Tag Archives: reconciliation

Morning Sequence

The following essay was written one week into the presidency of Donald J. Trump–in the wake of the controversial travel ban and ensuing protests. The essay appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Morning Sequence

By Lon Young

Tree Pose

For a minute or two, we’ve created our own sacred grove—twenty of us swaying in the sweaty breeze of the gym fan, arms drawn heavenward. Our left legs are lifted off the floor, knees swung wide, heels propped against the inner thigh of our standing legs. I feel a slow burn in my foot and ankle; sense the hum of a thousand gyroscopes steadying me.

We are practicing the art of staying centered, of remaining rooted yet supple, yielding to the gusts of life, trusting in the strength of our core. When a woman two rows up starts to topple, I hear my thoughts reassuring her: Don’t panic. Find your drishti—your focusing point.

This was my posture just after the presidential election. Equipoise. Balance and counterbalance. I consoled myself by trusting in the core values we share as Americans. Surely our commitments and traditions ran too deep to be uprooted, no matter who occupied the White House. Certain protections were enshrined in our Constitution, weren’t they? And a safeguard of checks and balances? The new president’s bluster and bravado were simply that, and would be drowned out by swelling choruses of Kumbaya. We who are committed to peace and justice comprise a vast forest: we breathe in what is noxious and breathe out what sustains.

And then came the inauguration. As I write this, it is the sixth day of the first week. The sixth day of smashing things, breaking things, uprooting things. A tornado full of chainsaws. And God saw everything he had unmade, and behold, he declared it was very very very good. The best ever.

And how can I stand now, safely planted in my privilege as a straight, white, non-Muslim male, humming hymns in arboreal bliss while chainsaws are buzzing in the borderland?

The Warrior

I move into Virabhadrasana, Warrior Pose. My stance is charged: thighs taut like crouched panthers, arms extended, hands blades. Once, when his beloved Sati was persecuted, Lord Shiva tore a lock of his hair and threw it to the ground. A moment later, Virabhadra sprang up from the earth—the incarnation of Shiva’s wrath—and hacked his wife’s tormentors into pieces.

For much of my life I didn’t allow myself to feel anger. It was an emotion unworthy of the narrative I was writing for myself. I would begin each day with the prayer of St. Francis in my heart: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. But it’s getting harder and harder to know what peace should look like. And this warrior posture feels . . . well, it feels kind of right.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Pema Chodron says we should be bodhisattva warriors: warriors of wisdom and compassion who do battle against ignorance and hatred. And Paul says the struggle isn’t with flesh and blood but against rulers of darkness, against wickedness in high places. But these metaphors make me wary. I know our history, both as Mormons and as Christians: we sing strike for Zion, flash the sword above the foe, but whenever we have too zealously wielded the “Sword of the Spirit,” it has become stained with real blood. And I know my own heart. I know how readily the kindling of righteous indignation flares into the searing heat of hatred.

But what would it say about our moral conscience as Mormons if we were not angry, not roused to action? What if we sat upon the throne of our privilege, to use Captain Moroni’s blistering phrase, in a state of thoughtless stupor? I hear him now in my head. Yea, will ye sit in idleness . . . while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things?

When I shift into Warrior II, I remember the bodhisattva warriors and the apostle Paul and Captain Moroni, who did not delight in bloodshed. And I think also of Virabhadra, and a mountain meadow in southern Utah, and the oath of vengeance that our Mormon progenitors swore in the Temple of the Lord. I catch myself in the mirror, arms locking into a horizontal plane as bright as a spear.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

The Corpse

We are led through what seems a lifetime of asanas: forward bends, backbends, chest openers, twists, up-dogs and down-dogs, poses for balancing, poses for binding. It’s a sequence of battles in a campaign we seem to be losing. There’s no way to flush out the lactic acid fast enough. Our muscles stiffen from the onslaught until we are unable to deflect the next attack—to decry, denounce, or defend; unable to uphold truths we mistook to be self-evident.

