Monday, November 19, 2012

The Grey: Israel and Palestine

Oh, hello there. It's been quite a while. Yes, I still exist. The last few weeks of campaign warfare repulsed me from all thing political and/or opinionated, rendering me unable (or unwilling) to hunker down and write anything of substance. I couldn't even stomach Facebook, which was rife with partisan slander and self-righteous bigotry. Obama won. Romney lost. The world is not ending. Obama is not the anti-Christ. America, if it truly is the land of the free, home of the brave and God-blessed, will not be run to the ground by a single person. So go ahead, relax. See Breaking Dawn Part 2. Eat a Twinkie while you still can. Support 'Merica.

What has compelled me to pick up the proverbial pen and start blogging again is the recent conflict escalation between Israel and Palestine. My mother called me the other day regarding recent Facebook posts I had made in support of Palestine. "Didn't Hamas (the Palestinian government) launch the first rocket?" she asked, wondering why I would support the alleged conflict aggressor. Yes, the first attack was, this time, committed by Palestine. If we attain all of our information regarding this event from major news media sources, we would be led to believe that this attack was an isolated and unwarranted event, fueled by illogical hatred. We would see Palestine as a warmongering people hellbent on destruction and chaos. We would see a rogue state provoking our Ally. In this light, it is understandable how many Americans unhesitatingly side with Israel against a seemingly radical, terrorist Palestine. As with most conflicts, without the proper historical context (which is rarely found in the news)we are left with a very narrow view of complex situations. Making judgment calls on right and wrong or good and evil is very dangerous without a comprehensive understanding of events.

If we were to do a little research into the historical context of Israel and Palestine, chances are our understanding of the conflict wouldn't be so starkly black and white. When it comes to this decades-long (or millenia-long) conflict, there is a whole lot of grey.

This isn't to say that I have all the answers, or that I have a complete understanding of what is going on in Israel and Palestine. However, I hope that subjecting my life to 5 years of conflict studies gives me a little cred. If nothing else, it's given me a (perhaps false) sense of confidence to talk about these things. And so here I go...

In the early 1900s, Palestine was inhabited by Arab Muslims. At the time, there was a negligible Jewish population, most of whom had fled Russian pogroms against the Jews in Eastern Europe. For the most part, Arab Palestinians and Jewish settlers got along, although the influx of Jews stirred a Palestinian nationalist movement as well as anti-semetic sentiments. As Jewish persecution mounted in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, an increasing amount of Jews illegally migrated to Palestine, although they were still a small minority. Many Jews escaped the Holocaust by being smuggled into the Palestinian territory. At the time, Palestine was an autonomous region under the British Mandate. Israel did not exist as a geopolitical state, although there was a collective aspiration among many Jews that a Jewish homeland would one day be created. Zionists debated where Israel should be located. Some suggested Argentina, while others thought Ethiopia would be an ideal spot. But the most coveted location for the Jewish homeland was the Arab-inhabited Palestine.

After WWII and the deplorable Jewish Holocaust, the push to find a homeland for displaced Jews was brought to the United Nations. With the dissolution of the British Mandate, in 1947 Palestine was 'up for grabs', as the inanity of post-colonialism goes. The United Nations cut out a little part of Palestine and gave it to the Jews, declaring it the new Israel. But there was a problem. What to do with all the Arabs who had been living there for centuries?

As more displaced European Jews began arriving in Palestine (or Israel, as it was now called), many Palestinians were forced from their land and homes. A Civil War erupted between Arab nationalists and Zionist militant factions. Many lives were lost, and tens of thousands of Arab Palestinian fled their homeland for neighboring Arab nations. An Arab-Israeli war ensued, fought between those defending their homeland and others fighting for their newly-gifted land. Over the years and subsequent wars, the Arab-inhabited Palestine has diminished into a few pockets of land and a couple of permanent refugee camps.

This is a map of the hyperbolic relationship between Palestinian and Israeli land.

The land given to the Jews by the UN for the creation of Israel in 1948 consisted of a very small portion of Palestine. Israel's acquisition of Palestinian territory since 1967 is officially contrary to international law. Palestinians have been quite literally forced from their homes, and made to flee to other Arab countries, or to live in the underdeveloped and overpopulated Gaza strip, which was initially a refugee camp. Meanwhile, Israel continues to acquire more Palestinian land.

While I do not condone aggression or violence, having this historical context of Israel and Palestine makes the recent Palestinian attack on Israel a bit more understandable. With no true infrastructure or natural resources, Palestinians living in the Gaza strip have no means to pursue economic development. Many people in Gaza hold University degrees, but have no professional jobs available to them.

Imagine having been unlawfully evicted from your homeland and forced to live in a refugee camp. Over the years, do you not think you would become desperate, watching others profit off of the land that once belonged to you, your parents and your grandparents? Do you not think you would be persuaded to pick up arms and try to take back what you believe is rightfully yours?

This isn't to say that Palestine isn't partially to blame for the intractable conflict in the region. Launching rockets into a city isn't going to solve anything, but only escalate an already corrosive situation. I have heard people blame Palestine for not wanting to engage in Peace Talks. But tell me, what motivation would Palestine have for talking with Israel? Palestine is obviously in no position of power, with no organized military, weapons or resources. They have no bargaining chips. To talk "peace" would mean, to them, giving up the land which was unlawfully acquired through war and illegal evictions. "Peace" as we see it in the West, which is the cessation of violence, would mean to concede to the fact that Palestine is no more.

In Hawaii, I worked in a coffee shop for 5 years. Over the years, I came to know Gebron, a Palestinian man who sold decorative sea shells by the side of the street. Gerbon had a degree in architecture from university in Palestine. One day I started to tell him about my studies in Peace and Conflict, and how we had been learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Being young and presumptuous, I started to tell him about my ideas for peace in the area. His teary-eyed response to my inexperienced rambling was one of the more humbling experiences of my life.

"My dear friend. What is peace if there is no justice? And what is justice without our land? There can be no peace without justice, and without our land, we have nothing."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Bear Hug

I fear that my blog posts have been heading from introspection and philosophy straight to nitty-gritty politics. Sorry about that. It's difficult not to get caught up in the spirit of campaign warfare, especially when you have forums like Facebook and the blogosphere to keep the bullets of partisan ammunition firing like a machine gun. I have to admit that I was gearing up to write another politically-saturated post. Lucky for you, two things stopped my downward spiral into becoming a biased, self-righteous bigot.

Seeing this meme on Pinterest made me laugh. I thought "it's so true! All these political rants on Facebook are exhausting and really, who's going to say 'oh, I saw your post on Facebook and it totally made me realize how wrong my point of view is'?. No one." Then I realized that if I were to catalog my own Facebook statuses and blog posts of the past month, I would be categorized as one of those people. How did this happen to me? At any rate, it made me more self-conscious about political venting on social media.

