Sunday, March 30, 2008

Allegory of the olive tree

As I was reading the allegory of the olive tree this week, I realized that the allegory can double as a template for a Mormon spirituality based on discerning selectivity, interreligious exchange, hybridization, and experimentation. Okay—that last sentence was pretty heavy on the academic jargon. Let me explain what I mean.

The lord of the vineyard has a tree whose roots produce both good fruit and bad fruit. In order to reap a greater harvest of good fruit, the bad branches have to be cleared away.
This is how I approach the Mormon tradition. On the basis of my own experience, and the experiences of others that I've been able to observe (for instance, as a missionary), I know that the Mormon tradition has roots in the Spirit. It has brought forth over the years, and continues to bring forth, a lot of good fruit: faith, hope, charity, service, sacrifice, enlightenment, spiritual power, strengthened relationships, expansive visions of human possibility, calls for justice and equity. But the tradition has also produced, and continues to produce, a lot of bad fruit: sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, cultural imperialism, anti-intellectualism, dogmatism, unrighteous dominion. Critical reflection is needed to distinguish the good fruit from the bad fruit. Being Mormon in a spiritually healthy and fruitful way means being discerning and selective in your commitment to Mormonism. (The same would be true of any spiritual tradition.)

To produce a greater harvest of good fruit, branches from the tame tree are grafted onto wild trees, and vice-versa.
This is an image of exchange. As the lord of the vineyard nourishes his trees through an exchange of branches, so my personal spirituality is nourished through religious and philosophical exchange. I carry Mormon ideas and practices with me into other kinds of environments: my academic studies, my work or worship with other faith communities. My Mormon conceptual frameworks shape the understanding or meaning I make out of these experiences. At the same time, while my spirituality is primarily Mormon, it is enriched by ideas or practices borrowed from other religious or philosophical traditions. My encounter with Catholic liberation theology, for example, has shaped the way I read LDS scripture. I thus participate in a two-way process of spiritual exchange, offering up what I already have (as on this blog) and receiving what others have to offer. When I worship at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, for example, I am grafting onto my spirituality Christian liturgical traditions that have not formed part of the Mormon tradition; but at the same time, the significance these worship experiences hold for me is shaped by the distinctively Mormon ways of thinking I bring with me into that space, or the distinctively Mormon texts and language I use to interpret my encounters with the Spirit. Also, on certain occasions, I've been able to "graft" Mormon texts or customs into other religious settings (such as interfaith services).

The lord of the vineyard hybridizes his trees in order to improve the harvest.
There's a strong tradition of Mormon discourse about purity—about keeping outside influences from contaminating the community of Saints. We also had in Mormonism a long and shameful tradition of discourse about preserving racial purity. The allegory of the olive tree, however, represents a very different kind of discourse. This is not a story about purity. This is a story that celebrates mingling. It's a story about God creating hybrids. All the grafting of branches back and forth that goes on in this story works to break down distinctions like tame and wild, or Jew and Gentile, or Mormon and non-Mormon, or insider and outsider. In this allegory, the creation of hybrid forms is an important way that the strength of the tame tree's roots is able to manifest itself in the production of good fruit.

In a similar way, I can attest to the power of hybrid spiritual forms. Mingling (or combining, or hybridizing) Mormon and non-Mormon traditions is one way that I've kept the Mormon tradition alive in my life over the years. A few years back, around the time that I came to accept that I wasn't moving away from Mormonism, like I thought, and that this tradition was going to remain my primary medium for encountering God—around that time, I was using the rosary as a tool for personal devotion and meditation, but instead of the prayers that Catholics use with the rosary, I would recite verses of LDS scripture. This hybridization of traditions was an important feature of my prayer life at that time.

The lord of the vineyard and his servant have to experiment to determine which exchanges or hybrid forms will continue to produce good fruit over the long term; not all of their experiments work out.
The same is true of religious exchange or hybridization: Some things I've tried in my spirituality have worked out, some haven't. Some concepts or practices that bore good fruit at certain times in my life eventually became less meaningful. Some things that were inspirational for me when I was a missionary, for example, I now find deeply misguided. That's the nature of spiritual growth. But as the lord of the vineyard remained committed to his tame olive tree because of his faith in the vitality of its roots, so I remain committed to rooting myself in Mormonism, even as I experiment with different ways of tapping into the strength of those roots.

