Put Down the Matches

June 30, 2015

I understand that some people are very upset about the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States. That said, I think some people are overreacting just a tad. I’ve heard people say the decision was the worst thing to happen in the United States, ever (no, I’m not making this up) or that it means the end of our civilization as we know it. But no one comes close to the hysteria of some people who say they are willing to set themselves on fire to protect the sanctity of marriage.

I think they should just chill out a little. It is not the end of the world. Other countries have legalized same-sex marriage without dire social consequences, plagues, or locusts. So, in the spirit of defusing some of the tension, I offer ten things potential self-immolaters to ponder so they can stop worrying and learn to love teh gayz:

10. When you see the rainbow flag, remember it’s a benign symbol of pride in one’s heritage, just like the Confederate Battle Flag.
9. Who would you rather hang out with: Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger, and Abby Wambach–or the Kardashian sisters?
8. When a heterosexual couple marries, you don’t automatically imagine them having sex, so stop doing it when gay couples marry.
7. Thousands of American couples will be getting a tax cut, and tax cuts are always good, right?
6. Bristol Palin is deliberately depriving another child of having a two-parent home, and no one is protesting her.
5. You’ll have even more opportunities to re-gift that fondue pot you got for your wedding.
4. Gay people have been marrying for a very long time, just not to each other.
3. It’s still illegal to marry your Cocker Spaniel.
2. Gay couples now have the same opportunity to become boring and domestic, just like everyone else.
1. The next time you hold your spouse’s hand, you can be sure that no one else’s marriage is going to weaken yours in any way.

A Good Day

June 26, 2015

Last week I walked past the Stonewall Inn while I was wandering around Greenwich Village. It seemed like such a quiet, nondescript location for the real birth of a civil-rights movement.

Today the Supreme Court took a big step in solidifying the gains that movement has made in the last 46 years.

Obergefell et al. v. Hodges

There’s still a lot remaining to do in fighting discrimination and injustice, but this is a day to be celebrated.

I’m Sorry

June 24, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev spoke those words this afternoon in a courtroom in Boston, just before being sentenced to death for killing 4 people and maiming many others in the Boston Marathon bombing.

I don’t claim to understand what leads people like him (or Dylann Roof) to acts of evil. In fact, it’s a constant puzzlement to me to try and wrap my brain around how someone could get to the point at which they believe it’s not only justifiable but perhaps necessary and desirable to kill innocent strangers who have done them no harm.

As one of my commenters mentioned, nothing happens in a vacuum. The Tsarnaev brothers had parents and siblings, and the older of the two had a wife and child. Surely, their families grieve as much as their victims do. As hard as it is for me to understand what they did, I’m sure it’s far more difficult for people who knew and loved them to come to grips with their actions.

I understand why people in other countries and cultures dislike or even hate the United States, which for me is both my home and my people. Our country has done some terrible things over its history, and it’s natural for people to want revenge or payback. In the wake of 9/11, a British writer said that sometimes bullies get their noses bloodied. He was roundly criticized for saying so, probably because of the apparent glee with which he said it, but I think that captures some of what motivates some people. When you see a country or political system as inherently corrupt or evil (see “The Great Satan”), it’s easy to see its members as something less than human, as mere parts of the larger machinery, and thus fair game for killing. I was in New York last week, and it struck me how strange it was for people to attack ordinary people at their place of work in the World Trade Center and its immediate environs. But for the killers, the buildings (and its occupants) were symbols of oppression, not humans, so they could apparently glorify God by murdering them.

There’s a guy I know who spends a lot of time attacking everything Mormon, no matter what. He believes the LDS church as an institution is evil, or so it seems, so he figures that anything he can use against it is justified. But he hurts people. He attacks and ridicules not just bad policies or behaviors, but he goes after people and their most personal beliefs. I know in the past I was guilty of much the same thing. (I’m not saying it’s wrong to criticize other people’s beliefs, but you can do so without hate and bitterness, which are sorely lacking with some people.) The best relationships I have with people of differing faiths and cultures than mine are with those I’ve come to know through personal interaction. As I said in my last post, it is harder to hate the people you interact with every day, though obviously that doesn’t stop some people.

Is it important to try to understand what motivates people to do terrible things? Yes, of course, but understanding doesn’t always mean you can stop it. I understand what motivates the guy who attacks Mormonism and Mormonism, but I can’t stop him from doing it. I can and do tell him to mellow out and consider the effects on his friends and family. When all is said and done, you have to live with yourself and own your actions, and it’s better to figure that out before you destroy the relationships that matter.

It took me a while to get there, and I’m always a little saddened, though not surprised, that for some people I will always be defined by things I’ve done in the past. I can’t help that, but I don’t blame people for holding a grudge. I’d probably hold one against me, too. But I’m grateful that in the process of working through my personal issues, I’ve learned to forgive. Forgiveness is what helped me to get all the hurt and anger out of my heart, though apparently some people think it’s still there. Again, I can’t help that.

Cheap jokes about extra n’s and bad haircuts aside, I’ve been deeply moved by the outpouring of love and forgiveness in the wake of the shootings in Charleston and these words spoken to by Bill Richard to the man who murdered his 8-year-old son: “We choose love. We choose kindness. We choose peace.”

And it is a choice, but it’s an ongoing choice you must make over and over, maybe even every day. It gets easier with time, but you have to resist those who want to pull you back into the cycle of anger and recrimination. Part of being genuinely sorry, I think, is accepting that you may never be sorry enough for some people, and that’s OK. You can’t undo your actions or the effects they have on others, so saying your sorry is never really going to be enough. In this way, perhaps apologies must be open-ended. Forgiveness also must be infinite.