The second event that has swayed me from continuing a political crusade is the result of an epiphany and rare life occurrence. This past Saturday I attended the LDS Relief Society (fancy name for 'Mormon Women's group') general broadcast, where women holding leadership positions in the Mormon church give inspirational and uplifting talks. To be honest, I usually zone out about 15 minutes into the program. I'm sorry, can you blame me? Sitting in a darkened room on cushiony chairs over dinnertime, surrounded by sweet-smelling women, listening to other sweet-smelling women speak with melodious voices really has the tendency to make me want to take a nap. I usually submit to the urge, but this time I had resolved to listen to every word spoken from each woman's canorous speech. About 20 minutes into the program, I noticed women wiping tears from their eyes. "Here it goes", I thought as I prepared for feelings of spiritual inadequacy and/or general cold-heartedness. "There is no way I'm going to cry tonight". I continued to sit and listen, wondering with curiosity and envy why I wasn't feeling spiritually moved. And then, about 15 minutes later, it happened. I cried. Yes, it's true. Droplets of salty water welled in my eye sockets and overflowed over the lower lids. They streamed down my face. My lower lip quivered. I'm told this is "crying". I wanted to turn to the lady sitting next to me and point to the condensation emerging from my eyes, but I quickly realized that no one would have understood they were indeed witnessing a miracle.

What caused this monumental event, you ask? Well, it wasn't spoken words that moved me, but instead a picture that flashed on the projector in accompaniment to the speech. The speaker was recounting the Biblical story of Jesus raising Lazarus, who had been dead in a tomb for 4 days. What is normally emphasized in this story is the miracle of Jesus raising a person from the dead. This time, however, the speaker chose to highlight Jesus' response to the mourning women in Lazarus' family.

When Jesus arrived at the dead man's village, Lazarus' sisters ran to Jesus and mournfully chastised him for not arriving sooner in order to heal their brother before he died. Instead of rebuking the women for their accusatory words, Jesus opened his arms, held the women, and wept with them. Alone, this story would have caught my attention, but actually seeing a depiction of Jesus holding these women and crying with them in his arms was what really touched me. The image was simple, but for some reason, it uncharacteristically moved me to tears.

There was no prerequisite to the women being allowed to fall into Jesus' arms. There was no question of their worthiness, their lifestyle or their political beliefs. There was only a warm, empathetic reception that could only be offered by one who is without judgement and full of unconditional love. Not only did he receive them into a big bear hug of comfort, he also cried on their shoulders as he felt their pain.

I have to admit that I've been feeling spiritually low lately. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that my spirituality is in constant ebb and flow. Sometimes I feel in-tune with God, and other times I feel quite numb. This is often the result of my own laziness in doing the things I know would keep me riding a wave of spiritual awesomeness (being in 'the tube with God' as some of my peeps in Hawaii would say.) Seeing the picture of Jesus unhesitatingly receive the two sisters into his arms made me realize that no matter how numb I feel, or how far I've strayed from his teachings, Jesus is always waiting with his arms wide open, ready to mourn with me.

It also helped me understand how unnecessary it is to engage in heated political conflict. I've been guilty of using gospel principles to justify my political beliefs. I've often tried to back my liberal views with biblical examples of what I think Jesus would do or believe. Seeing this simple picture made me understand that all of these justifications, all of this striving to prove that "I am on the right side" is inconsequential to what matters most in this life. When Lazarus' sisters ran to him, Jesus didn't say "Hey wait, did you vote for Romney or Obama?" before enveloping them into his love. He doesn't care. He just wants us to love and be loved, which seems to be the opposite of what political campaigning entails and provokes. I don't believe that Jesus would be on the campaign trail, advocating one candidate or the other. We often feel that our political views advocate our moral convictions (myself included), but I only see broken relationships, contention and hatred stemming from heated political debates. This is not WJWD. (Yes, that's a play on WWJD. Sue me.)

I think that while raising a human from the dead is a poignant display of divine power, even more important is Jesus' response to a mourning family, which spoke not to his divine nature, but his empathetic, loving character. Whether you believe Jesus is the son of God, a historically secular figure or a fictitious character, you can't deny that his message was none other than unconditional love. Religious, political, secular or make believe, I think that is the message worth spreading.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ishmael and Isaac: Brothers from a Different Mother

Something that has been weighing heavy on my mind lately is the Western view of the Muslim world. Being a member of a religion that has been historically persecuted, stereotyped by misinformation and misrepresented by extremist factions, I feel somewhat qualified to feel empathy for the ideological assault on Islamic faith and culture.

From a historical standpoint, the LDS church has been the victim of religious persecution, forced mass exodus and attempted mass extermination. We know what it's like to have others judge us inaccurately based on faulty stereotypes and extremist offshoots. We know the pain that accompanies negative assumptions that give our religion a bad name. We can understand what it means to be ridiculed for wearing religious tokens and to be scorned for our sacred rituals. We understand what it feels like to have our blood boil when we turn on the news and listen as beliefs we hold dear are misinterpreted and torn apart by exaggerated claims or outright fallacies. We resonate with feelings of inadequacy as one assumes we are omni-gifted in crafting talents, only to discover that most of our Pinteresting projects were actually created by our husbands (yes, that was a confession. Rivs is quite a creative whiz).

Likewise, the misrepresentation of the Muslim faith is a result of religious and cultural misunderstandings, exacerbated by minority extremist factions.

One of the main failures of mainstream media news coverage is its contextual omissions in delivering information. For example, when we learn of a violent attack on CNN or FOX news, we hear it explained as though it were a spontaneous and isolated event, occurring in some kind of political vacuum. We are rarely given an in-depth analysis or historical context as to why a certain group would commit such a heinous act. This is often due to a lack of programming time (AKA lack of the audience's attention span), or corporate sponsors who don't want a particular political view expressed on their network. Am I sounding like a Michael Mooreian conspiracy theorist? Well, maybe. But rest assured that I attended an accredited graduate school to study Media, Peace and Conflict and I'm not just blowing smoke up your bums. That being said, without proper contextual background or historical explanations, it's understandable how an entire religion can be misrepresented and misinterpreted, Mormons and Muslims alike.

Without boring you to death with a history lesson, let me briefly draw some parallels between Mormon and Muslim persecution.

Mass Exodus
Ingrained deep within collective Mormon consciousness is the memory of LDS pioneers trekking across the plains to evade religious and cultural persecution. In the mid-1800s, being active in the LDS faith was enough to legally warrant death and practicing Mormonism itself was an illegal act. A state sanctioned "Extermination Order" was enacted by a Missouri governor in the 1830s, making it legal to kill anyone found to be a member of the Mormon church. As a result, thousands of Mormons fled the Midwest United States on foot, leaving behind their homes and all earthly belongings that couldn't be fit on a wooden handcart. They became refugees in their own country until they reached Utah, which at the time, belonged to Mexico. There they were able to practice their religion freely, without threat of expulsion or death.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become one of the longest standing examples of cultural and religious persecution, causing a mass exodus of (mainly Muslim) Palestinians from their homeland. After World War II and the subsequent dissolution of the British Empire, Palestine (which was previously a part of the British Mandate), was handed over to the United Nations. At this time, Arab Palestinians had been living on Palestinian land for many generations, and there was only a very small Jewish population within Palestine. The Jewish Holocaust had caused a major displacement of Jews throughout Eastern Europe, and for this reason it was decided that the Jews needed a unified homeland. Although the notion of a geopolitical Israel had not existed for centuries, it was agreed that the new Jewish homeland would be placed in Palestine. As a result, a forced mass exodus of Palestinians ensued as they were driven from their homes, often at gunpoint, to make way for the new Jewish homeland. With nowhere to go, no unclaimed 'Utah' to turn-to for cultural and religious refuge, Palestinians were forced into refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. They had no organized military to defend against the extremely powerful Israeli army, and Palestinians were unable to hold their ground. They now live in permanent refugee camps, with little infrastructure or resources to build their economy. They continue to be expelled from their homes to make way for new Israeli settlements as Israel continues to expand despite the tenets of international law. Perhaps Mormons would have faced a similar fate had we not been blessed with the political refuge of Utah.

