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