Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reaping racism

Racist Remarks by Popular BYU Religion Professor Spark Controversy
Church Statement Regarding 'Washington Post' Article on Race and the Church

The Lord has said:
I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression,
but . . . their doings shall be as a stumbling block before them.

And again he says:
If my people sow filthiness,
they shall reap the chaff thereof in the whirlwind;
and the effect thereof is poison. . . .

And now, behold,
the promise of the Lord is fulfilled.

(Mosiah 7:29-32)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Baptism for the dead

I don’t have as much time to dedicate to this as I would ideally like, but I want to say at least a few things about the recent controversy in the national media over baptism for the dead, sparked by yet another complaint about baptisms performed for people killed in the Holocaust.

First, I am appalled that the baptisms continue after church officials promised to stop them. Clearly there is either a lack of will to enforce the ban on baptisms for Holocaust victims—or the system is set up in a way that officials really don’t have the means to enforce the ban. Either way—whether church officials lacked the will to stop the baptisms or the ability to stop the baptisms—it would seem the promises made to Jewish organizations were empty from the start, ergo a disingenuous attempt at placating critics.

I am angry at the fact that some church members evidently don’t take the ban seriously. And I’m angry at the various ways that church leaders have, from the beginning of Mormon history, nurtured a culture of doubletalk (esoteric teachings and rituals, obfuscating public statements, “lying for the Lord,” secret polygamous marriages, secret committees) that allows members to assume that church leaders don’t really mean it when they tell the world they’re going to stop doing baptisms for Holocaust victims.

I feel ashamed and attacked when Stephen Colbert or Bill Maher ridicule the practice of baptism for the dead. And I feel misunderstood when Elie Wiesel expresses his outrage at Mormons having “converted” Holocaust victims, or when people characterize baptism for the dead as the LDS Church claiming to have “turned dead Jews into Mormons.” During the year before I was endowed, going to the Provo Temple weekly to perform baptisms for the dead was my primary source of spiritual nurture and rejuvenation. I’m deeply ambivalent now about the practice—more on this farther down—but the point is I’m ambivalent because while I now associate negative meanings with the practice, I still see positive meanings to be derived from it as well. This is to say that while I can make the empathetic leap to understand why outsiders find the practice offensive, and while I wish more Mormons would make that leap, I also wish outsiders would likewise make the leap to try to understand empathetically what the practice means to Mormons—and what it doesn’t actually mean to them.

I feel that’s not something I can say to Elie Wiesel. You can’t say to someone who lost his family in the death camps, “You should be more empathetic for the Mormons who performed vicarious baptisms for your family members.” I’d like to at least be able to clear up what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding about what Mormons intend by the practice—but even that is hard to talk about under the circumstances. If you’re going to talk back to a Holocaust survivor, you’ve got to have a moral imperative on your side a lot stronger than “You’re not quite grasping how Mormons understand the situation.”

Let me shift the conversation away from the Holocaust—where I have no right to speak—to an area where I can speak. Let me talk about my own dead to illustrate why I’m ambivalent about the practice of vicarious baptism.

I’ve written elsewhere about how much my convert mother hated her non-LDS father. I have a memory from my growing up years—probably my early teens—of my mother telling me that she had no intention of having vicarious ordinances done for her father because she didn’t want to be part of his family for eternity. Then, several years later, after I’d left LDS Church life, I learned that my mother had submitted her father’s name, and that one of my brothers had been the proxy. I thought of this as a good thing. She was arriving a point where she was beginning to forgive her father for the terrible way he’d treated her.

Fast forward a few more years: I travel from Utah to California to visit my mother’s mother, who’s dying of cancer. When I arrive, I learn there’s been some tension over a scrapbook my mother prepared for my grandmother that contained some allusions to Mormon beliefs which my grandmother interpreted as an attempt to proselytize her on her deathbed (a not unreasonable interpretation).

Near the end of my visit, my grandmother, who’d been attending a nearby Bible church since becoming ill, asked me if Mormons were Christian. I started into a nuanced exposition, but then I realized that what she was really asking was whether I’d accepted Jesus. She wanted to know if she, and her daughter, and her grandchildren, were going to be in heaven together. With some qualms, since I knew she and I weren’t really on the same page, theologically, I told her yes. “Good,” she said. “My pastor told me that Mormons weren’t Christians. But I told him I knew my daughter had raised her children to love Jesus.”

