Sunday, September 23, 2012

Organized religion and the attack on individuality

People pray at a temple in Taipei
Like politics, organized religion is a means of control, and like its cousin, it crushes the individual in its path

Not once during the three-hour funeral did the voice of the master of ceremonies depart from the meticulously calibrated tone, soothingly providing comfort to the grieving while announcing the delegations of people who had come to pay their respects. But every now and then he’d say something that hit us like a stun gun, not because he’d deviated from his droning — he never did — but because of what was said.

We’re in Taoyuan on Friday morning attending the funeral of a young Taiwanese woman who decided to end her life last month. Her father, who spent about five years in jail following the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979, a protest by pro-democracy activists, is a former legislator for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who now faces 10 years imprisonment on corruption charges.

The young woman, a beautiful and wonderfully talented artist who had gone to school in New York, also studied law so that she could help with her father’ defense, and turned to well-known international lawyers for assistance, to no avail. Much of her art reflected the deeply held political views of her family, which emphasize a Taiwanese identity separate from China. Some of her creations had been used, or were to be used, by the FAPA-YPG, a group of US-based young Taiwanese who support Taiwan’s right to determine its own future. The beautiful booklet, DVD and postcards handed to those who attended the service — much of it her own artistic work — also had an undeniably pro-Taiwan slant.

And yet, the mc repeatedly referred  to 我們中國人, or “us Chinese,” which stopped us in our tracks the first time we heard the mention. How could the man not have been aware of the political views of the grieving family and those of the woman whose life and death we had gathered to remember? How insensitive would the man have had to be to not realize that the father, a well-known DPP politician with a reputation for singing and wearing costumes, had served five years of his life behind bars because he and others had stood up to the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the White Terror of the martial law era? How could he not take her work, her life, into consideration, knowing fully well that in life she fought for, and took pride in, her Taiwanese identity, and would always refer to herself as 台灣人, or “Taiwanese”?

To me, the affront again confirmed that organized religion has little patience for individuality and limits itself to general platitudes. I’ve seen this occur time and again at weddings and funerals, regardless of the denomination or belief system. That’s why priests or monks will movingly talk of “loving husbands” when describing a deceased man who spent his entire married life inflicting physical and emotional pain on his wife and members of his family. I don’t think the mc meant any slight or sought to impose his political views on the family; in fact, I’m pretty sure he was simply following the script. Had we assembled to mourn a Martian, he’d likely still have referred to the little green man as a 中國人.

By focusing on the masses, organized religion (and the same could be said of another system of control, politics) fails to bring itself down to the level of those whom it claims to represent. How simple, though, it would have been for the temple to change the wording ever so slightly so that it actually meant something for the family and reflected their desires, wishes, and beliefs during that one last moment. There’s no reason why priests and monks and rabbis and other men and women of the cloth shouldn’t have to do their homework about the people on whose behalf they purportedly serve as celestial intermediaries. But then again, since when were religious figures servants of mankind? (This op-ed appeared in a slightly altered version in the Taipei Times on Sept. 25.)


David on Formosa said...

I think your criticism of organised religion is a little unfair. The problem you are writing about here is more to do with the funeral business. In Taiwan this has become highly commercialised and while it may wear the cloak of religion it is essentially profit driven.

You will find some people who are critical of this aspect of life in Taiwan. However, most people who have just experienced the loss of a family member just want the funeral ceremony to go smoothly and without hassles. They don't have the time or energy to engage in debate or critique about how the event is organised.

Torch Pratt said...

OUCH! OUCH! OWWWW!!! Holy mackerel, you're on fire! Torch

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

@David: Thanks for the comment. I disagree, and there is ample evidence to show that this applies to other aspects of organized religion. I could give you ample examples of how the Church treated my mother, who is homosexual, and her wife. Or how I've repeatedly heard a priest "educate" the bride on her "responsibilities" as a baby-manufacture. Or the Church's opposition to contraception. Again and again and again, the individual suffers and the idiosyncrasies of his or her life are ignored by men and women of the cloth.

Lastly, as I was there, I can tell you for a fact that the "we Chinese" was not welcome by family and friends, especially after a young friend of the departed tearfully got on his knees and launched a diatribe on how his parents and Taiwanese had suffered at the hands of the KMT and the Chinese. No sooner had his voiced bounced off the walls than the MC once again referred to "we Chinese."

Anonymous said...

@Michael, I absolutely agree and I'd like to add a German perspective. In Germany if you are a Christian you have to be a documented "member" of either the catholic or the protestant church. The state then collects a so called "church tax". When my father died, the protestant priest at the funeral made some disapproving remarks about the decision my father had made. My father had left the church as a "member" but nevertheless had donated very generous amounts to two protestant communities directly (very uncommon in Germany). I was really annoyed, that the priest needed to point that out at the funeral.

Mike Fagan said...

The obvious question viz David's charge of commercialization:

Is there or is there not market competition in the funeral business?

The importance of the question is that, under competition, the profit motive would actually incentivize the priest to behave in the opposite fashion. This is not to be confused with guaranteeing that outcome.

Anonymous said...

Yeah--who hired this guy? And who gets to be a funeral priest? Can I be one?

Under the circumstances, I think the best way to honor the spirit of the deceased would have been to punch this guy in the nuts.