Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Ready always to give an answer"

"Be ready always to give an answer to everyone that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you . . ." (1 Peter 3:15)
This evening I went to the office of the Advocate, the Episcopal church whose Sunday services my partner and I attend. I've been going there lately on Thursday evenings to play LDS hymns on the piano, something I loved to do while I was at BYU but haven't had much opportunity to do since (because I didn't have access to a piano).

I arrived at the office just as a theology discussion group was finishing. "We were just talking about you," someone said. Apparently they'd been talking about all the people who go to the Advocate who are "in exile" from other churches, and someone mentioned me, with my Mormon background, as an example. They asked me to what extent I still consider myself Mormon, and I said, "Very much so." I explained that I read from the Book of Mormon every day, I wear the temple garment; and the fact that I still consider myself Mormon is why even though I attend services at the Advocate, I never take communion there. (Taking communion would feel to me like saying that I'd given up on my Mormon identity and had embraced a new one.)

One of the group told me that she owned a Book of Mormon and had tried reading it but just couldn't receive it as scripture. I told her that I didn't believe the book was ancient; but having been raised to read it as a sacred text, I found that God continued to speak to me through the book, calling me to more Christlike living—to greater piety, greater humility, greater charity.

Had the conversation continued, I would have explained that I read the Book of Mormon the same way liberal Christians read the Bible: it's not all historical, it isn't even all theologically acceptable, but there's something there that still makes it God's word to us. Had the conversation continued, I would have asked her how she came to own a Book of Mormon and what she'd read from it. I might have pointed her to some of my favorite passages: King Benjamin on the Christian life, the baptismal covenant at the Waters of Mormon, Alma 7 on Christ taking on our infirmities in order to know how to succor us. But the conversation ended abruptly because a woman crashed her motorcycle on the other side of the street and everyone ran over to help. She was all right, except that she thought she might have broken a rib, so the ambulance took her to the hospital.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Church governance "by the voice of the people"

My scripture reading for this week was Mosiah 29-Alma 4. The Sunday School study guide invites me, as I study Mosiah 29, to “consider what King Mosiah’s words teach about the kind of leaders who will help ‘make for the peace of the people.’” I hadn’t read those words until just now, but as it happens, my reflections this week have been running along that general line, i.e., I’ve been thinking about what Mosiah 29 teaches about leadership and authority. In today’s post, I want to articulate some ideas I’ve had—a kind of “studying things out in my mind”—about how Mosiah’s warnings against kingship could apply to the way authority functions in the LDS Church. I want to try out a proposal: the same reasons that lead Mosiah to urge his people to “make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people” also offer a case for implementing greater democracy within LDS church governance.

(An aside: When I decided earlier this week that this was where I felt inspired to go with today’s post, I worried that perhaps I’m obsessing about issues of Church leadership—a number of my posts have been about that—rather than focusing in my reading on listening for what the Spirit may be trying to tell me about my own personal shortcomings. It’s a valid concern, I think, and next week’s reading will give me a chance to focus on taking stock of my own spiritual state. At the same time, questions of authority in the Church are very much relevant to how Latter-day Saints organize our common life together, and so those questions are certainly important subjects for reflection.)

Mosiah gives several reasons why democracy is preferable to kingship. Now—why do I think this discussion is even relevant to questions of ecclesiastical governance? Isn’t Mosiah talking about political government? Well, yes . . . except that kingship isn’t a strictly “political” form of government in the sense that church-state separation has accustomed us moderns to thinking. Kingship is a sacred office. The king represents God (or the gods, depending on the kind of society we’re talking about). The king is appointed by God—anointed by God, in Jewish and Christian monarchic traditions, which makes the king, literally, a “messiah” or “christ”—an “anointed one.” Kings in ancient societies have been expected by their peoples to maintain the cosmos in good order by protecting them from their enemies and interceding with the gods as necessary to avert disaster. In some traditions, kings are thought of as divine or at least as having divine powers. The kings of England, for instance, were thought to have powers of divine healing.

We see this mingling of “political” and “sacred” roles in kingship as described in the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s kingship (2 Ne. 6:2, Jacob 1:11) is presented as a fulfillment of God’s promise to make him a ruler and teacher over his brethren (2 Ne. 5:18-19). As king, Nephi is also a prophet, who receives visions and other kinds of revelations; he also exercises the authority to ordain priests (2 Ne. 5:26). Benjamin is another king who also functions as a prophet, i.e., he is the recipient of an angelic revelation intended for his entire people (Mosiah 3). Like Nephi, Benjamin also exercises the authority to appoint priests (Mosiah 6:3). Mosiah functions explicitly as king, prophet, seer, and revelator (Mosiah 8:13-16). Joseph Smith exercised a similar combination of roles during the Nauvoo period: political head (mayor), military head (the Nauvoo Legion), head of the priesthood, and, of course, prophet, seer, and revelator. Not coincidentally, perhaps, this was the same period when, according to some sources, Joseph had himself secretly crowned king over Israel on earth.

