Shaming Decency

One episode from McKay Coppins’s recent profile on Stephen Miller has been haunting me since I read it. Early in Miller’s work with the Trump administration, he collaborated with Steve Bannon to craft the first version of the travel ban designed to prevent “travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries” (using Coppins’s description). I’ll quote Coppins from here:

The hastily written order contained no guidance on implementation, and soon after Trump signed it—on a Friday afternoon one week into his presidency—airports across the country were plunged into chaos. Hundreds of travelers were detained, civil-rights lawyers descended, and protesters swarmed. To many, the televised disarray was proof of failure. But according to Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump administration’s first year, Fire and Fury, the architects of the ban were tickled by the hysteria; Bannon (who was Wolff’s main source) boasted that they’d chosen to enact the disruptive measure on a weekend “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” They counted the anger on display as a political win.

What haunts me about this story is Bannon’s terrifying tactical brilliance in gaming what I’m going to call basic human decency. In the grand game of chess that is political discourse in the United States, Bannon (and Miller, who unlike Bannon still works in the White House) seem to me to have cannily outflanked people committed to the norms of civil discourse. I think it’s a commonplace at this point among people who oppose Trump to believe that his appeal lies largely in the frankness with which he expresses (or crassly manipulates) the id of his followers. But the travel ban episode suggests that Trump’s success also lies in playing the superegos of his opponents. All of the stuff that to us betokens civilization, which is to say, the very substance of any anti-Trump protest grounded in appeals to things like decency, democratic norms, basic Christianity, and the like—all of this leaves us perpetually a move behind the administration and its strategists, who stand ready to laugh the moment their provocation sends us to Twitter or to the streets, quaintly chattering about things like the place of persuasion in civil discourse. [Read more…]

Prayer for the Day of Pentecost

O God of the nations,
you who speak to all in their own language,
you unto whom all are alike,
black and white, female and male, bond and free:
pour down your spirit upon us;
let its thunder ring in our hearts
as it calls us into your love,
which became flesh in the person of Jesus;
let it teach our tongues to name the wounds
that have long festered in our body,
until we know at last how to pray for their healing;
let it teach us to hear the sighs too deep for words,
the groanings in the hearts of our fellow saints;
let it teach us to speak the long-awaited word of comfort;
let it teach us to pray your kingdom into our midst
until, Great God Almighty, we are free at last.

Of Mormons, Baptists, and Liberty of Conscience

Given the recent revival of the kerfuffle between Robert Jeffress and Mitt Romney (see Mike’s recent post), along with Jeffress’s appeal to “historical Christianity” in his rebuttal to Romney, I am reposting here something I wrote back in 2011 at State of Formation. Plus ça change…

On 7 October [2011], Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was speaking to reporters outside the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, where he had just introduced Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Taking aim at Perry’s rival for the nomination, Mitt Romney, Jeffress said that Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “is not a Christian.” Jeffress went on to say, “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news…. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”

Jeffress has a point: evangelicals have long been uncomfortable with Mormonism, and significant theological differences—most notably over Christology—exist between the two groups. I’m not going to attempt to resolve those differences here, or to defend the proposition that Mormons are in fact Christian (even though I, as a Mormon, affirm my own faith in Christ).

Rather, I wish to seize on an opportunity inadvertently opened by Jeffress’s overly broad invocation of “the historical position of Christianity” to argue that Mormons and Baptists ought to make common cause in opposing the use of such appeals as tests of religious orthodoxy, let alone as de facto religious tests of fitness for political office.

[Read more…]

Lesson 13: Bondage, Passover, and Exodus #BCCSundaySchool2018

Objective: To bring class members together as participants in God’s liberatory work.

