Sirisak is one of the Rainbow Warriors here in Thailand. Last week Sirisak took on the most revered institution in the country. It went public. Below is a paraphrase translation of what appeared as a result of Sirisak’s meme a couple of days earlier at the beginning of Pride Month.
Do Not Tarnish Religion “Phra Payom” Slaps “One Who Dressed As a Monk” Wearing a Rainbow Sash Indicating Sex
A Facebook posting appeared with text indicating broad-mindedness about sex, saying that everyone is whatever sex they are, and should be entitled to be ordained as a Buddhist. [The posting] included an illustration of a man dressed as a monk ordinarily would be robed. But something that attracted attention of Netizens was that he had a cloth over his shoulder that was rainbow colored. In response, “Phra Payom” who is head of a monastic division, a preacher, and social activist from Nontaburi Province warned, “That’s inappropriate. Do not tarnish religion.”
Phra Payom mentioned that there are uniforms for some groups such as military, police, students, and clergy. “Who could cause confusion by wearing such clothing?” He asked, “Is that right or not? It shouldn’t have to be explained. It would be best to just not be confusing. You are free to choose what you like, or to separate into another religious sect. There are all kinds of attractive colors to choose from that one might consider beautiful. But if you are ordained you relinquish matters of beauty. We like to say everybody’s the same, why can [only] some be ordained? Why can’t I be ordained as that one is? There are many different kinds of good people, elite people, lovely people, common [low] people. Good behavior is not all the same, so don’t say that selectivity is a Buddhist corporate matter. If there were no selection there would be no Buddhism today. So do not advocate giving up the chance to be selective. If you want to set up a company and take in people indiscriminately, giving rights to one and all, take a look at how Sita rejected the Demon King. How will you govern once those you picked indiscriminately have tarnished your religion? If you are going to critique anything you have to gather complete data or ask those who are knowledgeable in that area. Otherwise you get false data in your criticism.”
The one who posted on the Internet commented, “Everyone should be able to be ordained. Ordination depends on conviction [reverence] and not genitalia. LGBTIQANs+ are not sinners. Ordination as a Buddhist monk is held to be open to males. So other sexes, e.g. women, are prevented; lesbians are prevented; gays are kept out; kathoeys are excluded; intersex individuals are not allowed to be ordained as men are.
“Historically women were not excluded from ordination. Permission for women’s ordination is recorded in the Traipidok. But later, women monks [ piksuni ] were prevented, using the reasoning that such ordination had been discontinued.
“Ordination of banthewa บัณเฑวะก์ [translated variously as “bisexual, hermaphrodite, homosexual, gay, lesbian; eunuch] in the earliest era was permitted, but later ordination was prevented because a group of monks came to the Buddha and asked him to stop ordaining this [whole] group only because they were contrary to discipline. Preventing ordination only because people have different sex organs is a group decision. Nobody should be subjected to a general decision like that if they have done nothing wrong.
“Ordination does not depend on sex organs, but on faith. Do not bring sex restrictions into it. (Thanks to Shine Wara Dhammo for this material). To say everyone should be eligible for ordination is not to say everyone should be ordained. It does not imply anybody can do just anything, or that kathoeys have higher privileges than others, e.g. that ordained kathoeys should be allowed to yell or dress as they like. But everyone should be under the same rules. Whoever breaks the regulations should endure the consequences.
“Do not declare as a group that the ordination of LGBTIQANs+ will destroy religion. The issue is that everybody should be able to be ordained in the same way that everyone has equal access to religion as a human right.
“In addition, if Buddhists believe that donning the saffron robes is the greatest honor one can pay to one’s mother and father because it refers to entering heaven, but if LGBTIQANs+ are prevented from ordination, does this not indicate that Buddhism is limiting, dividing, restricting, and selectively practicing who can enter the faith [and get into heaven], insofar as only males get ordained and have the ability to reward their fathers and mothers for their merit and thus helping them get into heaven?
