A category of exiting church members has come to my attention in the past few days. It is being called the “dones”. This category is made up of people who are feeling “done” with the church and their role in it. They may have been leaders heavily involved and committed to the church, but they are done with that now. They are also done with any other role in the institutional church and may not even be regular attendees at church services.
In contrast to other withdrawing members, the “dones” have no hard feelings toward the church. In most cases there was no precipitating event that led to their departure. They do not disagree, necessarily, with the church or its theology. They have not developed a new point of view that is more enthusiastic than other people in their church can tolerate; they have not cooled down to the point that they are disgusted with the church and do not want to associate with it any more. They still like the church, or at least what they may call “THE CHURCH” as distinct from the institutional church. They do not consider that their faith has withered or their relationship with God has changed. They have achieved closure with the church.
In most cases their separation from the church is irreversible. They will not be persuaded to return. There is no issue that can be addressed to heal their feelings. Their feelings toward the church as a whole have not been hurt. There is nothing to heal.
In reading hundreds of responses to an Internet article entitled, “The Rise of the Dones” that can be found on www.holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones I think that most of the stories told by “dones” say that they are de-churched for one of two reasons: (a) they are done with the institutional church in order to be unfettered in finding a more authentic form of Christianity, (b) they are done with the institutional church because of being burned out. There are other reasons why active, committed Christians feel “done”.
I am one of the “dones”. Looking back on it I see that my commitment to the church was conditional. I was committed to being a church leader. I was convinced, with much encouragement from community and friends, that I would find that role fulfilling. I prepared for it since about age 16 by being very involved in church work and conscientiously expanding my range of experiences. It was more than a vocation; it was an identity. During the next 50 years my faith grew more mature and my theology did too. When I stopped being in a leadership role my reason for being active in the institutional church ended. I was ready for almost any new leadership role, but the church here in Thailand made it clear I was no longer acceptable. I had broad background as a senior pastor of large churches, evangelist, seminary teacher, missionary, national staff worker and finally as a Christian college administrator. I was not unqualified to change roles and I was available to assist in many ways. But when leadership options ended I no longer fit into any category I was committed to. I was invited to continue as a college administrator, but it was specified I was not to perform any religious functions. I had come out as gay. I was done.
I conform to the category of “done” in that when I chose to distance myself from the institutional church in order to keep from causing them to face issues they are unready to confront (and thereby jeopardizing others), I did so with actual respect for the church. I have positive regard for the church here in Thailand. I know enough of organizational dynamics (having taught that very subject) to understand that the church’s time to face gender diversity has not yet come. I let my former students (now pastors and leaders) know that I was still on call if they wanted me, but the phone never rang. I was disappointed but not surprised. I am neither burned out nor angry. I have a different ministry now, manifesting Christian core values non-confrontationally at the grass-roots (village) level and writing “bridge-building” articles [many can be found on this site]. I am done with the institutional church. I am officially “honorably retired” but my actual status is “done” and I have contentment and closure.
I do miss the pipe organ music.
John is a grocer. In our village he supplies the makings of the evening meal for a fair share of the households. At 7:30 in the morning John goes to a large market beyond the range of people on foot or with bicycles. He buys about 5000 baht ($150) worth of perishable vegetables, meat, confections and a small amount of fruit. He loads this onto his motorcycle side-car in packets and sacks and into his ice chest. He includes sacks of ready to eat lunches as well, because customers looking for lunch and snacks are his first sales.
When he is ready he starts out on a regular route where customers are waiting at usual times. Stop by stop he works his way through 6 villages toward home. During the morning his customers are buying things to eat for lunch. By about 3 he is ready to unload his remaining produce onto a long roadside table in front of his house.
Even before he is finished, customers begin to pedal and walk over to decide what they will fix for supper. A few bring things to sell or trade from their gardens or orchards, but most of what he sells comes from the central market and is bought for cash. This season fish are plentiful. Many households will eat fish twice or more a week. Pork and chicken are other mainstays. Those are almost always added in small amounts to a dish that contains a preponderance of vegetables, either boiled or stir-fried. It only takes a few herbs or spices to turn one set of ingredients into a variety of dishes. As often as possible, a family will dine on something from their own yard or orchard. Pumpkins, melons, jack-fruit, green beans, sweet corn, lemon grass, mangoes and bananas are sometimes just out the back door. [In a blog later this year I will report on “Hunting and Gathering Right at Home”. Throughout 2015 there will be essays on “Thai village life: see it before it disappears”.]
