Thursday, October 2, 2014

Racism in the Book of Mormon

Frankly, racism in the Book of Mormon isn't an issue for me when it comes to the question of whether or not it is an ancient record. 

1) It doesn't occur once after the record of Jesus' appearance (after everyone in the record had intermingled and then broken apart again).

2) There is the very clear statement in 1 Nephi (the very first section of the Book of Mormon) that all are alike to God, including black and white, explicitly.

3) Most importantly, as a former history teacher, nearly all historical records that deal with multiple races that are written by people at the time include racist statements - especially in relation to inter-racial marriage with darker-skinned native groups, which I believe is the demographic foundation of the Nephite-Lamanite situation described in the book itself.  We have blatantly racist statements in our own American writings, even from US Presidents, into the 20th Century. 

From a historical analysis perspective, it would be more troubling if there was no racism in the book, given what it purports to be. 

For a fuller explanation of how I see the dark and loathsome references, read the following post I wrote back in 2007:

"Reflections from a Mixed-Race Family" ( 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Excommunication: Not an Easy Issue

Excommunication is an ancient practice, and it has taken many forms in various religious traditions. The Mormon foundation for it probably is the first few chapters in Alma. The Nephites had joined with the people of Mulek; many in the rising generation didn't believe what was established by the new Nephite leadership; the first recorded wave of excommunications occurred in the Book of Mormon - including Alma, the Younger, and the sons of Mosiah, if I am correct in how I read the story.

As I've mentioned previously in other posts, the word "doctrine" is a bit squishy - and I wouldn't frame excommunication as doctrine. I would call it a practice or policy - and the justifications / reasons for it have ebbed and flowed over time. It was wielded like a stick in the early days of the Church on some people for things that seem silly to us now - but it also was not used in some cases that seemed to have warranted it, especially in comparison to cases that did end in excommunication.

Generally, I see the move to add layers of discipline, so to speak, as an attempt to avoid excommunication in cases that aren't considered automatic and extreme. Unfortunately and unavoidably, given the practical nature of the administration of discipline, decisions vary radically among local leaders - with some using excommunication in situations where others would disfellowship or even use informal probation. That lack of consistency is the most difficult aspect of church discipline - along with the overuse I have seen in some areas and with certain issues.

Theoretically, I have no problem with the concept of excommunication, but the practical implementation gets really wonky when so much decision-making power is vested in local leaders who often have strongly individual views about its use. Even though I believe strongly that the vast majority of local leaders err on the side of compassion and impose the least degree of punishment whenever possible, when, ultimately, one person has that kind of power, things can tend to the extremes, unfortunately.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Homosexuality and the LDS Church: We Can Change without Compromising Our Theology

I believe there are multiple ways the Church could continue to alter its stance on homosexuality without having to alter its core theology in the slightest.

I'm glad that we are moving away from blaming people for their sexual orientation. I'm glad the Church's official position no longer is that homosexual attraction is 100% a choice and can be changed with therapy, marriage and/or more faith. Being told you just need to stop feeling something that is central to who you are and over which you truly have no control is brutal - and was based on past biological ignorance.  If we could take the latest official statements in "God Loveth His Chlidren" and state fully, openly and explicitly from the General Conference pulpit that sexual attraction isn't always a choice, and that it can't be therapied away, and that it isn't a "sin" to feel the attraction - that would be a huge step in the right direction. We are getting there now, but we aren't quite there yet.

If we could stop categorizing all homosexuals as enemies and attackers of the family, that would be a huge step in the right direction.  My gay friends are not my enemies - and not one of them is attacking me or my family in any way.  For anyone reading this, imagine you are a gay youth who is a faithful member of the Church and hear regularly from the local pulpit that you are an enemy.  It happens regularly, often from "leaders" of some kind, and it simply ought not be. 

If we could allow homosexuals to do everything heterosexuals can do without violating the Law of Chastity as it relates to them (date, hold hands, kiss, express affection, develop non-sexual intimacy, etc. without actually engaging in "sexual activity" of any kind) - that alone would be a huge step. A heterosexual couple who can't have sexual intercourse still can be married and sealed - and if a heterosexual couple chooses not to marry but to live together without crossing lines of conduct prohibition, they shouldn't be disciplined in any way. (I know that would be an exception, but it certainly is possible.) Allowing homosexuals to live together but remain celibate and still be fully "worthy" wouldn't require any change to our current theology whatsoever, especially if the restriction on temple marriage was maintained. Allowing them to attend the temple and be sealed to parents and siblings wouldn't require ANY change to our theology whatsoever.

