What the media initially called “The largest white supremacist rally” in the USA in decades ended all doubt that violent confrontation will not be opposed by federal intervention as has been counted on for the last 50 years. In cases of civil unrest the federal government takes marching orders from the President of the United States. The highest ranking person to tell the coalition of white supremacists to go home was the Governor of Virginia, where the aborted rally ended early and tragically. President Trump was remarkably reticent to unleash his famous rage against the organizers of the rally or the participants, or even the terrorist car driver from Ohio who committed the only murder in the rancorous confrontation. The white supremacist participants waved Nazi flags and the “Stars and Bars” battle flag of the Confederacy, shouted Nazi slogans and threats as well as obscenities of more recent provenance.
For months the right wing of the Republican Party and those who voted for Trump have objected to inferences there were parallels between the USA today and Germany in the early 1930s when Nazis came to power. That objection was decimated last weekend in Charlottesville. US alt-right white supremacists showed their colors and the President hesitated to denounce them, leaving the Ku Klux Klan and rally organizers relieved and expressing new confidence. The images in the media were very powerful of hundreds marching with torches this week end, side-by-side with eerily similar pictures from the Nuremburg Rally of 1934 that consolidated Hitler’s fame. The battle flags of the white supremacists are cut from the same cloth as the ones with swastikas of Aryan supremacists in Germany.
Events in Charlottesville clarified several issues that moderate Trump supporters have tried to obfuscate. There is a direct line between Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign and the emboldened, out-in-the-open rise of white-supremacist hate-groups. These groups are fighting to retain white male power against the trend toward racial and cultural diversity in the USA. Two times in history identical campaigns were launched, the insurrection of the Confederacy that led to the Civil War of 1860-1865, and the Nazi plan to establish the Aryan race as the dominant power in Europe and “tomorrow the world.” The name for this is racism.
With dwindling hope that the US government will defend the people against its racists, the strategies missed in the 1930s appear more likely than ever. At least three times there was the possibility of civil rebellion to oppose the Nazis, but the will to take the risk was never great enough. In the USA the situation is different. The militant left is not pacifist and the Black Lives Matter movement has already identified armed white men in uniform as enemy. The BBC named a faction of Black Lives Matter as the ones actively battling the white supremacist rally marchers last weekend. They are the ideological heirs of the Black Panthers of the 1970s and 70s. The USA has a deep-rooted culture of violence. Killing people has always been the way to finally sort things out and clarify who is in control.
One might hope for a massive uprising of the peace-loving public to eclipse the new Nazis. Always, passive and pacifist alternatives to violent socio-political change depend on the pacifists outnumbering by an overwhelming margin those armed for battle. It is unclear what it would take to motivate them to put down their cell phones and show up in huge numbers – oh, wait! Women in knitted pink pussy-cat hats did that in January. In Charlottesville a whole church-full of clergy showed peaceful resistance. Now here’s the rub: the official response from the President and his spokespersons was to lump the peace advocates with the militants as all guilty of causing trouble … and of interrupting the President’s golfing vacation where he was taking a break from goading North Korea into war. As was the case in January, the peace-makers in Charlottesville got neither credit nor support from the government.
After last week’s poor showing from Washington when no one supported or praised the passive counter-protesters, the chances are increased that the USA will resort to type. I asked on Facebook, “Is this the way the second civil war starts?” The only person who responded said, “Yes.”
Note:The New Yorker published this noteworthy piece this week "Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?"
August 12 is the birthday anniversary of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand. The day is celebrated as national Mothers Day, with the Queen representing mothers, Mother of the country, and mother of current King and his three sisters. It is a public holiday.
It is appropriate on this auspicious occasion to honor mothers. In Thai culture mothers are given honor that approaches veneration. No matter a mother’s competence or lack of it at the task of nurturing her offspring, she is to be esteemed for the contributions and sacrifices she made. If she is loved and affectionate, kind and generous, supportive and patient, so much the better. If she is successful in enterprise, esteemed in public service, or renowned as a scholar, that is reserved for mention on other occasions. Mother’s Day is only about mothering.
Except in the case of Her Majesty the Queen. Her mothering is at a higher level. The Mother of Thailand is given veneration that approaches worship. Although it is impossible to separate loyal narrative about the Queen from mundane details and complicated reality, it is also unnecessary to do so. This year in particular, as she is sustained in nursing care following her debilitating stroke, as her husband lies in state awaiting cremation two months from now, and as her son redefines kingship, it is all the more important to remember what she represents.
At one time she was at the pinnacle of the Thai social pyramid, the elite of the elite. She represented the value of the traditional social structure. In that position she demonstrated what obligations the nobility had, as well as what privileges. She selected issues and projects to benefit the country. Her attention to preservation of the environment and textile cultural heritage were well known. She also stepped in to thwart attempts to promote the central culture and religion at the expense of minorities. Her birthday eve addresses in this regard are missed.
