DEMOCRACY CANNOT SURVIVE WHEN PEOPLE NO LONGER BELIEVE IN IT
On June 23 the expected announcement came that the US Supreme Court had overturned the 1972 ruling in Roe v Wade that permitted abortions nationally. This decision, reducing a basic human right after 50 years, is historic in that it’s never happened before, although previous decisions have extended rights. The announcement had been leaked (much to the consternation of Justice Clarence Thomas and others) a few weeks ago, so it was no surprise and responses were obviously ready to post. The Internet was full of chatter about this. People with longer memories were most alarmed that now abortions will again become illegal in all cases, no matter the motives, in half the states of the USA. That was a tragic era of desperate women going to desperate means with often lethal results. Furthermore, in a concurring opinion statement Justice Thomas advocated reconsideration of a list of other prior decisions regarding contraception, same-sex intercourse, and same-sex marriage. Thomas’s concurring opinion got just as much attention as the decision.
Further comment by informed observers clarified that there was widespread legal agreement that some of the cases on which human sexual rights had been affirmed were not stated precisely as might be necessary to stand up over the coming decades, although Roe v Wade has done so until now. Perhaps, reconsideration does not mean reversing those decisions, maybe. Possibly. In fact, all laws upholding the “Right to Privacy” principle based on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution could now be challenged according to Thomas.
Think about what a nation would be like when there is no right to privacy in any way. It’s not impossible. China is employing technology to do that right now.
It is equally clear that the US Supreme Court now has the conservative edge needed to continue to pursue the GOP agenda, including eliminating same-sex marriages next. That is a high priority for them. This court, we remember, now contains a replacement member nominated by Trump and pushed by the US Senate led by Mitch McConnell after they had blocked a year-long attempt by Obama to nominate a replacement for Sandra Day O’Connor. In 4 years, Trump got three people onto the Supreme Court while Obama was blocked by conservative Republicans. It was McConnell who spearheaded the GOP blockade of everything that Obama proposed, essentially wiping out all new legislation. And then McConnell was the quarterback for Trump’s 4-year attack on all of Obama’s executive actions.
The effort is still on to install a neo-fascist white-supremacist nationalistic regime.
The politicization of abortion was instigated by Jerry Falwell. At the time he seized upon abortion as a signal and began to expand the definition of when life begins, all religious opinion was unconcerned about establishing an exact date on it after conception, but all religions supported the idea that the mother’s life was paramount if it came to a crisis choice between a fetus and the mother. Using expanded access to mass media, evangelical-conservative Christians picked up killing unborn babies as an emotional issue to draw a line in the sand dividing good people from evil people. Polarization began with this very issue. It now includes a few other issues that defy debate, including the right to own any guns one wants.
New issues come up and some gain traction at least for a while. Current battles are being waged over what rights people have to declare their gender (and where Trans people belong in social spaces), whether the USA is a Christian Nation and what that entails, and movements that advocate clarifying racial realities in US life such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Critical Race Theory.”
Now we come to the crux of the matter. It has come back to the way the government operates.
The representative democracy of the United States of America was founded on the fragile principle that it exists at the will of the people. It is not by divine right that the government derives its authority, not by military might that it has power, and not by personal whim of any leaders (however brilliant or charismatic) that a democracy makes decisions. There are three branches of government with checks on each other. The Executive with the President of the US in the White House oversees the execution of government processes, the Legislative with the US Congress in 2 houses debating and determining laws, and the Judicial with the Supreme Court of the US as the final authority in interpreting laws’ validity. None of the three branches can operate without the cooperation and consent of the other two. Nor can they continue without the will of the people.
Constitutional law and systematic accountability are matters of agreement by the people, without which democracy crumbles.
We have now come again to the treacherous brink. This is a season of peril for our democracy. Never, in the past 150 years have the branches of government been held in so little regard. Every single branch has lost respect. The Supreme Court has become the last to fall.
“The court has lost legitimacy. They have burned whatever legitimacy they may have had. They just took the last of it and set a torch to it with the Roe v. Wade opinion.” [Senator Elizabeth Warren on ABC News “This Week” Sunday, June 26 quoted in www.businessinsider.com later that day.]