This is the model of leadership that Mosiah urges his people to abandon. And here are the reasons he gives:

1. There is too much danger that this kind of authority will be exercised unrighteously (Mosiah 29:12-24). Mosiah grants that strong authority in the hands of a righteous person, i.e., a person committed to justice (Mosiah 29:13), can accomplish wonderful things, including peace and the curtailing of crime (Mosiah 29:14). King Benjamin had been beloved among his people for his egalitarianism, i.e., working for his own support, and for abolishing slavery and imprisonment (Mosiah 2:12-14). Benjamin, we are told, was a “holy man” (WofM 1:17). The problem, Mosiah points out, is that you can’t trust that you will always have a holy man as king. And in the absence of democratic means of legitimizing authority, a king who abuses his power can only be overthrown by violence (Mosiah 29:21). Mosiah’s solution is to abolish kingship and make the voice of the people sovereign instead, i.e., those who lead are appointed by the people (Mosiah 29:25-26).

It should be noted, by the way, that kings are also said in the Book of Mormon to have been “chosen” by the people as well as having their reign legitimated by God (see Mosiah 2:11). It’s also interesting to me that the office of chief judge seems to become, like kingship, hereditary. See Helaman 1:2, where it’s assumed that the office of a recently deceased chief judge will pass to one of his sons. The difference, though, seems to be that the people have a voice in deciding which son the office will go to via a multi-party election (Helaman 1:3-5). The office doesn’t pass on automatically. That makes sense, of course, if your concern is that you don’t want authority passing into the hands of someone you don’t trust to exercise it well.

How does this apply to the LDS Church? The LDS hierarchy exercises a strong, non-democratic authority with the highest office being transferred automatically rather than by election. (The sustaining of officers is not a democratic election; Church teaching has been perfectly clear on this point.) That is, the LDS hierarchy is a leadership system of the kind that Mosiah warns against. Of course, the vast majority of Latter-day Saints aren’t concerned about that because they trust that the General Authorities are, like King Benjamin, righteous men. There’s even a notion that God would never allow an unrighteous man to gain, or at least to retain, high church office, based on statements like Wilford Woodruff’s assertion that the Lord will never allow the president of the Church to lead us astray. How people imagine that God is supposed to prevent that from happening has never been clear to me. I’m much less sanguine about this. I place greater stock in the warning that virtually all people are prone to abuse authority (D&C 121:39), and I’m inclined to agree with Mosiah that instituting more democratic forms of government is the best option (though not a foolproof one) for trying to prevent abuse.

One argument I’ve seen against democratic church governance is that the church is a kingdom led by living prophets, seers, and revelators. To that, I would respond: Mosiah’s society was a kingdom headed by a living prophet, seer, and revelator (Mosiah 8:13-16). But that didn’t prevent Mosiah from championing a democratic system instead. It’s a huge shift, yes. It would be equivalent to the president of the Church announcing that henceforth General Authorities would be chosen by democratic vote of the membership. But that is the shift that Mosiah championed.

That’s the major thrust of Mosiah’s argument for democracy. There are two secondary arguments I want to look at, too.

2. Everyone should be responsible for their own sins. One of Mosiah’s arguments against kingship is that kings, because of the influence they exercise by virtue of their strong authority, are responsible for many of the sins of their people. This Mosiah calls an “inequality,” which ought not to exist. If the voice of the people is sovereign, then people become responsible for their own sins (Mosiah 29:30-32).

This is relevant to church governance because the Book of Mormon describes the responsibility of church leaders—priests and teachers—in the same way that Mosiah describes the responsibility of kings. Just as the king is responsible for the sins of his subjects, Jacob says that as a priest, he is responsible for the sins of those he is called to teach if he fails to teach them adequately (Jacob 2:2). This makes sense if the relationship between priest and people is understood in hierarchical terms, with the priest responsible to teach the word of God and the people responsible to listen and obey. But the scriptures offer an alternative way of understanding teaching authority in the Church, one that is more democratic and that redistributes responsibility along the lines Mosiah talks about. In this alternative model, the Saints are expected to teach one another, i.e., everyone takes turns teaching and listening, so that all are edified by all (D&C 43:8; 88:77, 122). Like Mosiah, the D&C presents this model in terms of everyone having an equal privilege (Mosiah 29:32; D&C 88:122). This, of course, is the model we use in local church classes; but elsewhere in the Church, a more hierarchical model of teaching prevails—a model based, as Mosiah says, on “inequality.”

Mosiah’s argument about everyone being responsible for their own sins is also relevant to discussions I’ve heard about dissent in the Church where people have argued that you should do what a Church leader tells you even if you believe it’s wrong. The logic is that if what you’ve been told to do was wrong, the sin will be on the leader’s head, not yours. That’s precisely the logic Mosiah rejects.

3. Democracy prevents violent contention. One of Mosiah’s arguments for abolishing kingship after Aaron rejects being king is that if Mosiah appoints someone else and then Aaron changes his mind and asserts his claim to the throne, the result will be civil war (Mosiah 29:5-10).

