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/

In Which Adam Reveals Some of the Ways He Organizes His Life

I do a lot to organize the hazard of activity that is my life. I use four different apps (sometimes more), various notebooks, and a whiteboard. It’s a lot to manage and (let’s be honest) mismanage when it comes to juggling full-time work, full-time school, and personal research and writing projects. I wouldn’t have my life any other way though (okay, maybe add in a dog… maybe another human being… but only one of those is under my full control and currently not feasible in the flux of soon-to-graduate and seeking-future-positions mode that I’m in).

My whiteboard for this week.

The whiteboard is for a week-by-week quick look at the things I need to do. As you can see, I’ve partitioned my life into six different units. The first three—Sex, Gender, Sexuality; Women, Religion, Agency; Holocaust—are the three courses I’m in this semester. They mostly have readings due. The Data Science unit is an online certificate I’m getting through Harvard EdX. The Writing + Conferences is various chapters/parts of chapters I need to write, research I need to do for articles and conference presentations, and other things I need to do to prepare for those (I’ve averaged 2–3 conferences a semester while getting my master’s degree, so it’s become a lifeblood of my activity). The Other is for language learning, things I need to do around the house, people I need to get back with (so many emails that I still haven’t sent), and anything else that pops up like job applications and other activities.

Screenshot of my 2Do desktop app

2Do is my main app that keeps everything organized for a semester or a project. It’s basically my giant, all-encompassing checklist. As you can see in the image, I have three core groups—Classes, Work, and Projects—that have various lists under them. I place everything from the syllabus for each class into the Classes section and assign due dates, which keeps me organized for a semester. The Work and Projects groups create lists of things that I need to do to finish various work and personal projects.

In addition, I use Tags to generally track the part of a reading (if there are multiple chapters) and other things within the groups. As you can see from the image above, I’m not strict with this, but that’s one of my cardinal rules of planning: don’t force it. Right now, tags in 2Do aren’t my thing, but they could be in a week or two days.

Reminders app, GoodTask app, Calendar app, and 2Do (all desktop versions)

I took this one from my mission. Every week, I do two weekly planning sessions: Monday night and Thursday night. Monday is to plan for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; Thursday is to plan for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.

In these sessions, I use the 2Do app to see everything I need to do and then I bring that into my Reminders app to assign an hour each day for the next few days to an assignment. In tandem with the Reminders app, I use the GoodTask app, which brings together my Calendar and Reminders apps to show me what I have assigned when. This is so I don’t assign something when I have class or work. This is also key because I assign a time to each of the items in my 2Do app, and then it pops up on my phone and reminds me to do something or other.

I also do nightly planning sessions, just in case anything needs to change for the next day. These are usually around 8 p.m., so I can do that, journal, and turn off my screens quickly. I also try to read for pleasure for thirty minutes to an hour every night (currently enjoying lesbian necromancers in space, a.k.a. Gideon the Ninth). I turn on my sleep story around 9–9:30 p.m. and go to bed, to wake up around 3 a.m. and head to the gym. (My daily, monastic lifestyle will probably be a different blog post someday.)

March 2020 habit tracker

In addition to apps, I track habits in my journal. I got this idea from Victoria Schwab, and I really enjoy doing it. Basically, you write out the month, and then you write out things you would like to do every day (but don’t necessarily have to be done every day). These are daily accomplishments so if ever I get discouraged I can look back and see that I’ve been working on my habits, even if I’m 100 pages behind on my reading.

So, for example, if I even read a little bit for class (no matter how much), I still mark it as complete for the day. I usually do check on all this at the end of the day when I journal some thoughts out.

It’s all a juggle, but that’s how I’m doing it right now. I change up every year (few months) or so, as I learn and try out new techniques. I think that’s a key thing to me: none of this is binding. Knowing that helps me be able to creatively flex and be malleable when it comes to various life circumstances.

On Christian Theology, a Continuous Reflection on Potential

Every morning I walk by a United Methodist Church on my way to the gym. The building is of the gothic variety, investing itself in awe and wonder and power and history. This Christmas past they set up a cut out of the nativity scene. As I walked by this morning, the scene was still set up, presenting the continuous message of peace the Child heralds. Not yet Christ, not quite God, just infant, the Child, like Christianity itself, holds wondrous potential.

