Sunday, October 5, 2014

To My Fellow Mormons...

To my fellow Mormons,

Please do not take this the wrong way, as I do not mean to disregard or belittle anyone's personal experiences with General Conference this past weekend. There were some good messages, from what I was able to catch. But I cannot help but feel a growing frustration with the general membership's attitude towards this event and its speakers. Although the First Presidency itself has affirmed that "not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine," each word uttered is treated as though it has come directly from the Lord himself. Although the scriptures teach that anyone with a testimony of Christ has the spirit of prophecy, it is now understood that we should dedicate extra preparation twice a year to hear The Prophet (or 15 Prophets, depending on who you ask), as if carefully scrutinized, formulaic 600 minutes of words a year fed through a teleprompter, subject to change in the Ensign printing, are somehow more important than the 525,000 other minutes we could use in communing with the Spirit ourselves. And although "God has created man with a mind capable of instruction" (J. Smith), we are constantly fed a diet of kitsch and cliche, avoiding the real issues preventing us from establishing a Zion-like society that go far beyond pot use or pornography addiction--our inexplicable love for war, our insipid deference to the state, our callous accumulation of wealth--all things preventing us from truly living the gospel of love. (I include myself in these criticisms by the way.) Why can't we understand that a dependence upon "leaders," as was taught in the early days of the church, would cause us to be "darkened in our minds?"

Sincerely,
A Concerned Member

Monday, July 28, 2014

"One Hundred Years" - A War Poem On A Grim Anniversary

This is a poem I wrote on this, the 100th anniversary of the human scourge that was World War I.

"One Hundred Years"

One hundred years
Since that frivolous war
Boys sent unto battle
By leaders, risk they ignored
To scenes of earth blazing
Of men screaming in gore
Of gases unleashed
Of breaths taken no more
For what? A name on a cairn?
What was it they were fighting for?

One hundred years
And so little we’ve learned
Monsters we create to destroy
Friends whose bridges we’ve burned
A chance to stop the machine
Forgotten as profits churned
A nation under God we claim
His message discounted and spurned
We say we seek after peace
But it is for power that we yearn

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Mindless 'Murica Mormonism


You may have been one of the half dozen people who read my July 4 tweet (follow me!) scratching my head over the mindless 'Murica patriotism my fellow Latter-day Saints exhibited earlier this month. Anyone with a Facebook feed and even a handful of Mormon friends probably noticed the same thing I did--posts dripping with patriotism, nationalism, red-white-and-blue zealotry, U.S. flags, quotes from Republican politicians, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, indignation towards anything Obama (though he's merely carrying on the policies of Bush), and images of bald eagles breathing fire on terrorists and spraying bullets out of AK-47s (seriously).

After all, this is what it requires to be a true patriot these days, right? I mean, combine your online "I heart America" odes with a day of barbecues, wearing your American flag shirts, and watching fireworks at the lake, and you've done your civic duty this Independence Day.

You'd think our prophet was Sean Hannity.

Long ago, in the Times We're Not Allowed To Speak Of Lest Someone Point Out An Inconsistency In Church History And Risk Getting Excommunicated, Mormons despised America.

Let's remember, the Mormons were repeatedly chased out of place after place in a nation that supposedly protected religious liberty. Our leader even went so far as to advocate the death penalty for those in government who allowed such injustice to occur.

"The Constitution," said Joseph Smith, "should contain a provision that every officer of the Government who should neglect or refuse to extend the protection guaranteed in the Constitution should be subject to capital punishment; and then the president of the United States would not say, 'Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.'"

Let's remember, the Mormons suffered the assassination of their prophet and patriarch, Joseph and Hyrum, bereft of any reasonable response from the American government.

"You and each of you do covenant and promise," went the LDS Oath of Vengeance, recited in temples until the 1930s, "that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children's children unto the third and fourth generation."

Let's remember, the Mormons literally left the country to settle in Utah Territory.

"It is with the greatest joy that I forsake this republic," wrote Orson Pratt in 1845. "If our Heavenly Father will deliver us out of the hands of the blood-thirsty Christians of these United States and not suffer any more of us to be martyred to gratify their holy piety, I for one shall be very thankful."

Let's remember, the Mormons believed that plural marriage was an eternal principle well beyond the jurisdiction of some worldly government.

"Wo unto that Nation or house or people who seek to hinder my People from obeying the Patriarchal Law of Abraham [polygamy] which leadeth to a Celestial Glory… for whosoever doeth those things shall be damned Saith the Lord," wrote Wilford Woodruff in 1880.

Then, magically, ten years later, the Manifesto was revealed to Brother Woodruff. Six years after that, Utah became a state, and Mormons and America lived happily ever after.

Well, what's wrong with that? We shouldn't hold grudges, you might say. All that stuff happened a long time ago, separated by generations, you might argue. It was right to get rid of the Oath of Vengeance and abolish polygamy, you might point out. And you'd probably be right about those things.

But the problem is that our current mindset has put us in a position that could hardly be deemed a higher moral ground. We've gone from espousing violent retribution towards Americans to espousing violent retribution towards foreigners whom the American government opposes. Can you think of a single demographic group in the United States today that is more accepting of the state's usurpation of our domestic freedoms than the Mormons? That is more willing to "serve" as pawns of some Middle Eastern war? That is more accepting of the military interventions abroad the past century? That is more proud of their country, right or wrong? That is more submissive to authority?