One argument I’ve heard against democracy in the Church is that people shouldn’t campaign for ecclesiastical office—that would be unseemly. Often the suggestion is that democracy would breed contention. Mosiah’s argument about democracy preventing violent contention is useful for pointing out that the rejection of democratic church governance prevents one kind of contention but produces different kinds of violence instead. Because the hierarchy treats democratic debate about Church leaders’ teachings and policies as an illegitimate mode of discourse (I’m thinking, for instance, of James E. Faust’s insistence that there can be no loyal opposition in the Church), dissent always becomes, by definition, rebellion and apostasy. And as such, dissent becomes grounds for disciplinary actions like disfellowshipment and excommunication which, however cloaked they are in rhetoric about love (and however sincerely that rhetoric may be believed), are nevertheless a kind of spiritual violence. The violence is evident from the metaphors used in scripture: people are cut off, their names are blotted out, they’re turned over to the buffetings of Satan. The situation would be different if there existed in the Church an expectation that teachings and policies could be the subject of legitimate disagreement and debate, with the understanding, of course, that the voice of the people would prevail. (If the losing side refused to accept that arrangement, then you would see schism, akin to the dissent we see recounted in Alma 2.)

This has been a long post, but a final thought: What if a question like the black priesthood ban had been resolved not by action of the hierarchy but by laying the issue before the membership so that it could decided by the voice of the people? (Incidentally, the fact that the lifting of the priesthood ban was put into effect before Official Declaration 2 was sustained at General Conference is one sign that the Church is not governed by the voice of the people, despite the contrary appearance that “sustaining” may create.) In other words, what if the ban had been openly debated in the Ensign and other Church magazines, and then had been put to a vote either by Church-wide referendum or by a convention of delegates (such as D&C 20:61-62 points to)? Would the ban have been lifted sooner? Later? I have no idea. But it would have been a revealing test of our faith community: a test of how, exactly, we employ scripture and prophetic teaching to guide us; a test of how we go about distinguishing gospel principles from false traditions of our forebears; a test of how we discern the voice of the Spirit, or the voice of continuing revelation. It would have made us all, collectively, much more obviously and directly accountable for perpetuating or ending the priesthood ban than we actually were. It would have made all of us, not just church leaders, responsible for seeking revelation. In Mosiah’s words, it would have made our sins and iniquities—or, alternatively, our faithfulness, repentance, and maturation as a people—answerable on our own heads. Instead, we deferred accountability to the prophet as a way of foisting accountability onto God.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Conversion stories

The centerpiece of my reading for this week was the conversion of Alma the Younger. The Sunday School study guide encourages me to use this reading as an occasion to reflect on my own conversion, and that's what I feel moved to do. I'm going to tell a couple different conversion stories, though . . . and there are more I could tell besides these. Because conversion—or as Alma puts it, becoming a new creature (Mosiah 27:26), becoming a new person—isn't something that happens only once in our lives. It happens again and again as we grow from grace to grace in our eternal progress.

By the way, these conversion stories double as Easter testimonies. The typological connection between the Easter story and Alma the Younger's conversion is apparent from the fact that Alma spends two days and nights in a death-like trance and on the third day rises again. Paul equates spiritual transformation with our being raised with Christ into new life—i.e., spiritual transformation is part of how we participate in Christ's resurrection. I believe that.

Conversion story 1: Early in my mission, I underwent a faith crisis. I'm glossing over a lot of backstory here, but the simple way to tell it is that I came to a point where I realized that I simply didn't have the kind of indubitable proof of LDS faith claims that I believed I needed to have. I'd had "burning in the bosom" kinds of experiences in the past, but I didn't regard those as indubitable because they were too subjective—I could see the possibility that they were the result of emotional manipulation or my own fervent will to believe.

That probably sounds cerebral the way I just described it, but it was intensely distressing and depressing. Wrapped in all this were feelings of homesickness, and culture shock, and inadequacy, and fear of proselyting, and unresolved family issues, plus the incipient discomfort of being a strong-willed intellectual in a church institution that prizes obedience and conformity and has deeply rooted anti-intellectual strains. Sorry—getting cerebral again. The point is: I was miserable. I stayed up at night stewing. I cried in front of a sympathetic sister missionary. I shut down during discussions with investigators. And one morning, at 4 A.M., my companion and I got up and boarded a bus into the capital so that I could confess to the mission president that I didn't believe in God and needed to be sent home. At the end of that long, emotionally exhausting day, I was still a missionary, but largely because when it came time to bite the bullet, I was too chicken to phone my stake president and tell him I was done. My companion and I took the two-hour bus ride back to our proselyting area . . . where the first thing I did was conduct a baptismal service for my sympathetic sister missionary friend, who was frantic because the ward mission leader had dropped the ball.

For two more weeks I vacillated and stewed, trying to find any grounds for believing in the gospel, or anything else for that matter, that couldn't be relativized . . . and not finding any. I was still depressed. And then one day, sitting at my desk for scripture study, I had an epiphany. I would later learn to call this epiphany "postmodern," but I didn't know what that word meant at the time. A little voice in my head said something like: "Wait a minute. Why is it that every time you conclude everything can be relativized, you land on atheistic nihilism? Don't you realize that atheistic nihilism is just one more worldview among all the rest? And you don't have indubitable proof of that worldview anymore than you do for any other."

Again, this is probably all sounding really cerebral. But when I realized this, a huge weight was lifted. (I know, it's a cliché. But that's what it felt like.) I felt freed. The fact that I couldn't prove the truth of any belief the way I'd thought I was supposed to be able to meant that I was free to believe what I wanted. I had to believe something, after all. And there was no question that belief in Mormonism made me happy—or certain aspects of Mormonism, anyway. (I really disliked Bruce R. McConkie, for example.) So I chose happiness by choosing belief. Later, studying Alma 32, I would come to understand that choice as the essence of faith. At the moment I had this epiphany—March 24, 1992—I got on my knees and told God I was committing myself to believe in him and in the gospel teachings that had brought me happiness in my life. And that prayer felt powerfully, amazingly good.

