Cave where Taroko church began worship in secret early 20th century
Yesterday we had lectures from Rev. Pusin Tali, president of Yu Shan Theological school, and Prof. Walis Ukan on the quest for autonomy for indigenous people (Yuen Chu-Min, or “the indigenous, YCM) of Taiwan and indigenous theology. What is remarkable to me coming from the Hawaiian context is the difference between the histories of the church in Taiwan and in Hawai’i.
We are so familiar with the story of the church arriving as a tool of colonialism with an ideal culture that reflects Western values that erases the practices of of the host culture. Yet in Taiwan, though the Dutch arrived trying to do that in the 1600s, by the time the Japanese came in 1896, there was very little Christianity. Most of the conversion of the indigenous people happened in the early 20th century beginning with a Taroko woman named Chi-Wan who converted and began worshipping with other converts in a cave hiding from the Japanese who believed Christianity to be a tool of American colonialism. The resultant dominant Christian church in Taiwan is Presbyterian and is concerned with the lives and self-determination of the indigenous people. The church, though it did not always, now encourages traditional tribal spiritual practices and believes in interpreting Biblical story through the lens of tribal teachings even as they are open to the lessons of scripture. The ministers of the tribal churches come from the tribes they serve and are trained at the social justice-oriented and indigenous-run Yu-Shan Theological school.
Priorities of the indigenous church include reclaiming indigenous land lost in the 1960-70s land reform where an estimated 2,900,000 metric acres was taken from the tribes who did not understand the instructions given in Chinese for claiming land. (The land distribution was meant to distribute land from the hands of the few wealthy barons to farmers, but the indigenous people also clearly lost out.) Other indigenous church priorities including reclaiming their names from the Kuo Min Tang, the nationalist party from China, policy that all aboriginees must use Chinese names, establishing self-governance, and continuing to re-establish official tribal status.
When the Dutch came in the 1600s, there were an estimated 53 tribes in Taiwan. During Japanese rule 1896-1945 there were 28. Under Kuo Min Tang 1945-2000 the tribes dropped to 9 under their policies of tribal extermination. The Democratic People’s Party, whose female phD 1/4 aboriginee presidential candidate we are all rooting for in tomorrow’s election, helped restore 5 tribes to official status 2000-2005 to raise the number of recognized tribes to 14.
Obviously there are problems with colonialism in Taiwan. It’s just that here, Christianity did not necessarily come accompanying it. The models for tribal economic development largely revolve around ecotourism and building on their teachings of land-based spirituality and stewardship. Obviously tourism itself can have negative consequences and build an economy too dependent on the outside world, as we know from Hawai’i.
But all of this makes me wonder, what if Henry Opukaha’ia, the Hawaiian convert who believed his people needed to learn about Jesus, had lived to bear the gospel to the Hawaiian people, as opposed to Hiram Bingham and the lot of the white American missionaries from the American Board of Common Foreign Missions who came instead? Or is the problem when religion and economic gain get too intertwined, and the only reason it’s not in Taiwan is because the colonial powers are not Christian? The answers are not simple. Theological interpretation from Rev. Walis includes combining interpretation of the Exodus story both as the Canaanites who lost their lands and the Israelites who wander in search of the land that is their ancestors’. I continue to lean into them as we hear more lectures this morning and then travel to another tribe tomorrow to stay at their ecotourism project.