Modern instruction seems simple enough when it comes to keeping our covenants. Consider the following suggestions, chosen for their typicality, that appeared in my Sunday school today:
“When you seek entertainment such as movies, television, the Internet, music, books, magazines, and newspapers, be careful to watch, listen to, and read only those things that are uplifting. Dress modestly. Choose friends who encourage you to reach your eternal goals. Stay away from immorality, pornography, gambling, tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.”
I can’t blame you if you skipped the above – this advice is by now overly familiar. But, I want to suggest that while this advice is sound, even worth being reminded of, it is troublesome that it dominates current discussions of what it means to keep the commandments.
The rhetoric in these sentences frames us not as agents within the world, but as passive spectators to it. Quite literally, it positions us as consumers, not producers, of various opinions whose task is not to directly influence the world, but to turn off whatever might unduly influence us or others: media, friends, or even our sexual attractiveness. Granted, there are situations in which this response is perfectly appropriate. But what is missing in this vision – a vision in which we seem preoccupied with creating spaces of purity and countering all assaults to them – is a sense of any positive form of engagement and, more importantly, a focus on why we perform these actions. The end of the gospel is not to be free of negative influences: in my mind, it is to keep our covenants to build a kingdom, a just and compassionate community, through Christ-like love and actions. Being free of distracting influences is important in that it helps us attain these goals. It isn’t the sole goal.
We live in a world preoccupied with our spiritual and physical safety, especially when it comes to keeping our homes, children, and selves safe. Playgrounds are now thoroughly padded, safe spaces for recreation; we tell ourselves repeatedly that there is “safety” in keeping the commandments; we obsess over any influences that might harm the “traditional” family. But living the commandments has not always provided for temporal safety. In Alma, we see people covenant with God to go to war (though, in all fairness, others also covenant not to), and more recently we see contemporary church members continually take risks for their membership.
I want to suggest that we cannot fully keep the commandments that count – those to love others and to build Christ’s kingdom – so long as our model of keeping the commandments remains so tied to concerns about our safety and sanctity. Sometimes, I hypothesize that we now talk about keeping the commandments in terms of blocking assaults to our homes and focus on individual salvation, because at this historical moment, when we are divided by nationality and our politics, we are painfully unable to articulate a consensus on what other kinds of actions are involved in kingdom building – or, for that matter, what a kingdom of God might look like. Our model of a kingdom now appears to be homes and people – safe, pure, but island like – that stand as refuges in a larger world. But, even God’s great commandment – to love one another – requires knowledge and risk. It requires engagement. It means discovering what needs changing in the world as well as what is good. We need youth who are not unfamiliar with negative influences, but who have learned how to critically evaluate what they hear and act in the world accordingly. We need think more on the positive duties tied to our covenants.