Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spiritual challenges of Mormon scholarship

I had an experience yesterday I want to try to articulate.

As I was getting ready to head off to school, Hugo was working online, compiling the day's Mormon-related news for his work as Sunstone's news editor. Sitting on his desk was a printout of a statement by the church's public relations office, criticizing an article Peggy Fletcher Stack had written for the Salt Lake Tribune about a member of the Temple Square orchestra who was disciplined after writing a letter to the editor in support of same-sex marriage.

The statement made me livid. I won't vent about it at length here, because that's not what this blog is for. Suffice it to say that I was infuriated by the way the public relations office was spinning what had happened to make the church the good guy, and the dissenting member and Peggy the bad guys. I was so angry that I was tempted to dash off an impassioned email to my faculty advisor, urging her to reconsider her relationship with LDS Public Affairs. (My advisor agreed to be on a list of non-Mormon scholars whose names Public Affairs can give to media as outside, relatively sympathetic commentators on Mormonism.)

I didn't actually write that email; but I mention it to convey a sense of how upset I was. This is why I stopped attending church back in 1995. Frequently, things like this would push my buttons. Near the end of my time at BYU, I would sit through sacrament meeting with my eyes closed, fuming, usually about things related to BYU's academic freedom controversy or the latest excommunication of an intellectual. It's not healthy, which is why something I pray for pretty regularly (as you might have noticed in other posts) is to be less angry and more charitable.

But now here's where I'm going with this story: In less than three hours from the time I've gotten my buttons pushed by this church press release, I'm supposed to give a guest lecture on Mormonism for an introductory undergraduate course on Religion in America. So as I'm getting angry about the press release, I'm thinking, "I can't do this right now." Because when I stand in front of those students, I need to have the poise and the detachment to be able to present Mormonism in a way that will shake up the negative preconceptions that I know most of these students are bringing to the subject—whether they're conservative evangelicals who think that Mormonism is a cult, or religious liberals who think of Mormonism as backward and oppressive, or secularists anxious about Mormon political power and baffled that anyone could believe this nonsense. As someone who has embraced the vocation of a teacher, I have a professional and ethical—and, I'd add, spiritual—responsibility to help these students arrive at new knowledge. That's also true for any Mormon students in the room (though I had no reason to think there would be any this time around). If my presentation simply covers what to LDS students is familiar territory, delivered in the cadences of church correlation, then I won't have met my responsibility toward them either. They, too, need to be brought to understand their own tradition in a new way: to understand something new about how Mormonism relates to the larger American religious landscape or how the movement has changed over time. My presentation needs to bring new understanding to every student in that room, wherever they're coming from, and that means my presentation needs to shake up, in some way, what they think they already know. But obviously it's going to be hard for me to shake up the perceptions of students who think of the LDS Church as a controlling, authoritarian institution when at that moment I myself am feeling outraged about this latest demonstration of the controlling, authoritarian impulses at work in the church.

This is a major spiritual challenge I face as a scholar of Mormonism. My mission as a scholar—and this would be true whatever field I worked in—is to produce new knowledge. My gifts need to be in the service of helping God pour down on humanity "knowledge . . . that has not been revealed since the world was until now" (D&C 121:26). Line on line, precept on precept, degree by degree. If my own understanding of whatever I'm researching and writing about doesn't change as a result of that process, then I'm doing something wrong. I'm not serving as an instrument for bringing new light into the world. I'm not being sufficiently open to having my own views and assumptions and vested interests challenged by the revelatory process. (When I say "revelatory" here, I have in mind the kinds of revelation that are produced by studying things out in our mind, seeking learning by study as well as by faith, etc.) In order for my scholarship to produce new knowledge, I can't function as a partisan. This is not to say that I will ever be objective: obviously my work is shaped by assumptions and methods and commitments that I do not think to question or am unwilling to question. But my work as a scholar needs to involve conscious efforts to step back from my commitments and to write against my biases. That always requires intellectual discipline; and when I'm working on Mormon topics, especially topics where I'm likely to get buttons pushed, it requires spiritual discipline, too.

So as I made my way to the classroom where I was supposed to help shake up students' preconceptions about Mormonism, I prayed. I thought about the various negative preconceptions I anticipated students would have, and I prayed to be able to give a presentation that could produce in students a greater degree of Verstehen, a greater degree of empathetic understanding. At the same time, I wanted to be able to provide usefully frank and usefully contextualized discussion of controversies in and around Mormonism, including those students might inquire about during Q&A. And I wanted to be able to set well off to one side my feelings about that asinine church press release, so they wouldn't well up during my presentation.