I’m crying as I write this. The day after I had this conversation with my grandmother, she became comatose, and a few days after that, she died. And I got to thinking: Someday my mother is going to submit my grandmother’s name to have her work done. (Which she did, as soon as the requisite time had passed.) And I felt, for the first time as far as I can recall, why people find that offensive. My grandmother made her peace with God before she died. She left this world very clear about her relationship with her Savior. Performing a vicarious baptism on her behalf says, in effect: the peace you made with God wasn’t good enough. And that’s just really, really rude, however well-meaning it is.

It also offers a deeply unsatisfying picture of God—as if God is a customs agent, who won’t let you in unless you can show that all your paperwork is in order. Baptismal record from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Check. The Spirit tells me that’s not a true picture. A truer picture is the one Jesus gives us in the parable of the prodigal son—the picture of a father who goes running out to meet his child. The God I worship didn’t make my grandmother stand in line to see if her papers had been properly stamped. He received her with open arms. The same way he received my mother.

Having said that: If my mother never had herself vicariously sealed to her parents, I'd like to see that done.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sunstone Kirtland

The preliminary program is available for the upcoming regional Sunstone symposium, to be held in the Kirtland Temple. The theme is sacred space. I'll be moderating a session, "Does the Historicity of the First Vision Matter?," with panelists Dan Vogel, Stephen Taysom, and Lachlan Mackay.

I'm particularly looking forward to the devotional, which will include some readings from the Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer and a period of Quaker-style silence in which people can share their thoughts. (Like a testimony meeting, but somewhat more open-ended in terms of what people might feel they have to say.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Book of Mormon Girl selection

My partner ordered Joanna Brooks's memoir The Book of Mormon Girl; it arrived this weekend. Once I've had a chance to read the whole thing, I may post a review. But for now, here's a selection I found particularly moving. This is a very short chapter about 3/4 of the way through titled "sealed portion."

The square brackets are in the original. The bolding is me highlighting a phrase that resonated immediately with me.


[Here are parts of the story I do not want to tell.

But I will for you, wayward Mormon boy or girl. I will for you, girl seeking.

Because our stories are not told in sacred books. They are not told over the pulpit. They are not told by the prophets.

No one says: I felt my church turn away from me, and it was a kind of death to me.

No one says: I drove into the desert. I wandered around the city in the dark. I was alone and it was cold and inside me was desolation.

No one says: I sat in the hotel lobby bathroom, my ribcage wracked with sobs, until a stranger, insistent, knocked at the stall door, handing me a Kleenex and urging me to be strong.

No one says: when my family treated me as a stranger, I preferred the company of strangers, and I walked among strangers and what did I find but God in every one of their faces.

No one says: I broke rules, I broke rules, I broke rules--I broke all the rules. That one. And that one. And that one too. Yes. I did.

No one says: I laid on the floor of the Venice Beach apartment and Parliament was on the record player and my friend and I, we looked at the ceiling, and I waved the smoke from the air with the back of my hand, and when he asked "Help me understand what this Mormonism means to you?" I said "it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart."

No one says any of these things. But they should.

Because no one should be left to believe that she is the only one.

No one should be left to believe that she is the only Mormon girl who walked alone into the dark. No one should be left to feel like she is the only one broken and seeking.]

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freedom Riders

Tonight I caught part of a PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders. Their courage was awesome. But my personality being what it is, my primary visceral reaction to what they went through was rage. And as I often do, I'm going to express that rage in language provided by my religious tradition.

So, to the mobs who harassed and assaulted the Freedom Riders and their local black supporters, and to the Southern white authorities who prosecuted the Riders or refused to protect them--I repeat to you words spoken about 125 years earlier to other mobs and other white authorities not too far to the north and west of you:
Their basket shall not be full;
their houses and barns shall perish;
they shall be despised by those who flattered them.

It would be better for them
if a millstone had been hung around their necks
and they had been drowned in the depth of the sea.

