Our colleague Dr. Rung died this weekend. He was a kind and gentle man, a Christian leader, an educator of theological students, and a Thai-Chinese Presbyterian. As his death was announced messages began to pour in, most of which wished him now to rest in peace. We were also informed of memorial services to come, coincidentally, on Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
These announcements caused me to reminisce about what we are doing when we do these things. Of course, we are honoring the one who has died and comforting ones left behind, but there is more to it than that. The penetrating questions, I submit, are two: what do our departed ancestors need from us? Why do we need to do these strange things?
First, let’s separate two sets of actions. Funerals are conducted to bring about closure and healing. Funerals come at times of acute loss. The sense of loss, remorse, and grief can go on for a long time. But sooner or later those rituals are over and a generation comes who never knew those who “went long before.” The rituals and festivals for those long gone are what I want us to consider as I ask, “What do those ancestors need?” And, “Why are we doing things that are so disconnected?”
Every culture that we know of has some form of ancestor remembrance.
The Celts had Samhain at this transition season between summer and winter. Christians super-imposed All Saints and All Souls Day on that, which was morphed in Latin America and elsewhere into Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. The Hindu festival of Pitru Paksha, in mid-September “to keep the souls of our ancestors at rest” is related to our northern Thai Sip-song Beng festival and the Japanese Bon festival.
It seems there are four general concepts about what those ancestors might need:
They need food. The folk-narrative behind this says that the ghosts of the dead are tormented by terrible hunger. It is helpful for us to offer it. It’s the least we can do, even though the way these deceased, hungry spirits actually feel hunger and get benefit from our offering is shrouded in mystery.
They need rest. This life is one of travail that inevitably comes to an unfortunate end. Some deaths are agonizing and other lives pass peacefully away, but all life is a journey, and journeys are tiring. It would be too bad if the after-life were also restless. Serene peace is one’s best hope.
They need to be remembered. “One is not utterly dead until no one remembers us,” says the aphorism. Even when all the details of one’s life have been erased from memory and one’s name has been eroded from the tombstone, some need is fulfilled if there is at least a festival where the host of ancestors is honored.
They need nothing. The dead cease to exist. Their egos are extinguished (e.g. Nirvana), their bodies decompose back into atoms or stardust. Only ripples of influence remain to be merged into the vast sea of effect. Even for modern materialists, however, cultural heroes and heroic metaphors are enshrined in obelisks, street names, and Mount Rushmore.
There is a predictable pattern for the progression of ancestor festivals: they tend to evolve from veneration to entertainment.
All Saints Eve (All Hallows Eve / Halloween) is an example. Samhain and related festivals were perilous times when things were turning dangerous. The fertile season was ending and the cattle were returning from summer pasture. The transition was a liminal time when boundaries could be crossed. The Aos Si (spirits / fairies [don’t imagine Disney fairies here]) could cross the thin barrier at this time. At the transition from winter to spring, the festival of Walpurgisnacht was (and still is) observed on May 1 with large bonfires to keep away the witches as they flew toward revels with the devil. Bonfires are also lit on Halloween for the same reason. Mummers and folks dressed in disguise to confuse and deceive the witches and demons dared to come out and beg for food. A similar time was celebrated in every culture from Polynesia to Siberia. Halloween is the de-terrified residue of these customs, insisting “we are not afraid” or at least “this fear is fun.” Halloween is about enjoyment.
Another way ancestor festivals have been transformed is by holding them as cultural festivals. The Japanese Bon Festival is an example. I saw a Bon Festival in a park in New York City on the eve before my first flight to Japan on my way to Thailand in August 1965. What I was looking at was a set of dances in which all the dancers in elaborate Japanese dress on a central bamboo platform and the crowd below were doing movements simultaneously that echoed such traditional peasant harvest activities as cutting rice, thrashing the grain, and winnowing the chaff. The ancestors who did these things to live were venerated in shrines no doubt, but remembrance had melted into something less solemn and more about enjoyment. It was a combination of harvest and ancestor festival.
In addition to the movement from placating fear to playing, there is a predictable appropriation of the cultural activities to enhance socio-political consciousness. Bon dancing becomes a celebration of Japanese-ness. Dia de Muertos is patriotically Mexican. Halloween is particularly American – so much so that religious groups have sometimes deplored the way Halloween erodes religion.