But her role as intermediary between the sacred and the secular is more subtle and pervasive. Cultural anthropologists and mythologists might map this arcane territory inhabited by royalty at the point where super-social touches demi-divine. For the time being, however, I am content to observe that the national narrative actually does refer to this in metaphors and innuendos, being careful not to cement the pieces so tightly together that they ever imply that one line of narrative is an allegory for another. For her part, Queen Sirikit was a patron of royal arts including masked khon performances of the Ramakien and it was her hope to develop popular support for this form of classical dance-drama about divine kings and queens.
That brings us to the matter of national identity and cultural validity, about which “the palace” is always concerned and is scrambling to enhance. Put very simply, as school books put it, Thai culture is upheld by three things: king, religion and nation-state. They are an ineffable trinity, each institution sustained by the other two. If any of them fail the others fall, and the nation as it is known ceases to exist. What then results is impossible to imagine. Moreover, each institution is intricately composed of P E O P L E, mortal human beings who have somehow agreed to cooperate in complex relationships about which they have not been consulted. This is generally acceptable as long as that is understood to be the best configuration presently available, and promotes everyone’s welfare, upholding a grateful population and their core values. The role of HM the Queen in this has been emblematic rather than entirely functional. She, like Sita in the Ramakien, is a key player whether she is active as in the past or passive as is apparently her present circumstance. As in the many acts of the Ramakien dance-drama, her role in this act is off-stage but the action is never comprehensible without her. Nor is the drama entirely predictable as it proceeds. It is a drama, after all, that is both cosmic and temporal.
I find the Thai salute especially appropriate this year. The exaltation is not “Happy birthday” but “Prosper!” [“Long life the Queen” is not a translation of “Song phra charoen” but is an English equivalent.] “Song phra charoen,” ทรงพระเจริญ is utterly contextual. What it means for Her Majesty to prosper under these circumstances is beyond my grasp, but I sincerely wish it to include all things good and positive.
Hermeneutical Ignorance at the Root of the Crisis of Theology
The Rev. John Fry once said, “All heresies begin with failure to correctly parse a verb.” It was a surprising statement made by the radical religious leader, battling the established power structure of the City of Chicago. His audience was expecting words of encouragement for them to join his campaign in behalf of the lower layers of the social pecking order at the very beginning of a new phase of the American cultural-war that is still going on. Fry, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, was getting at the root of the problem of bizarre theology, including especially the theology that supports what Walter Brueggemann later called our “crisis.”
The crisis of the U.S. Church … has everything to do with giving up on faith and the discipline of our Christian baptism, and settling for a common generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence and part affluence. Brueggemann
At the time Fry was making national headlines, Prosperity Gospel was just being heard about and televangelists like Rex Humbard of Akron were moving moderate Billy Graham evangelicalism into Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s territory.
PREMISE 1: A collective church’s rationale is its theology.
“Collective church” (or orthodox church) refers to an organization of local congregations that recognizes a shared heritage and mission. This collective may have an administrative structure, as well. In fact, several Protestant denominations are named for their administrative structures, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians. Denominations are such collective churches, but so are less formal associations and fellowships of local congregations.
A “theology” is a systematic compilation of concepts concerning divine-human relationships and conditions. A local congregation may have both theological and social rationales, but a wider church organization exists for its collective mission in support of its theological vision. The most formidable collective churches are those with the most compelling theological vision. It can be a great help to have an acknowledged, shared heritage as part of the collective church’s identity, as well.
PREMISE 2: Theology is the product of a hermeneutical process.
A “hermeneutical process” is an interpretation strategy. There are no Christian churches that do not have some form of Holy Bible as sacred scripture. Therefore, there are no churches that do not utilize a hermeneutical process. On the one hand are “Bible-believing churches” where leaders insist, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” The Bible is the “word of God.” The actual hermeneutical process is “we decide” what the Bible means. Often, that meaning is declared to be self-evident, conforming to the most literal meaning of a text.
At the other end of the spectrum are churches that define a more complex interpretive process. A typical hermeneutic involves identifying relevant biblical texts on a subject, considering what wise teachers have said about those texts and that subject, supplemented by relevant studies of the life and times to which the text refers, and applying that to particular present circumstances by the use of natural metaphors and inspired intelligence.
* * * * *
Collective churches with longer histories tend to have more rigid regulations for their theologies. One way of regulating theology is to groom the makers of theology. The usual method is to require a regimen of training for those who will become theological instructors, such as preachers or seminary teachers. This training is about how to do theological reflection and discourse.
Traditionally, students were taught biblical languages so they could analyze and understand texts of scripture. The analytical task is exegesis, which John Fry referred to as “parsing a verb.” This gave a basis for deciding on a biblical translation and ability to critique translations provided by others. That is where textual studies were used. Two resources were live teachers and printed textbooks such as the famous Interpreter’s Bible by Abingdon Press and the Interpretation series by John Knox Press.
Then, having been taught the technical skills about how to do theology, those students were ordained and authorized to do it.
Another way of regulating theology is to make it the official property of the church. Creeds and confessions do that, but so do official edicts by popes, councils, and bishops (Amish and Mormon bishops have substantial power in this regard). Some publications have acquired official standing including John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy, the Book of Mormon compiled by Joseph Smith, and John Cramer’s editorial work on the 1549 The Book of Common Prayer. The majority of books of theology are official only insofar as they influence collective opinion or are used in theological courses of study that are official.