Readings: Exodus 1-3, 5-6, 11-14 (optional: read all of Exodus 1-15) [Read more…]

Prayer for Easter Morning

Praise be to the God of the dawn,
our God of the morning light,
whose Son this morning lives again,
dead in the tomb though he was!
Grant that we, too, might come forth
from the dark places of our own hearts
and find together the fullness of life,
in the rich vigor of the Holy Spirit
and the renewing presence of the Son;
in your strength may we rise together
as the living body of Christ,
proclaiming the message of peace
in all the world, until we become
one people as you are one God. Amen.

Prayer for Holy Saturday

Our God of the darkness,
who meets us this day in Jesus’ tomb:
grant us your Spirit
to show us the darkness
in our own hearts,
from which we long to rise. Amen.

Prayer for Good Friday

O God of our godforsakenness,
appearing this day to us
only as a broken man on a cross:
grant that we, in his cross,
might see ourselves,
might see the myriad ways
we find to crucify one another,
until the Spirit, rending our hearts
like its fierce wind
rent the temple veil,
reveals the face of God
in all the people we have forsaken,
that we may renounce forever
our daily crucifixions
and proclaim at last the Prince of Peace,
becoming one people as you are one God. Amen.

Prayer for Maundy Thursday

O God of our garden prayers,
to whom our souls cry out of the depths:
grant that we in our dark hours
might sense Jesus kneeling before us,
gently washing our feet,
and then find him feeding us
with the bread and wine,
his own body and blood,
and promising us another Comforter,
found when we love one another;
guide us, Father, in the works of love,
that through your Son and in the Spirit
we might become one people as you are One God.
Amen.

The Uncomfortable Comforter

“The human heart and mind are deep. But God will shoot his arrow at them; they will be wounded suddenly.” —Psalm 64

I’ve been thinking about the two verses in John (14:26 and 15:26) that, in the KJV, describe the Holy Ghost as the “Comforter.” I think I even knew from reading the Bible Dictionary as a kid (yes, I know…) that the Greek behind this word was parakletos, often rendered in English as “paraclete.” The Greek means something like “called alongside,” and I think that “Comforter” is a lovely way of thinking about the idea of a companion. So is “Advocate,” which is how the NRSV translates it.

The Spirit has often brought me comfort, so I’m not at all writing against that idea, but recently I’ve most valued the Spirit as a companion in discomfort. I don’t mean that the Spirit was there to make the discomfort easier to handle; rather, the Spirit is what helped me to get properly uncomfortable. I have things that I’m trying to work through right now (as do we all, no doubt), and that means cracking open some of my comfortable habits and ways of seeing. Like most anyone, I enjoy being comfortable, and I’ve got loads of built-in defenses that are, I’m pleased to report, excellent at keeping uncomfortable truths nicely out of sight. [Read more…]

Prayer for Palm Sunday

O God of our ecstatic praises
and tumultuously shouted joys:
grant us the courage of rejoicing,
for although our hearts will soon
slip back into their stony selves,
wishing to cry out, but not,
and although everything we now celebrate
will soon go heartbreakingly wrong,
in this hour of Jesus’ triumph
let our hearts open wide with joy
and overflow with the Spirit’s power,
making us for this hour one people in the delight
that forever flows within you, the One God. Amen.

Prayer for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Our God, whose heart has become a wilderness
wide enough to receive our cries
and spacious enough to hold our suffering:
grant that our own wilderness journey
might teach our hearts to be more like yours,
so that as we prepare to remember your Son’s Passion,
we might open our hearts to the truth of his life
and the agonizing sorrow of his death,
until, thus stretched by the Holy Spirit,
we might turn in Jesus’ name to each other,
greeting one another in the Lord’s peace,
able at last to see and be seen in our truth
and to share together in the promised healing
that will make us one people as you are One God. Amen.

Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Mothering Sunday)

O God our blessed Mother, who gathers us under your wings
as a hen gathers her chicks with tender care:
as we return this day to our Mother Church,
grant that we may love her full kindly,
the chicks tending now to the hen
with a gentle loving care,
binding up the breaches in her body
and making the covert of her wings
once again safe for her wandering chicks
that we may welcome them in love and kinship
and become one people as you are one God. Amen.

