Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This Just In: Joseph Smith Was a Polygamist

Of course, to those of us who are students of history and seekers of truth, this is not news. Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, polyandry, and his efforts to justify such behavior have been well documented and accessible to curious people like us for decades. The real news here is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has finally been forced to face some of the truth of its history in a more direct manner than it has chosen to in the past.

In an essay recently posted on the Mormon Church’s official website the LDS leadership now publicly admits to its members what Church leadership has known all along: Joseph Smith took many wives—as many as 40—and one of them was only 14 years old (although the carefully worded essay prefers to describe her age as “several months before her 15th birthday.”) He did this in secret for several years and lied about it at first. Some of these women were already married, and yes, Joseph Smith did have sex with these other women, but apparently not all of them.

So why is this such a big deal? Because Joseph Smith is the only pillar upon which the Mormon Church rests. It was Joseph Smith who received the golden plates and translated them from Reformed Egyptian into the Book of Mormon and thus started the Mormon Religion. If Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, if instead he was a liar, a con-artist, a fraud, then the entire Mormon Religion comes crumbling down. We’re talking about a powerful organization with millions of members and billions of dollars in assets. A lot rides on Joseph Smith’s shoulders.

This creates a great deal of tension for faithful Mormons—tension that even the brightest Mormon historians have difficulty resolving (see my review of the biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to see what I mean.)  

The most unfortunate aspect of all this is that now, with the publication of this essay, it has become abundantly clear that LDS Church leadership has intentionally and willfully misled its members and has attempted to cover-up or deny the more difficult aspects of Mormon history. Again, this is not news to me, but it is news to many faithful Mormons who have been taught very differently about Joseph Smith. Imagine the pain of realizing that your religious leaders have been hiding the truth from you because the truth wasn’t deemed to be “faith promoting.” This is no simple matter.  I’ve visited several blogs by Mormons discussing this development and have read the comment threads with sympathy. Mormons are part of a rich and vibrant culture that is woven into every part of their identity—their family, their friends, their ancestors, their church. Their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. When a Mormon starts to think about walking away from their religion, they’re walking away from so much more than a system of beliefs—in many cases they are literally walking away from everything.

If I haven’t already, I hope I make it abundantly clear that I hold a deep regard for Mormons. I have many Mormon friends and neighbors who are wonderful people with good hearts. I do, however, have a major problem with any individual or institution that willfully manipulates, misleads, or coerces a vulnerable population for their own gain.

The good news here is that for those who must abandon their religious beliefs as they seek truth, on the other side of the painful process of letting go there exists a wonderful freedom. Truth really does set us free. And when we are free, we are much more likely to find God. And for most of us, that is what we really want.    

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Can't Christians Wrap Their Minds Around Death With Dignity?

Brittany Maynard wanted us to think about this issue.

"If I'm leaving a legacy, it's to change this health-care policy or be a part of this change of this health-care policy so it becomes available to all Americans. That would be an enormous contribution to make, even if I'm just a piece of it." 

And when I see other blog posts such as this one by John Piper (chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary) getting over a thousand likes on facebook, I simply can’t stay silent on the issue.

So here is my question: Why can’t Evangelical Christians wrap their minds around death with dignity?

If you read Piper’s post you’ll find the part where he tries to explain his position by leaning on Romans 14:7-9:

“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

Piper then goes on to reason:

“Therefore, we are not our own; we are the Lord’s. Therefore, we live and we die ‘to the Lord.’ That is, life and death are not our private concern. They are not our choice. He bought us. He owns us. We live and we die to him — in reliance on him, in accordance with his will, for his glory.”

So here is my response to John Piper, and please forgive me for using the following example for I in no way wish to be insensitive to the reality that people have faced the following scenario. What say you to the person trapped atop a burning skyscraper with no chance of rescue or escape? This person would rather jump than burn to death. Do you tell them it is not their “private concern” whether they burn or die on impact? Do you explain to them that by choosing to jump they are cutting their life short and usurping God’s divine will for them to burn ten minutes later? And don’t try to counter that Brittany Maynard’s situation was different. Her cancer was a burning skyscraper, and in the grand scheme of things ten minutes isn’t much different from a few weeks or months.

Another thing to consider is that if we follow Piper’s logic, we must also look at the matter conversely. What do we say to the middle-aged man with four blocked coronary arteries as he lies on the gurney in the Emergency Department? Do we tell him that it is obviously God’s will that his arteries got clogged and we are sorry that he is on the brink of death but it is not our place to artificially extend his life by cleaning out his arteries or by taking the veins that God placed in his legs and transferring those veins to his chest to bypass the clogged arteries because the veins certainly weren’t created for that?

Christians like to believe that God is in control. In fact, if one believes Paul just like John Piper does, then to quote from the same passage that Piper does, one should believe “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Therefore, it is preposterous to believe that when it comes to when we die or how we die that we humans can actually do anything to change the fact that God is in control. The bottom line is if God didn’t want Brittany to die on November 2, 2014, He could have stopped her.

I don’t know if I should tell the following story, but I’m going to anyway. Brace yourself because what follows is horrible. When I was a resident physician I once had a patient beg me to end her life. She was in her late sixties, alone, no family, no friends, only a few acquaintances. She put all her affairs in order and then drove herself in the dead of night to a remote place where she figured no children might stumble across her. She placed a large caliber handgun to her temple and pulled the trigger. The only problem was that she held the gun at the wrong angle and the bullet completely missed her brain but instead took out both of her eyes and a good portion of her face. When I met her in the E.R. she was alert, able to speak, and had refused any pain medication. As I held her hand she told me her story and begged me to let her die. She pleaded for death. I told her as gently as I could that my only desire was to help her, but helping her die was something I simply could not do.

I don’t know why that bullet didn’t kill her. I don’t know what role God played. Some people might say it was God who made her misaim by that fraction of an inch and to them I say why didn’t God just jam the trigger?  I never saw her again after that night, so I don’t know how much she suffered or how much longer she lived. So what is my point in telling this awful tale? Please bear with me, I’m pretty sure I’m getting to it.

I think my point is that our North American society needs to seriously rethink how we view and handle death. On the one hand most Christians spend far too much time perseverating on the afterlife and on how to get to Heaven and how to avoid eternal conscious torment in Hell to the point that they completely miss out on what it means to follow Jesus and build the Kingdom of God here and now. And on the other hand most everybody else seems to be obsessed with extending life as long as possible without much regard to quality of life or dignity. Brittany Maynard, may she rest in peace, appears to be way ahead of most of us.

I thank her for her courage and her willingness to share her story. I respect her choice and admire her bravery, for I’m sure she knew she would be the subject of hundreds of random bloggers like me.