An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for April, 2011

Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, an African-American pastor and teacher, focuses on the human side of Jesus and provides insights into living his teachings. This short book, written at the height of American racial segregation, influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights work.

Thurman believes to truly understand Jesus’s message, we must understand the community in which he lived—and that we of the privileged group miss much of the message if we fail to understand the fear and insecurity of the less privileged. By focusing on the Divine, sometimes we miss seeing Jesus as a poor Jew, considered less than human by Roman rulers.  To compound that injustice, Jesus was persecuted by his own—Jewish leaders who collaborated with their oppressors.

Today, as in New Testament times, the world divides into oppressors and oppressed. Both fall victim to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. In Thurman’s view, Jesus’s teachings were born of the need for survival of his oppressed people—to release them from the bondage of destructive negative thinking. Thurman’s examples from the lives of African-Americans, Arabs, and other colonized and exploited people are eye-opening. His own wisdom illumines the message of the scriptures. He says, “It ill behooves a man who is not forced to live in a ghetto to tell those who must how to transcend its limitations.”

His book shows Jesus practicing brotherhood with the flawed human beings with whom he had contact—setting an example for other humans to follow. Thurman shows us the man who not only stops the crowd from stoning the woman taken in adultery, but saved her feelings afterwards. In Thurman’s words, “Jesus, always the gentleman, did not look at the woman as she stood before him. Instead, he looked on the ground.” Jesus respected the woman’s personal space before sending her, without condemnation, to “go and sin no more.”

Thurman believes Jesus’s teaching that humans are children of God is the most liberating idea possible. That concept makes all of  us equals and each of us holy.

Thurman provides an unusual interpretation of “the unpardonable sin.” Jesus uses that term after being accused by Jewish leaders of casting out devils by the power of the devil (Matt. 12:22-37). In Thurman’s view, Jesus’s answer, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” indicates his accusers knew they untruthfully accused him. Thurman believes the following statements about blasphemy and committing the unpardonable sin refer to the accusers.  A person who calls a lie the truth eventually loses the ability to discern truth from falsehood. This loss of moral compass may be irrecoverable, hence unpardonable.

In his book Thurman presents Jesus as a person providing answers for living in an unjust world. He concludes with this statement: “What he did, all men may do.”

Clay Feet

Greg Mortensen’s fall from grace as a paragon of selfless service has been painful to those of us who read of his life-saving rescue by remote villagers in Pakistan, his subsequent return to build a school for the village, and his founding of the Central Asia Institute to build scores of school. A friend who countered my enthusiasm for Mortensen’s book with the comment, “It sounds contrived,” is now rubbing it in. But more troubling to me than the literary license taken in his books is the apparent mishandling of CAI funds. Hopefully, both Mortensen and the CAI can recover, reorganize, and continue the work in Asia.

Three months ago, the roshi (master teacher) of the Salt Lake Zen Center de-robed himself after confessing an extra-marital affair. Roshi’s Big Mind technique for meditation and self-discovery was a break-through for me—as well as for the hundreds of people who frequented his dharma-talks at the Zen Center. Without Roshi to draw crowds, the Center struggles for financial support.

Human nature tends to create superheroes –larger than life characters who do the things we lack the ability or drive to accomplish. Possibly as compensation for our own perceived limitations, we ply high achievers with accolades, offer them financial support, defend them from criticism. Gordon B. Hinckley, longtime, greatly-loved president of the Mormon Church, once said that he struggled with adulation every day.

Maybe the problem is less with leaders endowed with human weaknesses than with the desire of followers to elevate them into vessels of virtue—to believe that they are not human beings like ourselves, but moral powerhouses immune to the love of leisure, money, pride, lust and the rest of the seven deadly sins.  It’s much easier to recline at home perusing Facebook if we tell ourselves that the people building schools in Asia or leading retreats to help people cope with an indifferent world are different from ourselves.

In the end, those with clay feet may be judged less harshly than those having no metal at all.

