“Identity politics has got to stop. We have got to give up our ‘endless preoccupation with a FRAGMENT of identity. Identity comes from consciousness which transcends all these divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender. There is no sense of CONSCIOUSNESS ITSELF’ anymore.” So says Camille Paglia on a YouTube recording of “Dose of Truth” in October 15, 2017.
On the one hand, I thoroughly agree with her that popular thinking misses the picture as a whole. Our attention is limited. Knowledge, and all the data that passes for knowledge, is overwhelming; so we pick targets. Those tend to be self-directed, even if they are “progressive” and advocate peaceful coexistence. I love it when hostility is muted and divisions are blurred. I want peace for Burma and human rights for Palestine. I want racist monuments in America removed from public spaces and American racism recognized and renounced. I don’t think it’s possible to overcome divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender without identifying ourselves within those communities and waking up.
I think Paglia is right: these days, because of our focusing on areas of concern to the exclusion of a holistic vision of reality, what we have are fragmentary perceptions. This reduction of interest began as a reaction to the immense universal trauma of World War I-II and the paranoia that fractured the world during the Cold War. Only a cataclysm of that magnitude could have destroyed the massive theological and philosophical search for a comprehensive approach that integrates everything that can be concluded about God and us. In philosophy the search was on for the concept underlying everything we can know. By the end of the international military battles in 1945 interest in universal truth was being replaced by searches for relevance. The trauma of war loomed as a miasmic aftermath. Conflict and chaos claimed the collective unconscious, so people agreed that immediate individual existence was what could be maximized.
This led to 4 generations refining strategies for resisting cohesion beyond those things that might be expedient to optimize existential priorities. Interest groups are the largest effective political entities. Even governments have reduced objectives, now looking for achievable benefits rather than anything approaching “the general welfare of the people.” Governments are put together, in fact, by interest groups with single objectives.
The consequences of this myopic vision have been serious: fragmentation of political units and outbreak of localized conflict (even ethnic cleansing), polarization of societies, and unremitting discord. Rather than optimized existence, people have desperation muffled by cycles of relief as some terror diminishes (as when a vaccine mitigates a pandemic, or intervention ends a genocide). “That’s better,” a sigh, and a wan smile. Forgetfulness is the antidote because it’s all the cure there is right now.
Paglia is right. This is not as good as it could be. She is right that we need to regain more than fragments of our identity. She thinks we need to get back to an educational program that enables us to understand who we are, beginning not with 1619 or the birth of Christ, but all the way back to Neanderthals and Humanoids. We need to study our enslavement by archetypes, and how to identify ourselves as complex beings.
Paglia says that the way to do this reclamation of “consciousness itself” is to reform education to assess the big picture, because acquiring our identity is a result of becoming conscious. Then, she says, we’ll be on a better path.
Paglia must be wrong, however, when she suggests the immediate end of campaigns to improve conditions of those oppressed by racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Paglia is a famous feminist, after all. But she is on record arguing against a wide range of gender rights, especially the right of young adults to dispute their birth-sex. She opposes the demolition of traditional roles of men and women.
That is the clue that we’ve been here before. The reason education has moved away from philosophical and historical focus on how we got here from the very beginning, is that the philosophers and historians beginning way back then could never quite make it to today where people live and die. Those who compose these philosophies and histories miss the junctures where civilization abandoned people. Today’s “identity politics” are correctives. We cannot afford to take a great collective leap into the past, even if we could do it.
Individuals can and should make the effort to acquire an understanding of consciousness. Consciousness is a basic and essential human function. It remains doubtful to me that historical reassessment is a way to an “ah-ha” breakthrough into Consciousness Itself. I’m opting for another avenue that does not involve renouncing all we have learned about how to be advocates.
In this Asian part of the world “what a family is” depends on local differences. I will describe what I have seen and studied personally.
A Lanna family consists of parents and their descendants.
This is what functional sociologists would describe as a form of extended family. “An extended family consists of parents, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles living under one roof.” The Lanna (Northern Thai cultural) form would say, “The 21st century version of an extended family consists of all the members who could potentially live under one roof.” Actually, what happens is that the extended family members might live under separate roofs but can and do move in and out as needed. People outside the extended family would not presume to have that right. Because this is Lanna, and not Central Thailand, it is more easily assumed that the male spouses will move in with their wives and become part of the female’s extended family (but this is not hard and fast, it depends on the nature of the bond/marriage and maybe also financial circumstances). If little children need care, elderly relatives, especially grandparents, might move in with children in order to be on hand.
