Us & Them

In Relief Society on Sunday our lesson was the Wilford Woodruff Lesson “Proclaiming the Gospel.” I make a lot of comments – not just because I’m the Prez, but because I actually care about the topics and content. The teacher started leaning toward “setting a good example so others will be drawn to the Church”, and asked if the converts in the room had been positively influenced by the example of Church members as they made their decision to join. I couldn’t sit on my hands.

Trying for the delicate balance of tact and enlightenment (and squelching infuriated screams), my comments were something like this:

As a convert to the church from another faith tradition, I was brought up among wonderful examples of deep faith and Christ-centeredness… I had spiritual mentors all my life. Getting acquainted with Mormons was not a whole new world opening for me. God is generous with His Truth. Every faith has access to Divine Truth and some of them are far better at what they focus on than we are. That is one of the things that drew me to the Gospel in the first place. I remember reading quotes by Brigham Young: “…[We] believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it…. ‘Where is your code, your particular creed?’ says one. It fills eternity; it is all truth in heaven, on earth, or in hell. This is ‘Mormonism.’” Who doesn’t want a Gospel that is all truth? The more we celebrate and learn from others the truths that they know and live, the more we all grow in the Gospel.

Or something to that effect. And it wasn’t just the opportunity to say “hell” twice in Relief Society. One of the things most entrenched in Mormonism today — and therefore the most discouraging when it comes seeing change any time soon – is the attitude that “we” are the possessors of the fullness of the Gospel and “you ‘gentiles’” can’t really teach us anything we should give theological weight to. Back in the day when President Benson was preaching against pride, couldn’t that have been at least part of what he was getting at?

Of course it’s a tricky semantic issue, this truth seeking business. I always am curious to know what people mean when they say “I know the Church is true.” Each of those words, with the exception of “the”, is a meaty gem that could mean many things to many people and what some people may mean, I may not agree with at all. My friend, scholar and tres cool chick Jana Riess, told me she likes hearing the phrase in part because it DOES mean different things to different people. And no one is required to explain themselves.

I am not one to fall for the wishy-washy relativism that claims every path is as “true” as another. I honestly believe that Christ really is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that the priesthood authority in the Mormon Church has unique Divine power. But let’s go to the source, people, and see that it is God and the Gospel which gives the Church whatever good oomph it has, not the other way around.

Of course this is a difficult reality to hold on to when we have scriptures that say “whether by my voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same” and that Joseph Smith was told by God not to join any of the other churches of his time “because they are all wrong.” Semantic issues – and the theological stumbling blocks they create – will and have alienated many of “us” and “them” – whichever side you’re on. If we could let go of trying to interpret every jot and tittle of theology and rejoice and dance around in the incredible breadth of the Gospel, we would all be better off. Maybe this sounds wishy washy, too. But I like to think of it instead as sort of zen-like. There’s truth there, too, after all!

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  1. AmyB says:

    Linda, thank you for this. The “us and them” mentality, which is characteristic of an ethnocentric worldview, has come to cause me angst. I remember reading Isaiah a while ago, and having considerable difficulty with it. It divides the world up into the righteous and the wicked, and all those bad wicked people out there have to be destroyed. On a metaphorical level, we could consider that each of us has good and bad within us, and we want to nurture the good. However, church members tend to take the scriptures as literally as they can.

    The idea of “us and them” makes it more difficult to show true, Christ-like love to all of our brothers and sisters on the earth because we are seeing them as other rather than being one with them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think the main issue is that there NEEDS to be a separation because of the temple ordinances. If the Church is described as being another wonderful Christian denomination, people will see no need for temples, especially because everyone can do temple work after loved ones have died or in the Millenium.

    Twenty or thirty years ago the US/THEM separation was huge because Mormons were supposed to be a “peculiar people.” The doctrines of temples, sealings, etc. were much mroe defined and it seemed as though we were taught that unless we did the temple ordinances while living, we could not expect to have work done for us posthumously. President Kimball was adamant about this, especially.

    So my point is, it’s getting to be less “us and them” even though it seems like we still want to keep a distance because of our unique doctrines.

  3. Naiah Earhart says:

    Someone once mentioned to me a fascinating point along these lines. Adam and Eve had the gospel in its fullness, and all of the earth is descended from them. Does it not make sense then, that there are scraps and remnants of celestial Truth in all cultures (and religions), even if in many cases those seeds of truth have been turned around or in other ways distorted over time?

    We truly are all brothers and sisters, as human beings and as cutures; it is one common heritage.

  4. D-Train says:

    Terrific stuff, Linda.

  5. RoastedTomatoes says:

    Linda, nice post! I wonder what you think of my related comments from last December? In any case, this is a very thoughtful post; I agree that us-and-them rhetoric is harmful and unnecessarily divisive.

  6. Susan M says:

    I’m a convert and I get bugged by this sometimes too. Some of the most Christian people I’ve known have been atheists. Sometimes I think we just need to get over ourselves already.

    I think we toss a lot of words around so much that we kind of lose sight of what they actually mean. Words like atonement, faith, “I know the church is true,” etc.

    As for what the original question was in your class, growing up as a Lutheran I always felt like there was something missing from what I was being taught. Is that really all there is? I knew kids in jr high and high school who were LDS, some of them were my best friends, and they’d invite me to LDS activities and camp outs. Not one of them ever explained what they believed, what the Book of Mormon was, who Joseph Smith was, nothing. Would I have been ready to hear it? Probably not. But who knows. (I converted when I was 18 and started dating my husband, who was preparing at the time to serve a mission–we got married instead.)

