In an article by Andrew Spooner for Asian Correspondent , a New York Times article  quotes a Chiang Mai intellectual (who sounds like a worthwhile acquaintance to make) saying the following:
“Villagers describe a sort of democratic awakening in recent years and say they are no longer willing to accept a Bangkok-knows-best patriarchal system. It is an upheaval that has been ill-understood by the elites, said Attachak Sattayanurak, a history professor at Chiang Mai University, in northern Thailand.
“The old establishment and the Thai state have a picture of an agrarian society frozen in time,” he commented on a television program that aired in June. “They maintain a picture of local people as well-behaved and obedient, which in fact they aren’t. Peasant society doesn’t exist anymore.”
When I look at the intractable problems of the Thais, of people on all sides of the debate who seek to preserve power at any cost, even at making the streets and rivers run red with the blood of their own people, I cannot help but think of those selfish elites from the Church of God I have grown up knowing all too well. For I too, like many Thais (and unlike the vast majority of Americans) am from an agrarian rural background, an educated and cosmopolitan person whose rather fierce democratic identity and lack of deference have been marked for a long time. Reading about internationally traveled Thais–common people like myself no less–whose experience with local democracy and higher education have given them the flinty courage to resist corrupt leaders who mistakenly assume that they are the happy and deferential peasants of old content with old hierarchies is like reading about my own journey into a reluctant but fiercely public rebel against tyranny.
What happened between the 1970’s and today that has made both the Church of God and Thai society so dangerously divided against itself? Are there lessons we can learn, for surely the similarities are striking and not coincidental. First, Thailand. In the early 1970’s the fall of a dictator led to an uncertain move towards democracy that was full of coups and lurches, as elites struggled to manage and control democracy for the preservation of their own power. In the late 1990’s, a pseudo-populist effort became increasingly popular, giving ordinary Thais experience with real political power for the first time, making Thai society increasingly unstable and intractably hostile once the powers that be decided to keep things going on the same line, leading to years of protests, violence, and hostility. Now for the Church of God. After decades of one-man rule, a growing power struggle within the Worldwide Church of God led to various camps which sought to ensure control of key positions to secure and maintain power, competing with other camps in an unstable coup-ridden environment. In the mid 1990’s, the corruption and division of that church led real members to have their first taste of local power in local councils, as the existing elites had been discredited. Starting from the mid-2000’s, the attempts of that elite to regain power as if things had never changed has led to increasing tension and hostilities within the Church of God community.
What makes these tensions so dangerous? For one, there was the grasping of real power by people who had previously known little or none of it, and once people have a taste of power, they are unwilling to return to the status quo ante, not when those in power before have been selfish and corrupt elites (as is the case all over the world). So, one element of the intractable conflict is the unwillingness of people like myself to be treated like sheep or cattle by corrupt hirelings who claim divine right authority. A second reason why these conflicts and tensions are so dangerous is because elites are so clueless. They have illusions that it is only corrupt elite competitors who stand in the way of their unchecked power, and have illusions that ordinary people are longing for their beneficent rule. Far from it. They try to get rid of “troublemakers” not realizing that they, and not the noisy “prophets” are the troublers of the people. Ahab’s successors are alive and well in this world. The third, and perhaps most ominous of the three qualities, is that these conditions exist all over the world simultaneously. 2011 has led to the world falling apart before our eyes because the center cannot hold, the core is corrupt, and the periphery is unwilling to accept the continued abuse from clueless, dictatorial, and corrupt elites. The result is a world filled with brutal civil conflict. There is nowhere one can go to escape these problems, because they cut across our entire world. No country and no institution is safe from these divisions–and we will see the same conflicts over and over again until we resolve them. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening peacefully in the vast majority of cases–the elites are too entrenched and too incompetent to see themselves as the problem, and the proposed “solutions” to the problems even when the elites are removed are merely shuffling the chairs and not dealing with the underlying root causes of the malaise. In short, the prognosis looks bad.
What we need are different models of leadership, not cults of personality or impersonal bureaucracies or claims of divine-right status, but rather genuine servant leadership and personal accountability on all levels of society. A well-functioning democracy requires a responsible and moral people, and such people are in short supply all over this cursed planet. Ultimately, the problems of mankind cannot be solved by mankind alone without the assistance of God, obedience to His laws, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit working within us. And even then they are far from easy to solve, because they require us to jettison so much of the way we look at other people. If we desire genuine peace, we will have to overcome our desires to exploit or dominate others, whether within our families, communities, companies, churches or nations, or outside of them. Because ultimately all human beings are our neighbors–and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. How to even imagine a world that remotely approximates this ideal staggers my limited imagination, but that is the messianic task we are engaged in, whether we realize it or not. For if we want justice and integrity in our leaders, we are saying that they must believe in an impartial and noble standard that they hold themselves to, that ordinary people must hold themselves to that same standard apart from coercive laws and authorities. Ultimately, a just and fair order within the world or even within a society or church requires genuine and total conversion on a part of all levels of society. Are we prepared to take that step, to realize that things have changed and that they can never go back to the corrupt ancien regime of old, to dedicate ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal because all mankind is created in the image and likeness of our Father in heaven? Ultimately the roots of our crises are religious–how long until we deal honestly with them? For things have changed, but have our wicked hearts changed along with them? Only time will tell.