Justification for a Mormon Liberation Theology

By  Joerg Rieger [1]

In the Jesus tradition, God becomes human in the person of someone who is referred to as a “carpenter” but who is really more like a day laborer in construction:  not the guy driving the pickup but one of the guys riding in the back.  And this Jesus chooses to remain in solidarity with the poor; he is no Horatio Alger type trying to claw his way upward.

Jesus the Carpenter

Jesus the Carpenter

What still shocks the mind is how the majority of America’s religious people also accept the God helps those who helps themselves ethic and simply ignore what is plain enough from the biblical testimony:  that Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, consistently supports the “least of these,” declares that he is bringing good news to the poor, and warns against wealth as a dangerous trap.

Like Isaiah thundering about those who “join house to house and field to field” so as to squeeze out everyone else, Jesus directly links suffering at the bottom to greed at the top.  Jesus says very clearly that it is not the poor who are failing but the rich who are flunking the morality test by extracting wealth at the expense of the poor.

It is essential for us to see wealth not only in terms of money but also in terms of power.  Have progressives really understood that yet?  As wealth keep growing at the top, the social power of those at the top grows by and leaps and bounds as well.  This dynamic assures that inequality deepens and that what little wealth and power may have dripped down in the past has now dried up.

Before we can talk about alternative religious voices, we must first acknowledge that religion has, for the most part, been a huge contributor to the problem.  Not only has our colonized religion demonized those at the bottom, but it has also been happy to heap praise upon those at the top.


[1]  Wendland-Cook Endowed Professor of Constructive Theology at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU (from an interview with Peter Laarman on religiondispatches.com)

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Marc Chagall’s Jewish Jesus

Marc Chagall is the prototypical Jewish artist.  While he may be best known for his depictions of the precarious, joyful life of Eastern European Jews, he is less celebrated for his artwork portraying the crucifixion of Jesus.

Marc Chagall's "Yellow Crucifixion"

Marc Chagall’s “Yellow Crucifixion”

Chagall’s portrayal of a suffering Jesus populate Chagall:  Love, War, and Exile, a startling and provocative show at the Jewish Museum in New York.  According to an article in ARTnews by Robin Cembalest:

Focusing on the years 1930 to 1948, the darkest and most desperate time of Chagall’s life, [the show] examines the ways he responded in his painting to the rise of Fascism, the Holocaust, and the death of his wife Bella.

As the exhibition’s curator notes in the catalogue, the museum is aware that some constituents might find the subject transgressive.  Crucifixions are a staple of Western art, but not of Jewish museums, namely because they depict an event for which Jews were blamed and often persecuted.

The counterintuitive twist is that Chagall deployed the crucified Jesus as a tragic, urgent messenger whose purpose was to bear witness to the suffering of the Jews and bring it to the attention of the world.

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Marriotts, Why Don’t You Pay Your Housekeepers More?

The Marriott hotel chains are at it again.  If past distributors of pornography and current owners of casinos aren’t enough, now they are admitting that they don’t pay their housekeepers enough and they want you and I to make up for their employee’s skimpy paychecks.  Hey Marriotts, how about paying a living wage?

According to the CBCnews:

Marriott hotels are urging guests to leave tips for housekeepers in envelopes provided in their rooms.

More than 160,000 Marriott hotel rooms across Canada and the U.S. include special envelopes to encourage travelers to leave tips and thank-you notes for housekeeping staff.

The program is the brainchild of Maria Shriver’s foundation, A Woman’s Nation, created as a response to under-appreciated housekeeping staff who are often overlooked for tips because they have little contact with guests, according to the foundation’s site.

But it seems like the program is taking a lot of flack.  According to Fischer McKay:

Tipping housekeepers is the right thing to do, but the envelopes are a tacit admission by the owners that they are not paying their employees enough.

And Michael Mombourquette:

Sounds like the hotel is looking for ways to avoid paying their staff a decent salary and benefits by telling them they’ll get tips.

