Lessons from Book of Mormon (the musical)

The Thinker by Rodin

We visited New York City last week, our first trip there since probably 2003. You rarely go there and not see a Broadway show.

We saw two: Come from Away, a heartwarming musical about how a community of 9000 in Newfoundland, Canada took care of 7000 people after 9/11 when their flights were diverted there following the event. In a dark time, it was a reminder that people can be kind in extreme situations.

We also finally saw Book of Mormon, somewhat of Come from Away’s antithesis. Religion is dicey material to stage, and this sacrilegious musical is pretty ruthless with Mormons, Mormonism and their many beliefs. If you have a button to push, it will probably push it. Topics include AIDS, raping babies, murder and removing women’s clitorises, not to mention Mormon’s difficultly suppressing homosexuality. Also arguably it’s more than a little racist, as modern Uganda doesn’t much resemble anymore the thatched hutches that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham find themselves in. Yet somehow this musical works, as attested to by its long run on Broadway that shows no sign of ending. I haven’t had so much fun on Broadway since seeing The Producers there, probably when we were last there in 2003.

I haven’t studied Mormonism, but the musical will certainly expose you to its foundational beliefs, most of which are laughable. For example, devout Mormons believe that you get your own planet, and Jesus has his own planet somewhere out there.

What you do with your own planet and how you can visit Jesus on his is not discussed. Presumably these are Edens much like Earth and without all its strife. I’m guessing you don’t get tractors and bulldozers on these planets, so you live a simple life, probably hunter gathering. Since it’s all for you, I guess you have to be okay with your own company so it’s probably fine to go naked and hopefully the weather accommodates. I’m guessing you get to share it with your spouse, assuming you get married, and that’s pretty much a given for any Mormon.

And then there’s their whole story of ancient Israelites going to North America and creating gold tablets in what is now upstate New York that were the Book of Mormon that curiously only Joseph Smith ever saw. Oh, and there’s the whole polygamy thing, until it became counterproductive. Also we learn the blacks won’t get into heaven, until that became counterproductive too and God apparently changed his mind in 1978.

Some of the show’s biggest fans are Mormons, which suggests they are comfortable with its sacrilegious nature, that their religion is full of beliefs and arguments that make no sense, and they can laugh about it while claiming to believe in its teachings. To most of us, the idea that you get your own planet for being a good Mormon is good for a belly laugh.

Absurd as it is though, Mormonism is hardly atypical in this department. It’s just that we’ve gotten used to the idea that most religions are arguably crazy, but since they’ve been around so long, we don’t give it much thought. You have to look really hard to find a religion that doesn’t believe in wacky stuff.

Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the eucharist (once blessed by a priest in mass) was the actual body of Christ, and the blessed wine the actual blood of Christ. The Catholics even have a word for it: transubstantiation. To be a good Catholic you also have to believe a lot of other stuff arguably just as crazy as Jesus (and maybe you) getting your own planet: that Jesus rose from the dead despite no one but his disciples having witnessed the event (you would think the Romans might have noted it in their logs), that he bodily ascended into heaven, that he divided loaves and fishes to feed a multitude magically, and that he could heal lepers and other diseased people. You also have to believe that God comes in three parts: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the Son (Jesus) was begat by the Father sometime after the Father existed, something very important in around AD 200 because if you didn’t believe this you were either killed or exiled. Then there’s that Holy Spirit entity which never made much sense. Most Christians subscribe to a lot of these beliefs, but most tend to see transubstantiation as metaphorical.

Islam makes a lot more sense: there is only one God, not a god with multiple personality disorder. One doesn’t have to wonder how Joseph Smith came up with the idea of gold tablets, since Muhammad went alone into a cave near Mecca where the Archangel Gabriel apparently started chanting verses that became the Quran. Although I don’t get why I need to pray in the direction of Mecca seven times a day, at least it’s pretty simple and I don’t have to worry about transubstantiation. I don’t understand though why it had to fracture like the Catholic Church, and that Sunnis and Shiites seem to spend more time bashing each other on the head over obscure theological points than finding common ground.

Jews don’t get off much better. Moses had to go up Mount Sinai, alone, to get his revelation from Yahweh. Moses apparently brought chiseling tools, which was helpful in creating the Ten Commandments. It’s unclear how the Jews managed to survive in the desert, but if we are to believe scripture it was due to manna sent from heaven. You also have to wonder how inept they could be to wander forty years in the Sinai desert lost; the Sinai isn’t that big a place. And it is a desert. They would need a reliable watering hole. Most likely Moses and the whole story of Jews exiled in Egypt is myth, which makes Passover a myth too.

And so it goes with religion after religion. Hinduism is full of deities with various powers. It may be the 21st century, but Hinduism has lost none of its sway in India and is now undercutting the state’s fundamental secularism to discriminate against Muslims, much like many Christians in the United States would like to do against Muslims too, and Jews also for that matter. Shintoism is also full of deities with various powers. All seems to have their roots in paganism, which they try to paper over somehow. Mormonism seems pretty wacky, but arguably Scientology is wackier and there are plenty of Hollywood elites who fell for it.