A final thought about this allegory: If we interpret the lord of the vineyard as God, and his servant as Christ, then we learn from this allegory that if God is nurturing, patient, longsuffering, etc., Christ is even more so. When I realized that, I thought: What an incredible, and challenging, model for Christian discipleship—to be even more patient and longsuffering with others then we imagine a just God would be. The Spirit also drew my attention to the fact that the servants of the Lord are sent forth in power, the Lord working with them, to nourish (5:72; 6:2). Nourishment as the essence of Christian mission. I'll make that the theme of my sacramental reflection today.

************

Lord of the vineyard—

I give thanks for the many ways that my life has been enriched by religious exchange and hybridity.
I give thanks for the Spirit's continuing guidance as I seek to make the Mormon tradition bear fruit in my life.
I give thanks for the many ways you have nourished me.
I give thanks for the opportunities I have had to serve you in nourishing others.

I pray for a spirit of discernment as I continue to engage with Mormon traditions.
I pray for greater openness among the Latter-day Saints to critical reflection on our tradition.
I pray that the good fruits of Mormonism will increase and that the bad will be cleared away.

As I take the sacrament today, I'll be thinking about how you have nourished me over the years through the gift of your Son.
I pray that you will nourish those whose names I have in my mind and heart.
Teach me to be more nurturing—as a teacher, as a friend, as a family member, as a partner.

In Christ's name, amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter

I'll resume my weekly Book of Mormon reading next Sunday. Today, I'm posting an Easter reflection I worked on during Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

The Easter story is at the very center of the Christian gospel. Visions of the risen Jesus were what kept embryonic Christianity from collapsing like many other failed messianic movements have done over the centuries. Theologically speaking, all Christian teaching and practice tie back to Christ's resurrection. Whatever gospel principle or concept is most central to your spirituality, it can be expressed in terms of Christ's resurrection:
  • The Atonement is not complete until the risen Christ ascends into heaven, filled with compassion, to intercede for us (Mosiah 15:7-9).
  • The Restoration can be understood as a modern-day witness of the risen Christ (JS-H 1:17).
  • Baptism brings us into newness of life, in the likeness of Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-8).
  • Our temple covenants prepare us to pass into God's presence, as Christ, our great high priest, has entered in before us (Heb. 6:18-20).
  • We are able to have a personal relationship with Christ because, having risen from death, he is with us forever (Matt. 28:20; D&C 108:8).
  • We are able to build up the kingdom because the Father has raised Christ from death to rule at his right hand forever and has placed all things in subjection under his feet (D&C 20:23-24; Eph. 1:19-23).
  • Service to others is how Christ, living and working in us, continues to carry out his ministry (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27-29)
And so on . . .

My point is that Easter is not only about the promise of a future triumph over physical death. Christ's resurrection frames everything we do, here and now, as people committed to being Christ's disciples. The Easter story, and images associated with it, are the basis of our entire religious vocabulary of hope, mission, and relationship with the divine. The resurrection refers to much more than a future reunion of spirit and body. It stands for Christ's entire redemptive work. Every good thing that God brings to pass in our time can be thought of as a ripple effect of Christ's resurrection. Every good thing that happens is the risen Christ continuing to bring his work to fruition.

************

I'm now going to add some thoughts intended for readers who are experiencing doubts about the literal reality of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead or about the literal reality of the future resurrection. If you don't fall into that category, feel free to skip down to the next set of asterisks.

At this point in my life, I don't believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the grave, and I don't know if there's an afterlife (though I certainly hope there is, and I tend to assume there is). But I still celebrate Easter every year—and I celebrate it religiously. Why? Because while I don't regard the Easter story as history, I revere it as sacred story and as icon. On those terms, the Easter story communicates truths that are central to my faith and spiritual life.