Children are the primary responsibility of the mother and father, as in nuclear families. But if the living unit consists of multiple individuals, little children are cared for by everybody. A child’s actual mother and father would have veto power over a decision with longer-term consequences, such as where the toddler goes to nursery school, but would hesitate to countermand a relative who is providing the child something to eat. If a child needs help, extended family not only provides it but feels responsible to do so. In Lanna families (until this generation) children were raised jointly.
Members join the family gradually. If a young adult takes a spouse (I use this phrase carefully) the new member of the family is actually accepted in several ways. (1) The relationship is accepted and acknowledged, and the new person is expected to participate in family events and take a share of responsibilities as he/she may be able (the greater the ability, the greater the share). (2) The couple may “move under the roof” literally, either permanently or from time to time as they choose, for they have the right to do so. (3) The other extended family, the side of the couple’s family living elsewhere perhaps, retains the right to familial loyalty, help, and affection; this must be mutually expressed from time to time, particularly during transitional events such as weddings, funerals, house blessings or ordinations. (4) When a project comes up needing help from everybody, everybody is expected to show up or have a good reason for not doing so.
Special circumstances martial the resources of the entire extended family. That is an obligation. It is shameful if it is unmet. For example, in our village a man with cerebral palsy was living with his old mother; when she became less able to care for the two of them another child moved back, built a house next door, and took over.
When the parents both die the extended family is not immediately dissolved. Not only their legacy and property unite the siblings as before, but shared responsibility does, as well. The extended family that began to be formed when the couple had children and established a house and home separate from other relatives will only gradually be transformed. The new extended family acquires a major measure of independence when all the grandparents are gone, and not before.
[In the picture accompanying this essay, our nephew Arm decided to build a car-port next to his parents’ house, where he also lives. The construction was undertaken by every available member of the family, which fortunately included an uncle and cousin-in-law who have construction skills. A week later everybody was again recruited by another part of the family to help transplant the rice everybody will be eating for the next year.]
Just this week alone my in-box brought me stories of how significant cutting hair is in Thailand.
Hair represents possession, attention to self, and control. The intention when one adopts a hair-style is to express one’s individuality and unique personal identity for all to see. Hair is a social demarcation.
As with almost all aspects of Thai culture, haircutting is unique only with regard to the degree to which it is meaningful. Many religious orders around the world prescribe tonsures, shaving heads, or letting hair grow. Here, it represents loss.
There is no shame in it. It’s not as if a shaven head is a mark of derision or a symbol of guilt. It is about humility rather than humiliation. It is a step toward abjection and suppression of ego.
The step beyond cutting one’s hair is portended if not actually intended.
The distraught mother has cut her hair both in protest against the injustice she feels her son is receiving and in solidarity with him in his hunger strike. If her son should die of his hunger strike in custody, I’d predict that his mother’s next step would be to shed her clothes and take the white robe of a nun. Suicide or self-immolation could be her ultimate step. In Vietnam, which is culturally very different, that would be a bit more likely than here. But cutting hair is a type of self-mutilation meant to express loss.
Thai monks shave their heads and eyebrows to remove their most identifying aspect and to merge into the collective priesthood of disciples of the Lord Buddha. But an anthropologist can see this cutting as a form of disfiguration that is undertaken in other ways in other cultures.
Post-Enlightenment Western cultures have abandoned physical forms of ritual humiliation, but residue can be found just about anywhere. Some of them are obvious, as in hazing, bullying, tattooing, fasting and other such measures. But the West has specialized in cunning forms of mental and emotional “conditioning” as well.
In short, when Thai persons cut all their hair off their heads the action and results are spiritual as well as social. It is an act of defiance expressing willingness to relinquish something personal in order to achieve a higher goal.
“It’s gotten harder to talk to people across lines of significant disagreement.”
I read this and took note of it some time ago, probably during the riots and protests that followed the murder of Floyd George about a year ago. But it was a thought that has been troubling me for years, ever since beginning to try to get a handle on post-modernism.
There are three factors that disrupt open dialogue, and they have expanded in the last half century:
· Societal polarization As RW Caves said in Encyclopedia of the City (2004): Social polarization is associated with the segregation within a society that may emerge from income inequality, real-estate fluctuations, economic displacements etc. and result in such differentiation that would consist of various social groups, from high-income to low-income. It is a state and/or a tendency denoting the growth of groups at the extremities of the social hierarchy and the parallel shrinking of groups around its middle.
· Social media echo chambers In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal. By participating in an echo chamber, people are able to seek out information that reinforces their existing views without encountering opposing views, potentially resulting in an unintended exercise in confirmation bias. Echo chambers may increase social and political polarization and extremism.
· Coarseness of our political discourse For many reasons, some commercial and some ideological, political discourse has grown aggressive, reluctant to entertain actual debate, and uncivil.
