Sunset at Cape Disappointment

Some thoughts on our relationship with indigenous Americans, pt. 1

As we approach America’s national holy-day, the 4th of July, I have been unsettled by and thinking about our country’s interactions with its indigenous peoples. I’m going to try and pull some of these thoughts together, but this will ramble and I will probably need to break it up over several posts.

This last week, we stayed in a cabin at the Cape Disappointment State Park on the southern end of the peninsula on the northern side of the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean.

Map showing location of Cape Disappointment
From Google Maps

The cape was named “Disappointment” by John Meares, a Scottish fur trader and British naval officer who tried to sail up the Columbia River only to be daunted by the powerful forces of one of North America’s most difficult river mouths to navigate. He named it as such because he failed to confirm reports of the river from an earlier Spanish explorer, Bruno Hecta.

Sunset at Cape Disappointment
Sunset at Cape Disappointment

The peninsula was the final westward location of the Lewis and Clark expedition and may have been the final resting place of all of its participants if it were not for the skill and magnanimity of the Chinook bands who lived in the region. The indigenous peoples called the region Kah’eese and the 1858 Coastal Survey report to Congress documents how difficult navigation in the region can be. The Chinook used and still sometimes use wooden canoes to travel the difficult waters of the river they called Wimahl. Below are some historical photographs of the Chinook and their craft.

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Images from the Chinook nation website.

Mary Rose, writing for the Confluence Project (a project that uses public art to tell the indigenous stories of Columbia River Basin peoples), pointed out in a post that the name Cape Disappointment refers not to the physical nature of the region (which is by no means disappointing), but to the inaccurate perceptions of the Europeans who “explored” the area. But what about the stories of those who lived and thrived there for many years? Besides the Chinook, the region was significant for the Tillamook peoples. Rose rightly observed that “western explorers often named the landmarks they saw to reflect their nation’s claim over foreign sites.”  Such claims were inextricably tied to all kinds of physical, cultural, and even sexual violence.

In the park, at an old artillery emplacement, is a museum for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Going through the museum was an uncomfortable experience. The exhibits, artifacts, and (obligatory) interpretive film tell a complicated story. To be sure, the expedition took a great amount of courage and grit. Traveling from Saint Louis (what is the indigenous name for that area?) to Kah’eese was tremendously difficult and required strength and fortitude. The film included the language from Thomas Jefferson’s directive to the expedition’s leaders to collect as much information about the peoples and “natural resources” they encountered on their journey to the Pacific Ocean.  In a notebook I had with me, I made a few notes as I watched the film: 1) “I can’t help but think that the details Jefferson asked for were plans for conquest,” 2) “We celebrate their discovery—but for the [Native Americans] it was a death knell,” 3) “a triumphal narrative is a narrative of defeat.”

As a white, middle class American, the Lewis and Clark story I was told is just another episode in a grand origin story that was always already (to use a philosophical term) a story of conquest. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (which I have just started reading), noted that one of the very first laws enacted after the end of the Revolutionary War was the Northwest Ordinance which announced the new country’s intention to spread to the west, a “blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory” in the Ohio River Valley region. On that same page, she included an 1801 quote from Jefferson in which he declared an intention to dominate “the whole northern, if not the southern continent” and she noted that a “series of late-fifteenth-century papal bulls” gave “European nations…title to the lands they ‘discovered’” and stripped the “Indigenous inhabitants [of] their natural right” to their lands. [1] Thus, the Lewis and Clark story is part of a conscious six-hundred year narrative/war of conquest. Dunbar-Ortiz soberingly observed:

 The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a [series of policies] of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in Utopian dreams of a better society. [2]

What I’m starting to struggle with now is how Mormonism’s story fits into this grand narrative of American settler colonialism. It is a discomforting fit, especially as we consider how we have to “re-read” the Book of Mormon in light of evidence that our received framework about it may be incorrect. In 2004, Sunstone ran a series of pieces under the heading of “Reframing the Book of Mormon.” The introduction to the series noted that our understanding of the book must shift, especially with the finding that the equation of “Lamanite” and indigenous Americans may  more complicated and inaccurate as we may have hoped.

With the recent publicity over DNA studies that have confirmed long-held scientific notions that Amerindians descend from Asian—not Middle Eastern—peoples, those who hadn’t already been thinking about the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a literal history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas have begun to pay attention. The news has spread like wildfire among various Christian groups eager to win the souls of potentially disillusioned Latter-day Saints. More important, perhaps, is the questions produced by these studies have also begun to reach Latter-day Saints in the pews. [3]

As American Mormons, our perception of indigenous Americans has been an uncomfortable blending of what we believe to be scripture and national myth.  As a boy, I remember hearing a number of variations on the theme that indigenous Americans’ abhorrent treatment by colonial powers was a justifiable result of their turning away from Christ.  Thus, like Europeans with the Bible, Mormons with both the Bible and the Book of Mormon have reinforced entwined religious, colonial, and settler colonial narratives.  I agree with those who believe it is time to seriously interrogate and even deconstruct these narratives.

 


References

1. Roxanned Dunbar-Ortiz. (2014). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 3.
2. Ibid, p. 2.
3. Reframing the Book of Mormon. (March 2004). Sunstone, 131, p. 19. Retrieved from https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/issues/131.pdf

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Be not comforted: Some thoughts about Mormonism’s racist past/present

When I was a kid, I remember a primary lesson about repentance that used a central metaphor of sin as stones in our backpacks.  To lessen our burden, we need to empty our packs of stones.