Events surrounding the insurrection on January 6, 2021 have begun to make it clear how undermined the Executive branch is in the minds of people across the country and around the world. Decisions by the Executives-in-charge have eroded confidence for decades, but the actions culminating in January 6 have turned-off confidence that democracy is working for a large portion of US citizens, especially those under 50 years of age.
Two gauges measure how a democracy is faring. One is how much regard people have for the system of government. That, arguably, is now below the level where the democracy of the USA can be sustained. The other is how the actions of the government meet the expressed needs and hopes of the people. It is a two-way street. The people must support the government and the government must respond to the people. Then it works.
It is not working.
In issue after issue over the past few decades the government has failed to act in accordance with the expressed wishes of the people. There are so many cases in which this is obvious that it is beyond the scope of this essay to list them. The American people overwhelmingly support action for a sustainable environment, but the government has undertaken hardly any measures to stabilize the climate or develop alternative technologies to replace carbon exploitation. The people expect legislative measures to equalize justice and provide for essential welfare, but the legislature has refused to move against the “military-industrial complex” and international financial structures; and the legislature has even made it hard for people with any social, racial, economic, or medical deviation from some moveable “normal” to survive. Now we have this attack by the judicial hierarchy. Roe v. Wade was supported by 2/3 of the population, but overturned by 5 court justices.
What if the government loses the support of the people, as appears to have happened? What happens then?
When the majority refuse to be actively involved in readjusting processes that are destroying democracy, the minority have free reign. The minority in this case is inclined to consolidate power and take measures to prevent the majority from arising. There is a window for this to happen. The minority in this instance is made up of neo-fascist supremacists with a military mindset in an implied alliance with limited-agenda conservatives deadest on particular objectives (such as ending sexual excesses of some kind such as sodomy or abortion). This alliance operates without acknowledgement.
The majority have an array of disadvantages. The window of opportunity to reassert itself is not going to stay open for long. The majority includes many who are disillusioned and have resigned into the background. Leadership must emerge and inspire renewed hope that effective remedies are achievable without unbearable sacrifices. So, the costs must be specified, and that is hard to do. Civil war might fix things, but the cost is unthinkable. That is one of the reasons that the minority has an armed ultra-wing and the majority does not. That is, it does not unless it can once again attain the people’s allegiance to a political solution. The US Government has one of the largest military powers in history. Thankfully, it is steadfastly neutral in this.
As the month of our astonishment draws to a close, as we shake loose from the illusion that things will work out while we’re trying to stay cool and safe indoors. That’s where we are, on the brink hoping for no more earthquakes.
“The secret of the ‘gay agenda’ is to be loved and accepted … without having to change or be changed.” So what’s the fuss? My supportive niece Amber reposted this thought from Susan Cottrell, Freedhearts.org. We can count on Amber and Susan to be positive, affirming, and persistent. May their tribe increase.
However, I question whether there really is such a ting as a gay agenda. It is like “gay community” in that regard. These two terms are current. They are being used extensively by both those who are supportive and those who object to what they think of as the “gay agenda” and “gay community.”
The terms are handy. They are headlines to allude to a cluster of ideas that are real but abstract. As with such abstractions, they are accurate within their contexts. When ultra-right conservatives in Hungary or Houston say “gay agenda” they agree with one another that it is a bad thing that rots civilization as they want it to be. When it is mentioned by those in a Gay Pride event it refers to an agreeable set of goals.
“Gay community” is another helpful term as long as it is used by those who have defined the term and are in agreement. The dictionary says an abstraction describes a “general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances.” There is such an entity as the gay community, in the abstract. It does not actually exist in any identifiable, universal way that includes all LGBTIAN+ people, basically because there is no such society. There are groups and they coalesce and dissolve, grow and change, are here and there. If you listen to individual stories, it becomes clear no aspect of community is applicable to all of them any of the time or to any of them all of the time.
Narratives are so helpful to get to what’s really real. I used to collect gay stories. Each person’s story, when I got enough of it, was so full of factors, forces, and features that it is unique. A compilation of scores of anecdotes and longer accounts showed stunningly that no two individuals had more than a few motives and characteristics in common.
I long for the time when sexual diversity is so well understood that it is no longer an issue of note. Creating the notion of a clear-cut sexual binary has been a disaster. It has devolved even farther into male supremacism / female subjection, and then into hierarchies and persecution. So far, we have failed to overcome this social deterioration.
