Friday, December 30, 2011

How Long Until True Democracy?

[After my visits to two prisons when Connie and I visited Taiwan a couple of weeks ago, I wrote the following Op-Ed for the Taipei Times. It was published Friday, December 30, 2011 and is reprinted in full here with full permission.]

How many generations does it take to grow a democracy? I asked this question as I read about Russia and thought of my recent visit to two prisons in Taiwan.
Many are asking the question in Russia today. With Vladimir Putin seeking to extend his rule by subverting democratic elections and other human rights, people have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers.

A couple of weeks ago, the White Terror era was graphically brought to mind when my old friend, Hsieh Tsung-min, and his wife took me to visit The Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial Park, located at the site of the former Detention Center of the Taiwan Garrison Command. I had visited the site in 2008, but not with my friend who had been incarcerated there for many years.

Mr. Hsieh, who on had been arrested a week before me in 1971, took me on a personal tour of the facility that included the cell he occupied. My former wife and I had been charged with “activities unfriendly to the government of the Republic of China”, put under house arrest, and expelled, whereas our friends and colleagues, Hsieh and Wei T’ing-chao were tried in secret after a year and a half in custody, served long sentences, and were horribly tortured. 

The tiny cell where Hsieh had been held was hard for me to look at and almost as hard to view the drawings in the museum of the torture he described in a letter smuggled out in 1972.

All of the inhuman treatment of political prisoners and the climate of terror created by Chiang Kai-shek and his security agencies came rushing back through the forty years as if it were yesterday.

Three days after my visit to Jing-mei, I visited the Taipei Prison where former President Chen Shui-bien is incarcerated. 

Cheryl Lai (賴秀如) graciously accompanied me to translate. When my family returned to Taiwan in 2003 after thirty years, then President Chen had been extraordinarily kind to us. He had taken me aside and said that he was sorry that my activities in Taiwan had caused me to be blacklisted by the U.S. government for nineteen years. On this visit I wanted to thank him.

Being allowed to visit him in prison was a reminder that some things have changed since the beginning of democratization in the 1990s. His buzz cut hair and orange jump suit underlined the different settings and conditions when we had last met in 2003. Neither his smile nor his sense of humor had left him. We both chuckled about Dr. Peng Ming-min coming to visit him and bringing a copy of his then new book, The Perfect Escape, published in 2009.

I came away from the thirty minute meeting with questions that continue to puzzle me as I think of Taiwan’s path:

Newspaper accounts of his trials invariably point out that Chen is the first former president to be indicted and convicted of crime in the history of the ROC. What is rarely said is that he is also the only non-KMT president in the history of the ROC. Is that one of the reasons he is in jail?

Although Chen was President for two terms, the KMT controlled the legislature, the judiciary, and the central government agencies just as they have from the beginning. I wonder how his trials, which according to outside legal observers have said “due process” was so convoluted it is doubtful that the truth of any of the charges can ever be determined. Chen was emphatic that he does not want a pardon; he wants a fair re-trial.

Former President Chen was an unapologetic advocate of an independent Taiwan, which sent political shivers not only through the KMT but also through the leaders in Beijing. Is it possible that this is the real reason Chen is in prison? Chen seems convinced, and I have little reason to doubt it. The manner in which the KMT-dominated government has conducted the former President’s trials is enough to question how much Taiwan’s democracy has grown.

Former presidential adviser Dr. Peng Ming-min heads a new international committee calling for free and fair elections: 
“We have only one sincere but strong demand — that the Jan. 14 elections should be conducted fairly and properly, as fair elections are the minimum requirement for a democratic society and the polls come as a great challenge for Taiwan.”
 It is the same plea he and his two former students, Hsieh Tsung-min and Wei T’ing-chao, made in their Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation on September 20, 1964, a plea that landed all three in prison charged with treason.

This is not 1964 and much has changed since then, but how the January 14 election is conducted may go far in answering the question in Taiwan, “How many generations does it take to grow a democracy?”

Milo Thornberry, author of Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (Sunbury Press, 2011). The Chinese edition was released on December 10 by the Asian Culture Company.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Political Musings on Christmas Eve

I intended to work on another writing project this morning but this Christmas Eve headline set me on another path: 'Russia will be free': Huge rally increases pressure on Vladimir Putin:
“Moscow: Tens of thousands of demonstrators on Saturday cheered opposition leaders and jeered the Kremlin in the biggest show of outrage yet against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's 12-year rule.”
The news reminded me of the struggle going on in the fragile democracy of Taiwan from which Connie and I have just returned. My old friend, Dr. Peng Ming-min, is chairing a new international committee calling for free and fair elections on January 14, 2012:  
“We have only one sincere but strong demand — that the Jan. 14 elections should be conducted fairly and properly, as fair elections are the minimum requirement for a democratic society and the polls come as a great challenge for Taiwan,” said former presidential adviser Peng Ming-min (彭明敏).
Many Jewish people continue to celebrate Hanukah (December 20-28) and recall how in the 2nd Century BCE a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, and drove the Greeks from their land. Many Christians are gathering for Christmas celebrations praying for peace and goodwill. Religious and non-religious alike are likely aware of political struggles for freedom and human dignity throughout the world.

Christians may be surprised by what can be known about the politics of that first Christmas. The earliest church seems not to have celebrated Christmas for its first two hundred years. Why was Christmas not celebrated earlier?  That's a matter for conjecture, not proof.  The fact is, scholars tell us, there is a conflict in the historical settings provided in the only two Gospel accounts we have of the birth of Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew sets the birth at the time of King Herod. (2:1ff.)

