REMEMBERING CHRISTMAS OF 1989
Preface: The week before Christmas in 1989 after the Berlin Wall came down and Eastern Europe felt velvety and joyful, the bloodiest revolution of all raged in Romania. Then, on December 22, it seemed it could be over, but the news was slow to reach into the mountains.
A fine dusting of snow filtered down on the village of Borsa-Dej. Pastor Laszlo gazed out through the diamond-shaped panes in the windows of the parsonage wing of the Reformed Church. His breathtaking view of Mount Pietrosu was almost obscured by the flurries. In this Carpathian valley every winter day was nearly always overcast, and the weather every Christmas Eve was ominous as well – as was the outlook for the days to come, because Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and every day, were days of stifled dreams and repressed ambition. The sheep herders and timber cutters of Borsa-Dej had never known anything else than being under the iron fist of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis, and then the Communists.
For four decades the Christmas Eve service was the only time the Reformed congregation ever dared to gather, except on Sunday morning. And for two of those decades, every Christmas Eve Pastor Laszlo watched from his pulpit as Nicu Hoge stood in the back corner of the sanctuary taking notes on every word the Pastor said, and carefully recording who came to church. It was as if the two of them, at opposite ends of the room, were on opposite sides of Borsa-Dej, one a communist representing hostility to religion, and the other a Christian pastor, representing a holy mystery that somehow threatened to destroy political oppression on a night like this. There were too many candles, and too much singing of angels and of God, for tyranny to stand it.
“Comrade Nicu, in your report tell them how the Christians of Borsa-Dej love Jesus,” Pastor Laszlo had said last Christmas Eve as the informer had brushed past him on his way out of the church building.
But this year the snow flurries were lighter than usual, and even the faint silhouette of Mt. Pietrosu was briefly bathed in an orange and lavender glow from the setting sun, as Pastor Laszlo allowed himself to be transformed by the wonder of the events of the last week. Most of the time their remote village was ignored by the powers that played games in distant cities, but, Pastor Laszlo well knew, at least by the time the snow-packed mountain passes had melted in the spring, some effects of their maneuvers would drift up to Borsa-Dej. How long would it take this time, Pastor Laszlo wondered, for the tremendous news he had heard over the static on his radio to make this latest change felt in their remote valley? And what would be the first sign of the change?
On his lap a tattered Bible lay open to the words from the Christmas story, “And on earth PEACE….” It was the need for peace that sent tears streaming once again down the pastor’s cheeks. News had come of the slaughter of children and innocents by the hundreds. Even there in Borsa-Dej, where they had never seen an army tank, Pastor Laszlo could imagine the sight of their firing down a street filled curb to curb with people carrying flags. “What flag?” he mused. The national tri-colors … with the communist emblem snipped from its center, as if it had been ripped out by one of the tank’s bullets on its way into the crowd. Pastor Laszlo imagined the scene, mist in his eyes, as mist began to enshroud Mount Pietrosu. He envisioned, too, how the soldiers would have been sent around the public square to toss the dead into trucks like cord-wood to be dumped into a ditch and covered by a bull-dozer. Finally, Pastor Laszlo formed a picture in his mind of how his fellow pastors in less remote places must have been attacked over the last few weeks of the hideous crack-down. Some of them must have broken legs and burnt skin that results from an interrogation by the secret police. The revolution, after all, had first broken out in a Reformed Church in Timisoara.
As the grey-green forests grew dark outside Pastor Laszlo’s window, the faces of Elena and Corneliu Ratescu floated into his memory. This very night marked the second anniversary of their disappearance. Such a happy couple, Laszlo thought, the brightest and best of Borsa-Dej. That is, of course, why they were sucked into the mindless bureaucracy of government service and relocated far from their beloved mountains. It was the government’s prime ploy to rip people out of the places they love, and apart from the people they love, and into settings where they are helpless and forced to live with people they do not know. Even so, the spirit of such a couple as Elena and Corneliu was not so easily extinguished. For five years, they almost flourished as accountants and shift managers in a factory producing farm equipment to harvest hay. Their work, they wrote home, reminded them of the mountainside hay fields in the Carpathians near their village. And the people with whom they worked, they reported, also had spirits, once you got to know them. Such spirits, evidently, drew them into church on Christmas Eve where they were neatly set upon by the police. For two years there had been only silence.