But we are working on it. We have come a long way since Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, Turing was castrated, and riots erupted at Stonewall 53 years ago this week. The clearest indication we are making progress is the emergence of vigorous opposition. The work is getting somewhere. We are even making impacts upon national governments.
As we speak, the Thai parliament has before it 4 (count them, four) proposals advocating same-sex unions. On June 15 they passed the most comprehensive one called a “Marriage Equality Act” by a vote of 210 to 180. [The picture accompanying this article is of a group overjoyed when the news came from inside the Parliament building.] The other three bills would also recognize same-sex relationships (and that would be progress) but as somehow distinct from heterosexual marriages – the “standard” way to understand marriage up to now. We are waiting for the second and then the final reading of the act. Parliament could still reverse itself and reject all four. It won’t be over until it’s signed and posted in the Royal Gazette.
This week in Japan the courts began to spar about whether marriage must be “between both sexes,” (which means “heterosexual”). An Osaka court ruled that the Japanese Constitution upholds marriage between both sexes, and rejected a claim brought by 3 same-sex couples that being unable to marry was unconstitutional. A Sapporo court in 2021 ruled that failure to recognize same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. So now there are two court rulings in direct contradiction of one another. The Osaka court said that more public debate was needed. Opinion surveys say the public now favors same-sex marriage. The Osaka court ruling may slow down laws recognizing that fact.
This is how progress is made, case by case. Parliaments and courts make decisions after considering principles and politics. The abstract principle in question at the moment is about what a marriage is. But this is a social issue, as the Osaka court seems to have discerned. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriages in 2015 when public opinion became clearly in favor of it; a previous ruling in 2013 was that a national consensus had not yet developed. We can call this “political” but actual public attitudes are swayed by people becoming acquainted with one another. (Would that this happened all the time, but some families do fracture when confronted with gay members.) Stories matter if they are told and heard.
Meanwhile, I’ll agree with Amber and Susan that the gay agenda is no threat because it’s no different than everyone’s agenda, and I’m going to be there on July 3 when our big Chiang Mai gay community celebrates Pride 2022.
There is no longer any doubt that the world – the whole world – is undergoing the most far-reaching religious reformation in at least 500 years. It is too late to arrest the eradication of the way things have been and too soon to predict the way they will be.
First, Christianity, beginning with Euro-American Christianity:
The goal was to civilize the world either by converting masses of people to join the Christian empire, or to impose empire and infuse it with Christianity in due time. This project collapsed in 1920-1970. Empires disintegrated starting with Euro-American ones. (What is being called empires now are fundamentally different in dynamics and structure). Institutional Christianity is dwindling, but there remain robust centers of renewal. These centers are twisting and emerging as protests against the shells and cocoons that encased them, and have barely begun to develop beyond incitement to concern.
There is a trend at this time toward refocusing on God beyond our imagination.
“If we could see others through God’s eyes, their beauty would take our breath away,” one meme says (attributed to Susan Cottrell, FreedHands.org). A Church of Scotland posting prays, “Let us live wholly to our Savior, free from distractions, from being hindered by the pursuit of what does not matter.” “Scripture became my … compass – its authors … directing me to pursue the Person," say Bradley Jersak and Peter Enns in A More Christlike Word. “At its heart, the Christian spiritual life is the process of allowing [the] image of God to emerge from ourselves.” Even more to the point is Kallistros Ware, “God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”
These are protests. They are phrased as injunctions, but they are fundamentally arguments against trying to contain God either within institutional structures or human concepts. They are extensions of JB Phillips’ “Your God Is Too Small” from the 1950s. Meanwhile, as sociologists are documenting, the oncoming generation is unwilling to support the monumental architecture and cultural imperialism of the past 10 generations. They, in their multitudes, do not actually care what happens to the churches on the town squares or the cathedrals in the cities. Governments will rescue the most important ones that cannot be done without lest the identity of the nation be blurred. So, a remnant is retreating back to a starting point that does without empire, hierarchy, or heritage. The search is on for a core of insight that is alive and potent.
So, what of Christianity outside the Euro-American cultural sphere?
