Monthly Archives: March 2008

What is happening in Tibet, and in the reporting of what is happening?

Related post now added at Tibet protests . . . hope for Diego Garcians. . .?

This post has an updated link at What is happening in Tibet, 2:

Firstly, I deplore the human rights situation in China, and was dismayed that it was chosen to host the Olympics in the first place. But having had some contacts with a few Tibetans, and watching the way some of the Tibetan protests are portrayed in the news here, I cannot help but seek answers to a few questions before jumping on board the free Tibet movement. Certainly I would support an increase in human rights in Tibet, as anywhere in China, but independence or even quasi-independence protests are another matter.

Questions that keep coming to mind:

Are the monk-dominated images I see on TV footage representative of the identity of the main body of protesters in Tibet? If so, what is the role of the population who are not monks in the clashes with Chinese authorities?

When TV footage comes with a voice over saying that it is showing monks coming between Chinese troops and other protesters, then why am I unable to see much evidence of the other protesters, and even see some monks throwing rocks and bars at the troops?

When a leader of the protesters was interviewed on a BBC film clip recently, was he translated correctly when he appeared to say: “That’s why we (the monks) have ordered (sic) these demonstrations”?

Why do so many commentators seem to trace Tibetan history in their commentaries back no farther than the 1950’s? At best, I have read of the time Tibet was prised away from China during the time when nineteenth century foreign imperial powers were intent on weakening and breaking up China. Is there any significance in the 1950’s time-frame of historical recollection in the news media coinciding with early Cold War attempts by the U.S. to attempt to undermine the new government of China?

What is the actual evidence that the bulk of the lay population of Tibet is strongly opposed to being part of China? To what extent are the Tibetans at the “free Tibet” booths and stalls one often sees at festivals, fairs, etc, in the West truly representative of the average Tibetans “back home”?

How can one be sure that by supporting Tibetan independence one is not playing into the hands of a well funded attempt by the U.S. in their games with China?


This post has an updated link at What is happening in Tibet, 2

See also Human Rights in China


The GOOD legacy . . . : 9 — afterthought

Revised again (1). . . .

In addition to life in the fringe cults I should have discussed more the life and legacy of the more mainstream fundamentalist groups, too. But in both types, one will almost surely be exposed to many examples and contacts with some highly memorable people of deep compassion, self-sacrifice for others less fortunate, generosity and personal kindness. (It would be interesting to survey how many of such examples are found among the ordinary members as opposed to those higher up the hierarchy, but this series is looking at the “good” side for now.) Of course there are such acts among those not part of fundamentalist groups too, but I suggest that chances of encountering them are concentrated in relative frequency within the membership of a group devoted to being serious “lights” in the world.

Such memorable acts, people, moments, will always hold a special place in one’s life and continue to serve as inspiring reminders throughout life. And a post-fundamentalist life, once the dividing of the world between godly and satanic camps is a thing of the past, frees one to apply them even towards sectors of society and individuals that were not considered worthy of such acts as an erstwhile believer.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 9

Continuing from Leaving the Fold Marlene Winell’s encouraging list of some of the good one can take away from the fundamentalist or cultic experience, mingled with my own thoughts . . . . (See also her newly established Recovery from Religion website.) — earlier posts under the Winell and Fundamentalism categories linked here.

Moral development

Marlene Winell speaks from the perspective of one who grew up in a fundamentalist cult. I am perhaps a little more familiar with those who joined cults in their maturer years. I’ll address my own kind, those closer to my experience, first (not part of Marlene’s book):

Many who “join” or “become members of” cults (the difference has significance, as I hope to explain in a future post) do so for idealistic reasons. Many are in some fashion utopians. They are the same sorts of people, I think, who are candidates for joining a counter-culture commune, or a radical extremist political movement. Contrary to common opinion that they must be as weak and floppy as a woolly upper storey, it is in many cases hard-headed idealism that has led them into a place where they can find approval for embarking on the total self/other-sacrifice that fulfils their idealistic bent. The moral grounding of such an idealist (it surely goes without saying) includes the ultimate golden codes such as love one another, don’t judge, be merciful, kind, etc etc etc. Such innate moral thinking is not easily going to desert one. But what such a one can take from the cult experience is a more humane judgment in living out such ethical ideals. One can be more in tune with the “little” double-binds and contradictions that cultic life introduced — the hurts that were inflicted on loved ones, and even virtual unknowns, — in the pursuit of the highest ethical ideals. Result: a little more judgment and compassion, for all, including “the less deserving”, in the exercise of the ideal virtues. Even at the cost of compromising some of that idealism.

The cult experience can bequeath this mellowed, and enriched, legacy.

Marlene Winell addresses those who knew the idealistic teachings as children and teenagers. Learning the Do’s and Don’ts of basics no doubt kept many from harmful experimentation that could in cases have proved permanent, even fatal.