I will now reminisce about how I have perceived this decline from my perspective as a pastor from 1965 to 2003 when I officially retired.
I thought it was my role to reconcile differences whenever possible. I was the neutral ground, the quiet eye in the middle of the storm, the bridge over troubled waters, as well as the watchman on the tower. In church terms, I was the pastoral-shepherd as well as the prophetic leader. It was a precarious tightrope act where I was to calm things down as well as sound the alarm and stir things up.
Even though our church communities were homogeneous and without significant diversity, I thought of myself as one who was in charge of holding open the possibility of diversity. Indeed, I was to advocate its desirability. I did this by identifying metaphors we already had as well as telling stories from beyond the borders of our experience and outside our comfort zone.
We gathered as friends and nestled within our familiar womb of sound and ceremony, which kept us safe from imminent incursions and occasionally drew us back from insurrections outside. As long as we were inside, we were safe and could bear to imagine realities that were alien and would be challenging, such as how nice it would be to have world peace.
It is now almost 20 years since my retirement and I am filtering second-hand information to conclude, “It’s not like that anymore.” There must be many congregations in which diversity in some of its manifestations is such a threat that its possibility is unwelcome. Since diversity comes in many forms, maybe some of them are advocated, while others are outside the pale.
Times change. When I was a boy a mixed-marriage was a Roman Catholic married a Protestant. Now the big issue is when two women or two men marry. Isn’t that the opposite of a mixed-marriage? When I was in seminary I worked in two churches. One was all white and afraid of neighborhood change that would disrupt life as they had constructed it. The other was in a changing neighborhood where the church was one of the change agents. As I hear it, the things they are afraid of are different now (basically opposite from what they had been 50 years ago) and the levels of fear are ratcheted way up.
Pastors these days cannot expect to bring about changes of attitudes, no matter what they say or how they say it. Attitudes about society are fixed by other voices. Lines of debate about that are severed. In fact, that is also true of congregations that are advocating diversity, where their banners announce YOU ARE WELCOME in rainbow colors. They have moved beyond discourse about many topics as well. They love free speech except when it advocates hatred. (That seems reasonable to me, except that the hatred is beyond discussion. At least it cannot be discussed with the ones doing the hating. And that hating is selective.)
What’s a pastor to do these days? Many pastors, I take it from what they say on social media, are chaplains now. Their audiences are winnowed down to those who are agreeable to congregate. They have decided how society should be, so that’s settled. They have decided how to deal with discordant sounds about such matters. Even if a pastor tries to challenge the congregation, the message is tolerated and the challenge is ignored. So the chaplains preside at religious events, adorned with religious accoutrements, to dispense what comfort is possible under the circumstances. It's a valuable role, but it is not really conciliatory.
If this applied only to pastors I’d refrain from repeating what has already been said. But the ruination of civil discourse is not limited to churches. All units of society, in all societies around the world that are connected by worldwide communication networks … all of them are breaking down into units that abide no disagreement.
I am worried about civilization when discourse is prevented. It’s not always “media” that are to blame. In Burma there has been a coup that basically resulted in order to prevent political discourse by arresting the democratically elected leader Aung Sun Su Kyi and thousands of others.* In Russia and China social media criticism of the leaders is being shut down. Democratic forms in Hong Kong have been crushed. Today the government in India announced the end of any critique of the way it is handling COVID.
Authoritarianism cannot stand discourse, but tyrannies always self-destruct, taking vast numbers of people along with them. When civil discourse ends, eventually civilization ends. It happens at the micro as well as the macro level of society.
This morning as I type this, I am concerned about a relative who has withdrawn from all contacts. She threatened to do this in order to preserve her peace of mind from what she saw as attacks, and now she has done it. She is a very social person. Her retreat is worrisome. Today, another relative posted: “BLM is now known as burn, loot and murder.” I think she’s crossed the line. I never imagined I could influence her, but I’m wondering if it’s worth keeping in touch with her since the gulf between us has no bridge, except that we’re cousins.
* The photo accompanying this essay is of gay men coming out of the closet and into the street to oppose the military in Burma. It is a brave thing they are doing.
Two descriptions of the condition of institutional religion in the USA came this week. They describe conditions separated by more than a century. I am in love with the expressive excellence of both descriptions so I cannot resist providing them at length.