Overwhelmingly, Christianity is still flourishing or at least carrying-on unperturbed. Many of the institutional churches ignore what is going on to disturb older churches in the north and west. Others, concerned about pernicious influence, are erecting defenses and pulling down bridges. If history is a dependable teacher, this will not succeed. Something is going on that is much more extensive than these conservators are taking into account.
As I see it, the miasma of Postmodernism (or the concept of “me and mine”) is coming to its peak and will now begin to destroy the vessels that contain it. Human beings are the first animals in Earth’s history to be motivated by concepts, that is by structures of thought that have the power to override responses to sensual stimuli. Our “needs” have expanded exponentially and irrationally. They no longer make sense. They are disconnected not only from reality but from nature. These “needs” put “keeping things” ahead of environmental destruction, nation-building over peace, winning above being kind or even being good, and us over them. These are destructive impulses. Destruction is the inevitable result. Any one of them has the power to destroy us all, and we have embraced the lot. This is universal among the dominant cultures of our time.
What, then, of Eastern religions?
Within all of them, the same dynamics can be seen. They are either being undermined of their influence, or they are about to be. The destructive forces are not the same as in the north and west. In China, the bastion of 3 millennia of religious development, a recent report says a full 90% of the people are espoused atheists. India, the undisputed cradle of religion, secularism is on the rise, and religion is being usurped to support supremacism; this never fails to replace religious attention on universal unity with grungy elitism and rebellion. Afghanistan has resisted intrusion (stoutly and sometimes successfully), but religious issues are dangerous there when they suppress human growth and development. Saudi Arabia aspires to be the defender of Islam, while at the same time being the advocate for some of Islam’s most self-destructive practices, and this never works for long. Israel has embarked on a path to nation-building that is at the expense of the very values Judaism has treasured. In brief, Oriental religions are as impotent as Euro-American ones, as they are espoused during this time of de-structuralist post-modernism.
But there is a protest movement. In its hands are the prospects for surviving the coming cultural cataclysm.
To be going forward, what optimists can hope for is a paradoxical emergence of an understanding that the concept that matters is of a Divine Essence which is so far beyond the unimaginable that it comes out the other side. It cannot be imagined at all. Nothing that is conceivable is true or applicable to the Utterly Divine. Our only experience of it is as an astounding wonder. No smaller god can be God. Still, (and this is the paradox) we are not stupefied by this experience, we are impelled by it. We are propelled by it back into hopeful action, action that is only conceivable if it includes everybody within reach. Every. Body. Heart, Soul and Energy.
PRIDE month has begun in Thailand. Events will continue all month, but history was made this past weekend when Bangkok, once again after a long hiatus, had a Pride Parade through the heart of the commercial district. This parade was massive and impressive. The newly-elected Bangkok Mayor attended and other political celebrities showed up. Most LSGT+ groups marched behind banners. Some costumes were fabulous!
There are several ways to measure a Pride parade. One way is how daring and challenging participants are. In this parade, despite strong social pressure to be modest, flamboyant costumes were prominent. From pictures online (which is my resource for this report) we can conclude that Bangkok still runs #2 behind Taipei as far as scanty clothing goes. But the push toward marriage equality and equal rights legislation was a repeated theme, taking precedence over the right to be open and expressive, free of restrictions, and proud of one’s sexual divergence. The right to be bonded and together, a BIG LOVE community, and moderately safe, are what count. A second way to measure a Pride parade, as already hinted, is whether officialdom stays away. To be accurate, it is much preferred that police and military (acting, as they would insist, in behalf of security) would not be obvious. None of our pictures showed a single person in uniform, much less in battle dress. On the other hand, the Mayor came to both a Saturday kick-off event near Siam Square and the parade on Silom Road on Sunday. We notice that, so far, the Prime Minister has been absent – actually he has been very busy with international visits right now, so we will cut him some slack. There’s plenty of time left this month for the government to mend fences with LGBTQIAN and SOGI rights advocates.
Bangkok last held an official Pride parade in 2006. It was energetic, but quite small. Maybe only 150 participants, if memory serves me (I was there). This time there were clearly tens of thousands filling the boulevard from side to side for several blocks after the organized parade had passed. At the time of the first couple of attempts to have a Pride parade, the Taksin government was in a suppressive mood, and the gay leadership was divided into opposing camps, giving the government convenient fuel to ignite public concern. Shortly after that, political thugs attacked our Pride Parade in Chiang Mai. The tide, it seems, has turned.
