Recently I’ve read several articles about the waning of religion in our modern society, especially among young people. This turning away from faith seems to be accompanied by growing animosity toward religion and those who practice it.
The implications are alarming. As older generations die, people of faith will become a smaller and smaller proportion of society. They will eventually be outnumbered by those who are antagonistic toward faith. We see the signs of that even now.
I don’t expect to see faithful Christians—or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus—hauled into the nearest football stadium to be met by hungry lions. I don’t expect we will see believers burned at the stake or arrested in the pews on Sunday and hauled to prison.
Abinadi before King Noah, shortly before being martyred for his witness of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. See Mosiah 12-17, Book of Mormon. Painting by Arnold Friberg, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Nevertheless, I expect people of faith will face increasing persecution.
Believers may well be punished by irreligious, “progressive” thinkers who feel that because of their intellectual superiority they have the right to coerce us into their way of thinking. Ironically, many of them have adopted a holier-than-thou attitude toward those of us who follow what we believe are commandments and teachings of God on moral and gender issues.
Do you believe that we are born a specific gender because our Heavenly Father created us that way before we came to live on this earth? Do you believe that gender is a part of our eternal being? “Homophobic”! Intolerant! Not scientifically supported!
Do you believe that marriage was ordained of God to be between one man and woman, allowing two people to help each other develop in their eternal roles? Bigoted! Non-inclusive! Hateful!
Do you believe that sex is not just a pleasurable physical part of life but also a sacred activity between a man and woman committed to each other in marriage? Prudish! Impossibly idealistic! Old-fashioned! Just unreal!
People for whom gender identity or diversity are parts of their very core do not allow people of faith the same freedom of belief. If you believe gender identity and chastity are governed by the laws of God, you must be corrected. Such ideas must be stamped out.
If conscience will not allow you to celebrate other people’s philosophies on gender and marriage—e.g., you won’t bake a wedding cake or take wedding photographs—you must be shamed, ostracized, and punished by the weight of the law. Freedom of belief is for those who uphold norms acceptable to progressive thinkers, but not for those recalcitrants who believe they are following commandments of God.
There is a glaring, logical fallacy progressives never address: When believers cannot accept that marriage between two people of the same gender is “equality” or that “diversity” means we must discard our own faith, this is not a sign of hate. We do not wish to bring pain or shame or hurt to others. There is no reason we cannot work and live in peace with them—sometimes within our own families. But loving and serving them does not mean we have to change core beliefs.
Many progressives—those who consider themselves intellectually and ideologically superior to others—cannot leave people of faith alone. They seem to feel we must be cured of our ignorance, stripped of our faith-based biases, and, if necessary, be compelled by law to acknowledge that they are right, and our beliefs are wrong.
They like to mock this view, saying they are only standing up for what is obviously and logically right. They say the idea that they try to suppress opposing views is “extreme” or “paranoid.”
Think about current trends in our society. If you are a person trying to guide your life by what you believe to be commandments of God, how do you feel your views are accepted in academia? In government? In the entertainment industry? How often do you see people of faith depicted as positive characters in movies and TV shows, and how often as villainous hypocrites?
Each of us who tries to live our life guided by core principles of faith will sometime have our motivations challenged. Will we be strong enough to face the criticism, the ostracism, the social and mental punishment that may come?
The Parable of the 10 Virgins, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the New Testament are familiar to most readers of the Bible. Each one teaches a valuable lesson about faith. They teach that the faithful will be watchful and prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Reading them together in Matthew 25, it would be easy to assume that they all reinforce the same lesson: watch and be ready. Yet the Master often said, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15). Reading those parables one after another in my most recent journey through the New Testament, I gained a new insight: they not only reinforce the lesson of faith and obedience, but taken together they also teach us an important principle of spiritual progress. They show how feeding our faith helps us grow into beings prepared for eternal blessings.