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Image from pxhere, public domain

Forty years ago (June 8, 1978), the church dumped a gigantic stone from its backpack: the racial priesthood ban on men of African decent and on temple blessings to both men and women of African decent.  In 2013, the church quietly published “Race and the Priesthood” as part of it’s Gospel Topics essay series, an acknowledgement (as some of us see it) of the profoundly problematic historical narrative(s) the church has come to rely on.  With regards to race, the church has a profoundly racist historical narrative that we have only begun to acknowledge as an institution.  Early on, “Race and the Priesthood” acknowledges

…for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.

The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion. Many Christian churches of that era, for instance, were segregated along racial lines…

In a very subdued way, the essay acknowledges that there was never any divine sanction for the ban and that it was the result of racism within both the body and the leadership of the church.  Ouch.  Rather than repeat that narrative here, I will refer readers to Shoulder to the Wheel, an organization that was formed to promote a healthier understanding of the church’s messy racist past–in the spirit of openness, I am one of the signatories of the group.  The founders of the group have put together a number of fine resources that address this very painful chapter in our collective history.

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This image was created by Ben Crowder and is featured on the Shoulder to the Wheel website.

What I want to talk about here briefly is the concept of institutional racism.  Kaylene A. Richards-Ekeh (2009) in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime,* pointed out that this form of racism is “embedded in institutional policies and practices [that] operate in such a way that they produce systematic and persistent differences between racial groups that contribute to social inequality…even when no one is consciously or intentionally” advocating openly racist values or actions (p. 392).  For more than 150 years of our institutional existence, we had an openly institutionally racist organization, rewarding some and punishing/limiting others because of racial differences.  While I am grateful that this institutional aspect has been done away with, I cannot be comforted because racism is still a painful and unrighteous fact of existence for many Mormons of color.

Richards-Ekeh (2009) observed that institutional racism is “often the legacy of overt racism, whereby de facto racist practices [and attitudes] are codified by de jure mechanisms” (p. 392).  For those not familiar with the terms “de facto” and “de jure,” they are primarily legal terms from.  “De facto” racism refers cultural or individual attitudes/practices that influence day-to-day life, every-day racism; “de jure” racism, on the other hand, refers attitudes/practices that are “official” and enshrined in the language of law or policy.  For more than a century and a half, Mormonism’s de jure racism was codified in the priesthood and temple ban, which was bolstered by “many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions” (“Race and the Priesthood,” 2013), foremost of which was the “Curse of Cain” or the idea that Cain and his decedents were cursed with dark skin and excluded from the full blessings of the Gospel–a deeply anti-Christian explanation even on the face of it because it maintains that people of color are not worth Christ’s Atonement or are somehow less than human and thus do not qualify for those blessings.

Today, “[n]one of these explanations is accepted…as the official doctrine of the Church” (“Race and the Priesthood,” 2013), but the fallout of the policy, the de facto racism, is still very alive in the church.  In an August 2017 op-ed piece in the Deseret News, entitled “Speaking to the pain of a Black Mormon Woman,” Zandra Vranes wrote about the continuing struggle that Mormons of color face in “Zion”–I put this culturally significant word in quotes to highlight the fact that we are, de facto, a long way off from this ideal.  Vranes wrote about being called the N-word by fellow members of the church; what’s more, she wrote about a young woman of color who was told by a member of the church that “she was black and didn’t deserve to live,” which prompted her to make an unsuccessful attempt on her own life (“Speaking to the Pain…,” 2017).  Don’t pardon my French…but how the hell can a supposed follower of Christ say something like that to a fellow sojourner?  Someone who harbors such thoughts cannot purport to be a follower of Christ.  Vranes pointed out other every-day subtle ways our racist legacy resurfaces:

Sometimes it looks like being quick to blame the Spanish-speaking ward [or branch] every time something comes up missing or breaks in a building that multiple congregations share. It might be a mission president allowing the brown missionary to stand outside at the request of the investigator, while the white missionaries go inside and teach them the gospel, instead of telling them that in order to join this church they’d need to stop harboring prejudice.

I am a participant in a Facebook group that encourages Mormons of color to share their experiences and concerns about the racism they encounter.  Obviously because of trust issues, I won’t quote directly from any of the posts, but I will say that members of color from many places in the country have had similar experiences to the ones Vranes called attention to in her column.  What I have learned from listening to this conversation is that racism is a very real force in the contemporary church and it rears its head in everything from overt words and actions to naive statements about procedure that are rooted more in cultural assumptions than doctrine to mistaking political opinion for revelation, especially when that political opinion is clothed with white supremacist and/or ethnocentric rags.

While institutional racism, as Richards-Ekeh claimed, is a “legacy” of de facto racism, it seems that the experience of many brothers and sisters of color teaches us that de facto racism is also a legacy of institutional racism.  It is a downward spiral and one we must interrupt if we are to achieve the unity we claim to aspire to.

Water circling the drain
From Max Pixel, public domain

As a Mormon, I feel an urge to conclude this post with some kind of “positive” statement, to offer some note of hope.  We are, after all, trained to see the “good” in the world, are we not?  I think, however, that when it comes to racism in church culture, that kind of move can be disingenuous and lead to an “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well” (2 Ne. 28:21) mindset.  I think it’s actually better for white Mormons to be dis-comforted by our racist past and present.  All cannot be well as long as we passively accept the legacy of institutional racism, try to defend it, or seek to avoid it.  We have to acknowledge that we still carry stones in our backpack.  It’s time for us to start listening to our our black and brown brothers and sisters and to follow the example of the Apostles and ask, “Lord, is it I?” (Matt. 26:22).

