Ordination before the fire is a particular type of merit-making that is both fairly common and relatively undocumented. Buat naa fai could be called a cremation ordination and it is done by boys to make merit for a relative, often a grandparent. It typically is purely ceremonial in that the boys have no intention of remaining in the monastery community longer than one day.
This week’s blog is essentially a picture essay with concluding observations.
First a few principles: (1) “Ordination before the Fire” is generally into novice status. (2) Since it has a particular, limited purpose there are few of the customary preparatory ceremonies such as formal leave-taking from mother and father, elaborate procession to the temple, or a feast for the chapter of monks and laity. (3) It is possible for the novice(s) to change their mind and remain in the temple longer than one day. (4) Not all abbots are willing to receive novices into this type of ordination.
The elements of ordination before a cremation are simply the bare essentials for ordaining a novice into a temple community of monks. The pictures accompanying this blog are a record of 3 nephews who were ordained on March 25, 2016 to make merit for their grandmother, Mrs. Fong Wanna, in Sanpatong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The ordination included the following activities:
1. The boys had their hair cut and eyebrows shaved. This is normally done or finished by a monk, but in this instance the abbot told them to do this the night before the cremation.
2. On the morning of the cremation the boys went with older male relatives to the temple with the things necessary for the ordination.
3. The abbot presided, assisted by just 2 other priests. The boys ceremonially requested ordination and were asked the standard questions before being permitted to change into saffron colored robes. They left their street clothes at the temple.
4. They were then ordained by the abbot, who urged them to consider staying in the temple as novices longer than one day.
5. Down the street, preparations for the big funeral service were getting finished. The new novices drew everybody’s attention as they arrived with their assigned mentor.
6. The novices attended the chanting service, but participated as they would, had they still been laity. They sat off to the side.
7. When the chanting was finished everyone was served a community meal. The priests and novices were served first, and their food was specially presented.
8. As the casket was moved from the family home to the cremation grounds, the novices led the crowd under the direction of their mentor. The chapter of priests who had done the chanting and would preside at the cremation were taken by car.
9. The boys had a place of distinction at the cremation, but lined up with the family as all the guests filed past.
10. Following ignition of the cremation fire, which burned the catafalque spectacularly and the casket inside the cremation oven, the people left the cremation grounds. The priests returned to their various temples. The novices returned to the village temple where they quietly asked to demit and were given permission. They changed back into their shirts and jeans leaving their orange robes at the temple.
This ceremony is all about making merit which is transferred to the deceased. It is a family-oriented thing to do. There is no intention that any of the benefits of regular ordination will accrue to the ordinands or the temple. The novices do not even have to memorize their ordination vows. They practice no meditation and only briefly adhere to any abstentions.
The boys tended to feel self-conscious rather than honored. There was almost no time they felt at ease or knew exactly what to do. They were coached every step of the way. Their motive, in the end, was to express love and respect for their grandmother.
This type of ordination is considered an optional custom, happening only in a small percentage of funerals. There is no stigma for foregoing this, even in large or prosperous families. However, having grandsons do this is a sign the family has “done everything possible” to see that Grandmother has a complete send-off.
The very fact that this type of ceremony exists is sufficient to prove that merit-making is a valid part of Thai Buddhist practice. Furthermore, the merit is transferred in order to offset the demeritorious accumulation of the deceased, who is (of course) an entirely passive beneficiary. There are other ordinations to make merit in behalf of recipients. Sometimes there is even an elaborate merit-transferral ceremony. This has important implications for the theological understanding of karma, and functions in principle precisely as Christian atonement does.
Throughout the transitional era of Thailand from a basic economy and subsistence lifestyle into a progressive capitalist economy and middle-class lifestyle (1940-1990) the church undertook an amazing variety of approaches to supplement its three-fold mission with a fourth. Previously, Protestant work in Siam/Lao/Thailand had been directed toward improving life religiously, educationally and medically. Institutional supports for this were churches, schools and hospitals.
As Herb Swanson documented in Khrischak Muang Nua, his historical analysis of the Protestant Church in North Thailand, when threats from the Lanna authorities suppressed church growth among the Chiang Mai upper class, missionaries used their status as patrons to provide jobs for needy new Christians. The size and spread of the Protestant Church outgrew that strategy, and the missionary exodus from the north after Pearl Harbor brought it to an abrupt end.
However, the impact of the “Social Gospel” and the scale of human needs of people after World War II in the church and within its sphere was so pressing that a new mission was undertaken: the improvement of people’s economic capacity.
This impressive effort was in full swing when I arrived in Chiang Mai in 1965. There were as many agricultural and vocational missionaries as there were medical specialists, perhaps more. [Note: in 1965 and afterward as well, missionary wives were appointed by mission boards “to assist their husbands.” In fact, many of these women undertook an unlabeled specialized mission of vocational training and product development.]
· American Baptist agricultural missionaries working with ethnic Karen Christians included Dick Mann, Rupert Nelson and Ben Dickerson. The efforts they showed me were about improved rice production and development of additional agricultural products including wool, fruit (grapefruit, passion fruit, apples) as well as coffee, tea and flowers. They also developed village water supplies, sanitary toilets, and schools.