By the time the fall festival has moved from being about protection from supernatural danger to veneration of ancestors, and then from sacred rites to enjoyable entertainment, and finally into celebration of cultural identity as well – by that time it takes mental discipline to see the overlap between harvest, ancestors, and heroes. In fact, it is probably best not to look for it at all and just be content that Halloween, All Saints Day, and Thanksgiving are three separate holidays. Here in Thailand so are Sip-song Beng (where wandering ancestors are fed to make them as happy as possible), Wan Pi-ya Maha Raj (the remembrance day for King Chulalongkorn, Oct. 23), and Loy Kratong (a festival of lights that also honors the Mother of Waters and the environment). Then comes Christmas [the mid-winter festival], Christmas [the family festival with gift giving], and Christmas [the observance of the Nativity of Jesus Christ].
[This completes our 7th year of weekly blog-essays. We have signed onto our domain for another year. We average about 2000 visitors a week, my website manager tells us. The fact that this number is fairly constant is what keeps me writing. Thanks, readers.]
After nearly a decade of having little to do with tourists and their perspectives, I have just spent 2 weeks introducing my brother, Dan, his wife, Rita, and their son, Travis, to as much of Thailand as could be packed into that time. I was reminded of several things which I think might be helpful to share in this short blog-essay about traveling to a new country and being a host to people coming to yours.
First, you cannot do everything. It is best to focus on a variety of experiences that challenge without aggravating new travelers to this exotic country. What do the travelers think are “must do” experiences based on what they have found out from other tourists and from the omniscient Internet? If beach time is necessary, that will take precedence. I personally feel that 2 weeks is too short to travel to more than two or three different parts of the country since each trip takes a minimum of half a day. So if Angkor Wat is a “must” side trip, it’ll eat up at least 3 or 4 of the days.
Second, is the rule of thirds. A successful time in Thailand will probably be divided into a third for shopping, a third involved with eating and resting in one way or another, and a third spent on sight-seeing and cultural orientation. The shopping part needs to be carefully planned to overlap with cultural studies as much as possible. Too much of any of the three will spoil the trip, possibly without meaning to. Even with a larger group needing to include something like a conference, the rule of thirds will help keep everybody smiling.
Third, not all cultural or natural highlights can be fitted into two weeks. But the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha are almost mandatory. It is a mistake, however, to suggest that this covers everything that’s important about the monarchy and religion. In fact, these do not even fairly represent either of those institutions. Nevertheless, tourists are cheated if they are not helped to see Thai Royalty and Thai Buddhism from a Thai point of view. The other necessity, and the one most often overlooked, is to see Thai life from the perspective of the people living here. This cannot be done by staying on the “tourist routes” in tourist hotels, tour busses, and tourist destinations. Package tours make this mistake.
Fourth, everyone comes with a set of biases. These can distort the experiences of the travelers and even ruin the trip for others. It is best if the travelers correct one another, but the tour leader may need to intervene if things get out of hand. New food choices can be a challenge. The first signal of danger is when the initial question is, “What is it?” Except for food allergies and dietary restrictions, the best advice is to assume it will be OK until proven otherwise. Communication bias is the other most common issue. The best travelers assume that communication will be successful one way or another, as it almost always turns out to be. Travelers on the way to a failed time in Thailand assume that everybody ought to be able to understand if the conversation is loud enough and the language being spoken is dumbed down enough … “Me like this. You sell how much?” It really helps just to relax and enjoy what is happening.
Travis was a good traveler who seemed to thrive in new opportunities here on his first visit to Thailand. I liked it that he took personal pictures to record his experiences. Some people’s selfies tell you nothing, but Travis’s were better than that. You can almost know without being told what he’s up to in the pictures (at the top of this blog) and how much he is enjoying it. He’ll be back one of these days.
Essay #5 on SOCIAL ORDER
During the week of September 20 to 27, 2019 worldwide protests mobilized 4 to 5 million participants in a Strike for the Climate. The figurehead and early instigator of this historic week of activism was 16 year-old Greta Thurnberg of Sweden who began Friday “School Strikes for the Climate” in front of the Swedish Parliament. Within a year the movement has expanded and has now generated a counter-movement determined to establish doubt about Greta personally in order to undermine the effort to stop carbon emissions and global warming. No matter which side is right (and I do think the answer is beyond doubt), everybody agrees we live because the environment supports life as we have it.
This is a striking, current example of how social order exists in a context.
Obviously, there would be no social order if humankind becomes extinct. Social groups, evolutionary theory states, came into existence when the natural environment made it possible for human beings to emerge and survive. Groups clung together for mutual support, and possibly because DNA prescribed social order for our species.
Put another way, more generally, physical existence with all its necessities and conditions is one of the contexts for our having life. An accommodating set of physical circumstances and abilities is a precondition for anything more complicated, such as a social group.
Religion is another context.
