Between March 28 and 30 of this year, nine people were arrested in Michigan Indiana and Ohio for plotting to kill several law enforcement officers. The Hutaree group’s objective, apparently, was to help usher in the Apocalypse by performing mass killings of government officers and other law enforcement persons at the funerals of the targeted policemen. The group is a fundamentalist Christian militia group with the slogan, “”Preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive.” They view themselves as completely devoted to Christ and engaging in the sacrifice of their own lives to keep the testimony of Christ alive during the End Times.
In northwestern Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, such religious militia groups are not as unusual. There are many that appear ready to lay down their lives (and the lives of many infidels) in the name of their religion. Suicide attacks have become commonplace, and the Hutaree tactics are ubiquitous. While the Hutaree and the various Islamic fundamentalist groups have little in common doctrinally, they have much in common in terms of paramilitaristic behavior and methods. Further, as is common among extremists, personal codes of conduct resemble each other – an ascetic lifestyle, detachment from the physical world and a profound belief in personal/familial sacrifice for the greater good. In the big religious Planters tin, all the nuts start to look alike, I suppose. They all represent a heartfelt desire to return to the “fundamentals” of their religion.
In some ways the Hutaree group arrests provided me with a sense of reassurance: at least we know that religious terrorists aren’t a purely foreign thing, that religious extremism is a potential virus for North America as well as the rest of the world. This reassures me because we need reminders that we are human, that we are not above the foreign peoples whose war-torn lands we see on the nightly news. Yes, it is incredibly frightening to hear et in Arcadia ego, but the alternative — a fake sense of insulation and superiority — is not palatable, either.
On that note: a few weeks ago our Sunday School classes covered the sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of Abraham, that classic moment in Abraham’s life where he was called by God to put all that which he most prized – his son – on the altar. The story itself is full of contradiction: Abraham himself had been saved from pagan sacrifice at the hands of the priests of Pharaoh, and that same salvific God now requires at Abraham’s hand that which He had previously decried. It represents the pinnacle of Abraham’s devotion, as the old man who has suffered and waited for decades before the fulfillment of God’s promise must now be willing to abandon it all. As such Abraham represents the definition of a consecrated, holy life.
And yet, he is a monster, or at best a lunatic, by any contemporary standard. A polygamist, he is willing to commit infanticide in the name of his God. He shows little hesitation in binding and preparing his son to die. Let’s be clear – if a modern Abraham were to engage in this behavior, he would lose custody of Isaac forever and would likely be institutionalized. On this there can be little dispute, and I think that most LDS audiences, upon reflection, would agree with that analysis. I love the Gospel Doctrine manual on this lesson:
You may want to use one of the following activities (or one of your own) to begin the lesson. Select the activity that would be most appropriate for the class.
1. Ask class members to think of a person they love very much or a possession they value highly.
• How would you feel if God asked you to give up, or sacrifice, this person or possession? What would you do?
2. Invite a few class members to tell about a time when they were blessed because they were willing to sacrifice.
After either of these activities, explain that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, whom Abraham loved very much. Although Abraham was not ultimately required to make this sacrifice, his willingness to do so was “accounted unto him for righteousness” (D&C 132:36). Because of Abraham’s righteousness, he and his descendants were greatly blessed.
Yes, that activity does indeed get my attention. It gets my attention because despite our protestations to the contrary, I believe there is a serious aspect of fundamentalism at the heart of being a Mormon (for clarification purposes: in this post I am using “fundamentalism” in a general sense, and not in reference to polygamist groups, although that is clearly an example of fundamentalism in action). We speak of the Law of Consecration, and covenant to obey that law. The Lectures on Faith famously summed up the Mormon position:
Modern Mormons are effectively torn between two worlds: we recognize the patent absurdity — and deepest immorality — of a Deity asking a follower to plunge a dagger into his son’s chest, and yet our lesson manuals, our covenants, our aspirational language all speak of total sacrifice, putting everything we have and are on the line for God… and not in an abstract sense, either: we have actually agreed to perform this Abrahamic sacrifice should the occasion arrive. In potentiality, we are Abrahams. We know, and perhaps look approvingly, at Joseph Smith’s testing of Heber C. and Vilate Kimball and others. And yet we instinctively and reflexively know that there is something very dangerous in this absolutism, this fundamentalist approach. We know that it is at the heart of much of the current terrorism and strife, both domestically and internationally. We know that it smacks of cultishness and blindness. And we certainly know that the ritual sacrifice of children is wrong! And yet, our lesson manuals invite us to ponder, “How would you feel if God asked you to give up, or sacrifice, this [valued] person?”
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things; it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God.
When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain.
I reject that fundamentalism that leads people to fanaticism. I am not sure where this leaves me; perhaps this damns me. Perhaps it means that Krakauer is partly right about us. But I can tell you my answer to the lesson manual’s question: I could not do it.