On Gratitude and Justice

The global faith leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently asked all practitioners to engage in a #GiveThanks campaign on social media. Simply put, religious practitioners were asked to post daily about things they are grateful for. The faith leader believes this action will heal people’s spirits during the woes of a global pandemic, political turmoil at home and abroad, and deceitful industries attempting to destroy the planet we are blessed to care for—just some of the many things we face in our world today. Showing gratitude and being grateful are good ways of feeling good and are great ways to change the focus and tenor of our communal conversations. We are in dark times, and light is always welcome.

However, the constant influx of gratitude on social media has one major flaw: narcissism.

By design, social media is a narcissistic paradise; by intent, social media is a dopamine reward system built like Vegas slot machines to keep its users in a constant state of elation . Every post, every like, every comment, every notification triggers in our brains a heightened sense of excitement and pleasure. We are a people enslaved to the red notification icon. 

This is why the flaw of this campaign—this prophetic challenge—is so damning. Gratitude given on social media is a performative act meant to show others that you are pious and good because you can express the simplest platitude, a thank you, in a very public way. This action then rewards you with notifications, allowing your brain to fill your body with positive, good-feeling hormones that help you to feel better. Thus, the post of gratitude made you feel better because it is a simple effort with a simple reward. The performance of gratitude is applauded temporarily; however, the spiritual act of being grateful is not, I would argue, completely fulfilled.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us of performative acts just for performance’s sake:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Matthew 6:1-2

Instead, Jesus exhorts his followers to do alms—or thanksgiving, or praise, or worship—in private, sacred spaces:

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and they Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

Matthew 6:3-4

Now, one who posts on social media using #GiveThanks may not think that what they’re doing is a performative act. “But I really am grateful for my spouse and family and dog and weird left toe and that book or this movie,” one may think, and one is justified in this thought. It is truth, even: They are truly grateful, and there really is nothing wrong with expressing gratitude. The real question one must face, and it is a question faced in the solitude of the soul, is how they show gratitude when it is not a requested act to be performed online, for hundreds or thousands of people to see and to like. 

I hope to make at least this clear: My contention is not with gratitude itself. It is with how #GiveThanks is a performative act that rewards the performer through notifications and through fulfilling the simple commands of a faith leader, shames those not participating on social media, and mocks humility and Christian piety. Indeed, posts are wonderful for a temporary elation, a quick Coke before you start your day, but Christ-followers should be asked to show gratitude as Christ shows gratitude: by seeking justice.

The concept of justice I am using is not the justice many Latter-day Saints may first think of. Latter-day Saint justice typically focuses on recourse for a broken law or the universe righting itself for a wrong. It is a reactive justice, one that is meted out when something else happens. A sin occurs, justice is what is required to fix the broken soul; Christ’s mercy, then, overcomes that requirement of justice and provides the balm to the soul that sin has broken. The Book of Mormon’s justice and mercy, especially as seen through the words of Latter-day faith leaders like President Boyd K. Packer, have become a transactional justice and mercy—a trade, a contract.

This reading of justice and mercy is not a bad or incorrect one. However, it is a reading, and not the only reading.

Justice, in this instance, means the righting of inequality, inequity, and iniquity. It favors seeking equality, equity, and righteousness—righteousness not defined as blindly or dogmatically following rules but instead as actively doing good in the world. It is a justice of works and positive action rather than punishment.

This view of justice can be found in scripture. The author of 2 Corinthians explains that “God loveth a cheerful giver” (9:7). He adds to this that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may about to every good work: . . . Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:8, 11). According to this author’s argument, God gives all grace toward an individual, but the individual, then, should go about doing good works while being grateful; in other words, the individual can show their gratitude through doing good works, or seeking for justice in this world.

Gratitude is shown by seeking justice.

In other words, one shows that they are grateful when they are working to make this world a better place. When someone is seeking to express gratitude, instead of sharing posts that flaunt the blessing’s in one’s own life, one should fight like dragons for those same temporal blessings to be brought to other people’s lives.

