Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jesus at Harvard, Mormons at Waco?

In reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I can't help recalling the last occasion when I met Jesus for the first time--the last time I saw Jesus of Nazareth with new eyes, as a foreigner, someone I didn't already recognize. Six months ago I finished reading When Jesus Came to Harvard, in which Harvey Cox characterizes the Christ as a political operative. When Jesus teaches his Sermon on the Mount, Cox argues, it is with one eye on heaven and the other eye on Rome.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus teaches, "for they shall be called the kingdom of God" (Matthew 5:9). These words, Cox argues, "were a direct challenge to the ruling Roman ideology. . . . The empire's main claim to fame and legitimacy was that Rome and Rome alone was the peacemaker. It sustained the pax Romana under the magnanimous auspices of Caesar Augustus, a divine ruler. One of the imperial titles of the divine Augustus was that of 'peace-bringer'" (125). Similarly, Cox charges that another section of the Sermon on the Mount, urging disciples to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14) "was also a calculated mockery of Rome. In his In Catilinam, Cicero describes Rome as 'the light of the whole world.' Jesus takes bold issue with that claim. Now there was to be another light" (132). Cox reminds us that the word parable is a derivative of the Hebrew mashal, often defined as "story" but also "used at times to refer to taunts" (158). Cox's Jesus taunts when he teaches, and his preaching is explicitly political. The Jesus who came to Harvard valued difference and confrontation more than community.

More, even than in his sermons, Cox suggests that Jesus subverted Roman rule with his actions in "a king of roving street theater" used to "shake people up, to smack them on the head" (159). Cox reads Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a sort of coup:

"Seen in the light of a typical Roman military extravaganza, Jesus' entry was both a mockery and an insult, and it is impossible to believe that anyone misunderstood it. He was lampooning imperial authority by bouncing into town, not on a prancing horse--the symbol of the warrior--but on a donkey, the peasant's plodding beast of burden. He was not surrounded by armed legions, but by unarmed civilians. . . . who greeted him [with] an unambiguous political title. They called him Son of David, and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne that had been established in that city five hundred years before. They waved royal palms, the equivalent of 'Jesus for King' placards." (214)

This Jesus, the Jesus who came to Harvard for Cox's seminars on moral reasoning, was a political provocateur who undermined the established political order. He was also a complete stranger to me.

When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak of Jesus and politics, they tell stories that emphasize Christ's compliance with Roman rules and his obedience even to laws he disagreed with--as when he miraculously procured tax monies from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). The Mormon Jesus is a law-abiding citizen who disdains but never flaunts or disregards civil statutes, so Cox came as quite a surprise to me. After all, Mormons "believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12). The Church and its members don't subvert the state, they support it; even when Brigham Young brought the Church to the brink of battle in the Utah War, he did so believing that he was acting lawfully, in compliance with U.S. statutes. And when he received official orders relieving him of his duties as territorial governor, he abdicated his post and ended the conflict peacefully. Or, at least, this is the story that Mormons tell about themselves.

Mormons tell stories about themselves (including at a big screen near you!) which emphasize that which we have in common with the rest of America. We tell stories that highlight our participation in civil society. I think of Mormons as people who are like the general public in most respects.

Except . . . that's not the way that others view Mormons. And that wasn't the way that 19th century Mormons viewed themselves. In an essay comparing the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas (whose standoff with the FBI resulted in a terrible massacre) to 19th century Mormons, Malcolm Gladwell quotes R. Laurence Moore to remind us that in the nineteenth century,

"Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves 'said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.' In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith 'required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.'"

This story--about Mormons who wanted to emphasize their difference from other Americans--isn't one that the LDS Church has shared in recent years. (Although it would be good to remember, whenever you hear the line "O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell" in the Mormon hymn "Ye Elders of Israel," that Babylon was code for the United States that Brigham Young left for unincorporated Utah.) As a result, I don't think of Mormons as civic and social rebels throwing their difference in the teeth of others a la Waco anymore than I think of Jesus as a political provocateur. But . . . that may change.

Even as the LDS Church conducts the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign to emphasize those occupations, hobbies, and character traits its members share with the general population, messages in its semi-annual General Conference have increasingly acknowledged that church members should brace themselves for ideological confrontation in which Mormon difference is again emphasized, not minimized. In October 2013, Elder Robert D. Hales presaged a return to the social conflicts of the 19th century, when Mormon differences outweighed similarities: "In recent decades the Church has largely been spared the terrible misunderstandings and persecutions experienced by the early Saints. It will not always be so. The world is moving away from the Lord faster and farther than ever before." This is language emphasizing difference and predicting conflict--perhaps not the Waco-level conflict recounted by Gladwell, but conflict nonetheless--as a result. And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland only reinforced that message in April 2014, declaring to church members that "you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or perhaps even endure some personal abuse simply because you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Public relations campaigns emphasize members' similarities with the general population, but the most recent internal messages to members have identified differences and stressed that those differences must be defended, even at the cost of personal suffering and social stigma.

It would be an overreach to suggest that this internal emphasis on embattled difference spurred Mormon rancher Cliven Bundy to his armed standoff with federal agents, and he is, after all, only one man. But most Seventh-Day Adventists didn't (don't) live in Waco, Texas; it only takes a few individuals with an exaggerated sense of religious difference to touch off the serial misunderstandings that lead to tragedy.

Meeting Jesus again for the first time, in a Harvard philosophy class, meant seeing the Savior as a political provocateur who valued difference and public confrontation rather than the preservation of community and submission to legal authority. I thought I knew who Jesus was; I thought I knew who Mormons were. But now I wonder whether outside observers see the gauntlet of intentional difference or bridge-spanning commonalities when they look at me and at other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What do you see when you see a Mormon?