Conversion story 2: I returned from my mission in October 1993. I had loved the mission: I told everyone it had been the most grueling but also the most spiritually satisfying experience of my life. I had seen God at work in my own life and the lives of others, and those experiences had strengthened my testimony. I wasn't necessarily an orthodox Mormon—I wavered on matters like Book of Mormon historicity, though I had no doubt the Book of Mormon was the word of God—but I felt more integrated to the church, as an institution, then I ever had before or ever have since.

And then I walked right from the mission field into the aftermath of the September Six and the beginnings of BYU's academic freedom controversy. The excommunications of people like Michael Quinn, Paul Toscano, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maxine Hanks, later Janice Allred felt deeply wrong to me. I didn't always agree with those writers, but I admired them and I simply could not accept that their writings made them excommunicable. Particularly troubling were indications that Boyd K. Packer had directed stake presidents to take action and that Dallin H. Oaks (who interviewed with the national media about the excommunications) had known this and had helped cover it up. That suspicion made it hard to trust church leaders, and it made it simply impossible to trust them to the extent necessary to believe something like "the Lord will never allow the General Authorities to lead the church astray." And then the firestorms around David Knowlton and Brian Evenson—both of whom, again, I admired—shook me up that much more.

My first two years at BYU, before my mission, had been mind-opening and horizon-widening. My experience had been that this was a place where I could explore possible relationships between the subject matter of my college studies and LDS faith. I loved that. But during my last two years at BYU, after my mission, the atmosphere felt very different to me. I sensed more conflict, more guardedness on the part of professors, a greater sense that lots of people at BYU felt like they were under siege for different reasons. The message I was getting was that people like me—people who identified as intellectuals, who were interested in postmodern trends (when I began to study deconstruction as an English major, I recognized the same postmodern epistemological principles that had saved my faith), who were willing to put long-standing church teachings up for question, and who thought that church leaders and university administrators were making some very bad decisions—people like me were not welcome, either at BYU or in the church . . . even though we were acting, or trying to act, in the context of our Mormon faith.

At one point I attended a Marriott Center devotional where Gordon B. Hinckley dismissed the September Six controversy, this event that had thrown my life off-kilter, with a joke. He said that in the same month as those five excommunications, there had been 500 convert baptisms in Utah alone—5 to 500 sounded like pretty good odds to him, he said. I felt like I was the only person in the Marriott Center who didn't find that funny. (So the five sheep in the wilderness don't matter as long as there are 500 more in the fold?)

By the end of my time at BYU, church had become a miserable experience. Church meetings were simply to be endured. I don't remember how, exactly, I distracted myself during Sunday School and priesthood; but during sacrament meeting, I would sit alone, sort of folded up in my chair, with my eyes shut. I felt constantly under attack—not that people intended that, of course; but the orthodox tone that everyone took for granted in these meetings, especially in the militant atmosphere of BYU in the early 1990s, sent the constant message that I didn't fit here. Church attendance did nothing for me spiritually. My spiritual nourishment came from things like weekly temple attendance or finding an empty room on campus on a Friday night where I could play hymns on the piano. After I graduated and moved to Salt Lake to go to graduate school at the University of Utah, I attended sacrament meeting once. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone with facial hair give a talk (how progressive!), but when the meeting was over, I thought, "There's nothing here for me." And except for events like baby blessings, I never attended LDS church meetings again.

Why do I call that a conversion story? There are other ways to characterize it. I could call it an un-conversion story. Or a story about going into exile. But I think of it as a conversion story because like the first conversion story I told, and like the conversion of Alma the Younger, the story of how I became inactive is a story about being set free from misery and a kind of captivity, about entering a new life where I'm able to live with joy and freedom, about overcoming forces that hold me back me from being the person I feel that God is impelling me to be. Of course, life wasn't smooth sailing after either of these conversion experiences, just as it wasn't for Alma the Younger, who faced opposition from people who regarded his new course as a betrayal.

Figuring out how to make the two conversion stories I've told here work together in the narrative of my life has been a challenge, one that has involved yet further conversion stories. Had I chosen the route of being an "ex-Mormon," and if I were posting these stories to someplace like "Recovery from Mormonism," I would have treated the first conversion story as an error and the second as my coming to see the light. But that's not the way I see these stories working together. The second conversion story isn't a repudiation of the first. Rather, it takes the first in a different direction. And I trust God to show me where to go next. "God has delivered me . . . and I do put my trust in him" (Alma 36:27).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Same-sex marriage in California

Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother—

You have said that it is not good for human beings to be alone.
You have encouraged us to lay before you the desires of our hearts.
You have promised that when your children ask for bread, you will not give us stones.
You have promised to pour out new light and knowledge on your people—to reveal things that have never been known since the creation of the world.
You have given me the grace to find joy in a same-sex partnership.