Because of the sober winter Boston has felt this year, I saw a pile of melting snow off to the side of the Child. Gray. White. Brown. Melting. The snow seemed as if it could be symbolic of the way Christianity seems to be receding from the public. Active participation in Christian religion in general, as Pew and other sources have reported on numerous times, is dwindling. For various reasons, people are not finding fulfillment and joy in the pews of Christian churches. With such great potential, Christianity, sadly, is losing many devotees.

This blog post is not meant to be a reflection on the reasons people are vacating churches. Those reasons are legion and are mainly personal. Also, I’m not a social scientist, so I don’t look at the movements and motivations of people.

I am a literary theorist. And as such, I like to see the potential of words. It’s something that attracts me to study of theology itself, rather than the study of religion. Theology, for me, is the belief of God and all that follows that belief as written in words and given to a community of believers. Those words hold potential.

So, even as Christian activity devolves like the melting snow, its theology, the ideal words as delivered by people thinking deeply about God and belief, can be read and the potential, like the Child in the manger, can be seen.

Thousands of human years have been spent thinking, considering, ruminating, and theologizing what Christianity, in a broad sense, means. What is the Christian mission and message? Who is able to engage with that mission and message? Writing on that has led to colonization, crusade, and control; but it has also led to love, liberation, and leadership.

How does one balance the scales, on one side the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the Child in the manger, on the other side the goodness that has happened because of that same Child?

I focus on the Child in the manger, rather than the Man on the cross, because the Child is potential, whereas the Man is fulfillment.

Christianity, even though it is waning, still has great potential to do good. And, yes, it still is doing great evil at the same time. I generally do not use the words “good” and “evil” because they establish a moral framework that eliminates some levels and abilities of inquest and inquiry. But here, I’d like to use them because, if viewed through a Christian moral valence, Christianity itself has acted contrary to its moral compass, which can be equated to great evil, while also following its moral compass, which can be the doing of good. The words of theology have led people to act in many different ways, ways that should not be shunted away but rather engaged and overcome.

I see potential in the way that Christianity teaches to focus on loving God and through that loving of God to love neighbors. Love is the four-letter word that I think about most. It’s so ubiquitous and contingent, unifying and divisive. It’s a complicated emotion to be encapsulated in so few letters. But I think, and hope, in general the love of neighbor as funneled through devotion and love of a higher being is a positive force. (John 14:15)

I see potential in the care Christianity urges its practitioners to give to those around it. As Jesus healed, as his apostles and followers healed, the Christian disciple is urged to care. To heal. To mend. To bridge build, instead of wall construct. (James 1:27)

I see potential in the clarion calls to peace make and become family. To give the kingdom to the poor. To fill the hungry and thirsty. To obtain mercy by being merciful. (Matthew 5:3–9)

At the end, I return to the Child in the manger. Even though that Child was God clothed in flesh, he, it, they, was, is, and were new, innocent, filled with potential. That Child had not yet healed the sick. That Child had not yet carried a cross, been spat upon, been used as a political tool. That Child was just a Child, with every need placed upon the parents, at the whim of the world that is so cold and cruel. Christianity may not be a child now, thousands of years is a decent amount of time, but I believe it can think on that potential and reclaim it.

Of Testimony, Revelation, and Story: The Empty Church and the First Vision

Journeys are sacred. We need to listen to and respect other people’s journeys especially when they are not like our own. This is how we learn, friends. This is what spiritual growth looks like. Seeing beyond what’s in your own house.

Mette Ivie Harrison, “What I Still Believe,” in The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to read The Empty Church: Essays and Poetry on a Mormon Sabbatical by Mette Ivie Harrison. This book was beautiful, personal, and wonderful. It was enlightening to read someone going through a faith transition and hear her candid take on the Church, on her own faith, and on her own journey. This wasn’t a story distilled to myth that is shared over the pulpit; it was an individual’s personal interaction with deity written on the page, stark and glowing.

While reading The Empty Church, the Joseph Smith Papers and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a podcast series titled The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. In its six episodes, the podcast provides historical perspective to the oft-quoted (at least in the Church) story, a story that has been distilled into a myth from the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith. Spencer McBride connects historian’s work with reinvigorating and reinvestigating a story that I had the privilege to share countless times during my mission and time in the Church.

Listening to these two stories in tandem led me to think on the concepts of testimony, revelation, and story, and out of those thoughts, this brief blog post was written. Thank you for muddling along with me.

Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, inside and outside of Utah but wholly inside the western United States, I was taught that prophets held authority, given them by God, to receive revelation on behalf of the world. Others were distilled that ecclesiastical authority through priesthood keys granted from the prophet through proper lines of authority, and these people, like a bishop or stake president, were privileged to receive revelation on behalf of the people within their given jurisdiction and assignment. In addition, parents could receive revelation for their children because they held stewardship over them, and individuals were supposed to be able to receive revelation for themselves. It was simple, clear cut, one could draw a line from self to father to bishop to stake president to area seventy to quorum of the twelve to first presidency to prophet to Jesus Christ to Heavenly Father to Grand-God to Great-Grand-God and so on. A never-ending chain of revelatory authority.

However, as I think on and consider revelation, I realize, over and over, that revelation is not, and cannot, be that simple and clear cut though. If it were, I don’t think, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, the Church believed-to-be-established by the first followers of Jesus Christ would have gone away from this planet. It’s the complications and the nuance of revelation that caused that institution to evolve into the great behemoth that we call Christianity or, as I prefer, Christianities.

Revelation is personal. It’s individual. Yes, a prophet holds sway over a large amount that follow the words spoken from the prophet’s mouth, but the revelation a prophet receives, the guidance received, is still funneled through that prophet’s personal experience, the personal view. We cannot divorce his (or her or their or xer, etc.) individuality and individualness from the layer of jurisdiction this individual is given.

Harrison’s work profoundly made me consider this individuality because she engaged with it. Throughout the text, Harrison expresses that revelation (whether her own, the lack of revelation given from leadership, or revelation that did not match her own personal revelation) led her away from the Church. As people who believe in revelation, especially the revelation of a young boy in a grove of trees, Latter-day Saints must give her that due and accept that revelation for one is not revelation for another. I appreciate, especially in this moment of my own intercourse with revelation, Church, and God, that Harrison spent some of her time living on this planet to write a book that engaged with her own individual forms of belief, revelation, story, and vision.

Like Harrison’s text, The First Vision podcast takes us back to an individual receiving individual revelation that others will eventually read, consider, follow, or not follow. Smith, the podcast reminds its listeners, was an individual person, a momentary conscious on this blip of a planet in a vast universe, who received guidance from some divine hand. It takes the listener back to before the atrocities in Missouri, before the gold-digging in New York and Pennsylvania, before the mobs, before the tarring and feathering, before the revelation upon revelation, before the polygamy, before the founding of a Church that grew from six members to over millions, before what we see today as the stalwart and monolithic Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to that boy. Young. In the woods. Wondering.

The First Vision gives the listener what any great historical writing does: an opportunity to interact as if we were in that moment. From podcast episodes about what the Sacred Grove would’ve looked like (ep. 6) to the religious moment of the time, the podcast gives us a different vision, a nuanced story, a testimony within the bounds of history.

I think this is so important to remember when interacting with grand institutions like what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has become (see, for example, the recent conversations around the finances of the Church and learning that it holds, casually, in one account, more money than the endowment of the university at which I attend and more money than many countries combined). It’s important to remember that the leaders of this institution are still people—mostly white, cisgender male, heterosexual, patriarchal, etc.—and that people-ness can sometimes cloud and overshadow and, yes, inform in a positive way the revelation they receive.

The Empty Church fiercely brings the reader into sharp understanding of the leadership’s fallibility, which I believe is important for any agent to be aware of. From questions like “Are we simply enforcing a norm of perfection where everyone looks the same?” (“Towards a More Inclusive Heaven”) and “If Mormon heaven includes eternal progression, how can it not include pain?” (“The Hole”), Harrison interrogates the very same belief she is on sabbatical from and takes time out of her life to provide readers with a vigorous questioning of beliefs that led her away from the comfortable middle of the Latter-day Saint tent to its very edge. I believe that any concerned Latter-day Saint who wants to be more like Jesus and improve their own circle of influence should engage with this book to learn from someone willing to discuss their faith journey out of that circle.

The best thing about listening to this podcast and reading this book at the same time comes as explained in a quote from Harrison’s “The Acorn and the Oak” essay: “We’re a better community when we aren’t just Mormons talking to Mormons.” Both texts broaden, a little, the conversation. Harrison’s text is one of a person exiting the Church, while the First Vision podcast is a historical look into someone creating that very same church she is exiting. Both provide a stark reminder and a sanguine release that has allowed this Mormon-adjacent-esque writer to appreciate roots and anticipate futures.

By Mette Ivie Harrison, PhD
384 pp. Front Porch Press

By Spencer W. McBride, PhD
6 eps. Church Historian’s Press | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

I read The Empty Church in its Kindle format, offered for free as a promotion.

I listened to The First Vision in its Apple Podcasts format.