Tag Archives: culture of obedience

To the Wounded and the Weary . . .

Savior, may I learn to love thee . . .

I WANT TO LOOK OUT into their faces. It makes me lose my place in the music for a moment, and I garble a lyric. But the faces. These are my brothers and sisters and I still love them more than words can express, even after all these years since I was their bishop. They are good people–kind and caring–and I’ve seen them welcome all kinds of people into their hearts.

I wish I’d done a better job. A bishop is a shepherd. In that, I fell short. And looking into some of the faces, I remember pain I couldn’t diminish or understand. Each bishop falls short, I suppose. But as a bishop, I never forgot that the members of my congregation, my flock, were not mine. They belonged to the Good Shepherd. And it was not to the handbook, nor to policies and procedures, that I looked when I needed to understand how to take care of them. It was to the life and ministry of Jesus. Whatever the situation, the moral authority of His example carried greater force and clarity than any handbook ever could.

It’s hard to get through this duet. My arm is around Rebecca and I feel her support. She has been at my side through the thick and thin of my spiritual journey and she knows my heart. Singing this duet with her couldn’t feel more natural. But today, this day when so many people are in pain—it is bitter sweet. Because I want them so badly to feel peace and love, but they are not really welcome here. Not anymore.

Walk the path that Thou hast shown . . .

MY SON SHARED A STORY he’d heard last week in Primary about a boy who foolishly strayed from a path to help someone. The moral was this: “Beware of leaving the path, even to help someone.”  As we sat around the dinner table, I offered my own parable. It ended something like this:

“But Father,“ said the son, “if I’d helped those people, it would have required leaving the path.” And the Father answered, “My son, helping those people WAS the path.”

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Pause to help and lift another . . .

DSC_0054WHEN OUR FAMILY LIVED AMONG the outcasts in India, we saw wounds deeper than any leprosy bacteria could have wrought. These people had been cast out. And their children, we were told, reeked of the same stench. Stigma, it seems, passes from parent to child. We could not smell it on them. To us, their children were beautiful and whole. And so were the parents. In my life, I expect no sweeter memories than the ones of my children embracing the leprosy-affected, seeing past the fetid rags and seeping bandages. Seeing my children playing soccer with their children and all of them laughing together. We had to leave our comfort zones, our neighborhood, our flock, to be with them. And in return, they taught us to discover Jesus in every face.

Finding strength behind my own . . .

THERE IS A PRAYER ATTRIBUTED to Saint Francis that I used to say in India. I think of it now.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

Savior may I love my brother . . .

REBECCA IS CARRYING THE MELODY now, and I’m singing a third below. The piece is actually for SSA, but we made it work. I have to sing up an octave here and there, and I jump from the alto to the second soprano and back now and then. It’s not what’s written, but it’s working. It’s the music that matters, after all. The message of love we’re trying to share.

I’m thinking about all the people in pain. My friends who are getting married this upcoming weekend, one of them a believing Mormon who wants her children to grow up to cherish the gospel as she cherishes it. And hearing how this policy stabs them to the core. Other straight allies who’ve invested years reaching out to their gay loved ones to assure them they can find God’s love here in our Church. And of course the children. For them, an official policy of exclusion which isn’t even applied to the children of rapists, murderers, ex-mormons, felons, or even (shudder) Democrats.

I don’t know why these policies were put in place, but I do know how they will affect the children. It will be just like India. They will be made to feel as if something about them is contagious, something reeks, and the only way to rid themselves of the stench will be to move out of their homes and disavow their parents’ disease.

I want the history books to include this detail: When this policy was leaked to the public, my Facebook feed was filled with good people, mostly Mormons, letting the gay community know their phones would be on all night, that they could call, could reach out, in case any of them were thinking of taking their own lives. I want the history books to show that the policies of our leaders did not reflect the highest values of the people they have been asked to lead. They issued policies and we posted suicide hotlines.

My voice breaks. I’m supposed to join Rebecca on the last stanza. I’m supposed to sing, Savior, may I love my brother. I can’t get it out. There is literally nothing that will come out of my mouth. The piano accompaniment slows down for the last line.