This image is one of my favorite icons of the resurrection. It's a painting that hangs in the Alcazar de Col√≥n in Santo Domingo (the palace of Christopher Columbus's son Diego, now a museum). This icon captures some of the truths that make the Easter story so important to me. This icon tells me of a Christ who is energetic and triumphant. It tells me of a God who doesn't allow oppression, betrayal, cruelty, death, loss, grief, disillusion, and despair to be the end of the story. That's the God I put my faith in. That's the Christ whose work I want to do in this world. I believe, literally, that this God exists—or more precisely, I'm taking the gamble of faith that this God literally exists. I believe that the Christ of the Easter story is an image of this God. In other words, I believe that Christ's resurrection is a symbol of the work that God literally carries out in the world—a life-giving, liberating, illuminating, transforming work. Through the language of the Easter story, God communicates a promise—a literal promise—that everything which keeps us and our world from filling the measure of our creation can be overcome. Maybe that includes life after death, maybe it doesn't; I'm not really invested in that question. But I do have some definite convictions about what filling the measure of our creation includes, and the Easter story gives me a vocabulary for articulating those convictions and the hopes that go along with them.

If that all sounded a bit abstract . . . well, that's why God gives us a concrete story: so we can let the story work on our minds and hearts instead of trying to live by abstractions only, which may feel cold or clinical or cerebral by comparison.

The bottom line is this: Whether or not the Easter story is literally true does not, fundamentally, matter. Of course, it matters in a real, pressing sense if, for example, your bishop or stake president won't sign your temple recommend unless you tell him that you believe it's a historical truth that Jesus rose from the tomb. But historicity is entirely irrelevant to whether or not you embrace this story as part of the spiritual foundation on which you build your life. What does matter is: Do you hear God communicating to you through the Easter story? Does the story dramatize in symbolic form promises or principles that you believe are literally true—or that you're willing to exercise faith are literally true? Whether or not the story is literally true is a secondary consideration.

At least that's how I see it.

************

So now I want to bear a testimony of Christ's resurrection. I say "a" testimony because I hear God communicating many different truths to me through the Easter story, and I see the resurrection at work in the world in many different ways. Some have to do with personal transformation or interpersonal relationships; others have to do with social justice. Here's one testimony. For future Easters, I'll post others.


This photo was taken during a trip I made to Haiti over this past Christmas break with a group from the Advocate, the Episcopal church here in Chapel Hill whose Easter Vigil service Hugo and I just got back from. The purpose of the trip over Christmas break was to deliver funds, school materials, and medical supplies to an Episcopal church in Haiti that the Advocate wants to partner with. It was my first trip to Haiti, though I'd been to the Dominican Republic, on the other side of the island, a number of times, beginning with my LDS mission. As we drove through Port-au-Prince, it reminded me of the poorer neighborhoods where I'd worked in Santo Domingo—except that the entire city of Port-au-Prince, as far as we could see, was at that same level of poverty, apart from a few well-guarded enclaves for the rich or for foreign visitors like ourselves.

The photo shows what's supposed to be a major river. As you can see, it's dried up. It's polluted with garbage. But people are still trying to make what use they can of the water.

Change of scene: Several years ago, when I still lived in Salt Lake, I was standing at a bus stop, wearing a t-shirt with the name of a medical mission I did interpretation for during a return trip to the Dominican Republic. A man waiting at the same bus stop struck up a conversation about the t-shirt. He had lived in Vietnam for a while, and he made a comment about how it's heart-rending to see how much poverty there is in places like that, but you have to accept that that's just how things are, and there isn't anything that can be done about it.

I think I kept my cool, but inside I was appalled. I don't believe—I can't believe—that there isn't anything that can be done about problems like poverty, pollution, deforestation, desertification, or famine. They're enormous problems that get more and more out of hand every day . . . in part because many of the people who have the financial and intellectual resources that could be used to address these problems are unaware or apathetic or fatalistic. But I can't be fatalistic about them. For one thing, I feel that these problems hit close to home for me because I personally know individuals who have to cope with them day in and day out.

And at a more theological level, I simply can't accept that the forces of death and destruction are more powerful than the forces of life and renewal and restoration. The Easter story tells me they're not. Christ has triumphed over death. All things have been placed under his feet; all things are subject to him. There is no reason that river in Port-au-Prince has to keep looking the way it does in that photo. There is no reason people have to keep living under those conditions. Christ has the power to change it—if we're available to be the conduits or servants of that power.

That's a testimony of the resurrection. It's one of the things I mean when I say, "Christ is risen!"

