Sunday, January 4, 2009

Blessed are they which are persecuted...

Mormons like Martyrs. The core of Mormonism both preached and practiced is in this aesthetic of persecution and victimhood. While not precisely masochistic, still there is a certain longing for pain, for unjust assault and unfair reviling, a lust for the refiner’s fire. With longing we look back to the pioneers, the ones who were falsely accused, driven from their homes, beaten, and murdered. Those were the glory days of the Church, when the True Saints sought to establish Zion in the city of Babylon.

The terrible plight of the Mormons in the early to mid nineteenth century finds its mirror in the Mormon construction of ancient history and their fundamental doctrine of the Great Apostasy. Mormons hold that Jesus Christ personally established the pure form of His Church while on the earth. The apostles and early bishops valiantly defended the church against the aggression of the Romans and against internal corruption and dissent. They gave their lives; they suffered for the testimony of Christ. And then the Church fell. With the death of the apostles, it became corrupt; false Christians usurped authority, preached false doctrines, and transformed the Church into a Den of Thieves.

Then in 1820, God appeared to Joseph Smith, revealing that all Christian churches preached untrue doctrines and that their sacraments held no salvific power. Joseph Smith was to establish the True Church. And thus the story of Mormonism begins. And a pattern emerges.

The Mormons were persecuted; they fought strenuously for the right to worship according to their own doctrines and were scourged, murdered, and driven into the western desert. They embodied the same suffering aesthetic that characterized their own telling of Christian history. They became the martyrs, valiantly fighting for Christ against the legions of Satan. And there was internal dissent, rampant apostasy, and the usurpation of power. And Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood. All according to plan. This was proof that here were God’s chosen people. This was proof that Christ’s Church had returned.

But eventually, perhaps unfortunately, the persecution stopped. And that is the dilemma of modern Mormonism. Are they still God’s chosen people if they cannot give their very lives to the cause of Christ? There too is a parallel in the ancient church, but an uncomfortable one. Eventually Christianity became legal and the persecution stopped and there were no more martyrs. How then did Christians define themselves if they could not suffer as Christ suffered? There were solutions proposed: asceticism, monasticism, mysticism, self-mortification, self-imposed poverty—all intent on the imitatio Christi. Self-martyrdom became the new aesthetic of the truly saintly, and those who endured the greatest (albeit self-imposed) suffering became the new saints, the new martyrs, the new soldiers for Christ. But these were on the fringe, and most Christians contented themselves by declaring that the kingdom of God had been established and there was no more need for martyrdom.

And so Mormons find themselves in a similar position. The kingdom of God has been established by the blood of the pioneers and there is no more need for martyrs. But when this happened anciently, the Mormons called it the Great Apostasy, the founding of the Church of the Devil, the Whore of Babylon. And the irony is not entirely lost on Mormons. They too crave the suffering of the early pioneers, seeing it as an imitatio Christi. The celebration of the pioneers is central to Mormon teachings and they seek desperately to turn modern struggles into metaphors of the physical hardships of the early saints. But sometimes it is hard to construct metaphors that don’t take on the form of parody.

So the Mormons celebrate tribulation, they glory in trials and pains and hardships, for it brings them closer to those ancient Martyrs, closer to Christ. Like the mystics, they seek for that dark night, for the stigmata to appear in the hands and feet, to suffer all that the name of Christ might be glorified in them, that they might be transformed into True Saints. In many ways they crave persecution. They divide the world into Us and Them, proudly wearing the name “Peculiar People.” They await the day with eager anticipation when Babylon shall descend upon the Saints of God and there will be new martyrs. And any who dare leave Mormonism are instantly labeled apostates, traitors, revilers and persecutors of the children of God. It is a grim irony that Mormon cosmology demands these very apostates, and thus is so eager to create them.

Hence the lust for the refiner’s fire. And I lusted after it, seeking pain, seeking glory in pain. I saw my “burden” of homosexuality as a gift from God to allow me to become one of His suffering saints. I spoke of it always in terms of the Crucifixion or of the Bleeding Savior in Gethsemane. Here was my bitter cup, my bloody cross. I would die for Christ and be taken up in Him. I would crucify the flesh and ascend unto the Father. I would be a martyr.

But somewhere along the way it stopped making sense, or perhaps the pain outpaced my ability to bear it. Perhaps I simply felt I could not drink that Bitter Cup, that I was unworthy to be crucified in imitation of my God. I think the crux was when I realized the impossibility of the task. I could not burn out the “gay” part of me without killing myself. For I was gay, and gay was me. It was and is an integral part of my identity, my way of conceiving the cosmos. It was my identity. And when I had realized that, I realized that I don’t want to be, I cannot be any different than I am. I want to take this with me into the next life, I must take it with me, if any part of me is to live beyond the grave. Without it, I am not.

I stand back in horror now. For I stood on the brink of martyrdom, not comprehending that it was really suicide, that the nails were real, that the cross was real, that death was real, that my soul would die. And that was when I gave up my dream of martyrdom, and without that I wasn’t truly Mormon anymore. But I suppose I make a good apostate.


  1. Your insights are incisive, my friend. Thank you for sharing. I wonder, though, whether you might not be applying your own particular view of Mormonism across too broad a spectrum. I happen to know a few Mormons who don't yearn for martyrdom. In a way, though, most Christian men such as I probably suffer the same as most Mormon men: we're just bored (cf. John Eldridge, "Wild at Heart").

  2. Wow. A wonderful post, and I agree with everything about the general trajectories of the church in both eras. While I don't think we yearn for any sort of martyrdom today that would be physically painful or even inconvenient, we still have a strong cultural streak that makes us see worldly persecution as proof that we are God's Chosen People.

    And like you, I too have finally realized that I don't think I would change that particular part of myself even if I could. I can't imagine being "me" without it.