Snapshots of Life

Sunday, April 04, 2010

As Becometh a Latter-day Saint

The airwaves, internet connections, and great halls and parks across this nation have been filled with anger and contention over the past several months. Debates are raging about the current challenges facing the country and the course we will take into the future. Most prominent, of course, has been the health care bill, but there have been plenty of other issues about which to argue, such as the war in Afghanistan, climate change, education reform, immigration reform, and financial sector reform to name a few. The ubiquity of rancor in the rhetoric from all sides is beyond remarkable. There are movements and counter-movements, protests, rallies, riled up politicians, and provocative commentators; all bearing down in a power struggle that finds expression through showmanship as well as self-proclaimed and self-justified indignation. One politician or faction is incensed, fully convinced that their anger is righteous, and soon the antagonist is incensed at their opponent's being incensed.

It is in the midst of this political environment that I have recently been contemplating the appropriate Christian mindset and behavior in the realm of civic affairs and citizenship. As many of you know several members of the LDS church are prominent players in the current debates, including Harry Reid (a Democrat and current U.S. Senate majority leader), Glenn Beck (a libertarian/conservative who is an author, radio host, and Fox News commentator), and Mitt Romney (a Republican and former governor of Massachusetts, as well as candidate for the presidency), among others. My thoughts are in no way commentary on any of these individuals specifically. Rather, they are insights that flow from a personal effort to better understand the teachings of the Savior to guide my own thoughts, feelings, and actions in the domain of politics and public policy.

I have been asking myself the question, what would Jesus do? That very question, or one similar to it, was posed to Mike Huckabee during a 2008 presidential primary debate. He cleverly stated something to the effect that Jesus would be smart enough to stay out of politics! Perhaps so...but in reality his response was just a fun way to dodge the question. What would Jesus do? And what would he have us do? I am not talking about which side of the issue the Savior would fall down on, or which side of the aisle He would have us join. I'm talking about how He would have us behave in the conversations about the issue and how He would have us interact with the person across the aisle.

The Lord through His servants has repeatedly stated that we should be involved in the political process, that we should be informed about the issues, that we should vote, and that we should even run for office where there is interest and ability. He has also said that His church will not endorse political parties or philosophies. The church, of course, will speak out on moral issues in public policy, for which it is much maligned both outside and inside of the general membership. Opinions about the political issues of our time are left to the discretion of the individual with encouraged assistance from the Holy Ghost, even on those moral questions about which the church does make statements. Therefore, there is plenty of room for members of the church with equal levels of faith and conversion to differ widely on a political issue. In this sense I wonder if Christ would be less concerned about the merits or non-merits of health care reform and more concerned about our spiritual health as manifest by the way we care for each other as we debate.

It is concerning to me when as members of the church we look to a political commentator, ideology, or platform to guide our beliefs and behavior more than to the Lord and His doctrine. I have seen members who passionately follow the ideology and rhetoric of leading national figures or groups simply because they are affiliated with a party to which they belong or are endorsed by groups that they identify with. For example, the latter-day saint who takes a conservative position only because it is endorsed by the Republican party and is frequently talked about by other conservative Christian groups, but in actuality is not in harmony with LDS doctrine or understanding. Or, the latter-day saint who takes a liberal professional position only because it is endorsed by the National Association of Social Workers and frequently talked about by the majority of mental health professionals, but in fact is at odds with LDS doctrine and understanding. In both cases the personal opinion is derived from the philosophies of men and a need for belonging in the world, rather than from the truths of God and a comfort with being "peculiar". Tragically for some, religious doctrine is rejected or accepted based off political or social philosophy instead of the reverse - guiding political and social positions from a foundation of true doctrine. Indeed, these positions, and more importantly the mode of expression thereof, do not always seem congruent with Christian discipleship.

It is also troublesome to me when members of the church in conspicuous positions are maligned by other members of the church who have joined the bandwagons of villanization and objectification in their political rhetoric. Even when the target is not a member of the church this is bothersome. Of course, many say that they do not have anything against the person, just their positions. But, the name-calling and mocking often reveal contempt and even hatred. It seems to me that if Harry Reid or Glenn Beck were in my priesthood quorum I would be under the same invitation to love them and be united with them as I would with any brother in the Gospel, whether or not I agree with their political beliefs, statements, or affiliations. I happen to know that Elder Scott gave Harry Reid a hug at General Conference this past weekend and Elder Oaks has met with President Obama and was gracious and kind.