In Christ's name, amen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Washing my feet of the Iraq war

Tomorrow is Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian liturgical calendar that commemorates the Last Supper. In the evening, I'll attend a service where people wash one another's feet in memory of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The ritual is a reminder that Christians are called to serve others as Christ has served us.

Tonight, too, I'm going to wash my feet, but for a different reason. Tonight, I'm going to wash my feet to protest the war in Iraq, which is five years old today. This footwashing will mark the end of my day-long protest of the war, which has also included fasting and participating in a march.

I'm drawing my inspiration from D&C 84:92-96, which instructs missionaries to wash their feet as a testimony against those who reject their message. This is a variation, of course, on shaking the dust off one's feet, which we read about in the Gospels. The point of the gesture is to say to those who rejected your message: You people are going to be in such big trouble come judgment day, that I don't want so much as a particle of your town clinging to me lest the judgment reserved for you spills over onto me as well. A more modern version of the idiom would be: I want to be as far away from you as possible when the lightning falls.

While this gesture may have helped early missionaries maintain a sense of the rightness of their cause in the face of opposition and rejection, it isn't actually very Christlike, so I'm glad missionaries don't do this anymore. (I hope missionaries don't do this anymore.) I'm using the gesture to mean something rather different. In the initiatory, we receive instructions about becoming "clean from the blood and sins of this generation." I take from that an affirmation that there is such a thing as collective guilt. Applying that principle to the war: Americans, collectively, are responsible for the blood and sins that our government has perpetrated in Iraq in our name. We are, collectively, under judgment.

In washing my feet tonight, I am bearing witness to that collective guilt. I'm not trying to "wash my hands" of the guilt. I'm not disclaiming responsibility. Washing my feet isn't about seeking individual absolution from collective sin; it's about asserting the existence of collective sin and owning my responsibility to do something about it. When I wash my feet tonight, I will be symbolically declaring my conviction that Americans, collectively, need to repent.

We need to stop claiming that this war was justified.
We need to stop talking about "winning the war."
We need to start talking instead about what we can do—hopefully in cooperation with other nations, especially other Middle Eastern nations—to begin to repair the disaster we have inflicted on Iraqis.
We must not allow our government to escalate this war into a confrontation with Iran.
We must not allow our government to set up a permanent military presence in Iraq.
We must repudiate absolutely the doctrine of "pre-emptive strike" that was used to justify this war.
And we ought to repudiate unilateral military strikes period.

So—I'm now going to wash my feet. And then I'll return to the computer and finish with a prayer.

************

God of judgment, God of justice—

Through your servant Joseph Smith, you called the Latter-day Saints to renounce war and proclaim peace.
Through your servant Spencer W. Kimball, you chastised Americans for being a warlike people.
You have taught us to envision and work for a world where swords are beaten into plowshares.

I am angry and grieved that my country is still at war in Iraq, a war we were not justified in launching in the first place.
I am angry at the shamelessness with which my country's government has continued to prosecute this war, even after it became clear that the reasons they gave us for needing to go to war were, if not fraudulent, certainly untrue.

I pray for a sea change in public opinion—for a firm will on the part of a solid majority of Americans to repudiate and end this war.
I pray that the coming elections will result in a government able and committed to overturn the current administration's warlike foreign policy.
I pray that the think tanks and media outlets that have promoted this war will become a hiss and a byword.

I know that my praying for this isn't going to make it happen.
Show me what I can do to make a difference.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday

I'm ashamed to say I did not do my scripture reading this week. It was spring break, which gave me the freedom to become entirely consumed with my doctoral exams. My whole life this week has been a cycle of taking one exam, then studying for the next. I was supposed to be done on Thursday, but I realized I needed more time to finish preparing for the last exam, so I've pushed it back to Tuesday and have been studying on through the weekend. I'm exhausted.

Of course, this isn't an excuse for not keeping up with my spiritual disciplines. If anything, the stress and exhaustion makes it all the more important to be seeking moments of rejuvenation. (Hypocritically, I have been praying for help before taking the exams. The good thing about having a generous, gracious God who giveth liberally and upbraideth not is that you can get away with approaching him under those circumstances, but it also requires you to come face to face with how pathetic you are—how poorly you walk the talk.) The one thing I can say in my defense—if this can even be considered a defense—is that it isn't just the nourishment of my spirit I've been neglecting: I also haven't been properly nourishing my body. I've been sick all week, but I haven't allowed myself the rest I need to get over this damn bug for once and for all. I guess I'm saying I'm something like an equal opportunity offender—body and spirit both come in for neglect.