Lord, I would follow Thee.

I’M TOLD THIS IS A TIME for choosing loyalties. That we need to stand with the Church and its leaders, that this is a war, and we have to choose which side we’re on. I don’t know what that means. What do they mean when they say my commitment is being tried? My commitment to which values? Higher laws, or lesser laws? What do they mean when they say I must remain loyal? Loyal to whom? To man or God?

I’m disappointed when the highest principle my Mormon friends can point to at times like this is obedience to rules and policies. Jesus’ example stretches my morality beyond rule-following to something higher. To love. His example calls me to recognize when lower laws ought to yield to higher laws. His example suggests that sometimes we too must put ourselves in a position to stop the stones of judgement from bruising another brother or sister.

Forgotten ManSo whom will I follow? And if Jesus, where am I willing to follow Him? Am I willing to leave the ninety and nine? Am I willing to leave the path to lift the wounded and the weary?

For all who have left and our leaving, I understand. I love you. I know you have not left the path. For the true path is discipleship, and that may lead some of you to the leper, the lonely, and the outcast. He may lead you from gilded temples to soup kitchens, from mega-malls to homeless shelters. You may lose the upper seats in the synagogues, but you will recover your soul. And to those who stay, you too are disciples. You make sure there is space, even if you have to push the boundaries and stretch the tent cords to make room for everyone who shows up, no matter who they are and what others say about them.

My voice isn’t back when we come to the final phrase. Rebecca’s hand squeezes mine. But I’m singing it in my heart. No one else can hear it, but it’s there:

“Lord, I would follow Thee.”

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Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #6

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true

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Postcard #6 I’m committed to following my own moral compass.

What will you do?

The day is September 11th, 1857. A wagon train of 120 emigrants has been trying to make its way past your settlement and on to California. Normally you would be anxiously engaged in commerce—supplying provisions to these wretched folk at a handsome profit. But not this morning. This morning finds you and fifty of your Mormon neighbors escorting the emigrants into a mountain meadow. You hear a militia leader promise the travelers they will be safely conducted out of the settlement, but you know the truth. At the signal, you and your brethren are to turn on the emigrants and open fire. Shoot them in the head—every man, woman, and child.

What will you do? 

In your gut, you know this is cold-blooded murder, even if you did hear them uttering foul oaths and slurs. And yet the orders are clear. If this were a matter of military protocol, you could refuse to obey this unlawful command from a superior officer. But the group of men issuing the orders are also your religious leaders, and your allegiance to them is unconditional and absolute. Submission to priesthood authority signifies your faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion to God himself. A scripture comes to your mind: Whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same.

So, what will you do?

Until a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how I would have answered that question. 

I was taught to believe that obedience to my Church’s leaders was always right, even if they asked me to do something wrong. I accepted this way of thinking because those leaders taught me that obeying them was the same as obeying God. I should trust them, they said, because they would not–could not–lead us astray.

Surely no Stake President would order me to shoot unarmed men, women, and children. And surely no prophet would persuade my 14 year old daughter she’s been chosen as his next wife and that by accepting his proposition our family’s exaltation would be guaranteed. These disquieting scenarios from history are easy to dismiss because they seem so improbable in today’s church. But they could teach us much. We have learned by sad experience . . .

Now that I am less naive about human nature and Church history I’ve become more cautious about surrendering my moral agency to human leaders. 

This willingness to ignore the whisperings of our own conscience frightens me. I’ve come to believe that yielding our agency to mortal men ignores basic realities about human nature. For one thing, it eliminates the need for moral discernment. For another, it renders us extremely vulnerable to potential acts of unrighteous dominion. 

Fortunately, our ecclesiastical history shows, on the balance, a preponderance of virtue. But an honest account must also admit to injustice, violence, and vice–and these were often perpetuated precisely because members were willing to violate their conscience out of loyalty to someone whose words they believed to be equal to God’s. 

