Barabbas: Religion as Tribe vs Religion as Love

“I have no god”, Barabbas answered at last. . .
“Why then do you bear this ‘Christos Iesus” carved on your disk?”
“Because I want to believe,” Barabbas said


41e2glunvl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is not a book review, but it is a meditation inspired by a remarkable book that I read last week. The book is the short novel Barabbas (1950) by the Nobel-Prize winning Swedish novelist Pär Lagerkvist. Barabbas imagines the life of the murderer and thief who was pardoned on the day that Jesus was crucified. Because it is not a book review, it contains spoilers. You have been warned.

The Barabbas that Lagerkvist creates is the first Christian in one important sense: he was the first member of the human race to be redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The redemption is immediate and tangible. He is literally released from a death sentence because Christ is crucified. In this way he becomes a stand in for all people who are ransomed from sin and death by the atonement of Jesus Christ. (Symbolism and all; great literature works that way).

Lagerkvist’s Barabbas also tries to be a Christian in the spiritual sense. Sort of. When he learns that the man who died for him is also considered to have been a god–somebody who had the power to prevent what happened to him, Barabbas becomes obsessed with trying to understand why a god would choose to die. He actually gets the right answer fairly early on, when he asks a disciple what the Master taught, and she responds, “love one another.” Multiple characters tell him the same thing, but it makes no sense to him. Love has never been a part of his life.

But as he becomes increasingly obsessed with Christ, Barabbas makes several attempts to declare himself a Christian. He allows another follower to inscribe Christos Iesus on his Roman slave medallion–indicating that he has become Christ’s slave. He resolves to dedicate his life and his heart to this new Master, but it is his old life and his old heart that he wants to dedicate: a life filled with violence and a heart devoid of love. He doesn’t want to convert to Christianity; he wants to join Team Jesus.

And he does. Sort of. In fits and starts. At several key points in the novel, Barabbas manifests what he believes to be his devotion to a cause by acting violently in defense of its followers. He kills a Jewish priest who is stoning a Christian girl. He murders and desecrates the bodies of temple guards when he believes them to have persecuted Christians. And finally, he tries to burn down Rome itself because he believes that this will hasten Christ’s return. In the end, he is crucified like the Master he never learned to serve. Not once in his life did he ever love another person. On the cross, he commends his soul, not to God, but to darkness, for this has always been his Master.

And he is not alone. Barabbas is a parable meant to be generalized to the human condition—with specific application to those who profess to be Christians or other kinds of religious people. Humans are tribal. The urge to divide other humans up into “usses” and “thems” comes from deep within our mammalian brains, which evolved in a tribal environment. Along with being “carnal, sensual, and devilish,” the natural human is hard wired to want to be part of a tribe. Our identity is deeply bound up with questions like, “whose side am I on?” and “what is good for people like me?”

Ultimately, Pär Lagerkvist is concerned–in all the right ways–with the power of religious belief on the tribal mind. The great promise of religion is that it has the power to move us beyond our tribal narratives and towards a universal embrace of humanity. The great danger of religion is that it can so easily become another tribe. The line between the promise and the danger is simply the extent to which we understand, internalize, and allow ourselves to be changed by that whole bit about loving one another.


  1. I haven’t read the book, but I do have an opinion on the “tribal instinct” that makes its way into comments and posts quite often.

    IMO, Christ himself definitively encouraged this delineation. Not along race, nationality, wealth, or any other worldly distinction, but with a spiritual distinction. From the “Choose ye this day…” to “Ye cannot serve two masters…” to “from such turn away” … and on and on. It is a us v them delineation on whom we choose to serve. Everyone is invited to join us, but they are still ‘them’ until they do. Enoch’s Zion wouldn’t have been “Zion” if it hadn’t set itself apart, physically removed themselves from “them”. And neither will we…

  2. Jax, I do think it is possible to selectively proof text the New Testament to come up with verses that support a certain type of “us-them” thinking. This is why Christianity has such a poor record of actually doing good things in this world. These verses map nicely onto the things that we already want to do and the ways that we already want to think. But I think that this is a fairly weak way to read both the text and its complicated relationship to the Old Testament (note that your first citation above does not come from Christ, but from Joshua, perhaps the pinnacle of tribalism in the Old Testament, soon after a genocidal campaign against the Canaanites.)

    When you use these verses to suggest that Christians only have a responsibility to love other Christians, or other people who think like they do, or to serve them, or to see them as children of God, then you are on very thin ice indeed. I don’t believe that any level of selective reading, or prooftexting, can get us all the way to an actual rebuttal of Lagerkvist’s central assertion, which is that “love one another” is a central tenet of Christianity and actually does mean everybody.

  3. Being asked to take a definite stand between good and evil is not even close to encouraging tribalism.

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Thanks Mike–can’t wait to read it!

