Twenty-three years ago this month, I had a meeting with Elder Ben Banks, at the time a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Banks was a friend, at least the father of a friend, and the meeting was at his home. Despite the familiarity this was most definitely an interview, with me playing the part of the recently returned missionary. Elder Banks had been my stake president just prior to my mission and he and I actually departed and returned from missions simultaneously. He had left as a mission president in Scotland at the same time I had left as a missionary in New England. Like me, he had returned just shy of two years later after being made a Seventy. From my letters to him when we were both on our missions, Elder Banks was aware of the difficulties I had had with my mission president, and I believe he was taking this moment to encourage me to keep the course. When I told him how frequently my mission president threatened to send missionaries home, Elder Banks responded with near shock: “I used to beg my missionaries to stay!”
Recently we received an e-mail from a friend informing us that she and her husband were “taking a break” from Church, since they found it not only not an uplifting experience but a downright oppressive experience. I really couldn’t blame them. The husband had told me how often he had felt “corrected,” put in his place, and all around made to feel like he didn’t fit in. “You are either with us [whomever us is] or against us,” he was told by a preacher of pure belief.
At about the same time we received this discouraging e-mail, I read another e-mail from a friend back in Pittsburgh. Some five years previous, the bishopric in Pittsburgh, of which I was the first counselor, had asked Lars to be our Sunday School president. In many ways Lars was a misfit in the Church: not only because he never wore a tie, but also because, among other variances, he was a devoted anarchist. I think Lars was hesitant to say yes, but he did, and over the subsequent five years has made an irreplaceable contribution to the intellectual and, I dare say, spiritual makeup of the Pittsburgh First Ward. Although I don’t know for sure, I doubt Lars had been asked to contribute much to the Church since returning from his mission. Yet five years on, he, the tieless anarchist living on the edge of the Church continues to participate, continues to bend his life with the Church.
There are mission presidents that threaten to cast missionaries away; there are mission presidents that beg missionaries to stay. There are wards that invite people to leave; there are wards that beg people to stay. Wards are made of leaders and members, each of whom has their own attitudes and expressions that indicate whether they are begging people to stay or inviting them to leave. I’ve experienced both kinds of wards and after enjoying the former I’m really becoming frustrated with the latter.
Communities inevitably include some and exclude others. This is natural and important. When we spent a month in Sweden, we found ourselves naturally drawn into various communities: a Mormon community, an American community, a university community. From the vastness of the world, even from the vastness of Stockholm, we needed to reduce the pool of people to a manageable size. But while we were naturally drawn to our fellow American Mormons, we also recognized that this trip offered a unique opportunity to get to know other peoples and other cultures. So we were very grateful for the generous time the Swedish Mormons and Swedish academics offered us. Could our circle have been wider? Certainly. But we also could have been much narrower.
I find a similar example from Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. As a young and pathologically shy student in Santiago he engrained himself in the small community of young poets. When he went abroad in the consular service of Chile he found himself friends among fellow Chileans and other Latin Americans in the cafés of Paris. But these were but beginnings. Both as a poet and a citizen Neruda did not remain parochial. I am sure that Neruda would agree with these lines from A. E. Housman:
They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s.
Neruda wrote of his expanding spirit:
Can poetry serve our fellow men? Can it find a place in man’s struggles? I had already done enough tramping over the irrational and the negative. I had to pause and find the road to humanism, outlawed from contemporary literature but deeply rooted in the aspirations of mankind. (Memoirs, p. 139)
But while limiting our communities is natural even inevitable, does that mean that there shouldn’t be some check against our tendency to do so? Left unchecked, isn’t our tendency to limit our communities eventually self-destructive? We have learned how genetic diversity is important for survival. We are even coming to understand the importance of diversity among the bacteria living within our gut (our bacteriome). But I don’t see that same recognition in many of my microcultures, whether in the research environment that I inhabit that seems to be plagued with what I call the Professor Henry Higgins Syndrome (“Why can’t a woman be like me?”), or in the Church where the unity with Christ advocated in the 17th chapter of John or the economic unity advocated in the Doctrine and Covenants somehow evolved to the required unity of manners, dress, and thought with some local leader. Can we see otherwise?