I am both grateful and uneasy about the California ruling on behalf of same-sex marriage.
I remember how frightened I was a few years ago when San Francisco began performing marriages for same-sex couples—afraid that it would prompt an overwhelming political backlash.
At the same time, I remember the sheer joy I felt every time I looked at photos of those marriages.

I give thanks for the nations that protect sexual orientation as a question of human rights and that have given legal recognition to same-sex partnerships.
I give thanks for an increased willingness on the part of the American courts and in public opinion to recognize same-sex relationships as morally equivalent to heterosexual relationships.
I believe that is your will; I believe it is the working of your Spirit blowing across the face of history.
I hope that, anyway. I place my hope in you.

I pray that the step forward which has been made in California will not be undone.
I pray that I will live long enough to be able to marry my partner in a federally recognized union.
I pray for new understanding among Latter-day Saints about this issue.
I pray for gay/lesbian people living in places where religious opposition to same-sex relationships is even more repressive and violent.

In Christ's name, amen.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Priesthood restoration

Today is May 15, the anniversary of the restoration of the priesthood. More precisely, it's the anniverary of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery's vision of John the Baptist. That was followed, over the years, by visions of visits from other biblical figures: Peter, James, and John; Moses, Elias, and Elijah; as well as Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and "divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time . . . ; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!" (D&C 128:21).

A few potentially distracting statements for clarification's sake: I don't believe that the LDS Church has a unique, exclusive dispensation of divine authority, which is the point of these visions from the perspective of LDS orthodoxy. I don't believe these angelic visits were objectively real, meaning that if they happened, they happened inside the heads of the people having these visions. I say "if they happened" because I find it plausible that the priesthood restoration accounts were fabricated a few years after they were supposed to have occurred as a way to bolster Smith's authority. (Grant Palmer reviews the evidence for this in An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.)

But that's not the main point I want to make today. However they came about, these visions have become part of the Mormon tradition—an important part of the Mormon tradition. These visions have come to play an important role in telling Latter-day Saints who we are and what our mission is. The Spirit speaks through these visions—I bear testimony of that. In fact, I'll indulge in a moment of supercillious spiritual rank-pulling at the risk of inviting critical reactions in kind (and sad eyes from Jesus later): If you're someone who can't understand how these visions could have any religious significance apart from questions about their literal reality and the Church's authority, then you haven't felt the Spirit speaking to you through these visions and you therefore don't have a testimony of them. That's true whether you come down on the side of saying, "The visions have to be literally real because the Church can't be true otherwise" (testimony by syllogism, I call that) or whether you come down on the side of saying, "The visions aren't literally real, so Mormonism's a crock."

What I hear these visions telling me—what I hear the Spirit telling me through them—is this: that Latter-day Saints, as a people, are commissioned and empowered to carry out, in the modern world, the work of the God of the Bible. The work of the ancient prophets is our work: to be a voice crying repentance to wayward societies, especially to people in power; a voice calling for justice for the poor; a voice of consolation and hope reiterating God's millennial promises. Our work is the work of Jesus' apostles: to share with others the hope and joy that we have found in Christ and to continue the ministry of Jesus—a ministry of healing and teaching; of helping people in spiritual and physical need; of forging a community that cuts across cultural, economic, and ethnic divides. Our work is to build up Zion, a community one in heart and mind and where there are no poor. Our work is to prepare the way for Christ's millennial reign, to pave the way for the coming of the world envisioned by prophets—a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where the poor will eat their fill at God's feast, where God will wipe away all tears. Our work is to gather exiles (D&C 110:11); to bless all the families of the earth (D&C 110:12; Abr. 2:9-11); to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents (D&C 110:13-16; D&C 2:2).

The visions of the restoration of the priesthood tell me that this is the work I am called to do as someone who is committed to the practice of Mormon spirituality. And these visions give me the "consolation" and "hope" (D&C 128:21) that this work can be accomplished. I struggle, frankly, to maintain that hope because the obstacles are so huge. And it's because of that struggle that I embrace these visions: because I believe that they are God's way of telling me: I am with you, my power is upon you, you can make a difference.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost and Mosiah 18

Today is Pentecost. Some Christians describe this as the "birthday" of the church, meaning that they see Pentecost as the beginning of the community of Spirit-filled disciples. So it seems an especially appropriate day for me to reflect on the formation of a Christian community as described in Mosiah 18.

The "church of God," or the "church of Christ," are the assembly of the baptized (v. 17). They are also called the "fold of God" or "[God's] people" (v. 8). I will therefore be talking throughout this post as if the word "church" were plural—"the church do such-and-such," rather than "the church does such-and-such" (just as if I were saying "the baptized do such-and-such," or "God's people do such-and-such"). I think that's important as a way to underscore that the church are first and foremost an assembly, a community, not an institution.

The church are united by their baptism: what makes them one body is that they all share that rite. Baptism is a witness that we are willing to bear one another's burdens, to mourn with those who mourn, to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God in all things throughout our lives. Baptism betokens that we have entered into a covenant with God, to serve him and keep his commandments (which Jesus tells us, in the Gospels, are first and foremost to love God and to love our neighbor). By entering this covenant, we make it possible for God to pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon us (vv. 8-10). One of the purposes of having the Spirit poured out upon us, we learn in v. 12, is so that we can do God's work with holiness of heart—that is, the Spirit equips us for service, to do the things we have covenanted to do.