John Steinbeck portrays the establishment of Christian churches at the time settlements were being made. He calls all the churches sects. I’d prefer he called them denominations, but both terms are only partly accurate. Steinbeck tries to be realistic with his faint praise barely avoiding damnation:
The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. They fought at the turn of a doctrine. Each happily believed all the others were bound for hell in a basket. And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built. It took a smart man to know where the difference lay between the sects, but anyone could see what they had in common. And they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt. And any man could make something pretty fine of it within himself. …The honest preachers had energy and go. They fought the devil, no hold barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable. The sects did more than this, though. They built the structure of social life. (p. 257- 258)
The second quote was elicited as part of the build-up to a documentary coming soon, Martin Doblmeier's new film, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story. Heschel wrote:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
Both Steinbeck and Heschel were writing almost at the same time, but Steinbeck captures a time-bound past before churches reached their peak of splendor. Herschel wrote sagely about religion in America in a way that has remained soberingly relevant, especially this week when we saw a report that American people’s membership in religious organizations has dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of keeping records.
The sects, “built the structure of social life” as towns sprang up, Steinbeck says. The churches were social centers and models for social order. They were relevant despite their inadequacies and underdevelopment.
Then the religious “sects” developed and built, and did so gloriously, long past the time when splendor and vast buildings were actually needed. Herschel brooded, “when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past … its message becomes meaningless.”
That is where we are as religious people in the USA and many, many other countries. When institutions become irrelevant they become meaningless. Their message becomes meaningless as it is disconnected from their actions. Their actions are irrelevant when they no longer respond to what’s going on with a vivid vision of the future and build a path to realize it. When there is nothing to care about, people stop caring.
[References: John Steinbeck, East of Eden. 1952. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. 1955.]
“How are you?” they ask, not meaning we should actually explain much about our well-being. “Fine,” we respond, either wanting to get beyond polite social small-talk or to cut off the conversation. But reality is complex. We may not feel “fine” at all, or we may feel “fine” unrealistically. Our most common gloss, however, is to let some negative aspect of our circumstances define our whole condition.
Our sense of well-being is often unfairly diminished by our current condition. For instance, a toothache can eclipse everything else. A financial loss can make one suicidal. Winter doldrums can lead to debilitating depression. On the other hand a spate of good fortune can divert attention from one’s chronic illness or conflict with relatives. Success at sports can offset a student’s stumbling grades in academic subjects.
It is helpful, from time to time, to take a more holistic look at ones condition and try to put the current “big issue” into perspective.
WHAT CONSTITUTES WELL-BEING?
There are several factors that contribute to one’s sense of well-being. Consider these four: social (family/community), emotional (happiness/balance), one’s primary role (gauged by security and accomplishment), and physical (health/sexual fulfillment).
I have devised a simple test to calculate these factors:
Test of Well-being
In answering the following 8 questions use this scale 0 to 5:
0 none at all, zero
1 very little, hardly any
2 a barely significant amount
3 an OK level, tolerable, usually satisfactory and acceptable
4 a great deal, quite a lot
5 very much, maximum amount that is likely
1. Social satisfaction:
Question 1: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you spend handling your family and community interests and requirements?
Question 2: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION (fulfillment, rewards) do you feel you derive from your family and community connections and involvement?
2. Emotional satisfaction:
Question 3: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you expend on your emotional life (your happiness, mental health, balance)?
Question 4: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION do you feel you derive from the effort you are spending on your emotional welfare (how is that working for you)?
3. Satisfaction regarding your main role in life:
Question 5: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you put into your security and accomplishment as a productive person (e.g. as a professional, worker, student, parent – your main role at present)?
Question 6: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION does this role provide for you?
4. Physical satisfaction:
Question 7: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much ENERGY (effort, time, concern) do you feel you are expending on your physical well-being (health, sexual, and nutritional aspects of life)?
Question 8: on a scale of 0 to 5, how much SATISFACTION do you get from your physical condition as it is (how do you feel about the results of your efforts to provide for your physical and sexual well-being)?
Assessing the results of this inventory:
A. There are 4 ENERGY scores which indicate your levels of stress or concern about that factor of your well-being. Assign those scores with a minus. Energy spent is the cost of satisfaction.
B. There are 5 SATISFACTION scores which indicate your sense that things in that area are positive. Assign those scores with a plus. This satisfaction is how much that effort was worthwhile.
C. Calculate the 4 minuses and the 4 plusses to arrive at a satisfaction score. Your overall satisfaction rating will be somewhere on a continuum between -20 and +20. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say any score lower than -10 indicates a serious sense of concern, whereas a score of more that +10 is an indication of celebration. The great majority of us will, at any one time, be feeling our well-being is somewhere in the middle, between -10 and +10.
D. Remember, these scores fluctuate all the time.
Despite our tendency to blame factors beyond our control, well-being is our own sense of how things are. The conclusion we draw is our own internal calculation or miscalculation.
This is not to dismiss the fact that circumstances do make an impact. For instance, being evicted, expelled, or attacked are real. But how those impact our sense of well-being, is not always all about those circumstances. “I’m a victim,” “I can’t control my attitudes,” or “I live in a messed-up world,” would not be all that needs to be said about one’s well-being.