· American Presbyterian agricultural missionaries included Travaillers and Turnbulls at the Sampantakit Farm in Chiang Rai. The Farm was a cooperative experiment to homestead previously useless land into farms growing multiple crops and benefitting from united purchasing and marketing power. The goal was to demonstrate how previously landless peasants could become land owners with expendable income through modern farming methods including mechanization. Dr. Larry Judd undertook a broad effort in North Thailand to inspire and enable rural Christians (the great majority of CCT members at that time) to band together to improve their economic power. The CCT developed a Rural Life Department to coordinate these projects on a national scale.
· Handicraft production and sales was another strategy that achieved international attention. Three enterprises were spearheaded by missionaries: Marian McAnallen’s Lao Song cloth products from Nakhon Pathom, Thai Tribal Crafts selling a wide range of hand-made items from ethnic villages in the northern hills, and handicrafts made by McKean leprosy patients and former McKean residents in satellite villages. The idea was that producers of marketable products did not need to be displaced from their homes and villages, nor taught new skills and trades, to make things that would bring in supplemental income. Marlene Mann, Dee Nelson, Idalene Conklin, Elaine Lewis, Dot Turnbull, Heather Smith, Marian McAnallen and others served as quality control coaches and “fusion” product designers. Key to the success of these ventures was finding markets for the products; Church World Service and the SERRV free-trade agency were the international outlets, expanding sales beyond shops in Thailand. In some cases handicraft production became lucrative enough that manufacturers gave up farming entirely. In 1965-70 McKean was a large, fully functioning village. Residents made furniture, did wood carving, custom printing and refined handicrafts, sewed garments, grew fruit, and raised fish and hogs.
· An Urban-Industrial mission (following the vision developed by Dr. Marshal Scott at McCormick Theological Seminary) was begun in the Samut Prakan Eastern Seaboard area south east of Bangkok. This mission attempted to help displaced industrial workers cope with the challenges of slum-living, being educationally disadvantaged, and feeling powerless. Bryce Little helped the project get started and become an official unit of the CCT. The Rev. Somrit Wongsang and his wife, Nuansri, continued the work for another four decades.
· The Marburger Mission undertook evangelism and church leadership development. An aspect of this included experiments in two fields: a diaconate program in which women committed themselves to a shared life of Christian piety and service, and a training program for “tent-making” ministry to equip men to be pastors with skills to generate a living at such things as livestock husbandry or motorcycle repair.
One thing all these efforts had in common was an attempt to be realistic and practical about improving the living conditions of people mired in economic disadvantage. The basic reason they all faded is that they failed to help people achieve their real aspiration, which was to rise above their economic level rather than to simply be more comfortable within it. Yet for a while, these programs did generate hope and bring relief. Like strategies in H.M. the King’s “Sufficiency Economy Philosophy,” the church’s social-economic initiatives were interim solutions. It is unfair and irresponsible to accuse those who supported these efforts of surreptitiously trying to keep the lower classes servile and passive. I have read presumably responsible academic papers that made that charge. The projects did not fail if they helped people live better while rising above menial subsistence lifestyles and circumstances into the middle class. But the projects faded and folded when people born in the next two generations were able to “do better than that.”
Prosperity comes in cycles, but for the present, the goal of village young people is to get salaried employment to escape the marginal jobs and unpredictable income of their agrarian parents and ancestors. These days, every family unit needs at least one person earning a salary. Income from a sideline such as handicraft production is not enough unless the manufacturing is on a full-time basis. Sidelines for farmers are in areas such as construction. For a growing number of villagers, however, it is farming that is the sideline.
You do not know the name of God. No one does.
This is a universal theological truth, but this short essay is limited to a discussion of the name of the god who ambiguously said, “YHWH,” when asked for a name.
Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has
sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to
Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites ‘I AM has sent me
to you.’ … This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 2:13-15, New
Revised Standard Version)
According to a recent article about YHWH, translating the phrase is difficult. That is in perfect agreement with my Old Testament professor several decades ago. For one thing, the letters can all be vowels (or vowel place holders) as well as consonants. Since the word (or phrase) was sacred it was unpronounceable, and without any idea how to pronounce it, it is virtually impossible to translate precisely. It can be rendered “I Am that I Am” or “I shall be what I shall be” “I shall be what I am” or “I will become what I will choose to become” or “I will become whatsoever I please” or perhaps (if the verb is causative) “Who causes to be” “Who gives life” or “Who causes to exist.”
There are, I take it, only two possible reasons why God would tell Moses a name like that. It would have to have been in order to obfuscate and confuse, or to imply unfathomable holiness. You can guess which rationale I think is obvious.
The outcome, however, was far from settled. Even though the god of the ancestors preferred to not to be on a first name basis, in a world of gods with famous names, Moses and a majority of his spiritual descendants didn’t think a nameless god would work out well. Beginning soon after the burning bush encounter in Exodus 2, Israelites coined and borrowed a large number of names which they used and often even enunciated when they came across YHWH in writing. Pious Jews, still later, hesitated to use any name for God. It became very confusing after all.
At least the gender of God was clear from the beginning. Wasn’t it?
Rabbi Mark Sameth submitted an opinion editorial to the New York Times in which he sought to correct our certainty about God as Father, He and Him. Rabbi Sameth says that YHWH was ambiguous not only with regard to tense (present or future) but also with regard to gender.
