Monday, January 30, 2012

Ghosts of Ensigns past: July 1971

Welcome to part two of my probably-ongoing series wherein I riff on, comment about, and sometimes poke fun at old issues of the Ensign. Last time I highlighted the first issue of the brand new Ensign, boldy sent forth from heaven to replace the Improvement Era, Relief Society Magazine, and other proto-modern LDS publications. Today we'll fast forward a few months. Summer's heating up and we're headed to July 1971.

And what a summer it is. Our topic is the Lamanites, but first we begin with a dousing of spiritual ice water courtesy of Harold B. Lee.

His talk "Successful" Sinners confronts the dilemma expressed in Job 21:
Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?
Their seed is established in their sight with them, and their offspring before their eyes.
Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them.
Their bull gendereth, and faileth not; their cow calveth, and casteth not her calf.
They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance.
They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ.
They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave.
The answer, in this case, seems to be "they're stupid jerks and so are you." Lee sketches a picture of his successful sinner living "a life of luxury and ease," flagrantly breaking the sabbath, ignoring church duties (it seems our sinner is LDS), drinking, smoking, and generally being naughty. Our sinnner's wife - excuse me, the "woman who lives at his house, whom he calls his wife," has no regard at all for the first commandment! No, she's not an idolater, I mean the other first commandment. The one that says a woman's primary value is her uterus, obviously. Now, I'm unsure whether the woman is a live-in girlfriend (hence the "so-called wife" jab) or whether the marriage lacks validity because it is childless. If the former, I don't think LDS doctrine encourages them to be reproducing anyway, and if the latter than it's a new doctrine to me. Without clarification in the text, we must press on.

There was a war in heaven, there must be opposition, some will choose evil, etc. But the real point here is repentance.  Repentance is turning away, restitution, etc. Then Lee moves on to the unbaptized sinners, and let me quote him at length so nobody misunderstands why I really, really, really don't like this article:
The unbaptized person who is in sin may, by following a similar course, receive at the hands of an authorized elder of the Church, if otherwise prepared by an understanding of the gospel, baptism for the remission of his sins. Following confession, one in sin must show forth the fruits of his repentance by good deeds, which are weighed against the bad. He must make proper restitution to the limit of his power to restore that which he has taken away, or he must repair the damage he has done. He who thus repents of his sins and altogether turns away therefrom, to return no more to a repetition thereof, is entitled to the promise of a forgiveness of his sins if he has not committed the unpardonable sin; as it was declared by the Prophet Isaiah, “… though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” 
But please do not misunderstand the true meaning of the scriptures. One may not wallow in the mire of filth and sin and conduct his life in a manner unlawful in the sight of God and then suppose that repentance will wipe out the effects of his sin and place him on the level he would have been on had he always lived a righteous and virtuous life. The Lord extends loving mercy and kindness in forgiving you of the sins you commit against him or his work, but he can never remove the results of the sin you have committed against yourself in thus retarding your own advancement toward your eternal goal.
This is for new converts! Sorry, you weren't in the church yet but you already blew it. Welcome to the fold! Or maybe we're talking about our less active sinner again, and the message is "He's going to suffer for his wickedness and the rest of us should take comfort in that." Or if you've been stung by guilt yourself (and surely the article's tone encourages this), then it's "Congratulations, you're lost forever and there's no coming back." Doubtless I'm misreading Pres. Lee's true intent, but it's hard to understand what that actually is. When it comes to problems of evil, I much prefer Jesus' take on the matter.

Because you deserve it

That was a long analysis for just one talk, but, well, it elicited a strong reaction. We haven't even gotten to Lamanites yet.

The introduction to the issue reads, "Most members of the Church know that the Lamanites, who consist of the Indians of all the Americas as well as the islanders of the Pacific, are a people with a special heritage." Obviously, the church has since quietly backed away from that expansive definition, owing to scholarship (faithful and not) indicating that such a broad view of Lamanite ancestry is not plausible, but I'm more interested in the effect that this view has had on LDS views towards Indians, whatever the historical facts.

