Friday, March 25, 2016

Oracles, worship, and the ease of idolatry: reflections at the Oracle of Delphi

To trust your most important, soul-wrenching, urgent questions to a woman who is chewing on laurel leaves and breathing vapors from a fissure in the earth sounds unquestionably bizarre, if not risky. Yet, several thousand years ago, the ancients were willing to trust their fates to this unusual cultural rite. Military generals needing to know which areas to strike, lovers wondering whether to marry each other, farmers uncertain certain which crops to grow, and anyone else who had an ostensibly difficult question would make a pilgrimage  to a town three hours north of Athens to visit the Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle of Delphi was housed.

The process was simple enough. Those coming to Delphi would bring an offering to the temple that was as expensive as their socio-economic status would allow. After presenting their offering, the seeker would give their question to the priest at the entrance. The priest would then give the question to the oracle on duty, a "blameless" middle-aged woman usually from the peasant class, for the answer. Due to the vapors coming from the fissure and the chewing of laurel leaves, the woman would fall into a trance, and begin muttering inexplicable sentences, which were left for the priest to translate for the seeker. The ambiguity of most answers was attributed to the difficulty of understanding Apollo's message through this oracle, and the oracle was nonetheless given solemn respect throughout the ancient world.

Although the oracle would seem anachronistic in today's world, I was struck by how many, including myself, often treat God like this ancient device. Until we have an urgent, burning question, God can be largely dormant in our lives. And while we have power to communicate with God directly, it  can be easier to rely on whom we consider to be a wise intermediary to help us understand what God is attempting to communicate to us. Moreover, the oracle was a staggering reminder of the fatalistic mentality that entrenched the ancients: they were simply pawns in the hands of the gods who were largely indifferent to their situation, unless coerced by prayers and offerings.

In light of visiting the oracle, Mars Hill in Athens took on a new significance for me. It was on this hill that Paul seeks to disabuse these ideas in his Acts 17 speech, namely, that we are the "offspring of God," and God is not "gold or silver...graven by art and man's device." While this is a cherished and sacred doctrine in Mormon theology, I find it interesting that this idea was not received well in Athens. Why would the Greeks mock and even shun this idea? What would be the implications of knowing that one is the "offspring" of a God?

Perhaps we should consider the difference between worshipping a God like Apollo who is largely indifferent to mortals to the Judeo-Christian God who, in Paul's language, "giveth to all life and all breath, and all things." Certainly, worshipping the latter kind of God seems more attractive. However, in introducing this new "unknown" God to the Greeks, Paul was introducing a new kind of worship that, though more meaningful for them, would probably require more action on their part.

Consider the implications of knowing that they were God's offspring. No longer could they completely attribute their significant life decisions, misfortunes, and even fortuitous events to the whims of the gods. Rather, as God's children, they could have the potential to be agents for themselves. More could possibly be expected of them. And if there was a God who actually cared about them, it would be much harder to understand why misfortune and calamity occurred, rather than easily attributing these mishaps to the Greek gods who simply didn't care either way.

Far easier to worship an idol that one has created and has set the parameters for, rather than a living God with expectations for us as His children.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Laughs and lessons learned from visa denial

How to wait for a visa in Japan: find a fan dance class
and pose in a kimono.
Unsurprisingly, being denied a visa twice in two weeks provided plenty of fertile ground for me to contemplate the privilege of belonging to and being a temporary visitor in a foreign nation--and how others would love to enjoy this privilege that I have previously taken for granted.

The first visa issue was a relatively painless experience. When my sister and I were denied a boarding pass due to not having a required letter from the Vietnamese embassy, we realized that we could enjoy two full days in Tokyo. And we did. We ate fantastic sushi and ramen, learned a fan dance in a kimono, received our fortunes in a temple, and even attempted to visit a penguin bar (epic fail). The climactic part of our trip? Probably viewing our Vietnamese approval letters on my sister's Iphone, while watching the world's busiest pedestrian intersection on the third floor of a palatial Starbucks. If we needed wifi to check our email for this highly anticipated document, we thought that we may as well do it in the most memorable way possible.

On the way to Cambodia, Vietnamese women selling things from a boat are fairly common.
 Obtaining a Cambodian visa, however, was far more hair-raising. At that point, all of us had largely exhausted our Vietnamese currency and were relying on the Cambodian ATMs to refurnish our funds upon arrival to Pnom Penh. While on the six-hour boat ride, my father, unfortunately, realized that he had left his chunk of money intended for our visas. We immediately began to pool all of our Vietnamese and American money together for this worthy cause, but soon realized we were 100 dollars short. While the Cambodian visa was only thirty American dollars per person, It may as well have been three hundred dollars--there did not seem to be any possible way for us to pay for the outstanding amount. One of my brothers offered to pawn off his watch for the cause, and I began to wonder just how much my earring studs would go for.