Jesus, as always, is the perfect example of this principle. Jesus fought for temporal justice when he performed miracles, healing the temporal ailments of those who had faith in him and his Parents. His gratitude for his part in the plan of salvation was by attempting to alleviate the mortal hardship in this life and provide balm for the next life.

In a way, sharing on social media does provide this effort. It gives an elated feeling as others like your posts and as you see others and the gratitude they show. However, as with all social media, this feeling fades in time. When Jesus performed miracles, most of them were for all mortality—the blind who saw continued to see, the deaf who heard continued to hear, and the lepers who were healed continued to be healed.

The grateful Christian lunges into the fray of inequality, inequity, and iniquity, seeking to alleviate these afflictions—afflictions created not by a loving God but rather by children of God as they toil in a fallen world. Gratitude is best shown, in my opinion, in the actions we take, rather than the words we post.

What I’ve Been Reading: October 17-24

Know My Name

by Chanel Miller

I returned to Chanel Miller’s Know My Name to listen to it this time around. It is still as powerful and moving as when I read it last year: it is a book between a “I wish this never happened to anyone” and “I’m glad she wrote this after it happened.”

This read, the quote that stood out to me most was, “Denying darkness does not bring anyone closer to the light” (311).

If we thought gays were filled with scorn and shade, just wait until you read about these gay penguins. I always love when there’s levity brought to the field of writing, and Amanda Arnold in “There’s Drama in the Queer Penguin Community” delivers. Read this one with a mimosa.

Katy Waldman’s article is a book review of a book detailing an intellectual history of the Trump era. I find her review to be smart and quick, brining us such ruminating lines as “One of the book’s standout preoccupations is whether Trump is an asteroid or a fungus” and “incentives of a culture that is designed to keep talking long after there’s anything left to say.”

I have Casper tur Kuile’s The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices on my reading list right now (I’ll probably write about it next week or the week following), so I thought it would be good to return to this article. I saw it circling in divinity school circles when it was published a few months ago.

The article talks about how divinity school graduates (along with others) have teamed up: “They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.”

I’m of many minds on this article – from “spirituality just trying to survive Capitalism” to “spirituality adapting to the Free Market (lol)” to “eff you, Luther, who needs to separate secular and sacred.” But it’s the least to say that it is an interesting idea. We’ll see how it goes, eh?

What I’ve Been Reading: October 10-16

Screenshot of article “Why Amy Coney Barrett Might Surprise Everyone” with image of Judge Barrett in a mask.

Like I hope many of you did, I listened to the hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. While I dislike the lack of ethical leadership and hypocritical movement in the Senate right now, I did find some odd comfort in this article from The Atlantic by T. M. Luhrmann, most noted for “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God” (Knopf, 2012). The article, “Why Amy Coney Barrett Might Surprise Everyone,” argues that her religious background and her trust in God could be an asset on the Court rather than something that might be seen as detrimental.

Of course, none of us can speak on the subject because her seat on the highest court of the land is still…hypothetical.

Screenshot of article “Earth’s New Gilded Age” with image of an exhausted man wiping sweat off his face with a water bottle in his hand.

Climate change, argued under the term “anthropocene” in many academic circles, being the point at which humans have affected Earth more than Earth has affected humans, is an existential threat of massive proportions—even as large as the Earth itself. The reason it is so huge, though, is not just the scope of environmental disasters; it is the effect climate change will have on every other aspect of our lives: economic, political, psychological, familial, religious, etc. Again from The Atlantic, “Earth’s New Gilded Era” by Vann R. Newkirk II links climate change explicitly to poverty and wealth and the clashes of class to come.

Cover image for article “The United States of Dolly Parton” with a headshot of Dolly Parton, with rather large hair, smiling.

I think my new favorite Dolly Parton quote is “I’ve got the hair for it, it’s huge, and they could always use more boobs in the race,” said when she was asked to comment on her personal politics. In “The United States of Dolly Parton,” Lauren Michele Jackson, writing in the New Yorker, connects Parton’s life to the broader swaths of cultural change that she’s lived through, from waves of feminism to rural poverty, while also portraying Parton as who she is: someone who rose out of that poverty and graces the world with her charity.