Misrepresentation by Extremist Factions:
I don't know about you, but I'm often asked if I practice polygamy. My initial reaction is to think: "Really? Do people still believe that about Mormons?" Then I have to take a step back and assess what media are saying about my religion. There are excommunicated factions of the Mormon church that practice polygamy, but they are in no way condoned-by or affiliated-with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Although this sect is not related to the official LDS church, those who practice polygamy still refer to themselves as "Mormon". Because they share the same name as mainstream Mormons, they are labeled as 'Mormon Extremists' or 'fundamentalists'. This can give the illusion that all devout Mormons believe-in, or practice polygamy. It then becomes easy to understand how people outside of Mormon culture might come to the conclusion that some/many/most Mormons are polygamous, based off of what they might hear via media outlets.

Nowadays, when we think of the word "terrorist", the stereotype of a bearded Muslim man might come into our minds. I wonder how often we worry whether the bearded man sitting across from us on the plane is a terrorist, just as I wonder how many people who, upon discovering my religious identity, silently worry if I'm one of many wives. There is only a minute faction of 'Mormon Extremists' who practice polygamy, and likewise only a tiny group of Muslims who are Islamic Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, 'extreme' tends to be loud and news worthy ("If it bleeds it leads" is a journalistic mantra), and so all we hear about the Islamic faith is that which is represented by the violent fundamentalists. Being assumed to be polygamous is hard enough, so I can only imagine the pain many Muslims endure when they are assumed to condone the murder of innocent civilians for religious or political purposes.

Another more controversial parallel that can be drawn between Islamic and Mormon extremism is the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the consequent stereotyping that ensued. In the 1850s, a rogue militia composed of active members of the Mormon church attacked and murdered a large group of emigrants who were fleeing the then war-torn Southwest. The militia allegedly attacked out of revenge based on suspicions that some members of the emigrant group had participated in an earlier attack against Mormons in the Eastern United States. Those murdered were unarmed, and many were women and children. These attacks were not ordered or sanctioned by any LDS church authority, but instead were carried out by men who happened to be members of the Mormon church. Although this horrific incident in no way defines or reflects LDS belief, Mormons are sometimes still stereotyped as violent militants based off of this incident, which can readily be defined as an act of terrorism. Likewise, the acts of terrorism committed by some Islamic factions do not accurately represent the Muslim religion, however we still often equate terrorism with Islam.

I think what is important to remember is that people have the agency to choose how they want to interpret and represent their faith, whether good or bad. It just seems as though the good representations are often glazed over while the bad make headlines, and therefore define the entire group.

As the media onslaught continues against the Muslim world, I try to remind myself just how hurtful stigmas, stereotypes and misinterpretations of the things I hold sacred can be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Libya, Obama and the Path to Peace

In my field of Conflict Analysis studies, we refer to two parties engaged in intractable conflict as being in collusion with one another. As parties enter a cycle of conflict, they begin to dehumanize the other and employ conflict tactics in order to provoke or display dominance. These tactics are justified-within each party's mantra-by rhetoric of self-preservation against an evil,now-inhuman enemy. In protracted conflict, tactics often include violence and can quickly escalate into extreme displays of offense and defense, also known as war. This type of conflict is seen as zero-sum, meaning there can only be one winner, compromise is seen as defeat and collaboration is deemed 'negotiating with terrorists'. Both parties believe they are right/good, the other is wrong/evil and, most often, that God is on their side. With this conflict mentality, it's no wonder that the world is entrenched in inexorable war. Believing that our party is infallible, we become unable to look inward and ask ourselves: "In what ways have we contributed to this conflict? Are we, in some small or big way, at fault?" Being unable to take a step back and look at the bigger picture with introspection and contrition, we hinder our ability to take steps toward what we profess to want most; peace and freedom.

Admitting fault, whether large or small, does not excuse the other party's acts of aggression, nor does it denote weakness in our own party. Instead, it allows us to look at conflict in a more objective manner, without the paralyzing and blinding defense of dehumanization. When we render an entire group of people into a stereotype of evil, we relinquish the capacity to see conflict clearly. Understanding how we may have insulted, provoked or offended another doesn't justify their acts, but it might help to explain them. In beginning to grasp the reasoning behind another party's motives, we start to once again reveal their humanity by recognizing (not validating) their reasons for hostility. This doesn't mean we have to agree with their reasoning, but often times understanding and empathy is what it takes to mend or create a positive relationship. This is the only way to permanently break a cycle of conflict. This is the only way to sustainable peace.

Relating this rant to current affairs, the inexcusable attack on the US Embassy in Libya by Islamic extremists is a prime example of collusion. It's no secret that the USA and Islamist factions have been engaged in a cycle of conflict for the past two decades, although due to dehumanization and stereotyping, the scope of conflict has-from a Western perspective-proliferated to include most of the Arab world. As a very firm disclaimer, I have to state that I in no way condone, excuse or justify any acts of terror committed by any faction. What happened on 9/11, the aftermath and most recently, the attack on the US Embassy in Libya are inexcusable acts of aggression and the result of dehumanization.

That being said, a response to the attacks which would further a rhetoric of hatred and stereotype, which would place blame with no accountability, which would communicate ignorance without introspection would only escalate conflict. It would foster more resentment for America, thus creating more hatred, more ignorance and ultimately, more violence. This is not the type of foreign affairs campaign America needs.

On the other hand, issuing a statement of empathy and, to some degree, culpability is a monumental step in the direction of peace. Although I am not a die-hard Obama fan, I have to say that I was deeply impressed with his response to the attacks in Libya. In a moment where everyone expected the President to continue a narrative of hatred, he took the high (albeit unpopular) road in an attempt to break down the cycle of conflict.

The general response to Obama's statement of empathy to the Islamic world took me aback. How can we be so entrenched in our narrative of 'right and wrong' that we view an act of peace as weakness? I can understand being deeply upset over the loss of American lives. There truly is no excuse for murdering innocents. But to persecute someone for taking the (dare I say Christlike) route of peace and humility makes little sense to me.