Suddenly, my brother realized he had a fifty-dollar Australian bill that he had kept from his time in Australia over one month ago. Another one of my brothers happened to have some yen currency from his trip to China two years prior. My mother also realized that she had some Qatari bills, as well as some Egyptian and Icelandic currency from her recent adventures. After exhausting our Vietnamese and American currency, we pulled together approximately eight different currencies from all of our respective wallets--and anxiously hoped that the Cambodian officials would look at our situation kindly (and perhaps a slightly blind eye).

We were relieved to find that while the officials only accepted American dollars, there were about fifteen currencies that they could exchange. Despite the horrible exchange rate, we soon found that we had enough to pay for all eight of our family member's visas--with several dollars to spare.

While we had no money to pay for snacks or a lunch, we laughed and congratulated ourselves at our uncanny ability to cough up these funds--only to find that we had only completed the first obstacle. After giving the officials our money, we returned on the speedboat for a twenty-minute ride to a makeshift immigration center on a remote waterbank. The officials then explained that they would need our 4x6 visa pictures, which my brothers and parents did not have. However, as we had met our first challenge, my family members were confident that this second task at hand could be accomplished. A quest soon began to find an extant ATM and photobooth on this remote, rural bank on the Cambodian border.

My sister and I meanwhile, breathed a sigh of relief have we had obtained these 4x6 pictures in Japan, and we confidently waited for our passport return. One can only imagine my dejected face, when the Cambodian official told me that my sister's visa was accepted, but my passport was "no good": I only had two pages left on my passport, and the Cambodian government required to have three blank pages remaining.

For the first time, I regretted my unusually well-used passport, and I asked what on earth I was supposed to do. He smiled, nonchalantly blew cigarette smoke in my face, and said that if I gave the officials another thirty American dollars, they would put a visa on top of one of my stamped pages. Never before had thirty dollars felt like so much money. As I looked at my empty wallet and wondered where the rest of our family members had traveled to as a result of what may be an elusive quest,  I believe I caught a brief, yet rare glimpse of what purgatory must feel like. My sister and I then discussed the very real possibility for her to go on to Pnom Penh alone, retrieve some ATM money, and return back by boat to rescue us from this dismal place that was overwhelmed with pedantic regulations.

Fortunately, after what seemed to be an eternity, my brothers and parents returned from a successful mission: photos in hand and enough cash to last us for several days. My father rolled his eyes when learning that an extra fee would have to be paid, since six of the eight passports were "no good." But seeing my visa in my passport was a far sweeter sight as we left the land of purgatory and on to the promised land of Pnom Penh.

We made it to Pnom Penh!!
Certainly, obtaining a visa for Cambodia and Vietnam will be family stories that will last for years to come. However, after leaving that miserable makeshift immigration center, I though of how others attempting to travel to another area for much more compelling reasons other than tourism can be stuck in worse places than this one for months--even years. While my father could have easily paid for eight visas in any other situation, our family temporarily had several dollars between all of us--with no apparent certainty as to how we would obtain more funds. For an extraordinarily brief time, I caught a minute glimpse of what refugees around the world must endure as they may immediately transition from having everything they need--to having almost nothing but the clothing on their backs. And despite our being American, it was deeply uncomfortable to realize just how much our family was at the mercy of these officials to complete our trip.

If Pnom Penh felt like the Promised Land to me after almost eight hours of travel and visa anxiety, I don't know if I could even contemplate what a refugee or an immigrant must feel when they have obtained a sponsor or been granted asylum. I'm not sure if I will ever completely understand that feeling, but I am grateful for a temporary exhaustion of funds, questionable government officials, and some uncertainty of our visa outcome that provided a tiny window of insight.    

What relationship does the Relief Society have with building Zion?

Back in June, I was called to be the first counselor in our Relief Society Organization with my local congregation. The Relief Society is the largest women's organization in the world and seeks to provide spiritual and physical relief to its members and the greater community, strengthen families, and help others understand Christ.

Since receiving this calling, I have given a lot of thought as to how Relief Society is more than merely a church class we attend once a week. A central part of Mormon theology is building Zion: a state of mind or place, where we can be unified and of one heart, mind, and there are no poor among us. The following thoughts are an excerpt from my brief thoughts to the local women in my congregation as to how our organization is inextricably linked with building Zion.