Cover to book “The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System That Has Transformed How We Work” with a tomato kitchen timer.

I love learning new ways to organize and use my time wisely. Just ask Missionary Adam—chapter 8 was probably my favorite in “Preach My Gospel” and I still use many principles found there today. I came across the pomodoro technique rather accidentally. I saw someone post on Twitter bout an app called “Focus To-Do.” My current to-do apps weren’t working quite as well as they did when I was in school, so I downloaded it. The app tracks pomodoros (literally “tomatoes” in Italian), which led me to hunt down what that mean. Pomodoro is a technique that separates tasks into 25-minute time limits (a “pomodoro,” named after the old tomato kitchen timer) with 5-minute breaks after each pomodoro. While I have to still adapt the technique to my own schedule and quirks, it’s great to have it in my toolbox of organization and completion. The book explains how to do the technique as an individual and within a team.

Until next time, pomodoro.

What I’ve Been Reading: October 2 to October 9

Reading has been and always will be a relationship between the silent and the spoken, the internal and the external, the kept and the shared. As someone who loves reading, I’d like to start doing some more sharing of what I enjoy reading every week. Links and thoughts are below.


Marissa Compton, “Hunger, Bread and Stone,” Again, But With Feeling: A Personal Theology.

Marissa is a really good friend who has delightful theological insights that bring me closer to divinity and grace. I’m grateful for the words she gives us and the ways she helps us to rethink faith and belief.

This article, particularly, struck me as she and I are in similar parts of the same boat. We graduated the same time from Harvard Divinity School and are facing dealing with a shifting and tumultuous world post-graduation with degrees in theology. While theology can provide peace and assurance in times such as these, they aren’t perfect at supplying a roof over the head or bread on the table. Her insights into faith, though, are manna for my soul during these troubling times.

“I’m grateful, but I’m also afraid. There are a lot doors I’ve been knocking on for a while, and nothing seems to be opening. Some of these prayers are existential questions—theological, social, political—and some of them are so personal, they’re nearly biological. Prayers about people I miss and purpose I want to feel, prayers about not being depressed and the world not being terrifying.”

***

V.E. Schwab, “How Bestselling Author V.E. Schwab Finally Found the Words to Come Out of the Closet,” O: The Oprah Magazine.

Victoria Schwab’s engaging, heart-wrenching, and utterly dynamic coming out story is as beautiful as it is hopeful. It touches on concepts of identity, community, and communion in the way that only Schwab, who is a pinnacle among writers attempting to portray those on the outskirts, in the gardens and not the houses, can.

“…you say you’re sorry you’re late, you got lost, and they fold you into their arms and says it is okay, you are here now.”

***

Benjamin E. Park, “Mormons and evangelicals share an ironic skepticism of democracy,” Salt Lake Tribune.

As we engage in a politics that will, I believe, continue to be centered around religion in the coming years, it is important to know the history of how we got here. Two prominent Mormon studies books that came out this year, Joanna Brooks’s Mormonism and White Supremacy and Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay, both argue strongly that the arc of religious history is never set in stone; rather, it is full of people making choices regarding their theology and meaning making. Park’s short essay in the Salt Lake Tribune shows a brief snapshot of the political alliance between Mormons and Evangelicals and how that has eroded parts of our democratic processes.

“But the Faustian bargain that the Mormons and evangelicals made with the GOP has now led them to hold deeply ironic political positions.”

***

Nicholas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” Norton (2020, 2nd edition).

I was introduced to The Shallows by one of my undergraduate professors. I read some of it that semester, but it didn’t come to forefront of my attention until I started thinking about my interaction with the internet and particularly social media in relation to my desire to be a professor. Carr’s book may be a little old—the first edition was published in 2010—but much of what he says is prevalent and predictive of what has happened with the internet and to our attention spans and memory.

I returned to Carr’s 2020 edition of the book, in which he added more engagement with internet-enabled phones and social media. His basic argument is that the internet is causing our thinking to become shallow because it replaces our organic memory with a technologic one. Because of this replacement, our brain doesn’t do the same work as it used to and thus cannot create the same pathways that it did before the internet. While I do not agree with the sentiment that we should not just do away with the internet (Carr does not either), it does put into perspective and help one to think about how the internet as a tool is changing our humanity.