And the highest ideals of Christianity, of most religions, really are good, not bad. Love one another . . . . , do unto others. . . . , be merciful . . . . , don’t judge . . . . , etc. Others may imbibe such ideals without religion, or through other religions, but that’s fine. The end product is the same. And it’s a decent person. A good start. By all means we must develop our own standards. But such a base is not a bad one to start from.

A slightly revised parable of the pounds for modern times

Traveling through Thailand one cannot avoid the national focus on the Thai king as benefactor of the poor, the good shepherd of all his people. (Sound familiar to any of us raised in company of a religious tradition with Mid-Eastern roots?) So on a long drive back to Bangkok from a beach resort this evening I could not help but compare the wealth of royalty, multinationals, religious institutions (hidden in real estate and treasure troves of sacred trinkets and ornate architecture and statuary) and a relatively few locals with the mass of ordinary citizens eking out what seems to this new outsider to be surely very little more than subsistence wages.

I found it hard to relate to the arguments that (1) the multinational intruders sincerely believe that their operations are doing much more than tokenism in raising living standards, or that (2) the royal and its subsidiary establishments are moving mountains as fast as they possibly can. I still have a hard time swallowing the Dalai Lama’s giggling suggestion that a village without even public sanitation should raise funds for a Buddha statue or temple on some rationalization that made Jesus’ “you have the poor with you always” quip sound banal.

So what does my Western Christian tradition have to offer as an alternative?

A thought experiment started working itself out on my drive back to the home of my hosts. . . . . 

The New Testament is not alien to the thought of a central government or any rich company or person instituting a plan to assist in money creation. We all know the parables of the talents and pounds in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. But those had to do with the rich man’s money and methods by which he utilized his employees or staff to make him even richer. And the poor timid bugger who did his best not to take any risks with losing someone else’s money got sent off to suffer death by torture.

But maybe with a little tweaking perhaps this antiquated Christian parable can still inspire some virtue.

My slightly tweaked parable for modern times:

What if the king in the parable, instead of distributing his money to his servants to see how much they could increase the royal coffers in his absence, opted rather to distribute a small portion to each and every citizen who had an idea how he/she could use the money to establish some enterprise that would make a better living for themselves and their friends and kin.

Then when the king returned he had his servants check how each recipient had done. Those who had done well with the money on behalf of themselves and their loved ones were offered reasonable terms by which they could repay the loan without interest. Those who had managed to improve their lot a little were offered more appropriate repayment terms. Those who had not managed to succeed with their hoped-for enterprises were offered consolations and best wishes that some time still not too distant they might still make good. Till that day, the topic of repayment was not even raised.

So the king would lose a few bucks in the short term. But balance that against the mushrooming prosperity and living standards within his kingdom, and the wealth that would inevitably still find its way to the royal coffers.

A morality parable for an alternative to a mercantilist / capitalist system that current Christianity appears to favour?

temples, cathedrals, mosques …… everywhere!

I’m a latecomer to Thailand, but my first week is enough to remind me that I’ve seen enough Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and cathedrals, and all their distinctive architecture and murals, and relics and iconic symbols, and statues in all except synagogues, mosques and fundamentalist reactions to the cathedrals, to remind me that the place of religion in societies is pretty much the same the world over.

Everyone with an inkling to proclaim the exclusivity of their faith, especially those fundamentalists among the Christian, Jewish and Moslem religions who insist on the exclusive righteousness of their respective causes, should be compelled to apply for a licence first. Qualification for said licence should be a comprehension of how their religious (including sectarian) faction sits in relation to counterparts world-wide.

And thinking of exclusive righteousness, can’t help reflecting on those “demonic” atheistic societies (like Sweden today, and others in recent history too) that outlaw prostitution and all-round exploitation of women, and that virtually enforce gender equality in all areas of life, with the common lot of women, including the quasi-legal / or illegal but let’s-keep-quiet-about-it status of prostitution, among the most outwardly religious of societies.

The GOOD legacy of a fundamentalist and cultic life: 7 & 8

Continuing the posts in this series (check the Winell link underneath the Book Reviews & Notes on the main page {click “Vridar” in the header above} of this blog for the earlier posts) . . . . read more »

Biblical “Israel”, an ideological concept with 10+ applications

My recent blog entry on the Haaretz article ties in with summaries I began a few years ago on Philip Davies’ pioneering book, In Search of Ancient Israel. (Only the four first links work yet — the remaining two will be finished one day, Time-and-Chance willing.)

Niels Peter Lemche in his Prolegomena in The Israelites in History and Tradition writes an excellent discussion about the problematic nature of attempting to define ancient or biblical Israel in racial or ethnic terms. After examining the concept of nation-state and surveying a range of examples of various other racial and national identities, he concludes:

An ethnic group consists of persons who think of themselves as members of the group, in contrast to other individuals who are not reckoned to be members and who do not reckon themselves to belong to this group. No ethnic group has ever been able to create a situation of stability that will last for centuries. Rather, ethnic groups are be definition unstable, with borders that can be transgressed in every possible way. As a matter of fact, an ethnic group is a part of a continuum of ethnic groups with overlapping borders, with probably many identities, held together by a founding myth or set of myths and narratives about how this particular group came into being. An ethnic group may probably also result simply from the existence of such myths with the ability to create identity among people. (p.20)

That last sentence would seem to be the most pertinent in the case of the creation of the concept of a “Jewish ethnic group”.

