Because I think it helps Americans to understand their religion's history -- and, more broadly -- the history of religion in the United States, this weekend I want to take note of the murder on June 27, 1844, of Joseph Smith (depicted here), founder of the Mormon church, known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On that date 165 years ago, Smith and his brother Hyrum were dragged from jail by what is called an angry mob (is there any other kind of mob?) in Carthage, Ill., and shot. The Smiths had been arrested by non-Mormons on charges of immorality. What was the immorality? Smith said polygamy for Mormons was approved by God.
I won't go into lots of details about Smith's life and death here, but I can suggest a book I've read a lot about but haven't yet read -- Joseph Smith, Rough Rolling Stone, by Richard Lyman Bushman.
Rather, I want to suggest you think about mob psychology and rigid religious certitude. Clearly Smith made other believe that he felt certain God had called him to, as he would have said, restore the true church of Christ to earth. At the same time, members of the mob that hauled him out of jail and did him in no doubt felt certain that they were doing the Lord's work in ridding the planet of a heretic.
How are we to judge such things? In what reliable ways can we do what the New Testament says and "test the spirits" to see whether they are of God? How can we remain true to our religious convictions while at the same time reserving some space for the reality that we are finite human beings with finite understandings and cannot possibly know the full mind of God?
I wish I had exhaustive and convincing answers for all such questions. My own approach is to try my inadequte best to remember this admonition from the old Hebrew prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?" And to try to couple that with what Jesus, harkening back to Leviticus, called the two great commandments, to love God and to love neighbor. Somehow it seems to me that walking humbly and loving God and neighbor would prevent one from thinking he is deputized by God to pull a man out of jail and shoot him.
* * *
VENTURA, Calif. -- Life has been a little crazy for Steve Lopez (pictured here), the Los Angeles Times columnist whose book The Soloist has become a major motion picture.
He's had tons of speaking engagements and other responsibilities, including staying in touch with Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless musician about whom he first wrote a column and who became the subject of the book and movie. The last time I saw Steve was in 2004 when he won our National Society of Newspaper Columnists' lifetime achievement award -- based on his work before the book and movie. He returned to the NSNC's conference here yesterday and spoke to us about what he's learned since then and about the role of columnists in the future.
And when he said about us columnists, "All that we've got going for us are stories," I thought about the reality that, in one important sense, that's all religions have going for them. That is, religions tell stories -- profoundly important stories. Read the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, and you'll see a pattern of repeated stories of the exodus -- all as a way of telliing people who God is. Read the New Testament and you'll find story after story -- essentially with the same message, which is that God is our rescuer, our redeemer, the one who leads us out of our wildernesses.
Steve urged us columnists to "look for real stories. It's the only thing that's going to save us." He didn't mean that in a theological sense but, rather, in the sense of the work of columnists as they struggle the stay alive in a newspaper industry that's undergoing rapid and disconcerting change.
For just a brief taste of Steve's words to us, click on this link:
Later in the day, W. Bruce Cameron, originally from the Kansas City area and author of Eight Simple Rules for Marrying My Daughter, told us that "I've just always believed in my ability to write a story."
So stories engage us. They find our hearts and teach us how our hearts are connected to the hearts of others. And in many ways, that's the way religions use stories. It was good to be reminded of that yesterday.
* * *
NOTE: Until Tuesday, June 30, my Internet access may be limited and/or sporadic, so a long time may go by before I can publish any comments you leave here. Thanks for your patience. I'll eventually get to them. Bill.