Religion and Politics
Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi (according to The Guardian), this week accused Jeremy Corbyn of allowing “a poison [anti-Semitism] sanctioned from the top,” and urged all Jews in Britain to vote for Boris Johnson in the forthcoming general election. “The soul of the nation is at stake,” the rabbi declared, placing the political issue well within the bounds of religion. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, appearing to agree with the rabbi, tweeted that there is a “deep sense of insecurity and fear by many British Jews.” It was the latest kerfuffle on both sides of the Atlantic, in which religion and politics have been mixed. The mass media in Britain gleefully spent the next few days distorting the mess by “straightening out” what the politicians and religious leaders meant.
What was going on, as always, was entirely political. Rabbi Mirvis was being political in his charge that Jews would be threatened by a Labour government led by Corbyn.
We from the USA know how that goes. In Washington DC there is more religion mixed in politics than at any time in living memory. Everyone from residents in the White House to judges in Alabama quotes religious reasons for making political decisions. It is not, presently, a winning strategy to advocate a strict separation of church and state.
On the other hand, it is one thing for politicians to use religion when they want to put icing on some confection they are concocting, and quite another thing for religious leaders to resort to politics. Even current religious scions from families with famous names such as Falwell and Graham are usually at least a little careful how they word such things as their call to pray for the President because “he’s under attack as no President has ever been.” But a week ago Franklin Graham declared, in an interview as the impeachment hearings ended, that those who oppose Donald Trump are “demon possessed.” Demons are far inside religious discourse, but the comment was completely political. Nobody, surely, misunderstood Graham to mean there are actual demons infesting every single one who disagrees with the President, but US evangelical leaders have drifted farther into politics than anyone would have imagined just a few months ago.
What do people think of this?
The Pew Research Center on November 15, 2019 reported that 63% of those polled agree that “churches and houses of worship should stay out of politics,” whereas only 36% thought “churches and houses of worship should express views on social/political questions. When it comes to endorsing candidates (as the Chief Rabbi did), US opinion is even more one sided: 76% of US citizens polled said “NO” when asked to agree with the statement, “During political elections churches and houses of worship should come out in favor of one candidate or another.” Only 23% said YES.
So, should pastors, preachers, priests and pontiffs tell people how to vote or not?
It is not a remote hypothetical question. It is a contentious issue right now, and as elections draw near it is growing more so. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield Illinois also doesn’t hold back from warning Catholics they can be excommunicated for voting for people who refuse to oppose abortion or who are sinfully in love with people of the same sex.
A moderate “keep your distance” point of view was posted on-line just yesterday (as I write this). “Faith leaders have a duty to respect the intelligence and freedom of their co-religionaires by keeping out of such matters [i.e. advising congregants how to vote].” Presumably it’s OK to talk about things like justice as long as it’s kept abstract, or at least not pasted onto a characterization of an individual running for office.
Nevertheless, two friends, one an English Episcopalian priest and the other a Presbyterian pastor in American, have been posting things daily on social media lambasting Boris Johnson and the Tories and Donald Trump and the Republicans.
Contentious social issues and divisive political issues can be examined from religious as well as political perspectives. Human slavery is not only inhumane and unjust, it is sinful. That is settled. We may not, as a human race, have ended all slavery but we have decided we should try to do it. We’ve moved on to newer contentious issues in need of being worked out.
It is unclear (at least to me) that these things will be worked out by sorting out the principles rather than measuring popular opinion. Sometimes it is just not possible to decide a matter until the full effects of a course of action or a political faction are becoming clear and clearly devastating. In that way 20th Century Fascism was not wrong until its results were so undeniable that sufficient opposition was generated to go to war against it. Soviet Communism, on the other hand, ended when the Soviet leadership concluded it could no longer be afforded because it was devastating the Russian economy (Gorbachev withdrew military support for Soviet satellite states because the money was needed to build Russia). Clear consequences can be convincing.
Perhaps the ethical-philosophical question is does a religious leader have a right to publicly express a political point of view on social media and/or from the pulpit? The answer must be, on the first half of the proposition, that every citizen has the right to express their personal opinion on political issues as long as the nation state permits such free expression. That includes priests and preachers, rabbis and imams. My friend in Illinois has the right to write, “Each and every day this Administration reveals itself to be following in the footsteps of Fascism.” He has the right to name names, and he has done so. My Episcopal friend has the right to be entirely one-sided in support of Labour.
