IN MEMORY OF HIS MAJESTY KING BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ
In undertaking this essay I am confronted with several problems. I feel impelled as an observer of local Thai culture to comment on the momentous passing of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of Thailand on Thursday evening, October 13, 2016. But how can I summarize 70 years of complex reign in 700 words? Should I even try? I have noticed that few of my Thai social media friends have dared to post anything and most who did, last Thursday between 4 and 8 p.m., quickly withdrew them. This is in marked contrast to previous royal events. I have decided to ignore warnings and tell you why our house enshrines appreciation for His Late Majesty.
I will write about my earliest personal reflections based on small incidents and what I have finally come to realize they meant.
In 1965 a student and I took my pea-green Honda 50 motorcycle up the challenging road to Doi Sutape Temple and on beyond to a concrete construction area where Phuping Palace was taking shape. The student’s uncle was one of the contractors. We saw an unfinished chalet, rose gardens, and then we left. The question of “Why here?” lingered. I had seen Chitlada Palace and the Grand Palace in Bangkok, both much bigger and more elaborate. Why this rather small additional one? – Phuping Palace, I believe was the first of others which signaled that the King and Queen were establishing national residence. They were not just tourists visiting every province by train, plane and van as the media this week have extensively reminded us. They were residents. They had an address up here in Chiang Mai, not just a government emissary or a representative in town. I count that as the most concrete signal the King sent that “I am your king, too.”
Not long afterward the King was presented a white elephant. Today the presentation grounds are a small sports field, parking lot and tall buildings of Maharaj Medical Center and the Chiang Mai University Faculty of Medicine. The little pavilion where the King and Queen waited is still there. The young elephant and a large procession came across the city from the railway station. There were Buddhist rites and Brahmin rites, an official naming ceremony, and a royal declaration of authenticity that this was a sacred, semi-divine being, an avatar and descendant of the gods. – The elephant was my first inkling that there are mysteries of a supernatural nature surrounding the King and his symbolic possessions. The King may be mortal, all too poignant a thought this week. He may be the scion of the social elite, and a central figure in the military-political power structure that runs the country. His prestige may ride on vast popular veneration and love from the people. But he is also the validating link between this land of plains, mountains, islands, cities and farms, and the inaccessible, eternal, cosmic, mysterious, mythic sphere of the divinities and all they represent between here and the Creator floating on the sea of milk when it all began.
Before many more weeks, Dick Mann and Rupert Nelson were leading the way to an ethnic Karen (Paw-ka-yaw) village. They were euphoric about their hill rice experiments, their few tentative coffee trees, and a gravity defying water system. I heard about Sundayevening meals when Marlene and the Queen made pizza in the just finished palace on the mountain and the “men” sat on stools and talked about agriculture. It was the servants’ night off so everyone could relax free of protocol. – To this day I believe some seeds of the King’s Royal Projects were planted there as the pizza baked. The initial effort of the Royal Projects was called “alternative crops”; they were meant to be viable alternatives to socially-destructive opium poppy growing and environmentally-destructive slash and burn hillside rice growing. By the King’s 60th anniversary on the throne in 2006 we all knew that the King had focused his whole reign on improvement of the prosperity of the agricultural population. Dependable water came first, then it got complicated, but His Majesty never, ever swerved from his interest in developing the self-sustainable welfare of his rural people. It was always about that. When we visited that Karen village the first time, the impression was they were migrants, temporary and unsure who they were. Just as importantly, others did not know who they were, either. Then the King dropped in for a visit, literally by helicopter. There was no road. He talked about agriculture. He asked what they needed to do it better. Five years later the change was amazing. Every house had a picture of the King. A couple had pictures of the King talking to residents of the house. There was a Thai flag in front of the school. There was a school! There was a road, and a pond. That village identified with the country because of the King. The governor no longer denied any knowledge of them. They belonged. Inclusion takes leadership.
My eyes mist over when I think what an accomplishment this was.
Reflections on Bishop John Shelby Spong’s 2016 book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy
It's a fast read. First, Spong writes simply, and second, Spong’s readers have a good idea what he's going to say even before we read it. He repeats himself from one book to the next and then from one chapter to the next. That makes it easier to keep up.
I think he "writes down" as if we need to be convinced rather than well along on the path to progressive understanding of scripture and faith. But I suppose an author needs to begin each new book with the assumption that readers are starting anew with him.
It's interesting reading. Spong's really startling revelation is already in his earlier book where he lays out the idea that the Gospels are composed to be a Jewish-Christian Midrash, read in conjunction with the Jewish scriptures during the Jewish liturgical year. This book is a repeat of that, based on a section by section argument that each bit of Matthew fills the bill.