We say we want to protect our freedom. Well, what better way to do so than to break the cycle of collusion that has fostered outside hatred for America? By lessening our dehumanized resentment for our aggressors, we will invite our aggressors to lessen their resentment towards us. What better start than to offer public declarations of empathy and understanding? People may say that this is the "soft", idealist approach to foreign affairs; that Islamic extremists won't respond to these gestures. Well, I ask you, how do we know? Have we ever attempted, over a sustainable amount of time, to offer our enemies empathy and understanding? Over the past few decades we have fought fire with fire. And guess what? We're all getting burned. Don't you think it's time to start looking for a new way?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Politics of Sunday School

I've been away. In the past month, our family has visited Hawaii, Portland, Hermiston, Los Angeles and finally, Flagstaff. Oh, and I guess if you include our impromptu decision to take a weekend road-trip to watch the 70.3 Ironman World Championship, we've been to Las Vegas too. Compounded with the stress and excitement of furnishing a new house and slowly (very slowly) unpacking boxes and suitcases, this is my very credible excuse for being so bad at weekly blog posts. Are my fantasies too grandiose in believing that you've actually missed my ramblings? What is for sure is that I've missed writing them. This blog has been truly therapeutic in helping me sort through thoughts, feelings, beliefs and doubts as I wade through the occasional paradoxes of being a liberal-leaning (but politically independent) Mormon.

A topic that has been pervasive in media news coverage over the past few weeks is Mitt Romney's presidential nomination by the Republican party. As I've said before, I consider myself to be politically independent. I tend to lean left on certain issues, just as I lean right on others. I try not to support a political leader solely based on the identifying letter prefixed to his name ((R) or (D)). I'm inclined to be skeptical of politicians in general as their policies must cater to lobbyists, donors and-most importantly-the left OR the right. If you've followed Romney's campaign journey, you can easily see how he's transformed from a bipartisan moderate to a somewhat staunch conservative in order to appease the GOP. This isn't unique to Romney, of course. All presidential candidates shift their policies to secure a party nomination and win over half of America's population, which is why I think politics are a load of (excuse my French-or should I say Freedom?) le crap. Because of this unfortunate but realistic fact, in my eyes both Romney and Obama are excused from being political shape-shifters just as both the Republican and Democratic parties are excused from forcing their candidates to conform to partisan policies in order to receive their endorsement. It's just the name of the game. What my eyes do not excuse is religious endorsement of political candidates, especially when it happens covertly in Church meetings.

Since the beginning of Mitt Romney's race to secure the presidential nomination, it has become almost implicit that if you are Mormon, you should support Romney. There is a small but outspoken counter cultural group that call themselves "Mormons for Obama", who pledge commitment to the current Democratic president despite their religious beliefs. I think this is quite nice, as it shows diversity within our mostly homogeneous religion. Still, the fact that a group like this has to exist denotes that Mormons are generally expected to support Romney, otherwise there would be no need for a 'rebel' faction. Now I ask: is the Mormon allegiance to Romney based on his politics or his religion? If members of the LDS church support Romney because they agree with his politics, well that's just peachy. But what I'm becoming increasingly aware-of is the religious rhetoric that surrounds LDS political support for Romney: "He was a Bishop!" "He was a Stake President" "He's Mormon!" While these are admirable accomplishments, they should not increase someone's political credibility. Remember that little thing called the Constitution that requites a separation of Church and State?

I don't want to make is sound like I think it's wrong for people to admire Romney because of his religious beliefs, but when religiosity is the primary factor for political endorsement, Romney's political stances become obscured by the fact that he is Mormon. For instance, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts he supported a healthcare reform law that, at the time, was viewed as a bipartisan-if not leftist-move. Many members of the LDS church do not support health care reform, but nonetheless support Romney because-hey! He's Mormon!

The point at which the religious endorsement of Mitt becomes problematic, in my opinion, is when members of the LDS church use Sunday church meetings to endorse him. In the past months, I've witnessed Mitt Romney being discussed as the only viable presidential candidate. I've heard Sunday school teachers praise him, and listened to comments suggesting that we, as Mormons, should rally around Mitt because he is Mormon and thus his political views must obviously reflected our own. Of course it's fine and dandy to express opinions-even political ones-in church. But when opinions are expressed as absolute truth, things get a little hairy. What if there are people in that Sunday school class who do not support Romney? What if they begin to silently feel, as I once did, that there must be something wrong with their faith because they don't endorse the Republican party? What if they are too embarrassed, as I once was, to express their dissenting opinion for fear of ostracism?

There is little else that makes my blood boil quite like the use of Sunday school as a venue to present political opinion as doctrinal belief. What ends up happening is schism within our religion, as those who support Romney feel ratified in their beliefs and contrarily, those who support Obama begin to feel like outsiders in their own religion.

So, let us support Romney. Let us support Obama. Let us support John Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, or Tom Hardy or who ever else we think would best lead this nation as a political figure. But please, PLEASE let us be conscious in separating religion from politics.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Death and Faith

When I was a teenager, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I can remember sitting around the kitchen table with my sister and two brothers as my parents broke the news in a serious yet hopeful tone. I can remember the outdated wallpaper with maroon and blue esoteric shapes that lined the walls. I can remember how my hair was wet and pulled back into a tight bun, and how we had just been called up from watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? on the green couch in the basement. I can remember dreading the thought of having to wake up at 5am the next morning for swim team. I can remember my mother's tired face below her '90s Sharon Stone haircut, although now I would say her face was more scared than tired. I can remember all of the unimportant and mundane details about that evening in October, just days after my 13th birthday. But the only word I can recall from the entire conversation is cancer.

Cancer is a word I was already acquainted with. My little brother was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 3 years old. In my home, the word 'cancer' was uttered with reverence and disdain, as though it was hated but not to be angered. To me at the age of 6, the word meant strangers bringing meals to my house, hospital visits harboring kids with tubes going into their frail bodies, and unused gifts bestowed upon a toddler who hid under my bed on lumbar puncture days and didn't understand why everyone was always so careful around him. Cancer was a word that meant a few years of disturbed routine and a major case of jealousy. It was a word that allowed my brother to sit in bed and play video games while I was cooped up in a classroom having to learn my times tables. That was cancer, and sometimes I wished it was me who had gotten it.

The reintroduction of cancer into my life was tainted by naivety and optimism. Sitting around the scratched wooden kitchen table, my only question was "how long will it take until you're better?" Because of my previously immature relationship with cancer, I didn't understand that the question I should have been asking was "how long do I have to say goodbye?"

My father was a strong man in every sense of the word; strong will, strong presence, strong body, strong mind. If anyone was going to defeat the word cancer, it was my dad. He wasn't a religious man, but over the proceeding weeks asked us to pray that he would be able to fight and win against his poisoned body. He told us that my mum was the closest thing to God, and with her on his side, he was sure to make it.

And so I prayed.

I spent the next year of my life studying the scriptures with the voracity with which teenage girls read Twilight. I highlighted verses that applied to our struggle, wrote them out in bold cursive and tacked them on the walls of my dad's hospital room. I spent evenings on my knees in prayer, long after the lights were turned off and the house was silent with a heavy mixture of grief and hope. But grief did not permeate my thoughts. Only hope. I begged God with perfect faith to heal my dad. I knew he would. I knew that if I did everything I was taught to do, if I could be the best possible version of me, then God would have to answer my prayers and heal my father. He had to.

It wasn't until the last month of his life that I began to realize that no matter what I did, no matter how often I read the Book of Mormon, no matter how many hours I spent on my knees, no matter how many times I did the dishes, or bore my testimony, or gave the last cookie to my brother, no matter how fervently I believed, God was not going to answer my prayers. My father would not be healed. And so I stopped praying.

