Fairy Tale Fears

evil_eyes-e1404648004181

I grew up expecting a bit of fear in my stories. All stories would be boring without a sense of anticipation and adventure. And every ounce of that tension was completely worth it because I absolutely knew that there was a payoff in the end, a happy ending. The heroes would definitely triumph, the villains would definitely be defeated (and sometimes killed).

When the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk, Jack chopped it down and the giant perished. The Big Bad Wolf was burned in the chimney, Goldilocks was sent running, Cinderella got the prince, and Frodo threw the ring into the pit. I loved these adventure stories and from my youngest possible age, I began writing my own. I’d plan sequels to my favorite movies, and I knew immediately, as young as ages 2 and 3, that every good hero needed a great villain to face.

I saw these same elements in the scriptures we read together as a family every week. The stories were sometimes deadly, sometimes gruesome, but they always ended with the people of God winning, after periods when it seemed all was lost. Nephi cut off the head of Laban to get the brass plates, and he constantly overcame the terrible things his brothers did to him. Even though no one listened to Noah as he preached to the wicked people, he built the ark and saved the animals and God killed every other human outside Noah’s family with floods. Abraham almost killed Isaac with that knife, but God stopped him at the last possible second, just to teach him the lesson.

And so, as I grew, I saw the world in black and white, in terms of hero versus villain. There were no shades of grey present. I was the hero. My family were the heroes. Mormons and our leaders and those in our history were the heroes. And the villains were bullies and criminals and those who stood against the things of God. It was Jesus on one side, Satan on the other.

But those terms of hero and villain, they applied inwardly as well. When I was good, following the commandments and the things of God, I was the hero, following Jesus. And when I was bad, not listening to the carefully established rules or allowing myself to be tempted, I was bad, there was something wrong with me, and Satan and his followers had a bit of a hold on me. God expected nothing less than perfection, and I realized very early on that that was going to be a big, big problem moving forward.

Even in early childhood, I began to realize that I was not like the kids around me. And it made me… well, afraid. Afraid that I would never be good. And that would mean I would have to pretend to appear good always, even though on the inside I knew I wasn’t. The evidence was all around me. My dad was sad all the time, my mom was stressed all the time. My brother was a bully and sometimes he locked the door of my room and… did things to me. My back hurt every day. I didn’t like the things that other boys did, like sports, instead I liked writing stories, reading, and creating things. And while other boys had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys, and that, I knew, was the worst thing of all.

So if I was born broken, what did that mean? Was I a villain? Was I a flawed hero? Was I inherently bad and trying to be good, or was I so good that God saw it to give me extra challenges so that I could prove to him how good I really was? Could it be possible that I was both, hero and villain, even though since I was born Mormon I was supposed to be just the hero?

It was only later that I realized, perhaps in my late teens, that early childhood was supposed to be consistently about play, and learning about the world with curiosity. I was supposed to learn independence, answer questions about what I wanted to be when I grow up, and to begin learning. Instead, all of those childhood things happened, but under the weight of learning how to hide, how to keep secrets, how to feel broken, and while consistently wondering if I was good, or if I was bad.

As I look back, I realize how much the suspense of stories I was reading, those with the heroes and villains I sometimes hated to love or loved to hate, they allowed me escape. They let me out of my life and into an interior world of fantasy, imagination, and wonder that let me be free, be someone else. The heroes weren’t so complicated, and the villains were easy to identify. In time, that would turn into a deep and abiding long-term love affair with comic books, one that would bring me well into adulthood. Childhood story books turned into Saturday morning cartoons, and those turned into action figures and kids adventure stories.  As a teenager, I developed a love for drama, stories more about human relationships, parenting, and working through trauma. We are always adapting what we love, what we pay attention to, but they all represent escape, full of complex emotions that are not our own.

And all of them full of fear and suspense. But nothing like the fear that I was turning inward on a more constant basis, the fear that I would never be whole, never be healed, never be like the other boys. And it would take me a long time to realize that those very traits, the things that made me me, made me different, those are the very traits that would make me a hero. First, I had a lot of years of feeling like I was the villain.

First, I had to get very good at feeling afraid.