 

* Richards-Ekeh, K.A. (2009).  Institutional racism.  In Greene, H.T. & Gabbidon, S.L. (eds.) Encyclopedia of race and crime, vol. 1.  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, p. 392-393.  Retrieved from Gale Virtual Reference Library.

 

Use of natural and human resources

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SR71 “Blackbird”; image by dannyduncan6ynine on reddit

My wife and I have spent a delightful weekend in McMinnville, OR, an appreciated little getaway for our 25th anniversary–holy cow, has it really been that long?–and one of the things we did was visit the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, now the home of the Spruce Goose, among other aircraft.  I’ve always been fascinated by airplanes.  When I was younger, I read a lot about WWII fighters and bombers, along with histories of various battles and even a book about the Luftwaffe, the air force of Nazi Germany; so it was cool to see several planes from that era.

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A Focke-Wulf 190, A Messerschmidt BF 109, and Supermarine Spitfire

As I have gotten older, though, and have become a supporter of non-violence, the allure of military aircraft has mystified me.  Why do I find these machines so captivating when they are designed to destroy and kill, to train those who will destroy and kill, and to offer operational support to those who destroy and kill?  I made a comment to my wife about how seeing all the military aircraft made me think of the natural and human resources used to develop and produce these Waffen (weapons).  “What kind of world would this be if we had put those resources to use to solve problems of hunger and suffering?” I asked.

I thought of Pres. Spencer W. Kimball’s “The False Gods We Worship,” of the passage in which he observes:

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.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The Lord gave us so many resources, why do we use them to destroy and kill?  This, of course, flies in the face of Christ’s admonitions to love all.  Even, maybe especially, our enemies.  Christ taught such a radically different way to relate to one another.  I know there are many who will cite the presence of evil in the world and say that war in a tragic/horrible/necessary result of that evil.  Yes.  I know there is evil and darkness in the world, but there is also goodness and light and light can defeat darkness.

Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans wrote that “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21, NIV).  Aside from the Schadenfreude inherent in heaping burning coals on the heads of our “enemies” (if we show kindness to our enemies for this reason, though, I am sure it would not be counted as righteousness), I love this passage.  It reinforces the notion that good can be stronger than evil, that our “enemies” are human, have human needs, which should remind us that they are also children of God.

In Mormonism, we are fond of the statement from King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon: “For the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19).  We often times use that scripture in discussions on sexuality and materialism, but President Kimball’s “False Gods” points out that the impulses that lead to war are also part of the natural man that we must learn to put off.  Oh that we would!  Again, what would the world be like if we used those natural and human resources to help famine stricken parts of the world?  If we poured that same energy into extending the benefits of modern medicine to everyone?  If we applied that zeal to help build up infrastructure(s) everywhere?

Quick thought on community

Don’t have much tonight.  I gave a presentation to a psychology of religion class this past week taught by a colleague I get along with very well and respect quite a lot.  I talked a bit about the structure of the church and some of it’s core doctrines and I also talked about my struggles with the organization.  I prefaced it by telling the class that I am a “weird Mormon” and that I decidedly do not represent the mainstream, especially of American Mormons, telling them that I identify democratic socialism as my political home.  One young woman asked my why, if I struggle with the church, do I stay?  I think that’s a fantastic question and one I have to ask myself frequently.  One book that has challenged me and helped me think about the church differently has been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together; the original German title is Gemeinsames Leben, which suggests to me a bit more connection and interaction than the English title because the word Leben is both a noun (life) and a verb (live).

In his chapter, “Community,” there are a couple of quotes that I really appreciate:

When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our bretheren.  When we received forgiveness instead of judgment, we, too, were made ready to forgive our bretheren.  What God did to us, we then owed to others…One is a brother to another only through Jesus Christ.  I am a brother to another person through what Jesus Christ did for me and to me; the other person has become a brother to me through what Jesus Christ did to him…Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community.  What determines our brotherhood is what man is by reason of Christ. (pp. 24-5)

I struggle with keeping this in mind and in heart sometimes…well, often times.  I struggle with being merciful and withholding judgement because of my feelings of isolation, if not alienation when I go to church and am reminded how unlike others I am, who express ideas or attitudes that I find offensive.  Bonhoeffer, seems to have recognized my discomfort.

He writes about the danger of “wish dreams” that can encroach on Christian communities and that “God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves” (pp. 26-7).  Furthermore, he observes:

Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.  A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.  Sooner or later it will collapse. (p. 27)

I think what I struggle with is that many church members have not or cannot face their disillusionment, the “unhappy and ugly aspects” of our past and our present.  Many Mormons have become enamored with their riches and so entrenched in their political views that they seem to have lost sight of the fact that the poor are our brothers and sisters, that people on the LBGT+ spectrum are our brothers and sisters, that we have bought into some pretty racially and biased and sexist narratives and explanations of the world.  We seem to want things to be “nice” and “harmonious” so much that we do not face what is unhappy and ugly, that we do not begin to get at the deep love of Christ, the love of the Other who is not like us.  Yet, that is exactly what Christ did when he was on the Earth.  “God hates a visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious,” Bonhoeffer posits.  While I heartily disagree with the word “hates” in this context (after all God is love), I agree with the observation that if we refuse to grapple with the unhappy and ugly aspects of our selves and our history, we dream and in that dream we can become proud and pretentious, alienating brothers and sisters who Christ wants back.

