Several weeks ago on April 25, the LDS Church joined other religious bodies and leaders in signing the letter “to protect and preserve the institution of marriage between a man and a woman.â€ You may read the Church’s full statement on their website.
The letter below is the first in a series somehow to express, however imperfectly, my deep sorrow, my profound grief and my outrage at what has become a dreary litany of scriptural inconsistency from the church of my birth. The Bible is one of our fundamental documents in the birthing of human rights. My church for decades now has been at the forefront of their denial. We are, in effect, somewhere behind the little men with brooms and baskets, following the elephants, in the great parade of human rights, at least since the latter half of the 20th century. This breaks my heart. The prophetic voice has always spoken for peace and justice. The entire cosmos tilts toward the poor. Zion, as I understand it, is a city now and hereafter, where God and God’s children might mingle in communion of peace and justice. We came to our Great Basin home precisely to do this. We have lost our way. Like Dante, I feel that we are in a deep wood. Where is the light?
The recent death of my dear friend William Sloan Coffin Jr. reminds us that fidelity to human rights, peace and justice and deep spiritual belief are profoundly consistent.
The prophetic voice has always joined peace and justice. Shalom does not simply mean an absence of violence. Shalom unites non-violence and social justice. St. Paul says, “The fruit of the spirit is…peace.”(Gal. 5:22) The psalmist sings, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.” (Ps.85:10) Shalom invites affirmative powerful non-violence and social justice. From Amos to Isaiah and Jeremiah to Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha and Mohammad, this has been so. For Mohandas K. Gandhi, the great Mahatma, wonderfully moved by the Sermon on the Mount, this self-defined Hindu, though excommunicated by his class for study in England, the central tenets of peace and nonviolence found particular expression: Ahimsa and Satyagraha. Ahimsa, a powerfully affirmative refusal to do violence, a warrior’s non-violence even though he possessed full power to crush and to kill. Gandhi’s non-violence was not for sissies. Satyagraha is truth — the knowledge of truth that sets one free. My friend and colleague, H.H. The Dalai Lama, in the same tradition, has always stood for truth and non-violence in the face of genocidal acts against him and his people, in Tibet, and now in exile in the Diaspora. For my friend, compassion contains the whole. In decades that have broken my heart, the Mormon Church has denied some of these fundamental rights, and done so in the name of Jesus Christ. I dissent.
Now, the Religious Right, the Republican Party at Prayer, want to foist upon the American people through the American Constitution a zealously narrow definition of “family.” Yes, the big, boisterous community always evolving and never, thank God, definable, confinable. Enter the new social Darwinists, the Christian Right.
The American family, says a gaggle of old men: Mormons, a few celibate Roman Catholic Bishops, and the Moral Majority, consists of one man, one woman, and whatever number of children may result from this union. That’s it. Nothing more. So much for single parents, divorced people, a family of celibate nuns or priests, gay and lesbian folk, and the polygamists. So much, it would seem, for Mormonism of the nineteenth century. Including my grandfathers (depending on how and whom you count), Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; and my grandmother, Zina Diantha Huntington Smith Young, married first to Joseph and at his death, Brigham. Are all of us, descendants of these pioneers of the American West, bastards? Says who?
How in the name of god dare they – these self-righteous self-appointed shepherds of the American Constitution. They would be better advised to keep these ideas carefully contained within the walls of their half-empty churches. The American Constitution is too important a document to be abused in this manner. Thomas and Martha Jefferson, and Sally Hemings, Abigail and John Adams, Dolly and James Madison, would not appreciate such lobbying by these clergymen of pious persuasion from the far right side of the wall between church and state. Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt would wonder at those who invoked piety in order to accomplish a savage denial, a shrinking of fundamental human rights.
Taking leave from their breathless presumptuousness let me join them, however briefly, with a godly blast of my own. How dare they take the name of the Lord their God in vain! These villains. I don’t think God gives a tinker’s damn if I say “hell” or “shit” when I hit my thumb with a hammer. But I know the Lord God is offended when we use his name to hurt, or badly injure his little ones, his lambs, his little lambs. Have these old men no shame? Have they no sense of the holy? Truly, these men, these old men, corporately take the name of the Lord their God in vain.
