About Corazon

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lost in the Shuffle: Sikhism and the Partition of India

On a warm June day in 1984, a large military force made up of Indian soldiers under the command of Sikh General Kuldip Singh Brar, made their way through the Punjab Region to the city of Amristar. Their goal: the removal of Sikh militants loyal to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a religious and political revolutionary who had been a vehement advocate for Sikh sovereignty. In what became known as Operation Blue Star, the Indian military swiftly and violently attacked Sikhs throughout the city. The military operation even saw soldiers forcibly attacking Sikh leaders located inside of the Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), the holiest of Sikh edifices. In total, the carnage brought on by Operation Blue Star ended the lives of at least 500 Sikh civilians, and subsequently ignited the fires of further anti-Sikh riots. In the end, it would be considered one of the greatest massacres of Sikhs since the Sikh Holocaust of 1762 (Deol 101-103).

 India’s violent opposition made manifest through Operation Blue Star is far from the only occasion in which Sikhs have found themselves in the crosshairs of their enemies. Dating all the way back to the early critical formative years of the Partition of India (and even earlier), Sikhs have been engaged in a virtual tug-o-war with their Muslim and Hindu neighbors. It was during the formation of both modern day Pakistan and India that Sikhs found themselves desperately trying to pick up any and all scraps of what little remaining sovereignty they could, but for the most part, their efforts proved futile and even paved the way for future hostilities.

To better understand why Sikhs have experienced such vicious animosity from their neighbors, we must endeavor to uncover the nucleus of where and how hostilities began. First, it is important to recognize that Sikhs have a long and proud history in the Punjab Region dating back to the early 15th century. As historian Eleanor Nesbitt points out in her book, Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction: Sikhs’ sense of community is not just a matter of interacting with, and feeling distinct from, the other major religious constituencies of North India. It also has strong regional roots. The family origins of almost all Sikhs, wherever in the world they now live, are in Punjab…Any exposition of ‘Sikhism’ that omits the significance of Punjab for Sikhs is incomplete, especially as Punjab has come to be regarded as the spiritual homeland for Sikhs everywhere (8).

It is of paramount importance that we recognize the special place Punjab carries in the hearts of Sikhs the world over. As a Sikh Mecca of sorts, Punjab serves as both the historical and religious homeland for Sikhs. Without it, the religion and its adherents would have a difficult time establishing their unique heritage and culture.

When Partition became a reality, the natural concern for Sikhs centered on the fate of their native land and the place they would have in it. It is no mystery that the Punjab Region played a center stage in the drama of Indian partition. Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus all boasted the right to govern the region. In his article, “Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab 1947,” Akhtar Hussain Sandhu states: Muslims and Sikhs had both been ruling communities of the Punjab, therefore both were confident to claim their political inheritance when the British decided to depart from India…Islam came from Arabia and many Muslims from other countries had settled in the Punjab, while Sikhism was an indigenous religion and its followers were purely local people, which convinced them to claim the region as Sikh homeland (215). And though Sikh claims to the Punjab on the basis of it being their native soil were legit, they did not pacify Muslim or Hindu assertions for control of the Punjab Region. Both India and Pakistan laid claim to the area and fought vehemently for control over it. Historian Yasmin Khan alludes to this fact in her book, The Great Partition, when she writes: “Punjab…was the bloody battlefield of Partition where by far the greatest number of massacres of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims occurred" (Khan, Introduction).

Though having made strong initial claims for their right to control the Punjab Region, Sikhs were finding themselves increasingly on the fringe of the Partition debate. A lack of cohesiveness throughout their ranks, coupled with poor leadership stymied any hope Sikhs might have had of advancing their hopes and desires. As Akhtar Hussain Sandhu states: The land of the five rivers could not produce a leader of national caliber in all the communities, and this resulted in havoc at the critical juncture of history. The Punjabi leadership seemed satiated with their personal benefits in the domains of the Punjab. The Sikh leadership also became victim of this traditional weakness. Moreover, they had to deal with the competent leadership of M. A. Jinnah, M. K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which put them in a defensive position (227).

This general lack of leadership and direction on the part of Sikh authorities made any push for sovereignty a futile enterprise. Sikh officials, who spent more time arguing with one another as opposed to asserting any push for actual sovereignty, saw their chances at shaping Partition in their favor slip right through their fingers.

Instead of using the Partition debate as a platform to assert Sikh sovereignty, Sikh leaders began jockeying for position between the emerging Pakistani and Indian players in an effort to determine which nation would better support Sikh interests. Extreme skepticism of Muslim intentions, particularly those of the Muslim League, sparked contentions between Sikh leaders and Muslim leadership. As a result, Sikhs felt more comfortable in supporting Indian claims and advocated for a division of the Punjab Region that would include Indian control. Simply put, Indian interests were far more in harmony with Sikh desires (Sandhu 224).

It therefore comes as no surprise to discover that tensions between Sikhs and Muslims in Punjab became contentious and downright violent in the wake of Partition negotiations. And while the majority of the violence manifested itself as a Hindu/Muslim dispute, Sikhs were far from exempt from the brutality. In fact, this tragic tale of violence is very much at the “core of any history of Partition” (Khan, Chapter 7). Countless scores of refugees fell victim to the killings, rapes and mutilations that will forever stain the history of Partition. The rape accounts alone are hideous enough to make even the coldest blood boil. Stories of women’s corpses, their genitalia dismembered with teeth marks buried deep into their skin are more common than one would expect (Khan, Chapter 7).

And though they were regular recipients of this kind of aforementioned violence, Sikhs were far from having their own hands clean. Violence was a regular tool on both sides, and many Sikhs resorted to using aggressive measures against their Muslim neighbors “on an unprecedented scale” that could only be rivaled by the violence of the 18th century (Nesbitt 122). Sikh violence would continue even into the post-Partition era, and transition from Muslim to Hindu foes. A good example of Sikh violence would be the retaliation for Operation Blue Star which came in the form of the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards (Deol 91).