I have one criticism which is basic but not necessarily a fatal flaw. His main purpose is divided, it seems to me. First, he is determined, once again, to hammer away at how destructive biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism is to the future of Christianity. Second, he believes that literalism is built into Christianity from the moment Christians began to separate themselves from Jews and lost track of the fact that the Gospels were written to be read along with the Torah and Prophets as part of weekly Sabbath services in an annual cycle. In that context of worship the Jewish Christians would have understood the use of metaphor and symbolism and would not have thought of the Christian readings as historical accounts of actual events, but as "portraits" of Jesus the Messiah fulfilling the Messianic roles of his predecessors, Elijah, Moses, David and the Suffering Servant talked about by Isaiah.
Now, Spong must say a hundred times that Gentiles cannot get this, so they revert to a literalistic mindset about the Jesus stories. On the other hand Spong has gotten this, and he's a Gentile. He has managed to figure out that maybe Jesus didn't actually say those very words and do those very deeds. So how has the Church survived so long? Well, Spong says, up to now we put up with this cognitive dissonance, knowing people can't walk on water but going along with the idea that Jesus could.
What I want Spong to tell me is, if the Jewish Christians could deeply resonate to the expanded news that Jesus had fulfilled the Messianic roles of Moses and the rest, and if this additional set of readings was what it took to make Jesus relevant to Jewish Christians, but Gentiles could not do it, what does Spong suggest? What is the solution? Christianity must change or die, Spong has harped for the past 20 years. The Bible is being misread and this is rendering Christianity irrelevant. But Spong, I think, is avoiding saying that "of course, we can't go back and become Jewish Christians with a deep heritage of Torah readings and the rhythm of the Jewish festivals.”
What Spong is trying to do is to deconstruct the picture of Jesus that Christians have fabricated. We have decided that Jesus did walk on water. Period. We have missed the implication that this was far more significant than Moses and Joshua parting the sea and the Jordan and crossing over. When Jesus walked on the sea in the Gospel of Matthew he was bridging the gulf between the Jewish and the Gentile world when he did that, he was uniting humanity because on one side he fed the Jews and on the other side it was the Gentiles. Unless we read the Gospels with Jewish eyes we miss that. And come to that, Moses and Joshua didn't literally cause the waters to part either, there was something symbolic being alluded to.
So, if you deconstruct the pictures and demythologize the stories, what do you require of your Christian people-movement? You need to deconstruct the whole enterprise, buildings, sacraments and all.
It's religious anarchy he's proposing.
A few months ago a family for whom Pramote used to work gave him two rubies from Burma, one larger than the other. They were nice looking and Pramote's brother mounted them in rings for the two of us. Pramote considered this a major present to me. He is rarely able to do something like this. We often wore them together as a form of wedding ring.
On September 10 mine was missing. We assumed it'd turn up. Things do usually turn up. Just a week earlier a house key had gone and couldn't be found, but it showed up in my pants pocket in the laundry after about a week. We had a birthday party that night for our nephew little Snack and a cake I'd bought in the city was a big hit. It looked like Nemo the fish. Perfect for the little kids and all the rest of us, too.
Next day we began a real search for the ring. Looked everywhere, especially all the pants pockets, in the truck I'd driven, in the old cake box and a great number of places it could not have been. It was gone. But it'd still show up.
Pramote was really upset by this. He was upset that I was behaving stoically. My thought was,”If it's gone there is nothing we can do about it. We have looked everywhere.” After a few days the edge of anxiety about this wore off, but every time Pramote looked at his ring he'd comment. "It's gone for good."
About 4 nights ago it was raining and I couldn't sleep well. The whole business about the ring came back to mind. I was pretty well asleep but I began to remember buying the cake. It'd been a chaotic time. We had guests from Texas who were demanding attention, and I was buying the cake, and I remembered not being able to get my money out of my pocket, and spilled some on the floor. The workers were boxing the cake and I wanted to look at it. It was hectic. Then I got this scenario beginning to run. I saw myself going back and asking about the ring. I played out the scenario that if they had found it they might have decided I wasn't coming back for it and they'd given up. It'd be gone for good but I should offer a reward to the bakery staff and see if someone would call back about it.
It was a dream, rather like a nightmare. I tried to dismiss it, but it came back again.
Well, today I told Pramote we were going to the mall. Promenada Mall is farthest from our house, but as we were driving I told Pramote we'd ask about the ring. He was sure it'd be gone by now, as was I.
At the S&P bakery I told the clerk I had been there 2 weeks ago and bought a Nemo cake. Showed her a picture of Snack cutting it on his 4th birthday. Then I mentioned the ring. I wasn't done when she said, "We found it and turned it in to the information counter."
