Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another Kind of Beautiful

I recently wrote about Merrijane Rice's poem "Stillborn" and how I love it for being so achingly profound.

I also really love Jeanine Bee's very short essay "Hearts of the Fathers" which is beautiful in a very different way. Like, in a way that makes you smile and cringe and laugh out loud (and which makes me think about my relationship with my own father, which makes me smile and cringe and laugh out loud all over again).

You should read it. And live by its motto (I was going to insert a hyperlink, but will spare you the chilling photos of people who have not).

And when you're done, you should come back here and share the most valuable (and/or insane) piece of advice you ever got from a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, or other necessary family member. We all learn wisdom in different ways: how was it taught to you?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Was Korihor a Sociopath? --Alma 30: 55

"But Alma said unto him: If this curse should be taken from thee thou wouldst again lead away the hearts of this people; therefore, it shall be unto thee even as the Lord will." (Alma 30: 55)

Last night, my wife and I were talking about various Book of Mormon Anti-Christs, trying to condense their stories down to fact lists you could fit on a baseball card (if no one's tried marketing Anti-Christ trading cards yet, I might lose my faith in the boundless energy of American capitalism...)

Now, while "Level of Success," "Prophetic Nemesis," and "Ignominious End" are far more interesting from a story perspective, "Argument Against Atonement" is really the vital line, because it's preaching against the very idea of atonement that qualifies someone as an Anti-Christ in the first place. And it's that line that gives the most insight, I think, into each Anti-Christ's personality.

Here's my summary of three Anti-Christs' various anti-Atonement positions:
Sherem: Your salvation should not be dependent on someone else's unknowable future. Today's righteousness is a safe bet; the distant future's supposed "atonement" is a blasphemous gamble.
Nehor: If God made us, it's also his responsibility to fix us. Which he'll do a great job of--on his own. Atonement ideas are crazy because they suggest God needs your partnership in his work.
Korihor: Priests say that Atonement is to relieve guilt, but it actually creates guilt by emphasizing sin--when in reality, nothing you could do in life is objectively "wrong."

To be honest, I think Sherem's argument is pretty compelling. Especially since the past turns out to be nearly as hard to really know as the future. I can sympathize with Sherem as a man of great caution. But I don't think he's right. And if I were to meet him, I'd say something like: if you never take a chance, you'll never grow. The whole idea of "faith" is based on the premise that God wants us to gamble on him. Why? Because there must be some spiritual benefit to making yourself vulnerable--by having to walk into the Red Sea before it starts to part.

I think Nehor's argument is interesting. To me, though, it suggests a pretty cynical guy who has a hard time taking the stakes of life seriously: he seems to see life as a joy ride, not a journey. Maybe I'd be more moved by his argument if I believed I were just God's creation, more ready to take the joy ride if I'm basically God's plaything. But I don't believe that. I believe I'm his child in a radical sense. I believe that the divine spark at the core of me is not something God can or would just change: and since my agency is, at the deepest level, cosmically inviolate, I can believe in an Atonement I have to accept and in a spiritual growth process I have to participate in.

I am the least moved by Korihor's argument that "whatsoever a man did was no crime." And I've had a hard time, based on the argument, imaging what he might have been like. As my wife and I talked about it, I asked her how anyone could really believe, on an everyday emotional level, that nothing you could do is wrong. I mean, whether they believe in God or not, almost everyone on earth seems to feel guilt sometimes. It goes against your own emotional experience to believe everything you've ever done has been OK.

As soon as I'd said that, though, things started falling into place. Charismatic guy. Really likes to be liked, really likes to have influence over people. Doesn't seem to feel guilt.

Was Korihor what we now call a sociopath?

If he was, that would explain the end of the story. It always kind of confused me, after all: Korihor admits he's done wrong, begs for forgiveness and one more chance--and Alma says no. Alma says: if I restore your speech, you'll go right back to the same old patterns again.

When I was a kid reading and I got to that part, I always thought: no way! The guy just admitted he'd been deceived, he said he was really sorry--why not let him try to make up for it like Sherem did? Like you, Alma, got to yourself after you'd gone around preaching against the church? I felt really sorry for poor Korihor, who never got a chance to show the world how much he'd changed.

But now that I'm grown up, I'm more willing to believe that Alma was right. That some people, no matter how penitent they sound, genuinely don't deserve others' trust again.

So what does it mean to forgive a sociopath? I mean, let's say you're one of the men or women who Korihor talked into doing terrible things. Let's say those bad things you did screwed up your relationships and happiness in ways you don't quite know how to repair.

I think forgiving Korihor means that you take responsibility for your own trauma and don't fixate on his role in it anymore. I think it means your look for peace in the Atonement and not by exacting vengeance on the man who deceived and devastated you. I think it means giving a little food when he comes begging at your door--but only, I think, a little.

Because I don't think it means ever letting him into your life again. I don't think forgiveness means you have to try to support him in a turnaround he says he's going to make (but probably never will) or that forgiveness means you have to admire him again the way you once did or pretend like nothing happened.

And maybe that's why Korihor wanders off, in the end, to the Zoramites. Because deep down, he wants to be in charge again. Deep down, he'll always be hungry for the rush of money and sex and most of all control, and he's hoping to find some place where someone will give him "just one more chance"--to become again everything he once was.

To start the cycle over.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quran burning--Alma 14:8

"...and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire." (Alma 14:8)

I don't know if you've heard about the furor in Afghanistan over copies of the Quran which were burned at a U.S. military base.