In fact, the Hebrew Bible, when read in the original language offers a highly elastic view of gender.
And I do mean highlyelastic: in Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as “he.” In Genesis 9:21, after the
flood Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.” And
Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.” …In Esther 2:7, Mordecai is pictured as nursing his
niece Esther. In a similar way, in Isaiah 49:23, the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be
“nursing kings.” …In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was a mark of a civilized
person. Such a person was considered more godlike.
The idea of “nursing kings,” Sameth says, was derived from Hatshepsut who succeeded her husband Thutmose II and became one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. That sets the stage for Sameth’s assertion that “the four-Hebrew-letter name of God … YHWH … would have [been] read … in reverse as Hu/Hi – in other words the hidden issue of God was Hebrew for “He/She.” In that ancient context, this would merely have been another way to indicate that God was too holy and remote to be too specific about. Sameth’s conclusion is, “…The God of Israel … was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a dual-gendered deity.”
Now, having the benefit of 3000 years of cogitating on this, we have added several solid layers of certainty about God’s identity that earlier people would not have dared or dreamed of doing. Conveniently, it all fits neatly into our binary he-she social construct and rejects he/she as a possibility. Our refusal to look critically at our socially-biased belief probably wouldn’t matter if it weren’t being used as ammunition to slaughter each other in the name of the nameless god with many names.
Fortunately, I learned from Rabbi Sameth, we do not need to object to the growing consensus about gender fluidity on Biblical grounds. HE/SHE was rather huffy about mortals being too inquisitive and adamant.
Rabbi Mark Sameth’s article appeared August 12, 2016 in the New York Times. Downloaded: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.htmlwww.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.html
A full discussion of YHWH can be found online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetragrammaton
“The Church of Christ in Thailand: Turning Into Its Own Idea”
The beginning of the Church of Christ in Thailand can be traced back to the missionary work of American Baptists and the Presbyterian Church in the USA, in the 1830s. The goal of both mission groups was to establish a church organization composed of local church congregations. The strategy was to identify and develop clusters of Christians with the potential of growing into self-sustaining, self-governing churches responding to critical needs for spiritual, educational and medical support. Projects to provide sustained economic assistance were added after the Second World War (and will be discussed in a later essay). In general, the Baptists concentrated on immigrant and ethnic minority groups while the Presbyterians tried to develop mission work with Siamese and Lao populations.
Mission centers were built by the Presbyterians in larger towns including Bangkok, Petchaburi, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Prae and Nan. By the end of the first missionary century, celebrated in 1928-29, there were Christian churches, hospitals and schools in each of those centers with satellite churches surrounding the larger centers.
1930-1980 was a half-century of refinement, expansion and transition. Mission work of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), located largely in Nakhon Pathom and Ratchaburi provinces West of Bangkok, joined the CCT as District 11. Three types of entities developed separate missions: churches, institutions and organizations. These moved into various forms of autonomy or semi-independence. Churches tended to be self-supporting to the extent that they built and maintained their own buildings and larger churches hired clergy. The national Church of Christ in Thailand was formed. Schools and hospitals operated with fewer and fewer missionaries on staff and gradually none had missionaries as administrators. A couple of hospitals were closed as Thai government medical services expanded, but schools tended to keep going with new schools added from time to time either spearheaded by key leaders or as satellites or offshoots. Seminaries and other higher education institutions were established or “came into their own” during this era, including the Bangkok Student Christian Center and the Center for the Uplift of the Hill Tribes (now called the Siloam Center), followed by Payap University in Chiang Mai and Christian University of Thailand in Bangkok and Nakhon Pathom. Organizations that were neither churches nor institutions tended to be thought of as extraneous to the main mission of the CCT. They were treated in various ways. The Thai Student Christian Movement was tolerated rather than supported. Baptists developed a program in Chiang Mai for women (particularly women escaping from or avoiding prostitution) that, like the Bangkok Christian Guest House, is only loosely connected to the CCT. Sampantakit Farm cooperative in Chiang Rai “completed its mission” and dissolved, dividing assets among coop members. Free Burma Rangers never received CCT endorsement and is solely independent. The Voice of Peace chose not to join with the CCT. Whereas, the Klong Toey mission is fully integrated in the CCT but is required to operate as if it is not. These are examples. The list of organizations is extensive.
Since 1980 (to pick an arbitrary date) the CCT has undergone major changes of perspective and operation. Although I am avoiding mentioning names in this essay, I need to mention two with regard to the way by which the CCT “turned into its own idea.” Khun Wibul Pattarathamat was a Thai-Chinese business man (some would say “tycoon”) when he was elected to a single term as Moderator of the CCT at the beginning of this third era. He installed a vision of financial independence that was controversial and daring at the time. His concept was that the CCT could operate on a business model utilizing resources at its disposal to make a great deal of money with which to run the church. Church real estate was one immense resource the church was underutilizing. Using vast property of the Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation as collateral, he pushed a plan to build a new church headquarters building on a piece of land behind the Bangkok Christian Hospital which included several floors of office rental space to produce income to pay off the loan and continue generating income for the church. He also implemented a self-development plan in 1979 for churches to use funds from the central church organization to pay pastor’s salaries in decreasing amounts over 10 years so that the congregations, with full-time pastors, would be able to grow large enough to be self-supporting from then on. This plan has been modified, but was the beginning of a major expansion of pastoral services across the denomination. The Rev. Dr. Boonratna Boayen served the CCT for about 30 years as Moderator or General Secretary. His vision was for the CCT to move from a level of chaotic decentralization and chronic dysfunction into a more centralized and tightly controlled national organization. Highly representative government was modified into a much more hierarchical form with power increasingly vested in top leadership, but units became more accountable and functioned more effectively according to stated plans than ever before. Revisions of the CCT constitution and book of regulations reduced the authority of boards of institutions and of church district councils (formerly called “presbyteries” then “districts”). Funding became centralized to the extent that the CCT top leadership team (the 9-member Executive Committee including the 4 full-time national church leaders) have the authority to intervene in any church or institution to review finances and replace board members and institutional heads, or even close institutions.