“Many people say, ‘You gay kathoeys, go reward their merit in some other way.’ The question is why are the sexes divided in matters of faith and religion? In summary, these days do we come to faith with our hearts or by way of our sex organs?”
Note: this is Pride month. [Sirisak, the person who posted the meme dressed in monk’s robes] posted these pictures in the campaign to study this together in that an opposing view and pictures [of a monk denouncing trans people] had been previously circulated which generated responses pro and con.
Ken Dobson’s Queer Reflection on this article:
The monk is both restrained in his retort which the headline calls a “slap” and he is repeating the familiar lines that (a) it is proper and valuable for Buddhism to make selections about how the corporate organization is run, and (b) if anyone objects to those decisions they are free to set up their own organization. The monk does not address the rationale by which women are refused equality and access to ordination which they used to have, long ago. Instead, he argues that Buddhists needs rules and standards in order to survive.
Sirisak, on the other hand, was first actually responding to a widely circulated story of a monk who denounced trans individuals and then all non-binary persons as “sinners.” His diatribe was an attack. Sirisak chose the opening of Pride Month to counter-attack by challenging the basic position of the Buddhist establishment in Thailand that prevents women from being ordained. That decision, Sirisak infers, was a corporate one made by an insider group and not based on defensible religious principles applying to all people. Sirisak is also clear that when the true basis for this discrimination is seen to be just a matter of who has male sex organs, then that basis will be erased and only faith will be the issue of ordination and full inclusion.
As a whole, this is an excellent example of how the argument has been conducted for the past couple of decades in Thailand. The weakest point in the decision the Thai Sangha has made about ordination is that it discriminates against women without being able to come out in the open to say why it does so. The response is usually, “Well, we have to have rules or there would be chaos that would undermine everything.” The usual rebuttal is more nuanced than Sirisak’s bald “is it about sex organs or faith and reverence?”
I was watching a YouTube program on how Sesame Street broke a taboo to tell children that Mr. Hooper died when the actor who played the popular character had died and would no longer appear in his store. As the YouTube account cut to a clip where Mr. Hooper’s son told Big Bird that “Mr. Hooper died,” the closed-caption text said “Mr. Hooper passed.” Twice more in ten minutes, voices on clips from the past said “died” and the text on the bottom of the screen said “passed”.
The app producing the closed-caption text had been programed to substitute “passed” whenever a speaker said “died”. Why did it do that?
It seems the taboo has returned in our time.
I have been noticing how infrequently death is mentioned in on-line chats and even in newscasts.
It is my impression that “dead, died, death” are almost never used to refer to a particular individual. Even impersonal references talk of “casualties” and “victims” whenever possible.
I confess to being a bit mystified by the current use of “passed”. “He passed.” Not even “passed away”. There is an insistence about it that includes people across a broad theological spectrum.
The summer I became a professional writer (a cub reporter for our local newspaper) my editor-mentor told me, “Say ‘died’ in those obituaries.” Mr. Ridgeway was a no-nonsense editor. Clarity and accuracy were required in a newspaper of record which he believed was the job of a local newspaper. That, however, was decades ago.
I don’t know how this use of “passed” is fast becoming one of those linguistic trends that require conformity. So I asked my Facebook friends and got a few responses.
An Episcopal deacon responded, “… if one thinks of our life here as a journey, the term ‘passed’ or ‘passed on’ emphasizes a passage to the greater life (or a different existence), rather than death, which signals a finality and an end. I’ve heard objection to ‘she passed’ as if it is some kind of denial. Not for me….”
A Russian linguist commented, “Passed is more metaphorical, not so direct. Almost the same as calling a toilet a bathroom.”
A sociologist from the Philippines wondered, “”Fear of death? Death as a bad word?”
An American pastor responded, “ ‘Jesus passed for our sins.’ Nope. Not. No.”
An American Christian colleague commented, “There is a biblical basis for Christian use of the term as death represents a transition of states.”
