Living in Interesting Times: Church and Politics in Taiwan

This is a turbulent period in Taiwanese political life. A few weeks ago I attended a prayer breakfast where Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen spoke. In the interim there have been large protests over multi-party proposals to allow for marriage equality in Taiwan. And then Trump took Tsai’s phone call. Suddenly many voices are trying to puzzle out the implications of this first open discussion between Taiwan’s president and the US president elect since the late 1970s.

On gay marriage, initially I was not clued into the debate, but I started seeing posts by students and alumni on facebook. I began reading about recent legislative discussions about marriage equality, which seems to have the votes to pass. A couple of weeks ago we had a teachers meeting where everyone looked depressed and there was a lot nervous chatter. My seminary is host to some of the loudest pro- and anti-GLBTQ voices in Taiwanese church life. This time around, our former dean Cheng Yang-en and a retired Tainan Seminary professor, Chen Nan-chou, have both signed on to pro-marriage equality work. A teacher of ours, Tseng Tsong-sheng, was rejected by a church in the south as a guest preacher because of pro-GLBTQ views. One of the most widely shared pro-GLBTQ posts was by a graduate of our seminary, Chen Si-hao. Joseph Chang, one of just two openly gay pastors I know of, is also a graduate of our seminary and pastors a GLBTQ-friendly charismatic church downtown. On the other hand, our principal is one of the main voices against the acceptance of GLBTQ rights in the church and large numbers of students were part of protests against the marriage equality legislation.I’m also on a committee with a Presbyterian elder who works in human rights law but in this case is against marriage equality, and has taken a lock of flack from other civil rights activists. PCT formally issued a letter against marriage equality in the recent past, but it’s still a debated topic and some in the leadership favor marriage equality and GLBTQ ordination. In general debate is civil, but one of the things that fascinates me (and this was true of the Sunflower Movement language) is how much language gets borrowed from abroad. This time I’ve seen posts about an Australian young adult with two moms who feels she should have known her father, and this is a story that’s been shared in Chinese, and there are also discussions comparing GLBTQ laws to pedophilia or attributing Taiwan’s AIDS population to GLBTQ issues. A lot of this reminds me of US discussions from the late 1990s.

It’s an interesting time in which to live. As the resident American I keep a pretty low profile and don’t presume I’ll convince anyone of my views. At the same time, I do think there’s a strong cultural component, and it always amazes me how Christians get so tracked on this one issue but mostly ignore other major changes in the family (delayed marriage, higher rates of nonmarriage, use of birth control, gender imbalance in births, low birth rate, rising divorce rate, etc.). When I first came to Taiwan in 2005 I knew an elder in his late 70s whose father had had multiple wives in Taiwan and China and he had dozens of half-siblings. If I had lived through eighty years in Taiwan I would probably have some form of social whiplash. Still, Christians here are really tracked on GLBTQ issues (even abortion is not really an issue here, although it’s likely much more common than in the US).

More recently, President Tsai called Trump and he took the call. It’s still unclear if this is about his business interests, because of activism by Heritage foundation, represents a serious policy change, or just shows lack of awareness. For Taiwanese, it’s probably good, unless it leads to major conflict down the road or a big fight with China (which can still exert a lot of control over Taiwanese business and travel).

I’m not an expert on any of this, but as I round out 2016 it’s been just a fascinating year to be in Taiwan.

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