You can imagine my feelings. Well, it'd been found. The information counter said to go to the security office. At the security office we were able to talk to someone through a window open about a foot. "Describe the ring." When we did, in pretty clear detail, another guy came to the window with the ring. "This it?" We signed for it and thanked them profusely. I told them about the dream. Pramote hadn't heard that. I was just going to forget it if the ring wasn't traceable. But we had the ring and the story could be told. The security guy said, "Really! A dream? I have goose-bumps all over my arm!"
We went back to S&P and showed the girl the ring, and I tucked a tidy reward in her apron pocket while she blustered.
People say this sort of thing doesn't happen, especially here. But it did happen.
Students at a leading Thai university made the news this week with a display of cultural insensitivity during a bout of several other kinds of insensitivity classified as hazing (also known as “kids will be kids even if they’re old enough to incur astounding educational debts”).
Briefly, what the students did was dress up in Maoist costumes of the disastrous Cultural Revolution era and get their group picture taken executing Nazi salutes.
International staff members at that university expressed outrage that two of recent history’s most horrible atrocities were incorporated into the students’ play. Thai staff members reportedly did not share this outrage, which disgusted the international staff even more.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s news via the world’s largest social network brought a posting by a colleague from Russia living here in Thailand for decades, showing a shocking video clip of a young man beating up on two small children, throwing them into a trash can repeatedly and then hanging them by their feet. My friend appealed for Thai viewers to identify this beast and have him arrested. Without public support the likelihood of official attention being given to a case of domestic violence is slight.
Much more attention was being given in the same media to a Thai court’s guilty verdict against a British investigative reporter who broke a story of slavery of seafood workers. The reporter was found guilty of defamation of character but no charges have been leveled against the characters who own and operate [ongoing present tense] the seafood canning empire. International comments throughout this trial have focused on two standards of justice one for the rich and another for the poor, but Thai opinion separated the cases and tended to interpret defamation as a disaster to those defamed that is not that much less serious in its impact than being enslaved in a prison-like cannery.
There is hope that social network coverage will draw so much attention to these matters that they will be corrected. Some of my friends sincerely believe that reposting clips of abuse will cause consciousness about it to be raised. Other friends in the USA think so, as well, with their persistent posting of abused animal pictures or clips of police murdering innocent people. Maybe Internet coverage CAN do some good.
The aspect of this that engages me today is the matter of exposure. Intuitive wisdom for me and other ex-pats here, is that “the truth will set you free.” Evil behavior needs to be brought out into the open. Nothing will get better as long as people can get away with corrupt or despicable behavior. So, the university students’ bad behavior needs to be exposed. That’s one kind of exposure advocated. The other kind is that they need to be exposed to images and facts about how unspeakably inhuman were the Nazis and the Cultural Revolutionaries. The students need to be sensitized to what they have played about, and that, inevitably, involves them being made to feel ashamed for what they have done in their light-hearted play.
That is the sticky bit.
Even after 50 years of contact with Thai culture, I still tend to forget how dreadful it is to subject someone to shame. Very much will be tolerated and ignored to avoid doing that. Shame is a toxic cloud that kills and maims everyone who has anything to do with it. It is absolutely incapable of bringing about corrective understanding. To shame, disgrace or defame another person is culturally unforgivable.
A distant relative was caught for the third time selling illegal drugs. His extra-judicial execution while in police custody was ignored because of the shame the guy had brought on the family. Besides, his karma caught up with him.
I hope karma catches up to that bastard who was beating his little children. Let karma do its thing. I would like for the Thai seafood industry to feel karma, too. But I digress.
Shame is a counterproductive approach to behavior modification in this culture. Nevertheless, behavior modification and consciousness-raising are not impossible. They work if they are indirect. They will not work if they hint, “We think you need to hear this.” Of course, the down side of indirect ethical or moral education is that it can come off as irrelevant. “If we do not need to hear this why are you telling us?”
Is there anything about the Nazi Holocaust or the Red Guards rampaging during the Cultural Revolution that Thai Millennials will recognize as relevant? Perhaps not. They think the only relevance is that previous generations got stirred up about those things, whereas the symbols resonate authoritarianism. So, the university students felt they could accomplish two objectives at the same time. They could signal their independence from those previous generations, and therefore their own authority in this generation, by ridiculing symbols that got those old people all excited. Besides, the upper-classmen wanted the freshies to feel intimidated one final time before “freshy initiation” ends.
Initiation of incoming freshmen is said to instill a respect for SOTUS (Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity, and Spirit). This informs students about the social hierarchy of the university and reminds freshmen they are at (or near) the bottom of that structure. Critique of the very idea of SOTUS is growing, as it militates against independence and critical thinking. But in practice the hazing sometimes becomes humiliating and abusive, leading to injury and trauma. That level of hazing is illegal and universities are urged to guard against it.
The matter I am addressing is how to prevent shameful behavior without resorting to shame-filled name-calling.
