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“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” –Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861, inaugural address
The epiphany fell across my mind like the heat and light that streamed in a late afternoon slant over the refugee camp here in Frankfurt, Germany. In the same moment that live Persian music was wafting through the air, clusters of children were clapping and whooping on the sidelines, and some camp residents –Syrians and Afghans I’d been tutoring in German throughout the year—were pulling me into their circle, linking me arm-in-arm, guiding me through their dance, the Spirit tapped me on the shoulder, whispering, “Look. Pay attention. This is it.”
We didn’t just dance. We partied. Heads-thrown-back, we pranced, warbling in sounds I don’t speak, making for a moment that left me smiling until tears pooled in my eyes. Arms flung around one another’s shoulders, we all must have seen the unlikelihood of the moment: no common language, culture, cuisine. No shared history, education, religion, political views. In fact, by lots of criteria, we really had many more reasons to hold one another at arms’ length than to hold one another in our arms.
But there we were, celebrating. Turning in that circle, we stamped flat our potential differences while kicking up some serious, community-building dust.
“This,” I felt again, “is it.”
In the world outside that little camp different dust has been rising. Instead of circles of inclusion, battle lines have been drawn. Confrontation, competition, and combat—especially between political bodies— have made for an ecosystem of partisanship, not partnership. More than any time in my life, today’s civic landscape is one of extremes and polarization, resulting in a world of the Face Off, not the Stand By Me.
And sadly, our covenant community is not immune to this epidemic. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen plumes from the scuffle rising from ideological rivalries forming even within the Church. It is to this heartbreaking trend that I write, hoping to encourage a dialogue that will foster deeper unity within our rich and promising diversity, a kaleidoscopic vista that could fall victim to the escalating antagonism and hardening of hearts throughout world. It is my core belief that one of the foremost purposes of the Lord’s Church in these latter days is to be a refuge of unity in a world marked by ever-expanding discord. And so I ask the question: if we, who are covenanted to one another and to The Great Unifier cannot cultivate unity—if we cannot build Zion— then who on earth ever will?
Where have I experienced a growing division among my fellow latter-day Saints? As a founding member of the nonprofit Their Story is Our Story, which collects, documents, and shares the personal stories of refugees, I have sometimes received messages questioning the rightness–and even the righteousness–of advocating for my distressed and displaced Muslim brothers and sisters. Though such messages don’t make up most of the feedback I receive, the fact that these derogatory and sometimes ridiculing messages exist at all, and that they are coming from my Mormon brothers and sisters, has bruised my spirit.
While I do not judge others for being hesitant or uncertain about a topic as complex and fluid as refugee relief, and while I know I have been blessed to have special, firsthand interaction with these people which has replaced any fear with love, the strident and sometimes condemning messages from fellow saints have left me puzzled, and even distraught. And yes, that has made me feel alien in my own church family.
More distressing than those messages from my covenant community of Latter-Day Saints, however, have been comments to media coverage, including a piece republished here in Meridian about the other non-profit organization Mormon Women for Ethical Government for which I am a founding member. At MWEG, I work daily alongside remarkable, deeply faithful LDS women in the spiritual work of standing for truth and righteousness and against unethical and dishonorable practices in government. These are women who master several of the 120 languages within the body of Mormonism. Many have served missions, taught at the MTC, and/or have sent their children and grandchildren out to the Church’s 400 missions across the globe. Many have served or are serving in local, stake, and regional leadership positions in some of the 190 countries where the Church is established. We are seminary, institute, and gospel doctrine teachers, nursery and temple workers —women who, in short, are 100% devoted to our faith and whose activism is a natural extension of our discipleship under the Savior.
But you would think, scanning some readers’ comments, that we are hippie heretics and renegade rebels. And why? Because we and certain readers do not seem to share the same political views. Not sharing the same political ideology, those readers seem to say, means we cannot stand in the same covenant circle. Those observers have used vilifying and belittling language in their unfair assumptions about the backgrounds, motivations, and even the worthiness of women I esteem to be among the finest and most upstanding I have ever known. My soul has been grieved that such vitriol could come from those who do not know us personally, but who attack us personally, we, who have pledged a covenant of unity under God.
To such discrimination Elder John Carmack responded years ago, saying that mistreating people due to their diverse profiles is often “self-justified by the use of labels”:
“Labeling a fellow Church member an intellectual, a less-active member, a feminist, a South African, an Armenian, a Utah Mormon, or a Mexican, for example, seemingly provides an excuse to mistreat or ignore that person.”