Collective churches are weakened when they lose a compelling shared vision of their identity and mission. I believe that has happened to a number of ecclesial organizations including most mainline Protestant denominations in the USA, as well as the Church of Christ in Thailand, founded by American Protestant missionaries nearly 200 years ago.
Within my lifetime the Presbyterian Church (USA) has lost its theological consensus. Several things happened to bring about this loss:
Each of these changes was impelled by good reasons and was considered the best option as it was gradually adopted. The overall effect, nevertheless, was that the mechanisms for developing a theological rationale for a collective mission were lost.
Without a theologically-based compelling mission, collective churches drift into heresy or dwindle in influence. Influence is of two types: quantity of adherents that can become a unified political or commercial force, or quality of conviction that becomes a moral force (sometimes despite a minority status). To exert any influence on events and trends of our time Christians with no bonds to a collective church can only be change agents by allying themselves with organizations pursing similar goals. Heresy is a theological position contrary to an official position, but it becomes untenable when it results in bizarre and unsustainable spirituality that may also be irrelevant to contemporary reality or contrary to logic and reason (i.e. intellectually unsustainable).
When local churches and individuals no longer see any reason to “buy into” the larger church’s mission, the largest remaining mission engine is the local congregation. People will be loyal and engaged in what their home church is doing and nothing more. Many a pastor feels alone these days in hanging onto a commitment to the denomination and its diocese or presbytery. This is a major issue in the decline of mainline denominations and in the erosion of their influence.
What can Christians do when the USA has come to the point where the US President has steered the US government into a pattern of policies that are environmentally disastrous and lack regard for human life? Christianity in the USA is divided. One group of Christians support the government while they ignore the theological implications of what is going on; and they are opposed by another group of Christians who lack influence because they no longer have a theological rationale on which to base an effective resistance.
Christianity as a religious movement in the USA is facing two major crises, the crisis of organizational fragmentation and the crisis of declining moral influence. The loss of collective theology underlies both of these crises.
In every case I can recall, imminent organizational fragmentation has been addressed by administrative processes. That seems only reasonable since the fracturing is, first of all, a matter of control and management. The argument may have begun over points of theology, usually having to do with hermeneutics or how to read the Bible, but then the protest turns political and becomes a church fight where the only issue is who’s going to walk out the door and who’s going to keep the keys. Sometimes the walk-out is dramatic, as was the exodus of Lutherans from the Missouri Synod on February 19, 1974, and sometimes it is flaking-off of one family or congregation at a time as Presbyterians tend to have it. At the moment, the United Methodist Church is at this very same threshold.
As for the Church of Christ in Thailand, the crisis is still a distant threat. It is, however, inevitable. The church has no collective theology aside from a core principle that it is better to be a Christian than to be some other religion. The national church scaled back the educational requirements for church leaders, with the result that within one generation nearly all pastors and denominational officials have only a bachelor’s degree or less. Their limited training is how to do the work of a pastor, with little or no emphasis on how to do theology. There is no longer an official publication office for theological books and so most books are either translations of popular theology from overseas, desk-top publications by seminary teachers who have no peer dialogue or accountability about their content, or reprints of elementary theological textbooks from about 50 years ago. No hermeneutical system is standard, although the Biblical-literalist approach is taken for granted. The national church’s foundational creed has not been debated (as far as I know) since it was adopted without debate in the church’s general assembly in the mid-1990s. In fact the church has no mechanism and has lost the capacity to have a national discussion of theology.
Behind it all, in back of every major divisive encounter among Christians since the nineteenth century has been disagreement about how to interpret the Bible meaningfully. And that is the study that seldom happens.
A Thai aphorism “catching a fish in each hand” is meant to illustrate the futility of trying to do too much at one time. I thought it was the Thai equivalent of “killing two birds with one stone,” but it’s not. That American phrase is about rare good luck, while the Thai saying is about common sense.
This is the twentieth anniversary of my decision to try to be an active LGBT advocate and insider while being a non-traditional missionary and family member. To put it simply, the Thai saying was right and my sketch made that year was overly optimistic.
I know people who are trying to catch a fish in each hand.
One young friend in Chicago wants to be a Black American Christian radical while being in the diplomatic corps of the United Nations. An older friend in Pennsylvania is trying to hang onto his estranged family who has locked him out and at the same time he is dreaming of plans to renew his career as a photo journalist. A church worker from Texas is trying to be retired and still influential in running an institute he founded. A former colleague in New York swears he can be both an LGBT NGO leader and a Trump conservative.
In world politics, over-grasping is also rampant. The current US government is proposing to be conservative and destructive at the same time, conservative of “Great America” while deconstructing government along with a wide range of legal curbs and protections. The Thai government wants to retain royalist military control, while transforming economic generators (which can only be done by freeing and enabling the middle class to expand in skills and power). Indonesia is struggling, trying to sustain a modern, democratic, pluralist nation while allowing Wahabist Islamic influence to expand.
The likelihood, in trying to catch a fish in each hand, is not that you will only get one, but that you will lose both.
It is a moot point whether I would have made a greater contribution to humanity by not over-extending myself 20 years ago. It seemed important to try. The results have been good, but very different from what I had hoped at the time.