Perhaps Maria should be concentrating her efforts on getting Marriott et al. to a living wage.  People who stay at a Marriott pay $200+/night to stay at their hotels, plus they charge for Internet service and serve overpriced food and booze.  I’ll tip more, but don’t tell me the Marriotts can’t afford to pay their housekeepers more.  But I forgot, they don’t have the income from pornography anymore.

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Elder Russell M. Nelson . . . A Wasted Opportunity

I recently (14 Sep 2014) attended a LDS Regional Conference that was held in the BYU Marriott Center.  At least 20,000 (mostly college-age students) were in attendance, with another 100,000 of the general membership watching in chapels around Utah and Wasatch Counties.  (I was in attendance because my wife was singing in the choir at the Marriott Center.)

Elder Russell M. Nelson, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave the concluding speech.  And it was a major disappointment.

As background, Elder Nelson is an “internationally renowned surgeon and medical researcher.”  He has both a medical degree and a PhD.  In other words, he is a well-educated man of science.  At the Regional Conference, he had a great opportunity to deal with some of the real concerns that young people might have concerning the relevance of religion.  Instead, he chose to talk about speculative-angel issues.  Areas that I would consider to be the “mysteries.”

He dealt in some length on the theory that the Archangel Michael is really Adam (from the OT), and that the Angel Gabriel is really Noah (from the OT).  For those of us who would rather believe in science and history, both a literal Adam and Noah are problematic.  Their stories seem more like ancient myths than actual, historical biographies.  How many members of the Church actually believe there was a flood that covered the entire earth?  How many believe that Noah lived to be 900+ years old?  If you believe in organic evolution, where does Adam fit in?

Not to leave mythology alone, Elder Nelson then went on to mention personages who have never tasted death:  John and the 3 Nephites.  So where is all this going?

Elder Nelson’s short conclusion was that there are non-celestial angels among us today.  For example, people who do wonderful things at great personal sacrifice   This is a wonderful message, but it was lost in all the OT literalism and eye-rolling speculation.

Elder Ballard, President Eyring, and others need to start discussing real-world issues.  They have the educational and professional backgrounds to do it.  Church members are looking for leaders who will lead, who will discuss real issues that members are concerned about.  Apostle Widtsoe did this until his death in 1954, why can’t our leaders today deal with relevant issues?  Why is the Archangel Michael/Adam theory important?  It’s not.

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Mormonism in Africa

Jehu J. Hanciles, Professor of Global Christianity at Emory University at the 2014 meetings of the Mormon History Association, shared his research on the growth of Mormonism in Africa:

Mormonism remains a predominately American phenomenon.  The LDS Church lags behind virtually every other branch of Christianity in the area of inculturation.

The growth of Mormonism in Africa . . . has been quite modest, and compared to other traditions, disappointing.

Hanciles spoke of the advantages and disadvantages the Church has in regards to its missionary program (this summary is based on a post by J. Stuart).  Doctrines and policies conducive to LDS missionary work in Africa include:  food storage, prophetic gifts, gifts of the spirit, and the celebration of family and kinship relationships.

However, Mormonism does a poor job of adapting to local circumstances by requiring local congregations to adapt to a neo-colonial version of a church service.  Things that are not helpful to missionary work include:

  • insistence on using American hymnbooks,
  • not making allowance for local dress and tradition, and
  • not allow for enough participation from the congregants.

I’ve attended LDS Church services in 4 different cities in Uganda (eastern Africa).  I generally agree with Hanciles’ assessment.  His information and conclusions, from my limited perspective, are accurate.

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Let’s Use Drums in LDS Church Services

Let’s face it.  LDS Church services are dull.  The music is rather passive and most organists play the hymns too slowly.  In fact, most congregational hymns sound more like dirges than joyful refrains.

So what can be gone?