The last thought (picture 10 in this set) is a reminder that everything we hope for will be lost if life as we know it on Earth becomes extinct.
We wish you all a prideful and joyous month. Illegitimi non carborundum.
[I am grateful to the many who posted pictures of the Bangkok Pride Parade on June 5. Since the same batches were posted by several people, I am confused about whom to thank and give credit. I will be happy to add credits if the photographers will let me know. Meanwhile, THANKS to you who dressed gaily, marched boldly, sang loudly, and took pictures.]
Message for the New Generation
It’s not supposed to be like this.
There is not supposed to be any controversy about how wrong it is for a teen-age young adult to kill 18 ten-year-old kids and their teacher in a classroom. It is wrong. Period.
There is not supposed to be a danger of being killed when you go to a grocery store in Buffalo. Another 18-year-old with a killing machine did that; he was a white supremacist and his target victims were Black. He talked a lot about doing this before he did it.
There is not supposed to be a threat to Taiwanese-Americans in their Presbyterian Church, from another immigrant from Taiwan who planned not only to kill these strangers because they were from Taiwan, but also to incinerate the church where they were having dinner.
There is not supposed to be an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation by its neighbor for any reason. Yet Russia invaded Ukraine and claims it is right to do so. There are supposed to be international law and powers to prevent such atrocities.
There should not be a need for the President of the USA to reiterate the country’s commitment to assist Taiwan with military intervention if it is invaded by China.
There is not supposed to be a national movement to control women’s sexuality. But such movements exist in several nations, and have for a long time.
There is not supposed to be the possibility for a large Christian denomination to protect clergy who engage in illegal sexual activity.
These goings-on over the last two weeks are not supposed to be happening. This is not how life is supposed to be. We do not have to put up with it.
What makes teaching in Asia perilous?
Sometimes it’s the need to conform one’s teaching to a political philosophy, or to stay out of politics entirely despite one’s subject matter. But that hasn’t been my experience here in Thailand.
I am thinking of the way I was handled as we tried to require “English proficiency” for PhD and MA students following criticism from employers of previous graduates that they had expected our students to be more capable in using English than they had turned out to be. The administration was alarmed. So, we imposed “English proficiency” and a proficiency exam as requirements for graduation. It was my job, mainly, to develop this requirement and produce the courses and exams. Now, proficiency is a technical term in English as a Foreign Language. It is measured in levels from beginner to advanced, some 6 or 9 levels, each one taking about 200 (two hundred) hours of instruction and practice. That is too much to be suddenly added onto a degree program in some other field, such as “Advanced Nursing” or “Doctor of Hospital Administration.” Even moving students from one level to the next would be impossible. So, we first decided to simply produce a course and exam that showed that students could use English better than when they came to us. We had an entrance exam, and then an exit exam and if the student improved, great. But not all students were equally improved. We modified the course to clarify areas of competence: listening and comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing. Every time we taught the course, we tweaked it. But a couple of the PhD students who were medical doctors aiming for medical administration degrees (2 out of about 20 students) complained that the exam included questions about a reading that had not been presented in class. Even though it was in the course outline that “ability to analyze English writing to determine the meaning” was the course objective, which is not the same as “remembering what was discussed in class”, the administration became alarmed that out PhD students were unhappy. Immediately, without regard for prior approval of the course outline and description of the lessons, I was required to re-grade the exams and make sure those PhD students all passed. From then on, we had to re-write the English courses to include only material from the textbooks (not more than 2 or 3 pages, actually, from 400-page textbooks) and make sure that the exam had nothing new, no more “proficiency” but only “accomplishments” were to be measured.
This went on for two years. There was continual readjustment of the courses as they were going on, based on student feed-back. It seemed painfully unfair and organic, as if nothing could be depended on. What mattered, as it turned out, was student satisfaction much more than future employer satisfaction. Even end-of term evaluations were based on what the institution needed to show, how the overall impression about the institution would look.