Leaders are human. I say this with generosity. Like the rest of us, the men tasked with leading the Church don’t always see beyond their cultural biases and paradigms–despite what I trust to be their earnest desire to be faithful to what they view as God’s will. Mormon theology permits no doctrine of prophetic infallibility—for it would render agency inoperative. 

I’m grateful for the combined wisdom and counsel of Church leaders–I would be foolish to esteem it lightly–but sustaining priesthood leaders does not justify me in violating my own conscience. The Nuremberg defense (“I was just following orders”) was an insult to the memory of 6 million Jews and I find myself shocked whenever I hear friends and neighbors admit that they would choose to obey the prophet even if they knew he was wrong, because they felt God would reward them for their obedience.    

As a child, we would sing “Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you. In the right the Holy Spirit guides, and its light is forever shining o’er you…” I don’t hear that song much these days. There is a risk, perhaps, in encouraging 14 million people to develop the moral discernment necessary to work through the rightness of each choice. The Spirit, after all, bloweth where it listeth.  Still, part of me grieves to hear our children bellowing Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet; He knows the way!  

I suppose a part of us prefers to be unburdened of the moral responsibility for choosing, for working through the moral calculus of life’s toughest choices. But don’t we abdicate our moral birthright when we allow another to be the keeper of our conscience?  

the-moral-compassI readily admit that my sense of right and wrong is limited–I’m as susceptible as anyone to biases, paradigms, and ingrained cultural attitudes–still, I am ultimately accountable. I can’t shift the burden of moral responsibility on another, even in the name of obedience. I must follow the moral compass within my own heart, the one that points to kindness, to mercy, generosity, equality, and love.

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Post Script: The Mountain Meadows Massacre  involved many factors besides Mormon settlers being steeped in a culture of obedience. I don’t wish to oversimplify this tragic event. Mormon readers may find a sympathetic but historically responsible explanation in the Ensign article linked here.

Facing “Peace and Violence” in our Collective Memory

“His duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” 

Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface

It’s hard to look honestly at our past. Especially when some of our actions fall so short of our ideals. And when we do take a good hard look, Memory finds she’s not permitted to publish her report until it’s first been redacted by a team of lawyers and then forwarded on to the suits at PR for a slick revision. I’m not making this observation theoretically; I experience it personally, time and time again. My own ego keeps thousands of employees busy night and day crafting narratives that preserve its sense of self-respect. This is human nature, isn’t it? Portraying only the most flattering versions of ourselves?

My own trouble confronting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about myself inclines me to be understanding when others flounder in the same attempt. So it’s without condemnation that I observe this all too human tendency on full display in the series of essays being added to the LDS Church’s official website. Taken as a whole, the essays suggest a growing willingness by Church leaders to acknowledge decidedly unflattering moments from our history. This may be a watershed moment in an organization for whom transparency has been a one-way mirror where they could see us but we couldn’t see them.

As one who takes seriously the call to be a peacemaker in this world, I find myself encouraged by the arrival of the newest essay, “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints.” But also disappointed.

For me, this essay falls short in the same way the others fell short: it seems more intent on deflection than reflection.

Let me explain what I mean analogously by way of a familiar scene at our house:

Hearing some commotion, my wife and I discover that one of our children has struck a sibling. Called to explain, the child recites a litany of abuses to which they’d been subjected. Once they’re certain that I fully appreciate the extent to which they themselves are the real victim, they will mention their own misdeed, but in terms that make their actions seem justifiable—or at least understandable—given the circumstances.

In “Peace and Violence,” the Church seems to be following this pattern. The anonymous author(s) appear to have been given the task of explaining egregious acts of violence, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in a way that reinforces our persecution narrative while also acknowledging a few isolated incidents in which Mormons were the aggressor. Throughout, allegations of violence perpetrated by members of the LDS church are either dismissed as being unfounded or over-blown, or, in the case of the well-documented Mountain Meadows incident, characterized as a tragic instance of the early Saints reacting poorly to the religiously-motivated hostility and sustained aggression they’d so long endured.

