Friday, November 6, 2020

The Election is Over (Kinda). Now What?

This has been a rough week/month/year/whatever.

The pandemic, the breakdown of civil discourse, the ignorance, the divisions, and then this deplorable, way-too-long American election—I think it has been exhausting for all of us, no matter where we land on the political spectrum.

If there is one thing that can unite us at this point, it is our shared misery.

I know that religion and politics are two things that you aren't supposed to talk about too much, but during the past year, our collective nose dive into chaos has made me wonder if avoiding difficult subjects is really a good idea.

It has also made me think about what the Church of Jesus Christ can possibly have to offer against these growing divisions.

It has made me think about some things we might be getting wrong.

Cracked Sandstone Foundations

In October Conference 2020, President Uchtdorf talked about the early Saints in Utah in the 1850s as they tried to establish Zion and build a temple. He said:
"Just as the temple foundation was nearing completion, an army of United States soldiers approached to forcibly install a new governor. Because Church leaders did not know how hostile the army would be, Brigham Young ordered the Saints to evacuate and bury the temple foundation.

"I'm sure some members of the Church wondered why their efforts to build God's kingdom were constantly being frustrated. Eventually the danger passed and the temple foundations were excavated and inspected. It was then that the pioneer builders discovered that some of the original sandstones had cracked, making them unsuitable for a foundation.

"Consequently, Brigham had them repair the foundation so that it could adequately support the granite walls of the majestic Salt Lake Temple. Finally the Saints could sing the hymn "How Firm a Foundation" and know their holy temple was built on a solid foundation that would last for generations.

If this sounds familiar given the circumstances in which we find ourselves today, it’s because it is." (God Will Do Something Unimaginable, October 2020 General Conference)

This year, as we have been forced to bury some aspects of our church worship in this pandemic, and now, as we slowly begin to excavate our foundations and return to church again, it may be a good time to ask ourselves, "What are some of the cracked sandstone foundations we have been building on? Is it possible that we may have made some mistakes trying to build Zion?"

1. The Gentile Dilemma:  Politics

About 8 years ago, I went to priesthood session in Utah with some family. There was the familiar buzz of brotherhood as we all crammed into the chapel in our white shirts and ties and made our way to the metal chairs at the back. One family member quipped to his young sons, "See that guy over there? He voted for Obama!" to which there was the sounds of teenage disgust and a chilling remark, "What is he even doing here?"

The warm feeling of unity and brotherhood I felt coming into the building immediately went cold. I wondered "If a worldwide priesthood conference cannot unite us, what on earth can?"

Both sides of the political spectrum have been engaged in a sort of "fight to the death" for some time now, basically the American political version of the Jaredite's last battle of extermination at Hill Cumorah. Unfortunately, this fight has spilled into our church culture as well. Because the church has been aligned for so long with conservative politics, the past decade has overwhelmingly marginalized people with liberal views, but it can certainly happen both ways. How does this happen? Hugh Nibley said:

I have been...much too easily drawn into what I call the Gentile Dilemma. That is, when I find myself called upon to stand up and be counted, to declare myself on one side of the other. Which do I prefergin or rum, cigarettes or cigars, tea or coffee, heroin or LSD,...Republican or Democrat, black power or white power, land pirates or sea pirates, commissars or corporations, capitalism or communism. The devilish neatness and simplicity of the thing is the easy illusion that I am choosing between good and evil, when in reality two or more evils by their rivalry distract my attention from the real issue. (Hugh Nibley, "How Firm a Foundation! CWHN 9:163)

As I mentioned, it is not just conservative members who have demonized the other side. Liberal members can look down in disdain at conservatives too. But, overwhelmingly, I have seen intolerance from Republican members towards Democrats. It ranges from suspicion ("OMgosh They voted Democrat, I bet they will be leaving the church soon) to outright antagonism (If you vote Biden, you support communism and killing babies.)

Increasingly, in our modern wasteland, we sometimes favor categorization over diversity. We divide the world into false binaries: good/evil, black/white, and liberal/conservative. For example, the American election took the incredible diversity of people with different political thought and opinions and attempted to squash every person into one of two parties. Over the past couple of decades, there has been an incredibly destructive polarization of nearly every issue. Suddenly, if you support humane immigration policies, you are immediately accused of killing the unborn. If you support tax cuts, you also support locking children in cages. You have to accept wholesale a political party and its leader, and to depart one iota on a complicated issue is to defect to the other side. Caught in this ridiculous binary, the space that the Constitution works so hard to protect, that specifically allows for diversity of opinion and a wide range of belief, is being whittled down into two insanely polarized groups: right versus left, conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat. Ladies and gentlemen, arm yourselves for a Nephite/Lamanite battle to the death at Cumorah. Sleep on your sword. Prepare for civil war.