  5. Old Man says:

    Michael Austin: “Christianity has such a poor record of actually doing good things in this world.” As opposed to which religion or ideology? And who is the record keeper?

    I would argue that “love one another” was a commandment given specifically to Christ’s disciples, and only a skewed reading would extend the fullest intent of that commandment to everyone on the entire planet. Now don’t misread me, I am not arguing for the mistreatment of any person, but the we need to remember that the fullest expression of Christian love and fellowship: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, that ye love one another” is not found in the world. Love is an intimate and reciprocal arrangement. Those who are not Christ’s disciples have no thought or obligation to join in the covenant relationship of “at-one-ment” and therefore cannot always enjoy the full love and fellowship of the saints. To suggest otherwise is to open loving Christians to abusive relationships with other persons or communities.

    Another way of looking at it is that there are different types of love (I am paraphrasing C.S. Lewis here) and love is more than some sort of manufactured feeling, it is a determination to do what is right and beneficial for the human beings in your life. So that one can act in a loving way and turn a murderer into law enforcement, to bring a sinner to justice and (hopefully) repentance as well as protect potential victims.

  6. Good post.

    We ignore God’s second great commandment at our own peril. He specifically tells us to love those who are not of our tribe in his parable of the Good Samaritan.

  7. Yes, Tim. And further, it’s important to remember the context of that parable. It was prompted by someone who wanted to restrict the application of the commandment to love “thy neighbor,” by asking, seeking to justify himself, “who is my neighbor?” The answer is that as you interpret the commandment, grudgingly or liberally, so will you be judged.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Michael I’d argue that Christianity has a poor record because it became the quasi-government therefore as people wanted power they had to appropriate the Christian structures to do it. The history of abuses in European Christian history is really typical government history. Which isn’t to excuse it but perhaps explain it somewhat.

    That said I think Christianity and Christian morals in particular have been significant in such things as ending slavery and changing how people behave. Admittedly much of that took place once people became rich enough and safe enough to take a breather and be moral. That’s not to deny in the least a lot of abuse in the 19th and 20th centuries. But there have also been a great deal of charity and social change due to Christianity.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Thinking through that I’d say it’s not hard to find Christian services around the world ranging from soup kitchens, non-profit hospitals, donations to the poor, orphanages and a lot more. It’s just that most people who espouse commitment to Christianity don’t seem to do much charity. It’s therefore worth asking how many Christians live their reliigion.

  10. Helene W says:

    Thank you for exploring these ideas here in the post and in the comments. I do believe there are different degrees of love we can show others, both because of the physical limits of our time, energy and wealth and because we do not possess the knowledge of God. God does not pour out all blessings on all His children. He knows them individually and sends them to mortality when and where they can make the most progress. This does not mean all blessings are forever out of reach to some, just that the time frame is different.
    So it is with us. We are part of families, requiring us to give greater love to those in that tribe than we do to those outside our families. We are part of wards, allowing us to focus our efforts, instead of randomly scattering them. But if we had the resources of God, but lacked His knowledge, I believe our loving gestures could easily prove detrimental to those we were attempting to love.
    Perhaps I have spent too much time doing temple work, but I prefer to envision this fictional Barrabas as arriving in the Spirit World and being carefully shown his mistakes and allowed to correct them and move forward to a true understanding and practice of Christianity. Perhaps I also believe that the Holy Spirit would have had some effect on him in mortality. That is the way that my pride and stubbornness has been made clear to me as I have continued on the path toward perfection.

  11. Michael, I don’t think the reading of this is solely Biblical. You can take the BoM “There are only two churches…” and the delineation made of “believers” and “non-Believers”. I also use Mos 5:15 “be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his,…” and contrast with Alma 34:35 “if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his”

    The “seal you his” from those verses have extra meaning to LDS I think since we go through a sealing process. But it is one or the other, other sealed to the Lord or sealed to ‘the devil’. The us v them is a very real delineation that Christ makes for us, and wants us to make the choice. There must be a choice or there is no agency, an opposition-in-all-things kind of thing. We must choose between “us” and “them”.

    Now I don’t think that means we hate/torment/punish “them,” but rather we try to help move them over to “us” territory. We want all people to be “us.” But as long as some people willingly and eyes-wide-open choose to be with “them” then we ought to distinguishment between us and them.

  12. Kristine says:

    “He doesn’t want to convert to Christianity; he wants to join Team Jesus.”

    I guess some folks here want to go Barrabas one better and join Team *Mormon* Jesus.

  13. Old Man,

    I would argue that “love one another” was a commandment given specifically to Christ’s disciples, and only a skewed reading would extend the fullest intent of that commandment to everyone on the entire planet.

    Forgive me, because I don’t say this lightly, but that is stupid. Full stop.