I don’t object to context, mind you. Indeed, as the essay takes pains to establish, a pervasive culture of violence typified 19th Century frontier life (as any even-handed treatment of the subject would recognize). But this essay’s portrayal of early Mormons as peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek folk who only occasionally lost their cool falls short of being fully candid. More importantly, it misses the opportunity to identify elements in our own church culture that kindled a spirit of vengeance and retaliation in our past, and which, I will argue in a future essay, continue to plague our present.

The audience for this and the other topical essays is most likely the member or investigator who has encountered deeply disturbing facts of history and returns to the official Church website seeking the most comforting explanation possible.

But what if we want our past to be a catalyst for transformation?

Comforting explanations only reinforce our sense that “all is well and was ever thus.” Such an approach lulls us into spiritual complacency and retards our growth, both personally and collectively. Sometimes we should squirm.

Hamlet’s words touched the nerve of his mother’s guilt. She wanted comfort, but he wanted her redemption. So he sat her down and said

…you shall not budge;

You go not till I set you up a glass

Where you may see the inmost part of you.

If we are honest, and if we are willing to squirm, we can use our history as a catalyst for transformation.

I’ll share two ways the essay fails to be transformative.

First, the authors of the essay didn’t invite us to learn from our past. While we can’t undo our historical failings, we can recognize the factors that contributed to those failings. As a Church, are we ready for those hard conversations? Can we recognize the presence of institutional factors that may still exist today, rendering us violence prone? I’m sobered by a passage I read in the prologue to Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker, Turley, Leonard), in which our own historians identify conditions that increase the likelihood of institutional violence:

Episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another as “the other,” stripping them of any humanity and mentally transforming them into enemies. Once this process of devaluing and demonizing occurs, stereotypes take over, rumors circulate, and pressure builds to conform to group action against the perceived threat. Those classified as the enemy are often seen as the transgressors, even as steps are being taken against them. When these tinderbox conditions exist, a single incident, small or ordinary in usual circumstances, may spark great violence ending in atrocity. The literature suggests other elements are often present when “good people” do terrible things. Usually there is an atmosphere of authority and obedience, which allows errant leaders to trump the moral instincts of their followers.

sermon-mount-jesus-christComing to recognize that many of these same elements are systemically perpetuated in our contemporary Church culture, these kinds of insights could be truly transformative, helping us to become a peaceful people whose discipleship is more Sermon on the Mount and less “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The second way the essay could have been transformative is by telling the truth in a way that lays bare our greatest vulnerabilities. No spin. Serve it up plain, without any dipping sauce. And when it comes to recounting our crimes against others, it seems to me we are under a special moral obligation to be completely and unreservedly honest.

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The poster exhibits the slogan of the Commission: “The truth hurts, but silence kills.”

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

By trying to preserve our own sense of our goodness, we fail to achieve a remission of our sins. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela taught the world this insight—that there is a redemptive quality found at the nexus of Truth and Reconciliation.

In a harrowing scene from Red Prophet, a fictionalized re-imagining of Mormon history penned by Orson Scott Card we see this principle of Truth and Reconciliation. Here, in a meadow flowing with the blood of innocent men, women, and children, the otherwise honorable men who did the killing are about to hear the conditions of their redemption:

From elbow to hands, they dripped with blood. Some tried to wipe it off on their shirts. Some searched for wounds that might be bleeding, but there were no wounds. Just bloody hands.

“Do you want your hands to be clean of the blood of my people?” asked the Red Prophet. He wasn’t shouting anymore, but they all heard him, every word. And yes, yes, they wanted their hands to be clean. “Then go home and tell this story to your wives and children, to your neighbors, to your friends. Tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. Don’t say that someone fooled you – you all knew when you fired on people who had no weapons that what you did was murder. No matter whether you thought some of us might have committed some crime. When you shot at babies in their mothers’ arms, little children, old men and women, you were murdering us because we were Red. So tell the story as it happened, and if you tell it true, your hands will be clean.”

Let’s tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. And when we tell it true, our hands will finally be clean.