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.
David Eubank’s secret mission had its cover blown by CNN this week. In a CNN Report on June 6, 2017 they talked about a rescue mission to save lives being attacked by ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. CNN reported (with pictures), “Also on the front line is a forward field clinic manned by ex-US Army Special Forces soldier Dave Eubank and his team with the Free Burma Rangers, a non-governmental service organization. Just days earlier they responded to a call from one of the Iraqi units. "They said civilians coming, a lot (of them) shot. We got there and a guy came crying, crying, he said, 'My daughter was shot in front of me, her head was blown off.'" Eubank recalled.” [Here is a link to the CNN report: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/06/middleeast/mosul-front-lines/index.html]
CNN did not explain how Free Burma Rangers came to be in Iraq, nor that this sort of horrendous episode is what Free Burma Rangers have been involved with these past 20 years.
David Eubank founded the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in 1997, by his own account. In the past 20 years the Rangers have done missions impossible to imagine. For most of those 20 years the FBR mission was clandestine. From a base in Thailand, the FBR worked across the border inside Burma with refugees, technically called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), who had been ravaged and brutalized by one faction or another of the military regime in Burma. Their strategy was to train teams of rangers to provide emergency medical and survival assistance to IDPs whose homes and lives had been radically disrupted. In the process the FBR mission expanded to include gathering information about human rights abuses and on-going military action in Burma, which was often hard to get without eye-witness reports. Recently, following their policy of going where indigenous groups invited them, FBR has developed ranger teams in Sudan and Iraq. Wikipedia lists the accomplishments of FBR succinctly in round numbers: total teams trained: 300; relief missions conducted: over 1,000; patients treated: over 550,000; people helped: over 1,200,000.
To see how this is a Christian mission, it might help to go back to the beginning, about which I have some personal insight. David grew up here in Thailand, the son of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) missionaries Allan and Joan Eubank. Allan had been in the US military in Korea during the war, and David entered military service where he was in the US Special Forces in Panama. He was a ranger. His expertise was survival training. But he felt a calling to missionary work. For this he went to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. When he was nearing graduation he contacted me and began a process of “discernment” that led him back to Thailand in 1996 where he and his father felt they might undertake a pioneer mission to the unreached Wa people in Burma. To put it simply, the Wa are warriors – among other distinctions. The first plan was to convert the Wa to Christ, using time-honored missionary strategies. But David was approached by an ethnic Karen Christian medic who challenged David to come across the border to help in the wars. Together Eliya and David developed a vision for providing holistic intervention. Eliya Sampson became the first ranger. It would be an understatement to say that official church mission bodies were skeptical about the rangers. Of necessity, FBR is an independent non-governmental organization, off official “radars” where they wanted to be, until this week.
Today FBR describes its mission as “to provide hope, help and love to internally displaced people inside Burma, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Using a network of indigenous field teams, FBR reports on human rights abuses, casualties and the humanitarian needs of people who are under the oppression of the Burma Army, FBR provides medical, spiritual and educational resources for IDP communities as they struggle to survive Burmese military attacks.”
The motto of Free Burma Rangers is:
Love one another
Unite for freedom, justice and peace
Forgive and do not hate each other
Pray with faith, Act with courage
For more about the Free Burma Rangers: www.freeburmarangers.org
In my 50 years as a church worker and university administrator here in Thailand I have never heard of a mission like the Free Burma Rangers or a missionary couple like David and Karen Eubank. Many missionaries have had remarkable careers providing medical aid, educational development, and church growth. Some missionaries have confronted danger and led people to safety. But the Rangers are unique.
Ransom Riggs is one of the latest producers of a young adult fantasy story series. His “Miss Peregrine” three-volume saga gained enough attention to move his books into #1 on the New York Times best seller lists and get his first volume turned into a movie by 20th Century Fox last year. The series contains: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011; Hollow City, 2014; Library of Souls, 2015.
One thing that sets the series apart from other fantasy books of this genre is his use of strange and peculiar photographs collected by Riggs’ friends from boxes of old pictures for sale in flea markets and nostalgia shops. 80 or 90 years ago there was a fad to take trick photos, rather like the current fad of selfies. Riggs appears to have used the photos to spark his imagination that these were realistic pictures of peculiar children in a parallel world with abilities to float in the air, make plants grow instantly, generate flames in the palms of their hands – or in the case of Jake Portman, the hero of the stories, to see (and later to communicate with and control) terrifying demons who devour peculiar children. The peculiar children were defended by peculiar women who could turn into birds at will, and also reset time loops where the children could be safe, although locked into a constantly- repeating 24-hours.
There are two measures of success for publications like this. Commercial success is the result of popular acclaim that produces sales of books, tickets and possibly figurines. Literary success is harder to measure; it includes such things as good critical reviews, utilization in other media, mention in scholarly journals, and imitation by other writers. Critical reviews tend to analyze the internal logic of the stories, consistency of plot, development of characters, energy and pace, and sustainable suspended disbelief.
Riggs uses three devices to enable our disbelief to stay suspended. First, he takes great pains (and 100 pages of text) to ease us into the alternate reality where time is suspended, peculiar children exist, and an evil empire (of course) is on the rise. We see what young Jake sees and begin to believe when he does. Second, Riggs uses the old pictures liberally until we are inured to their obvious fakeness and randomness, and we treat them as portraits of peculiar characters in a peculiar realm, rather than peculiar pictures designed to amuse, wrenched out of context. The movie hardly mentions the photo collection, and hardly needs to, because the big screen gives viewers all the visual reinforcement they need. But the quirky pictures are probably the most remarkable and innovative aspect of the books, as early reviewers tended to mention. Third, Jake’s forays into peculiardom are firmly doubted by his family. Any glimpses they have into his secret life convince them he is psychotic, and their recalcitrance gives readers additional motivation to side with Jake and his peculiar colleagues as we then want to reject the crass, mundane reality into which Jake’s parents are trying to suppress him.
This fantasy fiction is escapist on many levels. But young adult fiction is supposed to be more than that. J.K. Rowling loads Harry Potter with all sorts of social encouragement. C.S. Lewis instills theology into the Narnia series. Rick Riordan imparts large doses of classical culture and mythology. What is Riggs’s second agenda? Perhaps the series is too new or unremarkable to have attracted serious critical attention. Neither Open Court nor Wiley-Blackwell have included Miss Peregrine in their philosophy and popular culture series, although Atlantic did review the movie. For my part, I think young adult readers will latch onto the idea that diversity is an advantage when confronting powerful evil. In the beginning the peculiarities of the children are just strange and disconcerting, almost handicaps; but when it comes time to escape, those individual abilities make key contributions. The world is a dangerous place. Although the peculiar children skip from one time era to another, danger is there whether it’s sunny 21st century Florida or London during the Blitz. Other constants are the complicated motives and unpredictable behavior of authority figures.
Finally, the books ponder the question whether it is better to grow up or not. This Peter Pan question is usually framed as a choice between neurotic regression and authentic maturation, but Riggs posits it as a matter of shelter versus engagement, which is very much the older adolescent challenge. In other words, readers of Miss Peregrine’s … Peculiar Children are encouraged to face their own psychological realities. Jake’s tough choices are only circumstantially strange. Every-child faces a range of emotional issues including rejecting parents to accept a mate, avoiding being clutched and eaten alive by hollow men, reaching out to those in desperate need, confronting the imminent possibility of death, discovering that grandpa was wiser and braver than anyone knew (this insight tends to skip generations), and that one’s own endowed talents are certainly peculiar.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.