The Parable of the 10 Virgins teaches about five wise ones, prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom, and five foolish, caught unprepared. This story isn’t about believers versus nonbelievers. The 10 are all apparently believers—people who have been exposed to or have committed themselves at some level to the teachings of Christ. They had equal opportunity to be fully prepared, but five of them did little or nothing to develop their faith. When the wise virgins do not share their oil with the foolish, this might seem selfish—if the parable were only about oil. But it is about faith and obedience, qualities we must develop within ourselves by exercising them. No one else can simply give us faith we did not nurture through a life of obedience. The virgins acceptable to the bridegroom are those who have nurtured their faith through consistent daily obedience.
The Parable of the Talents likewise teaches about taking the opportunity to nurture and develop what we have been given. We are not told whether the master traveling to a far country gave his servants any special instructions about what to do with the riches he entrusted to them—only that he entrusted various talents to them according to their ability (v. 15). When the master returns, he asks for an accounting, and two of the servants give back what he entrusted to them, plus more that they gained. But one servant has not improved on what was entrusted to him. The two who increased what they were given have done it not for themselves, but for the benefit of their master, and for this they are rewarded. The fate of the third servant—he loses everything—may seem harsh, until we remember that we are not talking about tangible goods. We are talking about development of spiritual strength and capabilities. If in this mortal life, we do nothing to develop what we are given, it will be too late when we stand before God at the judgment. On the other hand, those who have developed what they were given by putting faith into action will be prepared to handle more of the Master’s gifts.
Christ calls us to action. He calls us to “ask” and “seek” and “knock” and we will be rewarded, blessed with answers that will shape our lives. God, our loving Father, will surely give us good gifts when we ask in faith. (See Matthew 7:7-11.) All the gifts He gives when we seek and ask and find, we can magnify and give back to Him as our offerings. What we become is the only thing we can give to Him that He did not already have.
The third parable tells us that when our great Shepherd and Redeemer comes, He will sort us into His sheep, on His right hand, and the goats, on His left. The sheep will be those who have served their fellow men and women as He would have done if He had been there. His sheep will have become like Him. The goats will be those who were so little concerned about others that they did not see the needs of those around them.
The sheep—those He will take into His kingdom—will be those who stored up the oil of faith and obedience, put their faith into action to become something more, and grew to be more Christlike.
Many years ago, my wife and I were privileged to travel in the Holy Land with a group of religious educators. One afternoon we sat on top of a hill near Bethlehem and looked out over the area known as Shepherds’ Fields. While we read about and discussed the events that had taken place there on a night some 2,000 years earlier, a local shepherd walked through our scattered group followed closely by his sheep. They followed him unhesitatingly toward the sheepfold. They were not compelled or somehow mesmerized into following. There was grass nearby where they could have turned aside to graze. But they followed him because they knew him and knew that with him was safety and security. They knew he would nurture them.
As we diligently build our stores of faith, develop our spiritual strength at every opportunity, and learn to do as He would do, we will be prepared for a place at the right hand of our Shepherd when He comes again.
Sometimes it is in mundane, everyday moments that we receive insights about life on this earth and its relationship to eternity.
I was hanging some rugs out to dry on the old-fashioned clothesline in our yard when I heard the rustling of the gold and red leaves on the nearby trees. It was almost as though they were chattering to each other, having a rushed, last conversation before they fell to earth to die. And I thought: “But there will be new leaves again, next spring. Life will be renewed, according to our Creator’s design.”
And I remembered that according to His design, we, too, will be renewed. We will be resurrected. Jesus died not only for our sins, but so that we, as He did, may come forth again (Isaiah 25:8, 26:19).
I am old now. The number of my future autumns seems far more limited than when I enjoyed the gold and red of fall leaves as a boy. But in the chattering of those leaves I hear whisperings of hope.
There will be a spring, and new life, and that life will be eternal. Jesus said so (John 11:25, or Moroni 7:41 in the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ).
When the news broke in the early 1960s about birth defects caused by the drug Thalidomide, I was in high school. I was shocked and alarmed by some of the reactions I heard and read. Some mothers wished they could have aborted their babies; they saw their child with a defect as a curse, a punishment, a life sentence to onerous service. Some women said if abortion were an option, they would get rid of an unborn baby rather than risk having a child with a burdensome defect.
It was frightening. They might have been talking about me.
Abortion, in my case, could have wiped out four generations of productive people.