Because this is a Mormon story, I have to give it closure—some concrete demonstration that my prayer was answered. So here you go: After my guest lecture, the professor praised it effusively in the gracious, extra-courteous Old World manner he praises everything you do for him. He said that it's hard to find a presenter who has the intimate knowledge of a Mormon insider but who also won't be either "antagonistic" or "protective." (I thought that last word choice was especially apt.) I told him that meant a lot to me. And I give thanks to God. The kind of treatment I gave the Mormon tradition is the kind of treatment I'd want to give any tradition I taught about; but the challenge is particularly acute for me in the case of Mormonism, given the nature of my own commitments with regards to that tradition. At the same time, for obvious reasons, Mormonism is the tradition I most love to teach about.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lift ye up a banner

My reading for this week was the Isaiah chapters from 2 Nephi. There's a wealth of themes I could explore from these chapters. But for today's post, I've decided to focus on the symbol of the ensign. The ensign is a war banner. In 15:26, the Lord raises a war banner to summon foreign armies to punish Judah for their sins. In 21:12, he raises a banner in order to gather Israel and Judah so that they wage war together on their enemies. And then in 23:2, a banner is raised as God's declaration of war against Babylon.

As you can probably guess, my feelings about the ensign as a war banner range from ambivalent to repelled. I'm much more enthusiastic about the "ensign of peace" that the Saints are commanded to raise in D&C 105:39. Also, I'm drawn to the ensign in 2 Ne. 21:12 as a symbol for the gathering of exiles. Anyway, thinking about the raising of ensigns suddenly brought to mind the flag of the kingdom of God that the Saints used during the 19th century. And as soon as I'd made that connection, I decided to use it as the basis of my weekly reflection.

Most of my spiritual reflection revolves around the written word—scripture study and journaling. But I also like to use music and drawing as ways to reflect on, and bear witness to, my convictions and values. So I Photoshopped a version of the flag of the kingdom of God—a few different versions, actually—thinking as I did so about the meanings I could invest in this flag as a symbol of my personal commitment to building the kingdom and my understanding of what that commitment entails.

There are actually two different designs for the flag that we know were used. (Mike Quinn wrote about this in BYU Studies back in 1973.) One had blue and white stripes—we don't know how many, but twelve's a likely number—and a blue field containing a circle of twelve stars with a larger star in the center. This is the flag that was raised on Ensign Peak, in Salt Lake. In fact, a variation on that flag flies today, alongside the U.S. and Utah flags, at the little park at the base of Ensign Peak.

The second design Mike discovered had a plain white background instead of stripes. Again there was a blue field and a circle of twelve stars, but with three stars at the center instead of just one. Something like this:

I prefer this design because, without the stripes, it looks less like the U.S. flag, thus resisting a tendency to equate America with the kingdom of God. Instead of the dark blue of the U.S. flag, I chose a lighter blue like that used in the flag of the United Nations. I also like the fact that the circle of stars can call to mind the flag of the European Union, which likewise has twelve stars in a circle. I'm trying to invoke the idea of unity and cooperation among nations and peoples as an objective of the kingdom of God.

Originally, the three stars in the middle were said to represent the First Presidency, and the twelve stars the Quorum of the Twelve. I think of the three stars as representing the Godhead, or perhaps the cardinal virtues: faith, hope, and charity. I like the way that having three stars instead of one helps to decentralize the center; I like the postmodern-ness of that. It puts relationships instead of singularity at the center. The twelve stars I take to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, emblematic of the Saints' call to be people of covenant; or the twelve apostles, emblematic of our own apostolic calling to do the works of Jesus.

The white background represents for me the ensign of peace from D&C 105:39. It could also represent the white field already to harvest, or it can represent the call to holiness and consecration (thinking of white temple clothes). The smaller blue field against the white background can represent the leaven that works to transform the loaf.

As I was working through the meanings I've sketched above, I began to feel self-conscious about the potentially racist connotations of using white to symbolize purity. So I tried replacing the white background with a yellow one. I thought the yellow could symbolize the glory of the Lord revealed to all flesh, or the light of Christ spreading itself in and through all things. Yellow reminds me of the Restoration, because of the golden plates or the angel's trump. And for those of you who remember the Primary colors song, yellow stands for service.