Defending Our Own

A blog post by Dan Wells makes the point that Mormon culture is averse to constructive criticism—or at least to criticism of people acting with good intent. Wells uses the familiar example of class members commenting, “Great lesson!” to the instructor—no matter how boring the presentation. I noticed this with my ward book group last week. The book discussed was Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, a retelling of an Alaskan Indian legend. I found the book so badly written, I could only skim through. All but one member of the group said it was a wonderful book because it was a quick, easy read and “it had a good moral.” I mentioned the lifeless writing style, unrealistic events, and undeveloped characters, and everyone agreed it wasn’t good literature, but considered it a good book because of the theme and moral.

Interestingly enough, this tolerance for an author with good intent was extended to Greg Mortensen as we discussed the recent revelation of exaggeration in his books and the mismanagement of finances for the Central Asia Institute. Group members agreed that nobody is perfect and Mortensen has done much good for the people of the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I admit to surprise at the broad-mindedness of my ward members. Mormon culture is not known for tolerance of sin in any form or degree. I think Dan Wells got it right about Mormons: we are not inclined to criticize people or policies if we believe the intent is righteous.

On the other hand, we have no problem lobbing criticism where we perceive unrighteous intent or possible harm to beliefs and institutions we hold dear. Jana Riess expressed criticism of Mormon policies subjugating women in Church culture and made suggestions for improvement in a thoughtful blog. Riess, an active convert to the faith, attacked neither the Church nor its leaders with her constructive criticism. She received positive comments to her post with the exception of one person who encouraged her to leave the church.  This person did not take issue with any of Riess’s examples of unfair policies nor with her suggestions for improvement. The comment was ad hominem, a personal attack on the author.

This is the downside of judging only by intent. Can we ever be sure of another person’s intentions? The negative commenter to Riess perceived she was trying to tear down the Church. Those who know Riess saw her post as an effort to improve Church policy. Another question is whether a person with good intent can cause harm if he lacks the skills to carry out a complex project. Greg Mortensen’s poor management decisions have damaged the foundation he organized to educate children in rural Asia. Constructive criticism a few years earlier mayhave prevented the current problem.

Criticism is necessary for improvement. Giving people a free pass when they say stupid things that support a cause we favor helps neither them nor the cause. A wise friend defused some of the Last Days paranoia in our ward prior to the year 2000 by stating that official Church planning included projects like the City Creek development and other temporal future events.

Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is difficult. Criticizing evidence and conclusions rather than attacking the person offering them is a start in the right direction.

Fear: The Best Motivator?

Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, set in a Nigerian village before the coming of white men, reminds me of the 2004 American film, The Village. Each story begins in a small village isolated from contact with the outside world. The village is surrounded by an evil forest containing fearful monsters or spirits which can only be kept away by careful adherence to ritual and avoidance of taboos. Each village is ruled by a group of elders who periodically costume themselves as spirits or monsters, visit the village, and strike terror into the hearts of the young and impressionable. Savvy people recognize the sham performance, but do not expose it. Their cultural survival depends on the majority accepting the myths and rituals that provide social stability and a moral code for their community.

Modern countries, with the exception of totalitarian regimes, base social stability on legal codes. Yet, myths and rituals play their part. National history is often taught with distortions intended to promote patriotism—resulting in larger than life portraits of national heroes like George Washington who never told a lie. Flags and national anthems are patriotic rituals that promote national cohesion.

Religions also promote myths and rituals to solidify the faith of members. The Old Testament is full of taboos, the violation of which brought swift punishment. Even Uzzah’s pristine motive of trying to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling off the ox cart did not keep God from smiting him for touching the ark with his unauthorized hand (2 Sam. 6:6-7). Church members who neglect rituals such as baptism or confessing Jesus as their savior risk damnation in the next life. Members who vocalize skepticism about the historicity of improvable stories such as virgin births or angels appearing to humans may be ostracized.