Wo to all those
who discomfort, and drive, and murder my people,
says the Lord of Armies.

Bull Connor,
John Patterson,
and Ross Barnett.)

A generation of vipers will not escape
the damnation of hell.

(D&C 121: 20, 22-23)
Sigh. I feel better now.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

2/5/1992 - The Zona Franca

This post is part of what's meant to be a monthly series in which I commemorate my mission, 20 years ago, by "looking back" at where I served and "checking in" on what's happening in those places now. I missed last month's post because I got so busy preparing classes.

Twenty years ago today, I was serving as a missionary in the city of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Back in December, I wrote a post that offered a general introduction to the city. Today, I want to post some information I've gathered about the zona franca, a complex of factories just outside the city. On P-days, when we missionaries would take the bus out to Casa de Campo, a tourist resort, we would drive past the zona franca, which from that viewpoint was just a bunch of warehouse-type buildings behind a gate. I have a memory of one morning watching crowds of people push their way onto the buses that would take them out to work in the zona franca. I also remember talking once with a woman who worked in the zona franca. She'd just been given a new sewing machine at work and was trying to figure out the instructions for using it, which were in English, not Spanish. I spent some time trying to help her out, though I had no idea how to translate a lot of the terms.

I've seen the term zona franca translated various ways: free zone, free trade zone, duty-free zone. The idea is that the Dominican Republic has set up these zones to encourage foreign companies to set up production, with the expectation that they'll hire local people and, ideally, make use of other local resources. Companies that set up factories in the zona franca are exempted from paying various kinds of fees and taxes for a period of 15 years. The zona franca I used to ride past was the first one created in the DR, back in 1969. Today there are various zonas francas in different parts of the country.

According to a 2000 report from the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), in 1997 zonas francas employed 17 percent of the Dominican workforce. In other words, nearly 1 in 5 Dominicans who are employed work in a zona franca. According to the same report, zonas francas accounted for 80 percent of the country's exports, most of which went to the U.S. The white shirts I bought at Mr. Mac's to take with me on my mission were made in the DR: I figure it's very likely they were made in a zona franca. Clothing manufacture is the primary industry in the zonas francas; the majority of the workers are women.

Since that report was written, the recession and changes in the global clothing market have led to a downturn for the zonas francas: plants have been closed, and tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs. The phasing out of an international trade agreement called the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) has a lot to do with this because it means the DR can't compete with places like China as well as it used to. I haven't looked into this enough to know what the MFA is. My ignorance on this matter makes me realize how little I know about the mechanisms of the global economy—even though these mechanisms govern my life and the lives of Dominicans I'm personally connected to.

According to one source I found, in 2006, the government-mandated minimum wage for the zonas francas was RD$4,450 a month. I also learned that as of January of this year, that minimum wage is supposed to have risen to RD$6,320. I don't know what that means in terms of purchasing power. When I was a missionary, 20 years ago, we received about RD$2,800 a month: that was supposed to cover food, utilities, and incidentals (but not rent, which the mission office paid for directly).

The HIID report tells me that most firms operating in the zonas francas pay a bit more than minimum wage. However, some people who work in the zonas francas might be making less money than they would be making if they did the same work outside a zona franca. This is because Dominican law mandates different minimum wages for different kinds of work, except in the zonas francas where there's one minimum wage mandated regardless of the kind of work. That minimum wage is lower than the wages mandated for some kinds of work outside the zones.

I've found multiple sources that identify "low labor costs" as one of the things that make the zonas francas attractive to foreign firms. Let's be clear about what that means: The firms can pay workers less in the zonas francas than they would have to pay in some other countries. That's not something anyone should feel good about, even if, as I'm sure the firms would say in their defense, people are better off working in a zona franca than they would be if they didn't have those jobs. Perhaps at the judgment bar, God will have something extenuating to say about that, but the inherently exploitative nature of the situation is a sign that "the world lieth in sin" (D&C 49:20).