I would like to point out five reasons why I believe that Mormon culture has turned many of its adherents into such patriotic prigs:

1. We are taught to submit.
Mosiah 3:19, one of the most quoted Book of Mormon verses in the Church, reads:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
The doctrine of submission is well-known in the world of the Latter-day Saints. But it is extremely important not to fall into the trap of transferring that submissive nature towards that which is not of the Lord. We submit to God because God is love. And I can't think of anything less like God than the state, even though many of us tend to treat it like a God substitute.

"There is one thing in the world more wicked than the desire to command, and that is the will to obey," said mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford.

As a believing Latter-day Saint, there are some caveats to that quote of course. There are times in which obedience is a necessary and sensible thing to do. I don't have to be a parent to know that adequate child-rearing, for example, will involve the instillation of some sort of obedience.

The real point of this quote, however, is how evil blind obedience can be. And nothing is capable of inflicting more evil than a government gone awry. Therefore it is essential to question everything. Instead of the follow the herd mentality we've adopted, we must be true to our principles as Christians, and never obey anything that is contrary to those principles, whether it is taught by our government or our church leaders.

Independent thought, and its corollary, moral courage through action, are the antidotes to many poisons--propaganda, preemptive war, groupthink, and justification, to name a few.

2. We have a twisted interpretation of the 12th article of faith.
I have written previously on the 12th article of faith, which reads: "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

Taken from Joseph Smith's Wentworth Letter, an attempt to pin down a list of LDS creeds for a Chicago newspaper in 1842, the 12th article of faith is not revelation and does not purport to be. It is an effort to portray Mormon belief on the topic of law and government. I have a feeling that if Joseph would have foreseen the confusion that would arise from its vagueness and the Mormon militarism it would spawn in future generations, he would have changed the wording considerably. Or maybe he would have just told us to sit down and read Section 134, a declaration of belief similar to the articles of faith, written seven years prior.

After all, in that section we learn that all men are bound to "sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments" (D&C 134:5).

Given the track record of virtually every government that has ever existed on this planet, there will likely always be reasons for men to engage in civil disobedience, as most throughout time have been denied their inherent and inalienable rights. Even here in the "Land of the Free."

We also learn in that section that governments can only exist in peace if they secure our rights to free conscience, liberty, and property, that we should only uphold magistrates (police) who administer the law in equity and justice, that governments may not use laws to engage in sedition or conspiracy, and that we have the right to self-defense against anyone who encroaches upon our rights, just to name a few.

It all boils down to this question--would God condone, much less expect, us to commit evil in the name of the state? Of course not.

The great Libertarian writer Lawrence M. Vance addresses this paradox in one of his many scathing rebuttals of the state worship prevalent not only in Mormonism but throughout Christianity. Many Christians use Romans 13 as their basis for "obeying the powers that be" in a similar way the Mormons use AofF 12. He writes:
Only a madman would say that obeying the government in Romans 13 is absolute. Even the most diehard Christian apologist for the state, its military, and its wars would never think of saying such a thing. Although the way some Christians repeat the "obey the powers that be" mantra may make one think they would slit their own mothers’ throats if the state told them to do so, they wouldn’t do it no matter how they were threatened by the state. If government agents came to them and said, "Here, put on this uniform, take this gun, and go shoot your neighbor," they would likewise refuse and suffer the consequences. No Christian is going to make his wife get an abortion because the government says he has too many children. No Christian is going to accept every government pronouncement, support every government program, or blindly follow whatever the president or the government says–even when the Republicans are in control. Any admonition in Scripture to obey the government is tempered by command to "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) and the sixth commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13) which is repeated in Romans 13:9.
3. We believe the Book of Mormon advocates war and nationalism.
When the topic of war comes up at church (which is rare, in my ward at least--it seems to be an issue most would rather avoid), it usually involves these kinds of arguments:
  • War is bad, but sometimes it's necessary
  • Because we believe in patriotism, we should serve in the military if called to do so
  • War is noble, remember Captain Moroni's title of liberty? Let me quote Alma 46:12-14
  • God commanded Israel to fight wars of aggression in the Old Testament; therefore, since the United States is the home place of the restoration, God is on our side in wartime
  • God doesn't hold us accountable for actions taken while wearing a military uniform
Sadly, if I were to just do a cursory skim through the Book of Mormon, yet learn all the Seminary, Institute, and Sunday School curriculum, and attend my twenty hours of general conference meetings per year, I would probably feel the same way about war as Brother Bullet Point above.

And the real message of the restoration would have gone over my head completely.

The Book of Mormon may be perhaps the most monumental anti-war work of the 19th century, whether interpreted as a factual account or a fictional one. It is the story of a civilization, once chosen of God, that not only falls, but is completely obliterated because of its unquenchable bloodlust and its obsession with war. The critical message of the restoration--that the Lord loves us all unconditionally and asks us to do likewise with our brethren--is played out on a stage of not only individuals, but entire societies. War is the opposite of that message.

