprise attack (p. 191).

This comes from an article called, appropriately enough, “Protracted War,” published in 1938, in the midst of the war with Japan, before World War II, and eleven years before the Communists would win in China. This final quote deserves mention because it is the ultimate statement of asymmetric warfare. Preparation matters more than anything else in warfare, especially a war that drags on and on. Today’s terrorists understand this principle better than we do. The terrorists cannot win a head-on confrontation with the United States or with any other major power. But they can fly planes into buildings, blow up trains, incite people to riot over cartoons in a Danish newspaper, and kill soldiers and civilians with roadside bombs. When Mao wrote these words, he led an army that fought against both the Nationalist army and the Japanese army. It would not have seemed likely that one day he would become the icon and demigod of all of China. It was by no means certain in 1938 that the Japanese or the Nationalists either one would ever be defeated. Many things had to happen in order for Mao’s army to win. But he understood the fundamental axiom of asymmetric warfare. Find out where your enemy is unprepared and hit him hard when he least expects it.

One Friday in Jerusalem

It happened one Friday morning in Jerusalem. The rooster crowed, and Peter never forgot it. As long as he lived, he never forgot it, and he never tired of telling the story. In fact, he told the story so often that it was written down four different times–once by Matthew, once by Mark, once by Luke, and once by John. The story itself was repeated over and over again by the first generation of Christians. They never forgot it and they never tired of telling it. It became one of the most familiar and best-loved parts of the gospel story. Wherever the story of Jesus’ arrest is told, the story of Peter and the rooster is sure to be told as well. Few Bible stories speak to us as this one does.

It is late on Thursday night in Jerusalem. Jesus has just been arrested and taken away to the house of the high priest. Most of the disciples are nowhere to be found. They are gone, scattered, drifted off into the darkness, too shocked and too angry by the actions of Judas to do anything else. When the crowd of soldiers led Jesus away, Peter decided to follow them. He had promised never to desert Jesus, and he wasn’t going to start now. In the confusion it was easy to tag along behind the crowd. No one seemed to notice him. Certainly no one recognized him as one of Jesus’ top men.

He followed the crowd to the house of the high priest. The house opened onto a courtyard which could only be entered through a gate near the alley. By the time Peter got there, the soldiers had taken Jesus inside to meet the high priest. The crowd had partly dispersed, it being late and the major excitement over for the time being. Some had gone home, others were warming themselves by a fire in the courtyard. It was early April and the temperature had dropped into the upper forties.

It was hard for Peter to tell exactly how many people were there. Fifty maybe, or maybe more. There were soldiers milling about and servant girls running errands. Plus there were hangers-on and passers-by (exactly the category Peter himself fit into) who were waiting to see what would happen to this fellow Jesus.

In order to understand what happens next, it helps to remember that it is now sometime after midnight. In the darkness Peter comes to the gate and waits to be admitted. No one there knows who he is (he thinks), so it should be perfectly safe for him to go in. True, he is now in enemy territory but it’s the middle of the night, and there’s no reason for them to suspect him. Armed with that thought, he brushes past the servant girl on his way to stand by the fire in the courtyard.

Just as he was getting to the fire, the servant girl spoke up and said, “You were with that Nazarene, Jesus from Galilee.” The words hit Peter like an electric shock. Somehow she recognized him. How did she know him? No one knows. It really didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that she didn’t know his name. What mattered was that somehow she had connected him with Jesus. Peter had to think fast. Instinctively, he muttered out the oldest dodge in the world, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” That’s right. Just play dumb. Act like you don’t know what she’s talking about. It worked. Or at least Peter thought it worked. But as he stood around the fire talking to the soldiers, he noticed two or three people looking at him closely. Too closely. Too carefully. One or two were nodding in his direction and whispering. Minutes passed and Peter turned to walk out of the courtyard. Things were getting a little dicey. As he did, a second servant girl (a friend of the first), suddenly spoke up: “This fellow is one of them.” Peter tried to act calm but he felt his heart pounding in his chest. Quick now, you’ve got to say something. Think. Think. Don’t just stand there. So he said, “I don’t know the man.” But when he said it, his face was flushed and he could tell the girl didn’t believe him.