Imagine you are anxious about how your retirement savings are going to run out. This tends to become a consuming worry. If you took time to factor it into a holistic picture you’d have a more realistic assessment. Your answers to the 8 questions and the resulting scores might look like this:
1. Family is most important. I give it a lot of energy. Energy spent is -4
2. Family is most important. They are the love of my life. Satisfaction is +5
3. I’m OK emotionally. I needn’t work at it very hard. Energy spent is -2
4. I’m OK emotionally. I am essentially quite happy. Satisfaction is +4
5. I planned my security wrong. I’m panicking. Energy spent is -4.
6. My retirement savings are gone. My worry isn’t working. Satisfaction is +0.
7. My health is good. I work at it. Energy spent is -3
8. I am energetic and fine. This is one worry I don’t have. Satisfaction is +5
You, despite your retirement worries, have an overall lack of concern about well-being. It is a level of +1 on a scale of -20 to +20, right in the middle of a bell-shaped curve.
Imagine two people have cancer. Why might one of them have a very negative sense of overall well-being while the other feels not-so-bad? Both patients are expending a very great deal of energy (almost all they have, -5) confronting their condition and they both feel they are not yet getting best results. Their score of benefits is only +1. In both cases the physical score is low (-4). Their well-being score, however, includes three other factors. Patient A has no financial worries nor job concerns (+4 for what we are calling “role satisfaction”), and the patient has to expend very little effort at maintaining that level of security (-0) = +4. Patient B is going to be bankrupted by this medical crisis (no “satisfaction” about security (+0) while devoting all sorts of effort to getting ready to handle this (-4 – a high sense of effort expended) = -4 score regarding the patient's sense of getting benefit from their main role in life right now. Patient A is a recluse and has little sense of social standing or community esteem and so concludes that’s worth about +2, but A doesn’t put much effort into it anymore (so the expended effort is “hardly any” for -1). Patient B, on the other hand, has been almost overcome with community and family support during this medical crisis (+4 for question 2), while having a sense of not contributing very much towards the community and family at present (-1). That is benefits +4 over effort -1 for a social satisfaction score of +3. As for emotional satisfaction, as hospital patients, they are needing to work rather hard to maintain their balance, so their energy and benefit from their effort cancel each other out (+3 and -3 = 0). Patient A’s overall sense of well-being, looked at holistically, is -4, +4, +1, and 0. Patient B’s overall sense of well-being is -4, -4, +4, and 0. As of today A is doing better than B.
Notice, it is not one factor (wealth, social support, emotional balance, or medical condition) that makes a difference in their sense of well-being, but their concern about these things. In fact, A’s financial reality might be dire without A knowing it. B might be about to learn that insurance is going to cover this and the present worry is going to go away. Hard reality is one thing, but a sense of well-being is what motivates us.
One’s sense of well-being may swing quickly, but it is the intuitive engine that tends to drive one’s action. The strength and duration of the sense of well-being are what determine the intensity of energy allocated to action. The goal of the action, of every one of our actions, is to enhance our sense of well-being. A basic human need is a sense of well-being
The main rite of passage into adulthood for Thai young men is the military lottery that comes after their 21st birthday. Every April, all over the country, all 21 year-olds are assembled in their home district to be sorted. It is a tense and emotional experience.
Yesterday was the big day for our nephew, Wave, and about 100 other boys becoming men in our district.
First they are “examined” to see if they are fit for military service. Most pass. Then they are given a chance to volunteer. The military has already announced how many recruits they need. They wanted 73. Thirty volunteered. That meant another 43 would be drafted from the remaining 73 eligible males. The process is decades old. 43 red slips in capsules were put into a container along with 30 black slips. (They used to be colored balls.) The guys were called forward one village at a time, and one by one they pulled a ball from the container. If the capsule contained a red slip they were in the army for a year or two, but if the slip was black they were given an exemption form and they were free from military service for the rest of their life.
Nephew Wave was one of the lucky ones. He pulled a black slip out of the container. He said he’d not been nervous until it actually came close to his turn, but his hand was shaking. There were two 21 year-olds from his village. The other guy drew a red slip and nearly fainted. Relatives were gathered in bleachers around the arena, and there was cheering and wailing as each slip was announced. Wave came home with his exemption paper, I took his picture with it and we had a nice cook-out to celebrate.