Most families expect to spend about twenty or thirty baht (less than a dollar) cash per person on the night’s meal with enough left over for breakfast. If money is scarce a meal can be cooked for less than that. Bamboo shoots and mushrooms still come from the woods.
Rice is naturally the staple. Most families grow the rice they eat. Steaming the day’s supply of sticky rice or cooking the “pretty” rice is a routine task in every home. Families who stick with traditional Northern Thai steamed, glutinous rice eaten with the fingers, will inevitably have one or another sort of chili-paste which they either make at home or buy.
In our village there are also a couple of stores that sell non-perishable necessities for daily living. [An essay will feature this function of village life in a blog, later.] John’s mobile market does not provide meal ingredients that come in cans or bottles.
A few things are delivered to houses. Most homes have drinking water delivered; a woman brings eggs on demand from her chicken farm in the neighboring village. Ice cream comes by motorcycle, too.
John’s customers do not regularly travel to and from the city or distant work sites. In the city or in towns, people tend to shop in super markets or from the same sort of market that John buys his produce. More often salaried people stop on the way home and buy supper items from cooks who offer pots and pans of a dozen stock dishes they sell in front of their homes. Some villages have enterprising cooks that do this, too, but not our village. John used to supplement his produce with 3 or 4 pots of curry, but he gave it up as not cost effective. In our village about half of the households consist of older people and folks who stay around their homes and farms full-time. They are John’s customers.
John’s roadside table closes by about 7:30. That’s a 12 hour day. Minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht per day (about $10). John’s profit if people are hungry is about that.
One of two unexpected spiritual resurgences here in Thailand is the expanded cult of Mae Kuan Im (the other being the cult of Genesh). One of the largest and most opulent shrines to the Chinese Goddess of Mercy is on the south side of Chiang Mai. In the picture accompanying this essay she is depicted standing atop her transporter, a great dragon, dispensing blessings symbolized by water flowing endlessly from a jar.
For a more complete account of the various identities of Mae Kuan Im, refer to the Wikipedia article on Guanyin on the Internet. The remainder of this essay deals with two issues: (1) how Mae Kuan Im became so dispersed throughout religions of South and East Asia, (2) and why her cult has arisen in Thailand at just this time.
Huston Smith [The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, New York: Harper, San Francisco, 1991, p. 143] blithely tells us, “The Dalai Lama is the bodhisattva who in India is known as Avalokiteshvara, in China as the Goddess of Mercy Kwan Yin, and in Japan as Kannon.” The Wikipedia article reiterates the same claim. C. Kerenyi, a protégé of Carl Jung, demonstrates the process by which such mythological transferals take place.
The Voguls worshiped—and perhaps still worship—one especially among their gods who bears the name of “The Man who Looks at the World.” He is a god let down from heaven in two variations: with his mother and without her. With his mother he was “let down” in such a way that he was born as the son of a woman expelled from heaven. She fell upon the banks of the River Ob. “Under her right arm-pit two ribs broke out. A child with golden hands and feet was born” [Munkacsi]. This manner of birth, the emergence of the child from its mother’s right side, betrays Buddhist influence. The Bodhisattva who later became Gautama Buddha entered his mother’s womb from the right side and at the end of ten months left the right side of his mother again in full consciousness and immaculate; thus it was according to the northern sect—Mahayana Buddhism, as it is called” [Lalitavistara]. “The Man who Looks at the World” is the exact translation of “Avalokiteshvara,” the name of the world-ruling Bodhisattva in the above religion whose missionaries dispersed throughout Northern Asia. Avalokiteshvara is just such a divinity compassionately observing the world as the god of the Voguls became. From the latter’s titles—which refer to him as a goose, swan, or crane—we get a glimpse of his original nature. [Munkacsi]. Golden limbs are characteristic as the new-born Buddha of the Avalokiteshvara world (our world) “who gleamed, shining like gold worked in the fire by the Master’s hand [Sutta Mipata]. The orphan’s fate has nothing to do with all this and leads us into a world quite different from that of the Dalai Lama, the present day embodiment of the Avalokiteshvara. [Kerenyi, C. 1949. “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times” in Essays on a Science of Mythology by C.G. Jung and C. Kerenyi. Princeton: Princeton University Press]
The Virgin Mary has also been identified with Guanyin. In what sense, however, are Mae Kuan Im, the Dalai Lama, the Lord Buddha, and Avalokiteshvara the same? The mechanics to discern this are in the science of mythology, rather than theology. Theologically, the Virgin Mother Mary and Mother Kuan Im are separate contexts. Theologically, a Thai (Theravada) Buddhist would have to be broad minded to identify the Lord Buddha with either the Hindu Avalokiteshvara or with any Bodhisattva including Mae Kuan Im.