    I mean, unless you want to argue that the Ten Commandments were given specifically to Moses (and, perhaps, to Israel who were alive to hear Moses relate them), not to the world. Or if you want to argue that Pres. Benson’s injunction to read the Book of Mormon only applies to those of us who were alive and members in October, 1986.

    Certainly it’s possible to read scriptural injunctions in the narrowest possible way. But doing so does a huge disservice to the text, to the commandments themselves, and to our neighbors, whom we’re unequivocally commended to love.

  14. Jax, the problem with the idea that we should distinguish between “us” and “them” in loving is that we are not equipped to know who is willingly choosing to be “them.” That’s the whole point of the wheat and the tares. And if it weren’t clear enough, Jesus made it clear by saying that we are not just supposed to love our neighbors, but also that we are supposed to love our enemies, too.

  15. Curiously, in some of the Gospel accounts, Jesus himself changes his mind regarding tribalism. Initially he comes only to the Jews, but when confronted with the faith of the Canaanite woman, he extends his grace to her. Later of course he preaches to Samaritans and others.

  16. JKC, Christ still identified them as “enemies”. He didn’t say ‘we’re all one people and stop separating yourselves’. He said “you’re my disciples and should love each other, and they are my enemies you should love and pray for them too.” So let me repeat “Now I don’t think that means we hate/torment/punish “them,” but rather we try to help move them over to “us” territory.”

    As for John 13:35 “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” I don’t think Old Man’s reading is wrong. It does NOT say that men will know we are his disciples (Christians) because we love everyone. That would read “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have for everyone.” Instead it says to have love within the group of disciples – love each other.

    These two are topics are related in my mind in this quote from Pres. Joseph F Smith, “Some of our good Latter-day Saints have become so exceedingly good (?) [question mark in the original - sarcasm?] that they cannot tell the difference between a saint of God, an honest man, and a son of Beelzubub, who has yielded himself absolutely to sin and wickedness. And they call that Liberality, broadness of mind, exceeding love. I do not want to become so blinded with love for my enemies that I cannot discern between light and darkness, between truth and error, between good and evil.”

    Yes we pray for our enemies and them that use us. We want them to repent and move over into the “us” camp. The savior and his Latter-day prophets still separate us (into tribes if you like the phrase) into saints/disciples and “enemies”. It is not incongruent with Christ to both love and to be “tribal”.

  17. Jax, if you read “love your enemies” as a statement about identifying enemies, I think you’re ignoring context. It was a response to, and a refutation of, the tribalism encouraged under the Old Testament. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

    I think Old Man’s reading of the command to “love one another” is overly restrictive, but that’s beside the point, really, because even if by saying “love one another,” Jesus really meant “love fellow saints,” He certainly didn’t say “love only fellow saints and nobody else,” and there are plenty of other places where the commandment to love is extended beyond the disciples, like the one I just quoted above, for instance. But scriptures aside, this is a truth that the Spirit testifies of; doesn’t your conscience tell you that we are obligated to love everyone? Do you really want to be found arguing against the idea that Jesus commands his followers to love all people?

    I don’t think anybody is disputing that God divides or will divide the wicked and the righteous, but what keeps a belief in that truth from degenerating into tribalism is the equally important truth that making that distinction is God’s prerogative, not ours; we are not able or permitted to make the distinction. So while we know there is a distinction between wicked and righteous, we also know that that distinction does not correspond to earthly “tribes.” Rather, good an bad are found in all “tribes” (nationalities, religions, etc.) The wheat and the tares makes this point. The revelations of the doctrine and covenants make it repeatedly. We are not permitted to decide who merits forgiveness. Instead, “it is required of [us] to forgive all men.” This only makes sense, because “[we] cannot always judge the righteous, or [we] cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous.”

    The quote by President Smith calls for some common sense–that we shouldn’t allow our love for all to lead us to accept sin as righteousness. But it doesn’t refute the idea that the command to love is not limited to fellow disciples.

  18. “And now it came to pass that the king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren; therefore the king consulted with Aaron and many of their priests, concerning the name that they should take upon them, that they might be distinguished.”
    –Alma 23:16

    Here are a people who approached living the law of consecration, laid down their lives before their enemies willingly (while praising God), and for several decades gladly absorbed those who wanted them dead into their tribe (giving them inheritances in the process). It is difficult to argue they did not love the Lord or those outside of their group, but at the same time they saw the value of clearly understanding that there was an inside and an outside of their group. They sought out the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the culture at large. They wanted to become a tribe.

    Why? Because when the culture at large is at opposition with the Gospel (as is the case now), then failure to distinguish between inside and outside of that group is fatal because the exterior culture pollutes and contaminates the Gospel. It turns from the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a social gospel. The Book of Mormon and the Bible are replete with examples of this. I would argue that this failure to distinguish has led to politics infecting the membership of the Church today.