The whole situation is very sad, and I think the primary lessons are that populations living under persistently vulnerable conditions are unusually prone to conspiracy-theory thinking and to letting their frustration erupt into counter-productive violence.

But I think it also provides an opportunity to talk about different ways people think about what's sacred.

For most American Mormons, a copy of the Bible or Book of Mormon should be treated with more respect than an ordinary book, but is hardly sacred as a physical object. When my grandparents were serving in India in the mid-'90s, though, my grandma would often remind the Elders that it's a bit shocking to local members to see missionaries just drop their scriptures down under a chair or something. Why? Because in Indian culture, numerous traditions reinforce the idea that you should care for a sacred book.

I wonder whether we're more casual because American culture developed after the advent of print. Whereas in the formative days of Judaism, early Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism, physically writing a book was a huge effort and a show of great craftsmanship. And relatively few people could afford to have a handwritten copy of a book, which made it even more special.

When I think about the sacred, I think about the temple. But before print, a physical book was probably viewed a little bit more like a temple in the sense of being the product of detailed work for God. And how would we feel if foreign soldiers raided our temples for suspicious items and burned them with the trash?

I don't think the soldiers who burned the books meant to be disrespectful. It sounds like they were genuinely concerned about whether handwritten annotations in the books were promoting violence. But I think I can see why, for people who are already upset and frustrated, the willful destruction of a holy book would feel like such a violation.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Merrijane Rice

Engineers design structures to carry physical weight; poets build structures to carry meaning.

Merrijane Rice's poem "Stillborn"is being featured in the Mormon Lit Blitz today.

Some people are confused at how strongly I feel about Mormon literature--many feel the term is an outright oxymoron. But read Merrijane's poem and I think you'll see how craft and content can come together in a way that is both moving and lasting.

Religion can bring a lot to writing; when I read work like this, I also feel like writing can bring something to religion.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Mormon Lit Blitz

The Mormon Lit Blitz has officially begun. For the rest of February, you can read one new very short piece of Mormon Literature every day--and then vote at the beginning of March for the Grand Prize winner.

I love this Lit Blitz ad because it reminds me of when
people used to think I was Amish.

I like this Lit Blitz ad because it's awesome.

If you read this blog, but don't want to bother with the Mormon Lit Blitz entries, you confuse me. Take me word for it: the thirteen poems, essays, and stories left in the contest are all either interesting or fun (and often both!) and none of them should take more than about three minutes of your time.

So go already!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Double Vision

It's got to be extremely disorienting.

Both eyes still function, but they can't converge, can't communicate effectively with one another.

So objects appear twice: displaced vertically or horizontally, maybe both. Must make you feel a bit like you're that kid in The Sixth Sense. Ghostly visions, haunted head.

The medical term is "diplopia." The popular term is "double vision."

It can throw off your balance. Complicate movement. Make it hard even to read.

All of which may sound oddly familiar on a metaphorical level if you're from a minority group...

When I saw the footage of the Twin Towers on 9/11, I remember praying: "Please don't let it be Muslims. Let it be white guys, like Oklahoma City. Let it be the pilots, with some homicidal grudge against the system. Just please don't let it be Muslims." And when it was Muslims, men who looked just like me, I was scared to go out to the store. I didn't know how people would react.

I printed off a picture of Balbir Singh Sodhi and kept it in my room after he was shot to death.

I've known American Muslims. Had a few good Muslim friends in high school--they didn't drink; they shared my deep investment in family. When we went on an overnight debate trip, it was the Muslims and Mormons who prayed before we went to bed at night.

But many Americans can't see what I've seen in my Muslim friends and neighbors. A lot of people can't see Muslims right because the story of everyday Muslim-American life is overlaid or displaced by phantom images of what the worst Muslims have done. So when many Americans see a Muslim, it throws them off balance. And when they research Islam, it's hard for them to read without jumping to negative conclusions at the first sign of historical complexity.

I'm not denying Muslims have problems, of course. But remember the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" debate? Planners called their project the "Cordoba House" to memorialize a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in Spain--a time when Spain was still famous for science and not yet for the Spanish Inquisition. But Newt Gingrich said the planners were lying, that the name was an insult and a reference to Muslim military victories, that New York Muslims who'd had relatives die in the Twin Towers somehow wanted to celebrate the attack.

It's classic double vision: Muslims had to compete with another, antagonistic version of events. And whatever Muslims tried to say in their own defense only served to convince many they were hiding something.

Latter-day Saints should understand a bit of what it's like to struggle against a society's double vision. (Maybe that's why Orrin Hatch was the only prominent conservative and practically the only prominent politician to speak up in support of the project.) I've felt the same kind of double vision in conversations with people who I believe to be genuinely nice, but who wouldn't believe a word I'd say in response to their more extreme claims about my own faith. I see it in the poll numbers that have high numbers of conservatives and even higher numbers of liberals saying they'd refuse to vote for a Mormon without even having to know his or her name.

And I felt that social double-vision bear down on me in the New York Times op-eds I've been responding to over the past week. Particularly when I noticed that even the New York Times didn't blink to publish a version of church political thought that goes like this:
Its founding prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., ran for president in 1844 advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government in favor of a Mormon-ruled theocracy. In the 1850s the U.S. waged “the Mormon War” against the theocracy established in Utah — where the church remains engaged in what a Salt Lake Tribune editor has called “a unique church-state tango.” In light of the theology and divine prophecies of the church, it would seem that the office of the American presidency is the ultimate ecclesiastical position to which a male Mormon might aspire.
You see? Like Muslims (and Catholics before JFK) our faith is fundamentally incompatible with democracy. We have secret plans and a thirst for conquest and oppression. Someone had better protect the nation's Protestants and their spiritual-but-secular children from us.