If the problem in America is a particular issue or seven, then it may be tempting to gravitate to the strongman that will fix it, that can own the enemy, wipe the floor with their liberal tears, and win the war. Vote for the president who can do this, no matter how divisive or ugly the method, no matter what character flaws he might have. But if the problem in America is actually our division, then our tactics will need to be very different. We will need to vote for someone who will unify us, not divide us. Then, and only then, when we are united as a people, can we come together to address any other issues that may be on our minds: tax cuts, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, etc. It is not one political leader or party that can save us in these culture wars. It is our collective unity and brotherhood.

It doesn't take a genius to note that our divisions are hurting our nation. And they are also hurting our church.

For years, I have sat in church classes where both students and teachers have discussed at length how "the liberals" are destroying the family, the church, the nation, and the world. How can we expect our brothers and sisters with liberal views to stay? At these times, I have looked around the room in these classes and seen faithful saints with their faces down, in obvious pain at the way they are being other-ized in a gospel that they love as much as anybody else. I have seen people hurt by insensitive and incredibly divisive social media posts of friends and family that only push away members who are sincerely trying to find their place in the gospel. At university, I watched helplessly as many of my friends found new and exciting ways to think about the gospel, and with a determination to stay faithful in the church, but over time started to feel pushed out. Some were called apostate just for voting for the wrong political party. Sometimes they were excluded or shut down in the Sunday School lesson. Other times they were just ignored, hoping they would go away and stop rocking the boat so that we could go back to talking about comfortable things. 

Eventually, many found that there was no place for them in their wards, and they left. Small wonder.

Would you stay?

In saying these things, I am not talking about who is politically right and who is wrong.  This is not about the "Gentile Dilemma." 

This is also not to say that we all don't have a very important right to express our opinions and views openly and freely. We do.

What I am talking about is how to create a culture of inclusion in our church. I am talking about putting down exclusionary language in the gospel. I hope we would never go the other way, and point to the people in our congregations and think, "See that guy over there? That man is a Trump supporter. What is he even doing here?" We need each other. Every one of us. We need to talk to each other, learn from each other, combine our different spiritual gifts and listen, regardless of our political views. The eye cannot say to the foot, "I have no need of thee." We need diversity to nudge us all along the path of spiritual progression. Losing our brothers and sisters in the gospel with different views is as spiritually stunting for us as it is for them.

2. The Tower of Babel

In the Old Testament, we read about how the people of Babel were trying to get to heaven by building a tower. Perhaps they had the City of Enoch in mind, and they figured that if the city of Zion could ascend to heaven, so could they.

"Go to," the people said, "let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
And the Lord said, 'Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (Genesis 11)

Why would God disrupt their righteous goal to get to heaven? Wasn't their heart in the right place?  Well, perhaps they had fallen into the trap that there was a man-made way to reach God. They were united, to be sure, and "they had all one language," but it wasn't the right one. So the God of diversity made them speak a lot of different languages. Chaos ensued. From here on out, if they were going to try again, they were going to have to learn to speak one another's language.

One of our towers that we are erecting to get ourselves to heaven, I believe, is our politics. We who are trying to build our way to heaven may say, "And let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." We have to define ourselves somehow. We need a Latter-day Saint identity, lest we be "scattered" in the world. But sometimes that name we use to define ourselves is not Jesus Christ, and nothing else will do. "For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Do we have a different identity, a different set of beliefs that we are using to get to heaven, besides the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we sometimes think that a certain set of political beliefs is necessary to get us to heaven? Some might call it conservatism, others liberalism, or Republican, or Democrat. Whatever name we use besides Christ doesn't matter. Satan doesn't care much which side of the horse we fall off on. 

Perhaps the current confusion in our political discourse is a little like the tower of Babel. Sometimes, trying to have a discussion with someone with different views feels like we are speaking a totally different language. We don't understand each other. But perhaps this time the only way to build our way to Zion is to learn to speak one another's languages.