It is one of the persistent efforts of religion to describe how optimum social order must also exist in a religious context. Creation stories for all major religions provide metaphors and narrative images that tell how society was conjured up within a state of pre-existing divinity. Usually those stories describe how people were created in the world of the gods and then consigned to a realm sandwiched between divine order and utter chaos. Most of the narratives admit that the divinities were orderly in ways beyond the scrutiny of mortals, and behaved in ways that combined conflicts as much as harmony. But the idea was that something like a heavenly kingdom was the context for the best human life.
Reformation of religious talk about this typically includes objecting to the idea that some sort of divine order existed before human beings thought it up. Buddhism, for example, dispenses with the need to propose a creation narrative with gods being the creative agents, and instructs us that there is a far better way to optimize our human condition than to rely on gods to do it. Even Christianity, which centralizes the role of God, proposes that social order depends on correct social action, in which divine intervention is to provide inspired motivation, unobstructed by such limitations as sin and evil, those having been dealt with by Jesus Christ.
Religion, however it is conceptualized, is one of the contexts for social order.
In fact, every aspect of social order is contextual. Some of our context is from birth: genetic heritage, cultural heritage, civic heritage. Some is subject to change by moving into a new social context or life condition: examples are how we adapt to the way we are seen by others (as when we move from being one of a dominant ethnic group to being a minority), how we change based on new experiences, how our social context changes when we develop a terminal illness. Some of our contexts can change through effort or intervention, as when a person transitions from being male to female, or how we can become urbanized after having been born on a farm. Some of our social boundaries have everything to do with morality, as when a person is imprisoned for a crime; but other limitations of our situation in society may have nothing to do with morality, as with persons on the autism spectrum.
Most of this is so obvious that the question arises, “Why is it important to recognize that social context is a controlling factor in the social order of which we are a part?”
Obvious as it may be when we are thinking about it, when we are not thinking squarely about contextual influences on our social order context fades from view.
Take moral authority for example. I define moral authority as the discursive power that comes from consistently advocating a moral position to the point that the positive results of such a position are obvious and compelling. If a person or a social entity loses their moral authority through some action(s) of their own or through a change in their society, the loss can be devastating. But when we are not considering acquired moral authority as a factor of value, the full consequences of a course of action may not be accurately assessed.
Throughout several decades of the twentieth century the USA acquired moral authority in behalf of democracy. As a result, the USA was able to convince several national governments to make choices for democratic policies, both by its moral example and by offering persuasion or incentives to overcome obstacles those nations faced in the path to democratization. Primary among the democratic principles is that the authority to choose resides with the people, and it is important that all minority voices be heard. The Cold War began with both sides (led by the USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other) espousing high moral principles, but the moral authority was heavier on the side of the USA because of the subjection that Maoist-Stalinists imposed on free expression and dissent. But in the conduct of the Cold War, which became hot in many spots (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America in particular), moral authority was traded for strategic authority, the power to obscure facts and ignore moral principles in order to gain strategic advantages thought to be necessary in order to attain a greater objective. Assassinations, targeting civilian populations in order to get at guerilla military and terrorist groups, disrupting or corrupting humanitarian activities, and many other actions previously thought to be immoral were justified and then normalized. That erosion of moral authority is now nearly complete in that the USA is no longer considered a shining example and advocate of democracy. It is actually hard to find any nation that looks up to the USA in this regard.
During World War I, as a result of unrestrained barbarity, Europe lost its authority to be the world’s moral leader. The very idea that Europe could show the world how to be civilized was reduced to ridicule. In retrospect the end was a long time coming, considering how Europe dealt with its colonies and subjugated whole people groups to extermination and enslavement.
It is becoming clear that Israel has also lost its moral authority. It was moral authority alone that mandated the creation of the State of Israel by a vote of the United Nations in 1948. The people of the Holocaust needed a home of their own to live free and achieve a future for their children secure from pogroms and genocide. The rights of all people in the region were to be guaranteed, Jews, Christians and Muslims; Semites, Europeans, Palestinians and Bedouins, Africans and sojourners. Israel was to be a secular state with a national religion. Borders with other states were defined. After 5 decades of intermittent war, and the immigration of masses of Jews liberated from the Soviet Union, Israel’s character has changed. It is almost finished subjugating minority populations and appropriating the entire land for Jewish settlement.
People, too, lose moral authority. Clergy come to mind. It is mainly a pastor’s moral authority that validates the pastor as leader of a group. But that can be lost.
I read, today, of a pastor who reported, "I do not currently have a congregation because I was deemed to be ‘dangerous’ to couples during and after my divorce.” And another clergyman was suddenly without his position in a mega-church the very day he admitted he was gay. Stories are piling up about priests whose moral authority and their ability to function in their pastorates has been undone by their moral turpitude, and bishops have been exposed as co-conspirators, sending the entire church into thundering decline.