As long as I was experimenting with different color schemes, I decided to try out a green background. Green is a color used by some peasant movements. So this flag represents for me social justice, or concern for the environment, as aspects of building God's kingdom.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Marlin K. Jensen on immigration

Last week, the Deseret News ran an article that quoted Marlin K. Jensen calling on Utah state legislators to adopt a "spirit of compassion" and a "thoughtful and factual, not to mention humane, approach" in handling bills that seek to penalize undocumented immigrants. I was impressed and heartened. I've been appalled at the surge of anti-immigrant sentiment that seemed to come out of nowhere during the past couple of years. Maybe five years ago, I was participating in rallies calling for Congress to clear a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and there seemed to be a feeling of cautious optimism. The next thing I know, the news media are giving serious attention to people who want to round up the undocumented and ship them back to Mexico in trains. Last year sometime, I was in an airport on layover, and CNN was running the most nakedly partisan coverage of a Congressional immigration bill that I've ever seen (probably since I don't watch Fox). This wasn't Lou Dobbs's editorializing, mind you. It was news reporting, but without so much as a nod to the notion of balanced coverage: they were using bulleted PowerPoint to let viewers know how bad this bill was for being too soft on illegals.

What does this have to do with spirituality? Everything. As Marlin Jensen has reminded the Utah legislature, our compassion and humanity are at stake. Who would Jesus deport? I don't mean to oversimplify a complex issue involving serious social problems. But lawmakers and a hysterical, hostile, xenophobic public need to be brought face-to-face with the individual, human costs of the current anti-immigrant campaigns.

Mormons have special reason to be sympathetic to immigrants. Think of all the migrants in the Book of Mormon. Think of all the migrations that the early Saints were forced to undertake. How many of the Mormons now pushing for anti-immigrant legislation are themselves descended from nineteenth-century converts whose immigration to this country the federal government tried to prevent during its anti-polygamy campaign? How many of the Church's missionaries have been illegal immigrants? I was. My father was. Like every other foreign missionary I served with, I entered the Dominican Republic on a tourist visa and then stayed on long after it expired. When my father's mission to Argentina ended, he turned himself in to the authorities and was deported—that's how it was done. So when I hear right-wing Mormons getting all self-righteously outraged about how undocumented immigrants are breaking the law . . . well, let's not finish that sentence. I'm trying to be less angry these days.

Anyway, kudos to Elder Jensen for speaking out. And kudos to the church leadership more generally for how they're approaching immigration-related issues. When Lou Dobbs fumes at you for "encouraging illegal immigration," you should take that as a sign that you're doing the right thing.


God of Abraham and Sarah—

The scriptures teach me that age after age, you have been a guide and protector of migrants.
You led the children of Israel out of Egypt.
You led Lehi, Sariah, and their family to the promised land.
You led Mary and Joseph in their journeys.
You led the early Latter-day Saints across oceans and plains.
You watched over my own family as we moved from place to place.
You watched over me while I lived—illegally—in another country.

I pray for the undocumented immigrants I've come to know over the years: people I helped when I was a medical interpreter, people I taught ESL to, people I've worshipped with, people who are now my neighbors.

I pray for a greater spirit of compassion and a humane approach to immigration issues in this country.
I give thanks for Marlin Jensen and other LDS church leaders who are urging compassion and moderation.
I give thanks for the church's initiatives to provide assistance to immigrants in Utah.

In Christ's name, amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"How can you pick and choose?"

This morning I was studying the Isaiah passages in 2 Nephi, which as always for me is a process of trying to figure out where the Spirit has something to tell me through this text as opposed to where the text gives voice to human fear, or misunderstanding, or will to power. And at one point a little orthodox voice in my head demanded, “How can you just pick and choose what you like from the prophets’ teachings?” To be precise, the voice I heard belonged to one of the high councilors on the disciplinary council that excommunicated me, who asked me that question.

My quick, hopefully polite answer to the question is that I don’t see it as a matter of picking and choosing what I like; rather, I’m trying to use my mind and heart to discern the Spirit’s voice, which is by no means always self-validating. I trust my own light at any given moment—what else do I have to go by unless you’re asking me to live on borrowed light or practice blind obedience?—but I also operate on the assumption that as I continue to engage with the tradition, I may very well find that in the future I will hear the Spirit speaking to me where I’m not able to hear it now. In other words, I try to simultaneously practice integrity, humility, the use of my reason, and a search for personal revelation.