A journalist friend observed, “In contemporary terms, it seems to me that people are afraid to speak of death and dying, as it cannot and will not happen to themselves. When I see the term [“passed”] I often think that those who use it are unwilling or unable to face the reality of death.”
My son-in-law from Tennessee said, “I know that it is a Southern euphemism and has always been the preferred way to refer to ‘a passing’ in the South.”
An immigrant to Australia remembered, “At school, we used to say, He kicked the bucket.”
I am grateful for these comments, but I still don’t know where this shift is coming from, although I’m quite sure we’re more direct and less ambiguous about death here in Northern Thai villages. Perhaps it’s too soon to know why the Internet world is so circumspect, but I sense pressure behind a trend that will eventually make “he died” thought of as insensitive and then incorrect.
I think I’ll have died by then.
Few topics about education are as arguable as how history is taught. When I was going to school “American History” taught in the USA typically began with Columbus’s voyages of discovery. Then, having skipped the thousands of years in which civilizations had flourished on the two large American continents, the accounts talked about the activities of vicious Spanish conquerors as if they were heroes. From then on “American History” was all about what the US colonists did to “settle” from coast to coast, wiping out and dispossessing entire Native American populations in the process.
Today is June 6, the 77th anniversary of “D-Day” the largest amphibious invasion in world history, and the beginning of the end of NAZI Germany’s conquest of Europe. The entire scope of Operation Overlord was too complex to include in a short course on European History, or even 20th Century History. So writers of school books have to be brief. Why did Germany collapse? It comes down to Soviet Russia overwhelming the Third Reich from the East and the USA, Great Britain, and Canada (with 12 other nations contributing forces) from the West – from the Beaches of Normandy. The rest was prelude, it seems, and the end was foregone. D-Day was where it happened.
This same week people in the USA noticed, most for the first time, that 100 years ago the USA bombed itself in the only full-scale attack upon itself since the very “uncivil” War Between the States. The eradication of the most prosperous Black city in the USA, Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 1921 raises the question, “Why Was It Forgotten?” Why have history books skipped over this massacre, and for that matter, glossed over the entire history of lynching and subjugation of non-white people?
As a sometime designer of courses of study, this matter plagues me. I know how it is done. From the very beginning it is about limitations. The guiding issue is “What outcome is to be achieved?” What do you want to happen to the students? It this history course about enhancing loyalty, patriotism, and civic pride (as many of them are)? Or is it about expanding appreciation for the evolution of culture and the streams that flow into the present? Or is it to increase dissatisfaction with the present and stir up revolutionary change?
Whatever the objective is, it faces limitations. You are limited to 45 classroom hours. There are only so many hours of instruction, and if you’re writing a textbook only so many pages. What are you to put into them? Your students are another limitation. You cannot “tell them everything” about anything. That, you must try to do in your PhD thesis. But not in the classroom, not even with a thousand-page textbook backing you up.
Nowadays we have history channels, social media groups, YouTube clips, and much more to fill in the gaps. But there are limitations to what you can learn here, too. Not all of this mass of information is unbiased or even factual. Your own interests guide you to certain troves of history and help you scroll past others.
That history education you had in school and college was only the beginning. Pity the teachers who were trying their best to get you ready to face the future as you stepped out of the past into it. They were limited. Even Will Durant was wrong in believing that all of Western Civilization could be recounted in 11 volumes. Goodness, Will and Ariel, you just barely got started.
Search for a Thai Case Study Suggestion
Let’s make a suggestion about a case study from Thailand for a course to be offered at a college in the USA. This is a course in the theater arts curriculum. The course description says:
Fat Men in Skirts
The class will examine performative elements of gender and how those elements are descended from traditional theatrical approaches to text and practice, specifically that of drag performance. Issues of gender identity and performance will be explored in both Western and non-Western cultures. …The overarching aim of this course is to provide students with an understanding of gender and drag performance as a culturally variable product and to broaden students’ understanding of genders, sexuality, and performance through a variety of case studies. The course explores the ways in which cultures, Western as well as non-Western, construct and provide meanings to gender roles.