I’m hoping for my young friend in Chicago to find a handful of something he can handle, with God’s help. I think that my older friend in Pennsylvania has already lost his two fish and he needs a new quest. The retired church worker from Texas has reduced his manipulation of his former institute, which is running just fine without his hand on. I believe my former colleague in New York will soon realize hitching to Trump as a gay advocate is counter-productive.
In the case of governments, either the power is with the people or with a limited entity. The current military-industrial complex begun in the USA is international, owned by global financiers, while skillfully being challenged by the Chinese. Whether or not the US government’s regime change fails, it looks like the Chinese will capture the white queen (US economic sovereignty) but the people may still be able to fend off a check-mate by quickly sacrificing their tarnished White House knight. In Thailand regime change is not imminent. Thailand has never had any other kind of government than a royalist-military alliance with some economic power occasionally slipping into other hands until the resulting confusion could be sorted out and the elite realigned. In Indonesia, as everywhere in South East Asia, no matter who is sitting in the front office, the military is close by. If militant Muslims gain control by virtue of their numbers and outside funding, the military will be the only thing that could stop them. Duterte in the Philippines understands this is true in Mindanao as well, so he’s just going in with both hands for a single fish – military control. His drug war and economic recovery are apparently on hold for a while.
Can I get away with saying out loud that I love both Israel and Palestine? Can I at least express a strong positive regard for the people of both countries? The short answer now is, “No”.
It is impossible to begin a discourse these days that mentions the historic suffering and current perils of both Israel and Palestine equally.
The advocates of Israel will insist there is no valid comparison. The Holocaust was definitive proof that Israel is necessary, and unceasing hostility against Israel is proof that Israel must defend itself. This means there must be safe impermeable borders and complicit neighboring nations that refuse to tolerate aggression against Israel from within themselves.
The advocates of Palestine, for their part, point out that their people have nowhere to live normally. They have been dispossessed, disenfranchised, rendered stateless in effect, and barely tolerated. Their rights have been affirmed by all sorts of international forums, but ignored in practice. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amounts to ethnic cleansing and apartheid, unparalleled in our time.
Even more telling, it is impossible to begin a discussion that mentions the flaws of either Israel or Palestine. Any hint that Israel’s policies and practices are even questionable, almost immediately deteriorates into name-calling. The other day a British newspaper reported that Israeli authorities had removed a solar electric facility built with Dutch money for a Palestinian village. The article left the impression that the solar cells were stolen and the other equipment destroyed in behalf of the Zionists. The rebuttal comments to the article had nothing to do with the factuality of the report, but excoriated the news bureau as anti-Semitic and retorted that Jewish settlers had a right to defend themselves. No comment tried to explain how the use of solar power by that village to replace their malfunctioning diesel generators that only worked 3 hours a day was a security threat to the new Jewish settlers who had illegally built nearby. It was the report that was what ought not to have happened. The point is that criticism of Zionist action is not tolerated.
On the other hand, to see how aggravating it is to pro-Palestinians to have Palestinian flaws pointed out, such as their attacks and violence with rocks and rockets, we would have to have access to Arabic language news sources. It may be that such sources are somewhat easier to get here in Thailand than in the USA, but, trust me, Palestine’s friends do not like criticism any more than Israel’s friends do.
Going back to 1948 when the United Nations voted to validate the State of Israel, the international solution is that there should be a Palestinian state, too. Indeed, there is such a state and it is recognized by the United Nations. However, its territorial boundaries and structural integrity are still contentious issues.
At the risk of over-simplifying history, I submit that two events have redefined the situation. (1) After twenty years, the 1967 war changed the military balance decisively. In one week Israel gained military control over the whole area from the Red Sea to the border with Syria. That included every bit of whatever might be Palestine. It was the Zionist dream come true of restoring the biblical borders of Israel from Dan to Beersheba. For the next 30 years Palestine was a matter in political flux with international efforts being made to seek a political solution that defined Palestine’s borders and ratified its national sovereignty. US President Jimmy Carter was almost successful at bringing that about. No matter what international tribunals have said, Israel is the military master of that territory. (2) The political balance within Israel itself changed from secular to religious when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia began encouraging (rather than obstructing) Jewish emigration to Israel. The influx of ultra-religious settlers put pressure on Israel to accommodate them. Shortly their numbers added to the strength of the right-wing Likud political party and brought them to power, and thus effectively ended Palestinian hopes of resisting the erosion of their rights and even access to jobs and utilities. None of their land is safe from encroachment. Jewish settlements on Palestinian land have a high rate of being successful and protected.
In the real world there usually are only two political forms these days, political obscurity and realpolitik. Both are hiding realities. The reality of justice for Palestine is obscured behind religious rhetoric from all directions. Out and out declaration of Israeli sovereignty over all its land would lead to unpredictable outrage, but incremental dismantling of Palestine seems to be working. [See the Wikipedia picture of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly building, destroyed by Israel in 2009]. Even symbolic impossibilities of a few years ago are becoming more likely, such as moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, which would mean that the US no longer considers Jerusalem either neutral or divided – the whole city, Christian and Muslim holy sites and all, is Israel’s to have and to hold. But the other reality is the fate of Palestinian people. To say that they have a future in Israel is to ignore the things that are happening to them, which amount to a barely hidden effort to make their lives so unbearable that they will leave, as millions have already done and are now in refugee camps in Jordan or “settled” abroad.
