Renounce Culture (War) and Proclaim Peace
June. That month when 33 years ago a group of elders coming back to the Hill Cumorah for lunch after mowing lawns at the Peter Whitmer Farm (readying the historic sites for Pageant visitors) were greeted with news from Jenny–the foreman’s daughter–that the blacks had received the priesthood. (I found later that we were not the only ones who did not quite believe the news at first.) A remarkable soul-lifting event, a lovely companion piece to something Spencer W. Kimball had written two Junes earlier, perhaps just as remarkable but less remarked on and arguably less embraced.
Two Junes earlier, that was the year we graduates wore cracked Liberty Bells on our tassels, the bicentennial, so you might have expected a First Presidency message on the blessings of living in America. Instead the June 1976 Ensign contained a stern rebuke about “The False Gods We Worship.”
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:44–45.)
I thought about this earlier this month, when teaching the Gospel Doctrine lesson on Matthew 24 / Joseph Smith–Matthew, the signs of the times. The lesson manual said that the first 20 verses of Joseph Smith — Matthew were a prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem, and were fulfilled in AD 70. An arresting comment, considering how many discussions and seminary lessons and other lessons I’ve heard about the tribulations to precede the Second Coming. But here was the lesson manual saying the tribulations had passed. I mentioned that to the class, mentioned Jan Shipps’s idea from Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (“She’s probably the only non-Mormon historian ever to get a blurb from the Church’s public communications department.”) that new traditions replay the history of the tradition they sprang from, and suggested that the early Latter-day Saints had probably replayed the tribulations of the early Meridian-day Saints in Missouri and Nauvoo. And certainly the verse about praying that your flight occur not in winter could describe exodus from both Nauvoo and Missouri.
So if our mission is not to prepare for tribulation, then it must be to prepare for the Lord’s coming, and I talked a little about President Kimball’s essay. I’ve always been impressed with how solid is his sense that the Lord can fight our battles, that we don’t need weapons, we need faith. But whenever I think about the essay I can’t help but expand it a bit. How does the commandment “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16) relate to culture war?
Surely too large a topic for a blog post, but I do want to look at a few drawbacks to waging culture war.
First, the purpose of war is to wound, to cause casualties, to tear down, while the purpose of the Gospel is to give aid and comfort to our enemies so that they will no longer be our enemies and we can count our blessings together.
Second, in war there is always collateral damage, and we ought to remember whose hands hold the collateral and ask if we want to cause more wounds to the hands that paid our mortgage.
Third, consider this phrase from Alma 50:30, “they would have carried this plan into effect, (which would have been a cause to have been lamented).” Our grammar can tell us how to think about an event that never happened as if it had happened, as if we were in the future looking back on it. Our grammar can comment on how we would have felt if this thing that hadn’t happened had happened. Our grammar is very sophisticated in dealing with time and possibility. But our grammar cannot tell us if the words someone speaks are a figure of speech, such as exaggeration, or meant to be taken literally.
Years and years and years ago I heard a quote, I think from Harold B. Lee, that if the young people of the Church understood how great the blessings of the temple are they would crawl on hands and knees to marry there. Would we really? That question haunted me for years. I think it was only a year or two ago, while I was looking out the window on the way to the temple and thinking about crawling along the unsidewalked shoulder over pebbles and dirt and very hot asphalt that I thought, ‘that was a figure of speech to emphasize how much we would be willing to do to get there.’
I was not naïve. There are plenty of pilgrims who crawl the stations of the cross, or up mountains to monastaries, and the man I saw walking between Raymond and South Bend, Washington shouldering a wheeled cross is hardly the only man in Christendom to literally take up his cross.
Since our grammar can’t tell us whether someone is speaking literally or figuratively we need to rely on our cultural feel for idioms, but we still can never be sure whether someone is speaking figuratively or literally. Consider the humor in Matthew 5:30: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” That is, sin is so dear to you that giving it up would be like cutting off a hand.
But in III Nephi 12:30the Savior phrases it differently, “For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.” I like the suggestion someone made in a priesthood meeting, that the Jews knew Jesus was using a figure of speech, but the Nephites would have taken him literally. Similarly, we never know when a war of words might turn into a war of swords, even though the pun is mightier than the S-word.
Fourth, we invite pride when we engage in war. Thirty years ago I took a writing class from Bela Petsco, who introduced me to Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. A theme throughout is the challenge of conveying a Christian vision to a culture with little regard for mystery. In one memorable paragraph O’Connor uses the same word President Kimball used to describe our idolatry, repugnant, then says the writer “may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to the hostile audience. . . . to the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (33-34).
It seemed to me at the time a nicely rationalized statement, that is a statement giving a good-sounding reason, but I’ve never been convinced that it was really a statement of O’Connor’s poetics, if only because storytellers don’t tell stories according to a theory, but according to the needs of the story, even when the story clearly has a theoretical or didactic point. For example, consider the Parable of the Pounds in Luke 19. Verses 24-5 read:
And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds.
(And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.)
Where does that parenthetical expression come from? Jesus doesn’t need it to make his point about stewardship. Indeed it subtly undercuts his point, bolstering the claim of the servant who kept his pound in a napkin rather than investing it: “For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man” (verse 21). It’s there because the story demands it. The servants are the kind of people who would make that protest, just as Flannery O’Connor’s Bible salesman is the type of person who would steal the wooden legs and glass eyes of “Good Country People,” regardless of his author’s stated poetics.
Now that I’m a good decade and a half older than O’Connor was at her death her words seem to me more the vigorous, energetic words of a young writer eager for the culture war than of a mature artist. Had she lived another 30 or 40 years perhaps she would have asked herself if she really wanted to think of her readers as spiritually deaf and blind, if she really wanted to speak to them from an assumption of spiritual superiority.
Which leads back to the second reason, collateral damage. That’s a major theme in literary theory, from Sew-krates’ concerns over the effect of art on the simple-minded to Lionel Trilling’s hesitation to introduce his students to the devastation of modern literature, but I’m more interested in the collateral damage to artists of engaging in culture war. Here’s a question to ponder. The purpose of war is to inflict damage. Do we want to inflict damage on each other in the name of culture?