While acknowledging how far we've come in many ways regarding this issue in the last decade or so, the latest official policy still has one glaring issue. As I mentioned above, even expressions of intimacy that are not sexual in any way still are discouraged. In a way the current stance says, "It's OK to feel attracted to those of the same sex - as long as you never do anything that makes it obvious you feel those attractions." Heterosexual members can do all sorts of things that really aren't "sexual" in nature, while homosexual members can't do those exact same things.

Try this as a thought experiment:

You are a heterosexual man - someone who is attracted to women. Imagine what it would be like if you had been told all your life that such an attraction was wrong - and, in some cases, by some people, that such an attraction was reprehensible, disgusting, repulsive or even evil - that the very attraction itself, the very thought of having sex with a woman, was a gross abomination - that your attraction was seen by God as an abomination). Imagine if you had been told that you could overcome that attraction if you only had more faith - that, in a very real way, your attraction was a sign of your lack of faith. Imagine if you were told that you needed to marry a man and have sex with him in order to get over your attraction to women. 
Now, imagine being told that all of that was wrong - that you weren't the vilest of sinners because of your attraction to others of the opposite sex. However, imagine being told that you still couldn't let anyone, ever, know about your attraction - that you couldn't hold hands with a woman, hug or kiss a woman, put your arm around a woman affectionately (no lust involved whatsoever), spend time alone with a woman in a way that someone else might think is inappropriate. Imagine being told that the expression of intimacy of any kind, in any way, had to be absent from your life - with a man, because you weren't attracted to men, or with a woman, because such things still are seen as abominable.

We've come a long way, as I said, but the second half of the thought experiment above is what we currently ask of homosexual members. We aren't talking exclusively about avoiding "fornication"; we're talking about asking someone to live a completely intimacy-free life - at least with someone to whom that person actually feels a physical attraction. Living without physical intimacy of any kind is one definition of Hell - and we condemn it in the case of Catholic priests and nuns (and even blame it for the sexual abuses of the past within those groups). That is not what we ask of heterosexual members, so I understand completely why some people simply can't stay LDS who face that future.

I admire greatly anyone who can stay actively involved in the Church while being gay, which means I admire some of my friends greatly, but I also admire greatly those who face intense pressure to conform and who suffer greatly for their decision not to do so. What I admire most is not the specific decision, but rather it is the fact that either decision brings great, terrible pain and suffering initially and, in many cases, over an extended period of time.

There is no complete and easy answer right now, but there is much we can do to ease pain and suffering without compromising our theology in any way. What I have detailed above is just a start - but we absolutely need to start.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

We Don't Love People if We Won't Interact Postiively with Them or Serve Them

Complete love is not a feeling; it's an action verb. 

We can't say we love anyone unless we are wiling to interact positively with them and accept them for who they are, not just for whom we want them to be.  We don't have to approve of everything they say and do, but we have to let go of personal judgment and serve them regardless. 

If we won't associate with certain people - or if we only associate with certain people to change them, we don't love them.  We might love the concept of love, but we don't love them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Religious Tolerance and Exclusive Truth Claims

I think it’s interesting that religious tolerance often is weakest in those who demand it for themselves the most vocally. They cry out for tolerance and acceptance, but they turn around and stereotype others - condemning them to Hell without really understanding their beliefs. The “tolerance of condescension” still is better than the “intolerance of competing conviction”. Given the stereotyped attitudes of the irreligious liberal and the evangelical conservative, I’ll take the irreligious liberal any day - and, ironically, twice on Sunday. 

We walk a fine line between the type of tolerance Joseph Smith preached so passionately (allow all men everywhere the same privilege, let them worship how, when or what they may) and the claims of truth he made simultaneously (the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth). Unfortunately, it is far too easy to cross that line and allow the claims to temper our tolerance.

Friday, September 26, 2014

It Is Important to Admit the Frailties and Faults of Our Leaders

I believe passionately in being able to look at issues, even those that involve leaders, as honestly and openly as we can without it leading to wallowing in criticism or condemnation - to still remain actively involved in the LDS Church (and even be "faithful" in every meaningful way, in some cases) while not seeing lots of things in black-and-white terms or like lots of other members. I also believe I can recognize, admit and discuss what appear to me to be real weaknesses and even mistakes without it making me reject / dismiss others because of what amounts to them being fully human. That can be done easily with regard to how others see me, so I try to grant that same charity to others as view them. 