3. Towards Inclusion

Sometimes I wonder how I can help friends and family who have left feel like they want to come back to church. I recently had the realization that maybe it is us that needs to change to bring our loved ones back, more than them. It may require more from me than making room on the pew. I need to make room for them in our culture. If only a certain "type" of person fits in, I mean really fits in—a red-blooded, white Republican who likes green jello—then how can I expect my inactive friends and family to return (who, I guarantee it, have also learned valuable lessons we could learn from, and have needed gifts they could share with us)? 

What if it was more about what they can do to fix us, rather than what we can do to fix them

Or what if it isn't really an "us versus them" scenario at all?

We need to stop with the quips and quotes like "No member can be good Mormon and a good Democrat." Put your artillery of out-of-context President Benson quotes away. Because nothing could be more intellectually and spiritually limiting than replacing the gospel with a political platform. Like the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon, I sometimes wonder if we have created for ourselves a scripted form of worship, one that leaves out Jesus Christ, that we preach atop our rameumptons of rigid political conservatism. "Thank you God that we are a more chosen and holy people than [the liberals.]" (Alma 31.) (No doubt some liberals could offer the same prayer!) Their homogenous and dystopian form of worship was maybe, at least in part, because the Zoramites had unceremoniously thrown out of their city all who disagreed with them. This led them to a dearth of diversity of thought. Diversity is the vehicle for learning and growth, and if we continue to push out members when their views don't fit in with a political narrative, we might just end up like the Zoramites, and we should not be surprised when our gospel experience goes stale and our Sunday School becomes an echo chamber.

Of course, our prophets are ahead of the game. The Come Follow Me program, together with a recent official endorsement of informal study groups and faithful podcasts and online resources outside of the correlated manuals, has opened up many doors for us to engage with new ideas and experience new perspectives. Who has not read the Book of Mormon this year and seen it differently than they ever have before? This pandemic has, interestingly, led us to some inspired time away from Sunday School, to discover some dynamic and innovative ways to engage with the gospel directly, most of all with the scriptures themselves. I believe it has helped us get beyond the tired manuals and scripted lesson plans of our past. The burying and excavating of our foundation in 2020 has revealed a cracked foundation that we can work together to replace.

It is important to state that I believe firmly that the core teachings and doctrine of Christ cannot and must not change. Certain commandments are not for us to revoke or alter. But there is enough pharisaical hedges around the law that we can legitimately clear away to make space for our brothers and sisters, and do so without dismantling the laws of God. As followers of Christ, our greatest strength should be our ability to love people who are outsiders, like He did, and nurture them gently onto the path of eternal life. We can accept each other as they are, and leave the changing entirely to the Lord. But unfortunately, this is something we fall on our faces with again and again. Myself included.

If we don't change our trajectory, the one that the Book of Mormon teaches us about, it won't be long before we are again classifying ourselves into "all manner of -ites," breaking down into tribalism along social, economic, and political lines. We will eventually reach the same epic downfall that the Nephites did. 

Truly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all inclusive and has the power to break down all our petty divisions, because Christ's atonement is infinite and applies universally to all of us. We can put away fears and insecurities about our differences in this gospel, move on over, and make room both culturally and politically, putting our full faith in Christ's incredible ability to unite us while still preserving our beautiful diversity.

Conclusion: Hear Him

It has been 200 years since Joseph Smith, exhausted from so much ideological warfare, retired to a grove of trees to hear the voice of God.

"Nevermind, all is wellI am well enough off. I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true."

Those were the first words of Joseph Smith to his mother after he saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in 1820.

Now, 200 years later, we live in a world that is again lost in a "war of words and tumult of opinions." This time, it is not about which church we should go to, a debate that has mostly died out years ago.

Today, the debate is about which party to join, how to interpret world events, what news source to go to, how to think, who to be loyal to, which policies are right, which philosophies to evangelize, which social media posts to share, which pages to follow. The debate is as intense now as it ever was in upstate New York in 1820, and I doubt that the arguments have changed much at all.

This year, our prophet has asked us to ponder the meaning of the restoration of the gospel, to celebrate 200 years since God told Joseph Smith to "join none of them."

We could all do with a little more sacred grove in our life.

We each can go to God and find revelation from Him that is entirely different from the old, tired, human arguments of whose interpretation of the world is right, and whose is wrong.

We all can witness the finger of God, which eternally points us to His Beloved Son, as he calls us each by name and asks us to "hear Him."

I truly believe this is the Church of Jesus Christ, but our politics and cultural differences, however right we think we are, should not distract us from who actually saves us. Him. Not our political or social views. The foundation, the rock upon which we are to build, is Christ.

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

 Everything else is just cracked sandstone.