Wages aside, the labor situation in the zonas francas is not good. An article in Making It magazine reports "deplorable" working conditions, illegal unpaid overtime, and union-busting. Even the HIID report, which aims for a balanced assessment, points to "'numerous reports' of forced overtime in the Dominican free trade zones, when the exit doors of the factory would be locked and workers fired if they refused to work overtime." I heard such stories as well from people I met on my mission. The HIID report also reports that "unions have 'considerable difficulties' in negotiating collective agreements. The seven returned as of the date of the study were very limited in scope, with no agreements on wages for example." This quotation from the HIID report is especially infuriating:
Most (10) managers said that the absence of a union was a major or crucial factor in their decision to locate in the Dominican Republic. One manager said that he would "leave immediately" if a union started in his factory. Another said that a number of years ago union organization began to take place in his firm, but that he "took care of it" by firing everybody suspected of organizing it. As a result he had been to court on a number of occasions, but he had won on each occasion and felt that the time and effort was "definitely worth it."
That last individual is fortunate that a fiery hell doesn't actually exist.

I'll give the last word in this post to this zona franca employee interviewed by

In Jesus' name, amen.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

First-Friday contemplative service

Last night I led a first-Friday service of contemplative song and prayer. The theme was "Christ, our hope." The readings for the service were those assigned for the Feast of the Presentation, which had been the day before. The concluding prayer, if I recall correctly, was adapted from a prayer of the Taize community.



How lovely is your temple, Holy One!
My heart yearns for your courts!
With body and soul, I sing for joy
to you, the living God.

By your altar, even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds a nest to lay her young.
Happy are all who dwell in your house!
They never cease to sing your praise.

Better to spend a single day in your courts
than a thousand anywhere else!
Better to serve as a simple doorkeeper in your temple
than to feast in the pavilions of the unrighteous.

Holy God, you are our safe haven and our shield.
Your kindness and favor shine upon us.
Your generosity abounds to those who walk uprightly.
Happy are all who place their trust in you!


HEBREWS 2:14-18

Christ became flesh and blood,
like us,
so that by dying,
he could destroy the power of death.
Thus he could set us free
from the fear of death
that had enslaved us all our lives.

Christ did not come to be with angels:
he came to help feeble human beings.
He became our brother,
like us in every way.
By his own human experience,
he learned to be a merciful priest,
who intercedes for us
and makes sacrifice to atone for the sins of his people.

Because he himself has suffered,
he is able to help us in our suffering and trials.


LUKE 2:22-38

At the time prescribed in the commandments,
Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord in the temple . . .

In Jerusalem, there lived a man named Simeon—
a devout and righteous man,
who lived in faith that God’s people would soon be delivered.
For the Holy Spirit had revealed to him
that he would not die
until he had seen the coming of the Promised One.

Led by the Spirit,
Simeon came into the temple.
There he saw Jesus,
being brought into the temple by his parents.
Simeon took the infant in his arms
and broke into praise.

He said,
"Faithfully I have served you, my God,
and faithfully you have kept your promise!
Now I can leave this world in peace,
for I have seen with my eyes
the salvation you have prepared in the presence of all peoples—
a light of glory for the people of Israel
and a light of revelation for the Gentiles!"

Mary and Joseph were amazed
by what Simeon was saying about their child . . .

There was also in the temple a prophet named Anna—
a woman eighty-four years old,
who had been widowed after seven years of marriage.
She never left the temple
but worshipped there night and day,
with prayer and fasting.

She too came and saw,
and praised God,
and spoke about the child
to all who were waiting for the day of redemption.



Jesus Christ,
you came to fulfill all God’s promises
and to bring about the redemption of the world.
Your work has begun; we pray for its completion.

We pray for the poor,
for those who suffer injustice,
and for those who are in any kind of danger.
Be their safe haven and their shield.

We pray for those who are in sorrow,
in pain,
or living with disease.
Comfort them in their suffering.
Free us from the fear of death.

We pray for the world.
Unite the peoples of the earth in peace.
Establish justice and equity.

We pray for your creation.
Make your earth flourish.
May all living things know the joy you intend for them.

We pray for your church.
Strengthen us in our weakness.
Teach us mercy and compassion.
Give us grace to be your servants.



Christ Jesus,
although we have not seen you, we love you.
Without seeing you, we place our trust in you.
And in you, we find hope and peace.