That, as I say, is the hopefully polite answer. But this morning, for some reason, I was feeling a bit cantankerous, and a more elaborate, somewhat more confrontational way of answering the question came to mind. At the risk of regretting it later—i.e., I may later decide this reflects too much of a spirit of contention—I thought I’d put this longer response “on the record.”

If your reaction to this blog is an outraged (or perhaps sincerely bewildered), “How can you pick and choose what to accept from the prophets’ teachings?” then may I suggest the following:

1. Go to the Journal of Discourses and read—actually read—what Brigham Young taught about the following subjects: the necessity for people to shed their own blood to atone for certain serious sins; God’s eternally decreed penalty of death on the spot for white people who mix their blood with the seed of Cain; the father of our spirits bringing one of his celestial wives down to earth so that the two of them could become Adam and Eve; and God the Father begetting Jesus via sexual intercourse with Mary. Also, if you’re someone who believes that God doesn’t progress in knowledge, read what Brigham Young had to say on that question.

2. Say whatever you need to in order to feel less threatened by these teachings: a prophet is a prophet only when speaking as such; only statements that appear over the signatures of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are official church doctrine; the teachings of living prophets take precedence over those of dead prophets; the teachings of church leaders need to be measured against the teachings of the scriptures; these statements need to be understood as a product of their time; I don’t worry about these statements because I have a testimony; etc.

3. Imagine me looking at you in silence, waiting for you to recognize the irony, then turning around and walking away.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Thoughts on the atonement

The centerpiece of my reading this week was 2 Nephi 9, Jacob's discourse on the atonement. In a nutshell, Jacob's understanding is that Christ suffers the pains of all in order to work out an infinite atonement capable of redeeming us from the otherwise infinite sentence of death. If we couldn't be brought back from the dead, we would be forever subject to the devil and would become devils ourselves. But the resurrection brings us back into God's presence for judgment, making it possible for the righteous, as well as those who died knowing no law, to be saved in God's kingdom while the rebellious are sent back into everlasting fire with the devil and his angels.

I'm not invested in making assertions about the nature of the afterlife, or even whether there is one. To the extent that I think about the afterlife, my mental images of it are drawn from Mormon teachings, the ones I cite on the "Preparing for Eternity" page at LiberalMormon.net. I imagine the afterlife as a continuation of this life, a material realm, a realm where we go on growing in knowledge and character, where we continue to relate to other people the way we did here, and where our Heavenly Parents allow us to have whatever gave us joy in this life and to live in whatever proximity to them we are comfortable. The point of these images, as far as I'm concerned (at least at this stage in my life; maybe my feelings about this will change if/when something happens to make me more aware of my mortality), is that the images teach me how I should live now: namely, that I should build now the kind of life and relationships I would want to continue to experience in the world to come. These images also teach me about the character of God and thus about my relationship with God. The images to which I give credence don't include our Heavenly Parents sending multitudes of their children packing into a lake of fire and brimstone. (I confess, however, that I would derive considerable un-Christlike satisfaction from being able to imagine certain individuals burning in a lake of fire; so I can understand why the image appealed to certain scriptural writers.)

What I'm building up to saying is that Jacob's discourse on the atonement doesn't mean much to me as a roadmap for the afterlife. However, there are principles embedded in his discourse which do speak strongly to my heart and mind.

1. Christ has infinite power to redeem, to deliver, to overcome, to transform, to reconcile, to unify. I have no problem believing that people are capable of becoming devils, even that people have a natural tendency to become devilish. Think the Holocaust. Think Hiroshima. Think child abuse. Think animal abuse. I'll think here about my personal demons; you can think about yours. We need forgiveness; we need sanctification. And the good news Christians call the gospel is that we can get them. The absolutely worst things we've done or are—individually or collectively—can be overcome in God's reconciling, transforming, liberating love. To say that Christ has power to deliver us from death is to say that Christ has power to deliver us from absolutely anything. But...

2. Christ's power to redeem, deliver, overcome, transform, reconcile, unify, etc., is contingent on human agency. We have to open up conduits through which God's redeeming power can flow. Christ can redeem, deliver, overcome, transform, reconcile, and unify only to the extent that we become his instruments. To put it another way: we have to be ministers of the atonement.

My mission was the time in my life when I felt most vividly that I was living as a minister of Christ's redeeming power. For two years, I was able to dedicate myself full-time to being an instrument for bringing Christ's presence into people's lives as a force for good and a force for change. It was incredibly grueling and incredibly rewarding, and almost as soon as my mission was over, I started looking for ways to recover something of that experience: temple work, the Peace Corps or other kinds of volunteer work, involvement with a Spanish-speaking congregation, social justice activism.