So here is reality: Israel has military sovereignty and Palestine has no military at all. Israel is solidly in the hands of its religious right-wing and Palestine does not exist for them. As long as outside powers are unwilling to risk unlimited war with each other, the matter rests with Israel and Palestine. In that case, there is only one realistic conclusion.
Palestine is extinct.
Overlapping Realms of Faith in the USA – Essay 4
American cemeteries are cultural repositories. They remind us who we were. We have other archives, of course, art museums and libraries, architecture and archeology, to name four.
Late 20th century cemeteries are called such things as Memorial Lawn and the famous Forest Lawn Memorial Parks, and are clear of obtrusive tomb stones. As with funeral homes, the custom is to cosmetize and preserve the placid memory of loved ones who have “passed on”.
Early 20th century cemeteries have plain tombstones marking graves, engraved simply with names and dates. In death all are equal and removed from controversy, competition and travail. Military cemeteries epitomize this view of death.
19th century cemeteries tended, as with much of the Gilded Age, to elaborate on grief and glory. Those who could afford it enshrined loved ones under monuments that expressed how important they were, how desperately they would be missed and how lovingly remembered.
Funeral arrangements and religious services evolved with the times. Sadness, elicited or imaginary, with ritualized mourning and eloquent eulogies have given way to more subdued expressions. Along with the idea that death is a natural and inevitable result of life, the consensus has developed that something of us goes on into the beyond. It is a comforting (although somewhat tenuous) thought that a reunion awaits on the other side after we have shed the inconvenient aspects of this mortal body and our social aggravations, as well.
From the moment of death to the final disposition of the dead body, several actions are expected, anywhere in the world:
If any of these steps is impossible, the process is unsatisfactory and “closure” is incomplete. One of the shifts in American funeral practices over the last 50 years is the gradual move away from elaborate embalming and entombment toward “natural” disposal such as planting trees with the body beneath or accelerated decomposition such as cremation.
Every one of these events is subject to circumstances and cultural variation. None of them is dictated by the doctrines of any orthodox religious authority. [“Orthodox” in this sense refers to an established religious organization such as a branch of Judaism, a Christian denomination, or a sect of Buddhism, etc.] For example, compare how arrangements for an Anglican Episcopalian Igorot woman in mountainous Sagada, Philippines in 1945 would have differed from arrangements for American seaman in the South Pacific at about the same time, and compare those to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral on April 14, 1945 in the White House. Only the Book of Common Prayer service might have been the same.
In other words, funeral customs are not dictated in the same way church doctrine is. Only the formal religious service overlaps. The rest is part of some other set of dynamics controlled by other narratives and traditions. Most of that is under the heading of “folk faith”. Folk faith tells us whether close kinfolks ought to wash the body of a dead person or not, whether the body should be “consigned” in a shroud, wrapped in a cloth, or fully dressed. Folk faith tells us whether mourners should wear certain colored clothes and how to express grief acceptably. Almost everything that happens in an American funeral is under the umbrella of folk faith except possibly some core elements of the “life-passage commemoration” (i.e. the funeral service). Folk faith is a faith aspect of culture.
There are four overlapping realms of faith in America. They include orthodox religion, spiritual personal development regimens, American civil religion, and folk faith. Folk faith in the United States includes a wide range of generally held beliefs and narratives about life and death, common sense, and the natural order. Folk faith is about how to conceptualize and configure the nature of life and death in ways that integrate cognition, intuition and aspiration, and facilitate social flow. An article of folk faith may be agreeable to everyone of a given religion or region but not be mandated by any religious authority. Religious authority is expressed in various ways. For Anglicans (Episcopalians) in the USA, “our way” is verbalized in the prayer book. For Amish, the bishop has the presiding voice. For Christian Scientists and Quakers, let your conscience be your guide. For Roman Catholics there is an authority hierarchy with some issues directed by canon law and others by decrees or traditions. In all cases there is an area left over where folk faith predominates.
A second large area of American folk-faith, in addition to funeral practices and beliefs about death, is about how God operates in our lives day-to-day. God, in this context, may be either a person or a principle. An Internet posting a few days ago had this quote ascribed to Michael Horton (whitehorseinn.org): “Our American gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make your dreams come true.” There are lots of variations of this including expressions such as “God is in the driver’s seat,” and “Believe in hope, blessings are coming.” “Be patient,” one message advises, “God is sending help to mend all broken areas of your life.” The new American gospel may not have anything to do with God at all. What happens to you may be the result of karma; rewards and punishments are essentially deserved, although there may be an element of luck. Then there is prosperity theology that prescribes wealth as the product of strong faith and faithful obedience.