But moral authority which is social power in one context can be unlike powerful moral authority in another. I lost my moral authority to serve as a religious leader in the Christian Church in Thailand when I was open about my relationship with my spouse (not, I contend, because the relationship was immoral but because the church consensus was against it, and so my social context prevented its being openly acknowledged), but I slowly gained a new kind of moral authority through insightful and consistent dealing with subordinates and officials in university circles.
That concludes this series of essays on SOCIAL ORDER.
Our status in society is determined by several factors. My right to be in a group depends on how the group conceives of itself and what it requires of members. It also depends on how rigidly the group enforces those requirements and whether there is room for adjustment and change. Membership in a family is widely considered a matter of birth or adoption, but many homeless gay and lesbian young people know the family can be capricious. Love and hate coincide and rotate. Immigrants are loved at one time and despised at another.
The right to be in a group resides with the social contract the group has adopted. Some societies opt for authoritarianism and others against it. But there are consequences and those can be hard to predict. On the whole, authoritarianism breaks down, but giving ultimate authority to all the people is hard to manage and sustain. Authority tends to gravitate toward the top and must constantly be shaken down again, or society begins to disintegrate.
Communication is essential to society. When conversation becomes devious with hidden agendas or other willful disregard for dialogue, what remains is some form of self-reflexive expression on both sides. Once we have agreed to expression rather than conversation the outcome is division rather than consensus. Society cannot be sustained without honorable dialogue.
That brings me to little Pen.
Pen is 5½ years old. She was born with a rare congenital condition that prevents her muscles from developing. She lacks muscles to move around, to grasp anything, or even to chew. She barely has muscles to breathe and must rely on continuous oxygen enhancement equipment. She is fed through a tube. She can whimper and whisper a few words. She watches TV cartoons and sleeps. She is, in short, totally and completely dependent on others. Fortunately, she has a family that has dedicated itself to whatever support she needs. They have assistance from the medical authorities, which includes experts in this rare syndrome who have access to equipment which is donated to Pen’s family. There is no aspect of little Pen’s place in society that is “normal”. She is utterly unique. She is a little girl without most of the attributes of other girls. She is Thai with only the bare minimum of cultural accomplishments. She is a member of the family unlike any other member. She is a member of the community and wider society without prospect of contributing to it, or of benefitting from it in more than the most elementary ways.
Pen is utterly marginal to the social order. But she is a test. As long as the social order takes care of Pen adequately, however it does so, the social order is legitimized. The very moment society turns against Pen and decides she is extraneous, society is doomed.
Next week Payap University will turn over 68 rai of land to the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). [On the right side of the highway in the view from above.]
Let the celebration begin. Payap University is EMERGING. “It’s a miracle.”
These are comments being made as it was announced that Payap University is on the move toward goals of reducing debt and recovering initiative, in only two months after Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae and his interim team took over leadership of the university on August 1.
On October 7, leaders of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation along with some 30 other church leaders and Payap University personnel will attend the signing of a historic memorandum of understanding that will potentially save the university and expand the ministries of the church at the same time.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Amnuay quoted the CCT’s legal negotiator as saying. [See Dr. Amnuay going over information about the deal.]
“Bear in mind that the CCT Foundation is the actual owner of all this property anyway, which was developed when Payap had prospects of being a large comprehensive university of 25 thousand students, it was thought. Our current size is about 2500. We are over-extended. Now the church will get this great tract of land to use in new ways while the university will still be a partner in its use,” an adviser to the president commented.
The deal is to transfer 68 rai (about 27 acres) of a total of 200 rai of underutilized land on the east side of the university’s main campus to the CCT along with all the buildings. They include the Faculty of Law’s “Leviticus” building and large assembly hall, the Paradonparp International House, Alpha Women’s Dorm, and Omega Men’s Dorm. In return, the CCT will compensate the university with enough money to cover its potentially devastating debt, as well as take over rehabilitation of the dorms to convert them into facilities at modern hotel standard. The Leviticus building will become the church’s main headquarters in the north and the center for all the church’s conferences and large meetings.
The law faculty will move into rooms in the Sirindorn Learning Resource Center where the law library is already located.
This will be a major step in helping Payap, the first private university in Thailand, rebound from declining enrollment, declining infrastructure, and declining status. Once the red ink of accumulated debts is removed, two tasks remain. One is to balance the annual budget by reducing spending on salaries and operational costs, and increase income through expanded traditional and non-traditional programs. Second, is to reorient the university toward current demographic realities and strengthen our unique position as the only university in our area that is truly international. “We are a Thai University with international degree and non-degree programs,” Dr. Amnuay explains. But we offer degree programs with instruction entirely in English which others are not doing. “We have a competitive edge.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.