Review: Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror

The title of Milo Thornberry’s book, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror, comes from the remark of US State Department official, made shortly after the family was deported from Taiwan in 1971: “There is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries… with both ardent views on Taiwanese Independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths.” (1) However, there actually was a shortage, as Thornberry writes, “In the reality I encountered in Taiwan, I couldn’t understand how many missionaries, American students, U.S. military, and embassy personnel who heard the cries of the Taiwanese people could rationalize their inaction.” (197)

Milo and Judith Thornberry arrived in Taiwan in early 1966. Soon after their arrival, they were warned by a senior Methodist missionary that: “We don’t talk about such things. We are guests in this country, and guests don’t offend their hosts by getting involved in politics.” (48) Thornberry notes that, “Given the close ties between the Methodist Church in Taiwan, the Chiang family, and the Nationalist government, the Methodist mission was especially sensitive about indiscrete speech or actions.” (49) Yet, having read extensively about Taiwan and its political situation before they arrived in Taiwan, Milo and Judith were intent on connecting with local Taiwanese and doing what they could to relieve their suffering under the terrifying political and social repression of the KMT.

A few months after their arrival in Taiwan, Don Wilson, Associate General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, introduced Milo and Judith to Dr. Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), a political dissident under house arrest at the time after having been imprisoned for advocating overthrowing the Chiang regime. Drawn into his political network of resistance, the Thornberrys found their opportunity to help the Taiwanese. They set up a means of smuggling letters and money into the country to subvert censorship and government oversight. They distributed these funds to the impoverished families of political prisoners, who, tainted by their association to their imprisoned loved one, could not find legal work or aid. They wrote articles in English that tried to make the situation in Taiwan clear and distributed them to foreigners who could take word of it back to their home nations. Yet most of these people didn’t understand the importance of what the Thornberrys were trying to communicate, or didn’t see reason to care.

“Aren’t you dangerously close to committing hubris?” asked a blonde graduate student in Chinese studies… “The idea that you can actually change people’s minds with these articles…” her voice trailed off without finishing the sentence, presumably leaving us to see the futility of such an enterprise. (85)

“The young woman’s statement,” Peter [their code name for Peng] assured us afterward, “was her rationalization for not getting involved. I think you will find that for many ‘scholars,’ our history and culture are simply objects to study and mean getting a degree and a career in the field. They see themselves as ‘objective observers’ with no moral or political responsibility for what they learn.” (86)

Those who did care were brought in to some of the Thornberrys’ work, but they were careful never to tell anyone too much, so as to protect their local contacts and prevent the KMT from learning too much should any one person be arrested and interrogated.

In the summer of 1968, Peng, still under house arrest, shared with them that an official from the Investigative Bureau made a veiled threat on his life. “You know, you could have an accident at any time and be killed.” (103) The Thornberrys decided, from then on, that they would work on a plan to get Peng out of Taiwan and given political asylum somewhere safe. After over a year of careful, dangerous work, Peng escaped on January 3, 1970 and made it to Sweden.

Thornberry writes, “On Sunday, January 11, I went south for one of my regular visits to Tainan. I was able to celebrate Peter’s escape with Rowland and others there. They didn’t know any details of the escape. And we didn’t say.” (126)

This part of the story struck me by surprise, because suddenly I was connected into that moment. Sometime in the late 90s, after Rowland and Judy Van Es were able to return to Taiwan and resume working at Tainan Seminary (sometime in the 1970s, they were blacklisted by the KMT and prevented from returning after they took a furlough in the US), I remember hearing Rowland talk about that moment. In his story, he told my parents and I how he was friends with a missionary who taught in the seminary up in Taipei and who had been a friend of Peng. One day, out of the blue, he said, this friend whispered to him “Peng is gone.” Rowland didn’t know how it had happened – I remember at the time that we were speculating about it being an escape by sea – but the knowledge of that simple fact itself was incredibly exciting. Try as it might, the KMT could not prevent its most feared dissident from escaping and claiming political asylum.

But Peng didn’t leave by sea, as I finally learned in this book. Milo and Judith orchestrated an incredible escape, calling for international help using their secretly smuggled post and cash, and forging a Japanese passport for Peng to leave by plane. Everything came down to their abiding conviction that “objective” distance from the suffering of Taiwanese under KMT dictatorship and martial law was not only impossible, it was also counter to what they believed about being responsible Christians.

Throughout this book, Thornberry wrestles with his identity as a Christian and the social responsibility that his faith calls him to assume. There are no easy answers to the conundrums he posed to himself then and to the reader now.

“However much one may recoil at the notion of religion-inspired violence serving just ends, are we not compelled to admit that the acquiescence of religious people to state sponsored violence, whether in the case of the Vietnam War or the U.S. invasion if Iraq, constitute de facto legitimizations of its use? (136)

and

“My stance for what I was prepared to do in Taiwan was dependent on what I believed Jesus’ attitude toward violence was. …I came to suspect that he came to confront the authorities not sure what would happen, knowing only that he was doing the right thing as he understood it and that in all likelihood it would cost him his life.” (144-145)

Although they were allowed back into Taiwan after a short furlough in the US in 1970, in March 1971, the Thornberrys were implicated, unbeknownst to them, in a plot to smuggle bomb making materials in from Japan. They were interrogated and deported shortly thereafter. “Rowland Van Es, who had gotten word in Tainan and come by train to witness our departure, followed our motorcade down the mountain. Soldiers, he said, were posted every ten or twenty yards along the five miles to Songshan Airport.” (167) They would not return to Taiwan until 2003, when they were honored by the government, then controlled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for their aid to Taiwan during its dark years of martial law.

Fireproof Moth is more than just a chronological detailing of the anti-KMT efforts the Thornberrys were involved in during their short time in Taiwan. It’s also a thoughtful, careful consideration of the importance of social justice in religious faith, and a personal narrative of religious growth from a childhood spent in churches where faith meant certainty, to an adulthood of struggling with the difficult, unanswerable questions that faith asks us to consider in our daily choices.

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