The reactions of those women made me wonder how people really felt when they looked at me. I was used to strange looks from little children who would point at me and whisper to their parents, or the furtive side glances from adults when they thought I didn’t see them. When I was a little boy, I had seen the look in the eyes of some women when they complimented my mother on how well she was doing with me; it was a look that said, “Thank God my child didn’t turn out that way!” Sometimes those conversations went on as though I could not hear or understand, and there was a subtext to them: How wonderful that you’ve been able to teach him to be independent, so he won’t be a burden to you.
When I started school, there was some bullying and taunting, but I learned how to deflect it. I learned that I could not afford to let what other people thought of my defect matter to me, and by my mid-teens, I thought I was past all that.
Not long ago, I read an article by a well-known woman who had aborted a child during the Thalidomide panic because it might have had a defect. That article brought back some of the old hurt and fears. The woman wrote that she would make the same decision again. Her words reminded me of those years in high school, when I, like every other teenager, was trying to figure out how I fit into this world, and I learned to my horror that some people would never have given me the opportunity to live.
When I was born, there were no ultrasounds, no ways for a couple to know the sex of the child a woman was carrying or whether the baby had a normal, fully developed body. My birth was difficult for my mother. She woke from anesthesia to find her mother and sister sitting somberly by her bedside. They told her that her son was missing one finger on each hand, that his left hand was split like a Y, and that his right foot was similar to that left hand.
My father was across the country in the Navy’s officers candidate school. Alone, my mother wondered what challenges she and he might face in rearing and teaching me. When she was finally able to talk to him, he gave her the right answer: we’ll face them together.
“Together” ended when my father was killed in an accident 21 months later. My mother was left a widow at 24 with a young son who had what people called “a handicap.”
Mom proved wise enough to make sure my life would not be defined by my defect; she taught me how not to be handicapped. She challenged me to learn to use both hands well. We had a country store and service station with her parents. She would toss pennies or nickels on the floor and challenge me to pick them up with my left hand. She saw that I learned how to tie my own shoes very early, to play with a ball and bat like any other boy. Never once did she say, “Oh, you can’t be expected to do that. Let me do it for you.” I learned that the world wasn’t going to change to accommodate my needs. If I could not do things the way others did, my mother taught me, I could find a way of my own.
She set an example by the way she met the challenges in her own life.
Before she met my father during World War II, she had worked as an aviation instrument mechanic at a naval air station, repairing the flight instruments out of Navy planes. She went back to work there after his death. But before many years passed, she realized she was getting little growth out of her work and there was no way to advance; the next higher position in the shop was “leading man.” She quit her secure civil service job, we moved 1,500 miles away to live in my other grandparents’ low-rent basement apartment, and my mother enrolled as a freshman in college at 31 so she could get a degree in something she found rewarding. We lived below the government’s official poverty line during those years. Sometimes I wore hand-me-downs; my Boy Scout uniform belonged to someone else’s son first. But we were blessed, and my mother was such a good manager that I only realized decades later we had been poor. Mom was resourceful and loving enough to deal with my emotional needs and her own too. It was only later that I realized how hard some things had been for her.
After six years, with a master’s degree in sociology and some postgraduate work behind her, she spent the rest of her life counseling and teaching young people. I am a witness to her strength and determination in facing opposition and discrimination when, in my childhood and youth, a single woman did not enjoy many of the legal protections she would today.
When that Thalidomide panic hit, with women lamenting that abortion was not available so they could avoid the possibility of a baby with a deformity, I wondered briefly: Would my mother ever have considered abortion if she had known about my defect? But no, the love she gave me and her commitment to the sanctity of life assured me that it would never have crossed her mind.
Then I wondered about other women who knew me—some who looked on me as one of the challenges my mother faced. If they had seen me in the womb, would they have said, “I can’t keep this baby”?
By the time I began high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I could see that the typing classes my classmates signed up for would not work for me. Between my freshman and sophomore years, my mother’s parents let me borrow the antique typewriter that had belonged to my great-grandfather, and I experimented on it until I had taught myself how to type.
Am I good at typing?
Well, only fair. But it was good enough that I was able to build a career as a writer and editor for a major newspaper, a university, then an international magazine.