Whatever had happened to Elena and Corneliu Ratescu could well become the stories of all the souls of Borsa-Dej, they thought last Christmas Eve. Village after village was being relocated into urban concrete apartment towers, layer on layer, like bees in hives. The government, of course, cast no thought to the matter of their village relationships, their love of the mountains bred in over a thousand years of living there, nor their native devotion to the Lord God and the stone church in which every important event of their lives was celebrated. One by one, already a thousand or more villages had been abandoned and then leveled so the people could not be tempted to return.
But, if the incredible bits and pieces Laszlo heard over the radio proved to be true, all that might be over. It was being said, if he heard correctly, that the nightmare of the dictatorship was ending. There was even news, now, that in a dozen other countries vast changes were sweeping out tyrannies and letting in the wind of freedom.
Pastor Laszlo breathed in the air from his room. He imagined it felt freer inside his lungs than it had felt. But this feeling alone was not the confirmation he needed after so many years and disappointments, in order to dare to allow his emotions to feel free and his soul to feel ecstatic gratitude. That must come in some other way. But what would the sign be that even tiny Borsa-Dej was now liberated?
The snow had become more than a crystalline mist. Fat silvery flakes were bouncing on the beams of light that stabbed the darkness outside his window. Now that the day was over, as evening came, it was time to celebrate Christmas. And, even though the thrilling thoughts of freedom from fear and peace on earth would not go away, it was time to open the church doors to receive the villagers’ annual pilgrimage.
Inside the chapel the candles were ready for lighting and the nativity scene was arrayed in front of the communion table. There, solid Joseph, radiant Mary, and the Christ-child lying in a manger with chubby arms reaching toward heaven were in place as they had been every Christmas since a woodcarver had brought them down from his Carpathian cabin high up on Mount Pietrosu one Christmas Eve a hundred and thirty years ago. That loving generosity had initiated a Christmas tradition in the Reformed Church of Borsa-Dej. From then on, people had brought an offering for the Christ-child every Christmas Eve, some carved trinket, or a sack of grain, or a jar of preserves. It was a love offering that Pastor Laszlo shared with those of the parish who needed an extra measure of love.
Reassured that everything was in place and ready, Laszlo reached for a rope hanging from a hole in the ceiling of the vestibule and began to heave on it. Gently, the stentorian toll of the great bell in the tower began to remind the faithful that the Christ-child was waiting for them. After several minutes of ringing, more than usual perhaps, because of the excitement in his heart that threatened to break out at any moment, Pastor Laszlo went back to collect his thoughts and to pull on his antique black robe with its high frilled white collar of the Reformed faith. Nicola Botez had climbed the tiny stairs into her nest above the back doorway where the organ was hung, and she was filling the room with sounds of Christmas.
There was no doubt of the signs of Christmas, Laszlo reflected. But what would be the signs of “Peace on earth?” Laszlo half expected angels to announce the advent of this peace with its new liberty, or perhaps the dazzling glory of a star from the East penetrating into the chapel itself. He was prepared, it seems, for any scene but the one that presented itself to him.
As Pastor Laszlo stepped into the pulpit of the church of Borsa-Dej, Comrade Nicu was not standing in his customary place. For twenty-three years, Comrade Nicu had stood in the back of the church every Christmas eve transcribing the pastor’s comments and recording the names of every worshipper.
At Laszlo’s appearance, Nicola pounced into the familiar beginning of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” so that the faithful of Borsa-Dej could process to the manger with their Christmas love offerings. In the midst of all the commotion, the door at the back of the chapel opened unnoticed by everyone except Pastor Laszlo who was ensconced in the elevated pulpit. Onto the end of the procession came three people whom Laszlo did not recognize until he got a better look at them, Nicu Hoge with Corneliu and Elena Ratescu.
By now the whole assembly was watching them as they found their way to the holy family. There from the folds of his long green coat Comrade Nicu extracted a ponderous sheaf of twenty-three reports on yellow paper from his twenty-three years of vigilance. These reports would never find their way into any investigations nor into any police file, for at the manger he filed them with Jesus. Then, for the first time in his twenty-three years, Nicu Hoge bent down to kiss the forehead of the infant in the manger.
Laszlo admitted at last that the static-distorted message he had heard from the radio and the much clearer message from his tattered book of Luke were both true. Corneliu and Elena were back home in Borsa-Dej in the mountains they loved. The war against the innocents must be over as well. Even men like Nicu Hoge were free to love Jesus, and after years of secrecy, to show their love. There was no need for another sign. Pastor Laszlo had seen the sign in Borsa-Dej that God has pronounced, “Peace on earth.”