When he died 3 days after my 14th birthday, I mourned the loss of both my father and God. My father had died, God had not answered my prayers, and so how could he have ever existed at all? And if he existed, why would I want to love and honor someone who could deny the thing for which I had promised to sacrifice everything?

I felt utterly betrayed by everything I had been taught growing up; that if you exercise faith and pray earnestly, God will hear your prayers. God had not heard my prayers. I had spent a year crying into a telephone, only to feel that the line had been cut before my pleas ever began.

Over the years, people would attempt to quell my anger by explaining the true meaning of prayer. "We are not supposed to petition God to change His will, but we are instead to ask God to soften our hearts to align our will with His." If my father's slow and agonizing death was God's will, I didn't want alignment.

I continued through my teenage years with a forced sense of independence. I didn't believe that anyone could or would help me, if the One who was supposed to love me most left me to mourn alone. I didn't realize then that the true purpose of prayer is simply to ask God to hold us through the things we don't understand. And so I walked alone, in bitterness and pain.

Throughout my life I have encountered people who endured ferocious trials, who must have spent those hours begging for God to heal, or change or stop only to have God's will play out. Instead of cursing God for deafness and silence, they emerge with stronger faith and appreciation for His divine plan. I was not one of those people, and this made me feel bitterly defective.

It took me years to understand that although my faith in prayer had been shattered, I could still ask God to comfort me through pain. This is the only part of prayer that I can believe in, but somehow, it's enough. Perhaps the feelings of betrayal I felt as a teenager ran so deep that my faith in prayer could never be made whole. Just as I was born with a skeptical mind, maybe I was also born with a deficiency of faith. Perhaps this is why I have such a difficult time reconciling the disparities between my religious and political beliefs, where faith is supposed to fill the void.

But just as I cling to those small moments of spiritual warmth to keep me going through doubts and contradictions, I hold on to the one aspect of prayer that I can believe in. No matter how bitter, how angry or how despairing, if I ask God for comfort despite His will which I often can't comprehend, he will hold me, love me and comfort me. If nothing else, that's how I know He's there.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Chick-fil-Oh My Goodness This is Getting Ridiculous

Man am I glad that Chick-fil-A doesn't have any franchises on this island. Not that I don't enjoy myself a tender, juicy chicken burger with a side of crispy fries (hold the homemade iced tea). I don't, however, enjoy finding myself caught straddling two sides of a controversy that will never lead to reconciliation. What I learned in adolescence (besides the fact that body piercings cause life-long scarring and that punk is in fact dead) is that public protest usually does little to facilitate communication between two sides of an issue. Instead, it often ratifies groups in their own worldviews and fosters resentment toward "the Other"*. I fully support freedom of expression and applaud activism, but using a fast-food corporation as an effigy of political posturing seems a bit over the top. This whole thing reminds me of the time when anything French was renamed "freedom" in the United States, back in the good ol' Bush days. Don't tell me you didn't feel awkward ordering Freedom Fries at McDonalds, or asking for a Freedom Manicure at the spa.

If you haven't already deduced, I'm an advocate for gay rights in civil society. I don't condone what the president of Chick-fil-A has said regarding gay marriage. I don't agree with donating money to lobby against gay marriage. I also try to respect the freedom of speech, and the liberty to spend money as one sees fit. My somewhat ambivalent stance on the Chick-fil-A topic isn't a reflection of my political beliefs, but more the result of an education in conflict analysis. Without boring you with academic rhetoric, I'll try to explain why I believe that public demonstration of opinion exacerbates intolerance. This might also give some context to my feelings towards the LDS church's stance during the Prop 8 campaign.

When we become members of a cohesive group-whether it's through religion, opinion, politics or even sports-we begin to identify ourselves as we. "We believe in aliens". "We think Tom Hardy is a babe". "We like Skittles". As we come to identify with a particular group, our identities cause us to label those outside our group as them. "They don't believe in aliens". "They don't think Tom Hardy is a babe". "They don't like Skittles". "We are not like Them". Of course I'm choosing silly examples that don't stir deep-seeded emotions (unless you're like me and are irrationally afraid of an alien invasion. Or if you don't think Tom Hardy is a babe. That's just crazy). But when the beliefs, opinions and assertions of a group are linked to our deepest sense of what is right and true, we quickly take sides to defend our identity, which leads to ostracism, exclusivity and even hatred.

This is not to say that group identity is intrinsically bad or wrong. There are some people enlightened enough to maintain a strong identity without excluding or judging others. Unfortunately, most of us are so emotionally linked to our group identity that an assertion contradicting our group beliefs is seen as a personal attack, and we get defensive. And when we get defensive, we retreat to our own groups, gather allies, solidify our group identity, and cut off effective dialogue with the "Other". When dialogue is cut-off, conflict escalates into a he-said she-said game of hearsay, until we have such a distorted view that we lose the ability to see humanity in others. This often causes ignorance, intolerance and hatred. This is where war is born.

Bringing it back to Chick-fil-A, are we really so entrenched in our "us" vs. "them" mentality that we think eating or not eating a chicken burger is going to promote our agenda or engender a more tolerant atmosphere between two groups with differing opinions? Do we truly believe that shouting hurtful slogans and wielding signs is going to change the "other's" minds and soften their hearts? In my opinion, the only way to truly reconcile a seemingly irreconcilable debate is to see the humanity in one another, especially within those holding views that contradict our own. Unfortunately, verbal warfare in front of a chain restaurant is not going to foster extra-group hugs and effective communication. Instead, it will only lead both groups (supporting gay marriage/supporting traditional marriage)to justify their insular view of the Other.

Having said all this, I think it's really funny that people are making a point to eat at Chick-fil-A three times a day to show support for the owner's religious views. Next thing you know, Mormons are going to go bankrupt from sleeping at the Marriott (a hotel chain with a Mormon CEO).

Joking aside, what do you think about the Chick-fil-A debate? Are you starving yourself of crispy nuggets or getting fat on fast food and ideology?

This is Tom Hardy. Case in Point.

This is an alien invasion. Scared yet?

*this doesn't necessarily relate to all types of public protest. The Arab Spring protests as well as demonstrations to change public policy are effective ways to give voice to "the people"...Oh wow. I did it. I really did it. I used footnotes in a blog post. I'm such a nerd.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Republicrat: Finding Middle Ground on Issues of Political Morality

I was going to write another heavy post, but I think my friends and husband would abandon me if I did. For the past few weeks I haven't been able to complete a conversation without the words "gay rights", "1978", "testimony" or "racial discrimination" creeping in, even if the topic of discussion is about effective weight loss methods or stylish hairstyles. In the last month I've somehow found a way to incorporate serious issues into even the most lighthearted exchanges. Wow. Way to be a buzz-kill, Steph. Won't be shocked if I don't get any birthday party invites this year... "Hey, should I invite Steph to my party?".... "No, she'll probably make fun of us for decorating the house with DIY Pinteresting crafts and talk about how lame we are for making a fancy cake, then eat it with her bare hands alone in a corner sobbing about how we're killing the environment by using plastic forks".

