The Envy of Ephraim Shall Depart

March 26, 2004 | 13 comments
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I?ve just received one of those little email alerts from a marriage movement group. Apparently certain NGOs want a UN human rights conference to declare that one cannot make distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation without violating human rights. The group, United Families International, is opposing the declaration despite the notorious toothlessness of the UN on the sound principle that a rotten apple is still a rotten apple even if no one?s going to make you eat it, and the even sounder principle that the american courts can?t be trusted not to pluck rotten apples from the international tree. The group is apparently infested with Mormons?the maligned meridianmagazine.com has my email alert masquerading as an article here?but, though a fellow traveler, I do not choose at this moment to reiterate the Mormon message on gay marriage, gay rights, or gay relationships. I have my mind on a different kind of strange bedfellows.

It was at just such a UN conference that BYU?s Richard G. Wilkins made his famous stand, supported by Muslim and Latin Catholic delegates.

The story, told in the book Sacred Duty, has the following broad outlines. Through a series of providences–including the manner of his invitation, billing, the intervention of some Saints from Africa who were official delegates, the backbone of various Latin American and Muslin delegates–and though beset by opposition–vituperation, procedural trickery, an assault–Wilkins catalyzed a coalition at the 1996 Habitat Conference in Istanbul. The coalition was able to remove language supporting abortion and the encouragement of diverse family forms as human rights. Instead, they inserted language that called on governments to support traditional family arrangements.

The coalition succeeded because Muslim blocs, Latin American blocs, and the third world bloc refused to support the conference declaration without the changes. Wilkins and the proliferation of Mormon groups have continued to cultivate these ties. Strange bedfellows indeed! Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, and protestants are willing to take the strong stand they do on these moral issus because they are convinced of the rightness of their respective religious traditions, including the moral witness of those traditions. It hardly needs pointing out that those traditions are inescapably at loggerheads. Yet these coalitions have formed and are continuing to form.

The same process is occurring nationally. Mormons, Catholics, and Protestants are lessening their hostilities and increasing their rapprochement. Various religious traditions are starting to explore the Catholic natural law heritage as a sort of common ground and the attention is in some way reciprocated. A Southern Baptist leader made the remarkable statement of John Paul that ‘you [Catholics] finally have got yourself a Pope who knows how to Pope.’ Large cracks are developing in the anti-Mormon wall. Now all of this is impressionistic and conclusory and these impressions and conclusions describe trends, not ends, and all the other caveats. Still something is going on. And as the Wilkins story shows, that something is in large part the perception of a common threat. We see the Devil enthroned in the institutions of the age and us in need of friends. So we make them.

I wonder as a servant what to make of these tentative alliances? I do not think God is adverse to them as such. I read the biblical prophecies of Ephraim and Judah putting aside their quarrels as predicting one example of a match-made-by-enemies. So what good might He purpose in these alliances now? The obvious answer is the good that we seek in opposing abortion and in supporting the family is a good that He also cherishes. The danger is in making this cause The Cause, as if it were the whole of the gospel. This danger always lies in any enterprise where one must struggle and that has some holiness to it. The danger is more so when our comrades in the struggle don’t share the rest of the gospel with us. Ironically we may dam up some of the most precious parts of the gospel to avoid washing down the bridges we’ve just built with them. This would be a waste, the bridges, yes, but the dam would be more of a waste yet. I testify that ending gay marriage and abortion and divorce and all the rest would be the victory of a thousand years, but all of it a mess of pottage compared to Christ crucified, risen on the 3rd day, revealed in the grove and in the temples thereafter, and leading the Saints onward in great Kingdom to lay themselves at the Father’s feet. Building the bridge without building the dam is a real challenge.
Now I do think its true that these rapprochements may give us missionary opportunities, in a way. Our faith will be more of a stumbling block and an indigestible problem for people who know us and like us, and we’ll conversely have more chances to share. That seems to be the theory of the Church in other areas, and I don’t see why here. Yet I don’t know if the theory is correct. I’m haunted by my own shrinking-violet experience which suggests that we members actually aren’t very good at preaching to people we’ve already formed relationships with on other grounds. We feel that the relationship is valuable in itself, not just a means to a missionary end, and so we hesitate to harm it by trying to shift it from the other grounds to gospel grounds. That fear is doubled, trebled, made fourfold, when the basis of the relationship is a shared moral conviction that the attempt at preaching threatens: to our friend, the moral conviction is part of a comprehensive religious world view that our overt preaching would appear to overthrow. Even without preaching, our too visible living of our faith can in a sense threaten the basis of relationship. Finally, of course, even if we could successfully ally and convert, such actions would ruin future alliance. Other faiths would see themselves as more threatened by our friendship then by the antagonism of the world. The risks vary with the intensity of the perceived outside threat, of course, but in practice I just don’t see Mormons doing a whole lot of conversion in this way. The missionary opportunities won’t become missionary moments.
In a sense, to defend our particularism and its moral witness we find ourselves making alliances that also require us to conceal our particularism. This is a dilemma that requires a divine touch. I’m glad I don’t have to negotiate it alone. After all, I think there may yet be a great deal of of unity and brotherhood to be found. Forced to cling together in fear of the surrounding secularism and gross immorality, we may yet cling together in love.