I believe it is no mere coincidence that the cult of Mae Kuan Im has re-emerged into prominence at just this time in Thailand. Several reasons could be cited. First, the cult of Mae Kuan Im has reappeared all over South East Asia, particularly wherever the Mahayana branch of Buddhism has become stronger through the contributions of ethnic Chinese in dispersion and the interest of Chinese tourists. Second, Mae Kuan Im is considered the patron of the childless and the destitute, leading to reliance on her by those with particular needs. Third, Mae Kuan Im is female in a time and region where masculine religion predominates; her cult is a refuge and implied protest against the adamant refusal of the dominant religions to provide women equal status. Fourth, the cult of Mae Kuan Im in Thailand involves an alternative form of meditation through chanting that devotees attest offers elevated levels of serenity. Finally, and most importantly, the cult of Mae Kuan Im coincides with the economic emergence of Thailand as an economic power in the region especially prior to the economic downturn of 1997. A central aspect of this variety of faith is its connection to prosperity, which is a core value in Thailand. Those who visit shrines and centers of devotion to Mae Kuan Im testify that they are motivated by hope for inspiration and results with regard to their business enterprises, their gambling (especially in the lotteries which abound in the country), and their health and relationships. Mother is the care-giver, the refuge in times of distress and turmoil.
A friend of mine is a devotee, persuaded by overwhelming evidence, he claims. He has been diverted from a lucrative business selling a Thai confection (and from traditional evangelical forms of Christianity) by visitations from Mother. Typically she instructs him where to travel on journeys with unspecified purposes, which often produce gifts of religious statuary, some of which are rare and valuable. “She tells me where to go,” he says. “She sent me to a distant temple I had never seen before and when I arrived the abbot was standing at the gate holding this,” he pointed to an elegant jade Buddha image. “The abbot said he had a dream that he was to give it to me.” Our colleague had to break off his narration at that point because the line of people waiting to see him for personal messages from Mae Kuan Im was growing restive.
Loy Kratong is always held on the night of the full moon of the 12th lunar month. This year that is November 6. It is the most popular Thai holiday of the year. Nearly every able-bodied person takes part in Loy Kratong somehow.
A short list of various Loy Kratong activities includes:
1. Making and floating a kratong [see the picture above]
2. Adorning the front of one’s house with candles or lanterns
3. Setting off fire crackers and fireworks
4. Attending a community fair or parade
5. Merit making at the temple
The basic meaning of Loy Kratong is a bit obscure. In general it is understood to be a festival to pay homage to rivers and waterways as a source of life. It is an ecological observance. But there is a layer of veneration involved in making an offering to the “mother of water” (the literal meaning of the Thai word for “river”). The traditional offering is home-made if possible, and is a floating tribute with a coin, incense and always a candle. These are set adrift by families with a prayer of thanks for the gifts of prosperity the waters of nature bring and a prayer of forgiveness for pollution and disrespect one may have had for the river in the past.
As is the case with other festivals in other lands, patriotic and religious notions are attached to Loy Kratong. Officialdom attributes the origins of Loy Kratong to King Ramkamhaeng whom they also credit with inventing Thai writing. It is said that the first lovely kratongs were floated (“loy”=float) in Sukhothai 700 years ago by the lovely queen and the idea simply caught on. The religious aspects involve merit making to atone for past sins, and they have the convenience of the fact that Loy Kragong always falls on the day of the full moon, which is a Buddhist “Sabbath”.
Since Loy Kratong observances are centered on waterways, boat races may also be held. Sometimes there are river parades. In Chiang Mai large kratong floats are loaded on trucks and move through town before being launched on the Ping River. Fireworks are indispensable aspects of the colorful festivities. Here in the North people also launch tissue paper hot air balloons by the thousands. They include a coil of waxed string suspended underneath that provides the heat to make them rise and gives them an orange glow as they float away on upper wind currents. Hopefully they do not descend until the fire burns out and then they come down harmlessly as they cool.
Above all, Loy Kratong is a family time. It is a night to have fun, to instill community spirit, to do things together, and to appreciate nature.
