As my family and I drove home from our brief vacation in Arches National Park, we heard this strange ad on the radio: “I was raised to be a cannibal. That’s why I am an honest businessman…” It took a few seconds for us to realize that we had misheard. The word wasn’t cannibal but accountable. “I was raised to be accountable.”
Quite an important distinction. That word–accountable–has significant application for me right now.
Our recent Sunday school classes have taught about the Saints’ expulsion from Missouri. It’s a harrowing story, and we’ve seen it depicted in several Mormon films as well. We know the tale of our persecution–and from what we’ve heard, some very bad people were accountable. It was the riff raff of Missouri–and it’s true that there was a lot of riff raff there. Even Wallace Stegner describes the Missouri frontier as a violent, lawless place. Nonetheless, we are getting only one side of the story.
When I taught Institute, I read about Sidney Rigdon’s Salt Sermon in the CES manual–and was impressed with the forthrightness of the book. In the Salt Sermon, Rigdon compared Mormon dissenters to “salt which hath lost its savor” and deserved to be trodden underfoot. Dissenters felt threatened and fled. In another sermon, also alluded to in the CES manual, Rigdon invoked the exact words which Governor Boggs would use shortly thereafter. Rigdon said: “And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.”
As I prepared my Institute lesson, I was struck by the thought that the violence of Missouri and later of Nauvoo might have been lessened by what I call GENTLING–finding common ground and showing mutual respect so that agitation is prevented. Of course, this is far too easy an answer–and certainly some Saints’ afflictions came with no provocation. Nonetheless, I find that the older I get, the more inclined I am to seek resolution rather than confrontation; compassion rather than vindication; forgiveness instead of retribution–ultimately, beauty for ashes. I find that I cannot do what I must do as a mother if I have any other attitude.
I’ve been contemplating these issues as I’ve thought of missionaries (who I love) attempting to preach the gospel to people who are are usually unresponsive and sometimes cruel and mocking. These young men, so fresh from high school football games and the spirit of competition–even cheers which berate the other team–must be sorely tempted to do as some scriptures in the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Book of Mormon suggest: shake the dust from their feet (or from their garments) as a testimony against those who treated them so badly, who will then have to answer for their behavior at the judgment bar. In fact, I’m sure some missionaries have put all of their angry energy into shaking the dust off their feet in condemnation of mean people.
Let me speak boldly. Such a practice is almost always wrong. The moral imperative I live by at this time of my life–grounded in my Christian faith–is best phrased by Levinas and Dostoevsky. Father Zossima says in The Brothers Karamazov “All are responsible for all–and I more than any.” Levinas tells us that the “other” (the other human with whom we are interacting at any given moment) calls us to responsibility–responsibility for his/her betterment and well being. The face of the other [person] carries within it the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
In other words, Zossima accepts the possibility that his actions or inaction may have ultimately resulted in another’s crime; that he, by ignoring a need, had perhaps set a violent act into motion. In fact, he makes himself the MOST responsible. In the same philisophical line, Levinas calls us away from retribution by suggesting that we cannot view others as an extention of ourselves or the fulfillment of our own needs, but that we must recognize the infinite, unknowable, and sacred otherness of each person, and take responsibility for generating what my son would call “positive energy.” If we act in the spirit of Christ, we will likely not be acted upon.
I believe this. I believe that Christianity (and most religions, for that matter) carry the same prime directive: Love one another. I believe I am to be accountable–not a cannibal. (And sadly, some of us have behaved with voracious, blood-thirsty words and deeds. President Kimball used these strong words to describe this tendency in his sermon “The False Gods We Worship”: We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel — ships, planes, missiles, fortifications — and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching. )
Revising our manuals to tell fuller stories can clearly be done, since the actual Seminary/Institute manuals already do it to a large extent. But how do we counsel missionaries who have scriptures in hand instructing them to “shake off the dust of thy feet against those who receive thee not…as a testimony against them in the day of judgment” (Doctrine and Covenants 60)? We know that Christ’s disciples report similar instructions in the New Testament. Yet such an action totalizes the non-listeners and assumes that they have concluded their potential in one rude moment. It goes contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of the restored gospel: the infinite nature of the atonement. It reduces Him who redeemed us to a god of lashes. No. I can’t buy it. My Savior is the redeemer of the world who seeks lost sheep and runs to greet prodigal sons and daughters as they return to Him. Sometimes the return is years beyond the moment of deplorable behavior. Yet the miracle is always possible. I personally believe it remains possible even after death.
Are we doing enough to preach the gospel of peace? As we tell the Mormon story, should we not include more information as a testimony to the possible consequences of provocative words or threats? Can we acknowledge that we Latter-day Saints bear some of the responsibility for the hardships our ancestors suffered? Can we move beyond a discussion of how badly we were treated into the greater commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you”? And would such a discussion perhaps help our missionaries and members become better disciples–even when confronting cruelty?
Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.”