 

Portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Crisis of my faith community? part 3

Portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dietrich-B.jpg

Today, I woke up with a very stiff neck and back and a headache so I did not go to church.  On such days, I try to get some “church” anyway and today I decided to watch a documentary on one of my heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed just before the end of WWII for his participation in several plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  I  have come to admire his central belief that Christ is found through interactions with others, that we are, in his words, “called to this world,” meaning that our commitment to the Gospel is manifest in how we interact with those around us, that the will of God for us is rooted in those we interact with or may interact with.  What I have encountered of his thinking has deeply impacted how I have come to think about service and my relationship to the Other (to use Emmanuel Levinas’s term).  As I watched, the documentary, I was struck by some very discomforting similarities I saw in clips the film included that showed Hitler’s use of Christian/religious rhetoric and the rhetoric of Christian nationalism I have seen in the last several decades.

The film showed clips from Hitler speeches in which he spoke of God’s will being his guiding principle and claiming that God’s will was for Germany to rise from the post-WWI ashes to lead the world.  Many scholars now agree that when Hitler used such language, he was not expressing a deeply held belief of his own, but rather one that either he judged his audiences to hold or that he knew that he could win them over with.  In his book Holy Hatred: Christianity, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, Robert Michael uses the following quote from der Fuehrer as an epigram for a chapter:

In boundless love, as a Christian and a human being, I read through the passage that tells us how the Lord arose at last in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I realize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. (1)

This quote is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, he actively constructs himself as not only a nominal Christian, but as a an emotionally engages and pondering Christian.  Second, it creates a seamless link between his Christianity and “divinely sanctioned” Anti-Semitism; Christ himself was a participant in the struggle against the Jews.  This charade also became part of the visual culture of Nazi-ism.  Richard Weikart pointed out the following photograph from Heinrich Hoffman’s collection Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt (Hitler as Nobody Knows Him): (2)

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Image fromhttps://de.evangelischer-widerstand.de/pictures/documents/D8010/D8010-1-th.jpg

This image shows Hitler leaving a well-known church, die Marienkierche in Wilhelmshafen.  The above image was published in the first edition of the collection, but in the next edition, published in 1938, the image was altered.

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from: http://der-fuehrer.org/Galleries/Adolf_Hitler-colorierte_Fotos/bigimages/29%20Adolf%20Hitler%20verlaesst%20die%20Marienkirche%20in%20Wilhelmshaven.JPG

Weikart’s point is that in the first image, taken in 1932, it was important to the Hitler machine that he be painted with a pious brush, but by 1938, when he had solidified his power, he no longer needed those trappings and was happy to have the same image represent him as a visitor to a historically significant site.  Weikart presents evidence that Hitler held basically anti-Christian attitudes from the beginning of his political career, but that he recognized the value of hiding his true feelings.  Michael ecoes this claim when he points out that the Nazi party’s ability to create sympathy with many levels of German society “was made possible by a shared Christian antisemitism” and that the violence towards Jews “did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of those Germans who supported the regime and therefore the Final Solution….” (2)

The problem here, though, is that the same thing seems to be happening, hopefully to a less murderous extent with Donald Trump.  As a showman, he knows the value of appearances and he seems to have no problem playing that card whenever he needs to.  The Religion News Service, in a story on our current President’s (OCP) 2017 message to the Values Voter Summit, noted his “evolution from twice-divorced casino owner viewed warily by Christian conservatives to evangelical favorite defending religious liberty.”

Sean Illing, inVox piece entitled “Why Christian Conservatives Supported Trump–And Why They Might Regret It.” pointed out that OCP’s career is contradictory to the public ideology of the religious right, being a “a vulgar, thrice-married real estate tycoon whose brand is built on money, women, and debauchery.”  Illing’s piece is an interview with Stephen Mansfield, a conservative Christian writer who did not support OCP and wrote Choosing Donald Trump, a book trying to come to grips with why members of the religious right supported someone who’s life embodies many things they publicly (at least) profess to hate.  Mansfield theorizes that the religious right  felt they were under attack by the Obama Administration and believed that attack would continue under a Clinton Presidency.  He claims:

By the time it got past the primaries, what they wanted was somebody who could just win. And he was as angry as they were. They channeled his anger. They thought they had someone who was with them on the main issues, who was tough and could win, and who was as angry as they were. All of that worked into the witches’ brew that swept him into office.

Thus, he seems to concede that the decision to support OCP had less to do with actual religious belief/principle and more to do with a sense of cultural power or perceived lack of it.

Unfortunately, this reasoning for supporting OCP creepily mirrors a conclusion Dr. Robert P. Ericksen reaches in a lecture delivered in 2007 at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  In the lecture, Dr. Ericksen shows how historians since the 1980s have systematically and thoroughly deconstructed the myth of the “good [Christian] German,” showing that there was fairly wide-spread support for Nazi-ism among both Protestants and Catholics during WWII.  He sums up their reasoning in supporting Hitler by pointing out that many