Postscript: This story was written for the Christmas Eve service of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, before the amazement diminished that the Soviet Union had ended and the Cold War was over. Of all the final acts by the dictators, the atrocity during the days before Christmas inflicted on hostage children in Bucharest by the Ceausescus was the bloodiest. On Christmas Day the tyrants were shot by a firing squad.
After 30 years it is growing hard to remember how astounding and difficult it was to believe the nightmare was probably over. Our forgetfulness comes with a risk. Again we seem to be forgetting what life was like when dictators ruled.
[The picture above is of the Calvinist Church in Dej. The story imagines Borsa-Dej as a smaller village than any of the real towns of Borsa or Dej. The characters are imaginary, but the setting is as authentic as I could compose from news on the three days before Christmas 1989.]
A couple of weeks ago my Facebook posts were loaded with a shocking set of pictures. I have posted one of them so you can get the idea. Clearly, SANTA’S REINDEER ARE LOST! They were photographed wandering around in downtown Alton, Illinois. I was a resident of Alton 25 years ago and I can testify that in nearly a decade, winter or summer, we never saw a single reindeer or any other kind of deer wandering around in front of the library in the business district. So, even though the deer population in Illinois has reportedly risen dramatically, there can be no doubt at all these reindeer are lost!
It isn’t fog that did it to them, as in the 1939 tale told by a Montgomery and Ward ad-man, so that Santa called upon sad Rudolph to lead his sleigh that night. The song based on the little story has become so well known, and cartoon versions so universal, that it is no longer acceptable to talk of just 8 reindeer, named by Clement Moore in his poem published first on December 23, 1823. There now have to be 9, led by the most famous reindeer of all even if the night is clear as it was in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as Phillips Brooks remembered it from his visit on Christmas Eve in 1865. He said that the night was the same as the night Christ was born. The sky was filled with silent stars and then broke “the everlasting Light,” seen first as a star guiding Magi from afar with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Santa brings the gifts now, with a lot of assistance, but it’s still up to him and his reindeer WHO ARE WANDERING AROUND, LOST!
But I have a concrete solution.
We all know that things have expanded since 1823 when Moore described the reindeer as “tiny” and Santa as “a little old driver” and “a right jolly old elf.” Thomas Nast, the most famous cartoonist of the 19th century, depicted Santa Claus as an elfish fellow, but that would never do. Someone is needed between miniature and gigantic, as is the star in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. That immense balloon-size Santa would never fit onto a throne in a shopping mall, much less get down a chimney. In fact, by the middle of the 20th century the chimney thing was glossed over, except for stockings hung carefully close by if there is a fireplace. No, Santa has grown. Santa needs to be human-size in order to help sell things. The classical pictures were in advertisements by Coca Cola. There is no doubt what scale Santa was, because everyone knows what size a bottle of Coke is. So there you are.
It’s time to get over the notion that bulky Santa could be gotten aboard a tiny sleigh. The sleigh would have to be both big and able to navigate in climates without snow. If the climate keeps getting warmer as it is now, there might not be snow on rooftops pretty soon. I think Santa has abandoned rooftop landings as he has his slimming diet.
Just this week I saw the group of sleigh or wagon pullers a Santa needs around here. No worries, mate, reindeer lost? Here’s your substitutes….
WHO ARE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Never, since 1492, has the question been so hotly debated, “Who are indigenous people and what difference does it make?” The Persians and the Greeks accommodated indigenous people in ways that would bewilder Europeans voting for Brexit, North Europeans scared of an influx of Syrians and Turks, and white Americans building a wall because they don’t live on an island. Thanksgiving in the USA, the coming election, and the challenging season of Advent and Christmas turn spotlights on indigenous and migratory human movements and challenge the sentiment that one ethnicity must be dominant at least within a particular boundary.
The harsher name for ethnicity is tribalism. It is this that has become the actual rationale for pretty much all geo-political action since … well … a long time. Just since World War Two, which could have ended international imperialism, and since the end of the Soviet Empire 30 years ago, ethnic cleansing and re-emergent tribalism have murdered millions and brought the world to the brink of insanity and (arguably) extinction.
Back to the more limited topic of who are indigenous people and what they want. How can you tell? Who, for instance, is “indigenous” in the picture that accompanies this essay?