As I mentioned, it is common for Latter-day Saints to quote Alma 46 to support the idea of war being necessary. Verses 12-14 read:
And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole. And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land—For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church.
There is an important distinction here that rarely comes up in Mormon circles--Captain Moroni was making preparations for defensive war. Amalickiah and his ilk were fighting the cause of liberty in the Land of Nephi. This makes Alma 46:12-14 actually mean something. It is a beautiful tribute to the protection of freedom, a sacred duty that also encompasses the protection of religion, family, and, interestingly, peace. Captain Moroni was actually protecting these things in the war against Amalickiah.

Compare that to the Bush Doctrine (which is just another term for the philosophy of virtually every president since FDR) of pre-emptive warfare and aggression being taken to the shores of other lands, all done in the name of "defense." Any modern American war rally would be a pathetic ersatz to the hallowed, humble way Moroni approached his battle, which was completely justified.

A better parallel to American warfare would be to look at the Nephites post-Christ. The Book of Mormon (as in the 13th book of the BoM chronicling the events of 321-421 A.D.) provides a tragic look at just how embedded hatred and violence had become among the Nephites. The suffering of war after war after war led not to repentance, but to merely a "sorrowing of the damned" (Mormon 2:13). Mormon saw thousands of his countrymen "hewn down in open rebellion against their God, and heaped up as dung upon the face of the land" (Mor. 2:15).

Mormon led the Nephites to battle against the Lamanites in battle a few years later, but then did "utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abomination" (Mor. 3:11). Why then? Because the Nephites went from a defensive position, holding off Lamanite invasions (Mor. 3:7-8) to angrily desiring the opportunity to "avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies" (Mor. 3:9).

Mormon 3:10 gives the last straw of Nephite wickedness: "And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land."

Sound familiar? It should. In Section 98 of the Doctrine & Covenants, the Lord reminds us, "this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them" (D&C 98:33).

The United States hasn't fought a war on its own shores since 1865 (1924 if you count aggression against Indians). Every single armed conflict in the lifetime of every single living American has involved the United States "going out to battle" against foreign enemies. How we, as members of the "true church" who have presumably read the "most correct book on earth," can condone such inhumane aggression, is beyond me.

4. We "follow the prophet" even if he isn't claiming revelation.
A common theme of this blog is that, whether we're talking about science, religion, or government, the critical thinking of the individual ultimately trumps groupthink. Agency ultimately trumps compulsion. Liberty ultimately trumps bondage. These are fundamental principles of the War in Heaven narrative.

Further, the Spirit is available to all, yet so many in the LDS Church feel a lot more comfortable following men in suits who hover in positions above them.

Instead of taking Section 1 of the Doctrine & Covenants in context, we mindlessly quote verse 38 as the proof that whatever General Authorities speak, it is the equivalent to the Lord himself speaking.
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
In reality, this verse refers to the servants of the Lord, a title any Latter-day Saint could rightfully accept upon himself. Further, this Section (known as the preface) is given to elders of the Church, as described in the heading, and even more comprehensively, to the people of the Church, as mentioned in verse 1.

Additionally, Section 1 contains a set of verses earlier on that would probably make most modern Mormons a bit uncomfortable. D&C 1:17-20 reads:
Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.
This is the ideal--not only are prophets like Joseph Smith called to speak in the name of the Lord, but that every man might speak in His name. It doesn't require a fancy title or position, just a dedication to be a servant of the Savior. And that trusting in men of a supposed higher echelon is unnecessary, even to receive counsel, as this is grouped with following after the arm of the flesh. Is the Spirit insufficient?

If we can accept Section 1 as it is and not what we've turned it into, we no longer have to look to general authorities as demigods, which should be a relief for all parties involved. It's no secret that leaders of the church are imperfect, and are allowed to hold opinions of their own, which may or may not mesh with gospel principles. We can free ourselves from the yoke of the flesh, and find the truth for ourselves.

What does all this have to do with America? Well, it just so happens that our previous two top dogs, Thomas Monson and Gordon Hinckley, have made it awfully clear that they support the unjust wars fought by United States troops, such opinions having been voiced in newspaper interviews and general conference.

This support, expressed in both explicit and implicit ways, has led to a culture of accepting war, regardless of why it's being fought, who it's being fought against, what kind of collateral damage may come about because of it, or how many American soldiers will become casualties. The Church encourages military service unconditionally, and has even produced kitschy videos (like this one) attempting to mitigate any sort of guilt or second-guessing that could result from supporting or fighting in such wars. Rock Waterman, who wrote a powerful retort to this detestable propaganda piece filled with "useless, hollow opinions," said:
The message of the movie can be distilled in one sentence: War is dirty, nasty work, but it's unavoidable and necessary, so thank goodness we have righteous young priesthood holders like you to handle that dirty, nasty work that is for some reason unavoidable.  Oh, and by the way, thank you for your service.
This is what our church culture has devolved into. No longer are we a people looking to Christ as an example of peace and to the Word of God as an example of what happens when peace departs, but a herd of sheep following retired businessmen who haven't in their entire lives bothered venturing outside the realm of standard American media for their information.

Well, most of them, at least.

5. We serve Mammon rather than God.
Spencer W. Kimball's bicentennial First Presidency Message published in the June 1976 Ensign is one of the most profound writings to be found on lds.org. Though it does not claim to be revelation, it is one of the few mainstream pieces put forth by the Church I've come across that really hit at the heart of dysfunctional Mormon culture. The opinion he expresses here indeed meshes with core principles of the gospel of Christ.

Naturally, its message has been largely ignored for almost 40 years now.