To be honest, I think everyone is a bit emotionally drained. I even bought an US Weekly magazine to balance the scale (by the way, did you hear that Kristen Stewart (Bella) cheated on Robert Pattison (Edward)? Shocking.) So, instead of delving into harrowing topics that turn me into a fun-sucking Dementor, this week I'm going to talk about the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare (yes, this is me being fun. Poor Rivs.) This isn't a religiously divisive issue, but to me, it holds as much moral weight as any other political debate.

I think one of the main reasons Mormons (and most other Christian religions) are expected to be Republican is due to the party's reputation of being the defender of morality. In reality, both parties defend ethical convictions but have differing views on what issues hold moral weight. In essence, it all comes down to the way morality is framed. In the political realm, the only issues defined as moral dilemmas are gay rights and abortion. Because Republicans generally oppose these movements, the party is deemed the defender of moral virtue. But isn't caring for the sick and poor a topic of morality as well?

We've become so consumed with differentiating between Republican and Democrat that agreeing with just one policy of an opposing party is seen as betrayal. This has narrowed the scope of possibilities available to the American people, as political polarity has led many to believe that politics is a zero-sum game; if your party wins, mine loses. If your party is the 'moral' party fighting to defend religious principles, then mine must be in opposition to your religious beliefs. And that's not the way it should be. I view health care reform as government institutionalized charity, and I think that both Republican and Democrat should share the title of 'Moral Party'.

It is my opinion (and you know I have a lot of those) that giving a portion of what we earn to benefit those who have less is a moral obligation. Whether its government-mandated or not, I think that sacrificing income so that those in need can receive the medical care they deserve is, in fact, charity. I know that many of you will argue that taxes and charity do not equate, as charity requires agency and taxation does not allow for it. Although "charity never faileth", it is an unfortunate fact that voluntary charity has failed to care for the millions of Americans who are left sick, dying and in debt without means to pay their exorbitent medical bills. I believe that it has become our moral duty to patch the void that should have been filled by unconditional charity. While having government implement a sort of 'forced charity' is not ideal, it seems to be the only way to ensure that every American can enjoy the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the great things about the Mormon church is that it practices its own form of 'affordable care' through tithing and fast offerings. By asking church members to donate a portion of their earnings to benefit the church and its individual members, the LDS church has become a great example of charity through taxation. Among LDS members, this is seen as an act of faith and moral duty. Although governments are comprised of imperfect people, why not support a system that attempts to mimic that which Mormons believe to be good and moral?

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bearing a Testimony

I can remember my first day of grad school at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica as though it were yesterday (and if that University name doesn't scream 'institute for the liberal hippie', then I don't know what does.) I walked onto campus 7 months pregnant, but it wasn't my giant belly and growing kankles that were weighing me down. I had a burning secret I was hiding as if I were Chris Cornel at a Justin Bieber concert: I was a Mormon. I understand how cowardly this sounds, as I am fully aware of the scripture Romans 1:16 that Christians are supposed to valiantly wear like a badge;

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth..."

Believe me, this scripture has haunted me in my everyday interactions with non-Mormon friends, because the truth is that I am often ashamed of my Mormon identity. Before I expound on this, let me give a little context as to why I started grad school as an undercover Mormon.

I entered a Masters program in Media, Peace and Conflict studies in the wake of California's Proposition 8, which deemed only marriage between a man and a woman as constitutional and valid. As I mentioned before, the University for Peace is an extremely progressive school filled with burgeoning world leaders and intellectuals (somehow I slipped in). Everyone knew what Proposition 8 was-and more direly for me-knew which institutions had vehemently supported the constitutional amendment. The LDS church's stance during the Prop 8 campaign has been the single most difficult issue for me to reconcile, and honestly I still can't say that I understand or support it. Being a new student in a liberal University, I didn't want my colleagues to automatically assume that I was prejudiced against the LBGT community upon discovering my Mormon identity, as portrayed by the media. I was indeed ashamed of being a member of an institution that had ardently opposed an issue that was, to me, a question of civil rights. I was even more ashamed to be associated with those few but loud members of the LDS church who misinterpreted an already confusing message to justify harassing the gay community.

Another issue that led me to keep my religious identity under-wraps was the LDS church's reputation for historical racism. I know that the present-day LDS church allows men of every ethnicity to hold equal rank and status, as in 1978 President Kimball of the LDS church finally received revelation that all eligible male Mormons were allowed to hold the priesthood regardless of race, lineage or ethnicity. I also understand that prior to 1978, many church members felt that withholding priesthood power from a specific ethnic group was unjust. Still, this does not negate that without a deep understanding of Gospel Doctrine, the LDS church appears to have been historically discriminatory against black people. The University for Peace had many students from African and Melanesian countries. I didn't want my friends to think that I would discriminate against them once they learned of my religious background.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments of my Mormon existence occurred 5 months into my grad school program when I discovered that I had been both right and wrong to conceal my Mormon identity. I had just recently "come out of the closet" in a class discussion on whether the burqa should be banned in Europe. I stated my opinion on the right to maintain religious tokens, mentioning that I wore sacred undergarments and would zealously defend my right to do so. As the words "I am Mormon and I wear sacred religious underwear" slipped through my lips, pangs of fear and relief washed over me. "Oh my gosh, they're all going to hate me and think I'm a bigoted racist homophobe!", I thought in concurrence with the release that comes after holding your breath through a long tunnel. "I don't have to keep it in anymore".

A few days later, my friend from Ethiopia approached me with tears in her eyes, calmly and sincerely asking whether I thought she was inferior because of her skin color. My friend explained that she knew only a little bit about the LDS religion, but she had learned that Mormons believe that black skin was a curse. With tears in my eyes I told her that I thought she was one of the most intelligent and beautiful people I had ever met, and that her skin color made absolutely no difference to me or the institution I was a part of. Later on, Rivs did his best to rationally explain the historical Judeo-Christian tradition of God consistently bestowing and withholding his authority based on lineage, birthright and promises. But the heart of the conversation was explaining that to be honest, we didn't know why priesthood powers were withheld, but when the 1978 revelation came about, most members of the church wept with joy. The entire discussion ended in tears and the assurance that we don't have all the answers.

After the discussion with my friend, many of my University friends began asking me to clarify their views on Mormonism. Much of what I was asked were the questions I was afraid of ("Do you think I'm going to hell because I'm gay?", "Are you a polygamist?" "Do you think black people are inferior?" "Do you think women are subservient to men?"). In that respect, I was glad that I had formed real relationships with my classmates before revealing my religious identity. That way, I thought, they would feel more comfortable asking me tough questions about my beliefs. Concurrently, I realized that had I come out loud and proud with my Mormon-ness right from the beginning, I would have had the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about the LDS church long ago.

When it comes down to it, belief in a religion with a somewhat negative reputation can be a burden to bear. This puts a whole new meaning to "bearing a testimony". I often think that this life would be so much easier if I didn't have to bear the weight of religious conviction, if I could just go through life believing what I felt was true without the occasional contradiction of religious creed. I wouldn't have to feel inadequate for being 'ashamed' of my religious culture. I wouldn't have to defend a religion that I often don't understand with the words "I can't really explain it, I just believe it". I wouldn't have to feel doubt and sorrow bubbling inside me when friends ask "how can you support an institution that opposes my right to love and marry who I want?" I wish that the burn of the spirit (as rare as the feeling is for me) didn't cut so deep to my core, making it impossible to shirk the burden of belief.