Perhaps the most misunderstood major religious symbol is the Shiva-lingam. It is prominent in Thai Buddhist architecture, which is the reason I am devoting this essay to it. It is also a very fine example of how the realms of discourse about faith overlap here in Thailand.
First, what is the Shiva-lingam? In Hindu symbolism the lingam usually looks like a short post that is either round or octagonal, but sometimes square with a round top. It refers to the energy and potential of God. It alludes to power and creativity. But it is indivisible from the female counterpart represented as the Yoni. They are similar, then, to the Yin and Yang of Northern Asian religions. Recent Hindu theologians have objected to the very idea that the Shiva-lingam is a phallic symbol. They insist that the idea was developed at a time when Buddhism was predominant, and it was reinforced by the British who despised all things Hindu, and especially the Shiva-lingam. In Thailand nine Shiva-linga are used as boundary markers around a bot (ordination chapel) in a Buddhist temple. The ninth stone is actually buried in the very center of the chapel as its foundation stone. City pillars are also in the form of Shiva-lingam. Scholars indicate that the city pillars of North Thailand were a tradition inherited from Tai cultural roots that pre-date Khmer influence which was Hindu.
So, there seems to be a separate strain of faith. What is it?
Clearly, it is a fertility symbol. To this day there are examples of phallic symbols scattered throughout Thai folklore and practice. For the most part there is no use denying that the symbol is a penis, sometimes grotesque and sometimes very realistic. It would be convenient to sanitize these as crude forms of Shiva-linga, but I cannot accept that interpretation. The symbol, called in Thai palad khik, is a power-attracting charm or talisman. The folklore regarding palad khik carries all the marks of supernaturalism with a heritage that goes back to early animism (the pantheistic belief that all things in nature had spirits worthy of reverence). The main characteristic of modern supernaturalism is its ambiguity. So also with palad khik. They are sometimes used as fertility symbols, sometimes as protective symbols (especially against drowning), or to restore energy to resist the spiritual aspects of disease and misfortune. A man may wear a little carved penis image on a cord around his waist, keeping it away from his real thing, to deceive demons and add to a man’s strength and resistance. Parents might put one around a baby’s waist to persuade the demon that the vulnerable child is really a full-fledged adult. A woman might purchase a palad khik and offer it at a shrine where these are collected, to encourage a wanted pregnancy. Philip Cornwel-Smith has an excellent article on this in Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture with excellent pictures by John Goss [Bangkok: River Books, 2005].
If Siva-linga and Thai palad khik have anything in common it is a shared reference to creative energy and perhaps a heritage from religious culture that predates Vedic Hinduism. But the symbols should not be confused. The most potent palad khik are invested with power through chants that few know how to do these days. Mistreating a palad khik, or misrepresenting one by subjecting it to ridicule, can easily create hard feelings and strong reactions. But mis-handling or scorning a Shiva-linga can be considered in the same light as demeaning a Buddha image or a Christian crucifix; it would be a crime under Thai law.
Finally, I admit that not all people in Thailand agree with this distinction I have made. Most Thai people accept the Buddhist notion that Shiva-linga are phallic symbols as are palad khik. A controversy in Krabi Province reported on Oct 24, 2014 by Thai InfoNet conflates Shiva symbols with phallic symbols. Most Thai Christians have inherited the missionary bias that all these sexual referents are demeaning and wrong while refusing to recognize the same idea in tall church steeples. Most young men want nothing to do with the mockery that would come from being found to have a penis image tied around their waists or tattooed on their bodies. Most modern Thai people think of the whole subject as at least a little dirty. One has to be a bit desperate to have anything to do with this questionable aspect of spiritualism. Cornwel-Smith thinks the veneration of palad khik will pass away in a few years. I have doubts about that. This symbol in one form or another is one of the oldest and
Ghosts in Thailand, it’s complicated.
To sort it out let’s first note that talk of ghosts belongs to two realms of discourse. One is supernatural and the other is literary. That is true in many cultures.
Ghosts in literature are largely in the category of fantasy. Here in Thailand ghost stories are ubiquitous. They are equivalent to vampires in movies and popular culture in America these days, except that Thai ghosts predate Edgar Allen Poe or even the classic American Halloween story “The Headless Horseman” by Washington Irving, with plot borrowed from Medieval tales. Thai cartoons either exploit ambivalence about ghosts or veer toward outright ridicule. The noticeable thing, however, is how widespread they are. They are everywhere, in comic books, Saturday morning TV, soap operas, and theme parks. [The picture accompanying this essay is from a park in Pattaya, based on the famous “Tiger Balm Gardens” park in Singapore, now in sad decline.]