    I wish I’d had the gospel when I was a teenager. I wish one of those friends had invited me to seminary.

  7. rob says:

    I’m not a convert, but my father is and my uncle is a Baptist minister. Having this dynamic within my family has been helpful in helping me understand that every person on the face of the planet is just that: a person.

    I remember reading about Michael Medved saying that Utah was the only place where he, a Jew, was called a Gentile. I remember growing up the terms ‘Member’ and ‘Gentile’ being used frequently within the walls of our meeting houses. I haven’t heard this in years, and assume it fell from favor upon the First Presidency’s [wise] urging and in its stead the more natural terms, “Mormon” and,’non-Mormon.”

    Still, however, in Utah Mormon culture the ‘us and them’ dynamic exists. When I meet somebody new on campus and discuss the new friendship with my family, the question is usually asked by my parents, “Is he/she a member?” It puzzles me.

    I haven’t slept in 36 hours…I really hope that made sense.

  8. Artemis says:

    rob,

    I totally agree with you on the Utah ‘us/them’ dynamic. One thing I’ve found, however, is that many people object to being called ‘non-Mormons’ almost as much as they do to being called Gentiles. And who can blame them? Do you want to be defined by what you are not? I know I don’t. I believe the issue even came up during Rocky’s interfaith discussions following the aftermath of the Main Street ugliness.

    So what IS an acceptable term? Well, if it’s an individual or a group of one faith, I’d say, name the faith as respectfully and consistently as we do ours. If it’s a group of various faiths, I’d say “those of other faiths”.

    Not trying to be a hair-splitter… 😉

  9. Caroline says:

    Another option would be to simply call them “our neighbors.”

  10. Starfoxy says:

    Caroline, I really like the idea of the term neighbors. It doesn’t make an assumption about other’s beliefs, and it doesn’t make them seem radically unlike us. It highlights our responsibility to love them and treat them respectfully. It also has the benefit of requiring little to no explanation about who, exactly, you are referring to. I’m going to start using that.

  11. Steven B says:

    Nice post. I have always felt that God does not turn his back on any of his children simply because they may err in doctrine or not be a “member” of the correct faith. Nor will he refrain from blessing his children, answering their prayers or performing miracles in their lives. I think this is true whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or whatever.

  12. Eve says:

    Thanks, Linda, for this post.

    To add to what Steven said, I think as humans we all inevitably err in doctrine. Even Mormons :> Whatever it is we mean when we say this is the One True Church, we’re not referring to our own–or our leaders’–infallibility.

    Naiah, the theory you refer to is laid out in more detail in BYU’s Religions of the World manual (and I’m sure in other places as well) as one of several possible views of other faiths.

    Also, I think I’m going to start calling our RS president “The Prez.” It has such a nice ring.

  13. Caroline says:

    Thanks Starfoxy. I actually can’t take credit for that, since on one of my feminist LDS email groups, I read about a stake president who was encouraging his members to not refer to others as Non-Mormons.

    Apparently, it was becoming quite divisive in this particular area and these others were viewing Mormons as poor neighbors, even though the Mormons themselves thought they were great community members. So anyway, he was the one to suggest that we call them “neighbors.” I really liked the term too.

  14. Mike says:

    Thanks Linda for this post. I have often been frustrated when we as latter-day saints seem to be exclusionary rather than inclusive. I understand that it is largely built into the culture to be proud of our separation, our peculiar nature, and our isolation from others because we were forced to separate ourselves so early in our Church’s history. I don’t think that should give us an excuse, and it doesn’t make it less frustrating.

    Caroline, I also like the terminology of neighbor. I think that sometimes it can be awkward depending on the context, and there is a need to identify someone as not being a member of the LDS faith; but on the whole it seems to work well.

    Do you remember the general conference talk where Elder Ballard always referred to those outside our faith simply as “neighbors” and asked that we drop the terms nonmember and non-Mormon from our vocabulary?
    It was in October 2001

    I particularly like:
    “Such phrases can be demeaning and even belittling. Personally, I don’t consider myself to be a “non-Catholic” or a “non-Jew.” I am a Christian. I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That is how I prefer to be identified—for who and what I am, as opposed to being identified for what I am not. Let us extend that same courtesy to those who live among us.”

  15. Linda H K says:

    Some of us in a previous ward referred to our neighbors who aren’t Mormon as “FOOFs” – or Friends Of Other Faiths. 🙂 Then there’s the FOO – Family Of Origin.

    BTW, Roastedtomatoes (May I call you “Roasted”?) – nice, smart link you included! Great minds, you know….

  16. Anonymous says:

    I fully agree with the post and thank you.

    With respect to Isaiah, I have undersood his writings to be among the more “inclusive” in the Old Testament. I like to think that this greater inclusiveness and universality are reasons why Isaiah was a favorite of Jesus too (perhaps my registration as a democrat colors my interpretation). Among my favorite verses are the following from Isaiah 56:

    3. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.

    4 For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;

    5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

    6 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant;

    7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

    DavidH

  17. EmilyCC says:

    Linda, I love that you address in RS that we can learn things from spiritual mentors from other traditions. Some of the greatest truths I’ve learned have come to me during my chaplaincy training when I got to work with people from all different religious traditions. I feel sad for Mormons who think they’ve got the lock on “truth.” They’re missing out.

    Mike, thanks for the link to that talk. It’s a keeper!

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