Sure, we love to quote Senator Reed Smoot's dictum that he'd rather be a deacon in the church of God than hold the highest office in the United States. But can you trust that we really believe that?

You'd think research would help. If you look at Joseph Smith's presidential platform you'll see proposals to abolish slavery and compensate former slaveholders for losses, to reform prisons and especially diminish their toll on the lower class, to raise tariffs as a protection for developing agriculture and industry. You won't see anything (unless you think Congressional pay cuts would bring the whole system crashing down) that sounds remotely like overthrowing the government.

But research also turns up another, unusual side of Joseph Smith's political thought. One that you can see as perfectly reasonable, or choose to interpret (Newt Gingrich style) as sinister or even (Sally Denton style) as treasonous.

Did Joseph Smith want to overthrow the United States?

Joseph Smith was a patriotic American. But his political thought wasn't just about the national issues of the day. By 1844 he was also thinking about what government would look like after the United States was gone. And starting to draft backup plans.

He probably ran for President more as what we might now call a publicity stunt than because he felt like being President would be the best possible use of his time. After all, like Jared Diamond today, he was pretty convinced the nations of the world were fundamentally out of balance and close to a collapse. Since he also believed, like the ancient apostle Paul, that Christ's return would come during or shortly after his lifetime, that meant Joseph Smith likely wouldn't have bet on the United States lasting past 1900.

If what I am saying sounds crazy, take a look at Joseph Smith's Christmas 1832 prophecy on war. While watching the nullification crisis unfold, Smith had some kind of impression or vision of war beginning in South Carolina and spreading over the earth. In the written text of the revelation, though, he doesn't try to spread it out into neat little boxes or brackets like history books do: this year to that year, in this corner or that of the planet. No, in the revelation war pours down and never really stops.

If the revelation was real, if Joseph Smith really caught a glimpse of the Civil War and the era of industrialized total war it would usher in, it must have chilled him to the depths of his soul. I'm not surprised he would have left the experience with a sense that the system of states as we continue to know it would have been untenable under the weight of Sherman's marches and Nagasaki bombs. If he saw the Civil War, the Franco-Mexican and Franco-Prussian wars, then the world wars, cold wars, resource wars, wars of and on terror all layered over each other in a prophetic blur of machines and blood, then of course, of course he would have believed he was living right on history's last cliff-edge.

Joseph Smith wouldn't have felt a need to overthrow the American government because he was pretty sure it was already doomed.

But he did believe in the fundamental virtues of government as protectors of human interest against anarchy, so even in his pessimism for the nations of the world, he looked ahead. Late in his life, Joseph Smith was trying to figure out how to separate democratic values he treasured from the corruption and partisan wrangling he found so troubling. He was thinking of a backup system which would operate after the inevitable collapse of current nations until the imminent return of the Savior and perhaps into the Millennium.

He realized, of course, that Americans didn't think a religious figure should be even thinking about government, so he kept his ideas quiet. But what's surprising about Joseph Smith's secret back-up political thought is not that it has theocratic elements. He was a prophet, after all, and he believed, for example, that if a future council of legislators failed to reach a position of honest unanimity, sincere prayer could reveal an answer and resolve the issue. What's surprising is that it also has democratic elements: he believed that it would be a council, not a single leader, who would welcome Jesus back--and he believed the council would include members from other faiths than his own.

Unusual? Sure. Treasonous? No--unless it's treason to believe the United States government will eventually fall, like almost every major civil structure older than it has.

I hope we don't consider that treasonous. Because as much as I love democracy, if an oil-eating bacteria broke out tomorrow and ended the world as we know it, I think my church would be better equipped than my oil-based country to give my family instructions on how to make it through the transition. And I won't be ashamed if our current religious leaders have put some thought to how to promote cooperation and promote the social welfare in such an extreme hypothetical emergency.

But if he didn't think the country would last, why did Joseph Smith run for President?

It's nice to think that Joseph Smith ran for President because he honestly hoped people would latch onto and pass at least some of his progressive policies. Maybe a part of him did. But it's pretty clear from history Joseph Smith ran partly because he didn't have anyone else left to support.

In 1833, Mormons had been tarred and feathered, beaten, driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri--partly because of rumors that free black church members in Ohio would be moving to the state. After the expulsion, the governor admitted to the refugee saints they still had a right to lands they'd bought, but refused to protect them should they return, and soon backed out of a promise to let them protect themselves if they could muster a force.

In 1838, after the Mormons had built some unwanted prairie land into a rising commercial center, violence broke out again. Mobs barred Mormons from voting, then sieged and expelled them from outlying settlements. When Mormons asked for militia protection against mobs armed with cannons, militia leaders responded (in writing which is kept in the Missouri archives to this day) that their units sympathized with the mobs and were likely only to make the violence worse. The governor refused to intervene and called it a private matter between the Mormons and their critics. But when Mormons stepped up to defend themselves, the governor interpreted it as a rebellion and responded by calling up numerous militia units and giving them instructions that the Mormons as a group "must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace."