Obviously, for Spencer W. Kimball it meant a great deal, as his article details. I'm curious about contemporary LDS missionary efforts toward Indians, because it's not something that comes up often. Would Kimball be disappointed at whatever we're doing now? Obviously there's been a great deal done in polynesian islands, as well as Mexico and Central America, but those are not usually framed as "Lamanite" missions anymore...are they?

Furthermore, did past LDS attitudes about Lamanites lead to paternal or postcolonial attitudes and actions? Is there a sort of Mormon orientalism going on here? I think probably so, but I'd like to read any available scholarship on that before making any certain judgements. For now I want to focus on my favorite article, The Vanished American. If you're not clicking on my other links, stop now and click that one. Read the article. I'll wait.




What an informative, heartbreaking, and insightful glimpse into a point of view you don't often see in the church, or, you know, at all. I love how Smith expresses and embodies some of the basic paradoxes Indians face. Is education valuable without infrastructure to take advantage of it? Is such an education even desirable given its possible deleterious effects on traditional cultural values? Are those values even useful in a broader American society that has little place for them, or do they even exist in any meaningful way without the ability to act on them? Is assimilation good, bad, or is it possible to make binary value judgements at all? If you can answer these questions you're smarter than I am. And consider this (of course you've read this already, RIGHT?):
The essential difference between the European and the Indian is concept of property. After years in white America, I still cannot conceive of anyone owning the land. Land is free, like wind and water and fire. Earth is the mother of all things living, given to us by God. We may borrow from her, but only what we need to live. So how can I mix this basic reality with the white people huddle in middle class ticky-tacky, mortgage payments, massive insurance plans, for-sale signs plastered on vast reaches of empty timberland? I can’t really understand how the white man justifies this ownership philosophy, but I must live with it to survive. I am a successful writer and have many things, but when Indians visit, most are not impressed by my things. Only the white man is impressed. 
At my home, anything I have is yours for the using if you want it, and I consider anything you have as being available to me. That’s the way it is with most Indians, but try something like that in an urban Western nation and you end up doing time, unless it’s the lawnmower you borrowed seven months ago. Since my needs are only those for living this day, today, it is very difficult for me to maintain a savings account or shore up against the coming flood. As a Church member, the one-year’s food supply presents me with a problem. I do it because the prophet says so, but it is not my tradition. Through my eyes, the white man is forced into these situations because he does not trust the earth or his ability to live with the earth.
That's quite an indictment of not just consumerism, but the foundations of Western culture (however you define that). Dangit, what's more American than property? Don't the holy scriptures make it clear that property is the foundation of liberty itself? Still, as much as I like to poke fun at the prosperity gospel that undergirds too much of LDS thinking, I'm quite attached to my stuff and things. It's seriously difficult to envision a scheme that entails breaking away from all that.

Finally, I appreciate how LeRoi Smith sees his assumed "Lamanite" identity as something ennobling for himself and his people, and his sincerity is definitely at odds with my snarky approach that might make me want to label him an Indian Uncle Tom. Yet his perspective is authentically Indian (whetever "authentic" is...and whatever "Indian" is...but let's not go down that rabbit hole), and who am I to judge? The meaning he derives from his LDS-Indian nature is actually inspiring. Would other Indians see it the same way? This white guy from Utah humbly submits that he has no idea. But it's a lot of food for thought.

There's more in the issue, including a nifty take on Confucianism which I'd love to compare to LDS patriarchal culture, but behold, this post waxeth long already. My take on the Ensign remains about what it was: The dour conservatism of Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee is not my thing, but the general interest articles in all their variety are fantastic. And, hey, Lamanites. What's the deal with them, am I right? Answer: I genuinely don't know. Until next time, when we might stay in the early 70s or perhaps jump ahead a decade or two, stay classy.