For Sikhs, what emerges from this long history of violence during Partition is a sense of lost opportunity. Not only did Sikh leadership fail to take a more active role during the Partition debates, but they failed to unify Sikhs themselves. It would take several more years before Sikhs became galvanized to a collective cause under newer, more inspired leadership. But by then India (and Pakistan) had emerged as the dominant players, while Sikhs were little more than a decent sized minority group. Nevertheless, Sikhs had evolved “from an ethnic community into a nation” by the latter years of the 20th century (Deol 4). By the time of Operation Blue Star, Indian authorities were well aware that Sikhs were beginning to assert their desire for greater sovereignty.

But the question remaining is, has the ship already sailed on the issue of Sikh sovereignty? Did Sikhs miss their opportunity when Britain pulled out of its former colonies and relinquished control to local communities? The relatively recent push for greater sovereignty seems to suggest that at the very least Sikhs recognize that they squandered a golden opportunity to have better secured their interests. The question now is, will Sikhs seize the opportunities afforded them in the here and now to bolster support for their cause? If anything is certain from the history of Indian Partition it is this: the matter seems far from resolved. Only time will tell how future generations of Sikhs seek to protect their interests in their land of the five rivers.

Works Cited:

Deol, Harnik. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. New York: Routledge Press, 2000. Print.

Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. London: Yale University Press, 2007. Amazon Kindle edition.

Nesbitt, Eleanor. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Sandhu, Akhtar Hussain. “Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab in 1947.” Journal of Punjab Studies vol. 19, no. 2. (2013): Pp. 215-232. Web. . Accessed 15 August, 2015.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Letter to a Believer and a Doubter: Why (and How) I Choose to Stay Mormon

Every once in a while (and especially over the past month) I get asked the question, "Why do you post material that is critical of the church on your Facebook wall?"

That's a fair question. After all, oftentimes those with an axe to grind will post articles, pictures, memes, etc. that are intended to throw a jab or two at the Mormon religion (or any other religion for that matter). Why else would somebody post material that doesn't present Mormonism in the very best light possible? Or articles that lead the reader to ask himself/herself difficult questions that perhaps haven't been considered before?

I have been accused of being "apostate" or "deceived by Satan" probably a dozen times in the past couple of years. The accusations have come in the form of emails, Facebook comments and even being stopped in the halls of church itself. My response is usually offering a smile (unless I'm really pissed off and go into cop mode) and asking the question, "What sort of material do you think I should be posting?" The question appears to be interpreted as being rhetorical in nature, as I have yet to receive an actual response. Maybe the other person just doesn't want to "go there" and in the interest of keeping the peace they drop the matter entirely. If so, I salute them. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God."

But I can't drop it and let me tell you why.

Along with those emails accusing me of apostasy, I have also received correspondence (probably three times as much) from others who share (sometimes in the strictest of confidence) their own personal struggles with church history/doctrine. They (like me) desperately look for others with whom they can express their sincere doubts, honest questions and heartfelt struggle without being accused or blamed of heresy. Usually these individuals (like me) have felt that traditional church members and church leaders were "unsafe" outlets and that full disclosure of genuine struggle over church matters could lead to more problems than solutions. As one friend has said (and I share with his/her permission), "Opening up to ward members and ward leaders is like asking Mike Tyson to take it easy on you in the ring."

By no means am I some popular guy with a following. My blog gets, at best, 50-75 hits a day and most of those are random Google searches from people who don't even know me. I'm not John Dehlin or Seth Adam Smith and I don't want to be. I write this blog because...well...I enjoy writing. Writing is an outlet and a hobby for me. I don't care who reads my material to be quite honest. But contrary to what those who accuse me of apostasy may believe, I actually do have some friends and family members and I do care deeply about them. In addition, I do care about and understand those few who have reached out to me to express their earnest desire to better comprehend the complexities of Mormon history and theology that are usually eschewed by the...shall we say..."correlated" majority. I have experienced those long, dark, empty, yet somehow sacred nights in which you can feel your soul hurt in a way you didn't think possible, and in a way few members understand. I understand the desire to sincerely dissect the issues, weight the evidence, and engage in open and safe dialogue so as to better understand the questions that naturally arise. I've been there and in some ways continue to be there.

So, in short, this is why I post "un-correlated" material (on occasion) on my Facebook wall.  I say "un-correlated" because I want to be VERY clear on a couple of things:
1.) I DO NOT have a bone to pick with the church! I am a Mormon and love being a Mormon. I sustain the local and general leaders (and I'm glad I don't have their responsibilities) and I believe (perhaps in my own unique way) in the core doctrines of the faith. I cherish my membership and the many opportunities that my participating in this faith has given me throughout my life.