Twenty years prior to that I went through another disappointing attempt to be effective and creative. I was teaching institutional management to master’s students. Up to that point, we did not have practical courses at the master’s level because the effort had been to produce effective functionaries. But I thought I had stumbled on a way to improve the instruction to produce leaders who would know not only what they were supposed to do but why things worked as they did, which would lead to discovering better ways to get things done. For example, if the course was about administration, then students ought to be familiar with literature that was available about management, and able to go into the field and examine how things were operating. So, our students scattered out and came back with new perspectives. No longer blocked by old ideas of adhering to manuals of operations, they reported that dysfunction had nothing to do with loyalty to the establishment but everything to do with clan and ethnic expectations. So, our management questions needed to be reformulated. Establishment efficiency could not be achieved and sustained without attention being paid to what actually mattered to the people who did the work and were the constituency.
I lasted only to the end of that year. Our university did not need a new way of perceiving its objective, which was to educate masters who would be leaders. Actually, that notion was so irrelevant it was not even the reason I was replaced as teacher of the practical courses in the master’s program. I was replaced because there was another man who needed a job, and teaching “the manual of operations” was what he could do. We needed him because he could attract students and because he was well known.
In thinking about this, larger principles came in sight. What always mattered was the reputation of the institution and its ability to recruit students. What did not matter was the integrity of the instruction as it pertained to course objectives and outcomes. It also did not matter that teachers were treated with disregard to their dignity or qualifications. What was important is that the institution and its leaders were always “on top of things” even though they were burdened by less competent underlings. The institution and its leaders were what mattered. The issue was institutional esteem.
I have now retired after nearly 60 years of contact with educational institutions in Thailand. In my leisure I have reflected on how things work here. There are differences in institutional culture, especially with regard to those massive government-connected institutions and private ones. But one thing that seems to be true in all of them is that the thing to be defended from challenges of any sort is the institution and its leaders. Sometimes it is not immediately apparent who is the “leader” since the one in the front office may not be the one in charge. It’s a hierarchical system built on a pyramid that gets steeper and lonelier at the top. Some leaders stay in charge by trying to micro-manage everything; hours are long and physical wear and tear are inevitable. Some leaders try to build a team to which they listen and use as surrogates or buffers, extensions of their own authority (because the country as a whole understands hierarchical administration to the exclusion of all others). Some leaders consider themselves temporary place-holders, something like the zero in mathematics; they are helping the institution through a transition, usually between what was and something quite similar to that which was.
It is not dangerous to be a teacher here in Thailand. There are no spies in the classrooms reporting any suspected deviance to political authorities, no batteries of surveillance cameras in the rooms and hallways, as in neighboring China. There are no midnight raids rounding up teachers and sending them to prison or making them disappear forever, as in neighboring Myanmar. There are no parents forming vigilante groups to police teachers, ban textbooks, and take over boards of education, as in the USA, causing teachers to resign in droves.
The parameters are culturally specific: students are to be treated properly, as students at the very bottom of the pyramid, and the institution and its leaders are to be supported and defended as necessary. All service institutions function on a similar principle. The system is to insure institutional esteem. It helps to know that.
On April 30, 87 years ago, the road to Doi Sutape Temple was opened and a car traveled up it for the first time. This, in my estimation, was the most momentous road opening in Chiang Mai history.
The construction of the road was a significant undertaking, begun at the behest of Kruba Srivichai, abbot of Wat Suan Dawk at that time. The temple on one of the peaks of Sutape Mountain immediately west of the city of Chiang Mai was neglected and hard to reach, although it presumably contained a major relic of the Lord Buddha. The relic’s twin was at Wat Suan Dawk. This symbolically linked the two temples.
What Kruba Srivichai proposed is the people build the road as a merit-making undertaking. The project was begun on 9 November, 2477 with a ceremony performed by the abbot. For the next 5 months and 22 days thousands of people took hand tools and scraped a roadway around the mountain to the base of the 325 step stairway leading up to the temple building and chedi.
Then, on 30 April 2478 (1935 AD) the road was completed enough to allow the first car to pass over it, carrying Kruba Srivichai. The trip began with a formal ceremony in which the venerable Kruba lit candles in honor of the Triple Gems, with Lord Kaew Nawarat the ruler of Chiang Mai in attendance.