The account in Luke sets the birth when Augustus was Emperor of Rome, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  In spite of its scenes of angels singing to shepherds peacefully watching their sheep in the hills, it was a world of political conflict and human suffering. The birth of Jesus coincided with the census of Quirinius.  This was not like our every ten year censuses: the purpose of this census was to identify people so that even heavier taxes could be levied by Rome and so that Judean men could be identified for conscription into Caesar's army. 

Although we get no sense of it in Luke's story, we know from sources outside the Bible that this very census provoked an armed uprising by Jewish patriots against Rome.  A guerilla war against Rome began which would continue throughout Jesus' life and would end with the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies thirty or so years after Jesus' crucifixion.   This census meant that Mary and Joseph had to be on the road, away from their family support systems, at precisely the time for the birth of their first baby.   

The correlation of Jesus' birth with the beginning of this war of resistance against Rome was not coincidental.  The world was moving according to Caesar Augustus.  Caesar claimed to be "Savior" of the world.  A "savior" was one who delivered or liberated people.  It is in response to that claim that Luke has angels announce news of "good news" and "joy" to the shepherds in the fields. To almighty political power Luke’s message was that the real "Savior" was being born in tiny Bethlehem; "the Messiah," was "Christ the Lord."  The legions of Caesar Augustus sought to enforce the "Peace of Rome" on this subject people.  Against the claims of the mighty power of Caesar, the little birth story flings back the reply that salvation and peace are not finally in Caesar’s hands. And this unsettling thought is a threat to tyrants in every age and place.

Cynics (or “realists” depending on whether you are one or not) may argue that Caesar won. Thirty plus years later Caesar’s administrator, Pontius Pilate, had Jesus crucified on the charge of insurrection. In 70 AD (or CE) Caesar’s legions defeated the Jewish Zealots (including, no doubt, some Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah), destroyed the Temple, and razed Jerusalem. And in the fourth century, when Caesar Theodosius 1 made Christianity the religion of the empire, Christians’ belief that Jesus was “Savior of the World” was used as a club against Judaism and other religions, eradicating most religions in the empire, and providing the ideology for persecution of Jews for the next millennium and a half. We are right to be sobered by these events.

But Caesars’ of the world always think they’ve won. If we listen carefully to the backstories told at Hanukkah, Christmas, and freedom stories in other traditions, we are reminded that the Vladimir Putins, Hu Jintaos, Bashar al-Assads, and even the Wall Street tyrants are not invincible. And that’s good news!

Happy Holidays and a Wonder Filled New Year!

- Milo  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Together, We Are Invincible

[NOTE: This column appeared in the Daily News Miner in Fairbanks, Alaska on Christmas Eve 1996, Connie's and my first Christmas there. The author is Tom Teepen, long time columnist for the New York Times and more lately for the Cox Newspapers. This is, as Teepen says, "a Christmas column," and in my mind it would be a good one to read each year as we approach Christmas and Hanukkah.]

In case you begin to wonder, yes, this is a Christmas column.

The International Red Cross has released documents from its World War II files showing the organization knew at the time that what we've come to know as the Holocaust was under way in Nazi concentration camps.

The Red Cross kept quiet through the war. It feared that raising the alarm would compromise its neutrality and end its ability to inspect prisoner of war camps.

See? A Christmas column.

Here and there - in Hungary, Romania - the Red Cross did manage to save thousands of Jewish lives quietly where opportunity occurred.

The Red Cross was not alone in silence, or in reasoning the silence served some other end of good. Holocaust scholars, especially Deborah Lipstadt, have shown that far more was contemporaneously known about the Holocaust than later accounts admitted.

The United States, like most nations, enforced tight restrictions against the Jewish immigration that could have saved millions of lives. Allied strategists worried that concern over the slaughter in the camps might distract from the focus on winning the war as quickly as possible.

The bitter, bitter irony in all this is that we know now, from miraculous tales borne out of the war by survivors, that the Nazis often shied when a rare bold town or a brave pastorate refused to serve Hitler's Final Solution.

Nazi persecution of German Jews before World War II would still rank as a historic affront to civilization even if the Holocaust had not followed. But could the mass murder have been stopped if powerful agencies - governments, the papacy, the Red Cross - had stood together in their terrible knowledge and had said no to the horror?

Recently, one of the few Jewish families living on a cul-de-sac in Bucks County, Pa., was awakened by the sound of glass breaking. Vandals had shattered the living room window to destroy the electric menorah the family had lighted for Hanukkah.

By the next evening, windows in all the other 18 homes of Water Lily Way, most not Jewish homes, and windows elsewhere in the subdivision, too, glowed with unaccustomed menorahs.

And there would have been more but local stores had run out as neighbors scurried after the stocks. As it was, merchants caught up in the idea had busily phoned one another to round up as many menorahs as they could.

The vandals have not reappeared. The dark that covered them one night was gone the next, defeated by candlelight.

It is so simple, though it often takes such strength and courage: When we stand in our common humanity we are invincible against those who would divide us meanly.

The lesson of the Holocaust is not everywhere learned. Not in Serbia. Not in Rwanda. Last week six Red Cross workers were murdered in their sleep in Chechnya, for practicing humanitarianism without preference.

But if the lesson is not yet fully learned, neither is it lost.

It is known, and known well, on Water Lily Way, in Bucks County, in Pennsylvania.

Even small lights hold back the night.

Didn't I tell you this was a Christmas column?