  19. Richardo says:

    Maybe you should consider what an enemy is and what an enemy isn’t. Somebody who is engaged in sin (thems) isn’t necessarily an enemy (and in most cases, they probably aren’t). They are just somebody who is engaged in sin… which we all are to various degrees. Enemies are those who are actively trying to bring us down. If you’ve ever had a real enemy, you’d know it. My brother who was big-time into drugs as a teenager was not my enemy. He was my brother who had a drug problem (which he eventually overcame). My former business partner who lied to all our employees about me, started an anonymous online message forum to disparage me and destroy my business, and who ultimately succeeded and left me in 7-figure debt–THAT’S an enemy. Likewise, those in our society who are actively attempting to destroy Christian values; those who are actively attempting to steal our money; those who would like our families to be destroyed… they are enemies. I think the distinction is important. Those are the ones who are hard to love, but we have been commanded to love them anyway. So how about as Christians (or even “Mormon” Christians, gasp!), let’s treat all people with respect and love; let’s be friends with our neighbors, and let’s continue to try to love our enemies. No need to become like our enemies… or sinners… or even those of other faiths or ethnicities. Just a need to love them.

  20. “we are not able or permitted to make the distinction” … if that were true then we wouldn’t be able to fulfill the commandment “from such turn away” and others like it.

    “Do you really want to be found arguing against the idea that Jesus commands his followers to love all people?” No, but perhaps others do:

    “Such characters [traitors] God hates; we cannot love them. The world hates them, and we sometimes think the devil ought to be ashamed of them… such characters God hates.” – Jos. Smith

    “Do you know there is no fellowship between Christ and Baal? Do you think a union has taken place between them? Can you fellowship those who will serve the Devil? If you do, you are like them, and we wish you to go with them; for we do not want you. But do not be snooping around pretending to be Saints.” – Brigham Young

    I’m sure you can line up a list of quotes countering these, and we’d end up nowhere good. So let’s go back to what I was saying. I haven’t said we shouldn’t extend love to everyone. I think it’s 100% accurate that Christ himself separates us into “us” and “them” tribes. I think we should lovingly try to move people from “them” over to “us”. But unless and until they do move over, they are “enemies” as identified by Christ himself.

  21. Loursat says:

    When people organize to do something, by definition there are some people in the group and some people outside it. That is a mundane fact. Mistaking that fact for some kind of noble virtue is tribalism.

    There is no virtue in doing the things that make us members of a tribe: being baptized, going to church, taking temple vows.

    There is virtue only in repenting, in forgiving, in loving others.

    God organized us to help us do the virtuous things. If we fail to do the only virtuous things—repenting, forgiving, loving—our membership in the tribe quickly becomes perilous to the state of our souls. It is too easy to tell ourselves that being in the tribe is enough.

    Soon we find ourselves arguing that preserving the tribe is noble in itself—so much so that we have a special duty to distinguish those within the tribe, and a special duty to love the tribe. And so we kick against the pricks, senseless to the voice of the Redeemer of all.

  22. Wait Loursat, there is no virtue in baptism, sacrament, or getting endowed in the temple?

    “Soon we find ourselves arguing that preserving the tribe is noble in itself” – well one of those temple vows is the “building up of the kingdom (tribe)”. It’s a specific task given for us to preform when leaving the temple.

    “so much so that we have a special duty to distinguish those within the tribe” – and you can’t even get into the temple without passing the test of distinguishment (is that a word?)

    so… I guess the House of the Lord (including the entrance, ceremonies, tasks given to complete upon leaving) is contrary to the teachings of the Lord??? Is that your argument? I didn’t realize the temple was such an anti-love, anti-virtue location.

  23. I don’t think that anybody is disputing the fact that, as Loursat says, human beings organize into groups for different reasons and that these groups have people who are members and people who are not members. This is just a function of doing stuff. This becomes a grave spiritual danger, however, when we imagine that our membership in a group–be it the LDS Church, the Lions Club, or the Friends of Elvis Impersonators who Lisp–makes us more worthy of God’s love than other people or somehow changes Christ’s crystal clear injunction to “love thy neighbor” with “neighbor” meaning “everybody.”

    The theology on this is pretty straightforward, but, to paraphrase: human nature is tribal. This is the result of millions of years of evolution in small hunter-gatherer groups of about 150-200 people, with whom cooperation was necessary for survival. Human nature is also selfish, and it only knows how to love conditionally: we love those who give us what we need, or those who carry our genes into the next generation. In this sense, we are animals.

    The goal of the Gospel is to bring about a mighty change in our natures–to take the human animal and make it something capable of living in God’s presence. This means learning how to adopt God’s perspective–and especially, to see other people as God sees them, which means to love them perfectly and unconditionally. When a group of people change themselves enough to adopt this perspective, we call it “Zion.”