Anyway, enough public self-flagellation for the moment. Today's Palm Sunday. This afternoon I'll take part in a Palm Sunday service at the Advocate, the Episcopal mission where I also attended the Ash Wednesday service. If it's like previous years, we'll start with a processional in the parking lot with everyone waving palms and branches and flowers that members of the congregation have brought in to share. Then during the service there'll be a participatory reading of the Passion. I'll be reading the part of Caiphas, so I get to say things like, "What further need have we of testimony? With your own ears you have heard his blasphemy!" And then the entire congregation is supposed to take the part of the crowd calling for Jesus' death—"Crucify him! Crucify him!" Invariably at these services, whoever's conducting comments on how we go within a few minutes from shouting "Hosanna!" to howling for Jesus' death. It's supposed to represent how fickle and unfaithful we are in our Christian life...apropos to the self-flagellation I was doing just a couple minutes ago, actually.

The fact that the Advocate meets in the local Reconstructionist synagogue (kehillah) makes Passion Sunday rather more uncomfortable than it would already be. Here we are reenacting in a Jewish space a story that has served for two thousands years as a locus for Christian anti-Semitism. It makes you squirm. The first year Hugo and I attended Passion Sunday at the Advocate was the first year the Advocate met in the kehillah, and there had been quite a bit of anxious talk in the weeks leading up to the service—about how the service ought to be framed in the interest of being aware of how the Passion story has helped fuel anti-Semitism and actively resisting that way of reading it.

I feel at this point that I ought to launch into some kind of reflection along the lines of "What Palm Sunday means to me." But I can't really claim that I've been doing a lot of thinking about it. And actually, some of the books I've been studying for my doctoral exams have made me self-conscious about how cerebral much of my religious activity is. Why does religion always have to be about meaning-making? There are other ways to understand rituals than as "texts" waiting to be "read" for their meaning. (I've been reading Talal Asad, for readers to whom that might mean anything—his idea of religious practices producing certain kinds of dispositions or experience.) Anyway, I'm going to attend the Palm Sunday service; I'll try to be as fully present as I can for the experience; it will be what it will be. If I have some epiphany that makes me feel the service was "meaningful," so be it. But if not, the simple act of taking part is an expression, and an enacting, of my commitment to practicing a form of Christian religion. It's an act of worship—it's about going up to the house of prayer on the Lord's day to render oblations. I don't have to get anything out of it.

Apologies if I'm coming across as a "downer." Being sick and tired probably has something to do with that.

************

Heavenly Father—

I'm grateful that my exams are almost over.
I give thanks that I feel like I've been doing reasonably well on them.
The experience of studying for the exams has helped me make intellectually satisfying or exciting connections between texts, has helped me get ideas for future research or writing, and has given me a feeling of accomplishment. I give thanks for all that.
The experience has also been humbling. It's made me painfully aware of how much I don't know... and I guess that's salutary, too, especially given how arrogant I tend to be. So I give thanks for that as well.
Please help me as I prepare for my last exam.
Help me to retain what I've been studying.
Help me to perform on the exam in a way that will effectively demonstrate to my readers what I know.

I look forward to taking part in the Palm Sunday service today.
I give thanks for the different ways that the story of your Son's sacrificial suffering has spoken to me over the years.
The story's important to me. It's one of the most important places? channels? (what's the word I'm looking for?) where I feel that I hear your voice.
You've touched me through that story. Your finger has touched me.
When I think of you, when I visualize you, some of the most important images I have to work with come from the story of Christ's Passion: a frightened man praying in a garden, a man on a cross, a man risen from the dead with scars showing where there were holes in his hands.
I suddenly have other things I want to say to you that I don't feel comfortable saying in this public setting. So I'll stop here and resume in a more private setting.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Living a baptized life

My reading for this week (2 Ne. 31-33) contained what was one of my favorite passages as a missionary: 31:9-10, about following Christ's example. When we'd go knocking doors, I'd explain that we were sharing a brief 5-minute message; we'd read and discuss this passage; and then I'd segue from there into an explanation of the Book of Mormon and try to arrange to return to teach the first discussion. It was a great passage for building on common beliefs, consistent with the Christ-centered, "let's-build-on-what-you-already-have" approach that characterized the first missionary discussion back in those days. (It could be awkward, though, when eventually we'd have to shift from that approach to talking about exclusive claims to priesthood authority.)