- Tom Teepen 

[For a fuller account of the Bucks County story see this in the Chicago Tribune.]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Living by Hope

[NOTE: Pictured above are Lin I-hsiong, his wife Fang Su-min, and their grandchildren at a memorial service in 2009 at Taipei's Gikong Presbyterian Church, in remembrance of his mother and their seven year old twin daughters who were murdered nearly three decades ago on February 28, 1980. The murders took place while Fang Su-min was visiting Lin in prison for participating in a human rights rally on December 13, 1979. 

When it was dangerous to do so, Presbyterian women reached out to comfort Fang Su-min in her in her grief. Later, when no one would buy their home, the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan bought the property and made it into Gikong Church.

It was a great honor for me to be invited to preach in this place on Sunday, December 11, 2011. Following is the sermon I preached.]

Deuteronomy 34:1-7; Luke 1:46-55s

I do not have words to express the depth of my gratitude for your welcome to join you in worship today in this holy place. The only words I have are those some of you or your grandparents spoke to express profound thanks to those, who like a farmer, have labored on your behalf. To you, I say for both Connie and me, Lo Lat!

We are two weeks away from celebrating the birth of Jesus. Today, I want us to begin with something that happened twelve hundred years before Jesus was born.
This is how I imagine it. He must have been exhausted.  In his earlier years this climb would have been nothing for a man of his strength and endurance.  But he was not the man he once was.  On this day he felt every rock underneath his callused feet.  Every place where the gradual incline of the trail had been eroded by the ceaseless wind and spring rains meant that he had to force his tired body up to the trail's next level.  Sweat funneled down the deep creases on his forehead and burned as they found their way into his eyes.

He was dying and he knew it.  But something -- God! -- beckoned him up to the top of the mountain, a mountaintop from whose peak he could see over to the other side of the Jordan River to "the land of milk and honey," the land he had spent most of his life leading his people toward.

I wonder if this old man -- the text says Moses was 120 years old -- protested this indignity to God.  Why couldn't he have used his last energy to go from the Plains of Moab on over the Jordan River and into the Promised Land?  It was not to be.  Moses was led up the mountain to see the land, but not to enter it.  He had accomplished so much in his life.  He had resisted the temptation to live a life of luxury and privilege in the house of the King of Egypt to be with his people who were slaves.  He had confronted Pharaoh with God's demand to let the people go.  He led the people safely across the waters when there seemed no other way.  He led these slaves in their newfound freedom even when they would have gladly returned to the security of slavery.  He went up on the mountain and received God's gift of the Law, only to return to find that the people had turned to a Golden Calf as the object of their worship.  Even when God was ready to disown these ungrateful wretches, Moses had successfully intervened on their behalf.  No, Moses didn't need any more accomplishments.  But somehow it just didn't seem right that after his forty years of effective leadership he would not be able to lead the people just a few more miles.  But it was not to be.  Having seen the Promised Land from the top of the mountain the old man lay down and died without finishing what he began.

We, too, shall die without finishing what we began. Moses was strong and vigorous, but that was not enough to enable him to finish what he had begun.  Not many of us have anywhere close to one hundred and twenty years.  And many do not even have a full lifetime to get done what we long to do.

It was and is okay because life is like that.  We never accomplish what we begin in a lifetime, whether in 35, 70, or even 120 years. Accomplishment is intergenerational. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, put it this way: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”  

Please do not mistake what I am saying to be a message that accomplishing all we can for good in our lifetime is not important. We not only need to accomplish all we can, we need to be working toward that which our children and their children, not we, will benefit.

    For several years I lived on a small farm outside Atlanta, Georgia in the southeastern United States.  I had a few acres of orchard and a few acres in vegetables.  Around the house there were eight or nine large pecan trees. Pecan trees are native to North America. The trees grow 65 to 130 feet high. They produce nuts that are rich and buttery in flavor; they are eaten raw as well as used in cooking. When I was growing up, my favorite dessert was pecan pie.  

You will understand that I listened attentively when I heard a story about an 81-year-old farmer planting a grove of pecan trees. Pecan trees take from ten to twenty years before they bear fruit. When the farmer was reminded that he was not likely to live long enough to see the trees bear fruit, he shrugged and said, “Is that important?  All my life I have eaten fruit from trees that I did not plant. Why should I not plant trees to bear fruit for those who may enjoy them long after I am gone?

 How many pecans had I picked up, given away and sold?  How many had I roasted in the oven with honey and curry?  I was able to do that because someone long before me on that piece of property had planted the trees, and perhaps not lived long enough to enjoy the fruit.  This is true not only of pecans; we are always standing on the shoulders of others, benefiting from the labors of those who have gone before us. 

Three close friends of mine - Dr. Peng Ming-min, and his former graduate student collaborators Hsieh Tsung-min, and Wei T’ing-chao - well understood how we need to accomplish all we can so that our children and their children, but not necessarily we, will benefit. They had spent hours talking about how bad the situation under White Terror was, but the day came in 1964 when the three of them decided to do something about it. You know the story, how they wrote a Manifesto for Formosan Self-Salvation, how they were arrested before they could distribute it, and how they went to prison. Once out of prison, they continued to work on behalf of the Taiwanese people. Dr. Peng would be forced to escape from his beloved Taiwan; Hsieh and Wei would be arrested again in 1971. They went to prison again, and in 1980 Wei would go to prison for the third time. They knew that they could not accomplish everything they set out to do for the people of Taiwan. They knew that accomplishment is intergenerational.

On December 29, 1971, when the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan’s Executive Committee issued its courageous Statement on our National Fate,” most understood that this was just the beginning.

