Terry Tempest Williams to Receive Community of Christ Peace Award

Terry Tempest Williams, a Utah-based environmental activist with a Mormon heritage, will receive the Community of Christ Peace Award on 21 October 2011 at the church’s Peace Colloquy on “Creating Hope, Healing Earth” in Independence, Missouri. See the official announcement here. A list of previous awardees is here.

Her website says Williams believes “environmental issues are social issues that ultimately become matters of justice” and asks the question, “what might a different kind of power look like, feel like, and can power be redistributed equitably even beyond our own species?”

Williams is currently Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah.

Sticks and Stones and … Compliments?

Several years ago when my congregation attempted to join the local ministerial alliance (in a town right next door to Independence, Missouri), I was met by a coalition of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors intent on keeping out the (then) RLDS Church. Their reasoning ranged from claims we were “non-Christian” all the way to “not Christian enough” and, finally, to “it would just open the door for Mormons to want to join.”

As it turned out, they only wanted to talk about Joseph Smith. Apparently, our faith movement’s founder represented all that anybody needs to know about contemporary Latter Day Saint groups.

To shorten a long and rather nasty story, I’ll just skip to the part where representatives from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholic Churches prevailed. A Methodist pastor put it this way: “Nobody asked me to prove I was ‘Christian enough’ to join, so why should we start now?”

Eventually most of the fundamentalists/evangelicals bolted from the alliance when an LDS representative was admitted a few years later. They formed their own group, which over time has dwindled in size and influence.

I mention this episode as a way to ask, “Do we expect to be misunderstood or misrepresented?” Is this a natural outgrowth of religious discrimination and persecution experienced by our forebears in the almost two centuries of our faith movement’s existence? Although nobody’s getting tarred and feathered these days (at least here in North America, as far as I’m aware), has suspicion become our default setting?

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A Plea for Civilty

This article, by Bill Russell, a professor from Graceland University (the Community of Christ college) is a reprint of the 21 July 2010 installment of his ‘Political Scene’ column in the Lamoni Chronicle.

In past columns I have added my voice to that of many others who are anxious for a return to a politics in America where civil discourse is commonplace rather than rare. One of those voices is from the Mormon Church website: “The Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible. . . . The Church hopes that our democratic system will facilitate kinder and more reasoned exchanges among fellow Americans than we are now seeing.”

At the church’s most recent General Conference, Mormon Apostle Quentin L. Cook said: “Many in the world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree.  The Savior taught us to love even our enemies. The vast majority of our members heed this counsel. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught.”

It seems fairly clear to me that one person – and probably the main person — these communications were aimed at is Glenn Beck, himself an adult convert to Mormonism. A former alcoholic and cocaine addict, I think Beck’s conversion to the LDS Church made a lot of sense. The church’s strict teachings on alcohol and other drugs has probably helped Beck recover from these addictions.

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Comparing the Missouri Mormon War with Contemporary Conflicts

UPDATE 11 January 2010: Kenny and Jake Ballentine, two brothers who make films together, have just announced the upcoming release of a new movie ‘Trouble in Zion’, a documentary on the Missouri Mormon War. Several years ago, Kenny Ballentine read the essay attached to the below posting and talked with me about it while making the film. Click here to find out more about their movie.

The 1838 Missouri Mormon War (see LeSueur’s great book) resulted in at least 22 fatalities, millions of dollars worth of property destruction and the displacement of 15,000 people. Fought in a context of fierce rhetoric, sectarian and paramilitary violence, weak governmental authority and a privatization of military force, it actually bears significant resemblance to what some security scholars (e.g. my former PhD supervisor Mary Kaldor) have called the “New Wars.” These contemporary conflicts in places like the Former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Columbia, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan are characterized by the targeting of civilians; powerful non-state actors; prolonged, seemingly intractable, hostilities; connections to organized crime; and exclusivistic ethnic, religious and sectarian ideologies.

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Joseph Smith, Jr. as a Warrior Prophet: Messianic Warlordism in Times of State Fragmentation, Economic Disruption and Religious Upheaval

In 1986, in the midst of a violent conflict between the newly installed Museveni government and remnants of the former regime, Alice Auma, a spirit-diviner in northern Uganda believed she was commanded by a Christian spirit called ‘Lakwena’ to lead a military-religious rebellion on behalf of the northern Acholi people and bring about heaven on earth. She claimed:

The good Lord who had sent the Lakwena decided to change his work from that of a doctor to that of a military commander for one simple reason: it is useless to cure a man today only that he be killed the next. So it became an obligation on his part to stop the bloodshed before continuing his work as a doctor.

Alice Auma, assuming the name Alice Lakwena, led a insurgency against the new government, known as the Holy Spirit Movement, which had several early victories before being defeated by the new Ugandan Army. (For more information on Alice Auma/Lakwena and the Holy Spirit Movement, see this book or this article).

Alice Lakwena, as a religio-military commander, stands in a long tradition of Warrior Prophets that extend as far back as Joan of Arc, Guru Gobind SinghMohammed and King David. Warrior Prophets have been particularly prominant in modern Sub-Saharan Africa, associated with guerilla movements in, for example, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In areas of the world where political authority is fragmented and the state does not have a monopoly on the use of violence, savvy and consummate ‘political entrepreneurs’ take advantage of their ability to wield violence to rise to power (and often prosperity) by offering security to people willing to accept their authority and punishing those who are unwilling to do so (For further information, see this book on warlordism in Africa, or this one on Afghanistan). Likewise, Paul Gifford, a scholar of African Christianity, has argued that charismatic and dogmatic religion provides believers with a sense of stability as Africa faces great social, political and economic upheavals in its encounter with modernity.  Warrior Prophets are thus able to capitalize on the dual opportunities created by chaos — people’s perceived needs for 1) a powerful, paternalistic protector and 2) a charismatic diviner who is able to provide assurance of cosmic certainty. They offer the promise of both physical and spiritual security.

It may be enlightening to understand Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of both the Mormon and Community of Christ churches, as having played a similar role in mid-19th century America. His time was one of great political, social and economic upheaval.

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