Try to stamp out religion and it’s hard not to invent something that seems to be a lot like it in a secular trapping. Communism seems a lot like Christianity without a holy book or spiritual leader, unless you count Marx and Engels and Das Kapital. Fascism and nationalism in general seem to be the sweeping political arcs of the moment, the latter here in the United States where for some Donald Trump might as well be God and divine.

Apparently, humans have an intrinsic need to believe in something wacky and just to worship something: a golden calf will probably do in a pinch. Being decent, secular, civil and tolerant just don’t appear to be enough to satisfy us. If we can’t have more, we’ll invent more.

So it was fun to laugh along with Book of Mormon, but every one of us including me still harbor some arguably crazy beliefs. One of mine is life after death: I don’t believe I will inherit my own planet, but I do believe I am a passenger on a journey and this life is one of many I will experience. In that sense, I am as loony as a Hindu, who also believes in reincarnation.

So laugh along with Book of Mormon, just realized that when we do we are all in some measure also laughing at ourselves.

Give ’em heaven, Kate

The Thinker by Rodin

Religions are supposed to be about love and finding God. Sadly too many of them, if not most of them, are far more concerned about getting their believers to march in lockstep with them than embracing them in loving ways. The latest somber case in point is the excommunication of Kate Kelly, who believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons) should ordain women and allow them to direct the church.

Naturally it was an all-male panel of senior bishops that decided on her excommunication. At least they were clear about her real sin: she was promoting her beliefs, which were okay as long as she didn’t actually express them. In his excommunications letter to Kelly, Bishop Mark Harrison wrote: “You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them while remaining in full fellowship in the church.” These merciful clerics though did open the possibility that she could rejoin the church, providing she repents long enough and consistently tows the line. In other words: shut up already, keep shutting up and keep telling people you were wrong.

Dogmatic religions tend to excommunicate people all the time. Pope Francis recently excommunicated the Italian Mafia. Thus it’s not particularly surprising that Kate Kelly also suffered this fate. Still, to those of us outside this faith, this decision sure smells. What crazy reasoning justifies this belief? Well, Jesus only chose male apostles, hence there must be something unworthy about having women as clerics because men, well, must know better! How condescending this is, particularly given the poor record of male clerics within institutions like the Catholic Church. If I were a Catholic, I would sure want my kid to have a female priest. I might feel safe leaving him or her alone with the priest in the sanctuary.

Kate Kelly is guilty of a number of “sins”. These include understanding the logical fallacy of this argument, understanding that no God worth worshipping would require such a silly restriction, understanding that women are equal in all ways with men and inferior in no ways, understanding that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and understanding that the Mormon Church, like all churches, is an institution made up of flawed human beings and thus can only aspire to be holy, but is not actually holy or flawless. A church is a human institution that aspires to bring people closer to God. Given its imperfect nature, it must from time to time review how it’s doing and see if it fits the current reality.

The reality of the 19th century when Mormonism was founded was that women did not have the right to vote or much else in the way of rights so it’s not surprising Mormon dogma echoed these beliefs. It found what it thought was a foundation from the Bible. These facts were also true when Jesus walked the planet. It was true in Abraham’s time when he had multiple wives and when losing your virginity before marriage would require that you be stoned to death. In two millenniums, we have come to understand that women are equal partners. Thus they have the inherent same rights as men to everything. Kate Kelly is guilty of knocking on the Mormon Church’s door and reminding them of this obvious fact. In short, Mormonism needs a little revising because it isn’t optimally serving the needs of its members, and some of its teachings are undercutting its essential message.

I wish Kate Kelly lived nearby so I could give her a hug. She could use a lot of hugs. I wish I could also get her to see that she is better off without Mormonism as it is currently practiced. Mormonism really needs a dose of Protestantism. It’s largely as cloistered and insular as the Catholic Church was prior to the Reformation. During the Reformation, of course, the dichotomy between the church’s teachings, its actual practices and the needs of its parishioners became too large to tolerate anymore. Protestants discovered that they had power greater than the Catholic Church. When enough people stand up and demand changes, new denominations emerge when existing religions won’t adapt. If enough Mormons stand up with Kate Kelly, and more importantly boycott the faith until its leaders see the light, the Mormon Church will see the error of its ways as well.

Yell like hell, Kate, but do in a loving way that shows your better nature and the truth of your position. Yell outside the gates of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City. Yell outside their conclaves. Reach out to every liberal Mormon you can find, and there are plenty of them. Have the nerve to worship separately and call yourself with a new name, perhaps the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Show that you offer a better way. Network. Like Harvey Milk, it will be lonely for a while, but if your cause is just and your work sincere, you will in time triumph. And if the Mormon Church insists on totally denying reality, let it shrivel. It’s better off dead than to be so fundamentally wrong.

I believe that when enough people simply vote with their feet and leave the church that they will see the light. And you, the excommunicated, will be revealed as a woman who had the courage to put the church on a path that actually makes it more inclusive and a better institution.