In December of 1979, General Secretary Kao Chun-ming was asked to help some Taiwanese pastors hide a human rights advocate being hunted by the police.  He did not hesitate.  Being under watch 24 hours a day by the secret police himself, General Secretary Kao couldn’t bring Shih Ming-teh into his own home; but he arranged a place for him to hide.  Kao and the pastors were later arrested. Kao’s arrest and imprisonment was such an embarrassment to the Nationalist government that he was released in August of 1984. So highly regarded was he by Presbyterians in Taiwan that each year while he was in prison you continued to elect him General Secretary.

When the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan purchased this blood-stained property where three horrible murders had been committed, building a church was an act of hope.

Two thousand years ago, an unmarried pregnant young woman was visited by an angel who told her not to be afraid because she was going to give birth to Jesus who would be called “son of the Most High.” She couldn’t possibly have understood the hard and heart-breaking road ahead of her. Yet, she affirmed her hope in a God who could bring down the powerful from their thrones, lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry with good things. Mary was prepared to live by hope, no matter how difficult the road ahead.

The “hope” of which Mary sang has little to do with optimism that things will inevitably get better. Hope that requires so little of the holder seems not to be hope at all. Saint Augustine who lived in North Africa in the fourth century, understood the nature of hope. He said,

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: anger so that what must not be, may not be; and courage, so that what must be, will be.”

This is the hope lived out by Peng, Hsieh, Wei, Kao, and the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, people who planted trees of truth and a demand for justice.

Today, the important question for us is not whether we will live long enough to see the final results of their earnest endeavors, but whether we, like they, persevere in planting trees of truth demanding justice for those who come after us. That’s what it means to live by hope!

- Milo Thornberry

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Are You Ready for Thanksgiving?

So you’ve bought your turkey, the cranberries, and pumpkin pie filling. The guests have already been invited. You’re almost ready for Thanksgiving. Or, are you?
Harvest festivals have been part of human history since the beginning of agriculture.  With harvesting completed and food stored away for the winter months, those early tillers of the soil celebrated the results of their labor.  They also recognized their dependence on elements and forces beyond their efforts that made harvest possible. 

Jews celebrated harvest thanksgivings in several periods throughout the year.  In medieval times many Europeans observed the Feast of St. Martin of Tours on November 11, and in England "Harvest Home" celebrations began in the sixteenth century.  Today, we no longer call these "Harvest Home" celebrations, but "Thanksgiving."  Thanksgiving Day is observed on the second Monday of October in Canada, while in the United States it is on the fourth Thursday of November.

At this time of the year here on the high desert in central Oregon it is a little difficult to enter into the spirit of an agricultural "harvest" festival. Here, the harvest was gathered in September and October. And, if the truth be told, the celebration of a "harvest festival" at the end of November is late, even for Plymouth, Massachusetts

Actually, the "first" Thanksgiving in America is subject to debate.  Some Native American tribes had been having harvest thanksgiving festivals for centuries, as had the Europeans who came to these shores.  Perhaps the first observance of the latter was entirely religious and involved neither harvest nor feasting.  On December 4, 1619, 39 English settlers arrived at the mouth of the James River in Virginia.  Their charter required that their arrival date be observed yearly as a day of thanksgiving to God.  Their thanksgiving was not for bounty, but for the fact that they had survived.  That was reason enough for an annual observance of thanksgiving.

Most people, however, associate the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims who arrived a year later on November 11, 1620.  Escaping religious persecution in Europe, these colonists attempted to reach the Virginia colony.  Their sixty-seven day voyage ended instead several hundred miles north on Cape Cod -- in what is now Massachusetts.  At a recently vacated Indian settlement, they discovered corn set aside for spring planting.  Already on a starvation diet, they were more concerned about their immediate need for food than for anyone's future crop, so they took ten bushels of the Indian's seed corn in order to survive the winter.

In the summer of 1621, less than a year after their arrival and after a terrible winter when half of the colonists died, hope was renewed by a good corn crop. Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag nation who had previously visited England and knew how to speak English, helped the colonists during their first winter and spring, showing them how to prepare the fields and plant corn.  He was also the Pilgrims' go-between with other tribes, helping arrange the pact that allowed the Pilgrims and Indians to live in peace.[1]

The first corn harvest brought rejoicing, and Governor William Bradford decreed that a three-day feast be held.  Chief Massasoit was invited to share the celebration, and share he did.  Ninety members of the tribe came with him -- probably to celebrate their traditional harvest feast.  The Pilgrims didn't have enough food for three days of feasting with such numbers, so the Indians went out and brought back most of what they ate at the feast: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread, and berries.[2]  Sweet strong wine from wild grapes supplemented the feast.

The feast lasted for days, with little attention to religious services.  Some believe that the Pilgrims chose to keep their harvest festival secular because they disapproved of mingling religious and secular celebrations.  It seems to have been a one-time occasion, with no thought to future celebrations.  Although not a religious observance, the Pilgrims celebrated their surviving that first disastrous year and the bounty of the land they had discovered.  It was also a celebration with the people who had made their survival possible.  It was a grateful acknowledgement of the way their life, indeed survival, was dependent on the Native Americans.

Serious questions have been raised about the nature and purpose of Thanksgiving Day observances in the subsequent one hundred years.  William B. Newell, a Penobscott Indian and former chair of the anthropology department at the University of Connecticut, says that the first "official" Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 -- fifteen years after the Pilgrims' celebration at Plymouth.  The purpose of this celebration, says professor Newell, was to celebrate the massacre of 700 Indian men, women and children at their annual Green Corn Dance (their Thanksgiving) in the previous year.[3] The murder of a white trader and Indian-kidnapper had been the excuse for the Puritans to make war on the Pequots.[4] After that there were massacres on both sides.  For the next hundred years, says Newell, "every Thanksgiving day ordained by a governor of Massachusetts was to honor a bloody victory thanking God for the battle won."