“Every tool imposes limitations even as it opens possibilities. The more we use it, the more we mold ourselves to its form and function.” (209)

“It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.” (116)

Fall 2020 Reading Circles

As we enter this Fall of our Discontent (or Content?), I have created new Reading Circles that I hope will help bring out more people to read and to discuss. These Reading Circles begin in late September / early October and go through November. All of the Reading Circles will be through Zoom or other video calling technology.

Dates and times are provided at the bottom of each introduction to the Circle, along with a weekly syllabus. Times are provided for the major North American time zones; please note that this is for brevity and not exclusion. If you are not in those time zones and feel you can make the Reading Circle, please apply. I hope these Circles can be robust and dynamic in the views and experiences that people bring to the table.

Gender, Sexuality, and Faith: Transgender Histories and Theologies

The Gender, Sexuality, and Faith Reading Circle will be turning from Mormonism, gender, and sexuality, to thinking deeply about how to theologize and sanctify bodies of all type.

In order to love others, as disciples of Christ are asked to do, we must understand other people—their experiences, their perspectives, their histories, and their theologies. All of these are in plural forms because one person does not represent, indeed cannot be representative of, all people collected and organized into our various spectrums of identities. Furthermore, in order to understand people, everyone must do their part to create welcoming and nourishing (not just accepting) environments, places in which people feel comfortable and safe sharing their selves.

As an attempt at thinking deeply through lay theology in a group, the Gender, Sexuality, and Faith Reading Circle invites you to apply for a six-week reading group that will read through Susan Stryker’s Transgender History and various articles on the intersections of transgender studies and theology. Together, we will discuss how to theologize the trans* body as a heavenly and celestial part of the body of Christ. I envision this group will focus on Christian doctrine and theology broadly (although, knowing my own background and my personal social media reach, it will most likely favor Latter-day Saint theology).

Each week, we will read a chapter of Transgender History and pair it with an article in a large umbrella of transgender theology (being theological works by or about transgender people).

Members of the Reading Circle will need to obtain a copy of Transgender History (second edition), but the articles will be provided through Dropbox.

Sundays, October 4, 2020 to November 8, 2020
Pacific time: 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Mountain time: 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Central time: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Eastern time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Week 1: Introductions | Marcella Althaus-Reid, “Outing Theology: Thinking Christianity out of the Church Closet.”

Week 2: Chp. 1 Contexts, Concepts, and Terms | Susannah Cornwall, “Intersex and Transgender People,” Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality, and Gender

Week 3: Chp. 2 A Hundred-Plus Years of Transgender History | Christina Hutchins, “Holy Ferment: Queer Philosophical Destabilizations and the Discourse on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Lives in Christian Institutions.”

Week 3: Chp. 3 Trans Liberation | Kelly Kraus, “Queer Theology: Reclaiming Christianity for the LGBT Community.”

Week 4: Chp. 4 The Difficult Decades | Susannah Cornwall, “Recognizing the Full Spectrum of Gender? Transgender, Intersex and the Futures of Feminist Theology.”

Week 5: Chp. 5 The Millennial Wave | Elyse J. Raby, “‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’: A Theology of Creation and Divine Action in Light of Intersex.”

Week 6: Chp. 6 The Tipping Point? | Dawne Moon and Theresa W. Tobin, “Sunsets and Solidarity: Overcoming Sacramental Shame in Conservative Christian Churches to Forge a Queer Vision of Love and Justice” | Conclusions

Apply here.

Founding Potentials and Philosophies of the American Project

As we enter a new voting season, it is an excellent time to return to the founding documents of the American project in order to discuss, analyze, and interrogate the principles upon which the United States of America were founded.

The founding documents we will be working with each week will be the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederacy, United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, and all 85 Federalist papers.

Instead of discussing current trends in politics, whether progressive, conservative, or liberal, this group will focus on the principles and philosophies implanted in the actual documents, discussing what they say rather than how they have interpreted since being written. In this effort, we will be doing our own interpretations, but my hope is to have the time and space to talk about what the documents actually say and what those words mean—positively and negatively.