I'm going to use an extreme example to make my point, and it might be a little shocking at first, but please understand why I'm using it:

Jesus of Nazareth is believed to be the only perfect man who ever lived, specifically because he is believed to have been "a partaker of the divine nature" in a way that nobody else has been. He is believed to have been the son of God and a God in and of himself. He is believed to have never sinned - meaning, according to the definition of James, that he never acted in opposition to his understanding.

Does that mean that I am "criticizing" him if I point out that I think he lost his temper on at least one occasion - or use that incident to say that he might have had a bad temper if he allowed himself to show it? Is it criticizing him if I hate the idea that "little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - since I believe he cried just like any other baby, and soiled his diaper, and perhaps even punched a friend who cheated in a game when he was a child, or even cheated while he was playing a game when he was a child?

I don't see it that way. First, I don't see those things as sins, but I also don't see pointing out those things as criticism. I see it simply as talking about the idea that he really was human even while he really was divine. We say he was human in a very real way that matters deeply, but, if that is the case, we do him a grave disservice if we can't talk openly about what that means - about the implications of believing in a God who also was human. If we ignore and never speak of that dichotomy, if we ignore it in the name of not appearing to be speaking evil of the Lord's anointed, we are castrating him in a very real, though figurative, way.

I think the same applies to every person - and I think it applies to Moses, Peter, Paul, (and Mary - sorry, couldn't resist), Joseph Smith, Brigham Young or any other prophet or even historically extraordinary figure even more so that to you and me. I deserve to be seen and understood just as much for my imperfections as I am for my strengths. I deserve to be treated like a fully human being - meaning my callings over the years should be discussed simultaneous to my difficulty with formal, kneeling prayer all my life. My inclination toward charity should be considered along with my warped and risque sense of humor. I am a saint in some ways, but I'm a sinner in others - and admitting that about our prophets and other leaders isn't the type of "criticism" I try to avoid.

It's just an admission of human frailties even within our greatest leaders - and that admission is extremely important to me.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

My Birthday Wish for All: More Love, Patience, Tolerance and Care

The following is one of my favorite quotes from any General Conference talk I have heard in my lifetime.  I quote Elder Wirthlin's "Concern for the One" often, but I absolutely love this quote just as much.  I want to share it today, as a birthday wish for all.  

If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.

Marvin J. Ashton (April 1992 General Conference, "The Tongue Can Be a Sharp Sword")

May we try to do so is my wish. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Atonement Covers Honest Mistakes

I have to live according to the dictates of my own conscience and have faith that God will not punish me for doing so. I'd rather follow that path and be wrong, learning from my mistakes and having an atonement cover those honest mistakes, than to believe and do things just because others say I need to believe and do them. That last construct is the heart of what we call Lucifer's plan - and I think it's critical do recognize that.

I had a friend once who asked me if we can choose which revelations to believe. I think everyone chooses which revelations to believe, and, more particularly, which statements of leaders to classify as divine revelation - even if that means some people choose to think they believe them all. Actually, I think there isn't a Mormon alive who believes them all - when revelation is defined as "everything an apostle or President taught or said from the pulpit", since there are so many contradictory things that have been taught and preached (and so many things we no longer teach and preach). Just to be clear, I am totally fine with that; I'm just saying that every Mormon has to pick and choose exactly what s/he accepts from our history as divine revelation and as eternal, immutable truth.  (I think that also applies to every religion and denomination, not just the LDS Church.) 

Everyone looks at things and decides what they can believe - and then they choose what they can live - and then they construct justifications for the gap. For me, the most important one is that the Atonement will cover that gap, as long as we're trying to do our best. That, to me, is a huge part of pure Mormonism - an acknowledgment that all of us are living according to the dictates of our own consciences and hoping in faith that God will understand and not hold it against us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Competence Is Important to Powerful Faith

"You know, it is a wonderful thing to be faithful, but a much greater thing to be both faithful and competent. There is no particular virtue in being uninformed, certainly no virtue in ignorance. When young people can acquire the skills, the techniques, and the knowledge of these times, and along with it have a spiritual commitment and a solid faith and cleanliness of life, there is nothing that you can’t achieve; nothing in righteousness or in reason."  (Elder Richard L. Evans, from an address given on October 15, 1971)