It seems obvious to me that Thailand has several types of performance variations. They include the following major types:
· Cabaret theater
· Trans-gender contests
· Costume events
· Memes on social media
· Actors in supporting roles in dramas
· Personal presentation
CABARET THEATER is a Thai specialty. There are internationally famous theaters in several cities. The original was Tiffany Cabaret, that began as a one-man show in 1974 in Pattaya. More than a dozen large-stage productions are listed now – most of which are languishing due to COVID-19 all the performers are male or once were male.
TRANS-GENDER CONTESTS are modeled on international beauty pageants, but are limited to transsexual contestants. The main contest in Thailand is the Miss Tiffany’s Universe contest. The winner goes on to participate in an international contest to select “Miss International Queen”. There are also similar contests for gay men. It can be argued that transgender (male to female) contests originated in Thailand.
COSTUME EVENTS do not necessarily feature transgender performers, but they may do so. These are usually one-time events (as opposed to cabaret theater which have regularly scheduled shows). Such performances can be at the beginning of sports events or conventions, but they may be private parties as well.
MEMES are the newest type of performance art to feature gender-diverse performers. Not all memes involve performance, in fact most are cartoons or photographs of something other than people (cats are a favorite, food is another). In Thailand there are specialists who use selfies and pictures of themselves to convey a message about gender and human rights. I believe Sirisak is the most recognizable meme performer in Thailand.
ACTORS (transgender), usually in supporting roles, are a staple in Thai films and on TV. Gender-bending performances are so routine that almost every angle has been exploited. But the unique Thai layers of meaning are certainly worth consideration.
PERSONAL PRESENTATION, meaning how individuals present themselves in daily life or in their work-role, expands the definition of performance and considers “all the world a stage”. In this respect Thailand may be more conservative than some other countries. Still, there are a few celebrities who defy opposition, and also defy attempts to escape attention and pass unnoticed as the gender which their costume indicates. We rarely see fat men in skirts unless they are at the front door of a gay bar.
Have I missed any?
What would you suggest as a case study that tells something important about Thailand’s unique way of manifesting gender diversity?
Thailand is entering the mid-crisis phase of the COVID-19 pandemic where public pressure to end restrictions is almost in balance with pressure to end the epidemic. Vaccination, of course, is the solution to stop COVID from spreading and then to assure everyone’s safety.
Thailand’s officials were apparently lulled by the lack of cases and the success of shut-downs and aggressive tracing throughout 2020. It seemed there was plenty of time to figure out a way to get vaccine cost-effectively, and even to develop a vaccine production capacity here in the country. But all hell broke loose just after the New Year. One epicenter after another was discovered, beginning with immigrant shrimp workers in Samut Sakorn near Bangkok, soon followed by outbreaks from careless students in April.
All the hopeful plans for re-starting tourism fell into ruins. One holiday after another came and went with devastating economic results as even domestic tourism dwindled despite cash incentives. The only hope in sight is the now burgeoning vaccination program.
But public suspicion of the effectiveness and side-effects of the most available vaccines is spreading. The current government has shown no improvement in its public-relations skill even though it’s had 7 years to do so. I give them credit, however, for being pretty open about COVID, with daily reports that have not tried to hide or muddle the statistics. The same Public Health Ministry has constantly provided stimulation, supplies, and information via the nationwide Village Health Volunteers program. This has actually reached the grass-roots level in virtually every village.
The latest effort, however, is a mystery to me. Mysteries of this sort tend to be clarified in time, but I cannot quite fathom what is going on with the Khat-grong COVID-19 [คัดกรอง COVID-19] project. It’s a “COVID-19 Screening.” All it amounts to so far is a brief event sponsored by Village Health Volunteers with the local clinic. The event consists of putting up the sign (in the picture accompanying this blog) and a public announcement that the event is going on. If you go, you get your temperature taken. Almost nobody went to the screening in our village the other night. This screening event moves from village to village.