"The False Gods We Worship" focuses on exactly that, the idols we (not the infidels outside the Church or the "less actives" within we're so busy condemning) turn into gods. The general message is that mammon (an Aramaic word meaning the personification of riches) has been the choice of worship for all too many Latter-day Saints, over the worship of God. And, if Jesus is to be believed, the two are mutually exclusive. "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matthew 6:24).

Though mammon is typically associated with wealth and riches (which Kimball's essay spends a large portion denouncing), I believe that in a broader sense, it is an attitude--an attitude of materialism. Those who trust in mammon trust in their own possessions, their own prowess, their own power, to save them. Those who trust in God know such trust is foolish.

Americans are a proud people, and "The False Gods We Worship" hits close to home for many of us. In it, he writes:
In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had—in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people—a condition most repugnant to the Lord.
I believe one of the reasons we don't really take the message of the Book of Mormon seriously is because we consider ourselves above them. Theirs was a strange, savage civilization, while ours is sophisticated and humane. When America flaunts her power, she knows what she is doing, and what she's doing is always for the good of the world. Truth be told, the horrors of war are no different today than they were in Mormon's time; in fact, they're worse, considering how far technology has evolved in the field of weaponry.
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 5:44–45)
Kimball's words speak for themselves here. Can we be honest with our warlike natures and admit that we may have a problem that goes well beyond apathy towards tithe-paying and pornography addiction?

We don't hear these kinds of talks in conference anymore for this very reason. It's much more comfortable for us to attack sins that others are committing. But to look within, and understand that we are all worshiping false gods, even while passing temple recommend interviews--that takes courage.

The United States of America is only a country. It had a beginning and it will have an end. It has no special place above other nations in Mormon doctrine. It is not being led by God as though it were Ancient Israel. The evil acts it has committed deserve no excuse, just as the acts committed in the names of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or Red China deserve no excuse. Just as the acts of the Nephites deserve no excuse.

From firebombing and nuking cities in Japan to using Agent Orange in Vietnam to shooting down a passenger jet in Iran, the U.S. has blood on its hands, a lot of it. Its meddling presence across the globe is unmatched and unnecessary. Acknowledging this doesn't mean we have to hate our homeland; it simply means that if we truly love it, we need to start changing it. And that means rejecting the "counterfeit of true patriotism" and truly accepting the gospel of Christ in our lives. Said Kimball:
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.
The mindless 'Muricanism of Mormons needs to end. Flag worship, soldier worship, military worship, money worship, weapon worship, state worship, all are just more forms of idolatry. There should only be one object of our worship, and that is our God, father of all mankind.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Independence Day Thought On Christianity And War

"Christianity saves men; war destroys them. Christianity elevates men; war debases and degrades them. Christianity purifies men; war corrupts and defiles them. Christianity blesses men; war curses them. God says, thou shalt not kill; war says, thou shalt kill. God says, blessed are the peace-makers; war says, blessed are the war-makers. God says, love your enemies; war says, hate them. God says, forgive men their trespasses; war says, forgive them not. God enjoins forgiveness, and forbids revenge; while war scorns the former, and commands the latter. God says, if any man smite thee on the cheek, turn to him the other also; war says, turn not the other cheek, but knock the smiter down. God says, bless those who curse you; bless, and curse not: war says, curse those who curse you; curse, and bless not. God says, pray for those who despitefully use you; war says, pray against them, and seek their destruction. God says, see that none render evil for evil unto any man; war says, be sure to render evil for evil unto all that injure you. God says, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: war says, if you do supply your enemies with food and clothing, you shall be shot as a traitor. God says, do good unto all men; war says, do as much evil as you can to your enemies. God says to all men, love one another; war says, hate and kill one another. God says, they that take the sword, shall perish by the sword; war says, they that take the sword, shall be saved by the sword. God says, blessed is he that trusteth in the Lord; war says, cursed is such a man, and blessed is he who trusteth in swords and guns." (The Book of Peace: A Collection of Essays on War and Peace, 1845)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Our Other Prophet On War

In April 2003, shortly after the United States' unconstitutional invasion of Iraq, the late great Gordon B. Hinckley gave an address in General Conference, titled "War and Peace."

As opposed to Thomas Monson's interview with the Deseret News in 1991 (see my post on that here, a prequel of sorts to this one), Hinckley spoke these words in an official forum, making his remarks more of an indictment of the modern LDS Church as a whole rather than the misguided beliefs of a zealous and ├╝berpatriotic veteran. Similar to Monson's remarks, however, this talk painting Mormons as the warmongering, military-worshiping people we've been warned we shouldn't become, is merely an opinion. The opinion of a man in a very influential leadership position, a man esteemed by millions, but an opinion nonetheless.

Hinckley approached the issue carefully and in genuine humility, and I applaud him for that. He also testified of earnestly going to the Lord in prayer over the matter, something I'm not here to argue. But at the end of the day, the talk he gave on that Sunday morning was not indicative of the will, the thoughts, or the mind of the Lord. It was not a revelation. And it was not doctrinally correct.

How do I know? Because I've read the scriptures.

And when it comes to war, it's something they have been awfully clear and emphatic about, particularly in the latter-days.

We're often told in the typical Sunday School class that the best way to get our prayers answered is by turning to the previous revelations God has given us; often we will find that a sincere reading of such words will enlighten our understandings and become a springboard for personal revelation.