Soon the Missouri militia had surrounded the main Mormon settlement and demanded that Joseph Smith and other church leaders be handed over. Joseph Smith thought he was going to negotiate an end to the troubles, but was immediately arrested. Only the moral courage of one lower officer, Alexander Doniphan, restrained the militia leader from summarily executing Smith without trial. Church leaders stayed in prison through the winter instead, while ten thousand faithful Mormons were forced to flee their lands and homes in the state and seek refuge in Illinois.

Subsequent appeals for justice through the political process failed. The story goes that when Joseph Smith went to Washington, D.C. and met with then-President Van Buren, he was told "your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you."

So in the fall of 1843, Joseph Smith sent letters out to the five leading presidential candidates asking whether they'd stand up for Mormons' rights. Since none of them said yes, and since any political party tended to respond with spite if they blamed a Mormon swing vote for losing them an election, Joseph Smith decided to run for President himself.

He was murdered by a mob several months before the 1844 election took place, though. Whether it's the editor of Slate making a joke about Joseph Smith's run or Sally Denton in the New York Times denouncing him, modern popular commentators never seem to mention that.

"Theocracy" in Utah

A few years after Joseph Smith's death, the majority of Mormons gave up on the eastern United States. They went out in search of a place "where none would come to hurt or make afraid" in the Rocky Mountains' desert shadow. For several years, they worked under the direction of Brigham Young in spite of devastation from crickets, difficult water conditions, and severe weather. They worked communally and placed significant temporal faith in their religious leaders. Few seem to have been in a hurry to revert to the sorts of frontier democratic structures that had presided over the persecutions in Missouri. And one U.S. President was willing to give them some time: in 1850, Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as territorial governor to allow the current Utah system to continue to operate as it had been.

Gradually, though, relations with the federal government soured. The next two presidents sent appointed officials to Utah territory who resented not only the popularly elected church leaders in the territorial legislature, but also local practices: from Brigham Young's break with colonial methods of handling of water rights in favor of new West-appropriate system, to the Mormon New Testament-based tendency to work out differences through the church community rather than referring all disputes to the federal courts, to the practice of polygamy.

Some of those appointees left Utah in the mid-1850s and told the story Sally Denton has passed on to this day: that Mormon deference for religious leaders wasn't a reasonable response to an ambitious communal project in a harsh landscape, but a dangerous theocratic regime that threatened the very idea of democracy. James Buchanan didn't even bother to inform Brigham Young of his dismissal as governor: he simply sent a replacement, backed by an army.

My great-great-great grandfather, Carl Heinrich Wilcken, was a German atheist who'd immigrated to the United States after participating in a failed revolt against Denmark. He signed up under an assumed name for the new westbound army because he couldn't find other work. Apparently, the army wasn't about to turn down a new recruit, though. As Wilcken later recorded:
I never had in all my experience seen anything like it that was called a military organization. As a rule, the American army was made up of the scum of the nation - a lot of men that are worthless to society. The drunkard, the loafer, and the depraved find, when they are at their rope’s end, an asylum in the army, and become the 'defenders of their country'. Everything was so unlike German — no discipline, no care of dress, no punctuality nor order — it seemed to me more like a mob than a regular army, and I soon became disgusted with my situation.
On the journey toward Utah, he said, the commissary officers often sold company foodstuffs to passing settlers or prospectors for cash and let the soldiers go hungry. The officers passed time time by talking about "what they were going to do after arriving among the 'Mormons', such as hanging the leaders and appropriating their wives and daughters."

Made cautious by triumphant press reports predicting comeuppance to the depraved Mormons, church leaders prescribed a policy of slowing and harassing the oncoming army without direct engagement until some sort of understanding could be restored. Brigham Young ultimately met with the new gubernatorial appointee and was perfectly willing to grant him the office. Young did insist on evacuating most of Salt Lake City temporarily as the federal army passed through, so most Mormons missed commanding Colonel A. S. Johnston's remark that he would have given "his plantation for a chance to bombard the city for fifteen minutes" and a Lieutenant Colonel's boast that he "did not care a damn who heard him; he would like to see every damned Mormon hung by the neck."

And so it was that the United States faced down a Mormon rebellion which didn't actually exist, and deepened a Mormon wariness about government that continues for many to this day.

So what?

Can Americans today agree that sending an undisciplined, deeply prejudiced army out against a religious group is a bad idea? That we should be ashamed about a military commander who would rather have leveled Salt Lake City than made peace?

Apparently not. For Denton, the supposed continuing threat of Mormon theocracy outweighs any concerns about the wisdom of the federal government's nineteenth century response.

Maybe the survival of her version of history into 2012 isn't a big deal. Maybe I'm overreacting.

But I don't know. I still feel like--even in our much more developed and stable democracy--the double vision thing often happens and that it matters. I still believe that important political decisions can be informed by preconceived notions of what a minority is thinking, and that if the dominant culture doesn't trust minority members to tell their own stories, there's cause for reflection and concern.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

P.S. Please Don't Stigmatize Medicine

I recently wrote a response to the central message of Ian Williams' NYT op-ed--that Mormons are hopelessly out of touch with the real, messy world.

But in my response, I didn't respond to one line that bothered me for reasons that go beyond Mormonism.

While ragging on his perspective of restrictive Mormon morality, Williams said "the L.D.S. worldview would positively smother most Americans. It might be smothering most Mormons; Utah's antidepressant use makes it one of the most-medicated states in the country."