So, it seems like this is mostly about keeping everybody aware that there is action going on and progress is being made against the epidemic. This is necessary because every day we hear of a new outbreak and a new worry. Vaccine is still unavailable to almost everybody except health workers and people with special privileges. New cases every day are still in the thousands. The way a new outbreak is discovered, despite “screenings” such as this, is when people get so sick they go to the hospital.
“Identity politics has got to stop. We have got to give up our ‘endless preoccupation with a FRAGMENT of identity. Identity comes from consciousness which transcends all these divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender. There is no sense of CONSCIOUSNESS ITSELF’ anymore.” So says Camille Paglia on a YouTube recording of “Dose of Truth” in October 15, 2017.
On the one hand, I thoroughly agree with her that popular thinking misses the picture as a whole. Our attention is limited. Knowledge, and all the data that passes for knowledge, is overwhelming; so we pick targets. Those tend to be self-directed, even if they are “progressive” and advocate peaceful coexistence. I love it when hostility is muted and divisions are blurred. I want peace for Burma and human rights for Palestine. I want racist monuments in America removed from public spaces and American racism recognized and renounced. I don’t think it’s possible to overcome divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender without identifying ourselves within those communities and waking up.
I think Paglia is right: these days, because of our focusing on areas of concern to the exclusion of a holistic vision of reality, what we have are fragmentary perceptions. This reduction of interest began as a reaction to the immense universal trauma of World War I-II and the paranoia that fractured the world during the Cold War. Only a cataclysm of that magnitude could have destroyed the massive theological and philosophical search for a comprehensive approach that integrates everything that can be concluded about God and us. In philosophy the search was on for the concept underlying everything we can know. By the end of the international military battles in 1945 interest in universal truth was being replaced by searches for relevance. The trauma of war loomed as a miasmic aftermath. Conflict and chaos claimed the collective unconscious, so people agreed that immediate individual existence was what could be maximized.
This led to 4 generations refining strategies for resisting cohesion beyond those things that might be expedient to optimize existential priorities. Interest groups are the largest effective political entities. Even governments have reduced objectives, now looking for achievable benefits rather than anything approaching “the general welfare of the people.” Governments are put together, in fact, by interest groups with single objectives.
The consequences of this myopic vision have been serious: fragmentation of political units and outbreak of localized conflict (even ethnic cleansing), polarization of societies, and unremitting discord. Rather than optimized existence, people have desperation muffled by cycles of relief as some terror diminishes (as when a vaccine mitigates a pandemic, or intervention ends a genocide). “That’s better,” a sigh, and a wan smile. Forgetfulness is the antidote because it’s all the cure there is right now.
Paglia is right. This is not as good as it could be. She is right that we need to regain more than fragments of our identity. She thinks we need to get back to an educational program that enables us to understand who we are, beginning not with 1619 or the birth of Christ, but all the way back to Neanderthals and Humanoids. We need to study our enslavement by archetypes, and how to identify ourselves as complex beings.
Paglia says that the way to do this reclamation of “consciousness itself” is to reform education to assess the big picture, because acquiring our identity is a result of becoming conscious. Then, she says, we’ll be on a better path.
Paglia must be wrong, however, when she suggests the immediate end of campaigns to improve conditions of those oppressed by racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Paglia is a famous feminist, after all. But she is on record arguing against a wide range of gender rights, especially the right of young adults to dispute their birth-sex. She opposes the demolition of traditional roles of men and women.
That is the clue that we’ve been here before. The reason education has moved away from philosophical and historical focus on how we got here from the very beginning, is that the philosophers and historians beginning way back then could never quite make it to today where people live and die. Those who compose these philosophies and histories miss the junctures where civilization abandoned people. Today’s “identity politics” are correctives. We cannot afford to take a great collective leap into the past, even if we could do it.
Individuals can and should make the effort to acquire an understanding of consciousness. Consciousness is a basic and essential human function. It remains doubtful to me that historical reassessment is a way to an “ah-ha” breakthrough into Consciousness Itself. I’m opting for another avenue that does not involve renouncing all we have learned about how to be advocates.