On the other hand, I wish my belief in the gospel was strong enough to disallow contradicting issues from rocking my testimony. I wish that my faith was so unwavering that I could ask scrupulous questions without the lack of answers causing severe doubt and bouts of unbelief. I wish my faith was strong enough to satiate my quest for truth, because I often feel as though I haven't found it in its wholeness.

If I could fill the holes in my testimony with liberal views, I wouldn't feel so tormented. I would be satiated knowing that both my worlds had been reconciled. But when it comes down to it, some things just don't add up. And I guess that's where my faith comes in, as meager and weak as it is.

Maybe I was wiser than I give myself credit for when I tattooed "Only Faith" to my wrist at age 16.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Born This Way?

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who has been following this blog. I'm moved by all of the support you've sent my way, and comforted to know that I am far from the only Mormon wrestling with paradoxical ideologies. To be honest, I was kind of expecting to receive an inbox full of hate mail, and maybe even a few cryptic letters written in cut-out magazine letters or blood. So far, I've only felt love and compassion. That gives me hope. High five everyone! And for those of you who disagree with every word I've written but continue to read (oh you gluttons for punishment), thanks for being open minded and accepting, and don't be afraid to insert your opinion in the comments..

I thought that it might be helpful to give a little background info on how I became (or was I born this way?) the rare breed of Mormon that I am, although after reading your comments, I'm coming to realize that we're not as uncommon as I once thought. If you really don't care about my life story, then just hold your horses. I'm planning on writing a "juicier" post sometime this week.

I was born in Montreal to a devout LDS mother and an agnostic but very supportive father who would drop us off and pick us up from church every Sunday. I never thought anything strange about him not attending with us, and laughed when he called us his "little Mormonites". My parents are to this day the most 'in love' married couple I've ever known. They were a prime example to me that there are ways to pursue happiness within our faith other than the traditional Mormon family.

I attended church with passion and zeal until I was 14 when the subject matter in Young Women's became devoted to-in my eyes-making me an obeisant wife and baby maker. I think my breaking point was walking into class one Sunday and seeing brown paper bags lined up with "How To Serve My Husband" written across them in perfect bubbly cursive. (By the way, have any of you ever noticed that there's a culturally Mormon script? You'd know it if you saw it...) I took one horrified glance at the beautifully crafted display (dang Mormons and their craftiness!) and walked right out the door. Now that I'm married I understand the merit in thinking of ways to serve your husband-heck, put those ideas in a brown bag if it helps-but as an adolescent I viewed the activity as a sexist tactic to mold me into a subservient wife. Despite my mother's coaxing, I began spending the hour of Young Women's waiting alone in the foyer.

Montreal has a very low LDS population, and I was the only Mormon in my high school of 2,000 people. As a result, I had no LDS friends and there were very few social activities for church members my age. These facts, mixed with the mind of an innately cynical teenager dabbling in punk rock culture, were a recipe for imminent religious skepticism. When I was encouraged to attend a church youth dance at the age of 15, I was denied entry for wearing ripped jeans. It was then I decided that an institution which, in my mind at the time, forced conformity and promoted subservience, was not for me. You might think that two small instances shouldn't be enough to shake religious devotion, but to me both experiences were indicators of something much more disturbing - sexism and exclusivity. And as I continued to view the LDS church (and religion in general) with a more scrupulous eye, there was-in my mind-too much hypocrisy and too many contradictions (the fact that I was concurrently watching my father die a slow death from cancer while I made hourly pleas to a seemingly deaf God didn't help my lack of faith or skepticism.)

I spent the next few years attending church only sporadically, if my mother asked (or bribed... thanks for letting me take the van, mom!) or if I had to fill in for the choir pianist. Looking back, I realize how cool our ward choir leader must have been to allow a girl with tattoos and a patched leather vest accompany the choir in an Easter Cantata.

The rest of my teenage years were lived outside of the church, where the more I distanced myself from it, the more agnostic I became. Still, if any of my friends would criticize the LDS church, I was quick to defend it and would feel a fire burning inside me when I did. I think deep down I always knew that I would return to the church but tried to repress the thought, because religion is so not punk rock.

The strange thing about a testimony is that once you have one, it's very difficult to completely extract from your being, no matter how much you defy and how hard you try. You may temporarily silence it, even deliberately suffocate it as I did, but I think there will always be a whisper of it no matter how far you run. This is perhaps the most difficult part of being a skeptical Mormon liberal; be completely immersed in faith with the incessant questions that come with a quizzical mind, or commit to agnosticism or atheism and never completely mute the quiet, gnawing presence of a testimony, as small as it might be.

And that's why I came back. Even though I was content in my agnostic life, I always felt a faint sense that something was missing. I'm not saying by any means that people who aren't religious are 'missing something'. My father, for example, was the happiest person I have ever known and had no particular God to cling-to. But for myself, I felt as though I was always reaching for something that was no longer there, like a phantom limb. Without the rules of Mormonism (dogmatic as they are at times), my life was headed down an ominous path. Some people have a strong enough will to live a productive and good life without a set of guidelines to follow. I learned that I am not one of those people. That is why I finally decided to take on the task of navigating my skepticism and faith, something that I never allowed myself to do before.

Later on, I met a boy who offered me a pickle in Anthropology class. Game over, Rivs. You had me at "hey, I have this pickle in a Ziploc in my backpack. Do you want it?" We were married in an LDS temple 4 years ago, and now I really wish I hadn't walked out of that class with the brown paper bags. Although I still don't agree with the heavy 'marriage and mommy' prep young women get fed in the church, I now realize that there is a difference between service and subservience.

This is Rivs. He's my man. He can navigate the waters of liberalism and Mormonism like he owns them. I can bounce all of my deepest, darkest cynical questions off of him without judgement. I don't tell him enough, but in so many ways, he's my hero (yup, I guess those bags really would have come in handy after all...) This is a photo of Rivs in Mexico after he got a henna tattoo. That's probably the 'worst' thing he's ever done, and I love him for it.

Then we made a baby. We cried with sorrow when we learned that I was pregnant. We didn't want kids for a loooong time. When Harper was born in November 2009, my life was forever changed and all of those lame mushy things mothers say about their babies became my vocabulary. Although I will still pursue a career, I would hands down choose being a mother over anything else. It's just a wonderful thing. I get it now.

That's my story so far. I definitely don't have it all figured out. I still lose and gain my testimony on a weekly basis as I try to sort through faith and logic, but it's always there, even when I don't want it to be.

From now on I'll be posting once a week, hopefully on Thursdays. See you then!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Faith and Logic

One of the things that inspired me to start this blog was a nonchalant suggestion from my awesome husband. Thanks, Rivs. If I ever write a book, I'll definitely put you in the acknowledgments, somewhere after God, Lady Gaga and Donny Osmond. Love them.