Later in the chapter, we are told how this community, at least, organized their common life. They are divided into groups of fifty (v. 18)—small compared to the size that LDS wards are allowed to reach today, but larger than, say, the college courses I've taught. I'm trying to think if I've ever belonged to a group of fifty: I'm trying to imagine what that would feel like in terms of bonding as a small group versus being able to maintain a measure of anonymity. Each group of fifty is assigned a priest, who is charged to preach nothing but repentance and faith in the Redeemer (vv. 18-20). The idea, I suppose, is that the priests are to confine themselves to basic Christian doctrines and practical life application rather than sophisticated theology or exegesis.

Because they have been joined into one shared faith and one baptism, the church are instructed not to contend with another, but to have their hearts knit together in unity and love for one another. This, they are told, is what will make them truly "the children of God" (vv. 21-22). Their worship consists of daily thanksgiving, a weekly Sabbath observance, and other assemblies as occasion permits (vv. 23, 25). The point is that they're encouraged to engage often in the practice of community, in the practice of being together.

About their finances: The priests are not full-time religious specialists: they work for their support like everybody else (v. 24). However, as need requires, they may be supported by the community just like other needy individuals (v. 28). The community described here doesn't seem to be organized like the Christian communities described in Acts or 4 Nephi, who held all things in common. But there is an expectation that people should impart to one another according to their means and their needs (v. 27-29).

Oh, one more thing: Authority in the community is centralized. Alma is at the center—or, to use a different model, at the top of a hierarchy. He is apparently the only one with authority to baptize and to ordain priests; certainly, at least, he is the source of that authority, even if it ends up being delegated (vv. 16-18). He is also, apparently, the only living, or at least present, source of authorized teaching, i.e., the priests repeat his teachings, which are supposed to be the teachings of Abinadi (v. 1; cf. 16:4). The priests can also teach what has been "spoken by the mouth of the holy prophets" (v. 19), which I presume refers to older written scriptures.

Note, then, that though this community's history begins with a charismatic prophet who comes out of nowhere and speaks a message given to him directly by God (Abinadi), things quickly get routinized, as the sociologists say: prophetic utterance in the present gives way to a written record of teachings past, and charismatic authority gives way to hierarchical authority. It's not clear what the basis of Alma's exclusive claim to supreme authority is. Because the community recognizes his ordination as a priest of Noah's regime? Because the community believes he has received authority by an outpouring of the Spirit (vv. 12-13)? There's no clear indication, in this chapter, that Alma is receiving his own revelations, though that will happen later (24:17). I'm seeing a rough parallel here to how authority will get worked out in the fledgling LDS community, where Joseph's charisma as seer and prophet quickly becomes routinized into an exclusive claim to supreme hierarchical authority to fend off competing charismas (like Hiram Page's seerstone).

What does all this say to me? The baptized life is a life in community—I've commented before on the problem that poses to me now that I don't have formal membership in a religious community. The baptismal covenant is centrally about mutual support: about sharing others' burdens and griefs, being there for them when they need comfort, and, in a perfectly tangible way, sharing our substance with people in need. A central challenge of the church is knitting our hearts together in love—a vivid metaphor. Teaching among the church should be simple, focused on real-life application of gospel principles.

The fact that teaching in the "Waters of Mormon" community is so hierarchical—the impression, at least, is that of a priest sermonizing to a passive audience—feels wrong to me. Passages in the D&C about teaching one another ring more true. The ideal of the community's religious leaders working for their own support rings true; but as many a religious group has discovered, the ideal quickly runs up against practical difficulties, and sooner or later the leadership at certain levels end up being compensated for full-time religious work (as happens in the LDS Church today). I do believe, though, that it's important to carefully cultivate the spirit of volunteerism as much as possible, and the LDS Church does a remarkably good job at that. (Though there is a down side to that as well, i.e., people's energies get pulled so much into keeping the Church running that it becomes harder to engage with the larger community. LDS volunteerism thus facilitates parochialism. It's a thorny catch-22.)

I feel like there's something more I ought to say here . . . something more that the Spirit is nudging me to articulate. But it's not coming now. Perhaps later as I continue to meditate on this passage.


Holy Spirit—

On this day of Pentecost, I remember the spiritual outpouring that fell on Jesus's disciples after he had ascended into heaven.
I remember the "Pentecost" of the Kirtland Temple dedication, when new visions confirmed to the Latter-day Saints that they had been called to the work of preparing Christ's millennial reign.
I remember the "Pentecost" that moved the hearts of LDS leaders in 1978 and finally brought an end to the black priesthood ban.

I give thanks for the many ways the Spirit has been poured out upon me in the course of my life.
I give thanks for the occasions when I have felt inspired in what to say or write.
I give thanks for moments of epiphany.
I give thanks for moments of comfort.
I give thanks for being gradually guided in ways I only recognized after the fact.
I give thanks for being touched through scripture, music, literature, and film.
I give thanks for feelings of having my understanding enlightened and my soul enlarged.

Help me know how to more fully participate in a baptized community.
Help me be more loving, more open, more tightly knit to others; more willing to share my substance, my time, my energies, my empathy, my support.
Help me be a better, more consistent, more conscientious, more completely consecrated witness of God's truth and love.

