For outsiders, the nineteenth-century roots of Mormonism were a happy exploitation of the still-young ideals of a still-new nation that still presumed that some folks are created equal. Nathan O. Hatch has written at length about Mormonism in the 1830’s as an example of the ‘democratization of Christianity’ in the young USA.
One of the democratic elements of Mormonism that is still sorta with us is LDS-Mormonism’s still unusual practice of letting everyone deliver sermons. Sorta. At least in theory, LDS-Mormon bishops—the equivalent of pastors in Protestant denominations—very seldom deliver Sunday sermons. Instead, each week, the bishop invites two or three members of the congregation to ‘speak’ (LDS-Mormons don’t generally use the term sermon).
In theory, the practice of letting everyone speak in church elevates everyone, as it affords all an opportunity to give voice to their own religion, to put their own faith and thoughts and concepts in the public arena for consideration alongside everyone else’s faith, thoughts, and concepts. Of course, when an LDS-Mormon congregation deliberately excludes any of its members from the opportunity to speak in church, it gives up the lie that would connect LDS-Mormonism’s contemporary practice with the egalitarian aspirations of its roots.
Anyway, it took some effort, but I managed to get myself behind an LDS-Mormon pulpit last week, to deliver one of that day’s two sermons. Some very unofficial but robust policy has worked for years, now, to silence my voice in my congregation. When I complained loudly enough, the congregation’s bishop asked me to sermonize on “forgiveness”, and I dutifully agreed.
The sermon I prepared was driven in no small measure by my friend Andre Johnson, the pastor at Gifts of Life Ministries in Memphis, and a fellow Patheos blogger. Johnson has expressed bewilderment at the silence emanating from the pulpits of white churches on the matter of violence perpetrated against African-Americans, especially by the country’s police forces (#WhiteChurchQuiet). Johnson and other friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect have made me much more conscious of the part my silence plays in the USA’s ugliness.
My LDS-Mormon congregation is not, exactly, white. The membership is more-or-less evenly split between white and black people, and the congregation’s bishop-pastor is black. But the power that is exercised in and over the congregation is almost exclusively white. Under the sway of a few white men who are determined that the congregation will live forever in the 1970’s, the church I have attended has been grotesquely silent on matters that are most crucial to most of the congregation. Given that I support Johnson’s accusation that there’s something very, very wrong with churches that speak as though there is nothing to say, I couldn’t very well not make some noise when placed behind a Memphis, Tennessee, pulpit.
Here, then, are some excerpts of my remarks from an LDS-Mormon pulpit last week that might indicate the reasons that it will be another five years, at least, before my congregation allows my faith, thoughts, and concepts into its public sphere, again.*
The convention that forgiveness means niceness, or vice-versa, is a thinly spread dogma. We cling to it because it’s comfortable. While we’re reconciling “seventy times seven”, we’re working to ensure that we all feel comfortable with each other. We put great energy into niceness. In the name of “seventy times seven”, no attack is too sharp, no wrong is too outrageous, no evil is too loathsome, that it can’t be fixed by a smile and a handshake. To guard our own ease, we promote a shallow gospel that values courtesy over justice and values comfort over goodness. We wave “seventy times seven” like a flag, and expect others to excuse us, to make nice, and to make our lives peaceful. But “Nice”, as Ntozake Shange has written, “is such a rip-off.”**
There was in Jesus very little tolerance, very little niceness—very little forgiveness, as our thin doctrine would have it—for bullies. Over what we might call ‘grievous sin’, Jesus worried very little. What did he say to an adulterer, confessed and guilty at his feet? “I don’t condemn you.”*** But he had no patience for pharisaical leaders who oppress and exploit and abuse. He called them hypocrites and worser names, condemned them to hell, and far from smoothing their way, he sat outside the temple, over several hours, deliberately, meticulously, tying a whip with which to lash them.†
Our thin doctrine, the superficial gospel that begs for comfort and finds special fault in those who disrupt it, would reject this fierce, intractable Jesus, who allowed the imperious no excuses, who did not condemn adulterers but did condemn bigots, and who would not speak a word to Herod.††
Perhaps it’s many things, but the forgiveness that Jesus asks is assuredly not a demand that we play nice with the self-righteous….