In chapters 31-32, Nephi lays out his vision for what it means to live a baptized life. This is a timely reading given that Easter is coming up soon. For the past several years, I've celebrated Easter by attending the Easter Vigil, held the night before, at a Catholic or Episcopal church. The vigil is a twentieth-century revival of an early Christian practice. Thematically, it links Christ's resurrection to the new life of baptism. The centerpiece of the service is a collective renewal of the baptismal covenant, and if it's a Catholic service especially, this is likely to be the occasion when adult converts are baptized. So this Book of Mormon reading on the life of the baptized is a nice opportunity for me to reflect on my own baptismal covenant in preparation for my participation in the Easter Vigil later this month.

Nephi teaches that in baptism we follow Christ down into the water as a token of our commitment to Christian discipleship—that is, our commitment to a lifetime of following Christ's example in response to his invitation, "Follow me." In this same vein, Nephi describes baptism as a sign of our willingness to take on Christ's name (which has resonances, of course, with the sacramental prayers). Like Christ, we receive the Holy Ghost in connection with our baptism. The Holy Ghost enables us to speak with the tongue of angels; in chapter 32, Nephi explains that this means the Holy Ghost conveys to us the words of Christ, which will teach us everything we need to do in our post-baptismal life. He specifically mentions that the Holy Ghost will teach us to pray that everything we do will be consecrated. Nephi's central image of the post-baptismal life is "pressing forward" steadfastly in Christ. Pressing forward is associated in turn with images of light and fellowship and abundance: a perfect brightness of hope, with love for God and all people, feasting on the words of Christ.

So: what does all that mean to me? As I've been thinking about that, I've been intrigued to realize that I actually think of myself more often as an endowed person (a consecrated person, a priestly person, a person commissioned and empowered to do God's work) than as a baptized person (a Christian, a follower of Christ). It boils down to the same thing, of course, but there's a difference in terms of which themes and symbols loom larger in my day-to-day life. Symbols of the temple matter more in my daily living (e.g., wearing the garment), but specifically Christian symbols (e.g., taking the sacrament) form the basis of my weekly worship and my participation in yearly observances such as Christmas and Easter. I renew my baptismal covenant weekly when I take the sacrament, which I bless for myself at home. In that sense, my identity as a baptized person is a constant touchstone to which I keep returning to renew my spiritual commitments and remind myself of the principles I'm supposed to be living by. And framing those principles as "following Christ" helps to keep me more mindful of the call to compassionate interpersonal relationships than would otherwise be my inclination

Living a baptized life is also important to me in the sense that living as a baptized person implies living under the tutelage of the Holy Ghost. Seeking the guidance of the Spirit—personal revelation—is absolutely fundamental to how I move through the world as a religious person.

Pressing forward with a perfect brightness of hope and love for all people—that's a challenge for me. I have strong tendencies toward criticism (of self as well as others), pessimism, anger, and militancy. 2 Ne. 31:20 tells me that a baptized life should probably look different. I feel moved to make that the focus of my Easter reflections this year.

************

Heavenly Father—

I feel that I've heard your voice in the course of this reflection, and I give thanks for that.
I look forward to the upcoming Easter Vigil and other commemorations during Holy Week.
I pray that this can be a season of meaningful spiritual renewal for me.

I'm grateful for the care my parents took—my mother especially—to prepare me for baptism and to make that ritual a memorable one.
I'm grateful for the various occasions on which taking the sacrament has helped re-ground me, has given me renewed strength for service, and has made me aware of your love.
I'm grateful for the many ways your Spirit has guided me over the years, including those I didn't recognize until after the fact.

Help me to live a more fully baptized life.
Help me to have brighter hope.
Help me to be more compassionate in my relationships with others.
Help me to be a better disciple of your Son.