In Christ's name, amen.

Friday, May 9, 2008

When all the records will be opened

Today I watched a German movie, The Lives of Others, about an agent of the Stasi (the East German secret police) who spies on a playwright suspected of being a dissident. After the Wall falls, the playwright visits the former Stasi headquarters, where he is able to read the files that were kept on him—as people can actually do in real life.

LDS scriptures describe the final judgment as a time when records kept on earth and in heaven will be opened (D&C 128:6-7) and "secret acts of men" will be revealed (D&C 88:108-110). Watching The Lives of Others, I thought that I would like to see a day when the records of the Strengthening Church Members Committee are opened to public review. I'd like David Knowlton to be able to see the correspondence between General Authorities and BYU administrators that led to his dismissal from BYU. I'd like Michael Quinn to be able to read transcripts of the phone conversations between Boyd K. Packer and his stake president prior to his disciplinary council. I'd like to have a copy of the letter that Church headquarters sent to the stake president who initiated disciplinary proceedings against me. I'd like to know who sent that letter. I'd like to see the paperwork that was sent to Salt Lake following my disciplinary council; I'd like to know the official reason for my excommunication.
There is nothing which is secret
     save it shall be revealed;
there is no work of darkness
     save it shall be made manifest in the light.
(2 Nephi 30:17)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

One of my students was arrested

I picked up the local independent weekly this evening, and there was a photo of one of my students from this past semester being carried out of the administration building in an office chair. For two weeks she'd been participating in a sit-in to protest the fact that the administration won't sign onto an anti-sweatshop agreement. (That would help explain why she hasn't been in class...) Finally, I guess, the protestors decided to up the ante by moving the sit-in into the chancellor's office, at which point they were arrested.

This all hits close to home for me, both because a student of mine is involved and because I understand, from a conversation I had with her during the anti-war rally back in March, that at least some of the UNC merchandise that's the focus of this protest is manufactured in the Dominican Republic, which is where I served my mission. After I got my mission call, my parents took me to Mr. Mac's to get outfitted, and I thought it was cool that all my white shirts had been manufactured in the Dominican Republic. It became less cool once I got to the DR and began meeting people who worked in the American-run clothing factories where things like my shirts are made, and started hearing them tell me stories about being locked in the building for unpaid overtime if they hadn't met quotas, etc. And people badly wanted these jobs, mind you. It was the beginning of my coming to see how my country and its economy exploit people.

I tell myself that tactics like the sit-in that got my student arrested aren't effective. And I believe that. Not in that time and in that way, at least. At the same time, I also know that I wouldn't have the courage to do what she did. She stood up—or more appropriately, sat down—for what she believes in. She went out on a limb on behalf of people in another country whose working conditions scandalize her. I'm scandalized, too. But you don't see me making sacrifices because of it.

So—my hat is off to her. She's being a prophetic voice, not just with words but with deeds; not just with her lips, but with her whole body.


God of power—

In the scriptures I read about prophets who made trouble, who did "street theater" to get attention for their message.
I read about the invasive, destructive protest your Son staged against moneychangers in the temple.
I'm mindful (albeit with mixed feelings) of the civil disobedience practiced by polygamous Mormons in the nineteenth century.

I pray for my student and those arrested with her.
I pray that university administrators will be moved to use the university's purchasing power to do whatever lies in its capacity—I should say, our capacity—to struggle against sweatshop labor.
I pray for the individuals I met in the Dominican Republic who work in exploitative conditions—I don't remember all their names, I don't remember all their faces, but you know them.
I pray for economic justice.

May the kingdom of God roll forth.

In Christ's name, amen.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The NC primary

I voted today in the North Carolina primary. A minimal gesture toward fulfilling my stewardship as a citizen. I have definite ideas about who needs to win the November elections, but whatever the results, I pray for a government that will administer justice and equity.


God of justice—

I give thanks for being able to vote—to have that voice in how my community, state, and nation are governed.
I give thanks that suffrage in the United States has extended as far as it has. I give thanks for the sacrifices and struggles that made that possible.
I give thanks that democratic government has become the norm—in theory, at the very least—in so many parts of the world. I give thanks for the sacrifices and struggles that have made that possible, and that continue to make it possible.

Through the scriptures, you have taught me that righteous government is a government that administers justice and equity.
You have challenged me to plead the cause of the poor and needy.
You have challenged me to lift up an ensign of peace—to sue for peace to all people.

I pray that elected officials in this country will stand for justice, equality, peace, the fight against poverty, and wise stewardship of the environment.
I pray for the election of a government dedicated to ending the war in Iraq in the context of promoting a more peace-minded and collaborative foreign policy.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

God come down in human form

Today (May 4) is the anniversary of the first endowment ceremonies, administered on the upper floor of Joseph Smith's store in Nauvoo in 1842. The endowment has been for me, as the name says, a gift. I have a taste for liturgical—by which I mean, ceremonial—worship, and the endowment is the most elaborate liturgy Mormonism offers. I enjoyed the sense of familiarity that came with mastering the text in my head and then reliving that same experience over and over as an opportunity for deeper reflection and new understanding. I'm grateful for the way the endowment taught me to think of myself as a priestly person, consecrated to God's service. I loved wearing the robes—read into that what you will. I loved the play of symbol and allusion and the reworking of scriptural texts. I loved the way the ceremony is left wide open to individual interpretation. I loved the intimacy of the dialogue at the veil. In the end, your whole life comes down to that: a private interview—an embrace—with the One who bears scars on his palms and wrists as the signs and tokens of his love for you.