One hundred and fifty years later on November 26, 1787, President George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of thanks, but for many years afterward there was no regular national Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Thanksgiving did not become an annual observance until 1863, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when President Lincoln proclaimed it an annual national observance.

If celebrations give voice to the values and ideals by which we are trying to live, perhaps -- in view of the history of the way Thanksgiving has been observed -- it may be easier to first think of how we ought not observe it. 

First, It seems to me that Thanksgiving ought not be a day for thanking God for our affluence while others go hungry.  The notion that it is God who gives affluence to some and poverty to many not only ignores the role that humans have played in arranging patterns of affluence and poverty, but flies in the face of the love and justice.

Second, Thanksgiving ought not to be a time to claim God's special blessing on any nation.  As a persecuted minority religious group in Europe, the Pilgrims knew only too well the problems that occur when the interests of God and nation are identified by a dominant religious group.  It was a lesson they themselves forgot as they became the dominant religious group in New England, and it was the Native Americans who suffered.

Third, Thanksgiving ought not be an occasion to romanticize the cooperation between the Indians and the settlers, unless to recall as well—and in sorrow—the subsequent centuries' genocide of Native Americans.

Fourth, Thanksgiving ought not merely be a day of rest and football before the two largest shopping days of the year, when giving thanks is swept out the back door so we can "shop till we drop."

If we want Thanksgiving to be a day that gives voice to our values and our highest ideals, how might we observe it?  

First, Thanksgiving is a day to remember with gratitude and humility that we alone are not responsible for whatever bounty is in our lives.  Let us not forget to be grateful.

Second, Thanksgiving is a day to acknowledge that part of our bounty has come at the expense of others, including Native Americans, slaves, farm workers, family members and hosts of others we do not even know.  We might even try to consider how illegal immigrants contributed to our Thanksgiving dinner—on the turkey farms, in the processing plants, in the harvesting of the vegetables,…you get the idea—and give thanks. It might be a time to acknowledge, if only to those around our tables, the hypocrisy of much of the talk about illegal immigrants.  

Third, Thanksgiving is a day when we share what we have with others, and include in our celebrations those who might otherwise be alone.

Finally, Thanksgiving could be a day when we anticipate a world like that hoped for in 1621 when Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down at table together, a world where hungry children are fed; the homeless have homes; and those who suffer from discrimination because of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or age are respected; and where we live peacefully with those who hold different opinions about important matters. 

If this can be what we celebrate, then we will recapture the all-too-short-lived spirit of that Thanksgiving in 1621. Happy Thanksgiving!

- Milo Thornberry

[1] Larsen, Charles M., "The Real Thanksgiving," the letter of Edward Winslow dated 1622, pp. 5-6. (The Center For World Indigenous Studies Project, c/o The Fourth World Documentation Project,| P.O. Box 2574, Olympia, Washington USA 98507-2574)
[2] Ibid.
[3]Akwesasne Notes, Mohawk Nation. Vol.12 - August 1980, p. 3.
[4]Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980. p. 14.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trip to Washington

I am honored to have been invited to Washington, D.C. to address two prestigious groups who play important roles in keeping Taiwan related issues before U.S. policy makers, the academic community, and the public at large.

On Friday, November 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm I will address the Taiwan Forum at George Washington University. The Forum is sponsored by the Taiwan Education and Research Program of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at The George Washington University. Forum members include visiting scholars from Taiwan, American academics, journalists, members of the policy and diplomatic communities, and graduate students who share a common interest in advancing intellectual and policy-related discussions on contemporary Taiwan-related issues.

The focus of my remarks will be on “Shadows of the Past: Diverging Views on Taiwan’s Future”.

On Saturday, November 19, 2011 at Noon I will be the keynote speaker at the Thanksgiving luncheon of the Taiwan Association of America Greater Washington Chapter at the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport. The TAA-GWC represents the Taiwanese community in the greater metropolitan Washington, DC area.  It has been the tradition of TAAGWC to hold an annual Thanksgiving Banquet to express appreciation to American friends for their support of Taiwan’s democratization.

My address will be on “Legacies of Conscience and Courage: Peng Ming-min, Hsieh Tsung-min, and Wei T’ing-chao.” 

- Milo Thornberry

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Dust Bowl?

Did you read about the dust storm (hahoob) in Lubbock, Texas last Monday? As a child of the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s I shuddered when I saw the Monday pictures and compared them to old pictures. 

I was raised near the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, a light bulb-shaped one hundred million acres on the High plains that extended from southern Nebraska eight hundred miles south to Lubbock, from southeastern Colorado five hundred miles east to central Kansas. The area included the northeastern part of New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2005) tells how more than a quarter million people fled the area during the 30's. Surprisingly, almost two-thirds of the people living in the area in 1930 stayed. They, including my people, were the survivors, who were too hard-headed, too poor, or too crazy to leave.

I was too young to remember the Dust Bowl itself, but when it reappeared for shorter periods in the late forties and early 50s I remember. Someone would spot the large red/black clouds on the northern horizon. The principal would call us all out of class and tell us to get home in a hurry. When I got home, it would be as dark as night. My mother would be stuffing wet towels around the windows and under the doors in a fruitless attempt to keep out the dust. You even had difficulty with visibility in the house. And you had difficulty breathing.
You may understand why when I read about the dust storm in Lubbock on Monday, although two thousand miles away, I checked to make sure I could take a deep breath.