Laws, rituals, and myths promoted by nations and churches benefit the community. Stirring phrases such as “Give me liberty or give me death!” rally the young to take up arms for their country. Social regulations of marriage originated to protect women and children from being deserted by their provider.

Along with the positives, social organizations have negatives. In the Nigerian village of Achebe’s novel, the social mores subjugate women, allow women and children to be beaten, discriminate against individuals labeled “outcasts,” force the abandonment of twin infants, and provide harsh punishments even for unintentional injuries caused by a tribe member. Allowing input from members other than the leaders might have caused the tribe to recognize that some of their traditions had no merit and were harmful. Unfortunately, leaders of organizations seldom welcome input from ordinary group members, and pointless traditions often continue until they drag the group down.

Like Native-American culture, African culture has largely been destroyed by the coming of whites seeking riches and Christian churches seeking converts.  I wonder if Achebe’s village might have dealt better with the European intrusion if their own culture had relied less on fear and obedience to leaders. Is fear the best motivator for social stability? History tends to say yes.

Jesus Returns–Today and Every Day

We mortals spend much of our lives hoping for a better future. We’ll be happy when we have more money, more time, more energy, more anything. From a religious point of view, hope is generally in the distant future. Hope for life after death. Hope for the Second Coming.

For 2,000 years, Christians have anticipated the literal return of Jesus to rule upon the earth in peace. Religionists have tried to forecast the exact time, making imaginative calculations based on  Daniel’s apocalyptic vision. Joseph Smith asked the Lord to pinpoint the time of the Second Coming, but received an ambiguous answer. Generations of Mormons since Joseph have maintained the time is very near—possibly within their own lifetimes. Evangelical Christians harbor the same expectation.

Bible scholar Marcus Borg offers a different approach to anticipating Jesus’s return. In his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Borg suggests that Jesus can return at any time to believers. He specifically mentions during the Eucharist (LDS Sacrament), in celebrating Christmas, and at other times when we experience the Spirit of Christ. Borg’s metaphorical expansion of the Second Coming of Christ to include individual moments in the present applies Christian hope to our own time and place.

From Borg’s perspective, Jesus returns at those moment we seek out and sit by a lonely person at a church meeting or social, the moments we speak up for those of different color or customs, the moments we replace envy with happiness for a person who gets a better job than ours, the moments we push aside pride to listen to views opposing our own.  At these moments, Jesus returns.

A View from the East

Previously published in “Touchstones,” Sunstone Magazine. March 2011. p 13

 For some reason, I’m always on the end of a trend, so I had not read anything by Deepak Chopra until his 2008 book, The Third Jesus.  As a lifelong Mormon, I’ve endured many Gospel Doctrine classes where time was spent speculating on how a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread could feed thousands or how water could be changed into wine. Accustomed to such tedium, I felt wonderfully liberated to read Chopra’s non-Christian take on the four Gospels—one that emphasizes message over miracles. Scriptures, like poetry, have layered nuances of meaning. Seeing the Gospels through Hindu eyes takes me beyond familiar LDS interpretation to discover new meanings relevant to my spiritual growth.

Like Mormons, Chopra believes the early Church changed the character of many of Jesus’s teachings, with many of the changes emphasizing “worship over self-transformation, prayer over meditation, and faith over inner-growth.”

As a Hindu, Deepak Chopra sees Jesus as an enlightened person, a person living in God-consciousness, rather than as a divine Savior. Chopra interprets Jesus’s statement, “I am the Light of the world” to mean he existed in a state of God-consciousness or total unity with God—a unity available to all. Likewise, Jesus’s claim, “the Kingdom of God is within you” is much like the Eastern idea of God residing within each person.

In support of this view, Chopra moves beyond the four Gospels of the Bible and includes quotations from the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text discovered at the Nag Hammadi site. Many verses from Thomas support the idea of the light of God residing within each person—a thought close to the Mormon belief about “light of Christ.”