3. Christ suffers with us. There was a time when the idea that Christ had suffered to pay the price for my sins meant a lot to me, because it helped me overcome a debilitating sense of perfectionism. It assured me that Christ's grace compensated for my failings. Once I left LDS church life—which unfortunately breeds perfectionism and guilt for reasons I won't get into now—I stopped feeling so guilty all the time, and the notion of an atonement that pays the price for my guilt quickly stopped being meaningful to me.

But the concept that Christ suffers with humanity remains extremely important to me. Alma 7:11-12 is central to my understanding of the atonement at this point, and it's in light of that text that I read 2 Ne. 9:21, about Christ suffering "the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children." (I'm tempted to want to tease out of the words "every living creature" the possibility that Christ takes on the suffering of animals as well—and plants, if plants suffer. I know that reading has nothing to do with the author's intention in this passage; but as a "creative misreading," it would be consistent with scriptures which indicate that God's concern extends to all created beings.) Christ shares everything that happens to us; he is with us in everything; he understands everything; his empathy is perfect and absolute. And he challenges me, as his minister, to open myself up to sharing the suffering of others. My two-year mission, again, was the time in my life when I was most open to that kind of experience.



Later today I'll consume bread and water in memory of your body and blood.
As I do that, I'll be thinking today about the bread and water as the sign of your suffering, which is the suffering of every person—me, people I love, people I've never heard of, people I know about but don't really care that much about, people I outright despise.
When I eat that bread and drink that water, I'll be committing myself to share in that suffering.
I realize I don't actually have any idea what that means.
But I accept the commitment anyway.
Help me to be more open to others' suffering—to be more empathetic, more sensitive.
Help me know better how to respond on the occasions when I become aware of the suffering of individuals I know—what to say, what to do with my body, what acts of sympathy and support to offer.
Make me an instrument of your redeeming power.
Make me an instrument of your love.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Psalm of Nephi and other thoughts

This week I read 2 Nephi 3-5. The centerpiece of the reading is the Psalm of Nephi (4:16-35). Before I respond to that text, though, I want to record a couple of other thoughts I’ve had this week.


In 2 Ne. 3:5, Lehi prophesies about the latter-day restoration of his—and let’s add Sariah’s—descendents. He says that “the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light—yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom.”

I love that as an image of the Restoration. The Restoration is Christ made manifest in the modern world—in other words, Christ’s power working among us to bring about enlightenment and liberation. That power operates at the level of individual lives, within families, or on a larger scale within whole communities and societies. This vision of the Restoration offers a standard for judging how well Latter-day Saint religion is living up to what it’s supposed to be—whether we’re talking about the LDS Church as an institution or about my own personal religiosity as someone who professes to practice a Mormon spirituality. Is my religion a channel for Christ’s power? Does my spiritual practice produce enlightenment and liberation for others as well as for myself? Do I cultivate the kinds of interpersonal relationships in which Christ can be made manifest? I’m thinking here of the principle that wherever two or more people gather in Christ’s name, Christ is in their midst (Matt. 18:20; D&C 6:33). To put it more succinctly: Do I practice the love of Christ?


I’ve been thinking about the Gospel reading from the Ash Wednesday service I attended earlier this week. It was the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that you shouldn’t pray or do good to be seen by others. I’ve been thinking about that principle in relation to this blog. Basically, what I’m doing on this blog is transferring my spiritual journaling from a notebook, which I didn’t expect anyone would ever read except me, to an online forum where it can be read by anyone with Internet access. I’m doing this because I feel it’s important to model a liberal Mormon spirituality for the benefit of LDS individuals, especially young adults, whose thinking, intuition, and experience are drawing them in a theologically liberal direction. Given the overwhelmingly conservative climate of today’s LDS Church, such individuals are liable to give up on Mormonism altogether unless they can be persuaded that the tradition does offer resources for liberal understanding and spiritual practice. This blog is my effort to show people what’s possible, based on my own understanding and experience. I think of it as standing up to bear my testimony in front of the whole World Wide Web.