What we were celebrating, of course, was not just his escape from jeopardy as a soldier. Plans had already been made with relatives in the Army to get Wave assigned close to home. It helps to know people. We were celebrating Wave’s formal passage into full-fledged adulthood, citizenship, and social status. There are three widely accepted rites. In addition to the draft lottery which is the big one, getting a diploma marking the end of formal education and getting formally married with relatives of both the bride and groom tying cords of blessing around the couple’s wrists (which is done on other occasions as well) are the other two. Earlier in the week Wave’s class graduated from vocational school. So, for Wave he was 2 for 3. It could be that he and his live-in girlfriend will now "tie the know" to complete the set.
Young women have rites of passage, too, in Thai society. They can also get a diploma from a vocational or academic institution and enter the ranks of the gainfully employed. Commencement ceremonies are very important and convincing rites of passage for them. They can get married. If they have a baby, that is a powerful signal. I noticed that at the very time Wave was in the arena yesterday morning, his cousin posted an announcement online to the effect, “I am proud to be independently sufficient and to be raising two children.” Of course, she and her husband are doing this together with a lot of help from extended family, as this is done in Thailand, but she was announcing the truth, she has passed well and truly into adulthood, and she’s proud.
That’s how it’s done here.
The debate about Christians using Jewish worship forms, such as the Seder service, emerges every year during Lent. It is part of the wider, on-going argument about the validity of Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Christian churches. In general, conservative and orthodox Jews are adamant that the intrusion of Christians into Judaism is to be opposed, and conservative evangelicals also view efforts to appropriate Jewish rituals and festivals as “efforts to undermine the separation of the two religions.” Evangelicals do not want to understand Jews, they want to convert them. Jews argue that the one thing settled between Jews and Christians is that they are permanently separated by the difference of opinion about Jesus as the same Messiah the Jews anticipated and still expect.
Rabbi David Wolpe put it this way: “There are some today who speak of themselves as ‘Jews for Jesus.’ This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Mohammed.’ A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of ‘Jews for Jesus’ is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.” [Rabbi David Wolpe, “Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus” January 9, 2003 reprinted in the March 27, 2021 edition of Jewish Journal.] At the heart of Rabbi Wolpe’s reasoning is the fact that the world is a mess. The job of the Messiah is to fix that. Jesus did not do that. Ergo, Jesus is not the Messiah.
It would be best to separate the matters into two parts.
My own limited experience has convinced me that the effort to incorporate Messianic theology into Jewish traditions is much older than “Jews for Jesus” which began in the 1970s.
In 1960 I was hired for the summer to work as a counselor at Presbyterian Camps in Saugatuck Michigan. There were 3 camps on the campsite owned by the Presbytery of Chicago. One of them was Camp Piniel operated by the First Hebrew Christian Church of Chicago, which was an outgrowth of Piniel Center, a neighborhood house established by Presbyterians more than a century ago.
As I remember it being explained to me, the congregation was Jewish who believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. They continued Jewish worship in the Ashkenazi (European diaspora) form but included readings from the New Testament. It was significant that this congregation was a full-fledged member of Chicago Presbytery. They were somehow Jewish and Presbyterian. It was founded in 1934. In 1960 I heard that it still conducted some services in Hungarian language.
Daniel Juster, pastor (rabbi) of the First Hebrew Christian church of Chicago from 1972-77, was a graduate from my own alma-mater, McCormick Theological Seminary, and was ordained as a Presbyterian teaching elder.
The church is now named Adat Hatikvah Messianic Synagogue and is in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield. It is no longer listed as a church of Chicago Presbytery. Notice, the congregation no longer calls itself either Hebrew or Christian.
I do not expect the aggravation to go away that is felt by Jews against invasion and aggression of Christians, nor do I imagine the anguish felt by Christians, who love their Jewish heritage and want to retain as much as possible of it, to diminish in the face of denunciation for embracing Jesus as Messiah.
But I will argue that it is not up to Jews to invalidate the Messianic movement. The heart of the matter is that it is basically legitimate for a new religious movement to attempt to establish itself as a form of an older one, even if the older religion doesn’t like it. Christians hated it when Joseph Smith announced the formation of The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons, for short). “They are not CHRISTIAN,” the Christians ranted. It was not, however, up to the Christians to decide what the Mormons called themselves or what they borrowed from Christian jargon and practices. Christianity was at the core of Mormons’ theology and identity. By the same token it is not up to other Christians in the Philippines to decide that Iglesia Ni Cristo is not Christian.
Amalgamated religious movements have a right to exist in a free society. Here in Chiang Mai there are Jewish-Buddhists (espoused by several people from New York City) and a prominent Baha’i community (most of whom were refugees from Iran). No matter what religious leaders think of it, Baha’i is firmly convinced that it is composed of the most shining tenets of each of the world’s great religions (amalgamated, indeed!). One of the most impressive Baha’i temples is in Tel Aviv and the other is in Winnetka just north of Chicago. Indeed, the entire history of religion is full of movements that incorporate older traditions, as well as movements to eliminate and purify religions from those old traditions.