…church leaders, pastors,theologians, and lay people who applauded Hitler, who called 1933 a year of rebirth, and, in the words of Paul Althaus, considered Hitler “a gift and miracle from God.” The problem was not that they misunderstood Hitler, but that they so readily reconciled their consciences and their Christian identities to the harshness of the Nazi state.  Why? I have not tried to address that question here, but the short answer is this: They were so hurt by World War I and the national humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, they were so opposed to the open society created by democracy and the Weimar Republic, they were so frightened by the economic crises of hyper inflation and then the Great Depression, and they were so threatened by the sociological changes of the modern world that someone as ideologically aggressive as Adolf Hitler seemed an answer to all their problems. He was the candidate of military strength and national pride; the candidate of family values, promising, among other things, to put women back in the home where they belonged; and the candidate whose antisemitism fit their own preconceptions and concern that Jews did not really belong in an ideal, unified Christian society.  Based upon their hopes and dreams, Christians and other Germans found it easier to march behind Adolf Hitler than we would like to think. An honest assessment of the historical record seems to make that clear. It cannot be the legitimate task of historians to bury, ignore, try to hide or try to ignore that complex reality. (3)

I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in motivation.  German Christians in the 1930s stood behind Hitler because he was angry and spoke to their cultural identity, even though he held their beliefs in contempt (as Weikart shows); American Christians in 2016 stood behind OCP for similar reasons.  It would take a remarkable degree of naivete to believe that the current resident of the White House is a faithful Christian.  He can hardly “speak the language”; remember when, in a speech at Liberty Universtiy, he tried to quote from “two Corinthians“?

I hope this mistaking a “strong man” for a chosen vessel of the Lord does not turn out as badly as it did in the last century…and I am going to do my part in trying to make sure that will not be the case.


(1) Michael, Robert. Holy Hatred : Christianity, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/stmartinsu/detail.action?docID=307860, p. 153.

(2) Michael, p. 154.

(3) Ericksen, Richard P. “Christian Complicity?: Changing Views on German Churches and the Holocaust.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, 2007.  https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/Publication_OP_2009-11.pdf. pp. 13-14.

Crisis of my faith community? Why do we support a sexist, narcissistic, power grabber? Part 2

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Image from Pintrest

In my last post, I wrote about what I think of as manifestations of what really bothers me about our current President (OCP),* which is that he has an abusive spirit or demeanor.  Last week, I wrote about his crass materialism, sexual profligacy and assault, and about how he exhibits many of the symptoms of  deeply disturbing mental health issues.  I pointed out that his lavishness and licentiousness seem completely at odds with Mormon doctrine and positions.

I’ve included the image above because while many seem to want to compare (OCP) to Hitler, I believe his grandiosity and public persona are more Mussolini-like, as does NYU Italian Studies and History professor, Ruth Ben-Ghiat.  Ivana Trump, the first of his ex-wives, reported that he owned a collection of Hitler’s speeches, from which he would occasionally read–support for the old “garbage in, garbage out” cliche–but Hitler was a little more circumspect regarding his private life and cautious about letting the proverbial cat out of the bag until he was sure the average German would agree.  With Mussolini and OCP there is no bag.  To be sure, OCP is not quite a Fascist, but the parallels between him and Mussolini are unmistakable and his praise of “strong man leaders” like Vladimir Putin, Bashar Al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Sadam Hussein, and Rodrigo Dutarte, as well his recent fawning over Xi Jinping’s successful termination of term limits, hinting that he might like to try and follow suit, shows at least a desire to make himself a dictator.

Italians learned in the 1920s what Americans are learning in 2016: Charismatic authoritarians seeking political office cannot be understood through the framework of traditional politics. They lack interest in, and patience for, established protocols. They often trust few outside of their own families, or those they already control, making collaboration and relationship building difficult. They work from a different playbook, and so must those who intend to confront them.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat

My specific concerns are OCP’s embrace of violent language and violence as a political tool, his racism and Islamophobia, and his abusive attitude towards women and others

Encouraging violence

One trademark of Mussolini’s appeal to supporters was his violent rhetoric and a simplistic worldview.  His most loyal followers, the Blackshirts, took Il Duce’s “rhetoric to heart [and] beat and executed thousands of political opponents–including priests–at rallies and on trains, in shops, schools, and taverns,” Giahat points out.  In 1922 he lead a march on Rome to demand power from the Italian king, even.

While OCP’s followers are not that violent, he does inflame them with bellicose rhetoric, encouraging them to beat protesters and opponents and he presents a very simple, black and white view of the world–one of the key words here being “white.”  As this following video, produced by Vox, points out, he not only encourages violence, he sanctions it.

Racism and antisemitism

An important aspect Mussolini’s “leadership” was antagonism towards other races.  Giahat’s book on the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, discusses the brutality the Italians heaped on the Ethiopians.  In an excerpt, she observes:

As Ethiopian resistance continued after the proclamation of empire, the Italians combined old-fashioned savageries (decapitations, castrations, and burning and razing of civilian quarters) with industrial killing methods (aerial gas bombings and efficient open-grave executions) that are more commonly associated with Hitler’s and Stalin’s soldiers than with Mussolini’s rank and file

Additionally, Italy was complicit with Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, though not on the same scale.

OCP’s history of racism is complicated, as Lisa Desjardins points in a PBS News Hour story.  There have been times when he has taken what could be considered progressive steps at times, but the majority of his public record on race is decidedly negative, from the the Department of Justice lawsuit over racist rental policies and practices, to his activism in the Central Park Five case, to his calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, to his comment about “shithole” nations like Haiti and African nations.  OCP’s followers have taken his language go heart as license to act out their own, sometimes violent racism.

And then there is OCP’s open, virulent anti-Muslim words and actions, from suggesting putting a hold on immigration from Muslim countries, to his attempted travel ban, to renaming the Countering Violent Extremism program to Countering Islamic Extremism, to an upsurge in drone strikes in the Muslim world, to dropping the largest conventional bomb in Afghanistan, to announcing massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia to continue to support their vicious war on Yemen–which sends a diabolical message: We don’t care who kills you, just so long as you are killed.  Additionally, there was his retweeting of debunked anti-Islamic videos posted by a far-right British politician.