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13 Responses to The Envy of Ephraim Shall Depart

  1. Adam Greenwood on March 26, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Speaking of meridianmagazine, esteemed guest poster Dan Petersen has a column there on the Passion.

    The real problem is that many of the critics of the movie feel that religion in and of itself is inherently irrational and repugnant, and they particularly despise the message of Christianity.

  2. Adam Greenwood on March 26, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Ouch. My link got eaten and that last sentence should be a quote.

  3. Gary Cooper on March 26, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    Adam,

    Very interesting post. I have a very personal interest in this subject, for a number of reasons, most related to my involvment in politics over the years:

    1. I was an assistant county campaign coordinatorm for the Pat Robertson presidential campaign in 1988;

    2. I was the founder and first chairman of my county’s chapter of the Christian Coalition;

    3. The nature of my work (I sell computer/video projection systems to churches) puts me in contact on a daily basis with devout members of other churches, the vast majority of whom share my conservative political beliefs.

    Now, before I share what my experiences bring to this discussion, let me state a few basic things that are actually pet peeves of mine, because I think they give rise to some of the difficulties you mention. For one thing, WHY DO WE AS MEMBERS ALWAYS ASSUME THAT “MISSIONARY WORK” MEANS OPENING UP OUR MOUTHS TO EVERY NON-MEMBER WE MEET IN AN OBVIOUS PROSELYTIZING MANNER? An unspoken assumption in your post, Adam, seems to be that, in our desire to band together with other religious people against Satan, our desire to “preach the Gospel” to these same people may be inhibited by our fear of damaging the relationship, and what is unspoken here is the assumption that this must mean initiating Gospel conversations, inviting them to Church, etc.

    I completely disagree, because my understanding of “preaching the Gospel is that this cannot be done successfully with the influence of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost knows who is ready to hear the Gospel, and who is not; who is ready for the discussions, and who just needs a friend; who is ready to come to church, and who just needs a good example for the moment. Failure to understand this is THE major reason that LDS people have a bad reputation with many Christians and others as being gulity of “pushy” proselytizers. Instead of simply living the standards of the Gospel (which includes fighting evil and defending Truth and Righteousness, which would naturally bring us into positive contact with other Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.) and listening and watching for the Holy Ghost to provide opportunities to share the Gospel and instruct us how and when to do that on an individual basis, we storm in and assume we’ve got to shove a First Vision pamphlet in everyone’s hands we meet. If there is a fear that sharing the Gospel will be inhibited somehow by allying ourselves politically with other devout people, the fault is not with the alliance, but with our ourselves.

    The other point I would make is that, if we should avoid these alliances (or at least not be too thrilled with them), when, pray tell, do we plan on finding a way to otherwise preach the Gospel? If we’re supposed to be wary of these relationships because they don’t produce convert baptisms each week, how does avoiding these people (and judging them, which we love to do)produce converts?

    Now, my personal experiences in working shoulder to shoulder in Oklahoma (the belt buckle of the Bible Belt) with many, many devout Christians of about every size and shape have taught me:

    1. The best Gospel conversations with non-members, especially devout ones, are those the Spirit has set up; that is, when they are initiated by the non-member;

    2. I have prayed every day for many years each morning, that Heavenly Father will help me to be a good example to the non-members that I meet, and that He will help me to have opportunities to share the Gospel in any way the Spirit moves. Surprisingly, the result has been that every Gospel discussion I have ever had with devout Christians over the last 19 years (with the exceptions of two people, where the Spirit did move me to start a conversation) has been the result of the other person asking ME about the Gospel. The result? Even though I live in an area that is heavily saturated with anti-Mormon literature, etc., I’ve never faced an antagonistic situation.