I'm afraid Brother Gordon didn't follow that advice on this occasion. If he had, he would have come across many things contrary to the message he ended up giving at Conference--a watered-down hedge that renounced war (as is commanded in the scriptures) only to the extent that it was acknowledged as bad but, ultimately, necessary, making the decade-long excursion in Iraq just the next American war in line to be given the green light by the brethren.

Before I comment on some of President Hinckley's remarks, I'd like to add that I too supported the Iraq War at the time (I was a senior in high school) and the Afghan invasion a year and a half prior. This was before I was even a member of the Church. I was a staunch Republican, however, and voted for George W. Bush and defended most of the things he did in office, those wars being at the top of the list.

In the past year or so, I've changed my mind. Not for any partisan or political reason, but simply because I've come to realize the truth in the context of my spiritual belief system. It's been a humbling experience. I look at war from a new light these days, and I've come to the conclusion that it is not the noble and heroic thing most in our culture (Mormon, American, Human, you name it) have made it out to be. The Lord clearly doesn't approve of it when undertaken in someone else's homeland, and preemption and vengeance don't count as exceptions to that rule. The War on Terror, which has made these two principles its chief cornerstones, certainly hasn't made me any more free. So while I can relate to Bush's and Hinckley's mindsets, and would have done and said similar things had I been in their positions (at the time), that doesn't make it right. I embrace the "flip-flop" I've done because it is founded in a sincere desire to seek truth and follow the pure teachings of Jesus Christ, abandoning the false gospel of Ayn Rand many of my fellow conservatives have embraced. So yeah, I've changed. But I figure it's not called the Gospel of Change for nothing.

Moving on to Hinckley's address, he begins by telling the story of James Cawley, a Mormon killed in the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, calling his life story symbolic of the "contradictions of the peace of the gospel and the tides of war." Contradictions indeed. Cawley served a mission "spreading the gospel of peace to the people of Japan" just 40 years after we were done spreading fire and radiation from atomic bombs on two of their most populated cities. He joined the Marines "without hesitation" even though it is taught that such life-altering decisions should be made in thoughtful, humble prayer. Ultimately, Sgt. Cawley was killed, prematurely stripping his family of a husband and father even though he was a member of a church that stressed the utmost importance of the family. What a needless, heartbreaking loss his death was.

All quote excerpts that follow are from Hinckley's talk, unless otherwise noted.
We sometimes are prone to glorify the great empires of the past, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and in more recent times, the vast British Empire. But there is a darker side to every one of them. There is a grim and tragic overlay of brutal conquest, of subjugation, of repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure.
I agree with the sentiment. Now, if only he could have taken the next step to include the American Empire in his list of examples. While I'm not of the extremist anarchy wing of the anti-war movement and am not a conspiracy buff--in fact, I'm willing to concede that the United States has at times been a force of relative good in the world--I'm also painfully aware of its "darker side" which Hinckley doesn't mention. It's clear the Church doesn't want to bite the hand of the state that feeds it.
The great English essayist Thomas Carlyle once ironically shared the observation, "God must needs laugh outright, could such a thing be, to see his wondrous mannikins here below." I think our Father in Heaven must have wept as He has looked down upon His children through the centuries as they have squandered their divine birthright in ruthlessly destroying one another.
But somehow couldn't communicate to his Prophet Here On Earth that people should stop doing such things.
In the course of history tyrants have arisen from time to time who have oppressed their own people and threatened the world. Such is adjudged to be the case presently, and consequently great and terrifying forces with sophisticated and fearsome armaments have been engaged in battle.
Adjudged by whom? You will begin to see Hinckley's not-so-subtle references to the state knowing best, and here, rather than providing us with the Lord's words on the matter, he defers to the politicians who wrongfully deemed the tyrant Saddam Hussein (and indeed he was a tyrant) to be a threat to the world. And that the incursion to oust him was merely "an outgrowth and continuation" of the War on Terror.
In a touching letter I received just this week, a mother wrote of her Marine son who is serving for the second time in a Middle Eastern war. She says that at the time of his first deployment, "he came home on leave and asked me to go for a walk. … He had his arm around me and he told me about going to war. He … said, 'Mom, I have to go so you and the family can be free, free to worship as you please. … And if it costs me my life … then giving my life is worth it.'" He is now there again and has written to his family recently, saying, "'I am proud to be here serving my nation and our way of life. … I feel a lot safer knowing our Heavenly Father is with me.'"
This letter exemplifies just how deep the "fighting for freedom" platitude has permeated our culture. Sending armed troops into third world countries does nothing to protect our liberty. This Mormon marine was so proud to die for "our way of life," but the only attribute I see as a constant about that "way" is retribution through superior firepower. It is the opposite of Christ-like discipleship.
There are other mothers, innocent civilians, who cling to their children with fear and look heavenward with desperate pleadings as the earth shakes beneath their feet and deadly rockets scream through the dark sky.
Any guesses on whose "deadly rockets" those are?
There have been casualties in this terrible conflict, and there likely will be more. Public protests will likely continue. Leaders of other nations have, in no uncertain terms, condemned the coalition strategy.
I'd be willing to bet many of those leaders have actually read the U.S. Constitution!
The question arises, “Where does the Church stand in all of this?”
That question seems to arise a lot these days. "Minds darkened" anyone?
First, let it be understood that we have no quarrel with the Muslim people or with those of any other faith. We recognize and teach that all the people of the earth are of the family of God. And as He is our Father, so are we brothers and sisters with family obligations one to another.
Yet we reserve the right to ignore the repeated warnings Scripture gives us about war, invade their countries, and destroy their homes to smithereens if we suspect their leaders might have even the slightest links to terrorism or happen to possess weapons of their own.
But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally. Those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military service, they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.
One of our Articles of Faith, which represent an expression of our doctrine, states, 'We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.'
Harkening the 12th Article of Faith has become a standard Mormon response these days to anyone questioning the validity of following one's government in lockstep. I dedicated an entire piece on this faulty idea last year. Simply put, Hinckley's interpretation is incorrect, when we zoom out on the broad scope of canon Joseph Smith provided. But it doesn't take The Mouthpiece Of The Lord to tell you that blindly following government orders because "that's what the law says" is probably a bad idea.
But modern revelation states that we are to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16). In a democracy we can renounce war and proclaim peace. There is opportunity for dissent. Many have been speaking out and doing so emphatically. That is their privilege. That is their right, so long as they do so legally.
OK, here we go, ol' Gordon's gonna turn it around! I mean, his scriptures tell him to renounce war, his "democracy" (using the term loosely) allows for him to renounce war--the field is ripe for us to hear him renounce war! Gordon:
However, we all must also be mindful of another overriding responsibility, which I may add, governs my personal feelings and dictates my personal loyalties in the present situation.
Wait, what?! "Another overriding responsibility?" The direct Word of the Lord can be overridden? What else could "govern" and "dictate" (interesting choice of words) his personal feelings and loyalties here? And why do we even care what his personal feelings are when we already have the Lord's say in the matter? If this isn't a case of following after the arm of the flesh, I don't know what would be.

