When Politics Hijack Religion, or Religion Hijacks Politics

Last month’s visit by Taiwan Affairs Office chief Zhang Zhijun was a very political affair. Less noticed was the fact that the entire exercise was filled with religious symbolism

“Pul, king of Assyria, invaded [Israel], and Menahem, king of Israel, gave him a thousand talents of silver to have his assistance in strengthening his [Menahem’s] hold on the kingdom … During the reign of Pekah, king of Israel, Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, came and took Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, all the territory of Naphtali, Gilead, and Galilee, deporting the inhabitants to Assyria.” — 2 Kings 15:19-20, 29

“Ahaz, king of Judah, sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, with the plea: ‘I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the clutches of the king of Aram and the king of Israel, who are attacking me.’ Ahaz took the silver and gold that were in the temple of the LORD and in the palace treasuries and sent them as a present to the king of Assyria, who listened to him and moved against Damascus, which he captured … King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria. When he saw the altar in Damascus, King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar and a detailed design of its construction … On his arrival from Damascus, King Ahaz inspected this new altar, then went up to it and offered sacrifice on it, burning his holocaust and cereal-offering, pouring out his libation, and sprinkling the blood of his peace-offerings on the altar. — 2 Kings 16:7-13

Religious symbolism abounded during the visit of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office chief Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) to Taiwan last month. Indeed, the behavior of the holy men who made up his public welcoming committee revealed a great deal about their values and legitimacy.

The most-covered news was the bloodshed outside the Lukang Mazu temple — not during a ritual sacrifice, mind you, but from the head of a protester, the son of an opposition party city councilman who was beaten by gangsters. Organizers were trying to make all the tourists leave the streets and nearby restaurants so that Zhang and his entourage would have the whole place to themselves. When people didn’t leave (did they not have as much right to be there as Zhang?) the gangsters set off firecrackers in the streets as smoke bombs — in the presence of the police — to make more of the hoi polloi uncomfortable enough to go. The ill-fated protester was among those who still refused to do so. In return for his obstinacy, his cranium was crowned with blows from a metal bar.

The gangsters acted as an unofficial welcoming committee and security detail throughout Zhang’s trip. The violence, referred to obliquely by major English-language sources reporting on the event, was caused by underworld figures attacking protesters, not the protesters themselves (as the Economist would lead one to believe).

That Zhang visited this particular temple was no surprise to those who know its full history. In its rear is a small portrait of Shih Lang (施琅), the general who invaded and annexed Taiwan to the Qing Empire in 1683. Mazu, the chief goddess there, has been turned into a “goddess of annexation,” with bigwigs on both sides of the Taiwan Strait strongly encouraging exchanges between Mazu temples as psychological preparation for unification. Zhang was expected to deliver a gift from a Chinese Mazu temple to the Taiwanese one before the fighting killed the mood.The annual Mazu pilgrimage, one of the biggest religious events in the world, is now run by pro-China gangsters, the ringleader of whom was a legislator before he was jailed and promptly replaced by his son (his district is well-gerrymandered).

Some protesters retaliated in kind, albeit non-violently, shortly thereafter, when they splashed white paint and ghost money at the vehicle in which Zhang was being driven. His handlers were not spared. White is the color of death, and ghost money is paper money that is incinerated so it can convert into spending money for the departed in the afterlife. Basically, what the protesters did was to curse Zhang. The envoy was upset enough to cancel some of his public-relations events on the last day of his sojourn to avoid more altercations.

More tranquil but equally remarkable was Zhang’s visit to Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center, headed by the Budai (“Laughing Buddha”) lookalike Master Hsing Yun (星雲法師), a high-profile monk who has described China-Taiwan interaction in the following “stimulating” fashion: “You come, I come, you come, I come, and soon we don’t know who is who. It’s like a relationship between a man and a woman. I love you, you love me, I love you, you love me, and eventually we’re not sure who is you, and who is me.” Thus, the master has aired his romantic vision of what Taiwan under Chinese rule would be like — and to hell with the impact of unification on human rights.Monks typically forswear politics, but Master Hsing Yun is openly pro-unification and warmly welcomed Zhang.

The hottest preaching about this spectacle came from opposition legislator Duan Yi-kang (段宜康), who wrote the following response to remarks by Charles Kao (高希均), a public intellectual, during Zhang’s visit to the monastery. In short, Kao said he hoped that China and Taiwan could sign a peace treaty at Fo Guang Shan within the next 650 days.

Duan: “Charles Kao’s comments to the effect that he is looking forward to a cross-strait peace treaty are fine. But what he said was wrong. What is wrong is that he suggested signing a peace treaty at Fo Guang Shan ‘with the Buddha as our witness!’

“Dr. Kao, Fo Guang Shan may have it all, but it doesn’t have the Buddha! What is Fo Guang Shan? Fo Guang Shan is Taiwan’s Disneyland! It has everything Disneyland does: hotels, shuttles with fees, food courts, 7-Elevens, Starbucks, cartoon characters parading, even 3D and 4D theaters! Chocolate, burgers, and pasta can all be had there (vegetarian, obviously)! All that’s missing are a rollercoaster and a drop tower (Note: the Taiwanese term for ‘drop tower’ is literally ‘wrathful god’).”

“Can you imagine two countries signing a treaty at the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland? No. The condition for a cross-strait peace treaty is the consent of the Taiwanese people. The Buddha is neutral. And the Buddha isn’t at Fo Guang Shan; he’s in the western paradise. If you want to pull Buddha over, you have to go to Paradise to find him!”

Duan’s words echoed Jesus Christ’s rebuke of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple of Jerusalem: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of thieves!”

Perhaps Kao had confused the true spirit of Buddha with the humongous (120 meters tall) golden statue of him that is the centerpiece of Fo Guang Shan, or one of the thousands of other golden Buddhas around the facility.

The fascination with impressive statues is also part of the state-backed Mazu cult. When China shipped an emerald Mazu statue to Taichung, the city’s leaders came to greet it. Now Taichung is spending US$40 million in public funds for a Mazu cultural park, half the money going to a 70m tall Matsu statue that would face … China.

The Giant Golden Buddha and the new colossal Mazusare psychological keys to understanding how Taiwanese politicians, religious leaders, and gangsters have come together to push Taiwan toward annexation with China.

How we see and honor divinity reveals what we value. Think of the statements by some Davidson residents that the statue of Jesus as a homeless person installed outside a church there disrespected the Son of Man … who had said himself that he had no place to rest his head.

The size and opulence of the Buddha, who explicitly rejected such luxury in his own lifetime, is a realization of what these acolytes truly love and respect. When China was poor, owning Taiwan was enough, but now China is vast, wealthy, and strong, and Taiwan seems small. It is not only that these leaders can profit from China; it is that they have always worshipped power, and now the Chinese leadership is also its bishopry. That is therefore the direction in which they pray and appeal for succor, just as Menahem and Ahaz did toward Assyria.

We have seen Fo Guang Shan’s folly before, in the form of a Giant Golden Nebuchadnezzar. It would therefore be tempting to ask for an intervention, perhaps like the humiliation of the prophets of Baal or the Pharaoh. But what is needed most seems to be not a grand display of even greater power, but rather — to use similarly religious terms — the turning of people’s hearts away from power-worship and back toward the Buddha under the bodhi tree, Confucius the vagabond critic of power, the small household altars, or Jesus Christ, who told a follower to give half of what we had to the poor … to turn hearts back to the charity and otherworldliness that keeps churches alive after the kingdoms that appropriate them fall. Pray for Taiwan.

Anonymous is a Catholic translator living in Taiwan.

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