    3. The usual response, when someone I have worked with in the political realm finds out that I am LDS, is either stunned silence (for just a second), followed by “Really? Uhm, let me ask you something…”; or, a simple, “Is that so? I’m so surprised…Well, actually maybe I shouldn’t be, given your standards…”, etc. Sometimes this is followed by a, “You know, I really like that Orrin Hatch…” (to which my unspoken reply is “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”)

    4. Have I baptised any of my Baptist/Church of Christ/Pentecostal/Assembly of God/Methodist/Catholic friends, these good people that I’ve knocked doors with and manned phone banks with and put up signs with and attended Republican conventions with? No, but why must we assume that some how we are not sharing the Gospel effectively unless we’ve chalked up “numbers”? My understanding is that the harvest is the Lord’s, and that since it is the Holy Ghost that must lead me, if God wants me to actually be present when someone actually receives the Gospel, great, but if I did nothing more than plant seeds, that’s fine if that’s what God wants me to do.

    5. Just what is our motivation in allying ourselves with devout non-members in the political realm? Are these children of Heavenly Father only important to us to the extent that they believe as we do, and if they won’t, it’s okay to throw them away as soon as the election is over? Is the fact some of them may feel that way about us a reason to reciprocate? My involvment in politics is rooted in four things, namely my love of God and desire to keep His commandments, my love of my family and desire that they be free and happy and safe to live the Gospel, my love of my country and the good that it once stood for, and could again, and my love of my fellow man. And HERE is the rub–must our involvement in politics only be motivated by a desire to “keep the Church safe”?

    I must say that over the years I have developed a great love for the good people of other faiths that I’ve come to associate with in politics. I can forgive their misconceptions and even bigotry towards many of my beliefs, and I can take comfort that their association with me casts doubt in many of their minds whenever they hear their ministers attack the Church. I see the fear many of these men and women have, openly displayed on their faces and in their words and deeds, that everything they cherish could be destroyed, that their children could fall victim to great spiritual and physical dangers, that their right to worship God as they believe and live in peace may be robbed of them, and their lives and those of their children turned into a living hell on earth. I don’t want them to experience such a fate, even if defeating all the evils we fight jointly against might not result in their conversion in mortality. Even if the Church were to become universally accepted and well treated, I would still be involved politically if these good people were not also so treated.

    I didn’t quite intend to preach a sermon here, but my fundamental point is that we do ourselves and the Lord a great disservice if we can’t be comfortable working with other religious people to save our society unless they let us force the Gospel on the them. It was exactly that attitude that exacerbated our troubles in Missouri in the 1830′s. Mormon and Moroni found it wasn’t beneath their dignity to fight side by side right up to the end with the Nephites (a far, far worse people by that time than Americans are today.

    Finally, just how much distinction has Satan ever made, in societies where he has been able to seize total political power (such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Iran today, etc.) between Christians of various stripes? Christians are murdered and enslaved in Sudan, Baptist and Catholic pastors are beaten to death in China, Pentecostal missionaries and converts are burned alive in India, etc. Are devout Christians of other denominations so dangerous to us that we must avoid them, while surely a worse danger, the growing specter of political/economic/religous authoritarianism, directed from the Great and Spacious Building of Lehi’s dream, bangs at our door? It is ironic that many of us would rather avoid other Christians and their terrestrial ways (because they misunderstand us), but think nothing of playing footsies with all the telestial people who complement us on our programs and policies and aid to the poor, but are actually devouring werewolves who hate everything of principle that we stand for.

  4. Clark Goble on March 27, 2004 at 1:54 am

    Well said Gary. I halfway wonder if one reason our missionary and retention work has slowed the past five years is because we’ve more or less used up the traditional approaches. i.e. we’ve found most of those likely to be found in that way.

    Perhaps a less “in your face” approach would be better. (And, to be fair, I think Pres. Hinkley has been doing this) At the same time though a less intense approach will almost certainly also lead to fewer baptisms. (Although I suspect better ones)

  5. Gary Cooper on March 27, 2004 at 2:18 am

    Thanks, Clark. I think we diffuse a lot of tension towards the church when we work more on friendship and being a good example, and we are made better people in the process. Also, this approach to missionary work actually requires a great deal more of us (a greater reliance on prayer, obedience, obtaining the Spirit and listening for revelation). The results could very well be fewer baptisms, but far better ones (fathers, whole families, people already living many Gospel standards and used to sacrificng for others), which in turn would eventually have a “snowball effect” that down the road increase the actual numbers of baptisms, as well as increasing retention. And, of course, we might even be able to save our country! (Harold B. Lee thought so, and I think this may be the real key to understanding Joseph Smith’s prophecies about the rescuing of the Constitution and our Republic.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on March 27, 2004 at 10:57 am

    Gary, thanks very much for the long, thoughtful, and thought-provoking comment. We live next-door to you, in Arkansas, and it’s very possible that this is where we will stay and raise our children and weave ourselves into the fabric of our community. If that turns out to be the case, I hope I (and all the members of our ward, for that matter) will be able to present ourselves to and work with our Southern Baptist, Church of Christ and Methodist brothers and sisters with the same wisdom, maturity and humility that you’ve clearly shown.