We can borrow a page from other religions.  Many forms of worship in the United States are becoming more informal.  According to a recent third-iteration National Congregations Study, this informality is represented by raising hands, jumping and dancing, speaking in tongues, using video projectors, and PLAYING DRUMS.  For example, in 2012, drums were played 46 percent of the time during the principal service, up from 25 percent in 1998.

While most of above activities are far too radical for immediate inclusion into a Mormon Sacrament Meeting, including drums might be a good first step.

According to S. Brent Plate, writing for religiondispatches.org:

[There are a] myriad religious rituals in which drums are played, from Tibetan Buddhist to Muslim Moroccan to Pakistani Qawwali to many Hindu gatherings.  Perhaps none are as engaging as what is seen and heard in the Ethiopian Orthodox church’s use of the kabaro.  Here the drums are one of the most sacred dimensions for Christians and present in all major worships.

I live part-time in Uganda, and drums are an important part of all African social activities and ceremonies.

So why aren’t there more drums in Christian church services today.  According to Plate:

One of the reasons [for there not being more drums] is that as European Christians colonized much of the world they found people playing drums.  Since these “other” communities could not possibly have true religion, drums must be associated with false or heathen religions.  A history of Christian colonization and missionization becomes also a history of destroying drums.

And we Mormons certainly don’t want to look like neocolonialists.

But there are also many practical reasons why drum should be considered for contemporary LDS Church services, particularly those in Africa and Asia.  The great violinist Yehudi Menuhin suggests that “Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent.”  And goodness knows, the Mormon Church has plenty of the “divergent” today.  And drums certainly create rhythm.

Again according to Plate:

Bound to the creation and maintenance of the religious worlds in which we live, drums play a vital role in the existence of people.  Their sounds form a sonic structure within which our bodies collectively live.

But perhaps, most important of all, drums could be used to keep the congregation awake during the usually dry and overly-long Stake High Councilman’s exhortation.  Perhaps, before a major point of emphasis in his speech, the councilman could “cue the drum roll.”  Thereby both waking up the congregants and highlighting a key element in his message.  Playing the drums could be a great job for the Deacons.

You Could Even Put a Scripture Message on the Bass Drum

You Could Even Put a Scripture Message on the Bass Drum

Drums could also be used to highlight a joke.  So after Elder M. Russell Ballard exhorts the sisters to speak up but “don’t talk too much,” he could cue the drummer for a “rim shot.”  That way the congregants would know that he is joking and that its time to start laughing.

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LDS Leadership: One Step Forward, One Step Backward

Step Forward:  Coming up in October is the LDS General Conference which will be beamed around the world.  In the past, all sermons have been spoken in English.  This time it might be different.  Next month’s speakers, however have a new option:  those “whose primary language is not English now have the choice to deliver their talks in their native tongue.”  For example, a number of LDS leaders are native Spanish speakers.

As Peggy Fletcher Stack points out:

It will be interesting to see if Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the governing First Presidency and whose first tongue in German, will choose that language for his sermons or whether he will continue to speak in fluent English, with a slight accent.

(I’ve always liked the French language; I served in the Franco-Belgian Mission in the 1960s.  We need more French-speaking GAs, or more women GAs with French accents.)

This is a wonderful development and one that should be cheered.  If the LDS Church is to rightly claim that is a global church, then these kinds of enhancements are much needed.

Step Backward:  Elder M. Russell Ballard, at the European Area Sisters’ Conference (meeting with the poster controversy) made the following statement:

We need your (women’s] voices.  They need to be heard.  They need to be heard in your community, in your neighborhoods, they need to be within the ward council or the branch council.

Great, so far.  But then he followed up with:  “Now don’t talk too much in those council meetings, just straighten the brethren out quickly and move the work along.”  That while the comment was probably made in jest, a Sister’s Conference already beset by controversy is probably not the right venue for making a statement like “don’t talk too much.”  Reactions to Elder Ballard’s comments resulted in posts on both bycommentconcent.com and timesandseasons.org.

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