Captain Moroni and Divine Revelation: On the Oregon Protesters and Christian Jihadism

Captain Moroni and Divine Revelation: On the Oregon Protesters and Christian Jihadism January 11, 2016


“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2: 28, Hebrew Scriptures)

“The spirit of God … will reveal to [people], even in the simplest of matters, what they shall do, by making suggestions to them. We should try to learn the nature of this spirit, that we may understand its suggestions, and then we will always be able to do right. This is the grand privilege of every Latter-day Saint. We know that it is our right to have the manifestations of the spirit every day of our lives.” (Lorenzo Snow, fifth President/Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, April 1899 “Conference Report”, p 52)

In the high desert of central Oregon, a group of armed protesters is occupying the snow-covered headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge.  The occupation was in response to federal prison sentences handed down to Dwight and Steven Hammond, cattle ranchers on public land who committed arson and repeatedly violated land-use laws.  A leader of the armed takeover is Ammon Bundy, a member of the family that is standing off federal authorities at their ranch in Nevada.  The feds want to collect on the Bundy’s failure to pay nearly a million dollars in range lease fees, and the Bundys and a group of gunmen are holding them off with threats of violence.

In going to Oregon, Ammon Bundy said he “did what the Lord asked me to do.” In a video, he came across as a calm, thoughtful, pious Mormon Christian pursuing a righteous cause as a consequence of guidance he received from the Lord. His first name is taken from a character in Mormon scripture. Using a phrase from the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 3:15), he said that what was happening to the Hammond family was “a type and a shadow” of injustices happening on federal land across the country. Another of the several gun-toting Mormons in the occupation is “Captain Moroni”, whose nom de guerre comes from a character from the Book of Mormon who fought against an abusive government.

The LDS  leadership has condemned their co-religionists actions. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis,” the Church’s official statement reads.  The LDS church has not handed down judgment on these armed occupiers as harsh as what it has imposed on gay Mormons.  The church now “bars children living with same-sex couples from baby-naming ceremonies and baptisms and declares members in gay marriages to be apostates subject to excommunication.” (NY Times, 11-13-15)  Faithful Mormons are questioning this disparity in church discipline.

The Mormons who have taken over property that belongs to you and me at gunpoint are doing so not so much on the basis of the authority of specific scriptural passages as on direct personal revelation from the Lord.  The principle that God speaks to everyday people and guides them is enshrined in Judeo-Christian tradition, and is especially potent in Mormon Christianity.  It’s foundational for democracy.  If God talks directly to everyday people, that suggests that “all men (and women) are created equal”. The LDS church says that revelation for the church itself comes from the President and Prophet, but revelation can and should come to individual Mormons for guidance in their personal lives.  Ammon Bundy uses Mormon Christian rhetoric derived from LDS scripture to express his motivations.  But he’s not proof-texting his position.  He’s using Mormon language to describe a direct, personal message from the Lord to himself, guiding him to take up arms, occupy a building, and threaten to kill federal workers who intervene.

Bundy also invokes the Constitution, and in a similar way.  He can’t proof-text it for his position, because of course there is nothing in it that even remotely suggests that what he and his fractious crew are doing is following the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ “due process of law”.  Like a lot of other Constitutional idolatrists, he carries it in his pocket as a sort of talisman, to bless his own actions and ward off detractors.  It’s a kind of spiritual body-armor.  At a rally of anti-government activists in St. George, Utah, Bundy proclaimed that the Constitution was scripture inspired by the Lord Jesus Christ.  (Strange, is it not, that so many Constitution-worshippers want to change it?  Look at what the governor of Texas is proposing now.  He wants to amend the Constitution to turn the Union into a Confederacy.)

Constitutionolatry isn’t about the contents of the Constitution.  It’s about claiming privileged access to the divine Word that is presumed to have created it, the voice of the Lord that can whisper in the ears of individual citizens and give them an authority that trumps that of Constitutionally-elected officials.  The Bundys believe that God has given them the public land they have been using to raise cattle for decades, without the need to pay their lease.  (The cost of the lease doesn’t even pay for what the government spends to maintain the land for ranching.  But that’s another story.)  By this logic, if the Hammond family wants to water its cattle illegally on a federal wildlife refuge, their God-given authority trumps that of the government.  The occupiers’ distaste for the actual content of the Constitution has everything to do with the fact that they can’t get along with each other, much less with established authority.  Fistfights have broken out among them as they vie for center-stage with the media.  So it goes when one person’s revelation from God conflicts with another’s.

Christian tradition offers an antidote.  John Wesley, the 18th century Methodist Christian theologian and preacher, came up with what is now known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  Anything purported to be a revelation from God should be tested from four sides:  scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  And experience, in Wesley’s view, was not just that of individuals but of the church as a whole.

From a progressive Christian theological perspective, God is the creative process of the cosmos.  God and nature are one.  Revelation is the awareness of the reality of the divine nature within and all around us.  This consciousness awakens us to our interdependence and interrelatedness.  It urges us to be compassionate toward each other and all beings on the earth.  It’s hard to imagine that this kind of revelation would lead people living in a democracy to brandish weapons and seize public property for their own selfish purposes.

We can hope that the standoff in Oregon ends with cool heads prevailing and no bloodshed.  But the threat that Christian jihadism poses to America is very real.  Our country is in danger at least as much from home-grown anti-government terrorism as is from the foreign sort.  The violent occupation in Oregon rests ultimately on a version of divine revelation in which God’s authority is claimed by individuals for their own selfish ends, against democracy and the common good.  Jihadism in all its forms is a war of words even more than a battle of bullets.  The abuse of religion is central to the problem.  Responsible, thoughtful, progressive religion must be central to the solution.

Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California and an author and blogger. Visit his site at JIMBURKLO.COM.

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