But there are consequences, and they expand if those partisan political opinions are characterized as religious guidance, and a line is crossed if that guidance becomes a demand for conformity on religious grounds. It is one thing to agree that a religious leader can march in a Gay Pride parade, but if he or she carries a banner with the name of the congregation there had better be solid assurance that “the congregation” has agreed. One of my heroes was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who marched on the front line in civil rights demonstrations with Martin Luther King, Jr. But he did that on his own, as a religious celebrity of sorts but not officially representing the denomination. It can be argued that everything a religious leader does reflects on the religion he or she leads, but unless that action is official by the religious organization the charge does not stick. Or it should not. History is full of incidents, just or not, in which religious leaders were punished for their personal stands on politically charged social matters.
I cannot imagine either of my two friends insisting that everyone within the sound of his voice or within reach of his chalice must be of one political opinion. I’m almost positive, however, that all the members of their congregations know without needing to be told from the pulpit how they would prefer for them to vote and why.
Every year at this time I ruminate on what makes Thanksgiving, the US holiday.
This year, 2019, I recall an essay I wrote for this website three years ago and wish to use it to reconsider what enables and underlies a successful Thanksgiving.
A few days ago a former student of mine who immigrated to the USA about ten years ago became a naturalized US citizen. She is very happy about it, and this Thanksgiving has special meaning for her, and her sense of being newly settled in Virginia. A close friend who graduated with her settled in Canada. They have Thanksgiving there, too: a harvest festival on the second Monday of October. She also feels settled. Their close friend, a Muslim woman feels settled just a few miles from the university here in Thailand where they all graduated on the same day. Even though she is Thai, and a fourth generation resident, being a Muslim in the middle of a community that is half and half Buddhist and Roman Catholic, she feels less settled than her neighbors.
Settler narratives make a difference.
I own my sense of being an Illinois farm boy. It is who I am no matter that I live on a Northern Thai farm about as many nautical miles from Illinois as can be. It is the feeling of being settled that counts when it comes to Thanksgiving. I could easily get back to that.
Essential to our clan’s settlement is the whole idea of settlement.
“Settler Colonialism” is the emerging term for the particular type of process engaged in by immigrants from Europe into North America in the 17-19th centuries. Settler colonialism included certain concepts: (1) that the settlers were entitled to move where they went. (Some were compelled, in fact). (2) That there was no need to take prior residents into account. (3) That this movement reiterated a sacred (Biblical) precedent and mandate. (4) That the legal practices the settlers developed were sovereign. (5) That ranching, farming and manufacturing were the standard enterprises (mining, shipping, commerce and forestry were aspects in support of them).
The US national narrative tends to boldly celebrate this. Significant episodes revolve around successful establishment of settlements and elimination of threats. Heroes are those who pushed colonization forward. Alternative narratives were nullified in various ways.
Ironically, for a migrant such as me, the least considered component of Thanksgiving is the concept of settlement. So I wonder what other narrative might be possible?
Narratives of belonging have no concept of interruption, resettlement, or ownership. Eternal things cannot be owned. Wellbeing is not dependent on possessing such things. Even more absurd is the idea of owning other living beings or of a hierarchy of human authority. Instead there is unquestionable but inscrutable connectivity. In such a cultural ethos, thanksgiving is a response to particular events (a successful hunt, for example) rather than to abstract feeling and cyclical tradition.
Narratives of immigration are concerned with transition. Change is the constant. The destination is ahead. Narratives of immigration are nostalgic as well as hopeful, rather than satisfied and defensive. They espouse mystery, celebrate passages, and expect thresholds. Thanksgiving is concerned with incidents of adaptation and accommodation. Narratives of immigration are recapitulated in sacramental ceremonies in which divine-human encounters in the past presage ones in the present and portend ones to come. Thanksgiving is anticipatory.
These are two alternative narratives. They are irreconcilable with a settler narrative.
In order to celebrate the Great American Thanksgiving it is not necessary to pay attention to any of these narratives. Consideration of the implications of settler colonialism could come at another time. Ironically, the pressure to do so on Thanksgiving comes from the imposition of a meta-narrative about patriotism, national heritage, and the myth of the first settlers. The story of the Pilgrims impels a response that our collective amnesia could otherwise avoid. The sober conclusion to critical review of settler colonization of North America is that the colonists cared nothing for their predecessors in the land and willfully drove them away as obstructions to settlement. We in any generation after these pioneer settlers are beneficiaries of their ruthlessness. The remnant of the original residents who survive, as well as recent immigrants, either do not share in the Thanksgiving or have capitulated to the principles of settler colonialism upon which the Thanksgiving Harvest Festival is founded and conducted.