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, who by your powerful hand delivered Israel from Egypt and reigns forever over all creation:
grant that we, when our hearts entertain the temptations of power,
might remember the tender power that your Son exercised by coming to live as one of us.
Turn our hands, therefore, to the works of love, the works of kindness,
that we may nurture the life of the Spirit among ourselves
and gently welcome all we can into that life,
until we become one people as you are one God. Amen.

Prayer for the Second Sunday in Lent

O God, our constant support,
whose constancy often feels like absence:
in our long wilderness walk,
some days find you nearer
than our accustomed busyness allows,
but many days, instead of presence,
we carry heavy doubt,
apparently alone,
tempted to put you, our God,
to the test;
grant us, then, the patience
to walk in our darkness
and learn our own strength,
as Jesus learned his,
that when the darkness is past,
we might walk with you
and with Jesus
in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Prayer for the First Sunday in Lent

Blessed God, the bread of life,
who feeds us with the spiritual food of your Son:
grant that this our wilderness journey,
undertaken to remind us that our lives
draw nurture from more than bread alone,
may send our roots deep into the loam of your love,
that we, blossoming into abundant life
through the nourishment of the Holy Spirit,
might share the feast of love together,
one people as you are One God. Amen.

Lesson 7: The Abrahamic Covenant #BCCSundaySchool2018

Readings

Genesis 12:1-8 (KJV, NRSV), 15 (KJV, NRSV), 17 (KJV, NRSV)

Romans 2:25-29 (KJV, NRSV), 4 (KJV, NRSV), 9:1-18 (KJV, NRSV) [fn1]

Learning Outcomes

I’d hope that class members come away from this lesson with circumcised hearts, believing God’s promises to all people so that they can have that belief reckoned to them for righteousness.

Introduction

For me, the tension animating this set of texts is one between exclusivity and inclusivity. The manual includes a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith conveying the idea that most (but, implicitly, not all) members of the Church have the literal blood of Abraham flowing through their veins. This gesture works to make us as Mormons genetically part of an exclusive club to whom particular promises are due, and the manual uses quotes from Pres. Benson and Elder Packer to emphasize the responsibility that people in the club have to evangelize the people outside. Taking this stuff literally, though, requires disregarding the probability that if a man who lived ca. 5000 years ago has any living descendants at all, then every person on earth is likely to be among their number. (It also has messed up racial implications; see fn1.) Whom shall we proselyte if everyone’s already in the club? [Read more…]

Prayer for Ash Wednesday

O God of abundance, Creator of all that nurtures us,
Giver of breath and Pulse of our hearts’-blood:
we come before you in a spirit of repentance
as we take the first steps of our Lenten journey,
not forsaking the things of life that you have given,
but leaving behind all that chokes your life in us.
Cleanse us, we pray, from whatever stops the flow of love
as it runs in eternal circuit from you to us and back again.
Fill, O Lord, these newly empty places in our lives
with the riches of the Holy Spirit,
that we may learn to love ourselves as you love us
and then learn to love others as you love them,
and, loving them, find that we at last love you.
May our fast so feed our souls with love for all people,
that we may be one as you also are one,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Seven Theses on Eternal Perspective

  1. Eternal perspective isn’t seeing the world through some transcendental eye, unfettered by human limitations; rather, our limited perspectives have eternal value because they ground our our struggles to see the transcendental in each other, and those are what teach us to see as God sees.
  2. We often talk as though an eternal perspective will clear everything up, but what if an eternal perspective means perceiving people in their full messiness and finding beauty and glory in that?
  3. The idea of eternal perspective as clearing everything up depends on the wrong concept of justice, as one in which everything that seemed wrong in this life has now been brought in line with the ideal, but maybe justice means instead that everything painful has finally been met with overabundant kindness.
  4. This kind of justice is not at odds with mercy; rather, it suggests that injustice is a deficit of mercy.
  5. An eternal perspective means learning to see how badly the world thirsts for kindness and mercy.
  6. An eternal perspective means trying to sate that thirst, however and whenever you can—including when your failures to have parched your own mouth. Be kind to everyone, especially yourself.
  7. An eternal perspective is quiet, because kindness and mercy are manifest in silent presence at least as often as they are in speech.