Which brings us in a way to my Book of Mormon reading this week, Mosiah 12-17. The centerpiece of these chapters is Abinadi's teaching on Christ's incarnation, which he connects to Christ's passion. Abinadi's doctrine can be outlined as follows:
  • Christ is both the Father and the Son because he is God (the Father) conceived in the flesh (the Son). More simply put, Christ is "God himself . . . come down among the children of men" in "the form of man" (13:34, 15:1-4). The most straightforward reading of these verses is that Abinadi does not understand the Father and the Son, or the Father and Christ, to be different persons. Christ is the one God in mortal flesh. "Son" refers to his flesh, "Father" to his divinity (15:5).

  • As Christ, God "is despised and rejected . . . ; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (14:3). He is "stricken," "wounded," "bruised," "oppressed," "afflicted" (14:4-5, 7; also 13:35). He is "mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people" (15:5). Ultimately he is killed. God becomes subject to death so that he can break the bands of death (15:7-8).

  • Having risen from death, the Son—that is, God's flesh—ascends "into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice" (15:9). From the empathy born of his own bodily suffering, the Son "make[s] intercession" for us (15:8). Elsewhere, quoting Isaiah, Abinadi describes the atonement in terms of our being "healed" by Christ (14:5). Like Benjamin, Abinadi sees the atonement as making us children of Christ, or as he puts it, Christ's "seed" (15:10-12).
What does this mean to me?

First, I like the fact that Abinadi's explanation of how Christ is both Father and Son does not match the explanations that the First Presidency and the Twelve gave in their 1916 doctrinal exposition, because it doesn't match the LDS understanding of the Father and the Son as separate persons. You have to "wrest" the Abinadi text—you have to wrest it hard—to reconcile it with the vision of the Godhead that has been orthodox among Latter-day Saints since at least the 1840s. I like that because it illustrates that the LDS tradition is not a consistent whole. No religious tradition is. Inevitably, historical accretion and internal diversity produce inconsistencies and contradictions, which theologians (or, in our tradition, scriptorians) later have to try to reconcile or obscure. That's just how things work. So insisting on treating the tradition as a consistent whole is ultimately futile: there will always be cracks and slippages. An alternative—my preference—is to approach the tradition as a toolbox, from which you pick out what's useful for your particular purpose at a given moment. If Abinadi's explanation of the incarnation and the passion doesn't say anything meaningful to you—fine, ignore it, at least for now. But you can't make it go away (not legitimately, anyway) by claiming that it simply preaches the now orthodox LDS doctrine on the Godhead. Our tradition isn't that tidy. And that untidiness, to my mind, becomes an argument in favor of tolerating—if not embracing—greater doctrinal diversity within the Church.

But let me turn to the heart of the matter, which is what Abinadi's teaching means in my spiritual life. The conventional LDS story about the Father and the Son tells of a God who is an exalted man, who begets and rears us as his spirit children, and who in the premortal council calls one of his spirit children—our Elder Brother—to come to earth to become our Savior. I love that story for a number of reasons I can talk about in a later post. At the same time, I love the very different story that Abinadi tells, a story about an incorporeal God who takes on human form, suffers, dies, and rises again so that by experiencing mortality he can take up into himself qualities of merciful compassion and empathy. In a particularly powerful way, that story tells me that God knows in his flesh everything that I suffer. The more conventional LDS story tells me that too, but Abinadi's version is particularly powerful because it emphasizes the equation between the suffering Christ and God (whereas the more common LDS story emphasizes Christ as the Son of God, meaning a distinct being).

One of my means of spiritual reflection and expression is amateur songwriting. A few years back, when I was feeling rather alone, I wrote a song that expressed what it meant to me to think of God as a being who came to earth in human form, as Jesus, and suffered with us to learn empathy. I was thinking primarily at the time of Alma 7:11-12, but Mosiah 15 teaches the same doctrine:
When I feel I am alone
with my burden, with my pain,
still I know that there is One
who will always understand.
For my God cries, and my God bleeds.
My God knows fear and shame and outrage.
My God's felt helpless, alone, and weary.
Such is the God who walks beside me on my way.
I also learn from Abinadi's teaching—and this next part doesn't have to rely on Abinadi's particular take on the incarnation—that to be Christlike is to experience solidarity with people who are oppressed, afflicted, wounded, despised, rejected, mocked. And I learn that Christ shares my own experiences of being wounded, rejected, "cast out, and disowned by his people." Those last words (from Mosiah 15:5) really struck me this time around, given my excommunication last year.


One last thought: Today was Ascension Sunday. At the Episcopal church, we sang a hymn that included these words of praise to the risen Christ:
Thou within the veil hast entered,
robed in flesh, our great High Priest . . .
A strikingly apt image both for the day I reflected on Abinadi's teachings about God in human form ascending into heaven with the bowels of mercy to make intercession for us, and for the day I commemorate the anniversary of the endowment.