There is a deep, reflective, earnest gospel, into the depths of which we seldom dive for fear of not being able to swim back to the surface where we can float without effort and breathe comfortably. In those depths, forgiveness and fortitude circulate together in love that will risk everything for goodness’ sake.
In 1955, Claudette Coleman, only fifteen-years-old, refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for the same thing seven months later. Then, near the end of the year—1955—Rosa Parks went to jail, too, for refusing to move when some white people told her to move.
Would we say that Coleman’s and Smith’s and Parks’s recalcitrance and obstinacy—their not-niceness—was the evidence…. that they had not forgiven? Their refusal to move, at the risk of imprisonment, no matter what authority was cited, did not indicate they held a grudge or that they did not forgive, but that they would not, for the love of all things holy, stand aside to let dim-witted bigotry have its way with the world. Forgiveness is beside the point—and the point is that there was a wrong in Montgomery that did not require apology or forgiveness, but remedy.
At the end of the year 1955, the Montgomery buses sat empty and useless because they were places of misery and terror, of exploitation and abuse, and people in great numbers chose to abandon them. People abandoned the buses, people would not go back to the buses, because the buses gave security and power to the monsters that seem always to claim all the space around them, to do as they will, whatever the harm to everyone else.
We are wrong in twelve different ways, and inside-out, to suggest that the bus boycotters ought to have forgiven in some thinly-construed way that would have been conciliatory and comfortable and nice, for courtesy of that sort leaves oppression alone.
In 1884, and right here in Memphis, Ida B. Wells bought a first-class train ticket and arranged herself in a seat in the first-class car. A white man told her the car was for white people, only. She refused to move. And when he grabbed her, she put her teeth on his hand and she bit him.
Will we would-be Christians charge Ida B. Wells and her biting with being unforgiving? Several men swarmed her, carried her kicking from the train, and left her on the platform, first-class ticket in hand. Will we fault Wells for not smiling and for not saying, No problem, don’t worry about it, I forgive you, as the train pulled away? The problem here is not whether Wells forgave, but that wicked and designing men wreck the world, wreak misery on their fellows, inflict violence and humiliation on those who threaten their power, and without resistance, the same scoundrels will go on wrecking the world, to satisfy their lust to control everything.
If Christian forgiveness means smiling and reconciling and allowing injustice to ride off in the train, then Christian forgiveness is as great a wrong as bigotry.
In July, 2016—just last year—several thousand people right here in Memphis marched up a freeway off-ramp and sat down on Interstate I-40. Did they stop interstate travel for a couple of hours because they were unforgiving?
In a world that abuses some, mercilessly, silences them, places them in handcuffs, and in jail cells, and kills, nice-forgiveness offers no safety. I am confident that Jesus was among our Memphis family on that interstate blacktop. Jesus was there, facing down the angry eighteen-wheelers and the ire of a nation with the whip that he so deliberately, meticulously knotted outside the temple.
We must never, ever allow anyone to use Jesus’s demand that we forgive each other to demand also that we let abuses of power and position go unchallenged. We must not fall into the pharisaical sin that labels as unforgiving those who will not kindly accommodate self-serving pharisaical cruelty.
Forgive, indeed, freely and fully, as Jesus would, and block the freeway. If our life’s aim is only, supremely, to play nice, we do not know Jesus. If we suppose that genuine forgiveness begins and ends with friendliness, we swim in a shallow, cold gospel that curses everyone.†††
Forgiveness that matters, forgiveness that sticks, forgiveness that changes the world, must come from a love that is too deep to abide cruelty no matter how well-dressed, too pure to abide bigotry and misogyny no matter how earnestly justified, too divine to abide persecution, whatever disguise it wears. Forgiving, seventy times seven, must mean laboring every day, and without compromise, to make a world in which less forgiving is necessary.
*Five years is unreasonably optimistic. I’m pretty certain that I won’t be allowed to speak again in this congregation until its current power structure is significantly transformed.
*Shange, Ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. (New York: Scribner, 2010), 53.
†Matthew 23:10, John 2:15.
†††Addendum, May 18th, 2017. Lawrence Ware on proper Christian fury.