|People pray at a temple in Taipei|
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.)