The question is: By moving my spiritual journaling to a public forum, am I praying and doing good to be seen of others? Certainly as I write these posts, I’m aware that I’m not just writing for myself anymore. I have an audience now, and there’s a certain sense in which that means I’m performing. Will that impede my ability to receive the kind of spontaneous inspiration I experienced back when I was journaling just for myself? I don’t know. It’s something I want to be sensitive to as I keep blogging. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts us to let our light shine so that others will see the good we do and glorify God. Where’s the line between taking my candle out from under a bushel (Matt. 5:15) and sounding a trumpet so I can have “glory of men” (Matt. 6:2)? I’ll have to feel my way through that with the Spirit’s guidance.


God of grace—

This week, as I read the Psalm of Nephi, I was reminded of the things you’ve done for me.

I know in whom I have trusted.

You were my support during my mission to the Dominican Republic, “upon the waters of the great deep.”

You taught me what it means to live by faith—how to live with conviction but without certainty. You gave me a testimony of the Restoration’s power to bless people’s lives.

You blessed me to experience your love. When I felt worthless and incompetent and depressed, when I felt like a failure, you made me feel your arms wrapped around me. You gave me the gift of rewarding relationships with other people—companions, investigators, members.

When I left church activity, came out of the closet, and struck out on my own, you guided me through that personal wilderness. When I got lost, you showed me how to get back in touch with spiritual traditions that would nourish me.

You freed me from the guilt and anger and depression, the sense of being trapped, that I felt when I was trying to fit into an orthodox church. You gave me the grace to accept my sexual orientation before making what would probably have been a disastrous attempt at courtship and marriage and family. You opened new roads before me and helped me find the courage to walk them.

You have given me liberally the desires of my heart. You’ve brought a partner into my life. You’ve guided me into what I hope will prove a satisfying career, where I can use my intellectual gifts for service.

Help me to be a better person—a kinder, more considerate, more loving person. Fill me with the love you bestow on those who follow your Son.

Help me to be less angry with the people I’m inclined to think of as my enemies. Or rather, perhaps, help me channel that anger in productive ways—to turn it into energy to work for change.

In Christ’s name, amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday

One of the ways I put Christ at the center of my spirituality is by observing the feasts and fasts of the Christian liturgical calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. (A few years ago, Pentecost fell on June 8, the anniversary of the lifting of the black priesthood ban, which I found a meaningful coincidence in my spiritual reflections that year.) Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the season of reflection and repentance that leads up to Easter. Hugo and I just got back from an Ash Wednesday service held by a small Episcopal congregation that meets in a Reconstructionist synagogue close to campus.

The service wasn't a particularly moving experience for me this time around; it was one of those occasions where I think, "I'm doing it for the sake of the spiritual discipline." I was wearing a sweater, which turned out to be too hot. And then there weren't enough kneelers to go around, so I magnanimously declined one—doing my alms to be seen of others, we might say. But that meant I had to kneel on a linoleum floor, with no pew in front of me to lean on, for five pages of silent reflection and imposition of ashes and psalm and litany and prayer. I quickly discovered that my dress shoes were too uncomfortable to lean back on to give my knees a break. So by the time we got to the end of the kneeling part, I was literally biting the inside of my cheek, not from physical pain really, though I was pretty damn uncomfortable, but from the psychological longing for this to end already. I was particularly annoyed that the priest who was leading the litany was doing it sitting down. I could have sat down, too, of course—that's what Hugo did—but I was determined to stick it out even if I wasn't going to be gracious about it.

Anyway, the point I'm getting to with this story is that after we finally got up onto our feet again and started exchanging the peace, Lisa, the priest, came by to give me a hug. We've gotten to know each other during my time in Chapel Hill, and she was a listening ear after my excommunication, not to mention generously arranging for me to join a church group who went to Haiti during this past Christmas break, my first return trip to Hispaniola, where I served my mission, in several years. So she hugs me and says, apologetically, "Your knees got a workout." And I say, half joking but only half joking because I'm so annoyed, "Well, you seemed to be fine"—referring to the fact that she had been sitting through the litany. And she says, "Oh, I'm going in for surgery again in a couple of weeks." At which point, of course, I feel like a total heel. What were we just saying about sin and penitence and praying for forgiveness?

As we were leaving the service, the rain had ended and there was this wonderful cooling wind roaring through the treetops. Hugo had asked Lisa for ashes to take to Luis, our gay Mexican barber, back in our apartment complex; we'd invited him to come with us to the service, but he'd had clients and couldn't get away. We stopped by his apartment on the way home, and Hugo imposed ashes on Luis and two chavos who were hanging out there. Recuerda que polvo eres y al polvo has de volver. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Why were Laman and Lemuel so obedient?