He goes on to use the war stories in the Book of Mormon to prove his points. He tries to draw a parallel between our current situation and that of the Nephites. After all, they too were doing the "duty which they owed to their God" (Alma 43:45-46) and defending their "families unto bloodshed" (Alma 43:47). Surely this is the same thing.

Except it isn't. Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants explicitly states, "Behold, this is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers, Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles. And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them" (D&C 98:32-33, emphasis mine).

The critical word here is out. We are not to "go out unto battle." The Lord allows us to defend our homelands (with a few admonitions to bear a standard of peace first) from our enemies. Once we take the battle to their homeland, however, we are straying from the Word. Without a commandment from God to enter foreign lands (this talk is certainly bereft of one) we are to stay home. It's a doctrine eloquently and tragically outlined in narrative form in the Book of Mormon, as we see the Nephites go from bravely fighting in defense of "their God, their religion, their freedom, their peace, their wives, and their children" (pp Alma 46:12) to an all-out offensive on the Lamanites which leads to the complete abandonment of their God and the utter destruction of their civilization. You would think we'd have learned the lesson after having this book for 175 years now, but the message seems lost, particularly upon those...most...among us.

Hinckley also goes on to quote Jesus--you know, that warrior God who overthrew the Romans and freed the Jews from captivity:
When all is said and done, we of this Church are people of peace. We are followers of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the Prince of Peace. But even He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
I'm no expert on language of the Bible, but I think it's pretty safe to assume that Jesus wasn't talking about a literal sword here. We read elsewhere about the "sword of truth." Taking this Jesus character in context, I do not believe he was referring to violence in any form, yet Hinckley manages to cherry pick the lone quote of the entire gospels that paints Jesus to be a warmonger.
This places us in the position of those who long for peace, who teach peace, who work for peace, but who also are citizens of nations and are subject to the laws of our governments. Furthermore, we are a freedom-loving people, committed to the defense of liberty wherever it is in jeopardy. I believe that God will not hold men and women in uniform responsible as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do. It may even be that He will hold us responsible if we try to impede or hedge up the way of those who are involved in a contest with forces of evil and repression.
President Hinckley, again speaking for himself, contradicts the words of a previous First Presidency statement from 1941, which said, "The divine law on the taking of human life...embraces war." Perhaps they weren't speaking for the Lord either, but it seems painfully clear from the actual scripture and plain common sense that we as humans are just as accountable for our actions in wartime as we are in peacetime, Hinckley's beliefs notwithstanding. And for an alleged freedom-loving people, we sure seem to be keen on voting for and supporting those who would take liberty away from us.
Now, there is much that we can and must do in these perilous times. We can give our opinions on the merits of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties.
This is one of Hinckley's better points of the talk. No matter which side we're on when it comes to any issue, those who respond with acrimony and hatred toward the other side are just as guilty of breaking Christ's great commandment as those who are guilty of holding opinions that are believed contrary to his teachings. This is one reason why I'm not so gung-ho about the whole gay marriage thing--so many of its supporters have gone overboard attacking its opponents as bigoted homophobes that it's really turned me off to the message. Civil discourse is hard to come by in that arena; I hope this issue will not be similarly hijacked by angry hearts.
Let us pray for those who are called upon to bear arms by their respective governments and plead for the protection of heaven upon them that they may return to their loved ones in safety.
It's not my prerogative to tell anyone whom to pray for, so I don't necessarily disagree with the sentiment here. Of course anyone in harm's way anywhere could use a prayer. But to think that all who will bear arms in such deadly, haphazard conflicts will receive the protection of a God who's likely tired of telling both sides to knock it off is probably a tad naive.
To our brothers and sisters in harm’s way, we say that we pray for you. We pray that the Lord will watch over you and preserve you from injury and that you may return home and pick up your lives again. We know that you are not in that land of blowing sand and brutal heat because you enjoy the games of war. The strength of your commitment is measured by your willingness to give your very lives for that in which you believe.
I think we as Mormons and/or Americans really need to think about what exactly it is that we believe before engaging in such consequential games of war. If armed conflict that will ultimately affect innocent people in catastrophic ways can be avoided in any way to stand up for what we believe, I plead with all my fellow Latter-day Saints and countrymen, pursue that path every time.

