How do you treat your neighbor? Who is your neighbor?
In the Good Book, in one of the most famous and familiar scriptures anywhere, as spoken by the Son of Man himself, it reads: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
There. I have broken two personal rules of journalism right from the start in this column. 1) Don’t lead with a question, let alone two. 2) Don’t lead with anything that sounds like a preachy sacrament meeting talk.
For those who don’t roll that way, this whole thing gets more applicable and practical, gritty at a ground level from here on out.
Considering and giving heed to the above quote is key to being a “good Christian” — if that’s what you want to be.
If it’s not what you want to be, if religion with all of its scriptural codes is not your thing at all, the back half remains a solid way to live: treating others with love. And if love is too big of an ask — and it is for me sometimes — then with respect and decency.
It’s especially important in this particular community, where there is such a heavy presence from a single faith, so many followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When there is such a heavy presence — particularly when a tenet of that presence is the claim of possession of more truth than any and every other church on God’s green earth, a sanction of singular authority from on high — there can be … how do you say it? … um, a dividing effect.
Elitism, especially mixed with worship, has that tendency, rallying the faithful with attitude around a special cause, a select group, separating the believing from the unbelieving, the chosen from the unchosen, the clean from the unclean. Wars have been fought over lines drawn around righteousness, tangling up people on both sides of those lines, over these kinds of differences, these kinds of divisions.
And that’s the opposite of what the Big Man was getting at, as recorded in Matthew.
So who’s your neighbor?
It’s not just the dude who lives next door, the one who borrowed your hedger last summer and never returned it, the one whose tree keeps dropping leaves all over your lawn and never rakes them up, the one who’s a busybody, always prying into your private matters.
No. It’s everyone who does dumb things. And we all do, so it’s every … one. Regardless of what church people go to, what belief system they have or don’t have, what team they root for, what school they went to, what political party they’re a part of, what news network they watch.
It doesn’t matter if they cordially invite you over for a beautiful backyard barbecue or if they have a flock of pink plastic flamingos or a rusting ‘66 Plymouth Duster on blocks in their front yard. Doesn’t matter if they’re Catholic or Methodist or Jewish or Muslim or Something Else, if they’re Latter-day Saint or ex-LDS or Nothing At All.
Love is the answer — or, at some level, basic human dignity and decency. Close enough.
Our community divide
One of the more surprising elements of moving some 30 years ago to Utah, where Latter-day Saint influence is so much more evident than it is in other places I’ve lived — East Coast, West Coast and Europe — has been the community divide here.
I’ve made no empirical study of it. But in conversations with and observations of residents in our state who are not of the predominant faith, more than a few feel oppressed and ignored or something in between. A good friend of mine who is not of that faith complained to me a year or so after we moved here that his kids were prevented from playing with kids in a Latter-day Saint family, by instruction from those kids’ parents.
Disbelief was my initial reaction. I’d never heard of such an awful restriction. But it happened. And it happened again, all these years later, just a couple of months ago, with different kids in a different family, friends of mine, a family that had left the Latter-day Saint faith, and the children suddenly were no longer allowed to hang with kids, their former friends, in an LDS family.
Bizarre. If I’m judging those who harshly judge others, so be it.
I’ve known other friends, nonbelievers, who feel compromised and left out in social settings and in their places of employment. And don’t get me started on some of the morality moves that pass as legislation in and out of the Latter-day Saint-dominated Utah Legislature, which sometimes overwhelms minority views and voices.
These, of course, are actions — in the view from this corner — of the narrow-minded and ignorant and arrogant, actions of the paranoid. Fanaticism and exclusivism and elitism gone wild. Sometimes, it just goes mild. But it still exists.
Thing is, it goes both ways.
Latter-day Saints aren’t the only ones sporting attitude at times.
I’ve spoken with and been with more than a few folks in our community outside the Latter-day Saint tradition who are harsh and hardheaded, as well, extreme in their own thinking. They lack tolerance. Some angrily ridicule believers, insulting their intelligence because they exhibit bits and pieces of faith.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even though anger, suspicion, ridicule likely will never be extinguished, they can be diminished with understanding and compassion.
What that Jesus fella was teaching, as one of his two most significant commandments.
Those within the Latter-day Saint faith, or any other faith, or no faith, but especially those who consider themselves followers of Christ, at least the one revealed in the New Testament, can and maybe even should go ahead and share their innermost feelings with others, but they would be better served themselves and better examples for all by not lashing out, by not swinging that hammer of faith, by not embracing and relishing their own ways with such vigor, by not devaluing — intentionally or otherwise — anyone else.
By not being quite so exceptional.
By not being so weird.
‘A peculiar people’
There’s a word that’s been celebrated among some Latter-day Saints for years. Peculiar. That’s what they see themselves as, in the best sense.
That term is written in verse in a number of scriptural locations, but most famously in the King James Version of the Bible in 1 Peter 2:9, which refers to believers being “a peculiar people.”
An alternative translation/definition of that expression, though, indicates that peculiar in this instance doesn’t mean strange, it means something that belongs, as in a people that belong to God.
Either way, Latter-day Saint leaders have at various times made peculiar out to be a kind of proud calling card. Members do it, too.
We’re different from everyone else because we have the truth and we have the courage to live according to it. As for all you other folks, well, sorry. We’re weird, we’re righteously weird, you’re not. Sucks for you.
It’s the amplification and glorification of being different and separate, of being special, of being chosen, zealously so.
Some 80 years ago, apostle John Widtsoe said, “The most peculiar thing about the Latter-day Saints — so it seems to our weak generation — is that its members have the courage to live up to their beliefs in the face of adverse practices. The Latter-day Saint rejoices in his larger and more complete knowledge and in the privilege of using this knowledge for his good. … Such courage makes of us a peculiar people.”
That courage extends, from time to time, beyond one’s own personal behavior, to attempts in policy and procedures and preachments to persuade and prod others to comply as well.
Some sensible Latter-day Saints hold most of the faith’s principles dear, but they do not want to be so peculiar. Former members who have turned away, in addition to followers of other faiths, don’t want to be this version of peculiar at all.
They want to connect with deity and with their fellow travelers. They do not want to separate themselves or make themselves special. They want to include strangers, not exclude them, to see and seek commonalities and connections with the human family.
Maybe all Latter-day Saints can fall in line with that idea. Invite everyone around here into a tent big and broad enough to make room for and accept and celebrate one and all. Suh-weet. Follow your faith, do your thing, allow others to do the same.
On the flip side, whoever has no faith, wants no religion, seeks no connection to God, doesn’t believe in God, can do those believers a solid by letting them be. No arrogance, no exclusivism, no self-righteousness or self-congratulation, no aggression — in any direction.
Nothing wrong with disagreement. Nothing wrong with a good argument and with standing firm, especially on the issues of the day. Nothing wrong with dissenting views. But decency can coexist with all of that.
Love is a fairly comprehensive word. Volumes have been written on that subject. But it’s easy to believe that the being whose name is on the marquee of the state’s predominant faith knew what he was saying when he used it as written in Matthew.
Love God. Love your neighbor. It’s used in the same context, upward and outward.
He didn’t say, “Love your neighbor — as long as he or she thinks like you, believes like you, goes to the ward like you, worships like you, avoids worship like you, votes like you, acts like you, looks like you.”
Faithfulness in a religion and lack of faithfulness in the same can both flourish, indeed, without wearing them, using them, like badges of honor, like declarations of superiority.
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