What makes this event most important is the way it indicated how important Kruba Srivichai was in the estimation of the people, who responded in their multitudes at his beckoning, despite the fact that the hierarchy (both political and religious) in Bangkok were trying to suppress him. He had been placed under house arrest for his outspoken resistance to Bangkok’s attempts to do away with Buddhist practices that were not under Bangkok’s control. He obstinate in his efforts to preserve a measure of Lanna character. He had huge support for whatever he undertook. The success of the road-building sent a powerful signal that Chiang Mai needed to be handled differently than had been attempted.
Today, Doi Sutape is Chiang Mai’s most important pilgrimage destination. 30 years after the road was completed, HM the King constructed a palace residence a few miles further up the mountain beyond the temple and spent extended time there each year for several years, showing in concrete and roses that he was king over the north as well as the rest of the country.
People barely remember how the nice road, now well paved and easy to traverse, was first of all a rebellious act. But some do. Every year on April 30 someone brings out old pictures of the day Kruba Srivichai opened the road and ascended to the top of the hill overlooking the whole valley.
Unlike many people I know, I have the advantage of geography to impress on me that I am living remotely from the massive issues that are impacting the world. From my vantage point away from the throbbing and deafening frontiers where anxiety is fueled by virtual proximity, I sense I have an inconspicuous benefit. I am constantly reminded that I am nowhere near centers of power and triggers of crisis. What’s more, I am all but isolated from reality about such things as what Russia is doing to Ukraine, how COVID is eroding quality of life, where religious supremacists will attack next, and when the impending mass extinction event will actually catch our attention. What I get is highly filtered news, and then even that is treated by me highly selectively.
Take today, for example. A crew is working on the electrical power lines somewhere nearby, so we have stored a supply of water and will do without electronic access to the world. But before the Internet went off I read in The Guardian that there is a divide between the older elite and the younger generation here in Thailand over Russia and Ukraine. The older generation being interviewed insisted Thailand ought to be neutral because Russia has a long history of cordial relations with Thailand and Russian tourists have been the first to come back in large numbers now that our borders are open again. The young activists interviewed were quoted in support of Ukraine as the victim and moral example of resistance to authoritarianism. My reaction was, “What?” The Guardian’s sample was far too small. Their article was one step away from nonsense. Nobody around here is saying anything about Russia or Ukraine. The price of eggs is at an all-time high, and COVID is spreading right into our neighborhood. The Songkran (Thai New Year) 3-day holiday coming this week needs planning and again the water-throwing will be cut back – so the tourists will not be coming in large numbers after all. These are matters that matter. That’s how attention-filters work. They are diverting attention not only from Europe and China, but even attention that might be paid to the slaughter of ethnic groups in Myanmar next door to Thailand. “News” producers know better than to emphasize things about which viewers cannot feel an impact.
For me, way out here in the countryside, a lot of the headlines catch me by surprise, but since I know I’m only going to get headlines which are slanted to bait readers, I have sort of lost interest in keeping up. I do pick a topic now and then to focus on. It’s a hobby without expected ramifications or extended purpose.
Now, I do not think of this as a disadvantage, this remoteness. I have noticed that some of my friends seem to have become fixed on alarming news in a way that absorbs them and sucks the joy out of living. I fear they have not noticed how unnecessary it is to become angry over things over which they have no control. Nor have they noticed that they have been deceived most of their lives into believing that they can make a difference. Here’s what I mean. In several countries elections are coming. This, we are supposed to believe, is our citizens’ opportunity to influence the way things work in our nations and neighborhoods. So we really, really should vote. But the day after the election when “representatives” have been chosen, those “representatives” are no longer speaking to us or listening to us. Notice how they work. Pay attention to how much of what they do is what we want or need. Representative government is no longer operating. Influence comes from money and in some places from military might or social-cultural pressure (usually conservative, protective of a select group, and against change).
But I have the advantage of distance. Young people in some places really might get something accomplished to bring about sensible gun laws that might reduce mass shootings in schools, and Greta and others might get some carbon emissions reduced. I am just too far out of town, too old to set off on long marches for justice any more, and cut off from pulpits and classrooms. I am redundant and that’s OK. I know that something Biden, Putin, or Xi might do might impact our security and prosperity, but I know they will do it without me. This gives me peace of mind I probably wouldn’t have if I could get more of the New York Times than headlines, and more news than the Thai Prime Minister’s predictions about opening up for tourists.