Peter knew he was in real trouble. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s in the enemy camp warming himself around the enemy’s fire. If he tried to leave now, that would arouse even more suspicion. But if he stayed, they might find him out. More time passed, with more looks and whispers directed at him. After about an hour, it appeared that Jesus’ interview with the high priest was about over. The guards were going to and from the house and the tempo in the courtyard picked up. Peter breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he would get out of this after all. It was just at that moment that a man spoke up from the other side of the fire. He sounded more sure of himself and definitely more hostile than the servant girls. “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” Peter looked up at him and tried to play dumb. This time it didn’t work. Evidently this fellow had gone with the crowd to arrest Jesus. Worse, he was a relative of Malchus, the man whose ear Peter had impulsively cut off.

Peter was trapped and he knew it. This fellow had seen him with Jesus. Plus, he was plenty ticked off about what Peter had done. When a man is backed into a corner, he will do almost anything to save himself. In this case, Peter began to curse and swear. “I don’t know him. Why don’t you leave me alone? May God strike me dead if I have ever heard of this man Jesus.” The words just came tumbling out, old words born of fear and exhaustion. Words Peter hadn’t used since his days as a fisherman.

At the very instant the words flew from his mouth, a rooster began to crow.

The Devil’s Hounds Run In Packs

Now that the story is laid before us, we should begin to ask some questions, chief among them being what possessed Peter to deny knowing Jesus. The answer is not difficult to find. Peter was scared and he was tired. That doesn’t excuse his conduct, but it does make it understandable. After all that had happened, Peter finally ran out of strength. Consider the matter from his point of view. Jesus’ case appeared to be hopeless. The had him at last, and they would not let go until he was dead. That much was clear. What point would there be in sticking your neck out?

Besides that, Peter is tired and lonely and cold and a little bit disoriented. Plus–and this is a big factor–he never expected to be questioned by a servant girl. Her question caught him totally off-guard, and he blurted out an answer almost without thinking. But once he denied knowing Jesus there was no turning back. He had to play out the string. That’s part of the irony of this story. Peter denied Christ to a servant girl. Not to the high priest. Not to a soldier. Not to anyone important. He denied Christ to a menial maid. But one sin leads to another. Peter was a like a confused sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves. His lack of courage when questioned by the servant girl made him more susceptible to the other questions that were soon to come. His confidence eroded, he became easy prey. Soon he denied his Lord three times.

I think Peter was ready to die for Christ that night. A few hours earlier he was whacking off somebody’s ear. No, Peter was no coward. And he knew the risk involved in going to the courtyard of the high priest. And I think (though I cannot prove this) that if Peter had been brought before the high priest he would have said, “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus” and with a smile on his face, he would have followed his Master to the cross. That’s the kind of man he was. What happened? He was totally unprepared to be questioned by a servant girl. She caught him off guard and he lied about knowing Jesus. But one lie leads on to another. As Alexander Maclaren put it, “One sin makes many. The Devil’s hounds run in packs.”

Peter’s Seven Great Mistakes

What happened to Peter was no fluke. He set himself up by a long string of bad decisions. Here are the seven great mistakes he made that night:

1. He talked when he should have been listening. At the Last Supper, when Jesus said that all his disciples would desert him, Peter impulsively blurted out, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33 NLT). Within 6 hours Peter would come to regret those brave words.

2. He didn’t appreciate his own weakness.

3. He ignored Jesus’ warning.

4. He followed afar off. He followed Jesus, but at a distance, when he should have been at his elbow. In this case, following Jesus afar off only got him in more trouble.

5. He warmed himself at the wrong fire. Peter had no business warming himself in the company of the enemies of the Lord. As one writer put it, “If his faith had not already frozen, he would not have needed to warm himself by the fire.” By consorting with those who had arrested Jesus, Peter was placing himself in a position where he would almost certainly be exposed. Peter warmed himself by the wrong fire until things got too hot for him.