The CCT has developed a very Thai way of operating, but has thrived at its main mission, which is maintenance of the CCT as an organization with functioning congregations. During this era virtually all 800 local churches have acquired full-time pastors (up from barely 20% in 1980), a majority of churches have built new church buildings or refurbished older ones to retain historical appearance.
Since 1980 three large groups have been incorporated into the CCT: Christian churches in the Isan region (provinces in the NE section of the country), formerly established by the Christian and Missionary Alliance, joined the CCT as District 13. Karen Baptist and Lahu Baptist groups joined en masse, more than doubling the membership of the CCT. This influx motivated the second constitutional revision to insure that ethnic Thai and Thai-Chinese would retain control of the CCT. Major building programs since 1980 are beyond counting, but mention should be made of the CCT headquarters building in the commercial heart of Bangkok on the campus of the Student Christian Center, the Mae Kao Campus of Payap University, and the Nakhon Pathom campus of Christian University of Thailand, as well as 2 high-rise additions to Bangkok Christian Hospital.
The CCT is no longer Presbyterian or Baptist. Some congregations retain aspects of their rites and heritage, but the whole church is more Thai than anything. There are no foreigners in the CCT administration or on national committees. The CCT has become what it sought to become, even as it grows on to become something else that is its own idea.
What does a house mean? The residence we live in signifies our identity and values and sends signals about that to those who know us. I would like to ruminate on personal identity issues with regard to 3 homes I visited last weekend.
Dr. Porntip Kawinsupon of Christian University of Thailand and her daughter have built a house on an acre of farmland about 12 miles north of Nakhon Pathom. Their house dedication ceremony was a chance for friends and colleagues to respond to this significant life-event. From conversations and comments that day I believe this house represents a major life-goal for my friend, Porntip. She has had homes before, but never a house. Now she has an identifiable location of her own choice and design. It is modern, solid, and dependable and the land around it, inside its boundary wall, can be developed. No doubt the things to come will be in several senses practical: vegetables, shade trees and flowers. The house, its lot and location, and its style of construction say that the owner values substance without extravagance. The largest indoor creative area is the kitchen (rather than a family room, studio, or library, for example). Since ostentation is not the nature for Porntip and Nong Muk, the size of the house and grounds suggests that Dr. Porntip is planning for a future that accommodates more than these two women. There’s room for growth. The house is noticeable also for what it lacks. It is fairly isolated, down a narrow lane, not part of a village. We know Portip and Srp are not inclined to hermitage living, so this house in its independent location is a clue that these two women will continue their community life in other ways, as they have for years. The house could signal a radical break, but it does not. They intend to reside there while they live in a much wider world, continuing church involvement, associations and friendships without interruption.
The Rev. Surakit Kamonrat presided at Porntip’s house blessing and then welcomed us to visit his new residence in a subdivision on Phuttamonton Soi 4, halfway back to the city from Nakhon Pathom. Just 2 months ago he retired from about 2 decades as director of the Bangkok Student Christian Center where he lived on campus. Now he and his wife live in a narrow townhouse with their daughter, son-in-law (who both have jobs) and 1 year-old grandson, Miracle. Miracle is the reason they all live together in a house that can barely hold them. The house signifies how central Miracle is for Surakit and his wife, at least for the present. Miracle weighed about a kilogram at birth but he’s on a standard growth curve now. Small as he is, or because he was recently so much smaller, he is the force drawing this nuclear family into a house that reflects their dedication to one another. For them the future is probably imperfectly represented in this present housing. This house probably does not look much like the house of Surakit’s dreams. As an observer of implied values, I think the house they live in signifies how little importance this family places on such middle-class values as elbow-room, personal privacy, convenience, and display of prestige.
A third house visited last Saturday belongs to my host for the day who co-celebrated Dr. Porntip’s house warming. The Rev. Prasatpong Pansuay and his wife, Orapin, and their two children are co-owners and investors in a dream-come-true home in a subdivision in the Thonburi section of Bangkok. Prasatpong and Orapin are former seminary students, so I have known them since they were teens. Let me put it this way: the climb from their origins to this lovely home in an exclusive, gated community has been astounding. Nobody is more surprised than Prasatpong. He is senior pastor of one of Bangkok’s oldest and most “established” Protestant churches, a position that has propelled him into the top echelon of church clerical leadership in Thailand. However, being a pastor in Thailand is not a role that normally endows a person with economic capability to retire well. What the Thonburi house signifies is family solidarity. It is a joint venture. Their son is a successful and hard-working member of the Thai media giant Grammy Inc., in the radio and TV advertising department. Their daughter is a newly graduated nurse in Bangkok Christian Hospital. So, 2 other things this Thonburi townhouse represents are this family’s firm transplantation from the rural north to the heart of the largest city in mainland South East Asia, and their commitment to each other.