2.) I believe that the greatest threats to Mormonism today are not the critics, the doubters, the skeptics, the haters, the liars, the bitter ex-Mormons or the Jack Mormons (we've had all these types for over a century now). Instead I believe that in many instances, the greatest threat to Mormonism are Mormons themselves. In short, we are sometimes our worst enemy because we simply do not or will not understand those outside of our own secure little Mormon bubble.
The "un-correlated" material to which I refer is meant to elicit a meaningful dialogue, or at least to spark some deeper thought on the part of the reader (that is my hope). It is not meant to attack belief but instead to better understand it (again, that is my hope). But most important, it is meant to extend a hand of friendship and understanding to those who struggle. I for one am unwilling to hide behind the traditional "popcorn popping on the apricot tree" rhetoric and say that "all is well in Zion." There are members out there (a growing number of them) who have real doubts and concerns that aren't the result of sin, giving into Satan or failing to read their Book of Mormon and have family prayer daily. Their doubts and concerns exist because...wait for it...there are legitimate, fundamental and substantial questions to be had! Ignoring, downplaying or pretending that the doubts of others don't exist does absolutely nothing to help them in their plight. In fact, it only makes things worse. In short, there are just as many good reasons to doubt as there are to believe the truth claims of the church. Or as Terryl Givens puts it,
The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true.  There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.
The desire to believe is not somehow more virtuous than the capacity for doubt, just as the capacity for doubt is not more virtuous than the desire to believe. Instead of seeing belief and doubt as opposing rival forces we should see them as the gatekeepers to the human heart. Again from Terryl Givens:
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we "get it right." It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that only reveals its latent music when struck, or a dragonfly that only flames forth its beauty in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.
In other words, the virtual tug-of-war between faith and doubt serves as a litmus test in which both faith and doubt act as virtues so long as they are both put in check. After all, having faith for the sake of faith is no virtue but instead is merely blind obedience and acceptance of what one has been told. The same is true of doubt. Electing to disbelieve, without recognizing the true virtues of honest faith, is a living example of anti-religious bias.

So what is it that I would want both the traditional believing Mormon (particularly those who accuse me of apostasy) and the sincere doubter (who occasionally emails me) to know? Above all I would hope that they would be able and willing to sit down with one another and accept one another for who they are. Sadly this rarely ever happens because both sides arrive fully loaded to the meeting. The believer is oftentimes unwilling to concede that there is ever a legitimate reason to doubt the truth claims of the church, while the doubter is oftentimes unwilling to concede that faith can and does trump reason in many instances. As a result, such a meeting ends with each camp delivering its "go to" trump card to the other and both parties departing with a greater belief that ultimate truth is on their side.  

But again, they both miss the point of both faith and doubt. As stated above, faith and doubt are NOT enemies but rather polar ends to a powerful battery that when allowed to work as designed can provide the energy to bring about great things.  

I realize that I am not going to solve this battle today and I don't want to even try. Instead, I want to leave both the traditional believing Mormon and the doubting Mormon with some of the reasons that I remain a happy and believing member of the church. After all, the reasons for choosing to stay or leave any faith are personal, so I can only speak to those things that I have experienced and that work for me. I post them here in the hopes that the true believing Mormon will be able to better understand my perspective (without resorting to the "apostasy" nonsense), and so the honest doubter will know of how I am able to "make it work." These core beliefs that I cling to are probably not your traditional "Sunday School" doctrines, but they are all VERY Mormon nonetheless. They have given me a working template on which I hope to continually build a stronger and more meaningful connection to the divine.

So, without further delay, here is my "Letter to a Believer and a Doubter."

-----------------------------------------

Dear friend,

I know that it can be tedious to talk about religion these days. We live in a world where attention spans are often short, tempers are often hot, and any measure of disagreement is met with swift and severe rebuking. We've created an "Us v. Them" dichotomy on almost every important stage of society which prohibits us from engaging in meaningful dialogue that I believe we all are craving. We lock ourselves into our safe little homes, away from our neighbors, and drown out the loneliness with partisan talk radio, apocalyptic politicians/evangelists and self help books that fail because they focus on "self" rather than on "others." In short, we have become increasingly convinced that our safe little worlds are the only remaining bastions of truth in a decaying world. We cling to them tighter than the day before because to let go of our death grip on being right is simply out of the question. We discriminate when it comes to who we let in to our safe little worlds based on how much they agree with us, because disagreement (in the enlightened modern world) has become the new scarlet letter.

And it doesn't matter what the disagreement is about. In today's world, a friend who espouses an opposing political opinion, religious creed, NFL team or diet plan is quickly dismissed. Such an enemy is "de-friended" on Facebook faster and more arbitrarily than an Internet pop-up ad. Our need to be right has made us slaves to ignorance and enemies to tolerance.   

Despite these modern cultural shifts I believe that the human heart is still very much the same as it has always been. Even though our attention is easily distracted by the newest cell phone, Facebook comment or Star Wars trailer, what we crave most is connection and reconciliation. In short, what technology and society try to give us most (greater connection and convenience) is where they deliver the least. Wal-Mart isn't a friendly experience, social media doesn't give us a social life and On-Demand media just makes us extra demanding. What we really need is what has always been in front of us:

We need each other.

But my letter today isn't intended to address the social/cultural/technological limitations of our day, so my apologies with the soap box. Instead, I hope to take the concepts mentioned above and extrapolate them to the matter at hand: how can a true believing Mormon better accept those who don't adhere to their specific world view and how can a doubter who wants to "make it work" find the faith to do so?

First, allow me to address "The Believer"

I'm going to assume that you are a reasonable person who sincerely wants to do the right things for the right reasons. You aren't perfect, of course, but you, like the majority of people in the world, are doing your level best. You want to help others where you can. You want to be open-minded. You want to make a difference in the world.

You are also a person of integrity and for that reason you hold true to that which you believe. This is evidenced more in your religious convictions than in any other part of your life. You have gained a testimony of Joseph Smith, the Restoration and of Jesus Christ's central role in that plan. These are truths that bring you greater joy than anything else in your life. Naturally, you want to share that joy and so you "let your light so shine." You are a caring parent, a loving child, a thoughtful friend and a helping hand. In short, you are an ornament of goodness that proudly hangs from God's tree of life.

You love the church and so you feel the need to protect it whenever it comes under attack. You are aware that the church's history of dealing with persecution is what caused thousands to cross the plains and settle in the West. This legacy of faith is something you cherish, so when anyone challenges the validity of these truths (whether in or out of the church) it is easy and natural for you to want to defend your faith.  