In this Asian part of the world “what a family is” depends on local differences. I will describe what I have seen and studied personally.
A Lanna family consists of parents and their descendants.
This is what functional sociologists would describe as a form of extended family. “An extended family consists of parents, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles living under one roof.” The Lanna (Northern Thai cultural) form would say, “The 21st century version of an extended family consists of all the members who could potentially live under one roof.” Actually, what happens is that the extended family members might live under separate roofs but can and do move in and out as needed. People outside the extended family would not presume to have that right. Because this is Lanna, and not Central Thailand, it is more easily assumed that the male spouses will move in with their wives and become part of the female’s extended family (but this is not hard and fast, it depends on the nature of the bond/marriage and maybe also financial circumstances). If little children need care, elderly relatives, especially grandparents, might move in with children in order to be on hand.
Children are the primary responsibility of the mother and father, as in nuclear families. But if the living unit consists of multiple individuals, little children are cared for by everybody. A child’s actual mother and father would have veto power over a decision with longer-term consequences, such as where the toddler goes to nursery school, but would hesitate to countermand a relative who is providing the child something to eat. If a child needs help, extended family not only provides it but feels responsible to do so. In Lanna families (until this generation) children were raised jointly.
Members join the family gradually. If a young adult takes a spouse (I use this phrase carefully) the new member of the family is actually accepted in several ways. (1) The relationship is accepted and acknowledged, and the new person is expected to participate in family events and take a share of responsibilities as he/she may be able (the greater the ability, the greater the share). (2) The couple may “move under the roof” literally, either permanently or from time to time as they choose, for they have the right to do so. (3) The other extended family, the side of the couple’s family living elsewhere perhaps, retains the right to familial loyalty, help, and affection; this must be mutually expressed from time to time, particularly during transitional events such as weddings, funerals, house blessings or ordinations. (4) When a project comes up needing help from everybody, everybody is expected to show up or have a good reason for not doing so.
Special circumstances martial the resources of the entire extended family. That is an obligation. It is shameful if it is unmet. For example, in our village a man with cerebral palsy was living with his old mother; when she became less able to care for the two of them another child moved back, built a house next door, and took over.
When the parents both die the extended family is not immediately dissolved. Not only their legacy and property unite the siblings as before, but shared responsibility does, as well. The extended family that began to be formed when the couple had children and established a house and home separate from other relatives will only gradually be transformed. The new extended family acquires a major measure of independence when all the grandparents are gone, and not before.
[In the picture accompanying this essay, our nephew Arm decided to build a car-port next to his parents’ house, where he also lives. The construction was undertaken by every available member of the family, which fortunately included an uncle and cousin-in-law who have construction skills. A week later everybody was again recruited by another part of the family to help transplant the rice everybody will be eating for the next year.]
Just this week alone my in-box brought me stories of how significant cutting hair is in Thailand.
Hair represents possession, attention to self, and control. The intention when one adopts a hair-style is to express one’s individuality and unique personal identity for all to see. Hair is a social demarcation.
As with almost all aspects of Thai culture, haircutting is unique only with regard to the degree to which it is meaningful. Many religious orders around the world prescribe tonsures, shaving heads, or letting hair grow. Here, it represents loss.
There is no shame in it. It’s not as if a shaven head is a mark of derision or a symbol of guilt. It is about humility rather than humiliation. It is a step toward abjection and suppression of ego.
The step beyond cutting one’s hair is portended if not actually intended.
The distraught mother has cut her hair both in protest against the injustice she feels her son is receiving and in solidarity with him in his hunger strike. If her son should die of his hunger strike in custody, I’d predict that his mother’s next step would be to shed her clothes and take the white robe of a nun. Suicide or self-immolation could be her ultimate step. In Vietnam, which is culturally very different, that would be a bit more likely than here. But cutting hair is a type of self-mutilation meant to express loss.