Chanon Showtime is the most successful and creative costume shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Every month the shop supplies hundreds of costumes, some of which are made to order and others rented or sold from the shop’s stock of about 1000 costumes. International orders have come from the Netherlands, China and Australia. But the bulk of the business is in the Northern region of Thailand.
The genius in Chanon Showtime is Chanon “Wi” Sanguan. Wi has two full-time protégés, Night and Nam-chio. They operate out of a storefront on the northwest corner of the old city of Chiang Mai. Wi designs the costumes and buys the raw materials. He then hires dressmakers to produce the finished costumes. He specializes in fantasy costumes with exotic crowns and headdresses which they make in the shop. Some orders keep as many as 20 seamstresses busy for a month. The shop also works with customers who have costume designs in mind for their extravagant productions at conventions, business launches, or school and university events. Sometimes Chanon Showtime produces its own spectacular shows, hiring up to 50 models to march, strut and dance. Chanon Showtime entries are expected for most transgender contests in this part of the country.
Wi says his most exciting times come from supplying outfits for models and media stars’ portfolios. But his greatest challenges come from supplying large orders at short notice. One school orders 500 unique costumes each year for an annual sports festival. They have a month to have the costumes ready for the parade.
Wi is a bit reticent to speculate about the financial aspects of his business, but guesses it has risen from zero in 2010, when the business had its third start-up after 2 failures, to a multi-million baht enterprise today.
There are 4 costume rental shops in Chiang Mai to supply the market for designer costumes. Most of them specialize in more traditional or historical Thai costumes and formal attire. Chanon Showtime is outside the box. Some of Wi’s designs look like they were made for Los Vegas shows or Mardi Gras parades. Other costumes show a flare for irony and cultural cross-over or fusion.
The unique thing about this niche business is that all 4 Chiang Mai stores are gay-owned and operated. “Who else but us would do this?” Wi asked, laughing. I agreed it takes flare and daring. It also takes sustained professionalism to keep up with the flood of imaginative designs that pour into Wi’s notebooks, through the showroom, and onto show-time cat-walks and stages.
[For more about Wi and his business, click on this previous blog: www.kendobson.asia/blog/costumes ]
BLACK LIVES are the ones that MATTER in this campaign.
The principles are these:
1. A slogan or symbol belongs to the group that coined it.
2. If the slogan inspires a movement, the slogan and the movement belong to those who join.
3. The slogan of a movement cannot be changed by those outside the movement without opposing the movement.
As applied to the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement, the ALL LIVES MATTER slogan is a protest; otherwise there would not be a slogan insisting that “All Lives Matter!”
1. The effect of All Lives Matter is to deflect attention from Black lives in jeopardy.
2. All Lives Matter will not lead to a movement benefitting all lives or any particular lives.
3. The underlying purpose of the slogan is to decelerate the Black Lives Matter movement.
I hope I have made myself clear about that. I have concern about this gathered over the years. For several reasons, the on-line argument between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter reminds me of previous controversies. I’ll reflect on four: Gay Pride, Black Is Beautiful, Indians, and the Holocaust.
HOLOCAUST is a term coined in retrospect, referring specifically to the NAZI genocide to wipe out Jews in Europe. The term was borrowed from the name for a sacrifice burned up entirely, on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a term fraught with complex sacred significance to Jews. Its use to refer to the NAZI cremation of Jews is intentionally ironic. In a real sense nobody but Jews was killed in the Holocaust. The term does not apply to the liquidation of gays, Gypsies, Bolsheviks and others, although the same NAZI apparatus and facilities were used to exterminate them as well. Holocaust is a term for the Jewish part of the program to “purify Germany in behalf of the Aryan Race through extermination in death camps of impure racial stock.” After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a “Remember the Holocaust” movement began that included plans to build Holocaust Memorials, beginning with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Opposition arose to this movement almost immediately by those eager to put the terrible era behind them, and others feeling left out of the remembrance movement and unmentioned in the memorials. The most strident opposition to the Holocaust memorial movement has been in Russia, where they insist that more Soviets died by NAZI hands than any other ethnic group.
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL is a slogan popularized about 50 years ago to instill racial pride and identity. It coalesced into a movement that promoted a wide range of cosmetic and costume enterprises, as well as unique dialectic and sub-cultural trends. High points in the expanded movement were the establishment of the birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday in the USA, implementation of Black History Month, and several spectacular events such as the 1964 March on Washington, the “Roots” TV mini-series, and passage of US civil rights laws. Borrowing by non-Blacks of Black is Beautiful symbols such as Afro hair styles, rap music, and dialectic slang still causes backlash as “another cultural exploitation.” The effect, if not the intent, of this borrowing is to deprive Black people of unique cultural indicators for which they can be respected and admired.