I cannot and will not question your integrity or your motives. I believe they are pure and good. But what I will ask you (for the sake of so many who have struggled) is this: are you truly concerned about your doubting brothers and sisters when they raise issues that you interpret to be attacks on the faith? Yes, you may talk about them in Ward Council Meetings or remember them in your prayers. You've probably ingested all you can from local and General leaders on how best to meet the needs of a doubting member. 

But have you ever listened to them? 

Have you considered the reasons they doubt and struggle? Have you seen the genuine anguish in their face? Have you been able to discern the honest nature of their plight? If so, it should be plain to you that their struggle is not the result of sin, laziness or the buffetings of Satan, and "cookie cutter" solutions (i.e. "just pray more," "fast about it," "read your Book of Mormon") are not what your brother/sister are needing. I'm not suggesting that you give in to their list of grievances or even entertain the specific reasons for their doubts. What I am suggesting is that instead of providing correlated solutions to un-correlated problems you first consider the following:

1.) Resist the Urge to Label Their Struggle as being "Anti-Mormon"
Believe me, they've heard this line before. Many times. And what it really means to the doubter when you say it is, "Your doubts are just silly and unfounded." In reality, the cause of a faith crisis is oftentimes church approved material. Whether it takes the form of the new church essays on difficult gospel topics, the Journal of Discourses or scripture itself doesn't really matter. When you accuse someone of studying "anti-Mormon" material you are cheapening the reason for their struggle.  

2.) Seek to Restore Trust Instead of Attacking the Cause
Regardless of what you might think, the majority of people who endure a faith crisis aren't doing it over trivial matters. Odds are they have done their homework and may even know more about church history/doctrine than you. The natural desire is to attack the cause of the faith crisis by attacking historical arguments themselves. Avoid saying things like, "You're taking things out of context" or "That isn't important for your salvation." Instead, seek to rebuild trust. This is what they are wanting most: a desire to once again trust the church.

3.) Be Open to Sincere Questions
This can be tougher than you think. When a doubting member poses an un-correlated question in Relief Society/Elder's Quorum chances are they want an answer and aren't trying to stir the pot. Assume best intent and avoid the whole, "That isn't an appropriate question for this forum." Really? Church isn't the place to ask these questions? And we wonder why so many seek other outlets to find their answers! To be sure, some questions aren't appropriate, but it really isn't that hard to distinguish between the honest seeker and someone who just wants to stir the pot.  

4.) Separate Church Culture from Church Doctrine
Like any institution, Mormonism has developed its own culture. We do things because it has become "the Mormon way." But make no mistake, many of these things are simply cultural creations. The quickest way to lose a member who is struggling with a faith crisis it to make them feel unwanted by continuing to sustain bogus cultural practices. All should be made to feel welcome in church regardless of dress, opinion, etc. As Elder Uchtdorf taught: "As disciples of Jesus Christ we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God's commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social and political preferences. The church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples," Just because they aren't Mormon in the way you want them to be (or in the way the majority is) doesn't make much of a difference.  

5.) Take as Much Off the Table as Possible
There are so many historical, scientific and doctrinal issues that we as a church can and should be able to "let go" of and not worry or waste time debating.  Issues like evolution, polygamy in the afterlife, the location of Kolob, etc. are all points that miss the point. Try to avoid defining where the church officially stands on issues that either don't matter or that are impossible to define. Trust me, the doubting member already has plenty on his/her plate. We don't need to add more.

6.) They Can't Go Back but They Can Go Forward
Chances are that any member who endures a crisis of faith is going to be permanently changed. They can't go back and shouldn't be pushed to do so. This may be the hardest thing for a traditional believing member to accept. Once you've peeked through the curtain to see the Wizard of Oz chances are you will never see Oz in the same light again. Instead of sending this person on a guilt trip of shame, help them to move forward in faith. A doubting member cannot unlearn what he/she has learned.  Instead he/she must now seek to find understanding and rebuilt trust. The old frameworks, old expectations and old assumptions aren't coming back and you are wasting time and energy if you endeavor to do so. Instead encourage new paradigms and new ways of understanding.

In conclusion, remember that the "doubter," like any person, is not somebody to be defined, labeled or neatly placed into a box.  He/she is a real person with legitimate reasons for concern. As I mentioned above, there are equally good reasons to doubt the truth claims of the church just as there are equally good reasons to have faith in such claims. Your ability to recognize this fact and to treat the doubting member with love and absolute acceptance will determine a great deal moving forward.

And if they do choose to depart, don't let them depart from you. This is especially true of family members. There is no more pathetic example of Mormon hypocrisy than when a family member is made to feel shunned, marginalized, unwanted or unloved. I'd tell you what I really think of such a person but I want to keep this G-rated. Just remember that your choice to be a "good Mormon" makes you absolutely, positively, no better than the member who chooses to depart (for whatever reason). If you take one thing from my blog today let it be this: love always wins and is always the best policy.

Let me now shift gears and address those who struggle with doubt.

First, let me say that I consider you a kindred spirit. I will never understand everything you deal with but rest assured I understand a good portion of it. I have dealt with my own crisis of faith for over a decade now (reference this blog post for more specifics) and have come to know many of the issues you struggle to understand. I consider you friends and sincerely believe that you represent the best and brightest that Mormonism has to offer.

I admire your ability to look outside of the traditionally prescribed and accepted box of correlated Mormonism and to seek answers for yourself. You recognize the value of honest inquiry and the need for greater intellectual rigor.  You are to be applauded for refusing to "go with the flow" and for daring to ask the question, "What if I/we are wrong?"  Believe me when I say that I wish there were more of you out there in the church.

I know that faith is a difficult concept, especially when you see the many blemishes that obscure the "only true and living church upon the face of the earth." You have uncovered hypocrisy, familiarized yourself with REAL history, recognized the flaws in our theology and endured the finger-pointing of the majority. To borrow from Robert Frost, you have ventured down "the road less traveled" and it has "made all the difference."