Yell like hell, but realize that you are actually giving them heaven, and bringing them closer to God.

Civilized people practice and promote social justice

The Thinker by Rodin

According to Glenn Beck, “social justice” is a code word for communism and Nazism. He says if your church is concerned about social justice, you need to find a different church.

I assume this means that Beck will now be leaving the Mormon Church because, hate to break it to you Glenn, Mormons such as you claim to be are all over this social justice thing. There is, for example, in the Book of Mormon this little excerpt from King Benjamin’s sermon:

And now… for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4:26)

Early Mormon communities in particular were little socialist institutions to the extreme. They saw it as a matter of survival to ensure that every member of their community thrived. It seemed to work out pretty well, given the phenomenal growth of Mormonism in a tough climate. Even today, the Mormon Church is engaged in all sorts of social justice actions. For example, most Mormon temples practice social justice by helping fellow church members who are struggling and require assistance. Then there is the LDS Humanitarian Fund, which has donated over half a billion dollars toward disaster relief alone. Mormons are busy redistributing wealth and relieving suffering all over the place, not to mention building all sorts of fabulous temples.

It takes a simple Google search to find numerous references to social justice in the Bible. If you like the Old Testament, consider Jeremiah, 22:3:

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

In the New Testament, we have Luke 10:30-37, among many other passages:

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.

Beck would do much better to admit the obvious: he is about as Christian as Attila the Hun. Granted, he has plenty of company. For those of us on the left, it has been obvious that many of the right suffer from a schizoid personality. Most claim to be Christian, but their actions are hardly Christ-like.

The truth is that Beck is far closer to being a Nazi than those of us who believe in social justice. Nazism was a far right philosophy, and it is hard to find anyone much further to the right than Beck. Nazis were racists, and Beck sure sounds like one. He believes President Obama is a black racist and has “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” despite the minor problem that there is no evidence to support him, he grew up principally with his white mother in a white community and the majority of his staff, including his chief of staff, is white. Beck is certainly anti-communist, which was also one of the essential underpinnings of Nazism. (This makes it more curious that he could equate both Nazism and communism with social justice.) He is also vehemently opposed to economic and political liberalism, two other hallmarks of Nazism.

Speaking of communism, one can make a case that Christianity is philosophically very close to Communism. In fact, it’s hard to read the New Testament and not see the similarity. Christianity is far more than communism, of course, because it is a religion. However, if you strip away the religious aspect of Christianity and watch it in practice with a clinician’s eye, it’s all about redistributing wealth. If we were all perfect Christians, we would naturally redistribute our wealth to help the suffering of those around us so that no one was richer or poorer than another, which sounds just like communism. So since Beck is a Mormon, and Mormons are Christians, isn’t he essentially a communist?

Beck has not resolved the conflict between his purported Christianity and his extreme self-reliant orthodoxy. What makes Beck unique is that until now no right wing commentator with any appreciable audience has openly exposed this dichotomy. In the quest to be the most controversial talk show host on TV and radio, Beck has opened a Pandora’s Box. Now the dichotomy of right wing Christians is exposed in a very public, in your face way. He is challenging Christians to leave their churches, at which social justice is almost certainly a primarily underpinning. Many right wing Christians, particularly the prominent ones, now have to defend their Christianity, as Beck has given them no way out. It’s either social justice or social Darwinism. Since he clearly does not believe in social justice, he should be man enough to acknowledge the truth: he is not a Christian. You have told the world what is obvious: you do not want our institutions at any level to remediate the suffering of those down the economic or social latter.

As for the rest of us churchgoers (not to mention all sorts of other faith communities, and even many secular people), we are quite comfortable with the whole social justice thing. This is because compassion is at the heart of who we are, not meanness. With a few exceptions, all but a handful of churches actively engage in social justice, and for many it’s their primary mission. As the Rev. Peter Morales, the new president of the Unitarian Universalist Association put it very succinctly recently :

Religion is much more about what we love than about what we think.

Exactly. The foundation of love is compassion. The moment the circle of your love extends outside your immediate family, you are tipping the scales of social Darwinism, which is social justice. When you have compassion, you learn to see and want to mitigate the suffering of the less fortunate. You know that the virtue of self-reliance is not the answer to everything. Instead you understand that circumstance, connections, genetics and sometimes even your race frame your level of suffering. Because many of us were in these situations, and others compassionately helped us, we are moved to relieve the suffering of others. In other words, if you have any love in your heart at all for your fellow man, you must necessarily practice social justice.

I have some compassion for you too, Brother Beck, even though I confess it is hard to find in your particular case because I find your view of the world harmful and unhealthy. Right now, you are too busy earning your millions by enflaming our suspicions and our hatreds. However, should you ever be brought low, it will be people like me practicing social justice who will do our best to find you some food and a safe place to sleep. Moreover, because our nation is so large and I cannot reach out and help all three hundred million people at once, I certainly will be asking my government to practice social justice for all its citizens as well. I want to live in a civilized nation, not the mean and Darwinian one you obviously promote.