It takes a long pull to get there.

I recently watched Porgy and Bess at the 5th Avenue Theater. My knowledge of opera is fairly limited, but this one is my favorite. I am aware of its problematic elements, but I’m a sucker for Gershwin.

The opera follows the complicated relationships, lives and deaths in an African American neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1920s. I watched and listened to the characters seek divine healing from a local Christian woman, instead of the white-run hospital. They systematically evaded cooperation with law enforcement investigating the murder of one of their own. I immediately thought of the resonant aspects Mormon History.

Like anyone who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, I was familiar with the Public Enemy and NWA songs that pilloried law enforcement and emergency responders, but it was wholly incomprehensible to me. My sympathies have always been with the rule of law and its officers. They still are.

In the last decade I have read thousands of documents generated by our nineteenth century co-religionists. I’ve come to enjoy the contrasts with my own lived experience, though in the beginning I didn’t have the tools make sense of it all. I’ve seen the stake president jump from a moving train to evade the marshals. I’ve seen ward members excommunicated for taking their grievances to civil courts. And I’ve seen a few cases where our people have wanted to take care of our own business, regardless of gentile law or its enforcers.

It is strange where empathy is sometimes born, and it takes a long pull to get there.


  1. THIS. This is why I tell my students that studying history matters. Thanks, J.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Fantastic insight!

  3. Thanks, J. Really thought-provoking.

  4. Very cool Stapers.

  5. Nice. Very true.

  6. Awwwwww, Stapes–there goes the neighborhood.

  7. Reading Keepa does that for me.

  8. Are you trying to tell us that you have started listening to NWA?

    Great post, Stapley.

  9. Excellent post, especially in light of recent national events in the US. When you consider the direction trends are taking, “supporting the rule of law” and “supporting law enforcement officers” are becoming divergent viewpoints. Historically, as you’ve pointed out, for our people, they once were. For many people they always have been divergent.

    Pondering this gets you to the heart of our cultural LDS love affair with obedience-at-all-costs, and what the meaning of the 12th Article of Faith should really be in a world where you can unknowingly commit three Federal felonies a day; where ignorance of the law is inevitable, and where “justice” is largely a function of bank account size.

  10. “…it takes a long pull to get there.” Indeed. Thanks for this little glimpse, J.

  11. My wife and I also saw Porgy and Bess at the 5th Avenue this summer. I was impressed with the women of Catfish Row laying their hands on Bess for healing during the “Doctor Jesus” number, and found that to be for me the most catalyzing moment in the opera. The music was great, but I hadn’t quite thought through where empathy with these flawed characters might lead. Your insights are thought provoking, and very helpful in understanding and coming to terms with our own cultural history.

    Art can teach lessons to some of us that facts can’t reach. And vice versa, I am afraid.

  12. Well said.

  13. As a professor of criminal justice I have the opportunity to teach many future cops and work with various police agencies. These police agencies recognize the need for community trust in their work. Most agencies I have seen have numerous positive interactions with the community. Events such as free courses, hosting dinners, having volunteer positions, etc.. Often I wonder if our own internal service and events limits our involvement with the community. I wonder if this lack of interaction between the Mormon community and the greater local community (particularly outside of high Mormon population areas) really affects our understanding and trust of the legal system. How could we trust such an “earthly” power without interacting with them in any way. Just my two cents; I hope this wasn’t too tangential.