Tuesday, June 23, 2009


It has been fascinating and inspiring--and simultaneously distressing and sorrowful--to follow the news from Iran. Unexpectedly, a highly spurious election--the kind of thing we have come to expect of many places throughout the world--has met resistance, as people have made noise, proudly and bravely, longing for a right that is so fundamental as to be taken for granted in these United States of America. And, with July 4th not much more than a week away, this has prompted me to reflect on the nature of freedom.

A common theme of the commentary on Iran has been a bemoaning of the laissez-faire approach of the Obama administration, ridicule and contempt for the lack of forceful denunciations from the world's superpower. The right-wing pundits have hopped on this as a sign of both the president's lack of spine and his acquiescence to the foes of liberty. At this I raise my eyebrows.

It seems to me a misreading of what freedom is. At work I share an office with another English faculty member, our chair, who leans left in his politics, but who is far from a rabble-rousing radical. But for over four years he had one political cartoon on the office door (it came down in January). The scene is titled "Johnny Freedom-Seed," and depicted George W Bush dancing about with a basket, tossing in the air miniature missiles that blossomed not into trees, but small explosions. It is, I believe, a fitting metaphor for the previous administration's worldview of freedom, a commodity that can be given, imposed, transplanted.

But freedom cannot come from another. As we learned from the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, freedom is not granted simply by our words, but by our actions, the deeds of Gettysburg and Antietam, of Selma and Montgomery. Freedom is not the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, but in the purple fingers of Iraqis voting years later. The Cold War taught us this as well, as it was not merely ICBMs, but East Germans with sledge hammers, that brought an empire to its knees.

And so I applaud a president who, as John Dickerson argues, understands that we cannot win Iran's people their freedom; they must fight for it. Whether that revolution is happening now or happens decades from now, it will only happen when normal people, pushed too far, like the patriots we honor in our parades next week, decide that freedom is not simply a right of mankind, but a privilege we partake of only to the extent that we understand, honor, value, and struggle for it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

On Expectations & Doctrines

Every month our ward holds a ward find activity. We identify individuals whose records are in our ward but whom we do not know, and we send people out to knock on doors and find them. It's a good and important thing to do, and we've had some really positive experiences with it.

This Sunday I went out with the full-time missionaries to find some of our members, one of whom was at home. She was surprised to see us, and I was surprised by her explanation of why she is not active: "serious theological differences with the Church." Rarely do you get that kind of candor; often it's feeling unwelcoming or being offended or being uninterested in worshiping.

This got me thinking about why people leave the Church. Here are some thoughts, beginning with an interesting entry I read at By Common Consent on how the cultural expectations we have as members of the Church can be problematic. The author discusses how she felt underprepared for some of the big life events that define one as LDS, and many of the comments mirror that sense of pressure that many young members feel at the prospect of the milestones, especially those associated with the temple.

In many ways this sentiment is very different than my experience. I was immensely excited to go to the temple. (When, during the first week of my freshman year, I was called as the president of the Elders quorum in my student ward, I sort of hoped that it would require that I be endowed.) Leaving on a mission and getting married in the temple were equally exciting for me.

But I do know something of feeling alien within the culture. This was most evident in the post-9/11-pre-Iraq-War period when we had just moved to ABQ. (I've blogged about this before, so I'll spare you the details here.) I felt like I did not share the same values or priorities as those with whom I worshiped.

I think about this in the context of another piece from BCC, this one from earlier this month. Here the idea of cognitive dissonance is used to explore faith. I like the argument that we develop faith when that faith is tested, when we are not ready for or comfortable with what we see or do.

And I think this becomes a useful and valuable way to look at faith. It is not believing when it is easy, or practicing your religion in ways that are familiar. Our spiritual growth--like any sort of growth, really--comes only when we are pushed. Only when we come to the questions we cannot answer do we find what we truly believe.

I suppose this is what struck me about that conversation. We tend to think of Mormon doctrine as being pretty homogeneous and top-down: the Prophet receives revelation and we fall in line. But there's a lot more diversity of views than that image would imply. As the Church continues to grow and define itself more articulately, it is important that we be aware of this fact; a 13-million member body with temples in Manhattan and Accra is radically different than one with the majority of its population in small farming communities in the Rocky Mountains.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We Believe in Meetings

We don't always (often? ever?) like them, but as Latter-day Saints we hold a lot of them. And I find myself in more of them than I would like these days. In my effort to make meetings more manageable, I've found a few resources that I believe are helpful.

The first comes from Mormon Times, and explains the role of Church meetings and makes some suggestions for how one ought to act in a council or committee meeting. The emphasis on an agenda stands out as being especially pertinent (and with our new ward clerk, I think the quality of the agendas--which I have been hobbling together recently--will improve).

The other is an episode of the Public Speaker podcast, and discusses meetings more generally. Again, the importance of planning the meeting is made clear. This is an area where most Church meetings lack. We hold PEC because we're supposed to, not always because we have a clear vision of what we're supposed to do.

Slowly I'm beginning to see the meetings I attend as necessary and vital parts of ministering, of knowing what needs to be done and who can best do it.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More on SCOTUS

I found this piece in the WSJ today; it excerpts from then-Senator Obama's comments at the confirmation hearings of then-SCOTUS nominee John Roberts. What I find interesting is Obama's emphasis on the 5% of the law that is not cut-and-dried, where the idea of empathy comes into play. It is this idea that to me highlights the ideological divide between left and right, a divide that the George Will and Cal Thomas wing of conservatism have tried to use as a wedge, much to the detriment of the right.

Here's how I see it. The ability to consider the implications of a judgment on the various parties involved (to empathize, which is markedly different than sympathizing) is at the heart of judgment. Parenting has taught me that when a conflict is not clearly delineated between perpetrator and victim, wisdom lies in listening and considering carefully the ways in which justice can affect everyone involved. And sometimes blind justice (the metaphor that so many conservative pundits have tried to contrast with the idea of empathy) is simply mistaken.

I see another connection in how disciplinary action is carried out in the Church. The purpose of a disciplinary council is not some cold hard justice or retribution for an infraction. Rather, the council intends always to bless the lives of everyone involved, both transgressor and any parties affected by the transgression. Mercy certainly rules in these councils, and the guiding principle is that of helping people move on with their lives.

In discussion of welfare, we often talk of how government systems ought to emulate the Church's welfare program. I think a similar principle would work well in the courts. If the justice system were more empathetic--not less--and more focused on helping people rebuild their lives, instead of the vindictive and retributive nature of contemporary American justice, I believe we would have a much more perfect union.