As an aspect of the supernatural, pii are of two types. One is a restless, wandering spirit, and the other is thought of as the spirit of a place. Popular attitudes toward the two are very different.
In Thai language the “jao thii” or lords of the land are the manifest proprietors of the world of nature. They are many and they are one. They were here from the beginning and will be here long after human beings relinquish their right to inhabit a place. They are given honor by being venerated in shrines for which Thailand is famous, the iconic “spirit houses” (a misnomer).
Wandering spirits are apt to be more troublesome. One reason they are wandering is because they have been prevented from their rightful destinations. Their stories are grist for legend-spinners: tales of vengeful lovers, the unburied and un-cremated dead, ghosts of those spitefully abused, and many others who ought to be reincarnated to work out their karma but cannot be until some condition is met. Meanwhile, they find no rest from their pitiful plight. They wreak havoc in their wrath, or plague us with their mournful outbursts, or interfere with people’s health in order to wrangle a second chance to die.
How seriously are these ghosts taken? Seriously enough to spawn an industry worth millions of baht that needs to use no advertising or promotion to sell their spirit houses, statuary, and paraphernalia. Seriously enough to inspire entire communities to concerted action whenever there is a death. Action can be as limited as an individual lighting an incense stick or as vast as a royal funeral. It has been a long time since the last nation-wide effort to appease virulent spirits, but even in these modern times such a thing is possible.
The related question is how literally these ghosts are taken. That there are pii few Thai people would disagree. What they require is less certain. What is universal is the sense that if anything is to be done, it is done “just in case”, to cover the options, to fulfill long-held tradition, and to clarify our standing in the world of nature and unseen forces. Ambivalence is the feature of supernatural belief that separates it from religion.
There is no better day to ponder the mystique of HM King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, than October 23, widely called in English “Chulalongkorn Day” but in Thai wan piya maha-raj (Day of the Beloved, the Great King). I would observe that a level of veneration has developed for King Chulalongkorn that has never been given to any past monarch in modern times in Thailand. It is that phenomenon that I will discuss in this essay.
What is the veneration?
In addition to the equestrian monument in the plaza in front of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok where military rededication ceremonies and massed royal audiences are held, portraits and images of HM King Rama V are widespread. They include pictures hanging in countless homes, statues proliferating in front of government buildings, and shrines in places of business which are attended to in very much the same way as are shrines to divinities overseeing prosperity and economic success. His anniversary (following oriental custom, the date of his death), alone among past monarchs, is a national holiday. His legacy and legend are vivid in the mind of every Thai person. There is also a mystery about him that has to do with the perception that he is a connection to the gods and powers that enable this nation and the people in it to prosper.
What did King Chulalongkorn do that is so memorable?
His most remembered accomplishments include, as a school child might recite them: freeing slaves, building railroads, defending Siam from being colonized, and modernizing the country. [I discuss this more extensively in an essay entitled “Protestant Influence in Siam”]. It is the aspect of modernization, I believe, that is predominant in the rise of what scholars have sometimes called the “cult of King Chulalongkorn”.
During the reign of King Chulalongkorn from 1868 to 1910, Siam joined the community of nations and empires. To do this the King had to modernize both the economic and the political structures of Siam. His revolutionary changes included sweeping away the thick layers of protocol and privilege that isolated the King from the people. Rama V was out among his people, expressing his ideas in person and in print, and visible in photographs as well as on trips, doing everything from sitting shirtless cooking to modeling his own designs of modern court and military apparel. He coordinated a massive program of constructing public buildings, palaces and temples, as well as boulevards to get to them. He instituted land reform by giving every residence a deed to the land on which they lived and farmed as well as the right to buy and sell land. He expanded the irrigation system, opening up areas for cultivation that doubled the food production capacity of the country transforming subsistence agriculture into the most important source of foreign exchange (replacing forestation). He set up a civil service that evolved into the nation’s largest employer and elevator for upward mobility.
It does not seem a mystery to me why the rise of the “cult of King Chulalongkorn” should be concomitant with the rise of the Thai business sector to world class standards during the time when Thailand was one of the Asian “Tiger” economies with double digit GNP growth and 13% interest rates before 1997. There was a phenomenon about prosperity that could be traced back to Rama V. If my guess is accurate, a fall in those statistics would be reflected in a quieting down of the level of veneration. Has this happened? I think so, but it’s difficult to measure
Religious hatred for political reasons is again on the rise and people are dying horribly as a result.
