Christmas is the most fascinating holiday I know of. What makes it interesting to me is the myriad ways it is celebrated. At the personal level most celebrants have one or two points on which they focus, without which it cannot be a satisfying, perfect Christmas for them. For many, the gift giving (and opening) are paramount. For others it can’t be Christmas without singing carols. Meals are important, usually because of the way they draw people together. In Thailand Christmas still retains its religious emphasis, and in many churches baptisms and reception of new members is traditional.
This year, 2016, shopping centers dispensed with extravagant Christmas decorations. Christmas was left pretty much up to the Christians.
This year I will regale you with a photo montage of Christmas celebrations here in Thailand. The photographs are collected from online postings by friends here.
These were one day’s news stories. They really settled a problem for me. I have been torn between (A) migrating to a little island in Polynesia where there is no Internet and I hear they no longer sacrifice virgins to the volcano god, (B) transmogrifying myself into a house elf to work in the kitchens at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where there is job security and a decent wage if you simply ask for it, or (C) withdrawing into the chemical haze I missed when the Hippies were showing us how to do it colorfully 50 years ago.
It’s clear that I don’t need to do any of those things because we already have been transported into a fantasy reality.
The only way to make sense out of what’s going on is to realize that nothing is real. It’s not supposed to make sense. I can transform all this into any fantasy I find amusing. The President-elect and everybody else are doing that, so why not me?
We Want to Join a Church that Accepts Thailand’s LGBT
And Stops Destroying LGBT through a False Bible*
Supachai Laingam, Pathum Thani, Thailand
[Translation of the sticker: We are LGBT. Stop using the Bible to Destroy Us. We are no different than other people. We want rights and freedom to be Christian.]
In this year 2559 (2016) it is undeniable that the numbers of homosexuals in Thailand and around the world who are admitting [their sexual orientation; i.e. “coming out”] are increasing. And there is greater acceptance in various countries, as well as in Asia, Taiwan, for example, where a trend is emerging to accept same sex marriage, as also in many other countries in America and Europe. Information on this is available at http://www.gaychurch.org/ where groups who believe are more understanding of sexual orientation. But Thailand still does not have a church for those who have chosen to be [openly] LGBT, not even in Bangkok where a lot of churches have been established.
PURPOSE AND HELP
We want to ask brothers and sisters who are spread across 16 sexual orientations, no matter your circumstances, age, status, or vocation to open your hearts and receive us who are LGBT to join in your ministry of service sincerely and proudly, not to exclude those of us who are LGBT from giving our love and concern in lives of enhanced service together and to move forward on the way of the Lord.
At present those of us who are [openly] LGBT are unable to join in Christian work or activities due to the use of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and many other passages as excuses. Those who use these excuses tend to rely on outward appearances and do not care about our hearts in the least, along with hating and ridiculing us as humorous, worthless, sinful and cut off from other brothers and sisters because they believe they have received the Word of God. They proclaim that those who choose to be LGBT are sinners and too unclean to be servants of God.
At the present time many local churches and Christian organizations in Thailand have not found the best way toward LGBT persons and prevent them from joining in worship of God.
Aside from this, some LGBT persons are “lost” (have left Christianity) or have posted more than 100,000 questions on Google a year. This statistic indicates a large number of believers in God with LGBT orientation who want advice and acceptance, rights and appropriate freedom of expression, and equality with other believers in God.
There have been questions on pantip.com about how to be a Servant of God [a minister or church leader] with sexual options, in search of truth, love, and salvation in the Lord. Here in Thailand there are a lot of LGBT people searching directly for right answers and who want understanding. This campaigner is a believer and has taken the name of the Lord for more than 5 years and wants to have an atmosphere of cordiality in the church on the part of all believers, free of hatred, attack, and discrimination based on sexual preference to seek the way of the Lord in Truth.
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* The headline and text on the cross in the sticker change when clicked on. The text below the sticker remains constant.
1. This is the first public manifest of this kind I have ever seen in Thai by a Thai Christian in behalf of a change of attitude on the part of the churches in Thailand. I admire the risk Supachai has taken.
2. Supachai’s purpose is to campaign for other Thai people to join him in seeking change. He even included his telephone number for volunteers to call him. Of course, he might get calls from despisers as well.
3. Supachai uses certain terms that indicate he is acquainted with the most conservative sides of the church in Thailand, rather than the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT), the largest and oldest Protestant denomination in the country. But his belief that it is unacceptable to be openly LGBT as a church leader or minister applies to all. Being a member as an open LGBT person is not usually impossible in CCT churches, but discrimination on the part of other members is to be expected, as Supachai indicates.
4. Supachai does not make any reference to arguments against Biblical texts that have been used to oppose LGBT people. This is not surprising because those arguments have not yet been mentioned in Thai written material (although I would heartily welcome any citations or leads to articles in Thai others might know of). Supachai understands that it is the Bible that is the weapon used to oppose inclusion of LGBT people, and he calls that an excuse.