I do not regret living remotely.
The cross is not a defiant denunciation of death and death’s agents, but a complete immersion into the fullness of its agony. Before the cross was empty God hung on it displaying the human condition and the consequences of human competition. Naked on the cross, God is radically exposed as one who is completely and passionately in love with those who suffer, as well as those who inflict suffering and those who are desperate to elude suffering. Victory is a paradox, after all. Easter is done, as all death’s conquests are overturned, by one who embraces the grief and enfolds the pain along with victims as they suffer.
Deborah said she has “very devout Christian friends who do not want to take part in a Buddhist wedding.” I am tempted to rant, “If they refuse to even try to understand what’s going on in key events in Thailand how can they stand to be here in this country?”
Many conservative Christians “stand to be here” because they feel they can isolate themselves from sinister spiritual and religious elements. Faith in Christ offers divine protection, as well. Some are here to help convert people to Christianity and “get them saved.” But they refuse to bother to try to find out what Buddhist activities really are.
To be a Buddhist ceremony, as opposed to a Thai traditional one, the event must (a) have a Buddhist clergy person presiding, (b) include chanting of Buddhist scripture, (c) OR involve physical connection with an image of the Lord Buddha. That “physical connection” can be assumed if the event is inside a temple, if the connection is symbolized through a cord tied to a Buddha image, or by pouring water if the image is being paraded or bathed.
None of this happens in a Thai traditional wedding.
Aside from the fact that Thai traditional weddings are not Buddhist religious ceremonies because they lack Buddhist religious content or context, there is widespread acceptance of the notion that all Thai traditional events are also Buddhist because “Buddhism is indivisible and indistinguishable from everything that is authentically Thai.”
Where does one draw the line? Obviously there is a line somewhere. Thai food is part of Thai cultural identity. Not even vegetarianism in behalf of spiritual well-being is forbidden by Christians. Unlike several other religions, Thai Christians do not have strict food laws. Thai textiles tailored into traditional Thai costumes are no problem for most Christians (Mennonites and Roman Catholic clergy being prominent exceptions). Can Thai Christians serve in the Thai military or civil service, knowing that there will be occasions when everybody will be venerating royalty and even showing piety at religious shrines? For a lot of Christians military service is unavoidable and some choose military and civil service.
That brings us to holidays. In Thailand they are of two types: strictly religious holidays (including the three major Buddhist ones, Makha Bucha, Visaka Bucha, and Asalaha Bucha; but it is sometimes overlooked that the two Christian holidays and Muslim holy days are not only permitted by law and common consent, but Christians and Muslims are expected to treat those days as special according to their customs). The other type of Thai holiday is not mainly religious, Songkran and Loy Kratong being the most popular along with certain royal anniversaries. These holidays have Buddhist religious activities attached to them. Is floating a “kratong” on a waterway religious? Most Thai Christians have worked this out in a way that satisfies them. The same thing applies to “anointing with scented water” during the Songkran festival. The line between what should and should not be done is ultimately a personal decision.
Not all religious events in Thailand that Christians must decide about are Buddhist, as a matter of fact. Installation of a shrine at a construction site is a Brahmin-Hindu ritual. Christians might not attend. Other ceremonies venerate “spirits of nature” or propitiate “ghosts.” They are not Buddhist, but they are incorporated into Thai traditions.
Back to the notion, “If it’s really Thai it’s also Buddhist.” To be a real Thai person one must be Buddhist.
This is unacceptable for several reasons, but mainly because it excludes non-Buddhists from being real Thai people. Thai Christians confront this every day. Some handle it by minimizing the amount of differences they must acknowledge. They blend in as much as they can. Another approach made by some Christians is to fight against the idea that “if it’s Thai it’s Buddhist” by conducting Christian rituals to mark Thai traditions such as the King’s birthday. Fortunately, the previous King and Queen were consistent and successful in insisting that every Thai citizen is equally and authentically Thai, no matter their ethnicity or religion.
That is why it is perplexing that there are still Christians who don’t get what’s at stake when they refuse to even try to understand and participate when anything importantly Thai is going on. It becomes painful and personal when the event is related to key life events such as funerals and weddings. But being uninformed is one thing and being unwilling to be informed is a higher level of obstinacy.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.