Christian Seder services are a separate matter.
In the last few decades many Christian churches have conducted Seder services using Jewish rubrics. Individual families or groups have done so as well, including the Obama family in 2009 (pictured above in a White House photo of the first such service in the White House). They usually try to re-enact the traditional Seder service while mentioning the way it might have happened with Jesus and his disciples on the night before he was crucified. Actually, the form being used today originated in the rabbinic period after Jews and Christians had separated. Any connection between what Jesus did that night and what Jews do in Seder services is largely speculative.
As for borrowing cultural bits to incorporate into Christian worship, that is always controversial. Here in Thailand the most conservative cultural preservationists do not like it when Christians use Thai traditional dance or music, and conservative Christians also refuse to do so. But most Christian churches now set up shrines to “honor” royalty on their birthdays or memorial days. The prescribed ritual is decidedly not Christian. Royalty are venerated because they are avatars of the Hindu god, Rama. In various ways Christianity is continually borrowing from other religions.
In the USA the use of African-American spirituals has passed into acceptability. Under certain circumstances it might work to have a Hopi dance group do the Butterfly Dance in a Christian event, but we have come to understand it is wrong to have the dance and costumes done by those who are not Hopi ethnic Native Americans. Many churches could as easily do a Taize chant as to have a bagpiper lead a procession, but they would draw the line at having a Buddhist monk pronounce a benediction or a Muslim start a Christian event with an invocation (as the Presbyterian General Assembly did in 2016, creating a furor).
It is correct these days to yield to those of a given religious and cultural tradition if they object to others outside that religious-cultural tradition using its forms or artifacts. So, it is taken for granted that Jews should have the deciding voice about whether Christians should be allowed to borrow any form of the Seder service for Holy Week. Nevertheless, that proprietary right has its limits. That limit has been reached when the form being questioned is basic to the very character of the group being challenged. That is why I would say that Jews should be listened to carefully when they criticize a Presbyterian Church for desecrating the holy Seder service if it is being conducted on Maundy Thursday. But Jews would be off base if they try to prevent the Adat Hatikvah congregation from doing so.
Images of Gay Muslim Reality in South Thailand
Samak Kosem has undertaken a daunting endeavor: to artistically portray the reality of Islamic LGBTK life in Thailand’s far south. He is (among other things) an anthropologist and a graphic artist using photography, videos, and montages to elicit insights. In the process of composing his projects he investigated and interviewed communities to confirm his perceptions that LGBTK people of all ages are living throughout Muslim communities but that conversation about gender must be nuanced and indirect.
In a “Payap Presents” program from Payap University on March 24, 2021, the Chiang Mai University PhD candidate told us about several of his art projects and the metaphorical theory behind his productions.
One set of images was of sheep, which he explained are the most marginalized animals living in Islamic villages, as are gay people; but in his exhibits he let the pictures speak for themselves saying, “This is what marginalization looks like.” From photographs, Samak proceeded to sculptures of sheep to require visitors to go among the sheep.
Another project was a video of an actor on a crowded holiday beach surrounded by Muslim families. He was apparently celebrating life as a gender-ambiguous pondan or kathoey. In explaining to others on the beach what he was doing he had obfuscated; he told them the video being made was about littering. The video also said, “This is what it ought to be like being gay in the middle of everyone.”
A third project was portraits of gender-diverse Muslims of various ages, but he had hidden their eyes behind blocks of text to protect their identities because fundamentalist groups used such pictures to find the individuals and intimidate them. Reality is dangerous.
Samak described some of his conclusions and inferred others. The overall impression he made is that being a gay Muslim in South Thailand is publically unacceptable. But, as everywhere, there are gay young people. They are being confronted and tolerated (within limits). In one school pondan boys are segregated for daily prayers, “to protect them from bullies,” the teachers said. This is progress beyond the bullying being encouraged or ignored. Mothers, Samak found, are more tolerant of gay boys because they realize some of their sons are gay, but men are more rigid. Samak concluded, “You can be queer and you can be Muslim. But that cannot overlap.” For example, if a “Tom” (lesbian presenting as male) is participating in something religious, they must wear a hijab (Muslim headscarf). Gay men are pressured to get married by age 40 and from then on they conform to religious moral norms again.
Samak has made presentations to Muslim audiences in which he interpreted his art. He characterized some of his audience as “shocked.” It seems that religion has a stifling influence on trends toward social acceptance of Thai LGBTK Muslims. It is behind Thai society at large in this regard. However, progress is being made in small ways wherein religion is not the overwhelming factor.