Although I am chagrined, embarrassed and tormented to be identified as a member, indeed a former leader, of a group engaged in proliferating religious-sounding, political-cultural hate, I realize we Christians are not alone in doing that. At the same time, I am a critic of Christian hate and an advocate of taking necessary steps to distance ourselves from cults and cliques that advocate hatred and violence in the name of Christ. I am also in several ways a potential target and victim as well as a part of humanity that is jeopardized and diminished by this hatred.
Let me be clear, if simplification can help. Let’s say that hate comes on two levels (although we know it comes in all grades of severity). The first level is “lethal” hate, and the other level we could call “pervasive” ... just for discussion’s sake.
Lethal hate has a lot in common with hysteria and it produces panic which is hysterical in reaction. This level of hate is ignited by fear of being overwhelmed. Here in Thailand I have been in touch with three religious systems, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Each of these has hate mongers in the news at present. Islam is plagued with militant terrorists called the “Islamic State”, an incarnation of Al Qaeda, the current form of Wahabism, launched by an itinerant preacher, Abd al-Wahab (1703-66). Buddhism is beset by an alliance of radical monks who have undertaken horrendous attacks on Rohingya Muslims in Burma and against Hindus and Christians in Sri Lanka (For a larger discussion of Buddhism and violence see the book BUDDHIST WARFARE). Christianity’s lethal hate-mongers have hijacked the missionary model to spread terror in the name of Christ. A recent report by the Human Rights Campain identifies a few names behind the movements around the world (especially in Africa and Central Asia) to suppress marriage equality and inflame loathing against gays and lesbians into violent attacks and repressive laws. See the report available online at THE EXPORT OF HATE. The fact is indisputable: certain Americans are fomenting dangerous hatred in the name of Jesus.
Of course, those proponents of lethal hate do not represent the huge majority of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. ISIS beheaders do not fairly represent Islam in 2014 any more than a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob represented Christianity in 1930. But that brings us to “pervasive hate” which is far more prevalent.
There is a thin line separating those who have steadfast loyalty to a religious culture and those who deny the validity of other religious cultures. The issue is tolerance of diversity. When one says, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” or “When the rapture comes non-believers will be left behind,” one is teetering on the line. The thing is, the exclusivists do not feel hatred and would be annoyed to have their positions described as intolerant. They have hatred narrowed down to a feeling of angry loathing, which they do not think they have. They counter that they have “good friends who are ... (‘others’)”. But their system of thinking essentially denies the possibility that other faith systems potentially carry as much validity as their own. They harbor at least a secret anguish that others refuse to grasp the truth; or, more passively, the exclusivists may simply be loyal and dedicated to groups that would prefer for diversity to go away. Their guilt is collective, and so it is one step removed. The most progressive among these exclusivists confess, “I just don’t know” (how to evaluate the validity of other faith systems). Those who are conservators of “the one truth” are active
on Facebook posting daily news of how Islam is threatening Israel and trying to install Sharia law in Michigan.
Here we hit the wall. Insofar as cultures are divided between liberals and conservatives, the conservatives think the liberals are prone to accept guilt, real and imaginary, for all the evils in the universe. Liberals accuse conservatives of denying they can be a part of a culture that is at all flawed, and many other denials as well. It is hard to make common cause against lethal hatred and those who use it to incite violence and atrocities when each side thinks the other is a dangerous threat to culture.
To make an impact on this dangerous polarization, all I can think of is how to “act locally”. In October 2001, a month after 9/11, I organized a local response to the fact that a youth group from St. Louis had cancelled their trip to Thailand. It was clear in my mind that the United States was in great danger, but I thought the greater aspect of the danger was from feeling endangered and mistaking the cause. “This will traumatize America,” I feared. [In retrospect I think I was prophetic.] So I organized a project to send a trio of students to St. Louis in place of the young people who had cancelled. The trio included a Christian, a Buddhist and a Muslim. They represented an alternative vision, peace. The project was called “A Peace Mission”. A second mission group went 2 years later, but by that time the besieged mentality in America was too strong to continue the project.
Alas, our six girls did not stem the tide of religious fear.