I lived for more than 70 years without thinking very much about my birth defect. It is, after all, “normal” for me. Then, after retirement, volunteer work for our church called on me to do presentations before family and school groups. I realized the important messages I was trying to share were not getting through sometimes because my hands were a distraction. I could not ignore it. Often, I would say to a child who was staring or whispering to a parent, “I hope you won’t mind talking about this, but I notice you were born with five fingers. Is that extra finger a problem for you? Does it get in the way?” Most of the time, this would get laughter and we could move on. The child might protest that I was the one who is different. I would answer that some of us are able to handle life with four fingers, but it’s OK if others need five, most of you seem to be able to deal with that extra finger. It was a way of pointing out, with good humor, that we can all be different without one of us being less valuable because of the difference.
I have been fortunate, really. Many children are born with far worse defects than mine. I have always wished for them to have parents who will help them be all they can be. I wish for them a mother and father who will teach them they are capable of handling much more than others believe. I cheer for the parents who give support, get out of the way, and watch their children achieve.
It took great courage for the beautiful young woman I fell in love with to marry me, knowing her children might suffer from or carry my birth defect. Her attitude was that we could handle it together. So far, we have five children, 18 grandchildren, and two great-granddaughters, all with the normal complement of fingers and toes, all contributing individuals or children showing great promise.
Before me, there is no record of the birth defect I carry in my extended family. My mother’s younger brother had six children, three of whom showed the same defect. A few of their children also have inherited it, but the defect has stopped none of them from being contributing members of society.
Some would say I have no right to speak about the issue of abortion because I am, after all, a man and will never know the pains or trials of pregnancy and motherhood. I disagree. When there are voices saying they would abort individuals like me because we could be too much of a burden on them and on society, I have a right to speak up.
It is true that I can never know the pain, confusion, or fear of a young woman or girl pregnant because of someone else’s evil actions. I can’t imagine the emotional trauma of pregnancy after rape and incest. I am not qualified to decide how the victims should deal with this, and I know that decisions on this issue cannot be trusted solely to politicians whose actions are dictated by political winds blowing from the left or right. Laws and medical practices need to be flexible and compassionate enough to deal with the agency and the choices of the victims.
My wife and I are not unfamiliar with health issues in pregnancy. After several children, it was obvious that doctors could not identify or provide a cure for the transient heart problem that had gotten worse with each pregnancy. What would be the effect of another pregnancy? We studied the doctrine of our church on the issue and exercised our faith in prayers to our Heavenly Father. The decision we made about our family size was strictly between us and Him. Government input was not wanted, not needed, and not appropriate.
But absent the aftereffects of victimization or real concerns for the mother’s health, I cannot imagine a justifiable reason for destroying an unborn child.
I cannot bring myself to refer to a baby growing in the womb as a fetus, and it seems that people often do so to depersonalize the child—to treat it as a piece of tissue that can simply be excised.
Debates about abortion often center on when life begins after conception. Those debates are far off the mark. My faith teaches me that inside every one of us is an eternal spirit that lived in the presence of God long before it was given the opportunity to inhabit a mortal body. In this spirit is the essence of what we are—personality and intellect—and when this spirit leaves the body, the body remains behind inert, or what we call dead.
Our Heavenly Father gave mortal men and women the power to be co-creators with Him so that eternal spirits could come to earth to live and learn in mortal bodies. It is impossible for me to believe He would be pleased by mortal parents-to-be (or a mother-to-be) who, having willingly created a mortal home for one of His children, decide that, no, they cannot welcome it after all.
Again, I look at this issue from a very personal viewpoint.
I wish I could speak to women who are unsure, who have not yet decided whether to keep the baby. There are two things I would want to tell you.
First, you are capable of more than you know, and you can do more than you think you can.
Some people could give you a hundred reasons why you should not let the baby be born, especially if it might have a birth defect. They would say you don’t have enough income to support this child the way it will need to be supported, you don’t have the training to handle the issues you will face, the child will wear you down physically and emotionally, you’ll never be able to have the life you wanted to make for yourself, etc.
A lifetime of experience has taught me that they’re wrong.