Now you are at a crossroad. Do you continue down the path of honest intellectual curiosity and continue to discover the inevitable errors caused by frail and imperfect humans (many who carry the title of "Prophet")?  Do you embrace faith or abandon it completely? Is there even a place for you in a church that sometimes demands conformity?

These are questions only you can answer. Just know that even though you may feel like an outsider or an outcast, there is a place for you in this faith! I don't care what the critics tell you nor am I ignorant of the many who have been excommunicated for "apostasy" because they asked too many questions in a far too public manner. I still maintain (perhaps blindly so) that YOU ARE NEEDED in this church!!! Even if the reason is simply because I need you. I wasn't kidding when I called you a kindred spirit. I feel I can relate more to you than I can to most members.  This is why you matter so much to me. This is why I post the things I post of Facebook. I want you to know that YOU MATTER and your questions/doubts matter too.

I'm going to try and avoid giving you the textbook reasons as to why I stay in the faith. I realize that you are a thoughtful group and I appreciate that fact.  For those reasons, let me provide for you a few of the reasons I choose to stay in the faith, along with a few of the doctrines of Mormonism that I find most sublime.  

I choose to stay for community. Mormonism is my tribe. It is my native language to God. I can no more discard my Mormonism than I can discard my "American-ism." This doesn't mean that I live without struggle. I find the Mormon community to be inspiring and aggravating. Perhaps there is a reason we are organized into wards. It recreates the setting of a family. Families are complex and so are Mormon wards. In the interest of full disclosure my wife and I struggle like crazy with our current ward. We feel marginalized all the time. This struggle, however, doesn't negate the fact that this is my community. Even if I don't feel like it all the time (we hardly feel like it), this is where we ultimately belong.

I realize that this isn't necessarily profound. After all, my Mormon heritage does not oblige me to stay with the faith. I'm free to leave whenever I feel like it. But leaving, at least for me, is akin to admitting defeat. It is giving up on something because I finally discovered that it wasn't what I thought it was. For some, this is more than justifiable reason to leave. If the church isn't what they had been led to believe then the game is up. I get that. But I also believe in learning to appreciate nuance and accepting people and things for who and what they are. Nobody is perfect and all institutions are man-made, meaning they are imperfect as well. If we abandoned everything that wasn't what we hoped it would be, all of us would have to give up on our jobs, our spouses, our children, out parents, etc., etc., etc.

I choose to stay because I believe in change and want to be a part of it. We are a church that is built of the concept of continuing revelation, which really means continual change. Yes, Mormonism sometimes moves slowly and carefully towards that change, but it DOES CHANGE, and I believe for the better. We have become more inclusive, more patient, more tolerant, more loving and I have the hope that we will continue to do just that in the generations to come. The goal is progress, not perfection. I don't expect prophets to bat a perfect 1.000, nor do I expect the church to always get everything right all of the time. I would hate it if somebody gave me that standard so why would I demand it of others? As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught:
Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fullness is poured forth, it is not the oil's fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can't quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving. 
I choose to stay Mormon because I find beneath the sometimes popular nonsense a uniquely rich and vibrant faith that is deserving of sincere study and reflection. The following are just a few of the doctrines I love most about the Mormon faith:

1.) Eternal Progression: We are taught from an early age that God has prepared for us a plan that will allow us to become more like Him. In addition, we are also taught that this life is but a drop in the bucket to our existence and that further growth and improvement will be had in the life to come. Sometimes I think we downplay just how significant the doctrine of eternal progression is in the Mormon faith. The concept of eternal progression means that even God continues to grow and improve (if that weren't the case then there would be no ETERNAL progression). Growth and change are a never-ending process.

2.) Absolute Agency: The concept of agency is, at times, a bit of a paradox to us Mormons. We cling to it when it is convenient to us but not so much when it goes against our collective desires. Regardless of this fact, Mormonism teaches that man is truly sovereign in every meaningful way. We are the captains of our own ship and as such we are free to choose for ourselves whatever path we want. But the Mormon concept of agency is much more than simple choice.  As Joseph Smith taught in his King Follett discourse:
We say that God himself is a self-existent God. Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principle? The mind of man -- the intelligent part -- is as immortal as and is coequal with God himself. I might with boldness proclaim from the housetop that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all...intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle.
We have always been agents unto ourselves and always will be. This is perhaps my favorite doctrine in all the church. More on this in an upcoming blog post.

3.) Exalting the Human Body:
It was Friedrich Nietzshie, the famous philosopher, atheist and critic of organized religion who said, "I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance." Amen, my dear atheist. Amen. One of the most sublime teaching of Mormonism is that the body is a gift from God. In fact, to become like God one must have  a glorified and perfected body. Though most Christian faiths preach resurrection, they still, at times, treat the body like a temporary shell that we simply must deal with, but thankfully will discard in the world to come. Not so in Mormonism. One of the main reasons for this life was to obtain a body. We see the body as divine and as being necessary for growth. We teach of a God who has a body of flesh and bone and also of passions. The human body gives us those passions and as a result gives us progression. Instead of merely dealing with the human body, Mormonism celebrates it as divinely appointed and necessary to our growth and progression.

4.) The Ultimate Gatekeepers of Grace:
The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of works and rightfully so. But we are also a religion that deeply adheres to the doctrine of grace. Instead of going into greater detail I will refer you to the following talk by Brad Wilcox, who explains this better than I ever could:



5.) Universalist Approach to Salvation:
As elitist and as exclusive as Mormonism may seem, the fact is we are (or at least should be) the ultimate Universalists on the planet. As Joseph Smith taught, "God will fetter out every individual soul."  In other words, everyone is going to have every possible chance to "make it back" to our Heavenly home. If this wasn't the case, God isn't much of a God at all.  Mormonism, no matter how you slice it, is a Universalist faith.