    All that being said, I must admit that some of the more theological points which Adam raises concern me. I don’t just think about our “Mormon” place in Christian culture politically or socially; I also think about it in terms of eccelsiology, and salvation. For better or worse, I find that the longer I ponder these things, the more a kind of Christian universalism, with a decidedly “Protestant” understanding of priesthood and authority, appeals to me. I imagine–and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine–that someday one might see Methodist ministers, in trying to bring their own lives and their congregations closer to Christ, turning to the Book of Mormon for inspiration and insight. But what that would mean for their church, and ours, isn’t something I’m really clear on yet.

  7. lyle on March 28, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    Gary:

    Thanks. I appreciate you sharing; hopefully it will help me here in downtown philly :)

  8. Gary Cooper on March 29, 2004 at 3:24 am

    Russell,

    Your imagining Methodist ministers turning to the BoM may not be as far out as some might think. Brigham Young once stated that, as we come closer to the Second Coming, our missionaries will preach less and less about points of doctrine (because they will find less a and less disagreement on doctrinal points), and more and more will testify about AUTHORITY. In addition, Lorenzo Snow once stated that in the Last Days, the Catholic Church would come to resemble the LDS church more and more until the only difference would be the Spirit (having served my mission in Italy I did see evidence then, and now, to support this).

  9. Clark Goble on March 29, 2004 at 3:38 am

    Gary, reference on that one?

    I agree that authority really is the big issue in the church and ultimately our big issue in the apostasy. (My own view is that the beliefs of the early church prior to the restoration of the priesthood made the notion of the apostasy kind of nebulous at best) I certainly understand the Protestant belief in a priesthood of all believers. However the way this is understood is more or less to remove all works, all steps in terms of authority. This is due to the place they formally or informally place belief. I think Mormons clearly believe in more structure. Given how structural the revelations to the pre-Christians were especially in terms of priesthood authority, it seems reasonable to assume something similar. (Although I understand the opposing arguments)

    Whether Catholics are coming to resemble us or not I can’t say. I personally doubt it myself. I think there are movements within Protestantism which are of interest to Mormons. I wrote a tad about that on my blog. I suspect though that the more interesting trend the past 100 years is Christian theologians and leaders who really don’t believe in an interventionist God and who come to think of most of the Bible as useful fiction. Even as people become less religious there is that sad tendency to castrate religion of the historic.

  10. Gary Cooper on March 29, 2004 at 3:49 am

    Clark,

    Sorry, don’t know exactly where I saw the Brigham Young quote, but it was recently, perhaps at another blog, not sure. The Lorenzo Snow quote was well known in my mission (lorenzo Snow being the first missionary to Italy), but now that I think about it, I never actually saw it in writing. What I saw in Italy was a movement of people in the Catholic Church who felt that important things had been lost over the years, and wanted to recapture those. (For example, I encountered fathers who baptized their babies rather than the priest, and Catholic baptisms by immersion, as well as the Catholic Charismatic movement (though I’m not sure the latter is really that close at all to LDS belief, as much as to medievel Catholicism.)

  11. Adam Greenwood on March 31, 2004 at 11:44 am

    As Gary points out, we’d have no dilemma at all if we didn’t genuinely care for our friendships with our brothers and sisters, and if we didn’t genuinely wish to defeat the evils we have joined together to fight. Otherwise we could adopt the Communist playbook and treat our rapprochements as a kind of Popular Front. Communism had its ups and downs as a revolutionary movement, failed completely as a governing ideology, but was a wild success at usings its alliances as fronts for ‘conversion.’ But even we don’t have the discipline the Communists did and we’re too fat and comfortable and principled to want to do it. So the dilemma remains.

  12. Mark Butler on March 31, 2004 at 5:20 pm

    True authority and spiritual power always go together. No one will recognize the spiritual authority of the Priesthood unless they feel a recurring spiritual witness that the holders thereof walk in truth and possess the spiritual mantle that only God grants.

    When the day comes that the members of the Church are sanctified to the degree that others enlightened by a portion of the Spirit cannot help but be astonished at the spiritual power and authority that attends their every word, then the marvelous work will begin in earnest.

    Until then, we should use every available means of influencing the world for good.

  13. Gary Cooper on March 31, 2004 at 8:07 pm

    Mark Buler,

    I couldn’t have said it any better. You have captured the essence of everything I was trying to say on this subject (and you ought to cut and past that statement to the other post here on missionary work that Adam posted today).

WELCOME

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