Now, this is pretty shaky evidence for condemning a culture. While it's possible that aspects of Mormonism are causing or compounding depression, there are plenty of alternate explanations for why Utah (which is not actually all Mormon, but let's ignore that for a moment) might have a high medication rate. One possibility is that Utah actually does have high depression rates--but because of another factor such as weather or high levels of some recessive Scandinavian depression-related gene. But since medication rates are not the same as depression rates, it's also possible that Utahns are not actually more depressed than any one else, only better medicated. It's possible, for example, that because of Mormon influence, Utahns are more likely to go to doctors for medication than to self-medicate through substance abuse. Or else that Mormons are more likely to find voices that decrease the stigma of mental health treatment, either in official church publications or just through brothers and sisters who are informed about or experienced in dealing with medical depression.

Which brings me to my big problem with Williams' critique: using Utah anti-depression medication rates as evidence of Mormon sinisterness doesn't just stigmatize Mormons. It also further stigmatizes medication for people struggling with depression.

And since there are a lot of people in this country who don't get their very real depression treated because they don't want to show "weakness" or disappoint others' expectations, more stigmatization is about the last thing we need.

I've known and loved many people, Mormons and others, who have been quite happy with their lives and struggled with depression at the same time. Personally, I consider it a great blessing whenever someone dealing with any mental illness can find a medication that works reasonably well for them.

So, Mr. Williams, if you're reading this--next time, could you look up Utah's chocolate consumption rate and use it as evidence that we need some vice instead? ;)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Whose world is "realer"?

Dear Ian Williams,

I've calmed down now. When I first read your letter, I was very upset--not because of any specific dig at my faith as because I felt like you'd built up a fantasy world and exiled me to it. You gave yourself a "messy, colorful" America and stuck me into an Edward Scissorhands world, where the shallow sameness is suffocating and anything unusual is kooky ("don't buy the underwear yet!" ha ha) rather than unique and worthy of the respect you might otherwise offer to Difference.

I've heard all that before, of course--I wasn't baptized yesterday--and, on honest reflection, I can understand where people like you are probably coming from. We Mormons persist in valuing an optimism and earnestness that can easily come across as naive. Our commercial art competes with Bollywood film for sentimentality. And we do like knowing our physical neighbors, which is beginning to seem so twentieth century, right on the border between quaint and antiquated.

Yes, we must seem like vestigial Jimmy Stewart fans in the era of Robert Downey Jr. For a screenwriter like you, I'd imagine the mismatch is particularly disconcerting. You've tried to talk with us, but we get even the rhythms of the dialogue all wrong. You've been to church meetings, but you can't get over the decades-old memo about white shirts and suit jackets being passe our wardrobe department obviously missed. And then, of course, there's the disaster of the casting: all those women with all their babies--sometimes five to a family!--so many that you wonder whether their mothers will ever get to have normal, productive lives doing important things, like writing op eds or restaurant reviews and otherwise contributing to adult society.

I get it, Ian. Your world is not my world. Fine. Your world is cooler than my world. OK. I'm not bothered by that.

But you seem to think that your world is the real world, and that the real world is something I'm impossibly distanced from. You say that missionaries, in particular, are immune to reality. "Mormons see the world," you say, "but they don't get it."

And that's when I get mad.

Because, Ian Williams, I don't think you get the world either. Where I come from, we believe there's a beam in every human eye. And it's my strong personal belief that there's a whole skyscraper worth of beams in eyes that look through ultra-specialized, demographically segmented late capitalist culture.

I am going to make some assumptions about you now. They are assumptions based on patterns that are largely true of Americans, but feel free to correct me when I'm wrong. First assumption: I'm betting that your job matters to you and that, like most Americans, many of the people you know best are people you know through work. Second: I'm betting that you went to college, and that in college, the people you spent your free time with were almost all college students. Shall we go on? I'm also betting that most of the people you break bread with are somewhat similar to you in terms of educational and income levels, political views, and favorite TV shows. Am I at least close to the truth so far?

None of this, of course, is inherently bad or would make you unusual, but all of it suggests a degree of separation from that big, diverse, messy world you don't think Mormons are a part of. You may read about poverty and have great ideas about it, but you probably don't spend a lot of time around poor people. You may have positive attitudes about immigrants, and I commend you for them, but you probably aren't having dinner with families whose legal status is complicated. You almost certainly think Nazism is terrible, but you've probably never sat in the living room of a former Nazi as she tells you what those times felt like.

You know the world, I would guess, far better from how it looks on paper than from how it looks up close.

Because of my church, I've seen it up close. I've helped struggling people in two continents move out of apartments due to all sorts of crises, from crooked landlords to persistent gunshots at night to serious vandalism by drug-addicted friends. I've eaten in homes where the first language has been Spanish, Navajo, Telegu. Where it's been German, Turkish, Portuguese, Russian, Marathi, Farsi, French.

And no, I wasn't following the news when I was a missionary in the former East Germany, and I never went out clubbing or whatever people do in your world to get to know the locals on a European trip. But I've sat in an old woman's apartment and listened to her struggle to make sense of what she remembers feeling when she saw Hitler at a rally in her youth. "He was like a god to us then," she said, "like a god." And I've been cooked meals by women who served in that war, and who can never forget the hunger they felt as the war dragged on and ended with near chaos in its wake, some of whom walked for hundreds of miles from confiscated homes toward uncertain futures. I've learned by experience how to recognize someone who won't feel right unless you eat every last scrap on the plate. And learned deep respect for the endurance of the old.