5. Supachai suggests that there are “a lot of people” who have LGBT orientation or preferences, without mentioning numbers. My unverified guess would be 32,740 LGT oriented persons in a total Christian population of 819,600 (1.2% of 68,300,000 Thai people). If 409 thousand men and 410 thousand women are Christians, and if 6% of the men are gay and 2 % of the women are gay the total would be 32 thousand. If only half of them were Christian believers, the churches being anti-gay as Supachai says, the number of Christian LGT persons would be 16,370 or something like 10 per congregation.
6. Equal opportunities and rights within churches for LGBT believers would include: the right to be a member without discrimination based on sexual orientation or preference for a sexual life-partner, the right to participate in all activities and opportunities for being selected for leadership positions, including the right to be considered for ordained offices on the same bases as other candidates, the right to be protected from accusations based on real or supposed sexual activities and orientation, and the right to propose interpretations of scripture and church traditions with the expectation of those interpretations being considered seriously.
AN ESSAY ON HUMAN RIGHTS
The Senate of Ohio is working on a definition of when human life begins, although their express project is to specify an early end-date for legal abortions. In “breaking news” as of December 6, the senators have decided that no abortions should occur after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (using the most sophisticated equipment). That is “22 days after conception or earlier”.
To put that into perspective, the current practice is to draw the line at “viability” which is about 28 weeks after conception. “Viability” is the point at which about 90% of fetuses could survive outside the uterus. Before 20 weeks 0% of fetuses are “viable”. Full-term is 40 weeks. So the senators have agreed to shorten the time from 28 weeks to 3 weeks for pregnant women in Ohio to decide whether to become a mother.
In real terms, 22 days is before most women are even aware they are pregnant since they have not yet missed their first menstruation, much less their first two. The Ohio bill would effectively eliminate abortions, since no abortion (or any medical procedure) would be considered before someone is aware of the need for it. Ohio “Pro-life” (anti-abortion) groups are rejoicing because this is a step toward reversing the US Supreme Court’s “Roe vs Wade” decision that permitted legal abortions in order to reduce the dangers of illegal abortion practices by bringing all abortions under the law. In theory, as articulated currently by pro-life moralists, human life begins at the moment of conception Pro-life activists hope that Roe vs Wade will be overturned when the US Supreme Court takes on conservative Republican justices as soon as next year.
In short, the abortion issue in the USA and elsewhere is, “at what point is the will and welfare of the woman replaced by the welfare of the fetus she is carrying?” In its starkest form this question is, “When is it more important to save the baby than the mother, and who gets to decide?” On one side of the issue are the woman’s welfare, her emotional and physical health and well being, her social existence, and her human rights. On the other side, of course, are the child’s rights, which brings us back to the question of when does the embryo (later called a fetus) become formed enough to be called human and have legal standing.
The current choices are essentially these:
Option ONE: the state decides. Example: The Nazi state made the decision that the “Aryan Race” was fully human and other beings were less human, sub-human, or inhuman. Those excluded were Jews, Slavs, black people, homosexuals, and mental ill or deficient and physically deformed persons.
Option TWO: The church defends what God decides. Example: the Roman Catholic Church made the decision that having an abortion is a grave sin and that all who are supportive of abortions are involved in the sin. The rationale is “natural law” as a basis for canon law that human life is sacred and that no matter when “human” life begins, the purpose of sex and procreation is to produce human life. The church actually defends the process by which life has a chance of beginning.
Option THREE: the impregnated woman decides. When complex factors began to be recognized in mid-twentieth century, those factors distorted and re-described what was theretofore “normal”. At that point, priority began to be assumed in favor of those responsible and obligated to provide care for human children. The right to decide about continuing a pregnancy was allocated to parents and medical professionals as the most competent to assess the specific factors in a given case. In effect this meant that finally the mother decides. It was considered a huge victory for women gaining standing in a male-dominated world.
As of 2016, once again, the state is maneuvering to remove mothers from having a legal voice in the issue of whether or not they will be required to bring every conception to full-term if possible and then to be accountable for 18 years of care and nurture. All associated matters are obliterated. If the anti-abortion movement prevails, it will no longer matter that lives may be ruined or unsustainable. The only issue, once again, will be whether the conception happened.
Beneath this presenting issue is the philosophical one of who decides what constitutes a human being, at what point it begins and at what point it ends. Who decides who should live or die?
This round of the contest will be between states versus individuals. The problem is that states/nations fail to handle particular extenuating circumstances, and the cases all are unique, every one of them. Churches/religions also insist they are dealing with universal truths. Ironically, both states and religious entities are less comprehensive, with concerns more limited than human rights are supposed to cover. On the other hand, the problem with allowing free decisions is that individuals tend to be sometimes erratic and inconsiderate. There needs to be a steadying influence.
When it comes to defining who is human, however, states and religions have a terrible track record. Human rights are in the wrong hands when the handlers lose sight of half of the human beings they are supposed to be protecting.
Onion transplanting is going on in every direction in our valley this week. Last week rice was harvested. Now it’s time to get the onions in the ground. Onions are unquestionably a cash crop. Rice might be grown to eat or to sell, but acres of onions have only one purpose.
