Fishing by Hand
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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.