If it is worth the effort to sensitize the oncoming generation to historical realities that involved their great-grandfathers, there are ways to do it that do not imply shame. I hasten to add, it may well be worth that effort because the dynamics of tyranny have evolved and remain potent. Initiating US youth to the benefits they have inherited by their forebear’s genocidal treatment of Native Americans can potentially be effective if the current generation feels the injustice is being unaddressed as long as every new generation continues to operate as if the genocide never took place. In Thailand it will not work as effectively to force young people to feel they are inheriting guilt and the ill-gotten benefits that came from it. The German and Chinese atrocities are even more remote. But what might work better is for victims to become associates. If tyranny is current then its victims are contemporaneous. They are not far away.
Can elements of the Thai higher education system be tweaked to move students out of their comfort zones into association with the disadvantaged? Nothing has advanced the Gender Minority Movement faster than people opposed to it finding relatives who are gay. The elite and those in authority tend to move victims out of sight. It is unlikely that the whole educational system can be transformed to include cultural sensitivity training. But the higher education system already includes mechanisms for outreach into communities where disadvantaged people, ethnic minority communities and even prisoners can be accessed. It is not unexpected for students to “do research” or to conduct “academic service”. I know from several years of taking student groups into communities that it builds respect and mutuality. Once a relationship is established, reality shifts. Then it is much easier to draw unthreatening parallels between, say, children in refugee camps and children in Auschwitz.
Outrage and shame do not build affective bridges.
Basic education is a human right – unless you don’t officially exist. Then it is only your undeniable physical presence that might, possibly make an impact.
It was the very compelling reality of a group of migrant children that provoked a Karen displaced person from Burma to undertake the challenge of starting a school that these children could get to, in the vicinity of Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand on the border with Burma. His motivation was compassion for the children, concern about their future, and a passion for education. With help from Burma Border Projects (BBP), a US foundation, and a Canadian organization, Room to Grow, he managed to collect a group of 7 teachers and construct the simplest school you can imagine. “New Wave School” now provides elementary schooling for 128 diverse migrant children. In Thailand the term “migrant” refers to immigrants from outside the country who have tentative and therefore tenuous status, whereas “refugees” are consigned to camps where they wait some resolution of the circumstances that caused them to flee – as much as 3 generations ago in many cases. Most of the children in New Wave School, and even some of their parents have no identity documents, or as Dr. Lora Friedrich of BBP puts it, “No ID and no idea what it means to be Burmese.” They speak no Thai, but have never been anywhere but Thailand. On the other hand they cannot enroll in Thai schools because they do not have a Thai national ID card.
What they have is New Wave School. 27 of the students are orphaned or abandoned. They live in the New Wave School and are fed by the teachers, spreading out mats on the kitchen floor at night because it has the roof with fewest leaks. The other 101 students have at least one parent, relative, or care giver with whom they live.
BBP provides salaries of $137 a month for the New Wave staff. In April BBP conducted a supplemental, intensive “English Camp” for the school, and provides an on-going “Play Session” designed to enhance psycho-social survival skills.
New Wave School exists on the margin, balanced between barely getting by and closure. The teachers, 3 of whom are single parents, literally do not know whether their salaries will be paid or when they will be rounded up and deported back into Burma, dumped across the border with the gate slammed behind them. The children laugh and learn, not as oblivious to dangers and exploitation as they let on, but ignoring it as long as New Wave continues to surf them forward.
[Thanks to Burma Border Projects for pictures of New Wave School.]
Queer people in Thailand made themselves heard nationally quite by accident. Our first progress into the public domain was thanks to a busy publisher who never intended to make that happen. That was the ironic conclusion to decades-long tracking by Dr. Peter Jackson. He analyzed how Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Kathoey (LGTK) Thai people gained a voice. Prior to the publisher’s stunningly popular “Uncle Go” lovelorn advice column, the only writing in Thai mass media about gender minorities had been negative.
The column began by accident, Jackson concluded. The publisher of PLAEK แปลก (pronounced somewhat like “black”, meaning “Strange” or “Weird” but also “queer” and “outlandish”) in only his third edition included an interview with a local transgender celebrity, who – in the context of other articles about supernatural beings and bizarre freaks of nature – he must have thought belonged to the same genre. “He had not expected thousands of letters from readers wanting more,” Jackson reported. The wily publisher realized he was onto something and kept the articles coming in which transgender and then gay and lesbian celebrities and ordinary people were interviewed. A second, even more popular advice column followed in which two or three letters were published, ostensibly to ask for advice. Jackson’s investigations revealed that these interviews in PLAEK were the first in-print, first-person voices of gender minorities ever heard by Thai people all over the country.
LGTK voices were made public in Thailand.
Having shown the viability for such publication, in a very few years the first two Thai gay magazines came out. They, too, were enough of a commercial success to last for more than a decade. These were gay Thai magazines that informed a generation of boys and men all over the country that there was an extensive population out here.