    But the shift from animals who love specifically and conditionally to divine creatures who love perfectly and unconditionally requires a drastic change in our natures. We have access to several intermediary steps. One such intermediary is our family–not just our genetic families (all animals favor the biological packages that carry their genes), but our extended families to whom we make meaningful, and eternal, commitments.

    Another intermediary step is our religious community, which gives us the opportunity to learn to love people very unlike us in the same way that we love members of our own family. We do this partly by making commitments to them, through baptism (and the baptismal covenant in Mosiah 18:8-10) and in the Temple.

    But these are still intermediary steps. The religious community, like the family, is a school of love–one calibrated about to the number of people we are programmed by evolution to interact with. We aren’t good enough to change all at once. The movement from the natural to the divine perspective occurs in stages.

    Unfortunately, far too many people–Latter-day Saints among them–mistake the school for the lesson it is supposed to teach. If all we know how to do is love our family members and a group of people who think like us, we aren’t nearly where God needs us to be. Our love is still imperfect, limited, and conditional. It is a major step forward, but it does not become Zion until we perfect it by expanding our capability for love to a much more general population. This does not mean that everybody will love us back, or do what we want, or convert to think like us, or want to live in our Zion. These are the questions of conditional love. When we really get the charity thing down–which simply means learning to love people the way that Christ loves them (“the pure love of Christ”) these kinds of questions aren’t even important.

  24. Carey F. says:

    I think its as simple as saying we need to judge righteously and generously. We need to give our sunshine to those inside and outside our tribe(s), likewise we to unleash our rain on those inside and outside our tribe(s) when they exhibit unchrist-like behavior. Jax, you might want to invest in an umbrella.


    Michael says this, “This means learning how to adopt God’s perspective–and especially, to see other people as God sees them, which means to love them perfectly and unconditionally.”

    But Apostles say this, “While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. ” – Pres. Russell M. Nelson

    I can’t be the only one who heard this talk can I?

  26. Jason K. says:

    Let’s just say that maybe not everyone loves that talk unconditionally :)

  27. I have a different view than President Nelson does on divine love. In that conference address Pres. Nelson connects “divine blessings” with “divine love,” seeming to equates the two things:

    Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly “unconditional” can defend us against common fallacies such as these: “Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …”; or “Since ‘God is love,’ He will love me unconditionally, regardless …”

    I don’t personally equate God’s blessings to God’s love as Pres. Nelson seems to do if I understand him correctly. I view God’s love and any blessings attendant on that love to be separable, and necessarily so according to my understanding of the scriptures. God makes his rain fall on the just and unjust, the scriptures suggest. Elsewhere we learn that God first loved us, that his arm is stretched out still, that God so loved the world, that is, everyone, that whosoever would believe on the son he sent might be saved. Not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. It was an act of love before you and I entered this mortal sphere. . King Benjamin makes it clear that we’re unprofitable servants all the way through—regardless—so there is no ultimate sense in which we can in any way merit or earn God’s love. We can participate in it, and we’re invited to do so, but the love itself transcends our efforts, and Paul seems to suggest, initiates our efforts.

    As Joseph Smith put it:

    “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes ‘His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ [Matthew 5:45.]”

    Pres. Nelson again seems to connect particular blessings to the fact of God’s unconditional love. You can see this when he talks about how immortality is unconditional but eternal life is conditional. See how he equates divine love with the outgrowth of the combination of divine love and human willingness to enter into that love?

    I think the overall point President Nelson is trying to make is that we shouldn’t take the attitude that since God loves us we can do whatever we want, live however we want, and expect God’s love to fix any harm we do to ourselves and others. You can see this concern in Elder Oaks’s 2009 conference address on “law and love.” While I still see things somewhat differently than Elder Oaks, I resonate with the underlying idea that divine love can be actuated in its fullness when the recipient of the love seeks to reciprocate, and seeks also to spread that love to others. Or in other words, fulfill the two great commandments. So the fruit of divine love requires co-participation, but the divine love fueling the whole process is entirely unconditional. He first loved us.

    Ultimately, though, in the plan of salvation, we have a remarkably universalist outlook in that God’s family is to advance through degrees of glory, through God’s love (as manifest most pointedly in Christ’s atonement), and that even those people we would otherwise think are doomed forever may have greater things in store than we could ever imagine. Hence the cryptic words of D&C 29:29-30: “And now, behold, I say unto you, never at any time have I declared from mine own mouth that they should return, for where I am they cannot come, for they have no power. But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men…

    In sum I don’t equate the love of God with any particular blessings that can flow therefrom, and I don’t believe the scriptures require me to, nor does the church, for that matter. As Elder Christofferson explained:

    “At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.”