No one can tell you what your life will be, how hard it may be if you have this child—or if you don’t. With any child, birth defect or no, there will be heartache and difficulty. There will be sacrifice and weariness. But there will also be joy and blessings. The same Heavenly Father who loves you also loves the child, and He will bless both of you in ways seen and unseen, if you ask Him. People who tell you that you can’t do it or that the sacrifice isn’t worth it may be underestimating you. There will be ways to increase income, to handle the issues that arise, to build a life that may not be the one you planned but will still be rewarding. You will find emotional wells and wells of faith that you have not yet tapped. You can do this.
Some may say I am being impossibly idealistic. Perhaps. But my mother taught me never to say “I can’t” until I explored my own capabilities.
Second, you don’t know who or what the child may become.
I had a friend, a botanist and environmentalist, who said the supreme irony would be for us to wipe out the last of some obscure, seemingly useless plant and then discover it had been the cure for cancer all along. Stories of intelligent people who have achieved great things even though they have imperfect bodies are numerous. You’ve seen them.
But if your child doesn’t rise to that level—if he or she is not physically or emotionally capable—then what?
I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers. I’m confident there will be lessons to learn and blessings to receive, for both you and the child. After nearly eight decades, I still don’t fully understand why it was important in my mortal experience for me to be born with only four fingers on each hand. There are still lessons for me to learn.
But if you feel you absolutely cannot handle this child, you know there are options other than eliminating the baby. There are people who would gladly take it if you let it live. Through some adoption agencies, you can help pick the parents and even be involved in other decisions about the child’s future.
You will know that what is growing inside you is not simply a piece of tissue to be removed and discarded. You will feel it move, feel its will to live.
So please, if you can find it in your heart to do so, give the child a chance.
On an impulse, I bought a rose for my wife from one of those supermarket displays because I thought the most beautiful woman I know ought to have a rose that day.
But after she put it in a vase at home, I looked closely and found it was not perfect. It irked me that the rose had blemishes. I looked closer. Yes, there was one there, and there, and there. For a moment I regretted buying it.
But the truth was that from a normal viewing distance, those blemishes were hard to see, and the rose brought some brightness and warmth to our kitchen table on a day when the temperature outside was well below freezing and the snow on the ground said spring is still a good way off.
Why do we focus so much on imperfections and overlook the whole picture? There are plenty of imperfections in our lives and in the people around us. If we look for imperfections, we will surely find them.
There is much talk today about “microaggressions.” This seemingly refers to things that people say or do, intentionally or unintentionally, that we could potentially see as slights or insults. If we look for those, we will certainly find them.
But why spend our time looking for those?
If we make a habit of looking for and cataloging every small thing that might be categorized as aggression—especially the ones when people say hurtful things unknowingly—we may damage or lose valuable relationships. And we may satisfy the cravings for power in the people who deliberately try to hurt us. I know this from experience.
My hands are not like yours. I have a very visible birth defect that draws attention. Children stare and may say things like, “Your hands are weird!” Adults glance at my hands when they think I won’t notice. Some talk to me slowly and carefully as though I might also be mentally deficient. If I were to let those things bother me, I would be constantly upset. I simply have to deal with the fact I am not like what others consider “normal.” (Few realize that this is normal to me.)
In grade school and junior high, I was bullied by people who called me names or made hurtful comments about me because I was different. I was jumped more than once by boys my age who took turns punching me, trying to make me fight back when they knew I couldn’t make a fist. I was always the last one chosen for any sports team in P.E. class because the other boys believed I wouldn’t be able to handle the game. But I was raised by a wise widowed mother who knew what I would face in life and taught me early on to deal with my challenges. I found that I could learn to do anything others can do.
I learned that you give bullies and toxic people a victory when you respond to their taunts. I like the old saying that the best revenge is living well. If you show them that their deliberate nastiness cannot control your behavior, they lose their power over you.
If someone has said something unintentionally that you find hurtful or demeaning, you may be able to educate them—to help them see why those words hurt. But I can almost guarantee that if you respond in anger, you will not feel better, and anger, even justifiable, rarely improves our ability to build healthy relationships.