In Christ's name, amen.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rendition

I just watched the movie Rendition. The film's premise (the CIA detains an innocent man they suspect of terrorist connections and transport him secretly to an overseas prison to be tortured) is inspired by the actual case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was detained by the U.S. about a year after 9/11, transported to a Syrian prison, and tortured over a period of 11 months.

In the flush of having just finished the film, there are a couple things I'd like to declare from the housetops.

First, a snippet of a prose poem by Joanna Brooks. (I'm honored to be able to say that she and I took a class together as undergraduates at BYU.)
Mormon millionaires in insulated skyscrapers do not know. They pledge that our industry is irresistible, our destiny sure. They smile while in Washington their lawyer sons-in-law devise broad permissions for torture.

And now, snippets of D&C 121:
O God, where are you?
How long will your hand be stayed?
How long will they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions?

Lord God Almighty,
maker of heaven, earth, and seas,
you control and subject the devil
and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—

Stretch forth your hand,
let your eye pierce,
let your ear be inclined,
let your anger be kindled.

God has set his hand and seal
to change the times and seasons . . .
that the things which they are willing to bring upon others,
and love to have others suffer,
may come upon themselves to the very uttermost.

Wo to them, for they have offended my little ones.

Their basket shall not be full,
their houses and barns shall perish,
they shall be despised by those that flattered them.

It had been better for them that a millstone
had been hanged around their necks,
and they drowned in the depth of the sea.

************

Unfortunately, while those words express the prayer of my heart at this moment, I don't actually believe God works that way. Instead, he sits on his throne and cries. As Gene England pointed out, it's a terrible vision—a God who weeps because he cannot intervene.

I know . . . This is a world away from my post about "God's gentleness and affection."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

2 Nephi 26-30

My scripture reading this week was 2 Nephi 26-30. These chapters contain a number of passages that speak to liberal themes.

26:25-28 Christ commands no one to depart from him. He commands no one to depart from his houses of worship. His salvation has been given freely for all; all are equally privileged to partake of his goodness. There's a powerful universalizing, inclusivist, egalitarian thrust to this passage. That's refreshing when so much LDS discourse, scriptural or otherwise, tends to emphasize conditionality (do X, and Y, and Z, and A, and B, and C, and H, and M, and Q, and T, or you cannot be saved) and even fear (like the Richard G. Scott quotation that appears in the Sunday School study guide for this week's reading, about staying well away from any kind of moral ambiguity so you won't risk being lured into one of Satan's traps). When I say it's "refreshing" to have an alternative, I mean that rather literally in the sense that discourses oriented toward conditionality and guilt and fear have a tendency to wear people down, despite whatever good intentions there may be on the part of those who preach those discourses. This is why people loved Chieko Okazaki so much (still do, I hope). Her preaching was positive and uplifting, focused on the assurance that God loves you and therefore you shouldn't be so hard on yourself—more in line with the spirit of 2 Ne. 26:25-28. And LDS people—women especially—were hungry to hear that.

A couple more thoughts about these verses: (1) The assertion that Christ commands no one to depart from him is a direct contradiction, as far as I'm concerned, to the image promoted elsewhere in the scriptures of a Christ who says, "Depart from me you accursed, I never knew you." (2) The assertion that Christ commands no one to depart from his houses of worship poses a challenge to the practices of exclusion that have always surrounded LDS temple worship. One of my fantasies would be to see more discussion within the church—by which I mean the membership at large, not just the General Authorities—about the ways we regulate temple admission. For example, when family members are barred from witnessing a marriage, is that an affront to the inclusive spirit proclaimed in 2 Ne. 26:26? Could temple worship be conducted in less exclusionist ways while retaining whatever benefits the faith community derives from maintaining temples as a space apart?

26:33 Christ does only what is good, and all are invited equally to partake of his goodness. This, again, is a refreshing alternative to discourse about God as punitive or threatening (which we just got a lot of in the Isaiah chapters, actually). All are alike to God: black and white, male and female. Just as this verse posed a constant challenge to the black priesthood ban and all the teaching that upheld it, as well as LDS teachings and practices that supported racial segregation in society (a dimension of Mormon history we hardly talk about)—so too this verse now poses a constant challenge to teachings and practices that try to segregate men and women into "equal but complementary" roles, whether in the church or in society.