    This final point helps us make some sense of why we find references to God’s “unconditional love” in General Conference addresses elsewhere, etc.

  28. What Blair said. Its worth noting, also, that apostles have spoken of God’s unconditional love in general conference both before and after Elder Nelson’s talk, not just before. If Elder Nelson’s talk means that God does not unconditionally approve our actions, I agree with him, though I would probably not express it that way. But to the extent that people interpret his comments to mean that God’s love for his children is conditioned on their righteousness, that is obviously wrong.

  29. “Let’s just say that maybe not everyone loves that talk unconditionally :)”


  30. As Elder Nelson himself says in that same talk: “Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners.” So whatever Elder Nelson means by saying that God’s love is conditional, he does not and cannot mean that God’s love is conditioned on righteousness. Mike’s point was that we are called to love others regardless of whether they deserve it or not. And whatever point Elder Nelson is making in that talk, it’s not that we get to pick and choose who to love based on their (perceived) righteousness, so please don’t make Mike an offender for a word, just because he happened to use the word “unconditional,” unless you are also willing to call out others, such as Elder Ballard and Bishop Causse, for expressing the truth that we are called to love others unconditionally.

  31. JKC… I’d have to call out myself too. I’ve said the same thing up-thread. We need to love everyone. Have I been ambiguous about that? I’ve said it several times.

    The topic of “tribalism” is here because I think it’s being said that you can’t treat people differently because they are “them”; or rather that we can’t favor people because they are “us”. And that is the point of Elder Nelson’s talk that I was referring to. Christ DOES treat people differently based on their righteousness. In regard to His desire for the welfare of our souls, it is unconditional. He wants us ALL to repent and be saved.

    But in regards to who receives His divine favor (Elder Nelson’s talk), who gets admitted to His “us” group, who gets admittance into His Holy House, etc, it IS conditional. It fits all the definitions of the “tribalism” that get maligned. We are told that the specific point of ceremony of the endowment is to help separate the worthy from the unworthy when they arrive at the angels who stand as sentinels – to decide who is the “us” group and who is not. These distinctions are divine, necessary, and eternal.

  32. BHodges says:

    Jax, how does your perspective differ from that of the Zoramites?

    15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever. 16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ. 17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. 18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.

    Is it just on theological points like how they believe God is apparently only spirit or that God operates without a Christ? Or is there something about the attitude they manifest here? It seems to me their attitude of being the saved ones and the way that attitude ostensibly prevents them from fulfilling the gospel law of love (feeling God’s love and extending it to others) is the chief problem.

  33. BHodges, I know you addressed Jax, but I do believe the answer is attitude towards those not of the tribe, namely the exclusivity. The outsiders were outcasts — not invited into the tribe. I don’t disagree with Jax nor align him with the Zoramites because I don’t view Mormonism as a closed tribe. People are invited in. There are conditions for entry, but they’re based on a person’s choices, not on their circumstances, even if their choices lead to their circumstances. To me, unconditional love is not incompatible with church tribalism (ideally), because one can always choose to join the tribe, and that’s not conditional on what one’s done before. The love is always there.

  34. Lately, comments here at BCC have gotten me so down. (Posts have been awesome, though.) If religion is a school, and a sampling of some of the recent comments on this thread and some other ones are any indication, we LDS-U students aren’t doing so hot.

    I’m not sure what else I can add except I’m definitely no where close to escaping my scared-little-mammal behaviors. But I am trying because, to me, unconditional love for EVERYBODY is the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pretty sure we covered that in Sunbeams.

  35. Loursat says:

    Jax wrote, “I think it’s being said that you can’t treat people differently because they are ‘them’; or rather that we can’t favor people because they are ‘us’. And that is the point of Elder Nelson’s talk that I was referring to. Christ DOES treat people differently based on their righteousness.”

    Christ can treat people differently; you must not. He is God; you are not.

  36. BHodges, if you can’t figure out how temple ordinances differ from Zoramite ones then that I suggest you see a priesthood leader. Elder Nelson’s talk demonstrates clearly that God is no respector of person but that he IS a respector of righteousness; and that righteousness brings about greater love and blessings from God. This is what you yourself stated in your comment at 11:34. Why are you now disagreeing with it?

    Or do you dispute that the express reason given for the endowment is so that some may pass angelic sentinels while other will be denied?

    Or do you just not like me pointing out that this is the divine tribalism?

    Again, as Martin points out, our tribalism isn’t exclusionary. We don’t reject them, but they reject us. We try to get everyone to come into our tribe, and the “them” tribe is made up exclusively of people who reject us. And for that we weep with God that His children don’t choose Him. And we, like the sons of Mosiah, are filled with mourning that even one soul should perish.

    Does any of this, that is expressed above, sound Zoramite-like?

  37. Loursat says:

    This really is the most basic Christian doctrine. Christianity is hard.