But back to Philip Davies. Here is a copy of one section of my notes from my earlier (yet to be competed) webpage:

The Israel of the Biblical Literature

  • Is it a political group? Political groups rarely coincide with one ethnic or religious group, and the kingdom of Israel was no exception. It consisted of many diverse racial and religious groups.
  • Is it an ethnic group? Ethnic groups are rarely the same as political or religious groups.
  • Or is it a religious group? Religious groups are generally mixed ethnic groups and found across different political groups.
  • Or can it mean all of the above?

Will it mean the same to an archaeologist studying the physical remains of Iron Age Palestine as it means to the authors of the various uses it has in the Bible?

The Israel of the Bible has at least 10 different meanings.

In the Bible Israel can mean:

  1. the name of the ancestor Jacob
  2. the name of the league of 12 tribes
  3. the name of a united kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem
  4. the name of the northern kingdom whose capital was Samaria (after the above kingdom broke up)
  5. after 722 bce, another name for Judah
  6. after the exile into Babylon, another name for the socio-religious community in left in the province of Yehud
  7. the name of a group within this community, the laity (as distinct from ‘Aaron’)
  8. the name for the descendants of Jacob/Israel
  9. a pre-monarchic tribal grouping in Ephraim
  10. adherants of various forms of Hebrew and Old Testament religion.

We may frequently (though certainly not always) say in what sense the Bible uses the word at any particular time, but that still leaves us with the question:

What sort of word is this that is so fundamental to the Bible yet so wide-ranging and flexible?

In the Bible the word always has an ideological or theological meaning. It means some individual or group that at some time belongs to God whether they are God’s failures and rejects or his success stories. It is a literary and theological term that changes its meaning to fit different stories. (The New Testament continues and extends the different uses of the word Israel, again with an ideological meaning.)

An Invention called “the Jewish People”

My heading, “an invention called the Jewish people” is taken from an article recently published in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. It’s about a book by Professor Zand of the Tel Aviv University. The article concludes with:

His book, “When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” (published by Resling in Hebrew), is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a “state of all its citizens” – Jews, Arabs and others – in contrast to its declared identity as a “Jewish and democratic” state. Personal stories, a prolonged theoretical discussion and abundant sarcastic quips do not help the book, but its historical chapters are well-written and cite numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time.

Some of those facts:

  1. “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion”, and the exile of 70 c.e. also never happened. At the most, tens of thousands were exiled. Most were permitted, and most did, stay in the land. It follows, if exile is a myth, that the idea that Jews since the twentieth century are “returning” to “their land” is a myth.
  2. When the Arabs conquered the land, many of the Jews converted to Islam and were assimilated among the conquerors. It follows that many Palestinian Arabs today are descendants of the original Jews.

Tom Segev, author of this article, writes:

Zand did not invent this thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others. . . . . Zand quotes from many existing studies, some of which were written in Israel but shunted out of the central discourse.

So how did the Jewish Diaspora originate?

From Tom Segev’s article on Prof. Zand’s book in the Haaretz:

  1. emigration of their own accord
  2. many Jews in Babylon had simply remained of their own will
  3. members of other faiths were forced to become Jews (c.f. the Book of Esther which says narrates just such an event — many converting because of fear of the Jews.)

Specific case-studies discussed by Zand:

  1. the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in the southern Arabian Peninsula
  2. the Jewish Berbers in North Africa
  3. the Jews in Spain — these originated from Arabs who became Jews and who arrived with the forces that captured Spain from the Christians; these mingled with European individuals who had become Jews.
  4. the first Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) . . . became Jews in the Khazar Kingdom in the Caucasus.

Segev notes:

We find, then, that the members of a variety of peoples and races, blond and black, brown and yellow, became Jews in large numbers. According to Zand, the Zionist need to devise for them a shared ethnicity and historical continuity produced a long series of inventions and fictions, along with an invocation of racist theses. Some were concocted in the minds of those who conceived the Zionist movement, while others were offered as the findings of genetic studies conducted in Israel.

The original Haaretz article is worth the full read, not least for the same page’s other interesting news of the sort that does not normally see light of day in the English speaking Western media.

The story will not be news to those who already appreciate the fictional nature of the Bible’s Exodus and genocidal Conquest narratives. Nor to those familiar with some of the racist fictions that were concocted in the latter nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Focus on Nazi racist myths has obscured from much public memory the fact that such racist ideologies and cults of physical ideals inflicted many races, nations and peoples then, many Jews included.

One day the world will look back on the current myths underpinning Zionism as with no more factual foundation than their nineteenth century and early twentieth century counterparts — and that were likewise used to rationalize ethnic cleansing and expansion of “living space”.