27:26-35 A vision of the Restoration as the coming of the Millennium. God promises to perform "a marvelous work and a wonder" that will revolutionize the world—that will turn things upside down, is how the Book of Mormon puts it (v. 27). It's a vision of reversal: forests will be turned into fields, fields into forests (v. 28). The deaf will hear; the blind will see; error will give way to understanding (vv. 29, 35). The poor will rejoice; there will be an end to oppression, exploitation, and injustice (vv. 30-32). This is the work to which Latter-day Saints are called.

28:16 Wo to those who turn aside and revile against what is good. A few verses later (v. 20), we get a variation on this message: Satan stirs people up to anger against what is good. Likening these verses to myself when I read them, they made me think of homophobia and campaigns against same-sex marriage. People revile and rage against relationships that I know on the basis of my own experience can be good.

28:21, 24-25 Wo to those who are at ease in Zion or who cry, "All is well!" I hear this as a warning against complacency or self-satisfaction within the church—an invitation to greater self-scrutiny and critical review of church teachings and practices. When the Saints resist that kind of scrutiny on the grounds that the leadership is inspired, so what they're teaching and doing must be what God wants—that's one way of crying "All is well!"

28:27-30 Wo to those who say, "We have received God's word; we need no more." In other words, we are never in a position to say: "This is God's final word on the subject." God gives line on line, precept on precept, here a little, there a little. Our understanding of God's will is always incomplete, always subject to change. If you accept the principle of continuing revelation laid out in these verses, it's impossible to be dogmatic. Or if you want to put it paradoxically: The only thing you can be dogmatic about is the impossibility of being dogmatic.

29:6-11 "A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible!" That always makes me laugh when I read it. I love the satire. In context, of course, these verses are an apologetic for the Book of Mormon itself (plus a promise of coming attractions: someday God plans to give us the records of the lost ten tribes, too). As important as that is in and of itself, as a way of splitting open the notion of a closed canon, I'm intrigued by how these verses point to an even more broadly ecumenical—if not universalist—understanding of revelation and scripture. God brings forth his word to all the nations of the earth (v. 7). All people, everywhere, are commanded to record the words that God speaks to them (v. 11). It's ambiguous, but verse 11 could be read as saying that every people will be judged out of the books God has given them. I don't want to attribute more to these verses than what they actually say; but there is a universalizing thrust to these verses that points us toward the possibility of recognizing other traditions' sacred texts as scripture.

30:9 As part of another millennial vision, another promise of justice and equity for the poor.

30:16-18 And here's my hard-edged political commentary for the day. I long for the world described in these verses: a world where secrecy is done away. No more secret CIA prisons. No more domestic spying and wiretapping. No more closed-door dealings among political and corporate elites, away from the eyes and ears and voices of the people whose lives they're impacting. To bring it closer to home: no more keeping of confidential files by the Strengthening Church Members committee. According to these verses, secrecy is one of the instruments by which evil stays in power; the revelation of all truth breaks that power by bringing all those secret files and confidential dealings and covert operations into the light.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

God's gentleness and affection

While working on a project, I just encountered a statement by James E. Talmage that struck me.
The revolting practises of idolatry are traceable to perverted conceptions of human excellence, and these are reflected in the hideous creations of man-made, devil-inspired deities. On the other hand, the man whose enlightened soul has received the impress of love, pure and undefiled, will ascribe to his God the attributes of gentleness and affection, and will say in his heart "God is love." (The Articles of Faith, 397)
In context, the first sentence reflects a Victorian imperialist vision of "savage religion" (primitive, no doubt dark-skinned warriors offering blood sacrifice to idols). But the contrast Talmage draws between that sentence and the next opens up the possibility of a different reading. That is, when he speaks of "man-made, devil-inspired deities" arising from "perverted conceptions of human excellence," we could apply those words to monotheistic visions that represent God as something other than gentle and affectionate: punitive, imperious, angry, warlike, etc.

That little exegesis doesn't capture the feeling this quotation conveyed to me when I read it, so here's the last part of the quote again. I'm hoping the spirit of what Talmage is saying will touch readers the way it touched me when I read it.
[T]he man whose enlightened soul has received the impress of love, pure and undefiled, will ascribe to his God the attributes of gentleness and affection, and will say in his heart "God is love."