When I was a senior in high school, I turned my back on one of my best friends because he told me that something I did was hypocritical. It took me years to realize a that first, he was right about me, though I didn’t want to see it, and second, both my life and his were less rich because I threw away a friendship.
I am an imperfect, flawed person. I have spent a lifetime struggling with some personal weaknesses that I hate. But I manage to do some good things too. As a person of faith, I have learned I do better at repentance and spiritual growth when I: (1) try to focus on doing more of the good things; (2) ask forgiveness from God and the people I may have wronged; and (3), don’t spend a lot of time replaying in my mind all the wrong and tawdry things I do. My life goes better when I concentrate instead on replacing those ugly things with more of the good.
I’m also happier when I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the things others may have done that I didn’t like. I don’t always have to pay attention to people who are deliberately trying to be toxic—those angry or damaged individuals who so desperately want to see my response.
I’m trying to get better at seeing the good in other people before I simply discard them. I’m trying to look at each individual as another child of God who is of great worth to Him even though that person might do things I wish they wouldn’t.
That rose I gave to my wife was not perfect. But as I sit here looking at it across the table, it looks pretty good from this distance. It is a work of heavenly design, a gift of beauty from our Heavenly Father to His children in a world that is not perfect.
Why should I focus on the flower’s flaws when I can enjoy the 90 percent that is perfect?
In South Central Idaho, there is a landscape that seems so out of this world it is called Craters of the Moon.
It is marked by broken and jagged beds of lava mixed with volcanic cinder cones and rock formations jutting up eerily from the lava plain. The rough and cratered surface of this place was used by some U.S. astronauts to train before their moon landings.
It is just one of the many outcroppings of volcanic activity on the Snake River plain in Idaho.
This might seem to be an inhospitable place for growing things because of the desert surroundings, the cold climate. Yet life thrives here. The life impulse is so strong in some of the livings things that it cannot be denied by solid rock.
The lichens that help break down the rocks, along with sagebrush, pine trees and other plant life dot the landscape, even growing out of the lava plain. Animal life is abundant. Take a hike on one of this national monument’s trails and you might find yourself following deer tracks.
The life-fostering processes at work here will seem familiar to scientists. But there might well be disagreement among observers over just how these processes were initiated and governed. For me, this place is another witness of God at work. I see the great Creator’s hand in the order and organization of an environment such as this.
There is, of course, no point in starting an argument over how Craters of the Moon came to be.
But I would invite you to consider the origins of this place, or one like it, for yourself. The United States has many areas like this where the natural world goes about its business with comparatively little interference from humans. You can find them in other countries as well.
Look at places like these and then ask yourself: On what evidence or basis can God be ruled out as the Creator? When people insist that the earth is strictly a product of some great cosmic accident, I often wonder what evidence they have that makes them say God was not involved.
I don’t have to see His own hands to see His hand at work here. In this place, it seems self-evident.
When I was in my twenties, I was a lot more sure of many things than I am now, decades later. I still believe in the same spiritual guideposts—God, the importance of faith to achieve true success in this life, the need to love in order to grow spiritually and intellectually. But I don’t think I understood back then all the ways that faith and love can be applied to meet the challenges of life. I’ve still got a lot to learn about that.
It’s interesting how the way we see things changes as we get more experience.
When we’re less experienced, we often see things in black and white. The black and white view can leave us with very strong impressions, but too often it misses nuance or details that give us a more complete picture.
The best of the cinematographers back in the 1930s and 1940s knew this. Watch one of the black and white classics—Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane—to see how filmmakers used light and shadow, the contrast of light and dark, to create or enhance a dramatic mood.
What do you feel when you look at the photograph above, with its contrasts deliberately enhanced?
But looking at only the black and white tones can leave out a lot.
Now look at the color version of the photograph. What do you see that you couldn’t see before? The beautiful flower that was hidden in shadow? The way that varied, multi-colored stones all contribute their distinctive strengths to the whole structure?
A lot of our attitudes are like that. Many of mine were sharply black and white when I was younger. But when we look at things only in black and white, we miss much of the nuance or detail that can help us fully understand the problem or challenge we face and its possible solutions. We don’t see the rose or the different strengths of the multi-colored stones.