6. He was unprepared when the attack came.

7. He compounded his sin by first deceiving, then denying and finally swearing. But this was inevitable. Peter set himself up for a fall and when it came, it was a big one. “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” It is interesting to note that Peter fooled only himself. The others never really believed him. They sensed he was lying. Something in his face and the tone of his voice gave him away.

And so it was that Peter–the “Rock”–crumbled in the critical moment. He had denied his Lord not once, but three times. It was a failure he would remember for the rest of his days. As we think of it, let us take to heart the words of I Corinthians 10:12, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”

Attacking Our Strong Points

Satan often attacks us at the point of our strength, not the point of our weakness. A few hours earlier Peter boldly declared he would never desert the Lord. If you had asked Peter at that moment to name his strong points, no doubt he would have listed boldness and courage right at the top. He would have said, “Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth, but at least I’m not afraid to speak up. Jesus knows that I’ll always be there when he needs me.” But when Satan attacked, it came so suddenly, so swiftly, so unexpectedly that the bold apostle turned to butter. By himself Peter is helpless. In the moment of crisis, Peter fails in the very point where he pledged to be eternally faithful.

Should this surprise us? After all, why should Satan attack only in the point of your self-perceived weakness? If you know you have a weakness, that’s the very area you will guard most carefully. If you know you have a problem with anger or with laziness or with lust or with gluttony, will you not be on your guard lest you fall?

But it is not so with your strengths. You take those areas for granted. You say, “That’s not a problem for me. I have other problems, but that area is not really a temptation at all.”

Watch out! Put up the red flag! There is danger ahead. When a person takes any area of life for granted, that’s the one area Satan is most likely to attack. Why? Because that’s the one area where you aren’t watching for his attack.

It happened to Peter. It will happen to you and to me sooner or later.

Chairman Mao understood this point perfectly. Let me repeat that final quote one more time:

Without preparedness superiority is not real superiority and there can be no initiative either. Having grasped this point, a force which is inferior but prepared can often defeat a superior enemy by surprise attack (p. 191).

That perfectly describes what happened to Peter. He meant well, but he wasn’t prepared for what was about to hit him. He wasn’t a coward, but he overestimated his own strength, and in a weak moment he was brought down a teenage girl. He never got over the humiliation of what happened that night. Two thousand years later, we still remember that Peter under pressure caved in and denied the Lord. It’s not surprising that many years later, Peter wrote these words: “Be careful! Watch out for attacks from the Devil, your great enemy. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for some victim to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT). Lions are fearful not only for their roar and their fearsome appearance. They are to be feared because they lie in wait, sometimes for hours, until an unsuspecting victim comes too close. By then it’s too late. There is no escape. For Peter, the “roaring lion” came in the form a servant girl who asked him a question he wasn’t prepared to answer.

It was a classic case of asymmetric warfare, and it utterly defeated Peter.

There are many lessons here if we care to take them:

The Devil doesn’t fight fair.

He attacks when we least expect it.

He attacks our strengths because we take them for granted.

He attacks repeatedly from different angles.

Any ground left unguarded becomes open territory for the Devil.

Be alert!

Pay attention!

Keep your eyes open!

Don’t brag!

Stay close to Christ!

Lean on your Christian friends!

Put on the armor of God!

Take up the Sword of the Spirit!

Pray like crazy!

The battle has been joined, the enemy doesn’t fight fair, and every believer is on the front lines. Be prepared, lest you too should become a casualty in the battle. It’s not always the big things that bring us down. Sometimes it’s just the small things that do it because we weren’t prepared when the enemy made his move.

There is a warning in this sermon about presumptuous faith that doesn’t take seriously the dangers all around us. But there is also good news for the children of God. The Devil fights unfairly because that’s the only way he can bring us down. He is Ultimate Loser for time and eternity because our Lord is the Ultimate Champion and the Captain of our Salvation. We stand on the victory side when we stand with the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?