Members of the Reading Circle will be able to use these texts in whatever form they have. Personally, I will be using online versions for the first two weeks and then reading from the Penguin Classics edition of The Federalist Papers. Various forms of these publications are welcome, though, since other publishing houses provide different footnotes and insights into the text that members of the group can bring to the Reading Circle.

Saturdays, September 19, 2020 to October 31, 2020
Pacific time: 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Mountain time: 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Central time: 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
Eastern time: 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Week 1: Introductions, Declaration of Independence

Week 2: Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution

Week 3: Federalist 1–22

Week 4: Federalist 23–46

Week 5: Federalist 47–66

Week 6: Federalist 67–85

Week 7: Conclusion

Apply here. All Hamilton references are welcome and encouraged.

SF Studies: Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction

SF is a broad term that encompasses, for me, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other speculative fictions that use other worlds and otherworldly ideas to interrogate the world around us (or the world around which the author lives). The SF Studies Reading Circle will be a series of Reading Circles that look deeply at various texts from SF Studies to discuss them chapter-by-chapter. Signing up for this Reading Circle signs you up to discuss our first book, John Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

One of the founding studies in SF studies, Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction engages with 19th- and 20th-century science fiction and its relationship to colonialism and imperialism. It looks at the founding of the genre (if one can consider SF having a certain founding) and how it was affected by the cultural conventions of the day.

Members of the Reading Circle will need to obtain a copy of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.

Wednesdays, October 7, 2020 to November 11, 2020
Pacific time: 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Mountain time: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Central time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Eastern time: 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Week 1: Introduction

Week 2: Chapter 1: Introduction: The Colonial Gaze and the Frame of Science Fiction

Week 3: Chapter 2: Fantasies of Appropriation: Lost Race and Discovered Wealth

Week 4: Chapter 3: Dramas of Interpretation

Week 5: Chapter 4: Artificial Humans and the Construction of Race

Week 6: Chapter 5: Visions of Catastrophe | Conclusion

Apply here.

CFP: Mormonism and SF, SFRA Review

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.

Ether 12:4

I am rather thrilled to announce that I will be editing a selection of essays for SFRA Review (51.3, summer 2021) on Mormonism and SF. The full CFP can be found here.

The essays are meant to be a broad look into the intersections of Mormonism and SF, both terms used in their broadest of sense. Essays can be academic in nature or thought-provoking in intent. My hope is to provide the Science Fiction Research Association community with an introductory look into this very important intersection because Mormonism and science fiction, fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction have always walked hand-in-hand, as Mormons/Latter-day Saints have dreamt of a better world now and other worlds in the future—even worlds that they might be able to create and populate one day.

Abstracts aren’t due until March 1, 2021, so I’ll be sharing this more often when that comes around. But I figured I’d let it be on everyone’s radar.

Published: Dialogue Book Report #4: Recent books on LGBTQ issues and Mormonism

In June, I was able to record a podcast with two of my favorite scholars on Mormonism, Jaclyn Foster and Conor Hilton. The podcast is through Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. We discussed Latter-day Saint books that intersect with LGBTQ+ topics and had a great discussion.

Check it out at Dialogue’s website: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/podcasts/dialogue-book-report-4-recent-books-on-lgbtq-issues-and-mormonism/?fbclid=IwAR3fOw0dE0NJib4SGluMiv62Ud5zsYoMGYVqdvUIhC8PqmZ43J7rLdZl4mU

Reading Circles

Over the last few weeks, I have been considering how best to engage the world amidst the many things that are happening. I am happy to announce that I will be running three Reading Circles over the next few months.

A Reading Circle is a group of people who gather together to discuss a text in depth. It’s a little more intense than most reading groups, but not as nearly intense as a graduate seminar. The point of the Reading Circle is, yes, to read, but also to circle about in a conversation that makes us uncomfortable and engaged.