My first question was "Are we about to see another Dust Bowl?" Not likely, the experts say
Meteorologists say people living on Texas' parched plains could see more dust storms as a record drought tightens its grip across the Southwest. At least six sandstorms hit Phoenix this summer, with the most powerful striking on July 5 and measuring a mile high. But experts say another Dust Bowl is unlikely thanks to modern irrigation and farming techniques aimed at holding soil in place.
But not all agree.
Dust storms form when wind whips up loose soil. They aren't unusual in West Texas, although the size and speed of Monday's cloud was rare. Typically, the wall of dirt climbs to only about 1,000 feet in that area, not the 8,000 feet seen with the latest storm, experts said.
The wind picked up with a drop in pressure along the edge of a fast-moving cold front, a pattern that typically happens in the fall and winter, meteorologists said. When the cloud hit Lubbock, winds speeds reached 74 mph in some places and visibility was far less than a quarter of a mile...
"The thing that is scary is this exact type of dust storm is the same type of dust storm from during the 30s," said Tom Gill, a geology professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied dust storms for years. 
Gill believes dust storms could become more common as Texas' drought continues. The state just finished its driest 12 months ever and was blistered by triple-digit heat until early September. This year is on track to be the driest in Texas history, with the average rainfall in the first nine months about 25 percent less than in the same period in 1956, the previous driest year, when 11.23 inches fell... 
There's also concern that other advances since the Dust Bowl could be in jeopardy. Water in the Ogallala Aquifer has been diminishing for years, causing worry in Kansas, Nebraska and other states that rely on it. And, funding for the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep land at high risk of erosion out of production, is in jeopardy as Congress looks to cut costs. 
Is Lubbock's storm a harbinger of things to come? I don't know, but you may understand why it not only brought my parents and grandparents to mind, but also my children and grandchildren.

- Milo Thornberry

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Else Can We Do - Occupy Wall Street?

A few weeks ago at a monthly luncheon where some friends gather to talk politics we went through what has become a monthly litany of complaint about the obstructionist Republican stance in Congress, greed on Wall Street, and the resulting paralysis of the means to govern by President Obama.
“The President’s jobs bill doesn’t have a prayer,” said one to approving nods around the table.
“We need to write more letters and make more phone calls,” I said, realizing how lame it sounded as the words came out of my mouth.
“Writing and making phone calls don’t accomplish anything anymore,” responded one, lamenting not rebuking.
“I wish there was something else we could do that would make a difference,” said another.
Within days of that conversation, a demonstration in New York City calling itself “Occupy Wall Street” caught my attention. The previous week on September 17 I saw the news about 1,000 demonstrators in lower Manhattan, a couple of hundred staying in cardboard boxes in the park, and on the 19th how several had been arrested, but didn’t think much about it. On September 24th, the day after our lunch conversation, at least 80 arrests were made on September 24, after protesters started marching uptown and forcing the closure of several streets. If that didn’t get my full attention, the arrest of 700 on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1 certainly did.
Was this that “something else” for which my friend and the rest of us were longing?  As the movement has spread over the country, there is a recognition on the part of masses of people that the ordinary political processes and ordinary citizen involvement in those processes is simply not working. Occupy Wall Street has touched a deep and sensitive nerve in the United States.
How do we make sense of the movement? Is it a flurry of activity today and gone tomorrow, as Republicans and some Democrats hope? Is it the birth of a movement that will be an effective counter to the Right Wing extremism that has taken over the Republican Party? Is it that “something else” that demands my participation?
This morning, I saw this piece by Walter Brasch in OEN (Op Ed News) titled OCCUPY WALL STREET: Separating Fact from Media. Based on what I have been reading and seeing on the news, Brasch seems to be on target. I hope you’ll follow the link and read his entire article. What follows are some excerpts:
After citing the responses of some Fox News pundits and mainstream media reports on the movement who, Brasch says, just don’t get it, he asks who the protestors are and what they stand for.
“The protestors rightly say they are part of the 99 percent; the other one percent have 42 percent of the nation's wealth, the top 20 percent have more than 85 percent of the nation's wealth, the highest accumulation since 1928, the year before the Great Depression. Even the most oblivious recognize the protestors as a large cross-section of America. They are students and teachers; housewives, plumbers, and physicians; combat veterans from every war from World War II to the present. They are young, middle-aged, and elderly. They are high school dropouts and Ph.D.s. They are from all religions and no religion, and a broad spectrum of political views.”
Despite their different views, Brasch says they share some core beliefs:
“The protestors are fed up with corporate greed that has a base of corporate welfare and special tax benefits for the rich. They support the trade union movement, Medicare and Social Security, affordable health care for all citizens, and programs to assist the unemployed, disenfranchised, and underclass. A nation that cannot take care of the least among us doesn't deserve to be called the best of us.”
And, he says, they are mad! 
“They're mad that the home mortgage crisis, begun when greed overcame ethics and was then magnified by the failure of regulatory agencies and the Congress to provide adequate oversight, robbed all of America of its financial security. During the first half of this year alone, banks and lending agencies have sent notices to more than 1.2 million homeowners whose loans and mortgages are in default status, according to RealtyTrak. Of course, less regulation is just what conservatives want--after all, their mantra has become, "no government in our lives."

 “The protestors are mad that the wealthiest corporations pay little or no taxes. They point to the Bank of America, part of the mortgage crisis problem, which earned a $4.4 billion profit last year, but received a $1.9 billion tax refund on top of a bailout of about $1 trillion. They look at ExxonMobil, which earned more than $19 billion profit in 2009, paid no taxes and received a $156 million federal rebate. Its profit for the first half of 2011 is about $ 21.3 billion.”