This year, as I’ve been reading Nephi’s account of his life (1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 5), I’ve been struck by the fact that even though Nephi represents Laman and Lemuel as perennially doubting and murmuring—they never actually turn back, they never actually split from the rest of the family (when the split finally comes in the promised land, it’s Nephi’s group who leaves), and while Nephi's account emphasizes their murmuring and rebellion, they always, until the very end, do what Lehi and Nephi want, and not always under duress. They follow their father into the desert despite thinking it's foolish. Likewise, they think the mission to get the brass plates is foolish—but they go. At certain points (e.g., 1 Ne. 22:1), we see them coming to Nephi for instruction, apparently willingly, accepting his role as their teacher, the role he claims he’s been divinely appointed to. Lehi and Nephi are preoccupied with the question of why Laman and Lemuel can’t be more obedient; during this year’s reading, I’ve wondered why Laman and Lemuel are as obedient as they are.

A couple different possibilities have occurred to me, which may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. The first possibility is that Laman and Lemuel feel that they have no choice but to go along—or, when things become absolutely intolerable for them, to violently rebel. Maybe these characters are younger than we often imagine them to be. Maybe they’re too young to break away from their father; maybe they lack the know-how to go back to Jerusalem and make a living for themselves. Maybe they’ve been brought up to take Lehi’s patriarchal authority so thoroughly for granted that they don’t seriously question it—like soldiers, who may grumble non-stop about their commanding officers, and on occasion may be pressed to mutiny, but otherwise wouldn’t actually consider disobedience an option. (With that in mind, I was intrigued when Lehi tells Nephi that he has “required” Laman and Lemuel to go get the brass plates [1 Ne. 3:5].) Maybe Lehi has aroused such violent opposition in Jerusalem that Laman and Lemuel have to flee with the family for their own safety; and then once they’re in the middle of the desert, they don’t really have a choice except to stick with the group even though they suspect their father makes far too many decisions on the basis of dreams. (At one point I thought: What if we imagine a scenario in which the Liahona, like Joseph Smith’s golden plates, is never actually seen by the group as a whole, so that Laman and Lemuel have to accept on Lehi and Nephi’s say-so that they’re being guided by a mysterious compass?)

Then there’s the problem of how authority works in this little group. From the time of his conversion experience in the wilderness in 1 Nephi 2, Nephi is convinced that God has appointed him to be a ruler and a teacher over his brothers (2:22). Lehi appears to accept that claim. Laman and Lemuel, as we know, resent it, to the point where on a few occasions when Nephi tries to assert his authority, they try to kill him. What’s happening here is that this miniature, fledgling society is being strained from its very beginning by a power struggle, an intense conflict over how authority should function in the group. Who gets to inherit the patriarch’s mantle? Who gets the conch? Laman and Lemuel claim the “natural” right to lead by virtue of their being the oldest sons. Nephi claims that God has given him the right to lead. Lehi sides with Nephi. The result is a festering resentment by Laman and Lemuel and their allies (the sons of Ishmael), who feel that their rights have been trampled on. In moments of crisis, when it seems to the aggrieved group that Nephi is making intolerably unreasonable or unrealistic demands, in some cases endangering the group, then resentment breaks out into mutiny: they tie Nephi up and leave him to die, they try to drown him in the ocean, etc. Of course, Nephi’s account of all this represents his understanding of the power struggle, which is simply: God has appointed me to lead; Laman and Lemuel reject my authority (exhortations, pleadings, etc.) because they reject God.

That’s one way of understanding why Laman and Lemuel obey as often as they do. The second possibility that occurred to me is that Laman and Lemuel genuinely accept Lehi’s, and even Nephi’s, prophetic claims—they genuinely have faith, to a point where they’re willing to abandon everything they own and trust their father to lead them into the wilderness. But their faith isn’t as unwavering as Lehi’s and Nephi’s. They struggle to maintain their faith and optimism in the face of life-threatening difficulties and the unexpected, seemingly unrealistic demands that their prophets spring on them from time to time. Their faith isn’t as dogmatic as Lehi’s and Nephi’s, we could say. Things happen that make them wonder: Was I right to put my faith in these people? Has this been a huge mistake?