A man who was imprisoned by the communist government for non-cooperation once showed me the model train set he works on to find peace. A woman who'd believed and participated in the same government told me how her sense of betrayal when the wall came down and the secrets started coming out was so acute she had to be hospitalized.

I've had people tell me, holding little back, just which scars on their hearts they blame a God they don't believe in for. And I've felt a part of the pain in their old wounds come up fresh through their eyes.

I've heard people who swore they were staunch "materialist" atheists tell me why they believe in guardian angels. What happened in their lives they couldn't explain any other way.

I've talked to people about homes back in Africa they long to return to. To others about forsaken homes in authoritarian countries they've given up the hope of seeing again. And to one man, who'd been a trucker in the old days and taken long hauls across Siberia, about how at home he'd felt in the villages where everyone would come out to welcome him, where they'd give the space nearest the fire to the rare visitor from so far west.

There's a town near Leipzig called Eilenburg. About 17,000 people live there. As a missionary, I walked down every street in that town. Rang almost every doorbell. Met the variety of people who live in a real town in a real world, who never in their lifetimes will all meet each other. When I got home from my mission, I started to think about how even a mission in your home city would seem foreign. About how through the church, I'd been to parts of Columbus where no one from my suburb of Upper Arlington normally thought about or went. I still think about how many amazing people are always just beyond the edges of our awareness, and about how we find a piece of the divine whenever we really get to know someone.

I helped a woman move one time from the west side of Columbus to the east, this was a woman who'd only recently fled from a failed marriage with a bad man in a county known for strip mining to the concrete and cracked asphalt of the big city's low-rent areas. She tended her plants so carefully. Just little things in pots she could keep by run-down apartment windows. She said she'd seen another woman grow potatoes out of a boot above a sink and intended to grow her that stubbornly. I still think about her, too. And about the Mormons in the east side of Columbus who took time out of their weekends to welcome her to their side of town.

Just a few months ago in Utah, I held a man who was bone-thin, dying with two kinds of cancer, just held his body in place as gently as I could while his wife washed him. She wanted to do that while a church brother was there instead of a church sister, she said, to protect what she could of his privacy. She told me, "We come into this world without much dignity and that's how it is again all too often as we leave it." But I swear, no one else has ever looked so much to me like Jesus Christ as that man did just a week before he died.

We're kind, Ian Williams, but we're not blind. We know that life can ache, that people struggle and suffer as often as they find transcendence or joy. We believe in guidelines--or confines, call them what you will--not because we're running from the messiness of life, but because we know that life can be messy enough on its own and doesn't need our help to get there.

And because we want to be ready to find God in the faces of his children. Every day of the week, yes, and twice on Sunday.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Priesthood, Cooperative Culture, and Why Mormon Women Don't Need Liberals to Save Them from Me

Sally Denton's NYT critique of Mormonism is only 335 words long. But it will probably still be helpful to sum up the core argument so we don't get bogged down in the snide remarks, scare quotes, and disorienting description of church president Thomas S. Monson, who can't finish a talk without getting the audience to laugh at least three times, as "stern."

Denton's thesis seems to be this:
"Mormonism is a valid issue of concern not as a religious test for office, but for its most distinctive characteristic — male authoritarianism."
Translation: It's wrong to vote against someone because of their religion--unless their religion has a male priesthood.

And her "so-what" clause is this:
"Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect."
Translation: the piece's thesis doesn't apply to JFK and the six sitting Supreme Court Justices who are Catholic, because they just go to their church, whereas Romney actively participates in his.

This argument is not entirely crazy. She's probably correct that Americans should be concerned IF the following two implicit assumptions are true:
1) Mormon male Priesthood leads to the marginalization and oppression of women.
2) Romney's government leadership style will be the same as a Priesthood leadership style.

Fortunately, as I will now attempt to show, Americans can rest easy because both of those assumptions are wrong.

My thesis will be this: Because Mormon church culture is a cooperative culture rather than a competitive culture, male priesthood is actually a good thing for women. And because American government is based on a competitive culture, Romney's religious leadership style is unlikely to successfully transfer in any case.

Sally Denton's Fishbowl

What do I mean by "competitive culture"? I mean a culture that highly values individuality and success and structures itself around those values.

Think of your experience in school. You were probably taught, starting at age five, to stay in your own seat, do your own work, and not to even touch people around you without getting express permission from them and the teacher. Within a few years, you were earning grades which were designed to measure your individual quality (of intelligence or hard work or competence or something--it may never have been clear exactly what, but there was certainly success, mediocrity, or failure expressed in a grade that was yours and yours alone). By high school, you were probably even getting a class rank that told you exactly where in the pecking order of personal achievement you stood--you got to find out exactly how many people were ahead of and behind you. You were supposed to feel good when you saw how many people were behind you and ambitious when you saw how many people were ahead.

I think it's safe to assume that Sally Denton's educational experience was like this. It's probably also safe to assume her work experience is like this: the rewards change from grades and certificates to promotions and bonuses, but the principle is the same. Compete. If you can outperform the people around you, you will be given status, attention, and power. That's how America works, and for goals like increasing productivity, it works really well.

It does not work well, though, for showing you how Mormons think about their church lives. You see, since Ms. Denton lives in a fishbowl of competitive culture, she assumes that's how everyone lives all the time. To her, the church is a "multibillion-dollar business empire." A corporate empire which keeps women from getting on even the first rung of the corporate ladder. (No wonder she thinks our leaders are a bunch of power-hungry old male #^%$%s!)