Still, the only practical hope I know of is to act locally. A decade after the Peace Missions ended, a Buddhist abbot and I organized an inter-religious project here in the hills. [The picture accompanying this blog is from that project.] We used our influence and resources to encourage Christians and Buddhists to build a bridge in a village where walls could easily go up. Together we brought a Christian-Buddhist Christmas to that village that is remembered to this day. Both the half of the village that is Christian and the half that is Buddhist live in harmony. Their ground is impervious to seeds of lethal religious hate. The abbot and I do not take credit for it. Their harmony is of long standing, but we celebrated it and the kids in the village are now teenagers. They and their elders remember.
So, what shall we do next ... you where you are, and me here?
A large wasps’ nest as a talisman is more common in rural areas where wasps’ nests are more common. Around our part of Northern Thailand many houses will display wasp nests or hornets’ nests above or near the front door. In the picture accompanying this essay, a priest is anointing a particularly large (abandoned!) nest on the occasion of a house blessing. The priest is marking the nest with bun (lime) paste, made of the same powdered mountain lime that is chewed with betel nuts. This lime paste is traditional for symbolic anointing on auspicious occasions. Lintels, name plates, foundation stones and royal plaques are often anointed with a pattern of dots or with an auspicious number, usually the number 9. This act of decoration may be accompanied by a chanted benediction, or the blessing might simply be implied.
We will now consider two questions about what is happening and why.
First, to what category of faith practice should this wasp-nest blessing be assigned? I think the most probable category is that this is a type of magical summoning of prosperity. It is indirect in that the thing symbolized and called for is not prosperity directly. More about that in a moment. It is magical because it presumes that an inanimate, inert object can and possibly will produce an unrelated result. It is analogous to kissing a magical stone to produce good luck or knocking on wood to prevent bad luck. The produce hoped from the wasp’s nest is prosperity, a vague but very positive accumulation of benefits. In Thailand talismans to summon prosperity are numerous. The most famous is the maiden Nang Kwak who sits on countless shelves dressed in a traditional Thai costume and crown, beckoning with her right hand palm down as one might summon a taxi or a friend. Nang Kwak is either inviting customers and thence prosperity, or she is calling for love, or both. This image or its ancestors goes back at least 2000 years. Nang Kwak images used to take great care with very special materials and inscriptions, but now they are mass produced. Less occult, and more akin to the wasp’s nest we are talking about, is the bamboo fish trap. It is also a form of sympathetic magic that works, presumably, by analogy. “As the fish trap lures fish in but does not let them out again,” the symbol alludes, “so are customers drawn by the flow of traffic into our shop where they contribute to our prosperity.” Plaited fish traps are actually used to catch fish, but when they are hanging full-size inside a shop near the cash drawer or in miniature form from the rear-view mirror of a car, their objective is merely equivalent to fishes.
Second, why a wasp-nest? In the case of the wasps’ nest, it is not the action of the wasps either in protecting their colony through their famous attack strategy or their building of the complex habitat that is being remembered, but the fact that they are a dense community. They congregate and cooperate in their undertaking. Their life is harmonious and they multiply and add to their number. The prosperity they manifest is social. So their nest hung by a doorway is a suggestive signal, encouraging the powers that be to do likewise for the human household. The wasp-nest is intended to exert an unexplained energy to draw people into the enterprise of creating a prosperous social unit.
Wasp-nest and fish-trap magic may seem a bit bizarre and far-fetched. It is hard to come up with an example of sympathetic magic that does not seem absurd to a modern scientific mind. The entire category is excluded from the realm of possibility when it is carefully scrutinized. However, there are religious medals and plaques in every culture and every religion. Their purpose is not very different. They identify those who display or wear them, but they also symbolize the aspiration for benefits, not least of which are prosperity and protection. They might not be thought of as magical, but they certainly are held to be evocative. They evoke the blessing being referred to no matter how that blessing is supposed to be produced. All over Thailand cars of Christian owners exhibit an “icthus” (fish) symbol, supposedly a testimony of faith but also (like the wasp’s nest) a call for community. A few generations ago almost every household in America contained the sentiment, “Home Sweet Home”. That’s the wasp-nest idea in the form of a cross-stitch sampler.
The gay-straight binary is a lie. It is a powerful, influential and persistent lie in which a lot of people have invested a great deal of wealth and energy, but it is as wrong as the male-female binary, which is also defended vehemently. Defenders of these two binary fictions have a lot at stake and they will not give ground easily. I will leave it to others to continue the campaign to destruct the male-female binary. This small essay is about the gay-straight deceit, and why it is not merely a mistake.