And finally, I choose to stay Mormon because in it I have found Jesus. If there is a single gift that I appreciate most about having endured a faith crisis it is this: my loyalty will never rest with Mormonism or any other creed; my loyalties rest with Jesus. I don't shy from admitting that I have put all my eggs into the Jesus basket because I believe He is a surefire win no matter what. To the believer, Christ represents the atoning Savior of Mankind. To the skeptic, he represents, oftentimes, the very best of human philosophy. To quote James E. Talmage from his book, Jesus the Christ: "even the blasphemer recognizes the supreme nature and message of the very name of the man he desecrates." I believe very strongly that both devout believer, honest skeptic and everyone in between should strive to never let their Mormonism get in the way of their Christianity. After all, Mormonism, like any creed, saves nobody. It is in Jesus alone that salvation is to be found. As the Book of Mormon teaches, "hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in the words believe in Christ."  If Jesus is all that is left that is more than enough! In the end, everything else is colored bubbles anyway.

In conclusion (and I've certainly gone on for long enough) I want to share the following picture:


This medallion and cross is something I wear with me almost every day.  I do so because it reminds me of a couple of things: first, the cross is obviously a reminder that it is Jesus in whom I place my trust. The medallion is actually called a Jupiter talisman. Most are probably not aware of what a Jupiter talisman is so let me briefly explain. A Jupiter talisman is essentially a "good luck charm" that has its roots in pagan and folk magic practices.  Joseph Smith owned and wore one throughout his life, He was actually wearing his Jupiter talisman when he was murdered at Carthage. Joseph Smith wore his because his life and his religious experience were deeply rooted and affected by the practice of folk magic that was common in 19th century America (this is why Smith used a seer stone throughout his life as well).  Don't worry, this is the only less-than-pleasant tidbit of Mormon history that I plan on mentioning today.

So why do I have and wear a Jupiter talisman? I do not prescribe to folk magic or pagan ideology so clearly my Jupiter talisman carries no special powers in my mind. It's just a simple medallion.  I wear it because it serves to remind me that religion...all religion...is full of the crazy, the inexplicable and the downright bizarre. Once you go down the rabbit-hole of religion, you go DOWN the rabbit-hole. This is something I believe both devout believers and honest skeptics should keep ever-present in their minds. None of us will ever have all the answers we want, nor will we ever be able to conclusively prove what we believe.

Whether we embrace the "rational" disciplines of history, science, etc., or we place our faith in the symbols of the Christian cross, the Jupiter talisman or crazy seer stones, the lesson is not WHAT truth we believe but HOW we let that truth change us. If we stand for our beliefs while driving others who believe differently away from us then we missed the point of Jesus' message entirely. If we choose to be more critical and carry a skeptic's perspective, yet mock those of faith then you're just as much of a hypocrite. The goal is to live in harmony with each other, in the same way faith and doubt learn to co-exist. That's the great message of both religion and rational inquiry...

...at least that's what my seer stone told me.  =)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

How Early Christians Understood (or Misunderstood) Slavery

One of the many reasons that I enjoy the study of Medieval history so much is because it is such a misunderstood and misrepresented era. There are so many misconceptions surrounding the Medieval period, caused primarily by Hollywood, Renaissance Festivals, etc. Uncovering the sometimes obscure facts about the Medieval era helps to shed those misconceptions and brings greater understanding.

One of those misconceptions has to do with the practice of slavery and how early Christians understood (or perhaps misunderstood) the practice. Contrary to popular belief, early Christianity did not repeal the practice or reduce the numbers of slaves involved. Rather, early Christians, in many ways, found convenient justifications that allowed the practice to continue and even flourish for many years.

To be certain, slavery did, over time, dwindle away in Medieval Europe thanks in large part to the Christian faith (though one could easily argue that peasantry, along with different forms of forced labor wasn't much better).  But as the final remnants of the Roman Empire decayed away, being replaced with Christian institutions to fill the void and establish new social and political constructs, the slavery question required an overhaul in how it would be reconciled to this new world faith. Naturally, an appeal to Christian authority (meaning Jesus' apostles) would satisfy such a void. The Didache (a first century collection of teaching attributed to the Twelve Apostles) states the following on slavery:
Do not, when embittered, give orders to your slave, male or female, for the hope in the same God; otherwise, they might lose fear of God, who is the Master of both of you. Surely is not coming to call with an eye to rank and station in life, no. But you, slaves, be submissive to your masters as to God's image in reverence and fear.
The message here is clear. Slaves, though technically eligible for salvation, are still an accepted component of society. Slave masters are to do their Christian duty by treating their slaves with relative respect, just as God treats them (his children who are still subjugated to him) with that same respect.

The Bible is full of examples of how early Christians were to interact and deal with their slaves. Paul alone provides us with ample source material on the subject. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul directs slaves to submit to their masters willfully. It is important to note that the word "servant" or "maid" in the King James Translation actually means "slave.":
Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.
From 1 Timothy 6: 1-3 we read:
Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren, but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort, If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness.
For Paul, and many other Christians, slavery is simply a normal part of life. The job of the Christian is to play their part as best they can as Christians.  From 1 Corinthians 12:13:
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
And Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, that is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
And Colossians 3:11:
Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Slavery was part and parcel to daily life in the world of early Christians, and their leadership seemed content to embrace it as they would embrace any other aspect of their lives. In fact, Paul appears to support slave holding to a fault.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul mentions the fact that he has returned a runaway slave (Onesimus), whom he met while together in prison, to his master, presumably Philemon. Though he could have given the runaway Onesimus sanctuary, Paul returned him to his owner (though he hints to Philemon that he would like to see Onesimus freed).  Had Paul seen slavery as a Christian abomination, this would have been the best time of all to take a stand.  He didn't because Paul, like his fellow Christians of the day, saw no sin in the keeping of slaves.