I think that our theology regarding Zion is a fascinating one (see my previous post). Recently, I came across an interesting quote: 
"If we would establish Zion in our homes, branches, wards, and stakes, we must rise to this standard. It will be necessary:
(1) to become unified in one heart and one mind
(2) to become, individually and collectively, a holy people
(3) to care for the poor and needy with such effectiveness that we eliminate poverty among us. We cannot wait until Zion comes for these things to happen—Zion will come only as they happen."-President Howard W. Hunter (14th president of our church)

In reading these three prerequisites to building Zion, I was struck just how Relief Society's mission is largely intended for us to achieve this goal:

1. How can we be of one heart and mind? Perhaps visiting teaching can be one way to accomplish this as we unite to show love and care for our fellow women. (visiting teaching is a program where each woman is assigned to look over two women in the ward and be attuned to their needs by paying monthly visits, inviting them to activities, and simply being a friend that they can rely on).

2. How do we become, collectively a "holy people"? It is interesting to me how the motto of Relief Society is "Charity Never Faileth." If we develop a spirit of charity, we are developing the pure, guileless love that Christ has for all of us, which will help us obtain holiness.

3. Eliminating poverty within us. I think it is no accident that we are called "Relief Society." We have a history of selling thousands of bushels of grain to the President during WWI. We sent women to midwifery and medical school to give them the training needed to help women. We have a long history of providing relief to our families and communities. We have been called to mourn with those who mourn and provide necessary assistance.

Overall, I see Relief Society as having an intrinsic relationship with building Zion, which heightens our responsibility as members of this organization. The story of how Enoch builds Zion in Moses 7 despite wars, wickedness, and contentions surrounding them gives me great comfort, as our situation is quite analogous. Indeed, achieve the goals of Relief Society is a necessary springboard to achieving Zion and creating the kind of society that God wants. 

Exploring history from the opponent's view: the CuChi tunnels

The CuChi tunnels
As one can see from my previous post, I am very interested in examining how nations confront and retell their past. In light of this topic, one of our most interesting experiences occurred when visiting the CuChi tunnels. The CuChi tunnels are located about 60 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, where the Vietcong dug an extensive tunnel system when engaged in guerilla warfare during the Vietnam War. This tourist attraction was supposed to be the highlight of our day, and I was certainly excited to see the tunnels for myself.

Upon our arrival, we were immediately escorted to sit down and watch a movie to introduce us to the tunnels and their history. The movie spent the first few minutes to show CuChi as an idyllic place with expansive fruit orchards and where children loved to go on picnics, while happily untouched from the outside world. Suddenly, the "American white devils" appeared on screen, described as seeking to disturb the peaceful area of CuChi. The Vietnamese children who were formerly going on picnics then were portrayed as being forced to defend their country and learn how to sharpen sticks and dig holes to create gruesome death traps for the American soldiers. For these efforts, these children were lauded as heroes for their efforts in defeating the "devil" Americans and protecting CuChi.

Obviously, the movie was unnerving and uncomfortable for us, especially for my parents who had lived through the Vietnam War era. If that weren't enough, Vietnamese workers dressed up like the Vietcong army and demonstrated how effectively these bamboo death traps worked, just as casually as one would show an audience how well a food processor blended vegetables. To further add to the uncomfortable ambiance, continual gunshots rang out from a shooting range that offered tourists to use the same guns as those in the Vietnam War.

While walking through the site, I felt pangs of anger as to how the CuChi tunnels treated history in such a way that I interpreted as insulting and wildly reductive. I have been to Normandy Beach with my grandfather who landed on D-Day, and I remember seeing how the French took great care to maintain the German graves. I have been to Pearl Harbor, where the tour guide not only explained the attack, but also went into great length to explain the suffering the Japanese went through in the internment camps. While visiting Turkey, I recall seeing the respect the locals gave to the Australian tourists who wanted to visit Gallipolli, the site where thousands of Australian soldiers died at the hands of the Turkish during WWI. While these sites may not be perfect, a feeling of peace can be felt there, as the area decides to move forward and recognize soldiers in war are merely pawns of their leaders' politics and ideals.

But at the same time, I also considered how my American upbringing and education has influenced my own knowledge of how I choose to interpret history. I, for one, was unaware of the American's use of Agent Orange, a powerful set of chemical defoliants sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land to deforest the area and find the Vietcong's whereabouts. While effective, these toxins also destroyed crops and water sources for civilians, and were the main cause of birth defects, psychological symptoms, and other sicknesses for the Vietnamese people. As our tour guide pointed out just how young the surrounding trees were as a result of Agent Orange, I felt ashamed to be unaware of this truth that was obviously deeply embedded into the Northern Vietnamese consciousness. I began to wonder how a British tourist might feel while visiting the Freedom Trail here in Boston. Or how a Southerner may respond to Gettysburg and Antietam.