This week Cliff Sloane provided an article written by Ian G. Baird, entitled “Indigenous Peoples of Thailand: A contradictory interpretation” published in Asia Dialogue, a journal of the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute. Baird’s contradictory interpretation is that movements for indigenous rights and restitution are limited to areas where settler colonizers moved in overwhelming numbers and blotted out the indigenous culture and often most of the indigenous people. He laments that the Thai government avoids efforts to focus on indigenous sub-cultures while in other places (such as the USA and Australia) survivors and descendents have begun to try to reclaim some of what their ancestors lost. But in places where the in-migration was not across “salt water” the idea of some people being indigenous and not others has not taken hold. [Baird’s article is worth study if you are interested in Thailand’s ethnic issues, but it is also relevant to what is also going on world-wide.]
I have no intention of disputing Baird. I think he is right. I just want to mention that there are additional reasons why the idea of indigenization (and race, for that matter) evades the every-day consciousness of people around here and different ways of measuring progress aside from what the government is doing on paper.
(1) HM King Bumiphol, Rama IX (whose birthday December 5 is a national holiday and “Father’s Day”) and his mother made a very large impact on gaining status of many kinds for ethnic minorities in Thailand. They spent decades expanding commercial options and government services to marginalized people. Without them the country would still be ignoring ethnic diversity in favor of centralized cultural dominance and the accompanying opportunities for government entities to exploit these people. The work, however, is unfinished although the momentum toward fuller acceptance continues.
(2) Cultural centralization is increased by the general preference of oncoming generations of people from ethnic backgrounds to enter the financial mainstream and gain its advantages of security and comfort. They may still wear ethnic items of clothing, but ethnic culture is selective and optional for them if they can pull it off. The drive is to get language, education, and vocations to join the mainstream. The idea of ancestral lands and customs being buried and stolen is hardly remarked on. In fact, regardless of historical reality, most ethnic minorities passively accept the idea that their lands really belong to a higher entity and they have moved uninvited onto it from where they actually belong. The motive for this forgetfulness is that they feel identified with people whose demographic center and cultural base is elsewhere. “Our people are over there.” Historical reality is that they have lived where they are for several generations and when they moved there the area was dominated by an entirely different military power than the one that claims sovereignty at present.
(3) When it comes to drafting legislation and national policy, political action to accommodate ethnic sub-cultures and minority religions inevitably bogs down when it becomes apparent that whatever is done must also apply to those in the southernmost provinces. The Muslim population in the 3 provinces bordering Malaysia has never been reconciled to the military and political take-over of their Pattani Sultanate by the Bangkok government 150 years ago. The least that must be done is to acknowledge their religious rights. This sometimes works to the advantage of minorities, holding the zealous majority at bay from such things as declaring Buddhism the only national religion, but often simply results in the parliamentary political conclusion, "We're not going to touch that, yet." So the government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without being able to specify what to do about those rights.
(4) Baird makes an excellent argument for seeing the drive for making ethnic cultural rights official as being restricted mostly to places where settler colonialism took place, whereas elsewhere it has been common to disregard cultural minorities because "they are just varieties of us, after all, deep down." "Just more of us" breaks down, of course, when things like full citizenship or property rights are opposed for "some of us" who are really "actually them." Meanwhile, some of the old ways are being neglected, and cultural knowledge is slipping. Nostalgia is a motive to hang onto some of it, and commercial possibilities tend to help. When ethnic textiles or household utensils become marketable, it’s considered a “win” and hardly anybody objects that the products have to be repurposed to sell. At the base, where it matters most that an ethnic culture is valued and fought for is whether the language, activities of daily life, and opportunities for children growing up are thought to be better inside the ethnic culture or not.
(5) If the dominant culture begins to lose its allure, especially if there is rot perceived in its elite, previously subjected sub-cultures may re-emerge. As time goes on, for example, Lanna history and mores are being reasserted and the prevailing narrative of the North being rescued by Bangkok is being disputed more openly. This ability to tell a different story about how Lanna was conquered rather than liberated, in the face of fierce opposition by the story-spinners in Bangkok, is ironically enabled in part by the momentum that continues to sustain and empower other ethnic cultures whose people are even more easily identifiable as immigrants. As Karen (Paw-ka-yaw) and Hmong communities gain civil rights and yet sustain pride in their ethnicity, the idea of being proud of diversity takes root. National unity does not HAVE to mean cultural subjection.
Finally, this is a timely seasonal reflection. For Christians, Advent leading to Christmas is a reminder of the intention to create a different kind of realm. Kingdom was a term of the era in which Jesus was advocating the things that now come under the heading of human rights and human unity. Political powers, kings and Caesar, were not going to do the job of valuing human life differently. Only a divinely inspired grassroots respect for diversity and inclusion have the potential needed.
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.
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.]
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.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.