As the Apostles died away, the idea of slavery continued to be sanctioned by the subsequent generations of Christian leaders. Polycarp (a disciple of the Apostle John), for example, urged slaveholders to avoid emancipating their slaves, since (in his mind) slaves would naturally fall away from God:
Let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not wish to be set free as the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.
It is important that we understand the type of slavery that existed in this period. Contrary to the slavery of the New World (almost exclusively Black African slavery), the slavery of late antiquity/the early Medieval world was usually the result of debts, crimes committed or neighboring societies conquering and subjugating the losers. People who found themselves swimming in debts, for example, often found forgiveness for said debts by selling themselves, or more common, their family members into slavery.  In Matthew 18:25 we read:
But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.
Slaves were even owned by High Priests and potentially even by apostles themselves.  From Mark 14:66:
And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest.
Over time (particularly after the "fall" of the Roman Empire), slavery became a less advantageous enterprise that was phased out. The institution of peasantry and other forms of impoverished living were more advantageous to Medieval society than slavery.

Monday, August 10, 2015

My Top 10 Jazz Songs of All Time

I finally got a new laptop this past month, which means that I am ready to jump back into the world of blogging (which should excite the 2-3 loyal readers I have). To start things off, I decided to pick a relatively benign topic.

For those who know me well you are probably aware that my favorite musical genre is jazz. I'm not picky on the style (after all, what exactly IS jazz), so long as it stays true to art form.  Jazz combines the best of two worlds: European classical sophistication and Black Africa's rhythm and syncopation. What you are left with is a musical stale that (in my opinion) crushes all competitors. Plus, it's worth noting that jazz is as American as you can possibly get.  The best American musicians, by and large, have come from jazz and have done more to shape American culture than most realize. Whether it's the playing of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong, or the vocals of Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, jazz is a musical innovation that continues to influence our world today.

So, without further delay, here are my picks for best 10 jazz songs of all time:

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10.) Strange Fruit (1939) -- Billie Holiday
Strange Fruit was, in it's time as today, a powerful protest of racism in America, and particularly the practice of lynching that was still common during the Jim Crow era. Holiday said it was the most difficult song she ever sang and she preferred to not sing it live. The song was inducted the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included in the list of "Songs of the Century" by the National Endowment for the Arts.


9.) Swingin' at the Haven (1985) -- Branford Marsalis
Marsalis not only has the pedigree of a great jazz musician but he also has the chops.  He's one of the best alive today.


8.) Caravan (1937) -- Duke Ellington
This song was originally written by Juan Tizol and was first performed by Duke Ellington.  It's a jazz classic that has also experienced a resurrection as of late, thanks to the movie "Whiplash."


7.) Stardust (1931) -- Louis Armstrong
The song was originally written by Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote a number of hits like "Georgia on My Mind," "Heart and Soul," and this classic that was made famous by the incomparable Louis Armstrong.


6.) Take Five (1959) -- Dave Brubeck
Many (to include the folks at jazz24.org) consider Take Five to be the greatest jazz song ever.  Not only is it the best selling jazz song in history but it is one of the most played songs in the history of radio.


5.) In the Mood (1939) -- Glenn Miller
In the Mood was #1 on the charts for almost all of 1939 and eventually made its way into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  NPR named it one of the 100 most important songs in American history.


4.) Take the "A" Train (1940) -- Duke Ellington
Originally written by Billy Strayhorn and made famous by "The Duke" himself, this song dominated the charts in 1940 and is widely considered one of the top 5 jazz songs ever by jazz enthusiasts.


3.) Embraceable You (1947) -- Charlie Parker
A classic written by the Great George Gershwin in 1928 and made into a jazz number by a myriad of artists, but none did it better than Charlie Parker!


2.) Sing, Sing, Sing (1937) -- Benny Goodman
Just a rocking awesome song!  A home run in every way that speaks for itself.  Sing, Sing, Sing, was #1 in 1937 AND 1938, and helped to catapult Goodman to the top of the Big Band stage.


1.) Mister Magic (1975) Grover Washington
As the undisputed champion of jazz funk, Grover Washington had a number of great hits, but none was better than Mister Magic.  His saxophone solo alone (which starts at minute 3:45 of the song) is worth listening to if you haven't before. In an era dominated by rock and disco, Mister Magic made the Billboard Pop Top 10 in 1975, the first jazz song to do so in over a decade,  Washington's saxophone (rivaled only by the Great Charlie Parker) made him a legend in his day and an icon in jazz.  In my opinion, this is the greatest jazz song ever written, which is why it serves as my ringtone.  =)

There you have it!  My Top 10 Jazz Songs of All Time!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Some Final Thoughts on Seer Stones

Yesterday's news regarding the release of photos showing the stone that Joseph Smith allegedly used to translate the Book of Mormon has, over the past 24 hours, spread far and wide.  News outlets from all over the world have reported on this story, which has been greeted by readers with a plethora of different opinions.

When I saw this image for the first time yesterday afternoon, memories of my dad came flashing back.  I recalled an occasion from my youth in which we were attending a family gathering at my uncle's home.  As is often the case in my family, several aunts, uncles and cousins began talking about "deep" Mormon doctrine.  In the course of the conversation, one of my uncles brought up the fact that Joseph Smith had used a seer stone to assist him in translating the Book of Mormon. Another uncle, determined to defend the "purity" of the faith, rebuked the first uncle for his "apostate" suggestion that Smith used a simple rock to produce the Book of Mormon.  The conversation continued in this way, with each uncle asserting and opposing their respective viewpoints.

It was on the drive home that I asked my dad about the supposed seer stone.  Naturally I was curious and wanted to know if there was any validity to the claim.  My dad's response was simple but profound.  To paraphrase him (I don't remember his exact words after these many years) my dad replied, "I honestly don't know but it shouldn't matter.  Whether Joseph produced 500+ pages using the Urim and Thumim (the traditionally taught method of translation) or a seer stone, the result is equally impressive."