After invoking a few different passages about the nature of God and different scriptural situations of people handling war and peace, Hinckley says:
We can cultivate in our own hearts, and proclaim to the world, the salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through His atoning sacrifice we are certain life will continue beyond the veil of death. We can teach that gospel which will lead to the exaltation of the obedient.
We cannot teach the gospel by killing, maiming, and torturing. And the gospel cannot exalt the obedient if we choose to be obedient to the precepts of men rather than the loving words of God.
This life is but a chapter in the eternal plan of our Father. It is full of conflict and seeming incongruities. Some die young. Some live to old age. We cannot explain it. But we accept it with the certain knowledge that through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord we shall all go on living, and this with the comforting assurance of His immeasurable love.
Yes, this life is but a flash of a greater eternity. Some die young and some die old. There will be conflict and turmoil in this world. But we as Latter-day Saints know too much to actively engage in creating more of it, or to passively resist in speaking out against it. May we truly learn something from the experiences of those who came before us--that whether through literal events or through allegory there is a message consistent throughout the New Testament, throughout the Book of Mormon, throughout the words of Joseph Smith, throughout the words of mankind since time immemorial--the path to peace cannot be achieved through offensive war. The gospel cannot be spread via torpedoes and cruise missiles. The love of God cannot be fully manifested into the hearts of mankind until we learn to love one another the way He loves us.

I'm sure somewhere out there, in some greater plane of consciousness, Brother Gordon, a beloved son of God, is learning this very lesson. May more of us come to this understanding in the here and now. I'm sure God is eager to teach us the deeper doctrines of reality, as it's taken us thousands of years and counting to get "Thou shalt not kill" right.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

New Material Upcoming...



Hey guys, it's been awhile since I last posted. Feeling a need to give a status update. The short of it? I am in the midst of my first full-time, full school year of teaching (6th grade at an elementary school in suburban Denver). And this time of year is quite busy. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel--I'll be done soon, and am working on a few pieces, including an analysis of Gordon Hinckley's 2003 conference talk, "War and Peace," which I'd like to have up on Memorial Day. Hope y'all are enjoying the nice weather. I look forward to being back in commission this summer!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mixed Messages


Of all the current apostles, the only one with whom I am personally familiar is David A. Bednar. He has come to the Denver area twice in the past ten years to address the young single adults. Both of these sessions have been set up in a question-and-answer format. His soft-spoken, stoic style combines with an often humorous yet business-like approach to the gospel that makes him one of the more enigmatic general authorities.

(Oh, and I've even shaken his hand--little old me! Can you believe that?)

Recently, Deseret Book (one of the many forms by which we've come to know and love the corporate LDS Church) released a series of videos featuring Bednar and fellow apostle Jeffrey Holland speaking candidly to groups of what I can only imagine are all Mormons.

I'd like to share a couple of the videos--one good, one...not so good--featuring Bednar.

First, the not so good. Or, should I say, shockingly bad. It is unavailable for embedding (small wonder why once you see it) but as of press time, is still up on and running on YouTube. Titled "The Lord's side of the line," it begins with a nervous boy asking our esteemed Elder, "Um... if you like, stop reading the scriptures, what is the best way--how is the best way to get back into reading them?"

Simple enough question, right? The boy, clearly mustering all the courage he's got, wants to know how to get back into reading the scriptures after taking a break--er, I mean, forsaking God--for a time. While there are plenty of acceptable roads the answer to this could have traveled, the boulevard Bednar's goes down is not one of them.

In fact, for the next four minutes, Bednar takes this shy young man right into his very own Nightmare on Elm Street.

Bednar asks the boy to come onto the stage ("Don't be nervous." Ha!), where he proceeds to inflict upon him one of the most awkward and asinine object lessons on church record. He guides the boy on a trip from God's side of the line, represented by a very costly-looking area rug, to the devil's territory, represented by shooting towers of flame. (Ok, not really, but that wouldn't have made it any worse.) The boy--Bryson, we learn at the end--is understandably scared and has tears in his eyes the entire time, but that doesn't stop Sheriff Bednar from showing him the nature of just what is involved when someone stops reading his scriptures and joins the 666 gang.

At one point, once DAB has led Bryson across the line into the devil's territory, he gives him a bear hug from behind to prevent him from returning to God's side. Aside from the general awkwardness of the situation, the principles he teaches are really off the mark as well. For example, he tells him:
Remember what got you over here? You came all the way from back over there to right at the edge of the line by just not doing the things you know you should do. And once you get over here, you're not in control anymore.
Not in control anymore? Do we lose our agency because we stop "doing the things (we) know (we) should do"? I probably shouldn't make assumptions, but I'd be willing to bet that young Bryson isn't hooked on crystal meth or in need of sex therapy. Bednar's talking about addiction when the real issue is simple apathy. But such apathy doesn't cause a loss of control.