Seen this way, Laman and Lemuel are like a lot of the people who join Joseph Smith’s fledgling faith community. They’ve had experiences that have prompted them to put faith in the Latter-day Saint movement—and their faith is powerful enough that they’re willing to make sacrifices. They’re willing to leave their homes, they’re willing to move to a new place. But then, having encouraged the Saints to invest an incredible trust in him by virtue of his prophetic claims, Joseph does things that strain their credulity and lead them to wonder if they’ve made a mistake: he illegally creates a bank, which then fails, wiping out members' savings; he sleeps secretly with other women, issuing public denials all the while; he stays safely in Kirtland while the members who are building up the gathering place in Missouri face mounting persecution. Some members, including some high-ranking leaders, people who have worked closely with Joseph, feel so disillusioned and betrayed and angry that, like Laman and Lemuel, they turn to physical violence.

Lehi and Nephi—and, I’d say, Joseph Smith—have little to no sympathy for those among their followers whose faith isn’t as unshakable, as dogmatic, as theirs. Lehi and Nephi expect 110% commitment. When they say go move mountains, you get your shovel. When they speak, the debate is over. We’ve been commanded by God—how can you balk? Note that what’s at question here isn’t so much Laman and Lemuel’s faith in God—though, inevitably, that’s how Nephi understands the problem. What’s at question is Laman and Lemuel’s ability to maintain faith in particular human beings who claim to speak for God. Of course, Lehi and Nephi have no doubt about their own prophetic callings. (Well, actually, Lehi has at least one moment of doubt when Nephi’s bow breaks; if Nephi ever has doubts, he doesn’t tell us about them, though perhaps we should read the Psalm of Nephi in 2 Nephi 4 as suggesting otherwise.) And because of their dogmatic outlook, Lehi and Nephi seem unable to empathize with people who don’t throw themselves wholeheartedly and unquestioningly behind what they (Lehi and Nephi) are convinced are revelations from God. So even though Laman and Lemuel have made the sacrifice of leaving everything behind and walking off into the desert; even though they keep participating in projects that they’re not really sure are going to pan out; even though they listen to Nephi interpret the scriptures and their father's visions—Lehi and Nephi keep haranguing them. They get preached at over and over: how can you be so hard-hearted? Why can’t you be more righteous? You're swift to do iniquity... I fear for your souls...

And you know what? It doesn’t work. That’s the message this story conveys, probably in spite of the author’s intentions. Preaching at people whose faith isn’t as dogmatic as yours doesn’t work. It may whip them in line long enough to accomplish a particular task. It got Lehi’s family to the promised land. But it did nothing to ameliorate the tensions and resentments and alienation that finally split the group apart. In fact, I don’t think it’s hard to argue that the preaching fueled those resentments. Lehi’s and Nephi’s dogmatism—their insistence that the rest of the group submit to their claims of divine authority without doubt, without murmuring, without flagging, with absolute commitment—that dogmatism helps set in motion the conflicts that split this group apart and will ultimately, hundreds of years later, destroy an entire civilization. Nephi doesn’t realize it, but he’s helping to sow the seeds of his own people’s destruction.

What was the alternative? I don’t know. I’m not sure the Book of Mormon has an answer to this problem. Maybe it can’t do more than pose the problem: maybe new revelation is needed to find an answer. But if the goal is a society where everyone is one in heart and mind—then dogmatic claims to divine authority don't seem to be the solution, if the Book of Mormon has anything to teach us about that. That solution only works if you somehow “cut off” those who won’t submit to your authority, if you somehow eliminate them from the picture. In the Book of Mormon, and in LDS history, that “cutting off” takes various forms: excommunicating dissenters; taking your little group off to form their own community somewhere else; looking forward to the day when God will kill off the wicked and leave the righteous to inherit the land. It should be no surprise that this vision of how to make a unified, righteous society culminates in violence. This vision requires violence of one kind or another. What I hear in the Book of Mormon is a warning that the violence unleashed by this vision can escalate until it destroys everything you thought you were working for.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Nephi. There’s something to be said for his kind of unshakable faith. I can see from the notes I penciled into the margins of my Book of Mormon four years ago that the last time I read this, I was inspired by Nephi’s model of confidence, of maintaining his convictions in the face of adversity, of relying on the scriptures and personal revelation to make meaning out of potentially disorienting setbacks. Also, I was (and am) moved by Nephi's dilemma: How do you get through to people whose hearts seem closed? How do you open their eyes to a more ambitious or an unexpected vision of what God wants? I can certainly relate to that problem. But this time around, I feel I’ve been led to pay more attention to the dark side of Nephi's confidence—its perhaps inevitable tendency to alienate and divide.