 “They rightfully note that it is slimy when General Electric, whose CEO is a close Obama advisor, earned a $26 billion profit during the past five years, but still received a $4.1 billion refund.”

 “They're mad that the federal government has given the oil industry more than $4 billion in subsidy, although the industry earned more than $1 trillion in profits the past decade.”

 “They're mad that Goldman Sachs, after receiving a $10 billion government bailout, and a $2.7 billion profit in the first quarter of 2011, shipped about 1,000 jobs overseas. During the past decade, corporations, which have paid little or no federal taxes, have outsourced at least 2.4 million jobs and are hoarding trillions which could be used to spur job growth and the economy.”

“They're mad that corporations that took federal bailout money gave seven-figure bonuses to their executives.”

 “They're mad that the U.S., of all industrialized countries, has the highest ratio of executive pay to that of the average worker. The U.S. average is about 300 to 475 times that of the average worker. In Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, and England, the average CEO earns between 10 and 20 times what the average worker earns, and no one in those countries believes the CEOs are underpaid.”

 “They're mad that 47 percent of all persons who earned at least $250,000 last year, including about 1,500 millionaires, paid no taxes, according to Newsmax. If you're a Republican member of Congress, that's perfectly acceptable. They're the ones who thought President Obama was launching class warfare against the rich by trying to restore the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. They succeeded in blocking tax reform and a jobs bill, but failed to understand the simple reality--if there is class warfare, it is being waged by the elite greedy and their Congressional lackeys.” 
Brasch concludes with a response to the charge that the protestors are not patriotic:
“Herman Cain, Fox TV pundit Sean Hannity, and others from the extreme right wing said the protestors are un-American, apparently for protesting corporate greed. The Occupy Wall Street protestors aren't un-American; those who defend the destruction of the middle class by defending greed, and unethical and illegal behavior, are.” 
I don’t know about you, but this makes a lot of sense to me. I am angry about all of the things Brasch attributes to the protestors. What do you think? Is it past time for you and me to stop talking and get onto the streets? Is this our “something else”? What else can we do?

- Milo Thornberry

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Legacies of Conscience and Courage

(Photo courtesy of Dennis Chen, Oct. 9, 2011)

Legacies of Conscience and Courage: 
Peng Ming-min, Wei T’ing-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min

Presentation to the Annual Meeting
Formosan Association for Public Affairs California-Orange Country 
Atrium Hotel, Irvine, CA October 8, 2011

[This the second half of a two-part presentation to this Annual Meeting. The first half was by my former wife, Judith Thomas, who told how we first met and became involved politically with Dr. Peng. The text for her remarks is not available. Before our presentation, Dr. Peng made a video appearance from Taiwan in which he expressed his gratitude for what Judith and I had done for him and the people of Taiwan in the late 60s. Yes, it was a humbling experience. The following is my part of the presentation.]

I do not have words to describe my gratitude for the honor you have bestowed on Judith and me this evening. The words that come closest to what my heart feels are those a friend of mine in Taiwan is attempting to reclaim as a unique part of Taiwanese culture, “Lo Lat”. Do you know those words? To you I say, “Jin Lo Lat,” (inadequately rendered in English as “I am deeply grateful for all your hard labors on my behalf!”) Would you say it together with the proper tones? “Jin Lo Lat!” Yes, that is what my heart feels for you tonight: for Nick Wu, Chan Wang-Wang, and all of the Working Group; the participating FAPA Chapters, and all of you who came tonight.

Why  Didn’t We Leave?

I have a friend, Ora Custer, ninety-five years of age and still counting. She’s almost blind; at her request I read Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan's White Terror to her. Her question, asked several times, is this: “When you knew what kind of a situation you were in there and the danger to you and your family, why didn’t you leave?” In some ways, the book is my answer to that question. My short answer is this: “When you have made close friends and you learn that their lives are in imminent danger, it is easier to do whatever you can to help them than it is to walk away.”

Remembering Matthew and Tony

You have heard from Judith about how our relationship with Dr. Peng developed and how when we learned that he was going to be assassinated we found a way to get him out of the country. There were two other close friends and colleagues: Wei T’ing-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min. We didn’t meet them right away because they were both still in prison when we met Dr. Peng in 1966. These two former students of Dr. Peng at the National University had been arrested with Dr. Peng in 1964 in an attempt to distribute their “Manifesto for Formosan Self-Salvation” calling into question the legitimacy of the Chiang government. Looking back, many say that this was the real beginning point of Taiwan’s struggle for democratization.

Although we couldn’t meet them in person for two years, they were a part of our lives and what we had begun to do with Dr. Peng. Thanks to their courage and creativity, they were able to send out from prison lists on very thin paper with names of political prisoners, their situation and information about their families. We were able to provide the lists to Amnesty International, assuming that even a little public visibility was some protection. Their notes from prison also let us know the desperate plight of the families of political prisoners, and got our aid to families project started.

Wei was released from prison first on September 20, 1968. He hadn’t been out a week when Dr. Peng brought him to our house. The stories about his refusal to be intimidated by the court or his guards were well-known. During his trial, he stood up and dared the judge to sentence him to death.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when he came in the door. Was he hardened and cynical from his experience?

Wei greeted Judith and me. Then, he saw our two and a half year old Elizabeth hiding behind a chair. Before we knew it, Wei was sitting on the floor talking with a delighted Elizabeth in both Mandarin and Taiwanese (and as far as I knew maybe a bit of his native Hakka too). Within weeks, Wei was tutoring me in preparing my history lectures at the seminary. We were also making plans for aiding families of political prisoners.