A more recent event that moved me to write on the topic of Mormon polarity was reading about last week's mass resignation of Mormons from the LDS church. If you want the full story, you can access it at">.

If you want the Sparks notes version, I'll give you a quick summery.

In a move of solidarity, 150 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints gathered in Salt Lake City to sign "A Declaration of Independence from Mormonism", effectuating their renouncement of membership from the church. Their main reasons for resignation were "the church's political activism against gay marriage and doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings or are perceived as racist or sexist."

When I read about this event, I felt conflicting senses of sorrow and relief. I'm pretty used to conflicting emotions, although they normally occur at the same time each month and are thus easier to detect and deal with (well, easier for ME to deal with. For Rivs, I'm sure it's a different story...) However, the mixture of contrading emotions I experienced after reading this article were much more difficult to dissect.

I feel sorrow for the former members of the LDS church who must have felt ostracized enough in their worldviews and so pressured to fit the 'Mormon mold' that they needed the comfort of like-minded people in order to muster the courage to resign their membership. Mormons tend to have a very cohesive group identity which often causes those on the fringe (like me) to feel isolated. Having grappled for years with some of the tenets of the church within the blessing and curse of my skeptical and liberal mind, I feel empathy for the 150 people whose deconstruction of religion overrode their testimony. Believe me, I've been there. And I'm not just talking about the Chinese Mind-trap questions like "Who is Heavenly Father's Father?" (come on, I know you've all asked that question) or "Were Adam and Even cavemen?" (maybe I'm alone in that one...?). When I speak of deconstructing religion, I mean wrestling with deep moral issues that resonate with me nearly as much as my testimony of the gospel they contradict. When my mind goes into academic mode, I'm grateful that I have had one or two spiritual experiences in my life that were strong enough to pull me from my existential downward spirals (and for me, these happen on a daily basis). When it comes down to it, no matter what moral or scientific dilemmas I encounter in contrast to my faith, I have those few moments of spiritual certainty to anchor me to a religion that sometimes makes little sense. I'm sure that those who left the church had similar spiritual experiences in their lives, and I can only assume that the reasons they had for leaving were so intrinsic to their identities that no ethereal feeling could hold them.

And I think this is why I felt a sense of relief. When you spend your life in liminality-straddled between faith and logic-you begin to feel inadequate in both spheres. I've often seen myself as a lousy Mormon because I don't need tissues during Fast and Testimony meeting (this happens at church once a month, where members of the congregation get up and talk about their testimony); I just haven't been blessed with a heightened spiritual sense. I feel guilty when I find myself saying "oh come on, you haven't even reached the pulpit and you're already sobbing like a toddler who dropped their ice cream cone", but really I think I'm jealous that my faith rarely brings me to tears. On the other hand, in the academic world the phrase "I can't prove it or explain it, I just believe it" rarely gets you anywhere.

Being as I am-committed to my faith but unable to relinquish my skeptical post-modern mind-I feel like William Wallace in the final scene of Braveheart when his limbs are being pulled in opposite directions by a medieval torture device (wait, Braveheart is rated R. No, I take that analogy back. I've never seen the movie...) It's tormenting to feel your identity divided between two seemingly irreconcilable ideologies, which is why completely committing to one side would be, in a sense, a relief. I'm not saying that resigning from the church would be a relief to me, but I think I can understand the feeling of respite that might come from relinquishing the war.

Well, that is all I have to say about that (for now). Let me know what you think about the mass resignation of Mormons. I'll be interested to hear your take on it. As far as the reasons the 150 people left the church (gay marriage, scientific contradictions, racism, sexism), I'll be spending plenty of time on those topics later. I don't want to scare you off. Yet.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hi, My Name is Steph C. and I'm a Mormon Liberal

Hi. I'm Steph. I'd like to think of this blog as a more cerebral spin-off of my personal blog , which chronicles the traveling circus act that is my small family. As a member of the LDS church, my liberal ideological views have often been at odds with Mormon culture. "Liberal Mormon!?", I hear you ask your computer screen with surprise and skepticism. Yes, we are a rare breed, but we do exist-unlike the Jackalope, which I was much too recently informed is, in fact, a fictional animal invented to fool children and gullible adults (me).

Firstly, I think it's imperative to make a clear delineation between LDS doctrine (AKA the doctrinal basis for our religion) and Mormon culture (AKA Jello-loving, fetchin' awesome homemakers). What is often taken as "True" and "moral" in Mormon culture is not based in gospel doctrine but is instead a set of cultural norms and traditions that have come to define our religion.

Hugh Nibley, an ardent democrat and one of the most acclaimed LDS academics, was openly critical of Mormon culture while maintaining his steadfast faith in the LDS religion.

"The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism... the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances." (Hugh Nibley, 1973)

So, for my "non-Mormon" readers (no, I don't think you're going to hell. Phewf, right?), let me first clarify some myths about the LDS religion.

1) I am not a polygamist. My husband and I will never acquire any Sister Wives (unless HBO offers us a lucrative deal. Sorry, bad joke.)

2) I wear special underwear. There, I said it, and it's true. Even though I'm sure you're curious, I won't be discussing them anymore in this blog. Although my choice of undergarments is unusual and therefore the brunt of many-a-media-jokes, they are in fact sacred, as is any religious token, and I revere them as such.

3) I don't hate people because they're gay. In fact, 3 of my dearest, closest friends are gay and proud. I love them, accept them and support them. End of story.

4) I'm not crafty and I'm a pretty bad homemaker. If you've ever read other Mormon mom blogs, you might ascertain that we are all super-humanely able to bake, DIY everything, keep our homes immaculately organized and pop out 4-6 kids while, like, totally looking fetching hot all day long. I, unfortunately, am not that way. I think the last craft I successfully completed was composed of construction paper, stale popcorn and Elmer's glue. So sorry, but you won't find any tasty recipes or inventive organizational tips here.

5) I'm a Mormon liberal, and it has taken some work to reconcile my religious and ideological views. I don't think of myself as loyal to any political party, although I tend to lean to the left, to the left (Beyonce, anyone?) I often encounter opposition from those few members of the LDS church who think that to be a "good" Mormon means to be conservative and republican, but over the years I have come to not only embrace my political ideology, but to become proud of it. So suck it, Glenn Beck. I'm liberal and I know it.

The purpose of this blog isn't to push my subversive liberal ideology onto my conservative LDS counterparts, nor is it meant to persuade you heathens (ha ha) to convert. I'm not going to use scriptures to back my political views, because both democrat and republican beliefs can be backed by scriptural text. I don't want this to turn into a tug-of-war. I'm not even trying to convince you to shave your head or try a mo-hawk like me (but seriously, you should at least try it. Nothing says "I'm rejecting Mormon cultural norms" quite like a woman with a mohawk) What I'd like is for this blog to serve as a platform for political discussion and, well, just a place for me to be able to write about my personal views on various issues.

So, I hope you will follow along while giving me some healthy criticism and hearty debate. If you're Mormon and conservative, don't think I dislike you. I may just disagree with you, as I will disagree with liberals and democrats on some points.

Here is my latest family photo. I just realized that the only photos I have of the three of us together are back shots. I guess we're either really proud of our bums or pretty self-conscious about our faces.