For centuries, Christian missionaries have identified with Taiwan and dedicated their lives to this land. They became closely involved with the people and although there were not many of them, the influence of their actions on Taiwanese society has been far-reaching, even extending to our dietary habits.
At the start of the 20th century, my grandfather worked in a kitchen for Christian missionaries, where he saw them drink a glass of fruit juice before breakfast every morning. This confused him at first, but after a while he picked up the habit, making him possibly the first Taiwanese to do so. When my mother was a young girl, she lived at an elementary school run by female missionaries. When the girls living there first tried tomatoes, they thought they smelt and tasted strange, but later on they took a liking to them, making them the probably the first group of young Taiwanese females to develop a taste for tomatoes.
There are many great stories about missionaries in Taiwan that are both moving and admirable. Some took great risks to help Taiwan democratize, but their contributions have been largely forgotten.
During the White Terror era, the families of political prisoners felt a sense of shame and inferiority, and many of the political prisoners were rejected and kept at arms length by friends and relatives. They were humiliated and isolated without any help and had a hard time surviving.
This was a miserable state of affairs that nobody wanted to acknowledge and it was only a handful of missionaries that expressed true sympathy and compassion for their plight. Those missionaries raised money from around the world and privately helped the political prisoners. My mother participated in this work at a time when such behavior was a serious crime with terrible consequences if discovered.
Missionaries also faced other problems. First, their own governments were generally opposed to their citizens getting involved in other countries’ politics, especially on the side of dissidents or political prisoners. Second, the church headquarters in the missionaries’ home countries tended to side with the stance of their government. Finally, there has always been debate within Christianity about how to deal with violence. Pacifists believe violence should not be used in any circumstance, while others believe that violence is sometimes justified.
Taiwanese dissidents viewed the Martial Law era as an organized and systematic form of violence and when the missionaries saw how dissidents were arrested, tortured, interrogated and put to death, many of them agreed that violence was necessary to combat the government.
While helping the dissidents, missionaries essentially gave tacit permission for the use violence. In doing so, they not only went against the policies of their home countries, they also went against their respective church headquarters and make a very tough theological decision. There is no doubt that they came to this decision only after thorough deliberation.
Even more moving is the fact that these missionaries were subjected to unreasonable condemnation from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the governments of their own countries, as well as unfair treatment. However, they never complained.
After Taiwan’s democratization, they remained humble about their contributions. Some of these individuals have passed away, while others are unwilling to discuss their role. Others believe that Asians are more concerned with spiritual matters, while Westerners are more interested in material life. However, the way I see it, Westerners have a much higher level of spiritual cultivation than many Asians.
Peng Ming-min is a former senior political adviser to the president.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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