Another way to consider folk faith is as a cultural over-lay. It may be difficult to separate folk faith from the beliefs of an orthodox religion, but there are clues. Orthodox religions tend to be largely the same from one cultural context to the next. Calvinism is not much different in Korea or Scotland. Folk faith beliefs and practices vary from culture to culture. Folk faith tends to be more fluid and prone to fads and fanaticism. Folk faith may be, and often is, in service to other ends than human nature and destiny. For instance, the notion that menstruating women desecrate a sacred space effectively prevents women from equal status, thus preserving male privilege. Circumcision of boys, similarly, not only designates the boys as members of the tribe but also insures that only boys and their consorts and families have that designation. Folk faith may also have dual or multiple objectives, as in the case of the issue of abortion. As a principle in Roman Catholicism abortion and artificial birth control methods are prohibited because they are in contravention of the divine purpose for human sexuality which is exclusively for human reproduction. Anti-abortion colleagues who are not Roman Catholic may consider abortion wrong because they have agreed with the very recent argument (since the 1970s) that abortion is murder, whereas other forms of birth control are not. That there is a diverse rationale for the same moral injunction is a sign that the issue in question is a matter of folk faith in a cultural context.
It is with regard to morality that folk faith can turn abusive. Whereas religious organizations recognize that their authority extends only to those who are members and adherents, folk faith tends to expand moral codes to everyone within a geographical area. This tendency is historically potent in the USA. Three examples come to mind. (1) When the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) began, polygamy was reintroduced as a precept of the new religion. This, more than any other issue, incited outrage and led to persecution that drove the Mormons to Utah. (2) When colonial settlers moved into territory held sacred by native people, the taboos and practices particular to those holy precincts were over-ridden and ignored. This, more than any other issue, led to the genocidal Indian Wars of the 1870s. (3) When slaves were captured in Africa and transported to the Americas, the White Christian moral code was abrogated to permit slave owners to nullify slave families, breed slaves like animals, and of course to buy and sell them, all of which were prohibited with regard to free white Christians.
Finally, in folk faith, moral and cultural issues assume priority importance. In orthodox religion the main items of faith are metaphysical with ethics and ritual derived from that. There tend to be partisans, often fervent and aggressive, to particular issues in folk faith, but no outstanding leaders. Folk faith is derived from common-sense, widely-held beliefs that “everyone ought to agree to.” By its very inclusive nature and assumptions, orthodox religionists usually also agree with the issues. Because of their overlap most Americans do not bother to differentiate between one realm of faith and another and therein lays injustice, misunderstanding, and trouble.
[Expect the next article on “Overlapping Realms of Faith in the USA” on “Spirituality” in August. Previous articles in this series are: essay 1 www.kendobson.asia/blog/overlapping-realms-of-faith, essay 2 www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion, and essay 3 www.kendobson.asia/blog/a-religion]
Rice storage granaries [ยุ้งข้าว] are symbolic of Thai rice farming. They are second only to the rice fields themselves. But they are more significant than they seem.
A rice granary is typically an elevated platform on 6 or 8 sturdy teak posts with a roof to keep the rice high and dry. Years ago rice was stored in the granaries in big baskets coated with lacquer to keep them from leaking. The storage containers evolved into square bins or rooms lined with sheet metal. Later on, rice was generally stored in the bins in sacks waiting to be milled shortly before being used.
The area under the rice granary was used as a pen for the family’s water buffalo. Not infrequently a boy slept under there, too, and kept a smoky fire going to drive mosquitoes away from the buffalo. During the day older people baby-sat and socialized in the shade. Sometimes an ox cart was parked there. More recently, motorized equipment has replaced animal power, but the rice granaries have remained. Some have been converted into salas [a ศาลา is an open-sided pavilion for people to gather], and others into bedrooms or guest rooms. Some are quite elegant. More than one resort has been constructed entirely of re-purposed rice granaries.
Within the last month it became necessary for Pramote’s family to tear down the old rice bin in order to add landfill to fix a drainage problem. What to do with the rice granary? Its wood was not much good except for the posts.
That’s when the patriarch spoke up. He would hear of nothing except to have the granary rebuilt. “This place cannot be my home without it!” he swore.
Clearly, the rice bin had more than utilitarian importance to him. What had he used it for?
It was where he sat during the day, where he made baskets for pocket money, where his wife had preferred to cook and do laundry, where he had sat next to her coffin, where a hammock was hung, where great-great grandson’s inflatable swimming pool was put, where garlic was strung up, where neighbors came to gossip, where watermelon and sunflower seeds were eaten, where home-made whiskey could be drunk with impunity, where his children has swung in cradles, where he hid his few private possessions in the rafters and crevices, where the motorcycles were parked, where the King’s picture on a calendar marking Buddhist holy days was nailed, where his old dog died, where kittens were sheltered, where he held court and smoked hand-rolled cheroots, where he launched himself forth into every important venture and where he perched when he got back.
So, of course, we rebuilt it for him.
The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, USA again made international news this past week. He issued a directive in which he, in effect, consigned gay people to hell. Specifically, Bishop Thomas Paprocki excommunicated people in same-sex marriages. His decree was for priests in his diocese to deny communion, last rites, and funeral rites to such sinners “unless they have given some signs of repentance….” This follows Paprocki’s 2012 pronouncement that voting for Democrats (who are pro-choice and favor marriage equality) puts “the eternal salvation of your own souls in serious jeopardy” (implying that those who are pro-choice and favor marriage equality are already damned). In 2013 the bishop held an exorcism service at the Illinois State Capital building while inside Governor Quinn was signing a marriage equality bill into law. “He has a history of homophobia,” this week’s news article says.