INDIAN icons are another ongoing issue in the USA (as are ethnic cultural markers elsewhere). Countless athletic organizations adopted Native American icons as mascots, logos, and brands. Native American advocacy groups want to reclaim their ethnic symbols beginning with such icons as the traditional eagle-feather headdress worn by Sioux chiefs. “This belongs to us,” is the message, “and its use in inappropriate ways distorts its symbolic meaning and diminishes our heritage.” The headdress was a badge of singular honor with particular and almost sacred significance that is being disrespected and desecrated when it is used as a costume or logo. Furthermore, the standard portrayal of the “Indian Chief” is a racial stereotype that triggers a narrow range of ideas about Native Americans in eagle feathers as violent, aggressive, and primitive. Sports clubs insist they honor and admire Indians and want their players to emulate their fighting capabilities. This is a simple admission of racial-ethnic stereotyping and cultural exploitation which ignores everything else about Native American ethnic cultures.
GAY PRIDE parades are organized with the express purpose of communicating personal acceptance of participants’ gay identity and challenging spectators in the community to accept us as we are in our diversity of expression – and to join the parade. Gay Pride parades have spread around the world and the “Gay Pride” movement has engendered organizations such as PFLAG and hundreds of NGOs working on such gay-related issues as HIV-AIDS, homeless gay youths, sexual exploitation and trafficking, and lobbying for legal relief from oppressive laws and the advancement of equal rights. Gay Pride parades have, on the whole, been popular and successful, rivaling or surpassing other annual parades in many cities. So far, Gay Pride events and movements have not been appropriated for some expanded objective, thereby blurring their focus. Possibly that is because outright threats and naked terror are still being used to intimidate the movement and it takes a degree of courage to be associated with Gay Pride.
Application and alteration of these symbols and slogans have one thing in common. They intend to modify the movement so it will settle down and cease to intimidate those who do not belong to it. The fact that the movement by a minority is no threat to the majority is less relevant than the fact that people in the movement are moving and no longer passive. The changes being promoted are understood at some level by everyone to involve a reallocation of power and control.
PS-Thanks for Andrew Dobson for the photos of his neighbors.
Dan Mei: Ironic Gay-Straight Culture Mix
A month ago Dr. Charlie Yi Zhang, Asst. Prof. of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky, enchanted an audience at Chiang Mai University with his interpretation of a culture-quake going on in China we had barely heard about. We did know that women in North East Asia were fascinated with stories about gay guys, but we did not know this interest had spawned an on-line fan-fad. Charlie filled us in.
Dan Mei is a Chinese subculture centered on fictional homoromantic/homoerotic relationships. As I understand it, websites have been created based on certain stories of love, sex and romance between beautiful, slim, talented boys and young men. Fans of these stories are urban, young, heterosexual women with good jobs. They get on-line and talk to each other about fantasy scripts and developments, adding to the story and including characters from pop culture whom the fans fantasize might be gay, too. The women work their fantasies out within certain boundaries. The stories may begin with a stereotypical rich fellow becoming attached to a younger disadvantaged guy, but sooner or later the tables are turned and the younger lover has the stuff to rescue the older one, showing that there is a balance in their relationship all along. The characters are inevitably effeminate but capable. These websites, Charlie told us, are numerous and very active. Furthermore, they are making inroads into mainline media and influencing popular Chinese vocabulary that even the guardians of Chinese culture cannot avoid.
Then Charlie escorted us through a woodland of topics threatening to turn into a bewildering forest. Rather than try to re-map the zones of neo-liberalism, feminism, and state controls over discourse, I’ll just mention a few of the trees.
What’s going on in this Dan Mei sub-culture is deeply counter-cultural. Whereas, the cultural power structure of the Chinese state has definite roles for women to adhere to, Dan Mei fans are busily imagining alternatives. In the fantasy stories there is a strong male figure, liberated from a tight heterosexual script into a “beautiful and true form of romance.” The women imagine themselves being in the place of the younger fellow, who has a beautiful feminized body but compensating strong masculine disposition. The fans “subject these boys to their voyeuristic gaze [whereas in the West it is the men who inevitably are the voyeurs] and imagine themselves as the one being penetrated.” Charlie was careful to help us understand that this preserves the “domineering penetrating versus docile penetrated” paradigm with the women eagerly seeking the docile role. What is going on, however, is not affirmation of male-centered cultural legacy. They are actually embracing an older pre-colonial traditional culture that contained effeminate “floral men” as valued and significant characters in culture and society. In that way this Chinese form of feminism is the reverse of the feminist position that advocates, embraces and strives for equality. In fantasy and in real-life, the fans dream of finding a masculine, well-built hero but with themselves having equal social, economic, educational, and professional status, by no means walking three steps behind their husbands. Indirectly, therefore, they are undermining “the official social policy of modern neo-liberalism in which women merely complement men in supporting market-driven economic and social goals.”
What this Dan Mei sub-culture is tending to do, Charlie concluded, is to create space for voluntary associations and affiliations. Dan Mei fans are creating “a safe zone to sidestep state-backed gender essentialism.” The goal is to enable a space of flexibility, mutation and contingencies. They are creating a gray area in which both male and female bodies and performances are redefined.
Charlie avoided using the term “revolutionary” to describe the effect Dan Mei fans are having on the state-controlled culture, but he pointed toward the advantages gays and lesbians are deriving from the introduction of a category of life that is utopian, youthful, in between, and free from social penalties and punishments.