  38. “Christ can treat people differently; you must not. He is God; you are not.”

    Again, that would make keeping many commandments impossible. I think you just ignore those ones though. The whole list of “tribal” commandments don’t count right? “Love they neighbor” is given top priority while “from such turn away” must be a misinterpretation??

    The entire point of Mos 7:13-19 is to tell us HOW to judge so that we WILL judge. And after we judge the good from the evil we are supposed to “turn away” from the evil. If we are to treat everyone exactly alike then how do I do that? How many times have we been counseled to select our friends/relationships wisely? How is that possible if nobody can be treated differently?

    We’ve had many, many discussions on here about rape and rape victims, the overwhelming point of which is that we CANNOT treat the rapist and the rape victim the same. They MUST be treated differently, and that any possible HC violation on the victims part MUST NOT be considered the same as the crime of the rapist. I wholeheartedly agree with that!! I’m taking that same principle and applying it to all people – everyone is treated differently based on their behavior and righteousness. And making that judgment is what we are commanded to do.

  39. BHodges says:


    BHodges, if you can’t figure out how temple ordinances differ from Zoramite ones then that I suggest you see a priesthood leader.

    Or maybe I should depart from the synagogue, so to speak? No thank you. I can understand why the comparison might make someone uneasy. It’s not a comfortable comparison. I’ve prayed somewhat like the Zoramites in the past. Being imperfect, I likely will again. And yet God’s love abides, for both you and me, unconditionally.

    As for being a “respecter of righteousness,” that’s an interesting (and extra-scriptural?) phrase. In my view, our eternal development has less to do with ticking tasks off of an eternal to-do list and more to do with developing relationships with God and others rooted in love—an unconditional high tide that really is calculated ultimately to lift all boats. There are things we do to place us more or less within that relationship of already-extended-love-and-grace. Parsing out how much we do versus how much God does is a common activity, but it risks placing too much trust in the “arm of flesh,” it risks our “looking past the mark,” it risks leading to “boastfulness,” and it sometimes results in our judging one another unrighteously rather than reaching out in mercy and love; in other words, building Zion. That’s a concern and a tension that I don’t see directly addressed in President Nelson’s conference address, so for all I know, he might agree with the way I see things. I’ve seen other church leaders speak of things this way, after all.

    Jesus’s gospel is a tall order. It has to do with the very ways we see the world. John 3 invites us to see it primarily through a lens of love. (Other scriptures seem to command that we do that.)

    As for the “conditions of entry” mentioned by Martin, they are not completely tied only to any individual’s choices, but in certain circumstances (being the child of polygamous or gay parents in a marriage relationship) are connected directly to the choices of other people, at least temporarily. And above all of this, I believe there are no conditions to God’s unconditional love, which God has unconditionally. That’s a message people desperately need to hear.

  40. ” In my view, our eternal development has less to do with ticking tasks off of an eternal to-do list and more to do with developing relationships with God and others rooted in love” I agree entirely as long as we do use the “more to do” … there is still a to-do list of sorts that must happen eventually. I have no issue with almost anything you said here.

    “That’s a message people desperately need to hear.” Only if it’s true. What do you make of the Jo. Smith quote from earlier? “Such characters [traitors] God hates; we cannot love them. The world hates them, and we sometimes think the devil ought to be ashamed of them… such characters God hates.” – Jos. Smith How is that reconciled with “God’s unconditional love”?? (No snark here, I’m not trying to be argumentative. I legitimately would like to hear a reasonable reconciliation if you can offer one)

  41. As a pure coincidence our family scripture readying brought us to 2 Nephi 9 tonight. Here are verses 41-42 that have impact on our discussion of unconditional love:

    41 O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.

    42 And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.

    Can you love and despise someone? Probably hard for us to do. Can the Lord love and despise at the same time? This fits into our discussion of tribalism as well since “he will not open unto them”. thoughts?

  42. How do I reconcile the quote from Joseph Smith? By recalling that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such, as Joseph said. I recall in the New Testament some zealous disciples hoping for a violent comeuppance for certain folks. They were wrong, too.

  43. Seems to me like the “despised” of 2 Nephi are the folks standing in the way of the door. The puffed up. Fills the frame.

  44. Joseph was speaking with hyperbole. Not uncommon in 19th century rhetoric in general, and not uncommon for Joseph Smith in particular. Besides, non canonical speeches and sermons obviously don’t overcome canonized revelation.

  45. Again, the fact that Nephi says that God despises the proud is different from giving us permission to despise others. Again, we don’t know their hearts.

    Jax, you asked whether you have been ambiguous. Yes. You concede that we should love everyone, but then you keep suggesting that it’s okay to despise the unrighteous, that we cannot love the unrighteous.