Thai monks shave their heads and eyebrows to remove their most identifying aspect and to merge into the collective priesthood of disciples of the Lord Buddha. But an anthropologist can see this cutting as a form of disfiguration that is undertaken in other ways in other cultures.
Post-Enlightenment Western cultures have abandoned physical forms of ritual humiliation, but residue can be found just about anywhere. Some of them are obvious, as in hazing, bullying, tattooing, fasting and other such measures. But the West has specialized in cunning forms of mental and emotional “conditioning” as well.
In short, when Thai persons cut all their hair off their heads the action and results are spiritual as well as social. It is an act of defiance expressing willingness to relinquish something personal in order to achieve a higher goal.
“It’s gotten harder to talk to people across lines of significant disagreement.”
I read this and took note of it some time ago, probably during the riots and protests that followed the murder of Floyd George about a year ago. But it was a thought that has been troubling me for years, ever since beginning to try to get a handle on post-modernism.
There are three factors that disrupt open dialogue, and they have expanded in the last half century:
· Societal polarization As RW Caves said in Encyclopedia of the City (2004): Social polarization is associated with the segregation within a society that may emerge from income inequality, real-estate fluctuations, economic displacements etc. and result in such differentiation that would consist of various social groups, from high-income to low-income. It is a state and/or a tendency denoting the growth of groups at the extremities of the social hierarchy and the parallel shrinking of groups around its middle.
· Social media echo chambers In discussions of news media, an echo chamber refers to situations in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system and insulated from rebuttal. By participating in an echo chamber, people are able to seek out information that reinforces their existing views without encountering opposing views, potentially resulting in an unintended exercise in confirmation bias. Echo chambers may increase social and political polarization and extremism.
· Coarseness of our political discourse For many reasons, some commercial and some ideological, political discourse has grown aggressive, reluctant to entertain actual debate, and uncivil.
I will now reminisce about how I have perceived this decline from my perspective as a pastor from 1965 to 2003 when I officially retired.
I thought it was my role to reconcile differences whenever possible. I was the neutral ground, the quiet eye in the middle of the storm, the bridge over troubled waters, as well as the watchman on the tower. In church terms, I was the pastoral-shepherd as well as the prophetic leader. It was a precarious tightrope act where I was to calm things down as well as sound the alarm and stir things up.
Even though our church communities were homogeneous and without significant diversity, I thought of myself as one who was in charge of holding open the possibility of diversity. Indeed, I was to advocate its desirability. I did this by identifying metaphors we already had as well as telling stories from beyond the borders of our experience and outside our comfort zone.
We gathered as friends and nestled within our familiar womb of sound and ceremony, which kept us safe from imminent incursions and occasionally drew us back from insurrections outside. As long as we were inside, we were safe and could bear to imagine realities that were alien and would be challenging, such as how nice it would be to have world peace.
It is now almost 20 years since my retirement and I am filtering second-hand information to conclude, “It’s not like that anymore.” There must be many congregations in which diversity in some of its manifestations is such a threat that its possibility is unwelcome. Since diversity comes in many forms, maybe some of them are advocated, while others are outside the pale.
Times change. When I was a boy a mixed-marriage was a Roman Catholic married a Protestant. Now the big issue is when two women or two men marry. Isn’t that the opposite of a mixed-marriage? When I was in seminary I worked in two churches. One was all white and afraid of neighborhood change that would disrupt life as they had constructed it. The other was in a changing neighborhood where the church was one of the change agents. As I hear it, the things they are afraid of are different now (basically opposite from what they had been 50 years ago) and the levels of fear are ratcheted way up.
Pastors these days cannot expect to bring about changes of attitudes, no matter what they say or how they say it. Attitudes about society are fixed by other voices. Lines of debate about that are severed. In fact, that is also true of congregations that are advocating diversity, where their banners announce YOU ARE WELCOME in rainbow colors. They have moved beyond discourse about many topics as well. They love free speech except when it advocates hatred. (That seems reasonable to me, except that the hatred is beyond discussion. At least it cannot be discussed with the ones doing the hating. And that hating is selective.)