This really isn't just an LDS issue though. The contempt and rage of which I speak is swirling and swelling in every part of the nation, across religion, race, and culture. But of all people, should we not stand out in our political and social behavior? So, what would Jesus say and what would Jesus do? I am not so presumptuous as to suggest I know. However, the scriptures, which are His words and teachings, lend answers.

The standard works have much to say about anger, contention, and wrath. The Lord counsels his children over and over again to avoid such behavior. Here is just a sampling of references:

"Cease from anger and forsake wrath." (Psalms 37:8)
"A soft answer turneth away wrath." (Proverbs 15:1,18)
"Contention is of the devil." (3 Nephi 11:29-30)
"Proclaim my word...not in haste, neither in wrath, nor with strife." (D&C 60:7,14)
"Charity suffereth long, and is kind, not easily provoked." (Moroni 7:45)
"Put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth." (Colossians 3:8)

Anger can be intoxicating and addictive. There is often excitement and adrenaline with the drama of anger. We can easily be consumed in the powerful feelings incited by triggers of anger. There is a bit of a thrill in "going to battle" and advocating a cause or railing against an opponent.

Yet, anger is not necessarily an evil emotion. In my profession I teach anger management skills and classes fairly often. I teach my clients that anger as an emotion is not of itself a problem. The problem is what we do with that emotion. Do we allow it to control us? Do we harbor it in our soul to poison our feelings? Do we act out in aggression and violence? Do we manipulate or oppress? Anger is actually a primary emotional circuit in our brain. It serves in part to protect and to motivate. It is, I believe, God-given just like all the other emotions we experience. Think about it, if anger is evil or bad there would not be a trace of it in God's personality and character. God is perfect and perfectly good, and God has anger. Consider these examples:

"In a little wrath I hid my face from them." (Isaiah 54:8)
"Iniquity provoketh him that he sendeth down his wrath." (Alma 12:36)
"...The Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them..." (D&C 84:24)
"The wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience." (Colossians 3:6)
The 1st and 2nd cleansing of the temple (John 2:14-17; Matthew 21:12-15)

How do we then reconcile these ideas? I think there are a couple of possibilities, which are purely my own opinion that has developed as I have thought about these principles. First; feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are different things. It is one thing to feel anger, another to think angry, and another to act in anger. All of these phenomena may be experienced simultaneously but can also be separated. I may feel angry and develop hateful thoughts then go out and rage in protests, hurling insults and epithets; or I may feel angry and develop helpful thoughts then channel that emotion into actions that contribute to solutions. It seems to me that God is more concerned about what we do with our feelings in our thoughts and actions than He is with the feeling itself.

Second, it appears that anger should be acted upon only at the direction of the Spirit and always in a manner that is consistent with the Lord's commandments to be patient, long-suffering, and forgiving. For example, in the Doctrine and Covenants we learn we should "reprove betimes (immediately) with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards and increase in love..." (D&C 121:43).

Third, God reserves acting on anger in wrath to Himself, just as He reserves judgment to Himself, because of His perfect omniscience and omnipotence. The Lord has the ability to see situations clearly that to us are clouded by our limited perception. He "looketh on the heart" where we tend only to see the "outward appearance".

Therefore, it seems to me that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ invites us to use anger that we experience as a reaction to political and social events or circumstances in a constructive way. The gospel invites us to school our feelings and reject angry, contentious, and hateful thoughts and behavior for the Christ-like attributes of charity. There is no caveat or exception regarding political debate or behavior. So shall we be mum and passive? Shall we avoid discussion or participation? NO! We can be examples of civil debate and "Christian courage". We can join the conversation without joining the hate. We can criticize positions and policies without attacking the character of our brother. We can follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost to recognize and denounce evil without "railing accusations" (D&C 50:33). Even in the most passionate and emotional debates we must stand apart from the crowd and disengage from the drama of disdain.

I for one am still learning to school my feelings and to respond as the Lord would have me respond, particularly to some of the most emotionally charged issues of our day. I think this is the standard that I would like to reach - the standard of God. The Savior was our perfect examplar. He did not shy away from discussions or controversy but He didn't grandstand either. When His detractors were "past feeling" and full of contempt, such that any response would go unheard and only invite mocking and scorn, He "answered nothing".