Lesson 5: “If Thou Doest Well, Thou Shalt Be Accepted” #BCCSundaySchool2018

Learning Outcomes

Have class members learn about and discuss the ways that the scriptural teachings about Zion invite a critical and ongoing encounter with practices like racism that lead us to hate our own blood, as well as the way that the story of Cain teaches the importance of seeing others’ offerings.

Readings

The manual only mentions Moses 5-7; I’m going to supplement that with Genesis 4:1-16 (KJV; NRSV) and the Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood (which itself needs to be supplemented with Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color). See also my compilation of English versions of Genesis 4, which brings together English translations of the Cain and Abel story from Wycliffe to the present. [Read more…]

Holy Innocents: Grief

Today, as we remember Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, I want to think for a few minutes about grief and grieving. Will you sit with me?

This year has been hard enough that no litany is necessary—or, rather, no litany seems adequate. (Except maybe this one.) But the litany isn’t my point: I’m wrestling with how to live amidst the waves of shock and pain that just keep rolling in.

As I’ve thought on this, and felt with it, a grieving practice seems the only way. [Read more…]

Advent IV: Love

This Advent season, I’ve admittedly had a hard time feeling much hope or peace or joy. Political events are such that “depressing” has long since ceased to be an adequate word, this semester I’ve been overwhelmingly busy with everything except the projects that matter most to me, church has been hard rather than nourishing, and I could go on. All through the season I’ve had these words running through my mind:

Then in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on Earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”

Yet in all of this I’ve felt that love, improbably, would find a way. [Read more…]

Love What Survives

The past several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Brock Turner. (If you need a refresher on who he is, look here.) My interest in his case has to do with suffering: who gets to claim the space of the cross? When Turner’s father wrote that he no longer enjoyed ribeye steaks the way he once had, the internet erupted in scorn: surely his suffering is nothing compared to that of the woman (I’ll call her Emily Doe) he sexually assaulted while she was unconscious behind a frat house dumpster. “Poor baby,” went the ridicule: Turner’s suffering was weighed against the cross and found wanting. [fn1]

Emily Doe, meanwhile, was the heroine of the feminist internet for the statement she read at Turner’s sentencing, in which she thoroughly and eloquently castigated him for failing to perceive her as a human being and treat her accordingly. She made her own suffering publicly visible in a way that the trial could not, and she did so in a potent attempt to reclaim her dignity from the abjection of that night. She was claiming the space of the cross for herself, as a way of validating her own experience, but also of calling the person who crucified her to account. [Read more…]

On Listing Grievances and Emotional Labor #ldsconf

In his talk on Sunday Morning, Elder W. Craig Zwick, now an emeritus Seventy, told of a woman who kept an electronic list of things her husband said or did that irritated her. He relates that later, while taking the sacrament and reflecting on the Atonement, she realized that this practice was driving the Spirit from her life, so she deleted the list. The emotion with which he said “Let it all go!” suggests that he found this story a powerful example of forgiveness, and he offered it as an example of overcoming spiritual shortsightedness. [Read more…]

Testimony

Yesterday, in a conversation about apologetics at the Maxwell Institute, I bore my testimony in a semi-public place, which is not something I usually do. Even so, I felt that I should share the substance of what I said here, with some slight elaboration.