This of course has emboldened OCP’s followers.  Ibrahim Hooper, an American Islamic activist, who observed:

“It’s worse now than even after 9/11. He has empowered and mainstreamed white supremacy and bigotry,” he said. “After 9/11, bigotry was under the rocks and hidden. Now these bigots are out in the open and saying they are proud of their bigotry.”

Abusive attitude towards women and others

One last aspect of this post is OCP’s heaping abuse on women and others.  His public history of misogyny is only too well documented, from reducing women to their anatomy, to insulting women’s weight, to his pattern of insulting women opponents.  Besides the now infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, OCP has reduced women to their bodies and genitals frequently.  In this same spirit, he mocked Serge Kovaleski, a journalist with a disability that affects his hands.

trump-disabilities
from: Uncovered Truth

His abusiveness, predictably and infuriatingly, has seemed to encourage a “wave of misogyny.”

 

With all of this, how can a Mormon in good conscience claim to have followed the counsel in D&C 98: 10 in voting for OCP?

Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold…

Can any Mormon in good conscience honestly feel that Christ would approve of this man?

 

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* I honor the capitalization conversion because I have some hope the office can do some good, though I must admit that history does not support this hope.  All of the holders of the office have done some pretty horrendous things in office, though I still have profound respect for Abraham Lincoln for having the cojones to break the cycle of slavery.

Crisis of my faith community? Why do we support a sexist, narcissistic, power grabber?

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Image by Kael Moffat*

As the Trump administration proceeds, I must admit it becomes harder and harder to feel  like I have a place in the American LDS church.  A January Gallup poll showed that that 61% of American Mormons approved of Trump’s presidency in 2017.  The total sample size for the poll was over 122,000, of which 2,241 were Mormons.  The overall national approval rating in the same was 39%, thus the Mormon approval rate was almost twice the national average.  As time moves on, this becomes less and less comprehensible, especially in light of our community’s professed values.

The mashed up image above displays how it seems the American Mormon community should view the President.  King Noah, in the Book of Mormon, is one of the book’s better-known “villains” for his lavishness, lasciviousness, and narcissism.  But these are attributes that describe Trump.

  • Trump has spent nearly $2 million on redecorating the White House, which is actually not that much more than previous administrations with this important difference: earlier administrations financed their extensive remodels out-of-pocket or through donations.  Trump’s administration, however, has used federal funds, meaning tax dollars.
  • Trump has bragged about his sex life which is completely opposite of the sexual mores professed by Mormonism:
    • Trump’s affair with porn star, Stormy Daniels, alone is bad enough, but another porn star, Jessica Drake, has also alleged he propositioned her.
    • Additionally, Trump appeared in a 1999 Playboy softcore porno film.  Now, how often in church are pornography and pornographers thoroughly excoriated?
    • Multiple women have accused Trump of sexual assault and rape.
    • Trump has bragged about his sexual exploits.  Remember the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape?  What about his bragging about walking into women’s dressing rooms?
    • What about Trump’s multiple sexual comments about his own daughter?  There is nothing wrong with believing your own daughter is pretty and expressing that belief…in fact, is it not expected that parents should express such thoughts?  But there is a vast difference between asking, “Doesn’t my daughter look pretty?” and “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?”  There’s a difference between saying, “My daughter looks nice” and agreeing that your daughter is a “nice piece of ass,” as Trump did on a 2004 episode of the Howard Stern Show or telling a Rolling Stone interviewer, “If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . .”
  • Mental health professionals all over the US are challenging the American Psychiagric Association’s (APA) Goldwater Rule, which holds that no member of the APA should publicly comment on the mental state of a public figure.  In fact, more than 60,000 mental health professionals all over the US have openly signed a petition that they believe the President has a serious mental health condition that impairs his ability to carry out his duties as President.  Another professional organization, the American Psychoanalytic Association, has told members to ignore this convention, according to Business Insider.  A psychology professor I work with has talked to me about this on multiple occasions, saying he has signed a public letter saying that Trump suffers from a personality disorder because  mental health professionals are obligated to report when a person is a threat to themselves or others and he believes that Trump’s ability to command the armed forces constitutes a clear threat to others.

Brian S. King, in a Salt Lake Tribune column on the same Gallup poll points out another disturbing aspect of Mormon support for Trump when he asked, “Could it reveal Mormons want an authoritarian leader, regardless of the lack of uprightness or integrity of that person?”  This question made me think about the problematic episode in the Book of Mormon when some Nephites during the war chapters in Alma “were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land” (Alma 51: 5).  My concern about this was shoved into overdrive two weeks ago when Trump reacted to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful dismantling of term limits, by telling Republican doners, “He’s now president for life. President for life…I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday.”  This comment aligns perfectly with Trump biographer, David Cay Johnston’s prediction shortly after the election he would try to make himself into a dictator (here’s a link a German interview a friend from Germany sent to me).

Does this make American Mormon supporters of Trump equivalent to the rebel “king men” in the Book of Mormon?  I hope not.  I would like to think they would be offended by Trump’s comments.  I haven’t seen anything on this…and have been reluctant to look.

By the way, I say “American Mormons” because the Mormons I know from other countries are shocked by this support.  Some have even expressed a sense of being ashamed and outraged over it.