We ease our backs onto our mats as if they were stretchers.

Our yoga teacher says Savasana is our chance to relax, to pamper ourselves with a few minutes of peace and quiet. We go along with this fiction because we prefer it to the truth: this is the part where we are supposed to die.

Closing my eyes, I stretch out my arms and wait for it, following the rise and fall of my breath.

My first attempt at dying was at age eight in a makeshift baptismal font of stacked cinder blocks lined with sheets of clear plastic. It failed, of course. As a Mormon, I have been taught to strive, to multiply and increase, to rise through the ranks, to seek the validations of worthiness that qualify me for thrones, kingdoms, and exaltations. But I have not been taught how to let go, how to subtract myself, descend below, forfeit status and standing. Teach me how to die like a god—how to stretch out my arms in profound love and say Father, forgive us all, for we know not what we do.

For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

You must reduce yourself to zero, Gandhi said many times and in many ways. He lived in India, of course, where the only number that can hold infinite emptiness was invented. This surrender, this annihilation of the ego, became the source of his spiritual victory, but it also generated the energy—the soul force—that sustained his courage, his resilience, and his unfailing faith as a satyagrahi, or truth warrior. As I lay here in the darkened room on my mat, body splayed out in defeat, I wonder if I can reduce myself to zero.

A voice in the darkness says, “Turn your wrists to the sky.”

We are left in corpse pose for I don’t know how long. I congratulate myself on surrendering my own ego—not my will, but thine be done—even as I’m listening for the flutter of dove’s wings and the rending of the temple veil. (Shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks?) But when our teacher tells us to wake our fingers and toes, to regain a seated position, I suspect it’s still the same old me rising from the mat.

Half Lotus with Anjali Mudra

The lotus flower blossoms where there is mud. It rises up from the muck, through the murky water, until its flower, floating on the surface of the pond, blooms with such sublime beauty that religions throughout the East have adopted it as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and the transcendence of suffering.

Last night we took our children to “Meet the Muslims.” The imam spoke of his congregation’s anxiety-ridden decision to hire security guards to protect them as they gather to pray. But then he gestured to the room of non-Muslims—mostly Mormons—who had come. He said that because of the election, because of the attempted Muslim ban, hundreds of us have been coming each week to express our support. I remembered the Utah March for Refugees and how State Street leading up to Capitol Hill had become a river of solidarity. Love flowing uphill. Lotuses rising from the mud.

We end in a seated posture. I’m in half lotus because I’m still not flexible enough for full lotus . . . and my head still hasn’t cleared the mud. (Someday.) My left foot is cradled in the fold of my right hip; my right foot is supporting my left knee. Everything embraces and sustains its opposite and the result is a balanced, upright posture.

I am trying to listen to people whose perspectives are different than mine. I am trying to remind myself that we are not separate, that our well-being is not separate. If I have learned anything as an unorthodox Mormon over the last few years, it is to be aware of the harm we do when we reject one another, when we deem some people acceptable of our fellowship and others not.

As we join our hands together in anjali mudra—prayer gesture—I think of Jesus inviting us into a relationship of wholeness, teaching us that the space we create in our hearts must include the whole human family. No one excluded. I have room for the downtrodden, but do I have space for the bully stomping on them? And is there room for the 63 million voters who handed him the boots?

Until our hearts can stretch that wide, we sit half lotus. We pray for the supple grace of a tree, the fearlessness of a warrior, and the pure heart of a flower that blooms in the mud. We lay our pride and self-interest on the altar and practice dying a little more each day. And when we rise from our mats, morning after morning, our sacred work awaits.