Too often we can be blinded by our own biases. Sometimes they are so firmly entrenched that we can’t root them out.
Single-minded activists are especially at risk of this weakness, whether their cause is environmental, social, political, racial, or religious. Seeing only black and white, they may demand that everyone else pay as much attention to the highlighted areas as they do. They may miss details in the shadows that can lead to workable, practical solutions.
But, oh, it is so hard to give up some of our biases! I know it is for me. We are emotionally tied to them. There’s risk in letting go, for if our biases are false, then what can we safely hold onto? It requires humility and faith to accept that what we have believed is wrong, and that what we did not want to accept, or what we may never have considered before, is true.
Not long ago, my wife and I lay outdoors under the stars at night to watch a meteor shower. Our backyard was a world of black shadows, dark and darker. When you see those old color movie scenes of people outdoors in the moonlight (Maybe the cowboy and his sweetheart down by the river?), you know they’re false. We don’t see color by moonlight alone. Those scenes were shot through a dark filter in daylight or artificial light.
We need to remove the dark filters in front of our mind’s eye if we want to see the truth. We need to ask: Am I looking at this situation only in black and white?
When we look at people in these stark contrasts, comparing their actions with our own more righteous or intelligent choices, or with what we think they ought to be doing, we have a hard time seeing the full picture. Being able to see the full picture of people’s lives was what made Jesus Christ able to love the sinner while admonishing them to “sin no more.” (See John 8:3-11.)
When we’re serious about wanting to follow Jesus, we will make the effort to overcome the harsh black-or-white perspective that renders judgment based only on our own experience. We will learn to view other people and their lives through the richly hued filters of faith and love.
Forty years ago, while reporting on an environmental symposium at a major university, I heard a conversation among colleagues in which one expressed simmering frustration that he could not make any headway with his proposals to stop environmental damage.
With some bitterness, he said he hoped the fossil fuels would all be used up soon because then everyone would be forced to recognize that he had been right all along and they would be forced to do just as he had been advising. The consequences for others or for society as a whole did not seem to concern him.
While I believe strongly in protecting the environment, I could never join a cause led by a person like him. He practiced what I call “toxic activism.”
You know people like him. You’ve met them. At a family reunion they would be the in-law who insists on digging up the hatchet that everyone else in the family buried 30 years ago.
When toxic activists have what they consider a worthy cause, and when they’re in your office, your neighborhood, your church, or your children’s group of school parents, they’ll use that cause to bludgeon you.
No matter what the cause—civil rights, the environment, liberal or conservative politics, gender politics and equality—if your response doesn’t match theirs in intensity, then you obviously are an uncaring and ignorant individual. Ironically, they may accuse you of being so focused on your own small world that you have no time for the more serious cosmic problems that should concern you. Toxic activists are very good at laying guilt trips on others.
There are many people, including me, who would be glad to help correct injustices and help undo damage that has been done in our culture or our environment. I could gladly give money and time to efforts that would help cure some of these ills.
But please don’t come at me with your list of demands. Please don’t tell me what burden of guilt I must accept on behalf of my social class, my faith, or my ethnic group before we can work together on solving the problem at hand. That’s no way to begin a relationship that will require us to trust each other.
What is it you want to happen? Do you want my cooperation? Or are you more interested in scoring some ideological points? If you try to persuade me instead of accusing me, you’re much more likely to win my support. I have time to listen to reason on an issue, but I have too little time to spend it with someone trying to bait me into contention.
Let’s talk. I am completely in favor of “equality,” “justice,” “mutual support,” and “cooperation.” But I am not likely to take up your cause unless I know just how you are applying those terms and what specific outcome you are seeking.
Getting in my face is no way to get into my heart and mind.
In my faith, we have a book of scripture called the Doctrine and Covenants. It is a record of revelations given by God to modern prophets. One of those revelations teaches that power and influence in the hearts of others can never be maintained over the long term through compulsion or domination; this can only be done through persuasion and patience. (See Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-44.)
Look, I’m willing to be your friend. I’d like to help your cause if it is just. But if you want to win my help, present your case and let me decide according to the moral principles that guide my own thoughts and actions. If your course of action agrees with those principles, you’ll have my support.