    I’m staring to repeat myself, so I don’t imagine that this conversation will continue much further, but Mike’s point about avoiding tribalism was, as I understood it, that we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of justifying our failure to love someone because we perceive that person to be outside of the tribe (the religious affiliation). Your point, I think, is that God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked. That is true, but again, if we assume that we are justified in not loving someone because we perceive them to be unrighteous, that’s the same tribalism at work. Eliminating tribalism means refusing to allow ourselves the easy way out by justifying our failure to love others, it does not mean refusing to acknowledge a difference between right and wrong, but it does mean having the humility to recognize that we can’t always tell who is wicked and who is righteous.

    That seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

  46. Jax, that’s an unusual approach to the endowment–that it is primarily about separating righteous from wicked. I’ve always seen it much more as teaching that receiving God’s law brings us into his presence. I suppose that those that don’t receive his law don’t come into his presence, but that separation is more a side effect of agency than the main point of the endowment.

    Otherwise, it begins to sound a lot like the prayer of the Pharisee who went to the temple and thanked God that he was chosen for his righteousness while others were wicked, rather than the prayer of the publican who pleaded for mercy and was justified, rather than the Pharisee.

  47. Threads like this are depressing.

    “Love one another” seems to be a pretty simple message. I know members quickly dismiss or marginalize scriptures commanding us to give to the poor. I never thought “love one another” would cause a dispute.

    We should be able to discuss doctrinal disagreements without comparing each other to Zoramites and telling people who disagree with us to go meet with a priesthood leader.

    Let’s just emphasize Blair’s admonition that “And above all of this, I believe there are no conditions to God’s unconditional love, which God has unconditionally. That’s a message people desperately need to hear.”

    Repeat this three times and stop trolling each other.

    I will get off of my soapbox now.

  48. BHodges says:


    “Eliminating tribalism means refusing to allow ourselves the easy way out by justifying our failure to love others, it does not mean refusing to acknowledge a difference between right and wrong, but it does mean having the humility to recognize that we can’t always tell who is wicked and who is righteous.”

    Well put, JKC. I appreciate the way you explained this and your remark about the function of the endowment.

    Marc: To be as clear as possible, my Zoramite example was just as much an implication of myself.

  49. Clark Goble says:

    I think the idea that we’re confident we’re saved rather than being humble and aware of our flaws is the big issue with the Zoramites. Most people including prophets I’ve encountered are very aware of their flaws and how dependent upon the grace of god they are. We’re always just a single argument away from losing the spirit. It’s hard to think we’re chosen in the sense of being righteous when we’re always so cognizant of what we’re not doing. Of course the trick there is simultaneously not becoming a “check list Mormon” overwhelmed with what we haven’t achieved (and often assume incorrectly others have it all together) It’s a balancing act to live in grace yet be humble and faithful in acknowledging our flaws and trying to overcome them.

    Likewise the opposite is true. We have to be grateful for the blessings the Lord has given us and our ability to have overcome so much without descending into pride.

    The gospel requires walking that fine line in both directions. It’s hard. Further, like BHodges mentioned, part of that humility is recognizing we do often fall in pride. I doubt anyone is fully humble all the time. It’s quite easy to look at what one has achieved and be proud of that rather than humble and grace seeking in the face of all we have not yet achieved.

  50. ” You concede that we should love everyone, but then you keep suggesting that it’s okay to despise the unrighteous, that we cannot love the unrighteous. ” I guess I was ambiguous. I thought my point was that we should love everyone, but keep ourselves separated from the unrighteous as opposed to “we cannot love the untirghteous”. There’s nuance there, I don’t think we are having major disagreements here (and despite Marc’s comment I hope nobody feels personally insulted – I don’t). I just think that that separateness constitutes “tribalism” and is divinely commanded. Maybe its a disagreement about definitions?

    Marc, when I told Bhodges ” I have no issue with almost anything you said here” I was also including that I probably sound Zoramitish too.

  51. BHodges, I don’t think I understand what you (or anybody else) means by unconditional love. You said that you differentiate God’s love from God’s blessings and while some blessings are conditional, His love is not (or at least, I think that’s what you said — if I misinterpreted, it wasn’t intentional). Isn’t that functionally a distinction without a difference? I believe God loves us unconditionally in the sense that He wants what’s best for us and is always looking over us, but certain blessings will not be granted us if we don’t choose them (when we have the choice). So functionally, isn’t that essentially the same thing Elder Nelson said, or at least was trying to communicate? Isn’t God’s unconditional love simply an open invitation to come back to Him to receive conditional blessings?

  52. Maybe it’s just a semantic disagreement. But tribalism as Michael used it in his post was, as I understood it, a description of the human tendency to separate people according to whether they are in our group or out, rather than based on their character, not a description of the fact that God will treat the righteous different from the wicked.