PS-Stay tuned for Dr. Zhang's forthcoming article on Dan Mei and for more on this subject see this NY Times' blog post: "Why Many Young Chinese Women Are Writing Gay Male Erotica"
Who gets to say whether “God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is the same as “Adonai Elohenu” of the Jews and “Allah” of Muslims? Who has the authority to mandate, permit or ban the use of any name for the god we are calling God? This is more than an esoteric theological question. It has pragmatic impact.
There is a sense of protective entitlement and ownership involved in this. People tend to get riled up when someone infringes on their right to say who their god is. It’s personal. But most of us become alarmed when our group’s god is described wrong. At that point it is a social issue. “You can’t call God Allah,” I was admonished not long ago. “Allah is not God!” At about the time I was being scolded in that way by a Christian who uses “Jesus” and “God” interchangeably, Muslims in Malaysia were going to court to prevent Christians from distributing Bibles that used the word “Allah” for God. Those Bibles were impounded. That’s pragmatic impact. Now we have the same debate in a distorted form being waged in public media by candidate(s) for President of the United States. Religion is playing a larger role in this year’s Presidential campaign than at any time since John Kennedy was running for office. Who speaks for God can be political.
You may have an image in your mind of a god sitting serenely on a lotus blossom, or peering severely down from celestial clouds. It’s entirely up to you. If you share your view with someone, it’s up to the two of you. If you join a group and want them to adopt your concept, it’s up to the group. That’s the principle.
Is God legitimately addressed as Allah? That involves a second principle, concerning discourse. It’s usually a matter of context. The trouble is that contextual boundaries are fuzzy. Just a couple of hours ago (as I wrote this essay) a controversy arose when someone at a Presbyterian gathering offered a prayer that mentioned God as synonymous with Allah. Protest came from those who refuse to countenance the idea that Muslims and Christians have anything essential in common. I will come back to this prayer later. First, consider contexts for discourse involving God-Allah.
Prayer is one context. Can a prayer offered by someone in a public gathering contain names for God that some might object to? This is a frequently recurring issue wherever religious representatives are invited to lead public groups in prayer. I believe Christians have forgotten the principles of public prayer as opposed to private prayer. In public prayer someone articulates a prayer, and then the assembly responds with “Amen” if they want to. “Amen” is a word derived from the Bible in Hebrew that means one accepts the prayer as one’s own heartfelt prayer, too. Amen doesn’t mean “the end”; it means, “Yes, me too.” Amen is how one person’s prayer becomes the prayer of others. But the person leading a public prayer has an implied duty to respect the persons being invited to include themselves in the prayer. The prayer leader needs to try to respond to what the assembly is thinking, concerned about, and attempting to become. This awareness automatically contextualizes the prayer. It’s how the prayer leader involves the listeners cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. Otherwise the prayer will fail to be in behalf of the people. But it is unlikely and unnecessary that a prayer leader compose a prayer that in all respects everyone is completely comfortable with.
Speaking is also contextual. Talking and writing implies dialogue, even if the exchange is not explicit. A speaker before a group is in a “both-and” situation. The speaker is both a group representative and an independent individual – depending on context. Who the speaker represents may be as important as what is said. If the speaker represents a group, that needs to be made clear.
H.H. Pope Frances said not long ago that Muslims and Christians pray to the same god (God and Allah, by name). As the acknowledged leader of a billion Roman Catholics he might have been speaking “to” or “in behalf of”. Speaking to, means communicating with. Agreement with what is being said is merely a hope. Speaking in behalf of, means that agreement by those being represented is assumed. Was the Pope’s statement a personal-pastoral one, or ex cathedra: formal-official? I think in this case he was advocating an understanding about God that he hoped all Christians and Muslims might agree upon.
Language is also an aspect of context. When one is speaking in English in a Christian gathering, to refer to God as Allah makes a striking emphasis and probably an argumentative one. It is different if one uses the word Allah while speaking in an Arabic language. In that regard I wonder what the Muslims in Malaysia proposed the Christians call God, if not Allah. As I understand it the Christians said Allah is the word for God. The Muslims were trying to prevent the Christians from including themselves as Allah-worshipers, but they avoided proposing an alternative term. Conservative Islamic clerics might have been trying to head off such phrases as “Allah, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Hearing Christians pray to Allah is one thing, but hearing them re-describe Allah as Father of a second divine figure named “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” would be too much for them to tolerate. Conservative Muslims object to Christians using the word Allah because they cannot abide the elevation of Jesus to divine rank. Conservative Christians object to liberal Christians using the word Allah because they think that by doing so Jesus must be demoted to the rank of prophet.
But were the Presbyterians right to invite a Muslim to pray to God identified as Allah? As I reflect on it, the prayer leader had the right as the one chosen to pray. The assembly had the right to say Amen or to refrain from doing so. The prayer leader also had the right to expect Presbyterian support for a prayer to Allah, God. In the official Presbyterian Church USA Book of Common Worship,prayer 726 says this: “Eternal God, You are the one God to be worshiped by all, the one called Allah by your Muslim children, descendants of Abraham as are we. Give us grace to hear your truth in the teachings of Mohammed, the prophet, and to show your love as disciples of Jesus Christ, that Christians and Muslims together may serve you in faith and fellowship.”
And to that I say, “Amen”.