I base my case on dissection of the stories of a group of gay friends I have known and loved, six of whom are pictured above. That is a picture of friends across the spectrum. From their stories, even more than their appearance, we know they are transgender, transitioning, transvestite (for the party that night at least), tentative, tender and tough. It is unjust to call them all gay, or to fix a label on any of them. They match the shades of the rainbow.
If the gay-straight analysis were fair and sufficient all we would have to agree is that these six friends are either gay or not. How would we know? We could ask them and accept their answers, in which case we would probably hear that they are gay. That is the way we would hear what they would say, and we would bend their far subtler answers to fit our two pigeon holes.
Here in Thailand there is room for a third sex and for ambiguity. So, if we were to ask the impolite question, “Are you a kathoey?” we would gain a reply appropriate to such a rude question. The way to determine whether a friend or acquaintance is a kathoey is by observing how they present themselves androgynously. But that, too, would be misleading because the word kathoey has two meanings, one sensitive and the other essentially derogatory. As a curse, the term accuses the person of being deceitful about their masculinity and sexual ambitions. To be more sensitive and put it as elegantly as possible, a kathoey is a female cursed by karma from previous lives to be born in a male body; there is a degree of fatedness in that. But it doesn’t translate into popular acceptance, rather into tolerance. People put up with the condition in others and themselves without being altogether happy about it. What they do about it, on the other hand, is where the spectrum applies.
There are also some guys identified as male at birth and throughout life who are not any more biased toward a psychological identity with their female side than the average human being might be. Psychoanalysts are very clear we all have both an animus and an anima operating in our sub-consciences. So, these guys are male but they have a strong tendency to be sexually and romantically attracted to people with male bodies and personalities. They are gay ... or more than a little bit gay ... or bisexual. Once you hear people’s stories the lines blur.
Why does it matter so much that we keep strict track of whether there are individuals or even populations who are gay? It matters because we are in the midst of a culture war. The real battle is for freedom of action and expression. But that will not prevail as a rationale. That would denigrate the issue to a range of behavioral choices. We will lose the battle (and possibly our freedom and our lives) when the issue is about our choice of sexual practices. It is crucial in this culture war for us to be identified as essentially distinct. That limits our potential alliances.
I know of embattled confederations who have risked everything to get into the mainstream. They do not want us. Radical feminists a few years ago refused to accept lesbians and their issues into feminist discussion because they did not want to weaken their campaign by multiplying their issues. Christian groups now are gaining traction in an effort to penetrate fundamentalist fortifications with the slogan “We will make marriage more enduring.” Racial-ethnic minorities tend to oppose gay rights because they think of us as a threat; they have enough to be on about without having any more difficult causes to diffuse their thrust.
For the most part, the gay-pride movement is trying for two things: (1) To have marriages like everyone else’s. This is a minimalist and reasonable request. We want to join the mainstream. We declare, “There is nothing unique about us.” (2) To be understood and appreciated. This is an appeal to basic humanitarian sensitivity. “We are your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters.” There is nothing threatening about us.
But there is more to it than that.
We know that choices about sexual practices and relationships are subservient to something more basic. We are battling for the right to be authentic and not just for the freedom to do as we please. Gradually we have acquired allies. Psychiatric and medical associations have agreed that there is something called orientation that is enduring and cannot be changed. Sexual orientation cannot be changed. In fact, as we have long perceived in our own hearts, the doctors are now in widespread agreement that it is even damaging to deny that orientation. The best case scenario is to discover one’s orientation, adjust to it, find friends and lovers with a compatible orientation, and develop a community within society.
But there is more that we can do than fit in.
Very few people in the cultural majority are interested that we might actually have unique perspectives, different gifts, singular experiences or creative insights quite unlike their own. Worse, some who do perceive what it would mean to receive us as peers and equals fear our contributions would result in equivalents to revolution or anarchy.
On the whole I think it is altogether possible that the conservative right is right to fear us. We may not have the agenda they accuse us of pursuing, but we certainly are more potent social change agents than our own minimalists recognize, who just want to get married and file joint tax returns. We have more to offer and more to require.
Our six friends would like nothing better than to be unremarkable, but they are remarkable, not only for their courage, stamina, and loyalty, but also because of their identity as successful, independent and creative. They are unpretentious and basically unaware of the impact they are making just by refusing to hide within the mundane shadows. If you knew their stories you would understand how I can insist that we across the rainbow spectrum are coming not to sustain cultures and societies but to improve them.