Jackson’s presentation at Chiang Mai University on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 was partly a launch of his book on this topic. His persuasive analysis was focused on the “first voices” to be heard nationally, but it prompted me to reminisce about a chain of developments leading to far greater social acceptance.
· “Uncle Go” in PLAEK showed that the LGTK population in Thailand was larger than most people had suspected.
· This encouraged publication of the first generation of gay-targeted books and magazines.
· The commercial success of these magazines encouraged other commercial ventures such as gay bars in Pattaya and Patpong (Bangkok).
· These venues sought customers which led to the publication of gay guidebooks in English for sale in bookstores and then locally published guidebooks in Thai and English with articles, maps and especially ads for those venues distributed for free.
· By the 1990s gay venues were found in Bangkok (in 4 growing areas), Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Udorn and Phuket. They included pubs, go-go/disco bars, saunas and massage spas, karaoke shops and even a couple of gay hotels.
· Some venues attracted so much international attention that Thailand became a gay tourist destination.
· More recent publications are geared to upscale or at least comfortably middle-class gays and lesbians. Their ads and slant show an elitist bent.
· Still more magazines have come out that are “metro-sexual,” meaning, apparently, commercial print media are once again ahead of the general public in perceiving that gender is spread along a spectrum rather confined to boxes. There is no longer any inference that LGTK folks need to be told where to gather or how to find each other. Thanks to the print media, followed by the broadcast media, and now the IT social networks, LGTK sequestering is largely over in Thailand.
· Voices at the cutting edge in the public domain these days are seeking inroads into the conservative sectors, government and religion, in particular.
Ordination before the fire is a particular type of merit-making that is both fairly common and relatively undocumented. Buat naa fai could be called a cremation ordination and it is done by boys to make merit for a relative, often a grandparent. It typically is purely ceremonial in that the boys have no intention of remaining in the monastery community longer than one day.
This week’s blog is essentially a picture essay with concluding observations.
First a few principles: (1) “Ordination before the Fire” is generally into novice status. (2) Since it has a particular, limited purpose there are few of the customary preparatory ceremonies such as formal leave-taking from mother and father, elaborate procession to the temple, or a feast for the chapter of monks and laity. (3) It is possible for the novice(s) to change their mind and remain in the temple longer than one day. (4) Not all abbots are willing to receive novices into this type of ordination.
The elements of ordination before a cremation are simply the bare essentials for ordaining a novice into a temple community of monks. The pictures accompanying this blog are a record of 3 nephews who were ordained on March 25, 2016 to make merit for their grandmother, Mrs. Fong Wanna, in Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The ordination included the following activities:
1. The boys had their hair cut and eyebrows shaved. This is normally done or finished by a monk, but in this instance the abbot told them to do this the night before the cremation.
2. On the morning of the cremation the boys went with older male relatives to the temple with the things necessary for the ordination.
3. The abbot presided, assisted by just 2 other priests. The boys ceremonially requested ordination and were asked the standard questions before being permitted to change into saffron colored robes. They left their street clothes at the temple.
4. They were then ordained by the abbot, who urged them to consider staying in the temple as novices longer than one day.
5. Down the street, preparations for the big funeral service were getting finished. The new novices drew everybody’s attention as they arrived with their assigned mentor.
6. The novices attended the chanting service, but participated as they would, had they still been laity. They sat off to the side.
7. When the chanting was finished everyone was served a community meal. The priests and novices were served first, and their food was specially presented.
8. As the casket was moved from the family home to the cremation grounds, the novices led the crowd under the direction of their mentor. The chapter of priests who had done the chanting and would preside at the cremation were taken by car.
9. The boys had a place of distinction at the cremation, but lined up with the family as all the guests filed past.
10. Following ignition of the cremation fire, which burned the catafalque spectacularly and the casket inside the cremation oven, the people left the cremation grounds. The priests returned to their various temples. The novices returned to the village temple where they quietly asked to demit and were given permission. They changed back into their shirts and jeans leaving their orange robes at the temple.
This ceremony is all about making merit which is transferred to the deceased. It is a family-oriented thing to do. There is no intention that any of the benefits of regular ordination will accrue to the ordinands or the temple. The novices do not even have to memorize their ordination vows. They practice no meditation and only briefly adhere to any abstentions.
The boys tended to feel self-conscious rather than honored. There was almost no time they felt at ease or knew exactly what to do. They were coached every step of the way. Their motive, in the end, was to express love and respect for their grandmother.
This type of ordination is considered an optional custom, happening only in a small percentage of funerals. There is no stigma for foregoing this, even in large or prosperous families. However, having grandsons do this is a sign the family has “done everything possible” to see that Grandmother has a complete send-off.