Perhaps there are areas or causes in which I could do more. Perhaps there are aspects of some problems that I do not understand. I am open to listening and learning.
But I am not open to being threatened or coerced.
I will be the one, not you, to decide on my course of action, because I will be the one, not you, who will be judged by God for them.
These two words, tolerance and diversity, don’t mean the same things now that they did when I was young. Back then, they dealt with concepts that could unite us. Now they seem to be used in ways that divide us.
This is a piece I have put off writing for a long time because some people won’t like what I say. But unless we can talk about the different ways people see tolerance and diversity, the different ways we use those words will continue to keep us at odds with each other.
When I was young, tolerance meant we would accept the fact many people see norms of behavior, dress, morality, or decorum differently than we do. Tolerant people could interact without confrontation when someone disagreed about those norms.
These days, being tolerant seems to mean that we must be willing to embrace other peoples’ norms of behavior, morality, or decorum even when those may be foreign or offensive to us. On the other hand, if the norms and standards that our consciences have dictated for a lifetime differ with those of special identity groups, then we must put our beliefs aside.
Diversity used to mean we are all very different in our society, and that’s OK.
Now it seems to mean that some diverse people are more equal than others. I must accept their cultural norms and beliefs, but my beliefs cannot be tolerated, and if I insist on holding onto them, I must be punished.
There are a variety of social issues or causes in which this double standard may be seen. To pick one: If my beliefs are not acceptable to LGBTQ people, I may be labeled “homophobic.”
Homophobia is a made-up word that suggests someone hates or fears those who classify themselves as LGBTQ. I neither hate nor fear people who live a homosexual lifestyle. There’s no reason I could not work with them on an equal footing. I hope they have all the happiness and success in their lives that they desire. It is only fair that they enjoy all the same civil rights I do, and I fully support legislation guaranteeing them those rights.
But there are some philosophical points on which I disagree with them based on my faith. I believe that the inherent individual right to freedom of thought entitles me to my own beliefs, but I will not try to dictate how others must live.
Some who live as a different gender than they were born will say it is not a matter of their choice, but they were born in a body that does not match who they really are. I cannot believe that. Neither do I believe in common gender stereotypes. We are all mixtures of many physical and personality traits, and no one mix of these traits can define either male or female. No one can truly say, “I am female (or male) because . . . .” I believe that our eternal spirits are what they are and that God does not place some of them in the wrong bodies by mistake.
But what I may believe has no power to govern others. Many may disagree with me, and it is not my right or purpose in life to make them conform to my beliefs. That would be tyrannical. Faith should never be an excuse for tyranny. I believe that one of the first laws of heaven, in God’s plan for His children, is that we each will have our own individual agency. Each of His children has the responsibility to choose how we shape our lives and behavior on this earth, and ultimately each of us will be answerable to Him for our choices.
Others will, I hope, respect my agency just as I respect theirs.
It does not matter how just or right you think your cause to be, whether it is racial or gender equality, environmentalism, economic parity, or something else; trying to force others to adopt the beliefs and behaviors you prefer is a violation of their civil rights on earth and their agency in eternity. God offers all of us choices, but never compels us to do as He says.
Too often in our society, people who identify themselves with one movement or cause or social group try to coerce others into accepting their beliefs and behaviors by labeling and shaming, by humiliating or ostracizing them, or by compulsion through legislation. This is wrong. If we cannot persuade people to our way of thinking or behaving by reasoning with them, we have no right to punish them for having different views.
Here’s a concrete example that may be controversial for some. Suing a wedding photographer or cakemaker whose personal religious beliefs make him or her uncomfortable serving an LGBTQ wedding doesn’t seem to be about achieving equality, especially where comparable services are available from someone else. It seems to be about forcing one’s values on someone else in violation of that individual’s conscience.
Many of the problems of divisiveness in our world today could be solved if we could go back to those earlier definitions of tolerance and diversity. We can recognize that other people who do not share our backgrounds and experiences will see many things differently than we do, but we can nevertheless commit ourselves to interacting and working with them in a spirit of peace and cooperation.