Mormons tend to interpret the injunction, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” to mean keeping every commandment scrupulously. Chopra interprets that scripture as a call to substitute karma—the law that gives us back what we deserve—with grace. With unconditional love, God gives us better than we deserve. In Matthew, Christ tells us that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Chopra believes Jesus is telling his followers to live on a higher plane—to extend grace and love as God loves.

Jesus’s advice to “resist not evil” is difficult to explain from a Christian viewpoint. Christianity is based on overcoming evil. Eastern religious philosophy, however, rejects this duality, seeing the universe as a whole, rather than as a conflict between good and evil. Chopra tells how evil has power over us only if we give it power. Furthermore, we cannot conquer evil, and struggling against it only intensifies its power. He believes that instead of trying to overcome evil, Jesus was telling us to rise above evil when it is manifest in others and to accept and deal constructively with our own negative tendencies.

When we Mormons fail to live up to Gospel standards, we often believe we’ve succumbed to evil—to the temptations of Satan. Chopra explains that regression in living up to our potential of God-consciousness is part of being human.  I suspect that guilt, while it may motivate some people to improve their behavior, causes many more  to give up on themselves and abandon religious influence in their lives.

Jesus speaks often of faith, a virtue less emphasized in Eastern religions. Christian religions, following Jesus’s example, emphasize faith as the key to meriting blessings. Chopra bridges the gap by suggesting that Jesus’s references to faith are best understood as referring to a higher state of God-consciousness where “faith in God becomes the same as faith in yourself.”

Luke 14:31-33 is one of Jesus’s less familiar parables. He tells of a king preparing for war. Finding he is outnumbered, the king sues for peace. Jesus then admonishes his followers that no one can become his disciple without giving up all he possesses.

 Chopra takes this story in a completely new direction; however, and interprets the enemy in this story as death, with Jesus advocating that the wisest course is to make peace with death long before it calls for you. I think of my elderly aunt, blind and in dementia following a stroke, yet struggling to stay alive—afraid to fall asleep for fear she won’t awaken. I wish she could have reconciled herself to the inevitability of death rather than hoping to live until the Second Coming when people will be changed to an immortal state in the twinkling of an eye.

The point of reading the New Testament isn’t to prove or disprove the literalness of its content. The point is to find a message to help us better understand ourselves and our relationship to God. Chopra writes, “Spirit, like water, remains fresh only if it flows.” Scripture moves us only when we allow it to speak to us with new insights—and sometimes another person’s point of view stimulates these insights. Chopra has moved my image of Jesus from white-robed perfection to a human being. One I can relate to.

Unconditional Love–the Kind That Counts

Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, is said to have been a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights work. Thurman believes Jesus’s teaching that we are all God’s children is the most liberating message that can reach the ears of oppressed people.He may be right.  We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. That’s how gangs recruit. Belonging to a God who cares personally about us is the ultimate acceptance.

The Sermon on the Mount is a treatise on God’s love for His children. I agree with Thurman that believing this can give a person a sense of self-worth and personal dignity. Being one of God’s beloved kids also makes us social equals. We may have different abilities and circumstances, but we are one in the eyes of God.

Unfortunately, many Christian sects convey the message that God’s love must be earned through religious rituals and strict obedience to law—or that God’s love is reserved for an elect group. Levi Peterson’s novel, The Backslider, demonstrates the downside of believing God’s love is reserved for a few of the super-righteous. The protagonist, Frank Wyndham, imagines God looking through the scope of a rifle at him—ready to zap him for his transgressions. Frank attempts to cleanse himself of every sinful thought and deed but cannot attain the perfection he believes God expects. He fears and eventually hates a God who will never be satisfied.

For my money, only a God who loves unconditionally counts. That’s the picture of God I developed as a child. It is not the notion of God which George learned although we both grew up Mormon. Of course, George had 100% Sunday School attendance as a child, and I did not. Apparently, my Sunday mornings spent reading the funny papers or picnicking in nice weather with my indulgent parents presented an image of a God who loves unconditionally—an image which George did not find in Sunday School.

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