It takes equal measures of tolerance and hopefulness for someone like our new Virginian from Thailand to buy into the Pilgrim story and to see turkeys and pumpkin pie as the food of choice on the fourth Thursday of November. An immigrant narrative, celebrating human diversity in America, would be far more satisfying and more accurate for at least a quarter of the US population. Her being settled has none of the coldblooded confidence that my ancestors brought to Illinois. As for me, belonging to Illinois anymore takes mental dexterity, too. Pramote and I will not even be able to access (or afford) a big turkey dinner this year. If we “eat out” it would be using Thanksgiving as the excuse rather than as a celebration of identity. For us the sense of authentic thanksgiving would be based on a narrative of belonging.
RUMINATION ON HOW UNIVERSITIES WILL SURVIVE
Four incidents conspired to focus my thinking on the desperate straits of higher education as we get to the end of the first quarter of the 21st century. I heard of increasing closings of colleges and universities in the USA. The Bangkok Post published an op-ed piece on the massive failure of Thai universities to stay competitive in the region. This weekend is our university’s 42nd annual commencement. We have begun a new phase of recruiting international students (from within and from outside Thailand) for our university.
Without overwhelming this essay with statistics, I still feel the need to cite a few, in order to see where we are going.
· The number of degree granting institutions of higher education in the USA dropped from 4726 in 2012, to 4298 last year.
· The cost to be a full-time, in-state student at a public institution was $7605 per year, on average, or $11,990 for out-of-state students.
Business administration courses of study continue to be the most popular in most countries. So, let’s compare costs between US and Thai institutions.
· The annual tuition for bachelor’s degrees in business administration in the USA was $9970 at public institutions for in-state students and $25,620 for out-of state students. At private non-profit institutions the tuition averaged $34,740.
· At Payap University the published cost for the International Business Management program is $4475 (based on this month’s currency exchange rate) for international students and about $3,130 for Thai students.
· The cost at Chulalongkorn University for the BBA degree is $1133 per year for Thai students and $4,100 for international students.
· The cost at Assumption University for the same program is $4098.
· The cost for international BBA students is $1333 per year at Rajapat Chiang Mai University.
These are the best figures I could ascertain. They help in doing a comparison between costs for students from the USA. Many Thai universities are considering how they might recruit students from overseas with our attractive tuition and fees as well as lower cost of living. In order to do that the quality of instruction and educational activities must approximate stateside levels. Instructors’ English proficiency must be close to that of “native speakers.” The social and recreational options must be attractive. And free time options must at least not be a problem. These things cost more.
In the long run it is word of mouth that will attract students and sustain this recruitment source. For the short run it can be helpful and even necessary to establish agreements with partner institutions and organizations where Thai universities, like ours, provide educational services including full courses, semesters abroad, double degrees and other advantages. Our location in Chiang Mai, which is a cultural intersection, can be important.
But these plusses, as we like to think of them, can be obliterated by the challenges facing all Thai higher education, as well as higher education elsewhere. In the educational ethos of the near future, already breaking upon us, institutional survival and relevance will not depend on simply recruiting students from overseas to sit in our classrooms and laboratories learning in the time-honored tradition. People learn in different ways than they used to. Universities and colleges must be educational innovators. It will cost a lot for universities to get over the habit of waiting for the new students to flock to our gates.
A seminar conducted by Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok a week ago highlighted the challenges.
· Digital technology enables people to learn anywhere and anytime.
· “Students will be able to study in multiple modes, switching seamlessly between on-campus, mixed or wholly online study, to suit their lifestyles and fit learning around work and other activities,” Piriya Pholphirul, director of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida) Graduate School of Development Economics, said. Flexible learning will be available on-demand, 24 hours a day, and will be tailored to what students want to achieve, he said.
· Thai universities must improve their standing on the global stage or students will turn their backs on them.
· It is estimated that a person makes 3 major career changes during their working years. Life-long learning is becoming mandatory.
In the USA, right now, a generation is entering the workforce who will have to spend their whole lives in it. My generation, now mostly retired and rapidly becoming deceased, was able to accumulate resources to depart from the workforce at an age (around 65) when we could count on several years of activities unrelated to economic security. That is being wiped out for future generations. The education that used to suffice for a lifetime of gainful employment is obsolete. No profession, even now, allows professionals to function for 40 years without re-training. Changing professions is even rougher. Education and work will be linked inseparably and educational institutions may or may not fill the new need. Educational costs for those who need to keep up will be on-going.