Finally, Bednar answers the actual question:
So your question was, if you're not praying or reading, what's the best way to get started again, right? You just remember what it was like to be over there. Okay? Does that make sense? You don't want to be there. And you're in charge. You're in control, because of your agency, of making sure that you don't get so close to the line that you'd make a mistake and step over. So, you stay turned this way by choosing the right. And you go deeper over here to where it's safe by continuing to choose the right.
Here he acknowledges agency, but by grouping it as an attribute only available to us when on "God's side of the line," it's only logical to conclude that that agency disappears once we "make a mistake and step over." Also, based on the way he says it, all the devil requires is one mistake and we're toast. Bednar's solution appears to be personal perfection, achieved only by shunning the world (earlier he said "I don't even want to see what's over there") and fortifying ourselves from all the evil by following the ambiguous Deseret Book moneymaking mantra "choose the right."

Additionally, this lesson is almost entirely negative reinforcement. The Old Testament approach may have worked on the ancient Hebrews, but in this world, it is not the way to illustrate the God of Love we supposedly revere. While I'm of the opinion that Bednar should have scrapped this object lesson entirely, it would have had at least achieved a better result if he had just started the boy near the edge, talking about the choices we could make to go either way, and then talk about the positive things that would move us towards the center of the rug. Why focus on the negative when the boy is showing a desire to improve his relationship with God? And why use a fear-based approach when it looks like he has the willingness to be faithful? There's no need for fear when there's faith--even a seed of faith.

Oh, and not a single mention of Jesus--you know, the guy who atoned for all the rotten things we do, from forgetting to read our King James Bibles as children to dropping bombs on civilians in the name of war. Because of the atonement, which covers all, Christ is the only reason why "choosing the right" isn't a mere exercise in futility.

I sincerely hope this doesn't damage a young mind in such a way that he will abandon the gospel entirely, because he will remember it his entire life. Bryson, if you ever read this, don't let negative experiences relating to the corporate Church sour your love for the true church of Christ.

Now, just so you don't think I'm being too hard on the poor apostle from California, the answer he gave in this video (magically available for embedding)...



...is actually quite good.

Bednar says:
The scriptures say that we are to stand independent as a church. We need to be able to stand independent as members of the Savior's church, dependent upon Him, but independent.
I agree with this analysis. While fully dependent on God, we are to work out our own salvation apart from the borrowed light of anyone else, whether that be a friend, family member, bishop, stake president, or...though he doesn't say it, general authority. Ultimately, we each have the opportunity to cultivate an individual relationship with God, through the Spirit. And even when the Lord speaks to his Church as a whole through a prophet (can't say for sure when the last time that was), we are to go to God with it to verify its truthfulness. We are not to put faith in external sources. That's what's known as following after the arm of the flesh, and it doesn't matter if that flesh has a fancy title in front of his name.

He also points out, to the dismay of True Believing Mormons the world across, that attending church isn't absolutely essential to our salvation:
What if you were in a situation, somewhere in the world, by virtue of your employment or whatever it might be, where you couldn't attend church every week? I've been in places in the world where the church was shut down by a government. And you could ask yourself the question, well, what would you do if you couldn't go to church? What if there wasn't Relief Society? What if you didn't have all that stuff? What would you do? Well, you ought to be okay. Your ability to worship, your ability to have connection to the Godhead, through the power of the Holy Ghost, that doesn't go away if the government shuts down a church in a particular country and you can't be there on Sunday.
Of course, the implication is that if we have the ability to attend church, then it is an expectation we do so. But the point holds, and it's a point that has been expressed before--Ronald Poelman's phantom conference talk from 1984 comes to mind. The church is not the gospel. It's simply a way to access the gospel, but not the only way.

The primary reason for attending church--besides all the super enlightening meetings filled with clipboard power--is to partake of the sacrament. But remember, this ordinance is simply a renewal of our baptismal covenants. There is no expiration date. We renew them weekly (unless more important business like Stake or General Conference come up) for our benefit, to remind us of our relationship with God and what it means to carry His name upon us. But there's nothing preventing us from continuing to abide in those covenants simply because we haven't renewed them the past 7 days. The Church is not our DMV. It's a place to commune with our fellow imperfect saints and--hopefully--learn something. But truancy is not equivalent to damnation, and Bednar basically grants that fact here.

The reason I titled this post "Mixed Messages" is because these two videos really show the dichotomy of modern LDS ecclesiastical thought. On the one hand, the general authorities have the ability to be quite shrewd and enlightened at times--giving messages that emphasize love, kindness, and acceptance. Yet on the other, their directives all too often devolve into simplistic and absurd talking points that run counter to the gospel and paint our relationship with God to be one of distance and fear, "The Lord's side of the line" being a prime example.

I don't mean to imply that David Bednar doesn't believe in Christ, or that he thinks the atonement is somehow second fiddle to us keeping the commandments, but with object lessons like the one he taught to Bryson and an odiously sympathetic audience...


...it is only natural for one to ask, Is this Church really being led by God?

And do we need for it to be?