Hsieh got out of prison exactly a year later in 1969. Like Wei, he came to the house within a week of his release. Wei had already talked with him about the plan to aid families. He said he was ready to begin distribution of the funds immediately. I couldn’t believe it! Here he was, just out of prison and yet ready to assume the dangerous (and under martial law a capital offense) task of delivering money we smuggled into the country (money raised secretly by the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia) to families all over the island. He and Wei both laughed at the danger; and rightly pointed out that they were the only ones with the credibility and knowledge to get money to these families.

The distribution began within the next week. In order to avoid using their real names in talking together at home or anywhere else, we gave them English names as we had to Dr. Peng, who was and continues to be known to us as “Peter.” Wei we called “Matthew” and Hsieh we called “Tony.”

Working with them was consistent with what we had decided two years earlier when we determined to do what we could with Dr. Peng. Because Judith and I were foreigners we assumed that we could do things for which the worst that could happen was to get kicked out of the country, while Taiwanese doing the same things risked prison, torture, and even death. Because they took a great risk with working with greenhorns like us, we decided we would only work with Taiwanese who knew what the real costs were and had been in prison. There would be times in the coming days when we would have reason to wonder if our assumption about being “fireproof moths” and subject only to deportation was a false assumption, but we were right. We were also tragically right about what would happen to Taiwanese associated with us.

Dr. Peng escaped in January of 1970. Until the fact of Judith’s and my role in the escape was announced in the mid-1990s (how we did it wasn’t announced until 2003), neither the KMT nor the U.S. State Department, nor even Beijing’s vast security network, ever knew we were involved. And they all wanted to know. Neither Wei (Matthew) nor Hsieh (Tony) knew about the escape. We decided that even though they would be prime suspects, we could not add to their vulnerability by their actual involvement. It was not a matter that we didn’t trust them; it was a recognition that we were such rank amateurs at such things that we didn’t want to put them more at risk than they already were.

A year later on February 23, 1971, a week before Judith and I were arrested, Matthew and Tony were arrested. We had been right about what would happen to Taiwanese associated with us. It was over thirteen months after their arrest that they were tried secretly and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, terms later commuted by half. Both were tortured horribly. We know details of the interrogation and torture because Tony was able to smuggle out a letter that got to Judith and I in the U.S. On April 24, 1972 we were able to get the letter published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

After their release from prison the second time, Hsieh went into exile and lived here in southern California for a while. Wei was rearrested for his involvement with the Formosa Magazine in the Kaohsiung Incident on December 10th, 1979 and was sentenced to another eight years. With the end of martial law in 1987, Hsieh and Wei continued to provide great service to the people of Taiwan. Although forever scarred by his torture, as a Congressman and advisor to the President, Hsieh has worked tirelessly both to document the casualties of “White Terror” and work for reparations to political prisoners. Wei did likewise; in 1997 he published the Taiwan Human Rights Report 1949-1996. After spending most of his adult life as a political prisoner, on December 28, 1999 on his morning jog, Wei’s great heart stopped beating.

Peter, Tony, and Matthew and the Genovese Syndrome

Peng Ming-min, Hsieh Tsung-min, Wei T’ing-chao, although not ostensibly religious, demonstrated to me with their lives the justice and mercy I associate with the highest Christian ideals. They were living examples of the core Christian teaching I had learned as a child as expressed in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. 
On March 27, 1964, I was in Boston preparing to go to Taiwan. In the Boston Globe I read the story of the murder of Katherine (Kitty) Genovese in Queens, New York two weeks earlier. Why a murder story in New York would make the papers in Boston was that this woman had been stabbed repeatedly for thirty minutes as she screamed for help in front of her house. Her cries had been heard by many of her neighbors, but only after the killer left in his car and returned ten minutes later to finish the job did one person call the police. It became a national story of shame for those who heard and did nothing.

The “bystander effect” or the “Genovese syndrome” became the name for the social psychological phenomenon in which individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present.

New to the urban northeast, it was easy for me to blame the neighbors in Queens; but my own conscience warned, “they” could be “me.” I was haunted by the picture of Kitty Genovese’s face. I wondered if I was the “they” by leaving the U.S. in the midst of the struggle for civil rights and the beginning of the anti-war movement. I didn’t change course, and I went on to Taiwan. In the reality I encountered there, I couldn’t understand how so many missionaries, American students, U.S. military, and embassy personnel who heard the cries of the Taiwanese people could rationalize their inaction in ways not dissimilar from the neighbors of Kitty Genovese.

Judith and I were told, “You are guests in another country,” as the reason for not getting involved in the political affairs of a country not your own. The principle has some merit in international relations, but it is a principle that serves the status quo. As desirable as that may be in the world of nations, the principle may also be an immoral rationalization.  In Taiwan, a brutal and corrupt government was enabled to stay in power due in no small measure to the support it received from the United States. I love my country and I loved the work the church sent me to Taiwan to do, but my conscience didn’t allow the luxury of being politically uninvolved. By doing nothing, Judith and I believed we were putting our stamp of approval on what the U.S. government was doing there. As an act of faith, we chose otherwise.

I doubt that Peng, Wei, or Hsieh had heard of Kitty Genovese, but they would understand the tragedy of the neighbors’ inaction. They would also understand the story from several weeks ago when a group of bystanders in Utah risked their lives to lift a burning car off of a man trapped underneath saving his life. Dr. Peng, Wei, and Hsieh have spent their lives trying to help others at great personal risk. Their legacy will live on and continue to bear fruit because I believe such conscience and courage is never lost. Such a legacy has never been needed more now in Taiwan, the United States, and the rest of the world.

-  Milo Thornberry