The very fact that this type of ceremony exists is sufficient to prove that merit-making is a valid part of Thai Buddhist practice. Furthermore, the merit is transferred in order to offset the demeritorious accumulation of the deceased, who is (of course) an entirely passive beneficiary. There are other ordinations to make merit in behalf of recipients. Sometimes there is even an elaborate merit-transferral ceremony. This has important implications for the theological understanding of karma, and functions in principle precisely as Christian atonement does.
Throughout the transitional era of Thailand from a basic economy and subsistence lifestyle into a progressive capitalist economy and middle-class lifestyle (1940-1990) the church undertook an amazing variety of approaches to supplement its three-fold mission with a fourth. Previously, Protestant work in Siam/Lao/Thailand had been directed toward improving life religiously, educationally and medically. Institutional supports for this were churches, schools and hospitals.
As Herb Swanson documented in Khrischak Muang Nua, his historical analysis of the Protestant Church in North Thailand, when threats from the Lanna authorities suppressed church growth among the Chiang Mai upper class, missionaries used their status as patrons to provide jobs for needy new Christians. The size and spread of the Protestant Church outgrew that strategy, and the missionary exodus from the north after Pearl Harbor brought it to an abrupt end.
However, the impact of the “Social Gospel” and the scale of human needs of people after World War II in the church and within its sphere was so pressing that a new mission was undertaken: the improvement of people’s economic capacity.
This impressive effort was in full swing when I arrived in Chiang Mai in 1965. There were as many agricultural and vocational missionaries as there were medical specialists, perhaps more. [Note: in 1965 and afterward as well, missionary wives were appointed by mission boards “to assist their husbands.” In fact, many of these women undertook an unlabeled specialized mission of vocational training and product development.]
· American Baptist agricultural missionaries working with ethnic Karen Christians included Dick Mann, Rupert Nelson and Ben Dickerson. The efforts they showed me were about improved rice production and development of additional agricultural products including wool, fruit (grapefruit, passion fruit, apples) as well as coffee, tea and flowers. They also developed village water supplies, sanitary toilets, and schools.
· American Presbyterian agricultural missionaries included Travaillers and Turnbulls at the Sampantakit Farm in Chiang Rai. The Farm was a cooperative experiment to homestead previously useless land into farms growing multiple crops and benefitting from united purchasing and marketing power. The goal was to demonstrate how previously landless peasants could become land owners with expendable income through modern farming methods including mechanization. Dr. Larry Judd undertook a broad effort in North Thailand to inspire and enable rural Christians (the great majority of CCT members at that time) to band together to improve their economic power. The CCT developed a Rural Life Department to coordinate these projects on a national scale.
· Handicraft production and sales was another strategy that achieved international attention. Three enterprises were spearheaded by missionaries: Marian McAnallen’s Lao Song cloth products from Nakhon Pathom, Thai Tribal Crafts selling a wide range of hand-made items from ethnic villages in the northern hills, and handicrafts made by McKean leprosy patients and former McKean residents in satellite villages. The idea was that producers of marketable products did not need to be displaced from their homes and villages, nor taught new skills and trades, to make things that would bring in supplemental income. Marlene Mann, Dee Nelson, Idalene Conklin, Elaine Lewis, Dot Turnbull, Heather Smith, Marian McAnallen and others served as quality control coaches and “fusion” product designers. Key to the success of these ventures was finding markets for the products; Church World Service and the SERRV free-trade agency were the international outlets, expanding sales beyond shops in Thailand. In some cases handicraft production became lucrative enough that manufacturers gave up farming entirely. In 1965-70 McKean was a large, fully functioning village. Residents made furniture, did wood carving, custom printing and refined handicrafts, sewed garments, grew fruit, and raised fish and hogs.
· An Urban-Industrial mission (following the vision developed by Dr. Marshal Scott at McCormick Theological Seminary) was begun in the Samut Prakan Eastern Seaboard area south east of Bangkok. This mission attempted to help displaced industrial workers cope with the challenges of slum-living, being educationally disadvantaged, and feeling powerless. Bryce Little helped the project get started and become an official unit of the CCT. The Rev. Somrit Wongsang and his wife, Nuansri, continued the work for another four decades.
· The Marburger Mission undertook evangelism and church leadership development. An aspect of this included experiments in two fields: a diaconate program in which women committed themselves to a shared life of Christian piety and service, and a training program for “tent-making” ministry to equip men to be pastors with skills to generate a living at such things as livestock husbandry or motorcycle repair.