I was impressed that in the Muslim south just as in the Buddhist north, “If your family accepts you, you are fine. But if your family does not accept you, you have nowhere to go.” In Thailand all progress toward gender equality starts with the family.
Thank you, Samak Kosem for a fascinating presentation and best wishes as you complete your PhD at Chiang Mai University.
To see more of Samak’s work, access: http://aura-asia-art-project.com/en/artists/samak-kosem-minorities-and-artwork-in-islamic-society
REFLECTIONS ABOUT TEACHING ENGLISH IN THAILAND
Twenty years ago Dr. Janjira Wongkhomthong and I undertook an innovative venture, to transform Christian University of Thailand (CUT) into the English language hub of the western exurbia of Bangkok. It is fairer to say she directed the exploration and I was her scout. The objective was to have CUT come to mind when people in our part of the country thought of English language.
As I reminisce, what we tried from 2001-2007 was both audacious and intriguing. There were lessons to be learned from our attempts, mostly about intractable obstacles that block educational innovation and English language enhancement in Thailand.
First a list of things we tried:
1. “English activities workshops for teachers” (7+ workshops)
2. “English camps” (5 week-long camps and several one day fun events)
3. “English for Professional Nurses” (10 workshops)
4. “English for RATGEN” (The Ratchaburi Electric Generating Company) (4 modules)
5. “English for the Ministry of Culture headquarters staff” (3 modules)
6. “English for staff of Nakhon Pathom District” (one attempt)
7. “English for staff of the Governor’s Office of Nakhom Pathom” (one module)
8. Required English proficiency for all degree programs of CUT’
9. Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language
10. “English In A Minute” (4 series of tapes for local radio stations)
11. “English for Advanced Professional Nurses” (specialized course in the curriculum)
12. English contests for high school students
13. Preparation for passing the government English exams
These endeavors were of three types: (1) to establish the CUT “brand” as a reliable and available resource and top-notch center for English programs; (2) to meet expressed need for special English training in workplaces; (3) to explore research and development plans for meeting the country’s need for better English competency.
In retrospect we learned more about what we ought to be doing than what people wanted us to do. Our discoveries were potentially more valuable for establishing administrative priorities than educational plans.
English is not a top priority. It is important to keep this in mind. All attempts to teach English confront the fact that something else is more important. English acquisition is not unimportant, but there are always over-riding reasons for students and clients to sign up for a course or event. English is supplemental. Our efforts were most successful when we aimed to satisfy the main objectives. English teachers liked our workshops if they were fun, if they provided ideas for things to do with children that didn’t need a lot of preparation, and if the workshop filled some in-service requirement for the teachers. The workshops for nurses were a hit as long as we focused on successful communication with patients, and that involved basic principles of communication with people of different cultures.
Profit should not be an objective. Aside from full-fledged academic courses, one-time short courses and workshops are not highly profitable. The reason for providing the workshops and events should be to publicize the institution, to expose the workshop leaders to workplace realities, and to show support for community concerns. An effective language workshop must have an effective student-teacher ratio which will always be smaller than a student can afford, so supplemental finances are always going to be needed either by reducing the cost of the workshop (meaning the university assumes some of the cost) or by attaching the workshop to a program that is funded otherwise (which usually involves increasing the number of participants and reducing the learning outcomes).
Special English takes R&D. By the end of our 7 years we had learned that there is no short-cut in the research and development of helpful courses for specialized workers, but there are ways to be more effective. Every workplace in Thailand has its own limited need for using English. It is best to get clear about what the participants need to be able to communicate in English before (or at the beginning of) a workshop. If the need is for staff to take international visitors on a tour of a factory the conversation is different from negotiating a contract for equipment. Our most successful short courses were those where the communication need was clearest and we had time to refine the course.
Proficiency takes time. There is a continual stream of programs that promise you can learn a language in no time. Those are unscrupulous. On average it takes 200 hours of educational effort to improve one level in English proficiency, from early intermediate to intermediate, for example. For this reason, “achievement” is often substituted for “proficiency” as a program objective. It is too disheartening to come right out with the truth that a 20-hour workshop can’t get you very far toward proficiency.
Thailand is getting better. It is undeniable that it is easier to get around the country using only English than it used to be. Far more people have functional levels of communication. But at the same time graduating students in Thailand have slipped below those of neighboring countries to such an extent that the educational effort in Thailand is widely agreed to be failing. One explanation for this paradox is that the prescribed English curricula are wrong, and so students are not motivated to do more than pass the necessary exams, but they learn to get by with English in many other ways. That, too, was one of the things we learned between 2001 and 2007, but we did not find out what to do about it. Policy decisions are not in the hands of English teachers.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.