What’s a pastor to do these days? Many pastors, I take it from what they say on social media, are chaplains now. Their audiences are winnowed down to those who are agreeable to congregate. They have decided how society should be, so that’s settled. They have decided how to deal with discordant sounds about such matters. Even if a pastor tries to challenge the congregation, the message is tolerated and the challenge is ignored. So the chaplains preside at religious events, adorned with religious accoutrements, to dispense what comfort is possible under the circumstances. It's a valuable role, but it is not really conciliatory.
If this applied only to pastors I’d refrain from repeating what has already been said. But the ruination of civil discourse is not limited to churches. All units of society, in all societies around the world that are connected by worldwide communication networks … all of them are breaking down into units that abide no disagreement.
I am worried about civilization when discourse is prevented. It’s not always “media” that are to blame. In Burma there has been a coup that basically resulted in order to prevent political discourse by arresting the democratically elected leader Aung Sun Su Kyi and thousands of others.* In Russia and China social media criticism of the leaders is being shut down. Democratic forms in Hong Kong have been crushed. Today the government in India announced the end of any critique of the way it is handling COVID.
Authoritarianism cannot stand discourse, but tyrannies always self-destruct, taking vast numbers of people along with them. When civil discourse ends, eventually civilization ends. It happens at the micro as well as the macro level of society.
This morning as I type this, I am concerned about a relative who has withdrawn from all contacts. She threatened to do this in order to preserve her peace of mind from what she saw as attacks, and now she has done it. She is a very social person. Her retreat is worrisome. Today, another relative posted: “BLM is now known as burn, loot and murder.” I think she’s crossed the line. I never imagined I could influence her, but I’m wondering if it’s worth keeping in touch with her since the gulf between us has no bridge, except that we’re cousins.
* The photo accompanying this essay is of gay men coming out of the closet and into the street to oppose the military in Burma. It is a brave thing they are doing.
Two descriptions of the condition of institutional religion in the USA came this week. They describe conditions separated by more than a century. I am in love with the expressive excellence of both descriptions so I cannot resist providing them at length.
John Steinbeck portrays the establishment of Christian churches at the time settlements were being made. He calls all the churches sects. I’d prefer he called them denominations, but both terms are only partly accurate. Steinbeck tries to be realistic with his faint praise barely avoiding damnation:
The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. They fought at the turn of a doctrine. Each happily believed all the others were bound for hell in a basket. And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built. It took a smart man to know where the difference lay between the sects, but anyone could see what they had in common. And they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt. And any man could make something pretty fine of it within himself. …The honest preachers had energy and go. They fought the devil, no hold barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable. The sects did more than this, though. They built the structure of social life. (p. 257- 258)
The second quote was elicited as part of the build-up to a documentary coming soon, Martin Doblmeier's new film, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story. Heschel wrote:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”
Both Steinbeck and Heschel were writing almost at the same time, but Steinbeck captures a time-bound past before churches reached their peak of splendor. Herschel wrote sagely about religion in America in a way that has remained soberingly relevant, especially this week when we saw a report that American people’s membership in religious organizations has dropped below 50% for the first time in the history of keeping records.
The sects, “built the structure of social life” as towns sprang up, Steinbeck says. The churches were social centers and models for social order. They were relevant despite their inadequacies and underdevelopment.
Then the religious “sects” developed and built, and did so gloriously, long past the time when splendor and vast buildings were actually needed. Herschel brooded, “when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past … its message becomes meaningless.”
That is where we are as religious people in the USA and many, many other countries. When institutions become irrelevant they become meaningless. Their message becomes meaningless as it is disconnected from their actions. Their actions are irrelevant when they no longer respond to what’s going on with a vivid vision of the future and build a path to realize it. When there is nothing to care about, people stop caring.
[References: John Steinbeck, East of Eden. 1952. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. 1955.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.