One thing all these efforts had in common was an attempt to be realistic and practical about improving the living conditions of people mired in economic disadvantage. The basic reason they all faded is that they failed to help people achieve their real aspiration, which was to rise above their economic level rather than to simply be more comfortable within it. Yet for a while, these programs did generate hope and bring relief. Like strategies in H.M. the King’s “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy,” the church’s social-economic initiatives were interim solutions. It is unfair and irresponsible to accuse those who supported these efforts of surreptitiously trying to keep the lower classes servile and passive. I have read presumably responsible academic papers that made that charge. The projects did not fail if they helped people live better while rising above menial subsistence lifestyles and circumstances into the middle class. But the projects faded and folded when people born in the next two generations were able to “do better than that.”
Prosperity comes in cycles, but for the present, the goal of village young people is to get salaried employment to escape the marginal jobs and unpredictable income of their agrarian parents and ancestors. These days, every family unit needs at least one person earning a salary. Income from a sideline such as handicraft production is not enough unless the manufacturing is on a full-time basis. Sidelines for farmers are in areas such as construction. For a growing number of villagers, however, it is farming that is the sideline.
You do not know the name of God. No one does.
This is a universal theological truth, but this short essay is limited to a discussion of the name of the god who ambiguously said, “YHWH,” when asked for a name.
Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has
sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to
Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites ‘I AM has sent me
to you.’ … This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 2:13-15, New
Revised Standard Version)
According to a recent article about YHWH, translating the phrase is difficult. That is in perfect agreement with my Old Testament professor several decades ago. For one thing, the letters can all be vowels (or vowel place holders) as well as consonants. Since the word (or phrase) was sacred it was unpronounceable, and without any idea how to pronounce it, it is virtually impossible to translate precisely. It can be rendered “I Am that I Am” or “I shall be what I shall be” “I shall be what I am” or “I will become what I will choose to become” or “I will become whatsoever I please” or perhaps (if the verb is causative) “Who causes to be” “Who gives life” or “Who causes to exist.”
There are, I take it, only two possible reasons why God would tell Moses a name like that. It would have to have been in order to obfuscate and confuse, or to imply unfathomable holiness. You can guess which rationale I think is obvious.
The outcome, however, was far from settled. Even though the god of the ancestors preferred to not to be on a first name basis, in a world of gods with famous names, Moses and a majority of his spiritual descendants didn’t think a nameless god would work out well. Beginning soon after the burning bush encounter in Exodus 2, Israelites coined and borrowed a large number of names which they used and often even enunciated when they came across YHWH in writing. Pious Jews, still later, hesitated to use any name for God. It became very confusing after all.
At least the gender of God was clear from the beginning. Wasn’t it?
Rabbi Mark Sameth submitted an opinion editorial to the New York Times in which he sought to correct our certainty about God as Father, He and Him. Rabbi Sameth says that YHWH was ambiguous not only with regard to tense (present or future) but also with regard to gender.
In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in the original language offers a highly elastic view of gender.
And I do mean highlyelastic: in Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the
flood Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And
Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.” …In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his
niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be
“nursing kings.” …In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was a mark of a civilized
person. Such a person was considered more godlike.
The idea of “nursing kings,” Sameth says, was derived from Hatshepsut who succeeded her husband Thutmose II and became one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. That sets the stage for Sameth’s assertion that “the four-Hebrew-letter name of God … YHWH … would have [been] read … in reverse as Hu/Hi – in other words the hidden issue of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” In that ancient context, this would merely have been another way to indicate that God was too holy and remote to be too specific about. Sameth’s conclusion is, “…The God of Israel … was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.”
Now, having the benefit of 3000 years of cogitating on this, we have added several solid layers of certainty about God’s identity that earlier people would not have dared or dreamed of doing. Conveniently, it all fits neatly into our binary he-she social construct and rejects he/she as a possibility. Our refusal to look critically at our socially-biased belief probably wouldn’t matter if it weren’t being used as ammunition to slaughter each other in the name of the nameless god with many names.
Fortunately, I learned from Rabbi Sameth, we do not need to object to the growing consensus about gender fluidity on Biblical grounds. HE/SHE was rather huffy about mortals being too inquisitive and adamant.
Rabbi Mark Sameth’s article appeared August 12, 2016 in the New York Times. Downloaded: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.htmlwww.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.html
A full discussion of YHWH can be found online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetragrammaton
“The Church of Christ in Thailand: Turning Into Its Own Idea”
The beginning of the Church of Christ in Thailand can be traced back to the missionary work of American Baptists and the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in the 1830s. The goal of both mission groups was to establish a church organization composed of local church congregations. The strategy was to identify and develop clusters of Christians with the potential of growing into self-sustaining, self-governing churches responding to critical needs for spiritual, educational and medical support. Projects to provide sustained economic assistance were added after the Second World War (and will be discussed in a later essay). In general, the Baptists concentrated on immigrant and ethnic minority groups while the Presbyterians tried to develop mission work with Siamese and Lao populations.
Mission centers were built by the Presbyterians in larger towns including Bangkok, Petchaburi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Prae and Nan. By the end of the first missionary century, celebrated in 1928-29, there were Christian churches, hospitals and schools in each of those centers with satellite churches surrounding the larger centers.