Sexuality and gender are holy mysteries. Just how we become human; how we gradually assume the image of God; upon what graduated plane do we tend more toward the male or the female and still call God father, mother…all this is holy ground. This whole ground ripples with the holiness of the Lord. We feel God’s spirit wafting through the land and the water of our soul. Just what is sexuality? Gender? God’s image? We take off our shoes. The last (meaning worst) thought we might have would be of the brittleness of the Law. The Law, at best, is a schoolmaster.
But in sexuality, gender, family, the Imago Dei; in such areas we move far beyond the capacity of Law to effect change or enforce a status quo. Here, and way before these outer reaches of spirituality, the Law reveals its impotence. If we push the law into such places, we come to understand just why St. Matthew quotes Jesus as hyphenating “lawyers and hypocrites!” (Cf., Matt. 23, and Alma 10:17) and just why “the hearse horse snickered as he drew the lawyer away.”
It is not in the interest of society: civil or religious, to outlaw or to marginalize the very people we see as most tenderly needing our help. The nineteenth century witnessed the outlawry and the excommunication from civil society of my people, the Mormons. Both polygamy and theocracy (each more than evident in the strident statement at issue) were the reasons given by the mobs that burnt our homes, murdered our people, torched our temples, and chased us into what was then Mexico, when we left Nauvoo, Illinois, in the mid-1840’s.
We thought we were through, finally, with the U. S. of A. (It seems that wars of territorial aggression just don’t accomplish firm borders, do they? Viva! Viva!) So, we settled the Great Basin, now most of the West: Utah, Nevada, Idaho, parts of Colorado and California, New Mexico, Texas, and a few Border States. But polygamy continues. So, it would seem, does theocracy. Marginalization and criminalization do not help society integrate or become whole — quite the opposite. The Mormons, then the skunk at the garden party, made major portions of the civil liberties law of the United States Constitution, much to their consternation. Now, it would appear, we begin again. But we’ve changed sides. Now, we join the bad guys and beat up on those who most need and deserve our protection and fellowship.
Robert Conquest, the great historian of the former Soviet Union, once said that if one wanted to predict the next strategic move of the Soviet Union in the then Cold War, one should simply assume that the Soviet government had been captured by a cabal of its worst enemies.1 Legions of psychiatrists, lawyers, clergy, and married folk trying to stay in that precarious state can all say amen. Oh, just to discern self-interest. Don’t take my time with charitable thinking for the other guy. Wise self-interest is at least a good starting point.
The good old boys missed this one. Still, I love them and, I hope, they still love me. The peace of Christ be with us all as we stumble, struggle, fall and rise again. Sometimes, as Thomas Merton noted, we take one step forward, and then two back, rather than the reverse. But we get there anyway. Since we were headed in the wrong direction in the first place. God be with us all, everyone.
1 Robert Conquest (Soviet Union (1988), Stalin’s purges (1968) and The Great Terror (1930), the great historian of the former Soviet Union, once described how he so perfectly assessed the next strategic moves of the Soviet Union, at the apex of its power. He said that he simply assessed before each major decision, what the decision would be as if the Soviet government had suddenly been seized in coup d’etat by a cabal of its most virulent enemies. As legions of priests, lawyers, and psychiatrists have always known, discovering one’s own self-interest is never easy.
Edwin B. Firmage, â€œSeeing the Stranger as Enemy,â€ [also known as â€œLet My Children Go] Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 30, No. 4, 27â€“41 (1997). See also Speech from Utah capitol steps â€“ March 2, 1996
Edwin B. Firmage, , â€œWhy Did the Watchdogs Never Bark?,â€ in God and Country: Politics of Utah (Jeffrey E. Sells, ed. with a foreword by Harold J. Berman, Signature Books 2005).
Copyright 2006. Reprintable with permission