Onions take work. The seedbeds have to be planted by hand in a plot with a ditch between rows. The plants then have to be transplanted. [Pictures accompanying this essay show Pramote’s family pulling the seedlings to be transplanted as soon as possible –tomorrow morning.] Rice land can be used, but again ditches must be dug with foot-wide dikes of finely tilled soil piled up in between.
Chiang Mai onions need cool weather but never freezing. Cold nights, cool days, little rain but enough water for irrigation make perfect growing conditions. Conditions and soil in our valley are about as good as they come. Usually onions need to be watered as they grow, but if too much rain comes when the onions are almost fully developed next March or April the crop can rot and be ruined. Fungus, disease, and pests need to be carefully monitored. There are other dangers, but the final one is the largest, what the market price will be when the onions need to be sold. That depends on China; aside from the local market, these onions are going to China.
The Food and Agriculture Organization lists Thailand as #35 in world production of onions. China is #1 with more than 20 million tons compared to Thailand’s 280,000 tons.
Cultivating onions is both labor-intensive and risky. With good fortune, a farmer can made a decent living from growing onions as a second crop. Pramote’s brother sold last year’s crop for the equivalent of what his daughter made in salary for the year as a school teacher.
As the Christian Advent season proceeds, leading to Christmas, my thoughts turn to the theological topic of the Incarnation. For the first 5 centuries this was the most contentious aspect of Christian theology. The idea that God became “enfleshed” in Jesus of Nazareth was absurd to those schooled in Greek philosophy, and blasphemy to those who were Jewish theists. When Christianity was forced (by the Roman government under Constantine and following) to state its theology succinctly the decision was made to boldly insist that God became flesh in Jesus who was thereby Christ, the Messiah anticipated by Jews, Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians.
Incarnational theology in the most recent 5 centuries has developed the concept that we who are Christian need to consciously and conscientiously represent Christ in order to perform the ministry for God that we have been allocated. We need to discern who we are, stripped of faulty assumptions and aspirations, so that we can see the people to whom we are sent to minister as one of them. That ministry is simply to be Christ in person for those people, insofar as we are able to do so with the guidance and power of God’s Holy Spirit.
A month ago I was invited to address a group of young Asian Christian leaders about how to minister to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual people in Thailand. I was reminded that about 20 years ago I had no idea how to do that, as I perceived God challenging me to “do the ministry to gays I sent you to do”. I have learned a few things about this ministry in the past two decades. I can summarize it in five concepts.
1. Ministry is possible only in a non-judgmental context.
2. Intervention is always responsive.
3. A minister must be included.
4. Evangelical opportunities are reactive.
5. The only effective goal is systemic (culture-wide) enhancement.
It surprised me that such simple principles could be so counter-intuitive when applied to ministry with LGBT people in Thailand. [The pictures accompanying this essay are intended to illustrate how unpredictable that has been for me.] The wrong way to do ministry was almost always the “normal” way we had done ministry. (1) It is not easy to be rigorously non-judgmental when proposing to minister to gay men and women. There are behaviors, for example, that many Christian communities abhor. Furthermore, many of the LGBT people who eventually became my community were not interested in being Christian, nor inclined to agree with Christian moral standards. The first challenge I faced was whether being non-judgmental was tantamount to being non-Christian. (2) LGBT people have their fair share of crises and then some. The only effective way to minister is to respond to those crises as invited. A minister may make suggestions like, “Can I help?” But the answer is generally, “I don’t see how you could.” Sometimes the need is met with money, but often it is a need for physical presence, or even an insertion of power or mystery. If one does not know how to be a Christian shaman one cannot do Christian ministry with gay Thai people. (3) To minister to LGBT people one must be one of the group of LGBT people. Basically this means one must get over the idea that there is a gay-straight binary that means anything. We are all on a spectrum of gay-straight and sexual-asexual. All the little labels we cherish fit into that grid somewhere, regardless of one’s highly-individual fetishes and fascinations. So you can belong, but you must strongly identify with and then be accepted by an LGBT community if you are going to minister to them. The initiative is with the group to accept you as one of them or not. (4) Evangelical opportunities are not effective if they are forced upon wary LGBT people. Aggressive evangelism will usually be counterproductive, sometimes permanently so, forever-after preventing any opportunities to express the Christian “Good News” at all. But one can certainly react in a Christian way to events and opportunities. These reactions have a cumulative effect that must not be underestimated. (5) The ultimate objective is culture-wide change. The goal of setting up churches to include all gay Thai people is not going to work, and will probably divert effort from things that might work. The whole Christian missionary strategy has to be abandoned. Success indicators will not be countable as long as the items being counted are individual conversions and churches planted. But other cultural change is slow, measurable in century-long increments toward culture that is a mirror of Jesus Christ. This, as European and American history attest, is usually a work in progress fraught with set-backs.
How does one minister to LGBT people? My conclusion is, “If you will be their minister you must be Christ incarnate and in love with them.”
Advent and Christmas are all about that.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.