1930-1980 was a half-century of refinement, expansion and transition. Mission work of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), located largely in Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi provinces West of Bangkok, joined the CCT as District 11. Three types of entities developed separate missions: churches, institutions and organizations. These moved into various forms of autonomy or semi-independence. Churches tended to be self-supporting to the extent that they built and maintained their own buildings and larger churches hired clergy. The national Church of Christ in Thailand was formed. Schools and hospitals operated with fewer and fewer missionaries on staff and gradually none had missionaries as administrators. A couple of hospitals were closed as Thai government medical services expanded, but schools tended to keep going with new schools added from time to time either spearheaded by key leaders or as satellites or offshoots. Seminaries and other higher education institutions were established or “came into their own” during this era, including the Bangkok Student Christian Center and the Center for the Uplift of the Hill Tribes (now called the Siloam Center), followed by Payap University in Chiang Mai and Christian University of Thailand in Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom. Organizations that were neither churches nor institutions tended to be thought of as extraneous to the main mission of the CCT. They were treated in various ways. The Thai Student Christian Movement was tolerated rather than supported. Baptists developed a program in Chiang Mai for women (particularly women escaping from or avoiding prostitution) that, like the Bangkok Christian Guest House, is only loosely connected to the CCT. Sampantakit Farm cooperative in Chiang Rai “completed its mission” and dissolved, dividing assets among coop members. Free Burma Rangers never received CCT endorsement and is solely independent. The Voice of Peace chose not to join with the CCT. Whereas, the Klong Toey mission is fully integrated in the CCT but is required to operate as if it is not. These are examples. The list of organizations is extensive.
Since 1980 (to pick an arbitrary date) the CCT has undergone major changes of perspective and operation. Although I am avoiding mentioning names in this essay, I need to mention two with regard to the way by which the CCT “turned into its own idea.” Khun Wibul Pattarathamat was a Thai-Chinese business man (some would say “tycoon”) when he was elected to a single term as Moderator of the CCT at the beginning of this third era. He installed a vision of financial independence that was controversial and daring at the time. His concept was that the CCT could operate on a business model utilizing resources at its disposal to make a great deal of money with which to run the church. Church real estate was one immense resource the church was underutilizing. Using vast property of the Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation as collateral, he pushed a plan to build a new church headquarters building on a piece of land behind the Bangkok Christian Hospital which included several floors of office rental space to produce income to pay off the loan and continue generating income for the church. He also implemented a self-development plan in 1979 for churches to use funds from the central church organization to pay pastor’s salaries in decreasing amounts over 10 years so that the congregations, with full-time pastors, would be able to grow large enough to be self-supporting from then on. This plan has been modified, but was the beginning of a major expansion of pastoral services across the denomination. The Rev. Dr. Boonratna Boayen served the CCT for about 30 years as Moderator or General Secretary. His vision was for the CCT to move from a level of chaotic decentralization and chronic dysfunction into a more centralized and tightly controlled national organization. Highly representative government was modified into a much more hierarchical form with power increasingly vested in top leadership, but units became more accountable and functioned more effectively according to stated plans than ever before. Revisions of the CCT constitution and book of regulations reduced the authority of boards of institutions and of church district councils (formerly called “presbyteries” then “districts”). Funding became centralized to the extent that the CCT top leadership team (the 9-member Executive Committee including the 4 full-time national church leaders) have the authority to intervene in any church or institution to review finances and replace board members and institutional heads, or even close institutions.
The CCT has developed a very Thai way of operating, but has thrived at its main mission, which is maintenance of the CCT as an organization with functioning congregations. During this era virtually all 800 local churches have acquired full-time pastors (up from barely 20% in 1980), a majority of churches have built new church buildings or refurbished older ones to retain historical appearance.
Since 1980 three large groups have been incorporated into the CCT: Christian churches in the Isan region (provinces in the NE section of the country), formerly established by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, joined the CCT as District 13. Karen Baptist and Lahu Baptist groups joined en masse, more than doubling the membership of the CCT. This influx motivated the second constitutional revision to insure that ethnic Thai and Thai-Chinese would retain control of the CCT. Major building programs since 1980 are beyond counting, but mention should be made of the CCT headquarters building in the commercial heart of Bangkok on the campus of the Student Christian Center, the Mae Kao Campus of Payap University, and the Nakhon Pathom campus of Christian University of Thailand, as well as 2 high-rise additions to Bangkok Christian Hospital.
The CCT is no longer Presbyterian or Baptist. Some congregations retain aspects of their rites and heritage, but the whole church is more Thai than anything. There are no foreigners in the CCT administration or on national committees. The CCT has become what it sought to become, even as it grows on to become something else that is its own idea.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.