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Enhancing Life Through Nation-Building: A Q&A with Dr. Stephen Lakkis

June 21, 2016 • By Stephen Lakkis Enhancing Life Through Nation-Building: A Q&A with Dr. Stephen Lakkis

Since 1987, when Taiwan emerged from nearly four decades under martial law, the island’s leaders have looked for resources to drive its political, social, and economic redevelopment in a rapidly changing world. Stephen Lakkis, Director of the Center for Public Theology Taiwan and Adjunct Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary, is exploring the ways that Christianity can contribute to Taiwan’s nation-building while still preserving its social context and unique cultural heritage. In his research for The Enhancing Life Project, he will develop theological resources that can be used in four concrete test cases, to demonstrate how Christian theology can enhance social, political, and individual life in Taiwan.

Read a blog post by Stephen Lakkis about corruption and the Panama Papers here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

My interest has always been in the practical areas of political and public theology. I want to know how theological ideas can impact society and our lives outside the church, not just inside the church. When I first came to Taiwan, I worked with the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, exploring the way the church in Taiwan influenced the development of human rights and democratization. So the questions of democratization and human rights have been on my mind for a while.

Taiwan is facing some unique challenges: at the end of the nineteenth century it became a Japanese colony, and remained that way until the end of World War II when it was given to the Chinese. At the time, the Chinese Nationalists, who were losing a war to the Communist forces in China, then retreated to Taiwan. After their arrival, they began a violent period of social and political change and many of the political and social leaders in Taiwan were executed or disappeared. A process of Mandarinization was also imposed, so that the country wasn’t allowed to hold onto its own language and cultural identity. When the period of martial law finally ended in 1987, a slow process of democratization started that accelerated towards the turn of the millennium. Taiwan today is a modern country in the sense that it’s very high-tech and very highly developed, but its rights history really isn’t very long.

In what way can the church contribute productively to the discourse on democratic human rights?

There has been a constant church presence in Taiwan since the 1860s and 1870s, when missionaries began to arrive. Only about four percent of the population is Christian today, but the church has been active in society since the nineteenth century, and especially during the twentieth century’s martial law period. During that time, the church found itself in the position of defending Taiwanese identity. It was working against the Nationalists and for democratization, trying to uphold human rights. So it’s sort of natural that we’d continue to look for Christian theological resources as Taiwan continues to develop.

For example, it’s important we think about enhancing life from a social dimension. When we think about enhancing life, our first reaction is often a selfish one: how can I make my life better? But we need to remember that we are individuals embedded in societies, cultures, and networks. That’s why there’s a theoretical part of the project, to examine what it means to be a human being in society. You could call this a social theological anthropology. Then I want to apply those insights from the theological anthropology to real concrete topics that are important at the moment in Taiwan. The four topics I’ve chosen are the environment, corruption, human rights, and genetic research.

What’s the most surprising or interesting challenge you’ve encountered so far in your Enhancing Life Project research?

Honestly I wasn’t expecting so much interest in the topics we chose, but in particular there’s been a lot of interest in corruption. This is a huge issue in Taiwan, political corruption especially. Corruption is part of the cultural atmosphere here. It’s common in business culture and political culture and even the legal environment. It’s always something that’s talked about, but never something that’s engaged with in a rigorous way. But it’s really grown as a topic in the public sphere in the last few months, and that’s been a pleasant surprise.

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

One of the best examples is ecology. There’s been a lot of work on theological ecologies. It’s about understanding the world as divine creation, something that needs to be cared for for its own sake, not just its utilitarian value. We are working on these concepts and finding ways that we can bring them into a social discussion in practical and perhaps not overtly theological ways. One helpful approach is to talk about the concept of home. If we abuse the environment and use it up in a utilitarian way, where are we going to live afterwards? The concept of an endangered homeland is one that many Taiwanese can really relate to. Finding bridging points is always the challenge—staying true to theological conceptions while bringing them to the public discourse—but that’s the goal.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

My family and I like to travel to the Middle East, especially to Lebanon and the surrounding areas. The ancient history and the archeological sites are really great. Our kids can walk around ruins and discover things for themselves. It’s a real adventure.