What Ms. Denton doesn't know is that you cannot build a corporate ladder to heaven. Competitive culture and Mormon religious organization have almost nothing in common.

A Crash Course in Cooperative Culture

Remember Ms. Denton's stirring final line: "Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect"?

To anyone who really knows Mormon organization, it's almost laughably absurd. For us, one of the distinctive traits of Mormonism isn't "male authoritarianism" it's the absence of a permanent distinct between clergy and regular members. "Not just a member" means almost nothing to Mormons, because every member--male and female--is supposed to have some sort of formal church position/assignment--which we refer to as a "calling"--at any given time. It's not shepherds and sheep: we, like sheep, all go astray, and so we all chip in to the work of shepherding: in different ways at different times throughout our lives.

Calling Romney a "high church official" is equally laughable, because his current callings are probably just "home teacher," meaning he's supposed to visit three or four families once a month to share an inspirational message and see if they're OK, and possibly something low-pressure like "assistant family history consultant," which would primarily involve helping kids work with their grandparents to do genealogy on a computer.

Behold the menace of Romney's crushing male authority.

Yes, Mitt Romney's calling was "stake president" in the late 1980s and early '90s, before he was even a registered Republican. That means he "presided over" several individual "wards." Now, usually the press refers to "wards" as "congregations," but since most Protestants only have "congregations," the press likes to use the Catholic term "diocese" (as opposed to "parish") to explain what a stake is. Which makes them compare Romney to a Catholic bishop or cardinal--you know, the kind of person who gets to wear a fancy ceremonial hat. And they often mistakenly assume that if you're the kind of guy who's at hat-level, you don't just become fourth Sunday organ player the next day. Because in a competitive culture, where promotions are a reward for an individual job well done, moving someone from the "top" to the "bottom" would be a terrible insult.

But, my dear brothers and sisters of the press, Jesus was famously tricky on the subject of "top" and "bottom." He said you're really only a big deal if you know how to be as small as a little kid. He said that in the kingdom of God, first is last and last comes first. He said that in the temple, a widow's $290 weekly paycheck is worth more than $20 million. And Mormonism has fully embraced that particular aspect of Jesus' strangeness. My grandfather was a stake president for several years--and then one day, he was thanked for his service and asked to accept a new assignment working with a handful of 11-year-old scouts. But it didn't bother him, and similar changes don't bother most Mormons, because we genuinely believe that all the work matters to God. How "high" or "low" a church assignment is doesn't matter--what matters is putting your heart, mind, and soul into it.

We have, you could say, a "cooperative culture"--one that values community and relationships over individual excellence. We are motivated more by the altruistic high of service and the intangible wealth of our deepening bonds with each other than by the egoistic satisfaction of getting to call the shots. You can criticize a cooperative culture--or let Nietzsche do so for you--but you should criticize it for being cooperative, not for slights it would have committed were it structured according to a totally different value system. You can say that Mormons are still living with an almost tribal mindset at the dawn of the 21st century, but you can't complain about a glass ceiling in a system that doesn't involve any "up" and "down" when it comes to job shifts.

Power and the Priesthood

As I've mentioned, millions of women have callings in the church. They preach, they teach, they sit on administrative councils, they entirely make up the presidencies of at least three church organizations. But women cannot be ordained to the earthly priesthood. On the most basic level, this means that women do not baptize, do not bless the bread and water that remind us of Jesus' sacrifice, do not serve as bishops (leaders of wards) or stake presidents. Women cannot be called as apostles or as the presiding prophet of the church. Not having the priesthood also means that women can pray for the sick, but don't anoint them with consecrated oil and bless them. And it means that for one of the three hours of our Sunday church meetings, men meet in one place as members of priesthood organizations, while women meet in another place as members of the worldwide, all-female Relief Society.

From the lens of a competitive culture, where independence, personal competence, and prestigious positions are highly valued, a list of things you can't do or positions you can't hold based on gender seems horribly restrictive. But according to the Pew Research Center poll the NYT debate is ostensibly responding to, only 8% of U.S. Mormon women say they think women should have the priesthood, a number significantly lower than the 13% of U.S. Mormon men who say women should be ordained to the priesthood.

Maybe Sally Denton did read those numbers and just assumed that Mormon women are either stupid or masochistic and need someone outside the culture to fight their battles for them. Which is actually what makes me (stern male dominator that I supposedly am) a far better Mormon feminist than Ms. Denton--you see, I actually respect and listen to Mormon women. I try to figure out what matters to them.

The impression I get from my listening is this: Mormon women already feel like they have a lot to do. And because Mormonism is a collective culture, they take no particular pride in doing everything on their own. Many of them may have wondered what it would be like to bless the sacrament bread or give a priesthood blessing to a sick child, but they would far rather have good men around them to help do those things than the power and obligation to do them on their own.

I saw this recently while reading through fiction submissions for the Mormon Lit Blitz Contest. In one story, a husband gets up at a testimony meeting to tell the whole ward how perfect his wife is. And she sits in her seat, seething, because she feels like he consistently puts her on a pedestal as a way of transferring responsibility for the spiritual life of their home entirely to her. If she's so good and righteous, he doesn't have to do anything. In the story, she tries and fails to express this to him in various ways until she finally resorts to buying a coffee maker and brewing coffee in the home as a way to shock him out of thinking she should manage everything on her own and into sharing a little more of the responsibility for their religious life.