Blood Atonement

blood1

At age 24, as a junior in college in a Social Work Policy class, I was instructed to work on a team with five women on writing a 20 page opinion paper on the Death Penalty. We studied for weeks, required to review cases in Idaho and on national statistics, to read scholarly reviews on opinions both for and against it, and to conduct a few interviews. After dozens of hours writing and perfecting the paper, we reached a consensus that the death penalty was unjust. We learned a few basic facts: it is cheaper to keep someone in prison for life than it is to kill them (seriously, look it up); that each life has value, even when that life is spent behind bars; and that the justice system can be insanely corrupt, convoluted, and inconsistest.

An example of the last: Joe Hill was executed by firing squad after he was convicted on circumstantial evidence for shooting a man in a grocery store; it is widely believed he is innocent. Meanwhile, the Green River serial killer, who brutally murdered nearly 100 victims, was given life in prison; Charles Manson was not only not given a death sentence, he was up for parole a few times.

I’m currently working on an intensive research project that intersects the complicated history of murders, trials, and death penalty convictions in Utah. Many of my thoughts on these matters will be saved for now as I continue my research, but I want to share a few here. Over and over in these trials, the concept of Blood Atonement comes up, mentioned thousands of times in the courts. I’m not exaggerating, thousands upon thousands.

It’s a relatively complicated doctrine that boils down to some relatively simple premises. 1. Brigham Young, who settled the Mormons in Utah and acted both as their prophet and governor, is revered by Mormons. They believe his words to be the commands of God directly.

2. Brigham Young taught about Blood Atonement, basically certain sins committed by believing Mormons can only be forgiven when the sinner has his blood shed in recompense. In other words, if you commit a certain sin, it is God’s command that you be killed. Sins listed by Brigham Young in association with Blood Atonement include: MISCEGENATION (a white person sleeping with a person of another race and having children), APOSTASY (rebelling against the church), THEFT, MURDER, FORNICATION (having sex outside of wedlock), and ADULTERY (having sex with someone besides your spouse). When you combine all of this with POLYGAMY (Brigham Young himself had over 50 wives), RACISM (teachings by Young that show people who are non-white are cursed, evil, and degenerate), and MISOGYNY (a system that often treated women as property and taught their station was as wives and mothers), Utah in the 1800s  becomes a VERY complicated place). Young taught that ideally sinners would take their own lives, and that in the case of executions, they should be done with love and kindness.

3. The Church no longer teaches Blood Atonement. And, honestly, many of its members have no idea what it is. But when you are calling upon Mormons to serve as jurors in Death Penalty cases, you have to ask them about it. Because it was taught by Brigham Young, so it must be of God. And it is ingrained in the cultural history of Utah.

4. There are many examples in Utah’s history where believing Mormons took the doctrine of Blood Atonement in their own hands and saw members of the church murdered for sinning (the most famous examples are related to the Danites). In addition, many murders have been committed by people affiliated with Mormonism where they use Blood Atonement in their own defense, i.e. “I killed that woman because she was sinning, and I’m innocent because it is part of my religious beliefs.”

5. In the early days of the Church, the Mormon endowment ritual contained a graphic covenant in which members vowed to have their throats slit, their tongues cut out, and their chests ripped open if they ever divulged the sacred endowments to Gentiles, or those not of the faith. This covenant existed in some form until just a few decades ago, when it was changed.

For those who are shocked by this doctrine and think I’m overplaying my words here, I invite you to consider one of the most beloved Mormon stories from the Book of Mormon. Nephi is sent by God into the city to obtain the scriptural record. Laban refuses to give them up. God commands Nephi to murder Laban by beheading him in order to get the scriptures. The premise: it is better for this man, a sinner, to die so that you can have your beliefs. And if God commands it, it is okay. This idea is ingrained into every Mormon story, that beliefs trump government, that beliefs are more important than human life.

For my Mormon friends, imagine the prophet standing up and saying that any sinners should be murdered, decapitated, their throats cut and their bodies tossed in the river (all based on quotes by Young). Imagine the moral conflict that would cause. In 1858, when Alfred Cumming took over as Utah’s second governor (a change which had to take place after President James Buchanon sent out an army to force the Mormons to comply with federal edict), talk of Blood Atonement quieted at the governmental level, but every murder trial in Utah since then has had to reference this doctrine in some form ever since.

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

IMG_2081

I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.