 

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photo credit: Amy Goalen


“Morning Sequence” first appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017

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That We May Be One: Healing the Body of Christ

IMG_0744AS MY SPIRITUAL LIFE HAS WIDENED its embrace, I’m coming to understand that the yearning for atonement is truly universal. Spiritual practices in the East, such as yoga and loving-kindness meditation, effect the same soul-change that prayer, baptism, and communion do in the West: they move us from separateness to sacred union. I’ve seen religions doing their finest work when they unite instead of divide, when they lead us to at-one-ment. In fact, the word religion itself means to join together, to bind (as does its Sanskrit cousin, yoga). So when I learn that my religious community–a group whose hearts should be knit together in love–is poised, once again, to rend one of its members from the fabric of fellowship, I’m filled with anguish.

For those not following the issue, this Sunday, a stake president will decide if John Dehlin should be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Further stoking the flames of a fire not yet cooled after the excommunication of Kate Kelly this past summer, Dehlin’s ecclesiastical censuring has elicited copious amounts of invective from both sides of the debate.

I don’t wish to drive the wedge any deeper. Neither his priesthood leader, nor Mr. Dehlin himself deserves to be vilified. If we could see into their hearts, we would agree that they are both men of good will, following honorable but mutually conflicting motives.

As an unconventional Mormon myself, I cherish an inclusive community, and believe the Body of Christ is strengthened by diversity, not weakened. How I resonate to Paul’s teaching on the subject: “If the whole body were the eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, where were the smelling?” When I hear fellow Latter-day Saints clamoring for someone’s ouster, I want to protest, like Paul, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you…those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” (1 Corinthians 12:17-22)

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And now, it seems, an amputation has been scheduled.

We may all concede, however reluctantly, that sometimes a limb must be amputated to save a life. So when I hear others reasoning that the health of the Church necessitates the amputation of some of its members, I can’t dispute the soundness of the logic, at least in principle. An organization, like an organism, needs a system for excreting toxic waste, fending off foreign invaders, and sloughing off dead tissue. But amputations are always tragic, and the mortal threat must be real, not imagined. Chopping off a foot because its warty toe doesn’t meet an institutional aesthetic does not constitute a mortal threat. Nor would a wise surgeon remove an organ until fully understanding how its various and sometimes subtle functions are contributing to the overall health of the organism.

And when an amputation is deemed medically necessary, that does not mean that such an outcome was inevitable. It usually represents a chronic failure to provide the attentive care and proper conditions for healing and well-being. This is a perspective borne from my experiences serving with my family in India among the leprosy-affected.

One insidious feature of the disease is permanent damage to nerve endings in the extremities. Fortunately, the micro-bacterium that causes the disease is easily neutralized and with simple treatment poses no further risk to the patient. A leprosy patient’s body is, for all intents and purposes, healthy. However, the patient, whose nerve endings have been compromised, has become insensitive to the pain inflicted on parts of his or her body, such as to the feet or hands.

Let’s suppose such a person steps on shards of broken glass. She would not perceive the injury being suffered by her foot. And when she lifts a scorching hot lid from the cooking pot, she will not know how her hand blisters from the heat. Insensitive to wound after wound, and numb to the need for healing, her wounds become infected and sores spread; ulcers, untreated, eat away at perfectly healthy tissue, until, one day, a doctor will conclude that an amputation has become necessary in order to save a person’s life.

IMG_0741John Dehlin’s ecclesiastical surgeon may reach the same conclusion this Sunday. But let there be no mistake: this excommunication, this severing of a member from the Body of Christ, represents yet another failure. A failure to be sensitive to the very real pain and discomfort some members are feeling, to be responsive to their wounds and attentive to our care-giving. A failure to view lumpy toes and unsightly moles in their proper perspective, as well as the forbearance to put up with some stinky pits now and then. We have need of thee. We have need of thee.

May we come to recognize our inherent and indivisible unity. May we come to realize that the health and well-being of a part is the health and well-being of the whole. These understandings, after all, are key insights into the nature of atonement. As the Body of Christ, may we not lose our sensitivity to the pain and wounding experienced by some of our members. And when injury leads to infection, and we worry that the infection will spread, let us be less keen to maim ourselves. Instead of a surgeon’s knife, let us liberally apply the healing balm of love.

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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.