(I might add to that list of labels, “Republican”, “Democrat”, “conservative”, “liberal”, “patriot”, “socialist”, “Californian Mormon”, “European”.)
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, himself a European, whose lifetime of church service is a tribute to honoring diversity, has spoken repeatedly to this same topic:
“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.”
In a conference address in 2010, he stated:
“The Church…is defined by the diversity of its members. The Church is beloved and followed across the globe by men and women who speak different languages, belong to varied cultures and races, support opposing political parties, and, yes, cheer for rival sports teams… All of God’s children wear the same jersey. Our team is the brotherhood of man. This mortal life is our playing field. Our goal is to learn to love God and to extend that same love toward our fellowman. We are here to live according to His law and establish the kingdom of God. We are here to build, uplift, treat fairly, and encourage all of Heavenly Father’s children.”
And as recently as this last Women’s Session of General Conference, President Uchtdorf was explicit not only about our responsibility as disciples to neither use degrading nor divisive language with one another, but also to refrain from responding to such language with anything but love and temperance:
“Once you degrade a group of people you are more likely to justify words of anger of violence against them….When we lash out to hurt, shame or silence them, we are not doing so in righteousness… We will love our enemies. We will overcome anger and hate. We will reach out to bless and minister to them.”
Diversity means complexity, and complexity is challenging. But despite the challenge, diversity is not an impediment to Zion. On the contrary. Diversity, I believe, is the only means by which Zion will be achieved. Zion requires that my heart be pure, and a pure heart is one free of any fiercely held, secondary allegiances. I must overcome myself—my pride, my opinions, my worldly identity—to take on a new identity in Christ. And I do not overcome myself by insisting everyone think exactly as I do. Zion does not hinge on homogeneity or lock- step adherence to worldly (and therefore imperfect) cultural codes or political treatises. Zion centers on Christ, whose gospel, as Elder Carmack has asserted, “transcends every culture, race, nationality, and language.” Transcending differences through Christ implies that, “as we become one with God, we will become one with each other. As we become one with each other, we will become one with God.”
So the only way I will overcome myself is by drawing closer to God and my fellowmen through the Holy Spirit, which unifying force overpowers all and any divisions. In other words, with the Son emitting His magnetic force at the center of our individual lives, we will naturally form our orbit around Him. Such a circle links us on our deepest level to Him as we practice charity and long-suffering with one another. That kind of discipleship presupposes that even our most deeply held ideologies will grow dim under the radiance of the only true Light of the World.
Nowhere is that sort of oneness orbiting the Son better enacted than in the temple. For those who are familiar with our temple ordinances, you recall that our progress, while pursued individually, culminates communally. It is in the final stages of our temple education and as the ultimate step before entering into God’s presence, that we are invited to join side-by-side and face-to-face with our fellow-worshippers. There, we pray. It is that moment, my favorite in the temple endowment, that flashed a streak of heat through my mind while I danced in circles with my refugee friends.
I understood anew that I could not be invited into a relationship with God – could not place my prayers, my life, my everything on the altar—while holding back love for the people surrounding me. I have to first work out any feelings of contempt, judgement, even enmity in the relationships with those to my (literal or political) right or left. This is the antithesis of a Face Off. This is facing one another, seeing one another, being one with one another in unfeigned love. If I cannot do this, I cannot face God.
Perhaps that temple moment, like my circle dancing moment, is a clue to the nature of humankind’s eternal and universal union, a clue intimated in those simple but resounding words I quoted earlier which were spoken by another great unifier, Abraham Lincoln. He said we must not forget that we are not enemies, but friends. Christ, too, tells us we can be His friends, and if His friends, then not strangers, but fellow-citizens of His kingdom, and not opponents, but components of one eternal family.
So, in spite of our myriad marvelous differences—or better, precisely because of these very differences—we need each other. We need each other to overcome ourselves and in turn to come unto Christ. If we sincerely wish to one day enter into His presence — and if we hope today to have His presence enter into us — then we will need to begin by softening our battle lines into two arcs, extending our hands to all within our reach, and sealing them into our circle.
From the middle of that sacred sphere swells a familiar chorus, an endless hymn of praise to which all angels, all nature, and the better angels of our nature will join in surging harmony. Arm-in-arm, face-to-face, every last one of us will dance.