I don’t get it and, frankly, I’m wondering if this is a community where I even belong.

 

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* From: https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/sites/default/files/knowhy-img/users/user19/king-noah-friberg.jpghttps://dn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/161107120239-01-trump-parry-super-169.jpg

The soul and empirical research

Years ago, I remember hearing about studies that sought to scientifically determine whether the “soul,” or what we Mormons more commonly refer to as “spirit,” actually exists.  I was intrigued by that idea, but it made sense to me in light of Joseph Smith’s statement in the Doctrine and Covenants:

There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes (D&C 131: 7)

This week, I’ve come across a couple of pieces that report findings/claims by researchers at pretty prestigious institutions–including Southampton University in England, SUNY, Cambridge, Princeton, and the Max Plank Institute in Germany–that seem to point towards empirical evidence of the soul/consciousness that exists independently of the body.

soul-623424_640
Image by geralt from Pixabay, public domain

It may seem odd to think that meta-analysis, technology, and quantum physics could constitute a kind of “purer eyes,” but the fact is that we can now measure, contemplate, and debate phenomena that could hardly be dreamed of or intuited in the 1800s and that actually constitutes a sharper/deeper form of vision.  My belief in the doctrine of the soul does not hinge on these studies/claims and I have not looked at the primary documents or at follow up studies that may confirm or contradict them…and frankly, I don’t have technical knowledge to really appraise them for myself.  I could probably muddle through the introduction, review of literature, and conclusions of the papers, but would likely be totally lost in the methods and discussions of the data.  Additionally, these studies would not serve as proof of religious concepts or doctrine.  Still, it does seem rather cool to think that such matters of faith can be looked at in a material sense.

The pieces I saw this week include the following:

Knapton, S.  (2014, Oct. 7).  First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study.  The Telegraph.  Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/first-hint-of-life-after-death-in-biggest-ever-scientific-study/

Tracey, J.  (2014, June 17).   Physicists claim that consciousness lives in quantum state after death.  Retrieved from https://www.outerplaces.com/science/item/4518-physicists-claim-that-consciousness-lives-in-quantum-state-after-death

Why Do I Stay?, part 1

Last week I had a very thought-provoking conversation with someone who left the LDS church within the last year.  This person was raised in the church, is a returned missionary, and was married in the temple.  By “external markers” (s)he should be “good Mormon.”  Yet things have happened in this person’s experience that have brought him/her to the conclusion that (s)he cannot stay with the church [yes, I’m taking great pains to protect this person’s identity] not because (s)he has committed great sin, but because things in the church have become so painful that staying is no longer tenable.  I will point out here, that November’s handbook policy change is what drove this person to resign from the church.  This person echoed a pervasive complaint: How can the church make a policy that will exclude a whole class of persons (children) when the scriptures clearly state that the saints are not supposed to prevent those who want to come to Christ from coming to Him?  There were other concerns, but this one was the proverbial straw on the camel’s back.

I expressed that the policy had bothered me deeply as well and that I had taken comfort in the fact that even members of bishoprics and stake presidencies had also expressed similar sentiments–I have a friend in a bishopric who told his wife that he really wondered whether he out to have his name removed from the records.

This person asked me how it is that I keep going to church.

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Contemplation by Simon Powell from Flickr, CC BY

That is an excellent question!

This week I’ve taken some time to think about that.  As those who have paid attention to my blog can attest to, I am not a run-of-the-mill Mormon and yet from the outside, I think I look like one, to a great degree.  I have short hair, try to be tidy in my appearance, was married in the temple, have four children, am middle-class (for what that’s worth, nowadays), am a BYU graduate, hold a ward calling, etc.  But, in other ways, I am outside of expectations.  I do believe that same-sex marriage is a legal, civil right–it is, after all, a legal arrangement.  In the US, we are so used to the idea that marriage and sealing happen at the same time, but in many countries around the world the sealing is a religious ceremony that happens after the legal marriage.  I am against war and am not particularly patriotic…OK…I’m not really patriotic at all in the sense that patriotism is currently conceived of and marketed (yes, patriotism is big business)–one of my favorite bumper stickers reads God bless everywhere, no exceptions.  I don’t believe that “the market” is miraculous or even wise–and if people would bother to read Adam Smith, they would not that the “father” of capitalism was also not convinced that the market worked for the best of every one…but let’s stay on task.

I think over the next little while, I’ll explore this person’s excellent, and significant question in various ways.  Actually, now that I think about it, most of my posts really engage this very core question.  In this post let me address a couple of points that are important to generic American Mormon identity.  [Let me just point out here that Mormonism has variations.  There is the Wasatch Front version of Mormonism, but anyone who has been a Mormon outside of that strip if I-15 can tell you that ain’t the entire church.  Actually, I enjoy reading Gina Colvin’s blog, called KiwiMormon, a perspective of a part-Maori Mormon woman in Christchurch, New Zealand.]

Tithing

I pay tithing because I agree with this reasoning given on the church’s website:

By paying tithing, Church members show their gratitude to God for their blessings and their resolve to trust in the Lord rather than in material things. They also help further the work of the Lord in the earth, blessing others of God’s children with the opportunity to learn of Him and grow in the gospel.

I have struggled with this principle, like many Mormons, but I find that when I think of it as a form of expressing gratitude, I find it easier to live with 90% and I think I have learned a bit more to trust in the Lord’s goodness and grace an not the material things of this world.  I am not perfect, but I feel I’m inching closer and closer to where I want to be.  There have been times where financial concerns were crushing, and there will be more in the future, but I trust that as I keep this principle I might find (bmp, bmp) I get what I need (to consciously and ironically paraphrase the Rolling Stones).