Yi-Fu Tuan has written “Christianity, as a vital religion, continued to use its imagination to deepen and expand the concept of community.” (Morality and Imagination, p. 122)
I wonder how much our own vitality has diminished with our loss of imagination. Joseph Smith’s imagination radically expanded the concept of community: what is meant by Israel, what is meant by the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Contradictions certainly exist within our thoughts, for example the universal fatherhood of God and a Chosen People. Over the years since we’ve gone through both contractions and expansions of our communities (blacks and the priesthood being an example in both directions). And our current emphasis on opposing homosexual marriages seems to be creating contracting reverberations within our communities.
In my own small and non-authoritative voice I would like to issue a plea for greater imagination regarding our community, imagination regarding what constitutes membership in our community, imagination regarding what the role of the community actually is.
Let me tackle the latter first. I think our Church is confused about what a community is for. On the one hand, membership in the community is vital. On the other hand it seems to imply that the community has no real value. The implication is contained in our denial of communal culpability with individual dissatisfaction (lumped into the banal term “being offended”). The Church cannot offend, they say, because being offended is a matter of choice. But a church that can do no evil can also do no good, since our failure to do good acts would be an evil, and failing to act is always within human—individual and collective—capacity.
Our denial of even the possibility of community offense seems to ignore Christ’s drastic warning:
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
(Our rejection of communal responsibility doesn’t seem to translate across all aspects of our experience. For example, why do we obsess about the teaching of “false doctrine” because ultimately wouldn’t it be simply a matter of the student chooses to believe the false doctrine. If you are bullied, does it only matters if you choose to feel bullied?)
We need to apply our imagination to what our comunal responsibilities are so that we can resurrect the idea of communal importance. Mormonism with its paradoxical emphasis on both the individual and the community ought to be a fruitful field for exploring community.
“In the Christian tradition, an individual is considered to be of such importance that under certain circumstances his welfare may not cede even to that of his group.” (Tuan Morality and Imagination, p. 114)
Finally, we need to turn our imagination to what constitutes membership in our religious community. This seems to have been on the mind of President Uchtdorf when he spoke in the October 2009 General Conference:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is continually growing and becoming better known throughout the world. Although there will always be those who stereotype the Church and its members in a negative way, most people think of us as honest, helpful, and hardworking. Some have images of clean-cut missionaries, loving families, and friendly neighbors who don’t smoke or drink. We might also be known as a people who attend church every Sunday for three hours, in a place where everyone is a brother or a sister, where the children sing songs about streams that talk, trees that produce popcorn, and children who want to become sunbeams.
Brothers and sisters, of all the things we want to be known for, are there attributes above all others that should define us as members of His Church, even as disciples of Jesus Christ?
Uchtdorf implies with his enumerated list in the first paragraph, that we often cling to definitions of membership that are not very meaningful. Is there anyone we should a priori exclude from membership? Perhaps only for those unwilling to love, for as President Uchtdorf said:
Because love is the great commandment, it ought to be at the center of all and everything we do in our own family, in our Church callings, and in our livelihood. Love is the healing balm that repairs rifts in personal and family relationships. It is the bond that unites families, communities, and nations. Love is the power that initiates friendship, tolerance, civility, and respect. It is the source that overcomes divisiveness and hate. Love is the fire that warms our lives with unparalleled joy and divine hope. Love should be our walk and our talk.
But most of our community definitions draw very little upon love, perhaps because love, while supremely important isn’t particularly unique or easy to highlight.
Finally as we reflect on community membership, I believe we would do well to remembrer Evelyn Underhill’s observation: “In religion our exclusions are nearly always wrong, and our inclusions, however inconsistent, nearly always right.”