Draining the Swamp
Pramote and I have learned a few things about draining a swamp.
1.Do not put the snakes in charge of it.
2.The water level outside must be lower than it is in the swamp.
3.Draining the swamp will impact the lives of frogs, crabs and little critters.
4.Ducks and cranes never planned to stay long.
5.The swamp will refill if the water source isn’t blocked.
6.Not everything is a swamp that’s called a swamp.
One Friday morning earlier this month there was a ceremony to bless a bridge that crosses an irrigation canal 2 meters wide in the middle of rice fields along the border between our village and the next. The bridge is on a lane so small that it does not show up on Google maps at street level. My estimate is that there may be an average of 5 motorcycles a day cross the bridge. The bridge cost 255,000 baht (which is about the cost of a 4-room house around here) and it replaces a bridge that was too narrow, the project said, although it was wider than the lane that crossed it. The bridge was number 8 of 10 being built over that canal in our sub-district.
About a hundred people from our two villages attended, of which a third were in civil service uniforms. At the auspicious hour of 9:39 a.m.the ceremony began, as virtually all do, with a layman leading chanting everybody knew by heart. Then a chapter of 5 priests from the temples in our 2 villages chanted stanzas for about twenty minutes. Finally, the Chief District Officer (Nai Ampuhr) presided as an official in charge of the construction read a report about the rationale, in vague generalities, and costs, in precise numbers. The Nai Ampuhr cut a ribbon, crossed the bridge in 4 paces and struck a gong, apparently because it was carried way out there for him to do that. Final blessings were chanted, water poured, and priests invited to have a meal. 11 officials presented traditional buckets of gifts to the priests and the ceremony ended. It was time for pictures and noodles.
I was amazed at the ceremony.
What was the event all about? Why did it attract such attention? Both villages took up substantial free-will offerings even though the project was funded by the government. Work crews volunteered to put up tents for the audience and take them down. People came as if the bridge blessing was an important occasion.
I believe there were 3 motives.
First, the ceremony was meritorious. It was a merit-making opportunity. The call for donations, the day before, had invited people to “make merit.” The money given would be used not only for the lunches and monk’s baskets, but also for the communities’ charitable funds.
Second, the occasion was about community-building rather than socializing. When folks arrived they sat in chairs and didn’t move around much. There wasn’t much to see and waiting for things to start was all there was to do. Very few came out of curiosity since everyone knew just about what to expect. The whole thing from setting-up to taking everything down was a community undertaking.
Third, the village and district officials were on display. There can never be too many opportunities for politicians to appear before their grateful constituencies. The bridge dedication was a salubrious chance for them to take credit for being beneficial, which is a topic I have heard doubted from time to time.
At the same time, two factors were missing or hidden that might have to do with the size of the affair.
First, there was no reference made to veneration or placating supernatural entities. Rivers, literally “mothers of water,” are nurturing, divine forces. Rivers must never be encroached upon without paying respect, but this was a canal. The canal itself involved a gouge across the land, dug decades ago after proper rites at that time. No offerings to the eternal Lord of the Land were in evidence. So this had nothing to do with quelling concerns for the well-being of those who cross the bridge. As far as the supernatural realm was concerned we could have done without the ceremony.
What were resounding in their absence were the sub-district governor and council from our neighboring village. A recent edict by the central government has declared that any sub-district with residents below a certain number must merge with a neighboring sub-district. Not long ago the governor of our neighboring sub-district retired and was not replaced. Instead, the village heads elected one of their own as kamnan to preside at their meetings. Now what? Our two sub-districts are to be merged, we hear. That means that in order to remain in office in the new sub-district our sub-district governor and council representatives on this side of the canal will have to stand for election in mid-term after having gone to great trouble (and expense) not long ago. I may be overly suspicious but I cannot dismiss the thought that the large size of the blessing ceremony for our tiny bridge has to do with some maneuver to fend off this mid-term election, or at least to get as much construction as possible finished and to their credit while the funds are still under control of those who were counting on the opportunities such projects provide. Otherwise, why spend all that money getting elected?
About the removal of Confederate statues from public places
Several of my friends and relatives think it is just being reasonable to avoid confrontation over the Confederate statues, when plans to remove them stir such strong, angry reactions. I believe that there are facts being glossed over that make it clear that the removal of these statues is not about cleansing of valuable historical heritage as Condoleezza Rice insisted yesterday (August 16, 2017).
[Reference: http://conservativefighters.com/news/condoleezza-rice-important-message-liberals/ ]
1. 80% of the statues were erected in a 15 year period coinciding with the renewal of white supremacy, the spreading myth of “The Lost Cause” and the second arising of the Ku Klux Klan at the time of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915. The concept of “The Lost Cause” was further celebrated in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. Succinctly, the statues are an inextricable part of the renewal of political divisions on racial lines and the assertion of white power. The statues were erected in support of white supremacy.
2. The statues are being defended as a reference to the heritage of a large section of American people, and the idea that they reflect a noble legacy, even though the war was lost. By the 50th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War, history had been revised to portray the leaders of the Confederacy and its military as heroes, without regard for unbiased biographical studies or historical documents to the contrary. Concisely, the whole heritage and history as it is being remembered is fiction.
[See the article in The Atlantic about what the statues stand for]
3. Because the statues are part of the effort to re-describe who those people were and what they did, so as to efface their racism and horrendous treatment of slaves as animals, and to achieve a satisfactory emotional distance from that past, the statues do not withstand scrutiny as historic artifacts (that noble history never existed, it was a rebellion and war to defend the economic advantages of slavery) and they certainly do not represent the ideals of American democratic society. So the question is, “What use are the statues?” And the honest answer is increasingly, “They were a mistake.”
4. There are a substantial number of people who are convinced that the removal of the statues is being imposed by pressure to be “politically correct” whereas that undermines freedom to have differing opinions. In fact, the statues are being removed by popular consent by communities that understand the statues no longer tell the truth about who we are and who we are becoming as Americans. No outside groups have removed any statue.
[See the letter from Stonewall Jackson’s heirs in support of Richmond’s decision to remove their great-great grandfather’s statue on Monument Avenue]
5. Most importantly, the statues are an affront to descendants of those who were enslaved, victimized, abused and killed by the persons represented in the statues. More than merely bruising the feelings of descendants and perpetuating the lies being told about those who perpetrated these atrocities, the continued prominence of the statues in public spaces symbolizes a refusal to confront past and present racism and dehumanization of sections of the American population. Those statues are testimony to our reluctance to eradicate hatred and discrimination. Insofar as the removals are being opposed, the opposition is testimony to continued reluctance to be inclusive. The statues are supportive of ongoing white supremacy and fear of a future without it. The only truth that the statues represent is that racism once was the mindset of a large section of the American public, a mindset that lingers and tends to recycle into public discourse. But the statues are contradictory. They do not confess racism but deny it.
[See an exposition on the history of white supremacy in the 20th century and what it means today]
The statues should go.
Second Civil War
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?"
Song Phra Charoen
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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.