I learned that in a very small degree several years ago when a man broke into our home in Utah. A drug addict, he was looking for money or jewelry (of course, one of the perks of having a large family and one income is that you have nothing of value in your home). Unfortunately, my daughter, who was then 16, was home alone at the time. She called me at work from her hiding place in the downstairs shower, terrified. I will never forget arriving home to find my house surrounded by police cars, the burglar handcuffed face down in the street. After I found my daughter and calmed her down, I saw the guy again in the back of a squad car, and for a brief moment, I felt this surge of rage, and I wanted to go over and beat him to a bloody pulp. It took me some time to forgive the man and try to understand the circumstances of his life that led him to such a pathetic and desperate place. Later, when we faced him in the courtroom, I told him I forgave him, and I meant it. Then he spoke. He complained that we had hurt him because the story had been on the evening news, and his family had been shamed. I could feel the anger rising in my throat again, and afterward I wondered if I really had forgiven him. I realized that it was going to be a process, one that might go on for a while.

So, yes, choose love. Choose kindness. Choose peace. But make them an ongoing choice, a habit, a pattern. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Racism Ends with Me

June 19, 2015

I’ve spent a busy week working at my company’s office in the East Village in New York City. There’s something about being in such a vibrant place that makes you feel alive. I don’t really fit in here, as it seems like it’s all young, affluent hipsters, but I have enjoyed walking down the street and soaking in the sights, sounds, tastes, and even smells of the city. (I apologize to my friends in the city for not getting together, but I’ve been booked solid all week, day and night.)


The view from my hotel in New York.

Then I read about Dylann Roof, a deranged white supremacist who looks like that kid from Home Alone but with a haircut that would shame even a Mormon apologist. The photo of a glaring loser with a superfluous ‘n’ in his name and the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia stitched on his jacket is both appalling and ridiculous because you don’t imagine a pathetic figure like that could be capable of causing so much pain to so many people. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones because of this evil act.

It’s easy to call this a senseless or random act, but it’s neither. What happened in Charleston was a deliberate act of hatred based on racial prejudice. So many people in the US have worked to overcome the racism that has been a pervasive and persistent element of our republican democracy, but one double-n Dylan reminds us again that it’s still with us and will likely remain for a long time to come. Surely we should be well beyond this narrow bigotry, and yet we aren’t.

I used to think that racism was born of ignorance, that it was difficult to be prejudiced against people you knew at work and in your neighborhoods. My father-in-law was in many ways a gentle man, but he had an almost casual attitude of prejudice against black people. To him, what I called Brazil nuts were “nigger toes,” and a lazy job performance was “nigger work.” I was appalled, but I figured that, being a potato farmer from Idaho, he had very little interaction with African Americans. He didn’t know better.

But the Dylann Roofs of the world live and work in a multiracial society. South Carolina, after all, is 28% African American, which is more than twice the national average. Newspaper articles quote Roof’s black friends. Sure, they say, he told racist jokes and talked about starting a race-based civil war, but no one took it seriously.

Maybe that’s the problem. We see racism as something from the past, and even though we recognize overt examples of racism, such as several well-known police shootings recently, we ignore the casual racism. Even when we organize and protest, we generally focus on egregious acts of prejudice or hatred, but we don’t notice what’s going on around us every day. We think that racism is that something that happens to other people, and it’s caused by nutjobs and criminals, not us.

If we are going to reduce acts of subtle and overt racism, it has to be us. We have to be active and vigilant in eliminating the racism we see around us. In my childhood, we sang a very simple Primary song:

I want to be kind to everyone,
For that is right, you see.
So I say to myself, “Remember this:
Kindness beings with me.”

Perhaps we need to resolve that racism ends with us. We may not have the power individually or even collectively to erase prejudice and hatred, which seem to be basic human traits, but we can work to make our own surroundings and environments more tolerant and less racist. They say that when someone does something kind for you, you should “pay it forward.” It’s time to start paying forward tolerance, respect, and inclusion, as well as kindness.

Am I naive? Of course. No one believes there’s an easy solution to these problems, but I am determined that, at least in my own life, racism ends with me.

And They Say I Can’t Let It Go …

June 15, 2015

I mentioned a while back that a non-LDS blogger, Philip Jenkins, had decided to take on Book of Mormon historicity as an example of how pseudoscience is employed to bolster faith. As I said, I agreed with him entirely that the historicity is far less important to a believer than how one’s faith operates in one’s life. I’ve said many times that I will never question anyone’s personal spiritual experiences.

The problem, of course, is that Mormon apologists who have responded to Jenkins want to argue over the historicity of the book. I think that’s pointless, but then you’d expect that from me, wouldn’t you? Jenkins, however, isn’t willing to let apologetic arguments stand without response. So, he’s still going. The title of his latest article indicates his attitude towards the apologists.

The Nahom Follies

I’ve known a lot of apologists who complain that serious academics have not given the Book of Mormon any attention, but usually when they do, it ends up much like what Philip Jenkins has come up with. It’s a pointless debate for both sides, in my opinion. Best to let it go.

Loyalty Tests

June 11, 2015

My good friend Corbin Volluz has posted the latest in his ongoing campaign to face church discipline (just kidding, of course).

Apostasy Now

It’s an interesting read, and I think he may have something here: it isn’t so much what you believe that determines your status in the church as it is your loyalty to the institution and its leaders. Anyway, as always, Corbin is a passionate and compelling writer.

Of course, if that were all there is to it, how does one explain my current status in the church? I suspect that one must not only be deemed disloyal but also attract some notoriety. That would apparently exclude me.

Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.