Word of Wisdom

I follow this because I do not believe in the Cartesian body/mind (soul) bifurcation of the self.  Through my body I experience God.  Through my mind I experience God.  Taking care of my body is one way I connect with God.  This is codified in Mormon theology and I find it works in my life.

Church Participation

This one is tricky.  If you have been a “misfit” for whatever reason in a ward–and some of us experience far more than the occasional I feel like they just don’t get me blues–you know how difficult life in church can be.  I have known women who have not gotten married until late in life or who have never married who have talked to me about what a foreign place the church is for singles of “marrying age.”  Really, in some ways it is a brutalizing experience.  I know persons in the church who are asexual (yes…it’s a real thing: http://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/1089-2680.10.3.241) for whom church is excruciating–especially young women’s classes and activities.  As a non-conservative American Mormon, believe me, there are many times where I would just rather be somewhere else (ESPECIALLY around July 4, Memorial Day, and election years).

Personally, I go to church for a couple reasons:

  • On a simple level, the church is my “tribe.”  It’s what I was raised with, what I know, and where my family (for the most part) is.  That being said, I mean tribe in its most positive sense: a source of identity, wisdom, and comfort in times of distress.  It is not my tribe to the extent that I will kill for it, either literally or figuratively.  I do not believe myself to be better than anyone of another tribe simply because I am a member of this one.  It pains me to hear people at church talk down about others because they are not Mormon.  Yes, it happens.  And far too often.
  • The church has helped me become a better person.  In his book, Planted: Being and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, Patrick Q. Mason gives an extended quote from eminent Mormon historian Richard Bushman who reported that he told a colleague, a Catholic theologian, who asked him why he believed in Joseph Smith (and by extension why he remained a Mormon), “…when I [live] the Mormon way I [become] the man I [want] to be.” [1].  I appreciate this response.  I am well aware of the demons in me and the church gives me tools to keep them at bay (sometimes more, sometimes less).  Mason adds, however, a very, very significant extension of this point:

Creeds, confessions, articles of faith, and other elements of orthodoxy, or right belief, are significant only insofar as they orient our minds and hearts towards orthopraxis, or right living. [2]

  • I go to church because it offers me opportunities to get out of myself, a key tenant of almost all religious systems–I only say “almost” because I don’t know about all religious systems, but everyone that I know of contains some sense of connecting to a wider sense of the universe/cosmos beyond the self.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a classic book on communal living called Gemeinsames Leben (the English translation I have renders the title as Living Together [3]) in which he argues that to overcome the prison of the self, we have to connect with and struggle with others who do not think or feel the same way we do.  God is found in our interactions with others.  To seek God only in ourselves would be to shape God in our image, to risk mistaking our “selves” for God [4].  In this conception, going to church entails a certain amount of productive struggle.
bundesarchiv_bild_146-1987-074-162c_dietrich_bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA

 

I know these reasons will not satisfy everyone’s concerns and questions.  In a very real way, that is a good thing.  Each of us must find our way to God.  It is a significant, productive paradox, considering my last point: our finding God is both highly individual and necessarily involves interactions with others.  What I have come to hope is that others will find God and find peace.  Period.


Notes:

  1. Mason, P.Q. (2015). Planted: Being and belonging in an age of doubt.  Salt Lake: Deseret Book. p. 137.
  2. Ibid. p. 138, my italics
  3. If I were to do a translation of the book (and I probably won’t), I would actually stick with Bonhoeffer’s grammatical structure: Communal Living.  “Living together” could just as easily apply to a dyadic relationship, but the smallest group the author even mentions is the family, but feels that real, sincere Christian engagement must include broader contact.  It must include what Georg Simmel would call non-organic affiliations; i.e. it must include people we did not grow up with, people with different worldviews.
  4. I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t find my copy to quote from.  Really…go get the book and read it for yourself!  It is very stimulating.

 

Divine Iconoclasm

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun from Pennsylvania, called The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict, which offers a short monthly narrative from Benedict’s life and then a brief meditation for each day of the month.

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The general theme for the month of July is an interesting conception of prophesy, summed up by her observation:

The idols of life must be overturned.

Change is hard and change is slow but there can be no change at all until people are confronted with a new vision. [p. 69]

I like this concept of prophesy: a tool to see things differently.

Today’s reading (July 25) reads:

Women all over the world are taking axes to the idols of the patriarchy–in homes, in offices, in churches, in government. Someday people will realize why and, like the villagers of Monte Cassino [site of the first Benedictine monastery], begin to understand what Christianity really looks like as a result. [p. 76]

The phrase “what Christianity really looks like” is particularly poignant.  I immediately thought about the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to enter heaven.  After quizzing him about keeping the commandments, Christ told him to sell everything he had and give to the poor.  The young man, the scriptures tell us, went away dejected because he couldn’t part with his riches.  To turn Sister Chittister’s phrase, the young man’s problem was that he did not understand what salvation really looks like.  It involved letting go of what he had accepted as “really” important.  Christ’s point was that the kingdom of God is different than what we might be inclined to expect.  The young man needed to learn radical generosity, a radical displacement of  Self with concern for the Other.

very-rich-ryruler

So…what images of God’s kingdom do we have to lose in our journey?  My hope is that we learn to cherish the unfolding of refinement that is inherent in the process of sainthood more than we value our necessarily limited snapshots of it.