I believe that trying to love people matters. I believe that even though I’m less certain by the day what love even is or whether love has the power to do what I hope it can. I believe it because that is the life to which my reading of the New Testament, in particular, calls me. On a pretty deep level, I can do no other: I routinely fail to love in the way that I believe I should do, and yet each failure sends me back to the path, more secure in my conviction. For me, Jesus is love. I say that in part because it’s what the scriptures witness to me, but more because in my own life I have experienced Jesus as the most faithful of friends, even and especially as I fail. His faithfulness calls me to be similarly faithful to those I love. I do not understand how to walk this way, but every day I try. The life that I try to lead in spite of my failures is my witness.

Messianic Family

As I’ve been making my way—very slowly—through N. T. Wright’s massive Paul and the Faithfulness of God, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Paul’s argument in the Epistle to the Romans and LDS family theology. Romans has been important to me for a long time, to the point that it (along with Paul’s related writings about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians) has become pretty central to my own witness of how and why Jesus matters, not only cosmically, but personally. 

Until recently, I’ve thought that Paul’s major message to Latter-day Saints has to do with reframing our strong cultural emphasis on obedience. I still think that, but now it seems to me that Paul’s argument also goes to the heart of the recent LDS emphasis on the centrality of the family, defined in terms of heterosexual marriage. [fn1] [Read more…]

Resurrection

As a Mormon raised on the 2nd Article of Faith, I believed that the principle of individual responsibility made the concept of an inherited “original sin” incoherent. We each, I thought, came into the world as blank slates, given eight years to develop the capacity for accountability—at which point baptism gave us a clean start, just in case. From then on, we bore the responsibility of acting well, with repentance and weekly sacrament participation to take care of our inevitable mistakes. With Christ’s help, we would be capable of living in the world as good people.

It’s not that I disbelieve any of this now, exactly. Still, I’ve recently found myself telling people that I believe in original sin. I always hasten to clarify that it’s not the Augustinian seminally-transmitted version of original sin that has won my assent. I don’t believe that my veins flow with depravity born from Adam’s fall, and I don’t believe that newborn babies carry its taint. I do believe, though, that our common humanity has a dark side that none of us escapes. [Read more…]

Intercessory Prayer

Anglo-Mormon that I am, I subscribe to the Society of St. John the Evangelist‘s daily “Brother, Give Us a Word” email. A few weeks back, the word was “Intercede,” and this is what Br. Geoffrey Tristram had to say about it:

Intercessory prayer is hard work, but it is a work of love. It is carrying those we love and long to be healed in our hearts, and taking them wonderfully and mysteriously into the very heart of God.

[Read more…]

Prayer on the Anniversary of the June 8 Revelation

O God of freedom, who led the Children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt: as we recall how Pharaoh’s heart hardened to the cries of your people, so do we pray that you will soften our hearts through the Holy Spirit, that we, like your Son, might proclaim liberty to the captive and let the oppressed go free. We give thanks for Spencer W. Kimball, who had the courage to pray through his own prejudice to hear your voice, and we pray for the same courage. We give thanks for Jane Manning James, whose faithful petitions for sealing went too long unheard; tune our ears and hearts, we pray, to the petitions now arising from our African-American sisters and brothers, that we might hear and act. Bring us together, Lord, we pray, into the body of Christ, where, in love, the gifts that we once despised might now at last take their due place, for without them we cannot be the Zion you called us to become. We acknowledge that we have not loved your image in these your children with our whole hearts; for this, for all that we have done that we ought not, and for all that we have left undone, though we ought, we ask you to fill us with new love and courage to bring about your work of redemption, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Aphorisms on Pornography

I’ve written this as a list of aphorisms, without the traditional scholia. I figure that’s what the comment section is for. [Read more…]

Prayer for Easter Morning

O God of abundant life: as we rise with Jesus from the dark tomb of our failures to love, grant that we may greet our sisters and brothers with the gentleness of his call to Mary, the sweet art of the Spirit’s loving breath making up our defects until we become one in love as you are one God. Amen.

For music, Jamie Hall singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s setting of George Herbert’s “Easter” from Five Mystical Songs:

[Read more…]