As it happens, the educational establishment is its own enemy. The main obstacle to doing what Piriya predicted is the government’s control system. Every time some innovation is introduced, such as semesters abroad were a few years ago, the objection that made most of the efforts impossible was that such things were against regulations and would undermine the university’s quality and therefore the university’s accreditation. Distance learning is facing the same hurdles. It doesn’t matter that this student generation doesn’t learn in the old way anymore, the system makes change almost impossible. It’s not that we do not know how to teach better, it’s that we are not allowed to do it.
I am beginning to think that only open rebellion against the system and its guardians is what it will take. The cost to those who dare to rebel could be substantial.
On Saturday evening, November 16, the 42nd graduating class of Payap University is receiving diplomas with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining. These graduates are among the last to be marching proudly to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” wearing medieval academic garb, expecting that they are becoming secure by degrees. The world is changing too fast for long-term security. Some of these graduates will be the innovators and technicians who find out how to do education differently and some will try to leave the world of academia with a firm farewell.
If our university has done a good job up to commencement time for these students, and if we are able to manage the challenges of transforming Payap University into an educational institution for a technology-assisted future, the university will be here when they need us.
Fire and Water
UNDERSTANDING LOY KRATHONG
Loy Kratong comes on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, according to one of the Thai reckonings (or the second month, “Yi”, of the year according to the Lanna [northern Thai] calendar). It is the larger of two “secular” festivals in the Thai calendar and the most extensive annual celebration here in Chiang Mai. This year Loy Kratong is November 11 with the major city events on November 12.
The way Loy Kratong is celebrated varies from village to village, and in large cities from neighborhood to neighborhood. What they all have in common is making an offering of flowers and candles (called kratongs) on a waterway. The offerings are set on the water to float (i.e. to loy). Many homes will decorate their front walls with candles or prateep (candles in clay cups), hang paper lanterns, or erect festival gates made of banana leaves and stalks with palm leaves. Electric lights are becoming popular recently. Almost every village will build a stairway and pier to give access to the water where families come to launch their offering. Villages may hold contests of various sorts, especially contests for home-made kratongs. Fire crackers and fiery “flower pots” as well as “Roman candles” will be common wherever people can get away with it; police crack-downs have been effective where large crowds gather, after years of horrifying accidents. A big central event might include a boat race, parade of large commercial kratongs, beauty contest, or fireworks display.
In Chiang Mai Loy Kratong and Yi Peng overlap. Loy Kratong, as it is celebrated now, moved from the Central Thai region several decades ago. The celebration in the city goes on for three nights, with a big parade at the climax ending with fireworks on the river. Yi Peng is an older merit-making observance centered on village temples from which large paper hot air balloons (called khom loy) are sent aloft. The balloons are sent up during the day at the end of a chanting service, and are made of brightly colored paper, with a long tail. A delayed fuse sets off fire crackers when the balloon is overhead, and candy or coins wrapped in colorful ribbons are released to be chased by children. Khom loy are also launched at night in massive numbers these days. They make a stunning sight as they rise and then are caught by winds. The heat to fill the balloons is provided by a wax coil of string which burns up after 15 minutes or so, allowing the paper balloon to cool and fall. Airlines have to cancel, delay or divert flights to avoid the swarms of khom loy.
Some form of Loy Kratong festival is a tradition all over mainland South East Asia. However, the idea of floating a handmade offering is said to have originated with a woman named Nopphamat in the King’s court in Sukhothai. This story is how the festival is made particularly Thai. No trace of this legend can be found, however, before the beginning of the 19th century when a story of Nang Nopphamat appeared. HM King Rama IV accredited Loy Kratong to a Brahmanical festival honoring the Lord Buddha where a story says a bird with a candle in its beak flew down to worship the Buddha.
No matter the origin, there is complete agreement that one of the features of the festival is to venerate and appease … whom? The Mother of Waters would be one candidate, water being the very source of life itself. Rivers in Thai languages are called mae naam – Mother of Waters. So the floating offerings are composed of symbolic items: flowers, candle(s), incense, and perhaps a coin or a bit of something sweet or savory. The art of Thai traditional flower folding is employed in making these dinner-plate-size floats. Inherent in the respect given to the source of life is confession and apology for using and misusing waterways and water (and by extension all life-resources). It is said that some old-timers include a few fingernail clippings and sprigs of hair to symbolize the floating away of sins and the intention to lead a better life. It’s apparently going to take more time for the King’s application of Loy Kratong to the Lord Buddha to take hold. In any case, Loy Kratong is not so firmly religious that Christians feel obliged to shun it.