These Reading Circles will have three goals:

  1. To read a text. We live in a crazy busy world, one where most people don’t feel they have the time to read. As such, Reading Circles take a book and separate it out into a chapter a week, or discuss shorter works in conversation with each other.
  2. To discuss a topic by beginning, not ending, a conversation. Reading can be great; discussion and reading can be even better. The hope of these Reading Circles is to create an online space to talk about what was just read and how it specifically speaks to you and the community around you. Reading Circles are meant to begin conversation and discussion and to never be the end of it.
  3. To form community. I do not believe reading is just an individual activity. Even when you read a book, you are still interacting intimately with the thoughts of the person who wrote on the page. As such, these Reading Circles are a way to actively participate in reading by engaging with the text on your own and then bringing those engagements to a meeting that allows you to think critically, while having your own thinking critically questioned.

Reading Circles will occur online through video chat and be capped at fifteen participants.

The three Reading Circles I will be running are described as follows:

Gender, Sexuality, and Faith

In this Reading Circle, we will read Taylor Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism over the course of nine weeks, beginning July 19 and ending September 13. It will meet on Sundays from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Petrey’s Tabernacles of Clay has been groundbreaking in its assessment of how gender and sexuality has been viewed by the institutional leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tracking the growth of the theology and teachings within the Church, Petrey charts the course of the understanding of homosexuality, gender variance, and queerness to show us that these identities and performances are more malleable in Mormon and Latter-day Saint theology than they may seem at first glance.

To join this Reading Circle, please sign up here.

Mormonism, White Supremacy, and Me

In this Reading Circle, we will read Joanna Brooks’s Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence over the course of nine weeks, beginning July 22 and ending September 16. It will meet on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Joanna Brooks’s Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence came at a crucial time in America. As the United States grapples with the racist history of being built on the backs of enslaved people, how will we respond to our own personal history? This Reading Circle will discuss, over the course of nine weeks, each chapter in Brooks’s book, delving deep into what her historical efforts mean for us personally as we come to acknowledge the racist history of the Church and chart a path forward.

Sign up for this Reading Circle.

Omelas, Um-Helat, and the United States

In this Reading Circle, we will read two short stories and discuss them on July 25 at 11 a.m. Mountain. It will be capped at fifteen participants.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a haunting reminder that whatever we build as a society, we must build it on top of something. A short philosophical story, “Omelas” reminds us that community and utopian drive always come at a cost.

N. K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a spiritual sequel to Le Guin’s meditation, considering a different option that Le Guin offered in response to discovering uncomfortable and disheartening foundational secrets of the world.

As we learn more about what surrounds us, we must come to large and consequential decisions that affect us, those around us, and those who will come after us. In our world today, as more conversations and discussions about our countries and communities occur, we will need to be able to face these issues head on. This Reading Circle will look at Omelas and Um-Helat in relation to the United States, specifically, and what is happening in this country in the current moment. As we learn more about the wrongs that occur every day, how will we respond? Join us as we discuss these topics through two excellent meditations on the subject.

Whereas the other two Reading Circles cover books, this Reading Circle will only occur once to discuss the two short stories. Sign up for this discussion here.

Reading Circles in the Future

There will be more Reading Circles in the future. Please sign up for email updates from my website (on bar to the left) to find out about more of them!

A Sunflower Reflection; or, On My Fears of Forgiveness

As a murderer lies dying, the representative of the murdered hears his confession. In essence, it is a double confession: words spoken from the mouth of the Nazi of the atrocities committed during his reign as superhuman; thoughts reflected upon in the mind of the Jew of the atrocities committed during his imprisonment as subhuman (37). The story, encapsulated in the book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal, is a philosophical and theological reflection related to the Holocaust, specifically, and humanity, generally. Being in a course on the Holocaust and the Churches this semester, I was assigned to read it this week, and as I am a writer, I wanted to essay through some thoughts on the matter.

The book itself is the narrator’s wrestle with his response to a dying SS man who asks for his—and, hinted at, subsequently all Jews, or perhaps the Jews the SS man has murdered—forgiveness. The narrator does not respond to the man to offer his forgiveness, but he does sit with the dying man to hear his confession. The text wrestles with the narrator’s response. The final question Wiesenthal places before the reader comes at the close of the story: “You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’” (98).