Yes, we agree that the bishop is what we call homophobic. But what is he afraid of, and what is his fear all about?
Homophobia, “It’s an abomination” the sign said at St. Louis Pride this week. [Thanks to son Andy Dobson and friends for these pictures of Pride in St. Louis.] But what is homophobia? We know it when we see it. It’s like fine art or pornography in that regard.
“Homophobia is irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” according to Miriam-Webster dot com. Oxford Dictionaries dot com avoids mentioning fear at all: “Dislike or prejudice against homosexual people.”
Psychologist George Weinberg is credited with bringing the term to the public’s attention in his book Society and the Healthy Individual, in 1972. He defined it as “dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.” He expanded on that, saying, “It is a fear of homosexuals which seemed to be associated with a fear of contagion, a fear of reducing the things one fought for – home and family.” Then, significantly, he added, “It is a religious fear and it has led to great brutality as such fear always does.”
It is this aspect of homophobia, religious fear, that I want to consider on this last day of Pride 2017.
What is this fear that motivates the bishop so passionately? Perhaps it is a fear of consequences. It seems in Bishop Paprocki’s case to be a fear of what is happening as LGBT people gain pride and equal rights. The Bishop’s fear is certainly tied to an increasingly acrimonious battle between his conservative side of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis’s liberal push. It would, then, not be homosexuals that His Excellency is afraid of, nor homosexuality, but a socio-cultural shift symbolized by the rise of gay couples into the ranks of legitimate families in society. I doubt if the Bishop goes as far as the politician did this week who declared that a massive wildfire was God’s judgment against transsexuals. Another lunatic spokesman, torn between fears, overcame his doubt about climate change long enough to attribute it to God’s judgment on us for failing to wipe homosexuals out. That, precisely, is what the leader in Chechnya proposed to do earlier this year. He was following the play-book of several other national leaders in Africa and the Middle East.
In all these cases, however, the thing feared is not homosexuals or homosexuality, but the cultural consequences of allowing gays to thrive or even to exist. It’s not that we’re going to breed, but that we’re going to succeed. It’s not that we are going to rape helpless youth (though that is often mentioned) but that society is going to change.
Anger is the product of fear of the loss of something, I was taught in counseling class. Anger turns violent in societies that condone violence. That is the salient factor, violence.
From my point of view it hardly matters whether the violence is to be executed by an angry god or to be perpetrated by human agents, such as the enraged 19 year-old fellow with the machete was going to do before he was arrested going to a Pride event last week. Anger leading to violence is the operative dynamic, and fear is being vented. It is not me or us as LGBT persons but the out-of-control change which we symbolize, that is feared.
The church is losing the power to control marriage and family life and the bishop is angry about it. In fact, the change has already happened, at least in post-modern USA. The bishop is in denial and looking for a scapegoat.
When a scapegoat is designated to take the blame for something the goat had nothing to do with, that is magical or metaphorical transference. It is metaphysical or religious, but not essentially political or cultural. Preventing gay couples from receiving religious sacraments will not restore the church’s authority to define family structure for American society. Piety and society are now two different realms. What happens in one has effect on the other only if there is a connecting factor.
For several millennia the factor connecting religion to society has been the consensus that religious authority was synonymous with civic well being. The Enlightenment of the 16th century, come to full-fruit in Modernism and Post-Modernism of the 20th century, has brought about a disconnection.
It might seem that recent trends in US politics have restored the church’s status, but calmer analysis is quickly agreeing that patriotic nationalism has simply clad itself in religious jargon, aided by the theological illiteracy and unconcern about history, of opportunistic individuals and organizations with distinctly political ambitions. That this is not basically an ideological movement can easily be detected by noticing how glibly it expands or shifts its targets from queers to Muslims to welfare cheaters to left-wing liberals to feminists or to any terrorists but their own. Religion in this modern era is being unhitched from civil power.
Religion has not been relegated to irrelevance by this, but, I believe, can now be restored to its right realm as the moral gyroscope for adherents and their link to the holy. Without the burden of empire weighing it down, religion has no need to defend civilization. It would not need a scapegoat. It can get on with spreading peace, as all major religions propose to do before they are diverted into service of king and country.
Religious based homophobia could wither.
Meanwhile, we have our work cut out for us to unlearn the loathing we have inherited and to dismantle the culture of violence that besets us with longing to destroy others because it is so much easier than to respect their humanity and love them.
This week we celebrate the 20th anniversary of this century’s most famous fictional character. On June 26, 1997 Bloomsbury dared to publish an edition of 500 copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. We are told that 500 printed copies is standard for a new, unknown author. 300 of these were sent to libraries in hopes of attracting attention and favorable book reviews. The other 200 slowly sold for £5.99. Not long ago one of those sold online for £1.95 million.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling needs no introduction, as the saying goes. It is so famous that just this week the Vatican, again, condemned it (that is, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Fr. Cesare Truqui, mentioned it as an avenue to demonic possession that should be avoided). US President, Donald Trump, has traded insults with Harry’s creator, contributing its bit, I think, to Trump, this week, being dis-invited to visit the United Kingdom. The Queen of England on her Birthday Honors List this week promoted J. K. Rowling to the rank of Companion of Honor. It is hard to keep up with Harry and his maker.