Note: The picture accompanying this essay is of Wajidi Said offering the prayer referred to above at the opening plenary session of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA in Portland, Oregon, June 22, 2016.
After the massacre in Orlando on June 12, 2016, and in light of many heated statements about Islam in the US media, it is clear that inter-religious (Christian-Muslim) dialogue is very much needed, long overdue, and would not be popular with those on either side who have already made up their minds that “The USA is at war to wipe out Islam” or “Islam is determined to impose Sharia Law on the world”. For the rest of us it might not be too late to actually sit down and talk to one another. That is my agenda for this essay.
My only experience, however, is Buddhist-Christian inter-religious discourse. The following are some guidelines I have discerned about how to go about the first phase, how Christians can most productively get into a creative, positive frame of mind about Buddhism.
Nevertheless, I believe the word Buddhism in the following statements of principle can be replaced with the words Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.
Until one has been profoundly impacted by the magnificence of the Buddhist system of thought one should withhold judgment and criticism of it.
Until then, one’s questions should be in search of the profound and awesome dimensions of Buddhism.
I would argue against the arrogance of Christians or any other religionists who reject Buddhism before accessing its profundity and being impressed by it. There is a time to engage in a critical assessment of a religion, and there are expressions of people in the name of their religion from time to time which need immediate refutation (preferably by others of the same faith). But a whole-scale rejection of any religion as profound as those which have attracted millions of adherents and held them for centuries, despite the particular flaws in some of its aspects, is indefensible.
One should be very cautious about undermining something so valuable to so many other people.
Even if one has a system (or religion) of greater value it will be counter-productive to propose the new one by attacking the old one.
Indeed, the stability of an entire people is at risk when something undermines its organizing principles, perspectives for discerning value, and objects of reverence. Sometimes this is undertaken deliberately, as when colonial powers did it (the Spanish were most egregious in this). Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists in particular, did this to devastating effect. It seems to be happening in Teleban controlled parts of the world. Other occurrences are more coincidental and incremental, as in the secularization of America, in which it seems that most of Christianity is a co-conspirator.
There is a positive and a negative side to this. Obviously a symbol system (e.g. a national religion) can be a source of unity where diverse groups and ethnicities live together; but it may not be necessary if there are other sources of unity. The system also gives individuals the keys to evaluate their integration into their society and culture. But when the culture changes and moves away from the values and principles that are enshrined and essential to the religious system, then the society gets under stress and/or the religion becomes irrelevant.
· Particular examples of a religion’s faith and practice do not express the whole, but they are valid and therefore help define the dimensions of that religion, while at the same time they are anomalies which express the reality of only a part.
Buddhism cannot really be viewed as a single unity, or even as three streams. To see Buddhism as a whole one must look at its national forms and sometimes separate paths within a nation. Christianity is not just one thing either. There are Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant divisions. And within Protestantism, for example, there are many further divisions. And in any one of them there are individuals and groups writing books, developing traditions, building edifices and organizations, and diversifying.
· Underlying the particular expressions of the religion is a body of essential belief shared by all the particular cultural extrusions; the body of essential doctrine usually traces to the teaching and authority of the founder; whereas the religion recognizes an event which precipitated the codifying of its creed and mantras (and sometimes the accumulation of its canon of scripture), while also adopting forms from formative junctures as symbol referents and standards of form.
As two trees springing from the same root are one tree with two trunks, so the doctrinal system of beliefs and the forms of worship and architecture are one faith. Buddhism quotes the Buddha, Christianity holds the sayings of Jesus to be of great importance, and Islam holds the received writings of Mohammed to be sacred scripture. But Christianity needed to combine its diverging teaching into creeds when it became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire and Buddhism seemed to do the same at the time Asoke adopted Buddhism as the Imperial religion of India. The “formative junctures” for Christianity may be the Gothic era, the Protestant Reformation, and certain other times when a massive revision, a “meta-transformation”, took place out of which grew new styles of architecture, organization and practice. Thai Buddhism’s formative junctures were Asoke’s empire (when Buddhism arrived in the region) and the Khmer empire, followed by the reforms of HM King Rama IV.
· Beneath these expressions is a sacred core of unassailable and largely inexpressible foundational principles.
These form the distinctive character of the religion. They are what Zen, Tibetan and Thai Buddhism have in common when all the cultural occlusions and accumulations have been stripped away. This “sacred core” is what unifies Ethiopian Orthodox, Swiss pietists, Dutch Calvinists, Nigerian Pentecostals and Trappist Roman Catholic monks.
· At the base of it all is a bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and death, human value and destiny, among many other assumptions; these are accessible in a religion only by extraction (of metaphors and archetypical references), by inference, and by deduction.
I take it as more reasonable to conclude that this bedrock of assumptions about the nature of life and so forth is one that the Buddha and Christ had in common, rather than to conclude that Christianity and Buddhism are entirely separate worlds with nothing in common. If this is so, then mutual respect has a solid basis.
Conclusion: There can be no dialogue until participants are impressed with the validity and value of everyone’s view of what is sacred. A religious belief system would not have lasted for centuries and attracted millions of devoted adherents if it was not extremely important to those who live under its umbrella.
Finally, I want to celebrate the ministry and example of Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai from whose website I borrowed the pictures that illustrate this essay. His tireless efforts in behalf of inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding are inspiring. Sathu, Amen.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.