In approaching this question, I’ve thought about it through the frame of the various identities that make up one Adam James McLain. I thought of the murders of Mormons, both to them and by them. I thought of Stonewall and queer liberation, the lives lost. I thought of indigenous genocide at the hands of a land of freedom. I thought of atrocities caused through wars that I have, inevitably and inadvertently, supported. I thought of electroshock and conversion therapy in all its pernicious forms. I thought of suicides of queer youths, blood spilled at the feet of God. Framing it in this way allowed me to picture myself on both sides: that of the murderer and that of the murdered. This is, of course, not to say that my own identity or my own experiences supersede those that occurred to the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that I am attempting at something that is impossible—understanding—but I hope the attempt in and of itself is enough to help me in my sphere of influence grow.

My answer to the question is that I fear that I would offer forgiveness to the murderer as he lay dying.

I am afraid of this reaction because of the perceived charity I think I hold toward other human beings. I am a creature who does not like others to be uncomfortable; I tend toward appeasing those around me so everyone is taken care of. I want all to be satiated and cared for, even at the cost to my own well-being. As such, I worry that my internalized drive to make sure everyone around me is all right would urge me to forgive him.

But even more, I fear my response of forgiveness because I am not sure I should offer forgiveness because of three thoughts on the matter:

1. I am not representative of the people who have died. In life, when they could assign this office to me, they did not have the opportunity; so who am I to represent them in absolving someone of the actions committed? (This is dealt with in the text through the narrator’s friend Josek, [65].)

2. I am not sure, and probably never will be entirely positive, that someone who commits atrocities like murder should ever be forgiven—let alone absolved—of those actions. 

2a. When I was an active participant inside Christianity, I was told over and over again that God is who we should leave to judge those who commit sins such as murder (see Genesis 9:6; Exodus 20:13; Matthew 19:18; Alma 39:5–6; D&C 42:18, 79). However, I think this is a tactic of denial that allows a person to set aside wicked acts of fellow human beings and remove from themselves their life and conscious because of the level of difficulty required to think through our societal reactions to these types of actions. I hope, as I continue my life and career, to be able to form responses to terrible atrocities so we, as a society, can move toward a justice that can never be completely whole, but is utterly necessary for the prospect of healing and growth. That requires, though, for all of us to think deeply, ponder profusely, and determine rightly the best—not simply the most righteous—choices. 

(Wiesenthal deals briefly with this question: “But ere long priests, philanthropists, and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis. Most of these altruists had probably never even had their ears boxed, but nevertheless found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions. The priests said indeed that the criminals would have to appear before the Divine Judge and that we could therefore dispense with earthly verdicts against them, which eminently suited the Nazis’ book. Since they did not believe in God they were not afraid of Divine Judgment. It was only earthly justice that they feared” [85, my emphasis].)

3. I am not sure how a level of repentance and forgiveness could be reached to ever provide atonement for those who have passed; I do not believe that level can be reached on a deathbed; as such, I am not sure I should cheat those who have passed by providing forgiveness. Wiesenthal states that “forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision” (98). Forgiveness is an act; but so is repentance and the seeking of forgiveness. Action, volition, on both parties’ account, is required, and I am just not sure what form of action could inspire a level of repentance that could provide forgiveness to one who has murdered.

Many of these thoughts, as I strive to constantly say, are not final. Even a published book is never the final word on a subject. As such, I will continue to think on these thoughts, and I hope you can join with me in thinking.

Published: Review of Is He Nuts?

For the book I’m writing, I’m preparing a massive annotated bibliography on a lot of things dealing with Latter-day Saint/Mormon issues, theology, and spirituality. As such, I get the privilege of reading a ton of books. On some of them, I’ll be writing reviews.

I read Is He Nuts? Why a Gay Man Would Become a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ recently and wrote a review that the Association for Mormon Letters picked up.

You can check it out at this URL: http://associationmormonletters.org/blog/reviews/current-reviews/schleicher-is-he-nuts-reviewed-by-adam-mclain/