540 million copies of Harry Potter books are in print (as of a year ago) in about 90 different languages. The last 3 books in the 7-book series all broke previous sales records on their release days. Harry turned Jo Rowling into the world’s first female $ billionaire author and the world’s richest woman until she began setting up charities that made her one of the world’s most generous philanthropists.
Harry’s fandom shows no sign of flagging in zeal.
We may not have caught on quickly, but we have remained loyal. I confess. I have read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at least once a year since I broke down and splurged on both that and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at the time the movie “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released in 2001. After volume 3 came out my name was on the list for each of the rest on the day of issue. There is no series of books I have re-read as often, and I doubt there ever will be.
I used Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English and Thai editions for teacher training workshops on how to develop supplemental activities based on popular literature for English language classes. Then I broke down and joined thousands of fans in writing my own Harry Potter stories (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/book-launch). There are countless Harry Potter fandom websites around the world.
Harry Potter’s birthday, we fans all know, is July 31, which happens to be J.K. Rowling’s birthday, too. So I will not say “Happy birthday” at this time. I’ll just say, “Thanks!”
“Ethnocentrism is the least of our faults.” That’s what I’d expect to hear just after I explained that “Ethnocentrism is destroying our country’s standing in the world.”
When we hear a quote like the New Zealander made about what makes Americans despised, the retort is likely to be, “Most Americans aren’t like that.” Nobody believes their home culture has irreparable flaws, although there may be big differences of opinion about what to do about them.
Thailand and the USA both have a Problem (with a capital P), and for both countries the governments in power are (depending on who is speaking) either the cause or the solution. Thailand has a military junta running things and the USA has Trump and the GOP. Trump says his plan is to “drain the swamp” and eliminate government waste. Prime Minister Prayut says his plan is to restore national unity and harmony. Trump’s political opposition says what’s being drained away first are civil protections and safety nets as well as much more. The Thai junta’s critics say that the military is restoring unity by suppressing opposition and civil rights.
One thing both the USA and Thailand have in common is that the governments in charge at the moment are feeding on vast resources of widespread Ethnocentrism, otherwise known as nationalism or essential unconcern about people in other cultures and countries. Look at the daily newspaper … front page rarely has anything from overseas unless some of “our people” are involved. TV news is whatever has spectacular pictures, leading off with the biggest local story of the day. Priority sports news stories are always national. Hardly anybody cares deeply about what happens in other countries unless it affects them directly. There are exceptions, but our energy is directed toward matters with which we identify and which we personalize.
Civic pride is taught. The reason it is taught at public expense in public schools is that it is in the national interest. The point is to develop a sense of connection and loyalty. Global concerns or humanitarian issues are often a step too far to hold our interest very long. That makes us less concerned than we ought to be about our country’s standing in the world.
There will be consequences if the USA continues to turn radically inward. Indeed, that is unlikely in the short run. But it is far more likely to SEEM so. If the USA withdraws from international agreements and begins to appear to act only in its own self-interest, other countries will begin to realign to protect themselves. Worldwide economic protective actions would be the first result of the USA turning inward, and that will undermine the economic power that holds up the USA and enables the level of comfort American people enjoy. The main product of the USA in terms of profitability is money itself, not manufacturing of any sort. Moving money around is what makes America great. But if China succeeds, as it plans to do, in replacing the USA as the world’s biggest banker, the USA is going to be in deep trouble because its manufacturing capacity has been allowed to rust and grow obsolete. Hard times follow the fall of economic empires.
As for Thailand, being smaller, the results of Ethnocentrism are on a smaller scale. It is interesting how quietly the once-vaunted ASEAN Economic Community has been allowed to lapse and come to nothing. Alarm bells ought to be ringing but they have been disconnected. The result, of course, is that Thailand’s economic clout has not expanded as it was supposed to do. Ethnocentrism in the form of sites of cultural pride is supposed to be marketable as tourism attractions, but quality controls are lacking. So sleaze and squalor creep in to cloud the scene or overdevelopment diverts the focus. Thailand’s leaders declare that the country’s fourth developmental phase is to convert the economy into high-tech industries, an “innovation driven economy”; but the collapse of the ASEAN accords means that the country has to rely totally on producing its own educated high-tech workforce with an education structure already unable to keep up with competing nations all around, rather than building an integrated international educational strategy. As if I was overheard, the Prime Minister announced this week that the door will be opening for international universities to fill the gap of creative thinkers not being produced by the Thai system. We already have international universities here, so what’s the news? But wait for it. There will be barriers. Our 130 universities (and growing every year) will find ways to keep control. Behind all the hindrances to regional cooperation is Ethnocentrism.
Love of country seems like a commendable idea until it turns into Ethnocentrism. And then, watch out.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.