The Urgency of Understanding

First, we misunderstand each other profoundly. Next, we stop caring when real harm befalls the people disagreeing with our view of the universe.

In America today, have you noticed there’s only One Right Way to think about a lot of things? Climate, race, sexuality – and now health. For years, dissenters to the One Right Way have been met with harsh rhetoric reflecting a growing severity of judgment against the other side – which continues to be all too effective in intimidating and silencing dissent:

Deniers. Racists. Bigots. Haters. 

And yes, those crazy “anti-vaxxers”….who are irrationally fearful, impervious to reasoning, hostile to science, pathologically self-absorbed and clearly possessing no respectable philosophy of their own when it comes to infectious disease management. Yes, these looney-toon folks are simultaneously “anti-science” and enthralled by “pseudoscience” and “quackery,” right?

Amidst the flurry of name-calling, proponents of the dominant narratives across each of these issues are sitting in almost unquestioned power – a place from which you would think they would speak with a greater degree of confidence and comfort. Instead, it seems as if many of them cannot stand when someone voices a minority position. They seethe and rage whenever someone dares proffer another view, in a way not dissimilar to the backlash following Elder Jeffrey Holland’s eloquent and tender talk expressing unorthodox views on sexuality.  

More and more, we see expressions of condemnation against heretics to the various orthodoxies SO intense that good people don’t think twice about agreeing to severe restrictions on the basic freedoms of those who disagree (cue the accelerated rush towards mandates punctuated by President Biden’s recent speech). In recent weeks, I’ve been struck to see two articles in respected national media outlets entitled, “We’re done with the vaccine refusers” and “Make the unvaccinated pay out for their deadly decisions.”

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Obedience…No Matter What?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a cult, precisely because it doesn’t ask obedience “no matter what.” From the beginning of people’s entrance into the waters of baptism, new members are encouraged by missionaries along the lines of “don’t just believe me – ask God!” That’s as true with vaccination encouragement as it is invitations to baptism, although this is a precious lesson easy to miss (and important to reinforce) in these days of do-whatever-it-takes to persuade people to get their shots. If we overlook that, we may well lean on someone so much that they do something just because they feel pressured, rather than because they feel right about it. Even if that increases the total vaccination numbers, do we really honestly think that’s a good thing?

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In graduate school, some of my classmates were weirded out that I willingly sought to obey individuals I sustained, yes, as true prophets. After sensing some reservations that I was participating in a cult that demanded obedience “no matter what,” I reassured them: “No, you see, the difference is we’re freely encouraged to confirm anything and everything we’re being taught (by prophets or missionaries or scriptures) in our own prayers and direct seeking with God.”

That second layer of personal assurance and accountability has always seemed, to me, part of the beauty of our message. It’s what we used to tell investigators we taught in Brazil: “Don’t just believe us. You can go find out for yourself!” I continue to see that as one of the most important (of many) differentiators between the high-demand Church of Christ and a high-demand (but controlling, and mindless) cult. Not incidentally, this is also what our detractors try to ignore when they pretend to capture the spirit of our trust in presiding leadership through demeaning sound bites like, “when the prophets speak, the thinking stops.” 

That’s neither fair nor true, of course. But some of the commentary from fellow brothers and sisters in the wake of continued vaccination encouragement by presiding leaders might well get people thinking otherwise. 

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Compassionate Coercion: Embrace It, or Fight It?

Happy Pioneer Day, everyone! These mighty spiritual forebears of all Latter-day Saints today came to Utah seeking freedom – a place to speak, worship, and assemble where and how they wanted.

I have to wonder this morning, in light of rapidly changing events around us: At what point would you be willing to stand up and fight against incursions on your own freedoms? That’s an interesting question for Christians of any age – but maybe especially in America with our tradition of righteous revolution.

On one hand, believers can look to the model of Jesus teaching His followers living amidst Roman oppression that the kingdom we’re working towards is “not of this world” – essentially encouraging them to side-step any confrontation with injustice and restrictions on freedom. On the other hand, believers in the United States can look to the model of the Founders rising up to say “not okay” against British limitations on their natural rights and liberties – even to the point of bloodshed. (And Latter-day Saints Christians can look to the model of Captain Moroni doing something similar against Amalikiah’s threat in the Book of Mormon).

So, when is it right to say “not okay” when it comes to incursions on our freedoms? We’ve been dealing with fairly minor issues like baking cakes and wearing masks – but the major issues are very much here, including: (1) Freedom to speak in our online public spaces openly our thoughts (NOT okay with serious resistance to public health orthodoxy and socio-political orthodoxy around race and sexuality) and (2) Freedom to assemble in public schools, spaces and venues – which is rapidly being restricted by fears around COVID-19 transmission, especially among the vilified unvaccinated.

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Three Other COVID-19 Matters That Could Unite All Believers

Even if we continued to disagree on the reality of what was happening, I proposed last week that the attempt to better hear each other’s fears might be a way to draw our hearts together. 

By comparison, the vast majority of high-profile, public efforts to bring unity in our nation this last six months have focus on mostly one thing: encouraging agreement around coming together to receive one of the various COVID-19 vaccinations. 

I really do get it:  If you believe (a) COVID-19 has killed exactly as many people as officially reported and remains extremely dangerous to many people, and (b) these vaccinations are THE answer to stopping these deaths and as “safe and effective” (short and long-term) as officially reported, THEN, of course you should be advocating everyone to come together around this. 

The reality, however, is that many Americans don’t believe either (a) or (b). Despite the relentless, seemingly unending persuasion efforts that continue, these Americans have not embraced either of these points as self-evident.

The dominant response to those people as I’ve detailed elsewhere, has been to disparage, shame, mock, and call for increasing limitations on their freedom. I even heard one doctor I respect last week suggest that mockery was “effective” according to some research he had reviewed.

Which brings me to this follow-up article.  If disciples of Christ and other thoughtful decent people aren’t going to agree on vaccination as a unifying point (as seems likely), what WILL bring us together? 

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Hearing Each Other’s Fears about COVID-19 Vaccination

Several years back, I had a life-changing conversation with a woman named Joan Blades. After establishing the progressive activist organization MoveOn.org, Joan pursued her passion of climate change advocacy diligently until she came to a major realization.  As she often puts it, “we’ll never be able to make the progress we need with adversarial problem solving.”  

So, Joan left MoveOn and started Living Room Conversations – as an attempt to bring people together across America’s many divides.  And that’s how I met Joan and started working with her.  

In Joan, I met someone open to hearing my honest questions about climate change – without being quickly written off as one of those “deniers.” And as a result, I found myself wanting to understand Joan more, and hear her heart. That’s when this surprising thing happened.  Rather than the familiar place of feeling defensive about my own views, I found myself starting to pay serious attention to the level of fear I was hearing from Joan and other progressives I knew.  

My perspective on climate change had not shifted, but something else did when I recognized the emotional burden people were feeling.  One woman even told me she was suicidal about the state of our planet.  As I wrote about at the time for the Huffington Post, “Shouldn’t their deepest fears matter to me, even if I didn’t as of yet share their belief and convictions?”  

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