Fast forward to today.  The story of the seer stone has been greeted by skeptics as proof of the petty silliness of the Mormon message.  After all, who looks at rocks and expects to receive revelations! For the believer, the reception of this news is somewhat complicated.  To be sure, some members of the LDS faith (like my uncle) already knew about the seer stone.  To them it's no big deal.  But to many others, the news that Joseph Smith put a rock in his hat, then buried his face into said hat to receive divine revelation from a rock is problematic for their faith.  Some of the many questions this new news brings to mind are:
1.) Why did the church wait so long in divulging the seer stone to begin with? This was never taught in a single lesson manual. 
2.) If Joseph Smith simply looked in a hat at a rock, why did Nephi need to kill Laban to get the plates?  
3.) Why does the Book of Mormon contain so many anachronisms and other errors? If Smith was receiving divine revelation from the seer stone, wouldn't God make sure the message was correct? 
These are just a few of the many questions that good, honest, critical thinking members of the church have in regards to the Book of Mormon and its translation.

It is not my desire to necessarily answer these questions here today. I understand and respect why so many have issues with this and other Mormon historical/theological/doctrinal problems. It is naturally troubling to stumble upon ideas or previously unknown facts that challenge our preconceived notions of the world, especially when that world notion reports to be "the only true and living church" in the world.

With that all being said (and this is specifically meant for those who struggle with this or other church issues), I would urge you to look at your own personal epistemology.  Epistemology (sounds like a big scary word) is essentially the study of how we arrive at truth.  It is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from crazy opinion.  In short, it is how we weigh conflicting sets of evidence against one another in order to better arrive at what we choose to believe as truth (notice how I said "what we CHOOSE to believe as truth" as opposed to what is absolute factual truth).

We live in a world of relativity and paradox.  We can find all around us ample examples of how perception determines reality.  For example:



This simple but comical example of how perception influences reality has legitimate lessons that we can extrapolate to my blog topic today.  How you choose to PERCEIVE the Book of Mormon is going to have a very real and lasting impact on the REALITY you choose to embrace.  For example, if news of the seer stones becomes too shocking to your world view (because, hey, who is crazy enough to believe that rocks have magical powers), chances are you will choose to perceive the Book of Mormon as a hoax.  That will become your reality.  If, however, you choose to perceive the seer stones and/or the Urim and Thumim as having a divine purpose, chances are you will repeat something similar to what my dad told me so many years ago: "I honestly don't know but it shouldn't matter.  Whether Joseph produced 500+ pages using the Urim and Thumim or a seer stone the result is equally impressive."  Such is the case with faith.  Whether we want to admit it or not, both skeptic and believer alike are, as Paul put it, "see[ing] through a glass, darkly."

I realize that skeptics will accuse me of discarding so many of the facts that they regularly employ to disprove the Book of Mormon. I have no desire to make light of factual historical/scientific data or other observable realities.  These are all important considerations in any quest for truth.  But I also hope that people will, as I mentioned above, reevaluate their own personal epistemology. There is a case to be had in the fruit of the Book of Mormon, regardless of its ultimate origin.  As the great historian Richard Bushman (author of Rough Stone Rolling, the best bio of Joseph Smith ever written), once said, "The Book of Mormon is either a work of divinity or a work of genius. Both of those possibilities should make us marvel." 

As for those who complain about the church's obscuring of its own history (i.e. not revealing the seer stone for 180+ years) I simply say, I understand your contempt. As somebody who places a high price on historical integrity I too have struggled with many of the historical/doctrinal claims that the church has, at times, hidden from its members (via Correlation or other means).  But that is PRECISELY why I am so happy about yesterday's news.  Times are changing and the church is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly transparent about its past.  I tip my hat to them for it.

In addition, keep in mind that the obscuring of historical facts is not just a Mormon problem but a human problem.  We all do it because we all develop our own preferred narrative for past events (remember the whole perception becomes reality bit?).  Case in point: just look at Christmas.

For anyone who knows me, you are more than aware of the fact that Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday.  I anxiously count down the days each year.  There's something about the trees, lights, smells and cheer that I find intoxicating.  And though I love this holiday more than any other, I also am aware of the fact that the historical narrative we all choose to accept when it comes to Christmas is VERY distorted.

For example, Christmas trees were a pagan practice that were originally rejected as an abomination (reference Jeremiah 10:2-4).   In addition, other practices like mistletoe, wreaths, lights, etc. all have pagan roots, as opposed to the traditionally believed Christian origins (see my post on Christmas by clicking here).  Heck, our Nativity scenes are, from a historical perspective, a complete joke!  First, Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, and the idea of a pregnant Mary being toted around by Joseph who was trying to find a room in the ancient world's version of a Holiday Inn so he could follow Caesar's degree regarding a "tax" is all an accepted historical myth.  In reality, the Nativity was MUCH different than what we portray today.  

Does that mean we need to discard Christmas?  Or the Nativity?  As a Christmas fan I will be the first to declare "hell no!"  Yes, we should all educate ourselves more about the true nature of Jesus' birth and the origins of Christmas.  But learning such truths doesn't mean you have to sacrifice the celebration of Christmas as a whole.

Such is the case with Mormonism and the Book of Mormon.  Yes, members of our faith are woefully lacking when it comes to a knowledge of our church's history,  I partially blame Correlation for this. But learning the truth behind the Book of Mormon's translation does not automatically mean you need to discard the book itself or Mormonism as a whole.  The choice is ultimately up to each of us to determine our own epistemology based on our own perceptions.

In conclusion, I leave you with the following short poem, which I believe relates directly to the topic at hand:

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due. 
-Alexander Pope