It is certainly a moving experience to visit a war site where your "side" emerged as victor. But these CuChi tunnels certainly served as a stark reminder of the need to consider the losers' perspective as well.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

In Memoriam to Lives Lost: Visiting S-21

Mugshots of Cambodian child prisoners in S-21.
  Last week, I returned from an incredible trip to Vietnam and Cambodia with my family. The trip was special for many reasons: my brother spoke Vietnamese from his LDS mission to Australia, my mother worked with Cambodian refugees during her LDS mission, and it was my first time returning to Asia after returning from my LDS mission to Hong Kong six years ago. Despite visa issues, food poisoning, a stolen and returned passport, squatting toilets, crossing frenetic streets without stoplights, and striving to understand tour guides with limited English, it was a truly memorable and wonderful experience to be together.

Whenever I travel, I am always fascinated with how an area confronts and retells its history. In my opinion, Berlin has set a high standard for doing this in a remarkably transparent manner. The city includes memorials to the Jews, homosexuals, the burned books, the politicians who opposed the Nazi Party, and even to the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler. If that were not enough, the Nazi Museum next to the Berlin Wall gives visitors all of the information they would need to understand the rise and fall of that nefarious party and its leaders.

Berlin's attempt to confront its past was on my mind when my family and I visited S-21 in Pnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. S-21 was a former high school that was converted into one of the Khmer Rouge's* most terrifying secret prisons from 1975-8. As religion and education was decried by the new government, doctors, monks, government officials, teachers, students, engineers, and their subsequent families were rounded up here and tortured into producing false confessions of how they were an "enemy" to the state. Classrooms were converted into crude cells, playground bars became terrible torture devices, and children who should have been in school were cruelly beaten and starved. Out of the 20,000 prisoners who entered S-21's doors, only twelve survived to tell the tale. The prisoner's haunting mugshots, rows of skulls behind glass, and the blood residue on the walls bear witness to the terror and horror that should have never occurred.

 Cambodian folklore says that those who die without a proper burial are forced to wander the earth aimlessly, which, understandably, only adds upon the grief of those who have no way of tracking their loved one's bodies who were killed. In light of this belief, the presentation of S-21 was particularly striking, as the prison is virtually the same as it was back in 1979. With the explanations, pictures, and some lone survivors of S-21 who wandered around to answer tourists' questions, the area does seem to serve as a make-shift burial ground to ensure that the world and even the locals do not forget what happened.

                                                                  The prison cells in S-21. The size was probably equal to a third of my bedroom.
In walking the somber hallways of S-21, I was quietly reminded just how many of the world's most brutal leaders think and act in a surprisingly similar fashion. Indeed, Pol Pot carried out an incredibly similar "Great Leap Backward Forward" with massive irrigation and rice production projects, leading to massive starvation and the death of thousands (millions, perhaps?). But our tour guide then pointed out that while Mao and Pol Pot's tactics were similar, they still had remarkably separate views. Mao intended to propel his country toward the future to similar economic grounds as his Western counterparts. Pol Pot, on the other hand, was looking towards the past, desiring to restore Cambodia to the former splendor of its Angkor Empire days. In visiting the magnificent Angkor Wat several days later, it was easy to see how a revolutionary who saw his country ransacked by civil war, desired to restore his country to attain the same kind of respect and glory it once enjoyed a thousand years ago. Hitler too, seemed nostalgic for the old Germanic Empire and desired to restore the "Aryan" nation, as his nation was thrust into poverty post WWI.  

Forty years later, Cambodia still seems to be grappling with Pol Pot's legacy, making it even more obvious as to why the S-21 edifice was desperately needed. I recall how one of our Cambodian tour guides explained how Pol Pot was not actually such a bad guy; he was only trying to take back their territory from Vietnam. The animosity he had toward Vietnam was palpable, but our family exchanged glances at one another, unable to process what he had said.

"Have you been to S-21?" one of my brothers asked him.

He answered that he knew about it. My hope is that he can enter its walls one day and really get it. Fortunately, with S-21 still standing, he is able to do so, in a similar way that the Germans who enter Berlin can understand their painful past. Maybe someday, Mao's mausoleum in Tianneman Square will be torn down to create a space for a museum that explains just how this leader is viewed as responsible for at least 45 million deaths--in the name of progress.

*Khmer Rouge was the name of the political party that came to power after a long Cambodian civil war. The leader of the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have killed over 3 million people in their quest to produce the most pure socialist regime the world had yet seen.