Another way to look at Loy Kratong is as an environmental festival. It is one of the few remaining celebrations where families bring children to appreciate their dependence on nature.
Fire and water are the most prominent elements in Loy Kratong. As traditional elements they are opposed to each other, and supplementary to each other. In one way Loy Kratong is the obverse of Songkran, where Loy Kratong comes when the rivers are high at the end of the rainy season and Songkran comes when the rivers are drying up. The one gives thanks for life-giving water and the other begs for it. Rainfall on the hills provides water for irrigation (rain is not counted on to make rice grow, but flowing water is). The hills are covered with trees where nature thrives and can be found to sustain life. The rain comes from the sky, into which the lanterns are sent in joyful reverence. Prayers go up with the khom-loy balloons, as well as downstream with the kratongs. Mother Nature, formerly called Gaia by the Greeks and Mae Toranee in this part of the world, is the source of life, the embodiment of earth and water, along with fire and air. People may not remember a particular name for the source of life, but the four elements of nature are evident when the kratongs float away from the pier and catch the current and when the khom-loy rise in the air and catch the breeze.
Loy Kratong is about sufficiency, sustainability, and sustenance. It is about life. It is a joyful and humble thanksgiving.
Today it is almost universal (at least it seems so among those who use social media) for everyone to have the right to their own point of view about everything. Moreover, they have the right to call it whatever they want. Metaphysics and theology are particularly cited. But, actually, there are limits. One’s theology must have resilience and consistency.
I have been ruminating for several weeks on five examples of theological assertions that are wrong because they cannot be justified due to internal logical impossibilities.
Theology is wrong that sets apart a population for special entitlements while setting up barriers for OTHERS.
“Anyone born into this community is welcome. Outsiders have to prove their loyalty.”
In churches in Thailand and most other countries children are automatically welcome either by being baptized shortly after birth or by being included as insiders, while newcomers have special classes and expectations to meet. Thai Buddhism lacks these requirements.
But these are organizational rules. When the rules are justified by theological rationale the result is wrong theology. Theology cannot be potentially universal while still attributing to supreme authority the demand that various groups be treated differently.
Theology is wrong that relegates a population to oblivion as the conclusion of any configuration of natural conditions.
“That earthquake proves those people are sinners.”
As recently as last week prominent commentators again made the unfounded connection between California wild fires and the law in California to employ LGBT persons in official positions. Old women with black cats were killed as witches because their worship of the Devil was rumored to have caused the Black Plague.
The Supreme Being cannot be supremely just and rational if people are destroyed due to circumstances totally external to them and with no logical connection to them. This often is the result of confusion over realms of discourse, as, for example, when events of nature are conflated with moral principles that are social.
Theology is wrong that legitimizes a system whereby the particular gifts of any category of persons are prevented from being contributed to the common welfare.
“We could never have a woman in leadership.”
A religious foundation has refused an unconditional contribution of funds on the basis that the contributors included people unopposed to abortion. Thai Buddhist hierarchy still opposes the ordination of women monks. The mandate in some Muslim regimes is to capture and execute people suspected of being gay.
At the base, the reasons for making these exclusionary distinctions are always warped theology. It must be a principle of any theology that presumes to represent universal truth that the goal is inclusive of all people, in which case diversity is to be embraced and celebrated.
Theology is wrong that delays fulfillment by postponing eternity into the future.
When that which is ultimately important is entirely in the future, that which is in the present is not important except as a means. This reasoning is used to lower the priority for taking action now on social and political issues. In opposition to this distorted perspective is Jesus’ insistence that the Kingdom of God is already operational, angels are among us now, and the journey has begun. A theology is faulty which cannot incorporate factors because they are unexplainable in a certain time-frame.
Theology is wrong that objectifies those who are subjects.
“Leave everything up to God.” “God rewards your faith.”
Theology must be about the human relationship to the holy in a specified context. It is a distortion of theology to treat either subject (the Divine or the Human) as an object to be acted upon. A Supreme Being would not be very supreme if the being were easily persuaded by supplications to alter the supreme plan, as would be the case when people say “God stopped the storm because of our prayers.”
[Thanks to my friend the Rev. Paul Frazier from whose extensive files I have filched the cartoons to illustrate this essay. A subsequent essay may follow on Heretical Theology. That might lead to others.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.