Though the story is fiction, I think it captures a common attitude about real life. Mormon women love the male priesthood partly because it commits men to take an active role in family and church. Most Mormon women are capable of being extremely independent when necessary, but they would rather be harmoniously interdependent whenever possible. And they don't see priesthood power as a threat to their own power, because in cooperative cultures, power is not a zero-sum game.

I've heard Mormons make the argument that men's and women's roles are different, but equally important, and I've heard non-Mormons respond that it sounds like the old segregationist "separate but equal" talk. The truth about Mormon men and women is that we're not separate at all: the differences between Priesthood and Relief Society help draw us together when we might otherwise drift apart.

And since the possibility of men and women drifting apart from each other has hardly disappeared with the dawning of the twenty-first century, we still aim for gender relations that are close and complementary.

So how would this affect Romney as hypothetical U.S. President?

To review: if you understand that Mitt Romney comes from a cooperative church culture, you shouldn't view the maleness of our Priesthood or his time as a stake president as ominous warning signs of deep-rooted sexism. In fact, you should know that he's probably disproportionately likely to have a good marriage even against the temptations and pressures that come with packed schedules and prestigious positions--because even as U.S. President, he'd have a priesthood obligation to be an emotional presence in the home and support to his wife.

But a cooperative church and home culture doesn't mean he'll suddenly be changing the administrative culture of the executive branch.

Look: I'm Mormon, and I even work at a church-owned university. But it's still a modern university, so all the cooperative culture of my religious life gets pushed behind the competitive procedures of the school. I would never dream of giving grades at church, and would be scandalized if I heard of a teacher in priesthood meeting trying to motivate class members that way. But that doesn't stop me from giving grades at school, which is something I get paid to do-- and also use a stick and carrot to defend my assignments from Facebook and other teachers' homework. I also get "grades" in the form of student ratings. At church, I'd be most concerned with what the average performance is as a measure of how we can do better collectively, but at work I barely pay attention to where the average is--I'm just happy whenever I'm above it. I'm happy to be an independent individual and pursue individual excellence and compete with other people in my profession.

So I very much doubt a hypothetical Mormon President would even bother to try reorganizing his or her administration around cooperative values. Any attempt to do so would be doomed by the inertia of competitive values: they shape far too many goals and procedures.

Which means that you should neither vote against Romney because you dislike his church's organizational culture nor vote for Romney because you like his church's organizational culture.

In the end, politics has its own gravity. And in the black hole of the White House, the values of politics will almost certainly trump the Jesus-strange mindsets and traditions of our religion.

Cleaning Up After the New York Times...

On Monday, the New York Times published five short articles in their "Room for Debate" feature on whether it's a good idea to vote for a Mormon for President.

To call the five articles a "debate" is a bit generous of the Times: the three "con" pieces ("A Male-Dominated World," "It May Look Good on Paper," and "There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism") open with brief acknowledgments that Mormons have a nice attribute or two, then use charged language to give the faith an absolute pounding for various alleged transgressions of liberal values. The two "pro" pieces ("Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?" and "Mormonism's Double Legacy") spend most of their time explaining why evangelicals hate us and comparing us to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Read them, my friends, and weep.

Then ponder. To be fair, it's nice to be harassed in print instead of tarred and feathered in person. And, unlike so many newspaper editorialists of the 1830s-1850s, no one on the Times panel actually called for or praised anti-Mormon violence (well...violence against living Mormons at least. Sally Denton did make a comment which seemed to endorse the 1857 federal expedition sent to crush a nonexistent Mormon rebellion). I probably should be thankful. I probably shouldn't whine about the combination of low levels of research and empathy with high levels of stereotyping, or ask why these article made it into a paper that feels as strongly about its civilizing mission as the New York Times.

But then again, according to an anonymous commenter on my other blog, I should also "go back to India" and consider the treatment of the dalits before I dare to criticize the morality of Newt Gingrich.

And so, New York Times, I am going to complain about your treatment of my faith. And then I'm going to do my best to explain why I think so many people are getting so much wrong.

As a favor to people with short attention spans, though, I'll split my discussion into three posts, which will appear over the next week or so. And as a favor to people whose attention spans are not yet exhausted, I'll give working titles and summaries for each in advance:

1: "The Priesthood, Cooperative Culture, and Why Mormon Women Don't Need Liberals to Save Them from Me"
Most white Americans grow up and live primarily in what I would call a "competitive culture." That makes it hard for them to understand how people think in the "cooperative culture" that is dominant in the church. Which makes it hard, in turn, for them to understand our concept of Priesthood--and why support for keeping the Priesthood male-only is even higher among Mormon women than it is among Mormon men.

2: "Dear Ian Williams: Next Time, Can You Please Keep Your Self-Righteousness to Yourself?"
What I learned about the world on my mission, whether it's fair to suggest that Mormons are all racists, and why criticizing anti-depressant use is probably a bad idea.

3: "Been There. Done That. Will It Happen Again?"
Why praising the invasion of Utah by Johnston's Army still hurts my feelings after all these years, and what an 1857 military stalemate has to do with the ERA and Prop 8. Plus, a brief rant about this recurring idea that stripping the LDS Church of its non-profit status would somehow strengthen the separation of church and state.

If you've made it this far, I hope you'll come back for the full posts. I will do my best to make it worth your while.


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