Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Mormon Liberation Theology - Mis Raizes Sin Papeles (My people without papers)

My attendance at a Spanish-speaking Ward in Orem, UT coincided with the introduction of anti-immigration legislation in Arizona in the year 2010. At the same time, my involvement with the Dream Movement as an ally became a critical moment in my life as an activist and faithful member of the LDS faith. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints, many of us viewed the potential of our own chapels as sites of local activism and resistance. Not only were these spaces filled with Latinos who often understood and empathized with the issue of justice for the undocumented community, but who could also be undocumented themselves. To say that we sought out Latinos in LDS Wards and Branches for recruitment and community support, is an understatement. We earnestly believed that our Mormon peers--whether they were of our own racial/ethnic grouping or not--would see eye-to-eye with our cause. After all, wouldn't the Savior want families to stay together and not be torn apart; and didn't we all believe in the access and support of education to all individuals residing within the walls of our nation? We believed we had a moral imperative that we could rally around. However, we were crushed when we found out that such wasn't the case.

Advocates among members of several congregations eventually joined. However, when it came to drawing that same support from the local leadership, we came up against a wall: "the house of The Lord does not host an opinion towards a political undertaking." Instead we were shunned--even from members of our own racial background. Turned down and seen as radical elements, we abandoned such efforts as the silence of what would happen to our paperless brothers and sisters went unabated in our Mormon spaces.

So we went a different direction. We looked to our cousins in the faith: the Catholic Diocese in Utah County. Instantly, we found a pipeline to working with the community. Not only had the Padre offered the chance for someone to make an announcement during Misa (Mass) but also had space made available in the lobby of the chapel where we could table and offer updates on immigration reform; alerting and recruiting, petition-signing and interacting. With our Mormon wards and branches, no such thing could be done. In some cases, many of us didn't even bother to ask--we became too afraid to do so.

Setting the tone, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of various members of our faith who pushed themselves unto the platform of immigration reform within our state and declared their faith as the holster by which they harnessed their immigrant activism. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, we also felt that our faith added to our activism, that it provided the incentive and motivation to voice our sympathy, and simultaneously our anger, and declare that this was all very wrong. Something--someone--must act.

It wasn't just our racial or ethnic backgrounds that added to our compelling for action. It wasn't just the fact that many of us knew people or had family, or were even undocumented ourselves. It was our faith that stirred our hearts. It was our belief in the restored gospel, that a living Christ, would not condone what was occurring in political circles concerning immigration, nor would he have permitted a racist-nativism permeating among his followers.

What we could not understand, was the fact that in our own chapels, the realities of our members were being marginalized. That their voices were not given room. That their silence was normalized; and nothing was being done about it: treat the least of these my brethren…(Matthew 25)

A context is needed to understand what I have previously expressed. In the cultural affairs of the church, along with the institutional frame that has been constructed, the church does not interfere with politics, nor does it welcome a political discourse within its walls. This explains the silence of immigration in our chapels as well as in our congregations. This also explains why activism with respect to immigrant rights or the Dream movement are not welcomed either. This is so because Mormonism is not viewed as an active player in the cause of social justice, but merely as a silent partner delivering salvation as well as humanitarian supplies all over the world. The gospel is not there for social movements, it is there to provide salvation for humanity: Man shall not live by bread alone...

Yet it is in this respect, that we as a culture--as a way of thinking--institutionally as well as individually, have been misinformed. It is not the cementing of our complacency and indifference in politics where we strengthen our testimony; action is our faith, political action towards social justice, is Christlike. What we need is a redefinition, a reevaluation, of what it means to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly as we view undocumented brothers and sisters. What we need, is a mainstream re-interpretation of the gospel to be approached as a Liberation Theology. In the context of Raza members and oppressed nationalities, a racialized and migrant Liberation Theology.

Book of Mormon as Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology as understood and acted on by Latin American priests and bishops, stood in the context of civil rights violations backed by U.S. interests as well as the economic devastation wreaked upon by Western exploitation. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Padre who first coined the term Liberation Theology, refers to such a movement as a "Theology which does not stop with reflecting on the world, but rather tries to be part of the process through which the world is transformed" (p. 12, Guitierrez, 1971).

As a result, thinking in the frame of Liberation Theology does not function as a distinction between political, spiritual and religious. Instead, it sees parallels and intersections, connections and relations; such elements are intertwined: “Human reason has become political reason. For the contemporary historical consciousness, things political are not only those which one attends to during the free time afforded by one’s private life...everything has a political color..." (p. 30-31, Guttierez, 1971).

Intrinsically the saviour's heart and hands were clean, such suffices for a symbolic resonance; but the saviour's hands were far from clean in the work of his salvation. They were doused in the realities of the world. In his heart, weighed the realness of suffering and poverty; and with his hands, he dug into the world's raw appeal to save mankind. He did not elevate man to his eternal realm so that they could be clothed in glory to never comprehend that opposition in all things would be one of the more critical of eternal principles. He came down, and condescended to our nature; took on our lens; felt our pain.   

So there existed no neutral condition to the Savior's willingness to care for humanity; nor is there an objective judgement from a religious institution on societal issues. Dennis Potter, an associate professor with Utah Valley University understood the Book of Mormon as a literary source of Liberation Theology. Potter's argument offers an analysis based on a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon that suggests the Mormon canon as a warning to the rich and wealthy of their hypocritical natures. Potter also discusses some of the counters against a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon and demonstrates that reading such a text as politically neutral is a serious error, because individual moral choices impact our societies, which in turn governs the politics of any given situation:   

“There is another objection to a socio-political reading of the Book of Mormon. One may argue that a religion, and religious organization, must be politically neutral. Religion, on this view, has only to do with personal salvation and morality. Religious organizations should encourage its members to be politically active but should not take stances on issues that don’t directly affect individual morality. However, when a political decision begins to affect an issue of “personal morality,” then the organization may take a stand. This happened in the case of the Knight Amendment in California.
The view that the political can be separated from issues of personal morality is flawed. Politics deals with the way we should organize ourselves in our community. We cannot completely separate individual action from societal implications. What we do affects our community. But then, anything that would have implications for individual morality would also have implications for social morality, and this involves political decisions about how to organize society…A church that fails to denounce slavery or the holocaust tacitly enables it. There is no space to be neutral about grave societal injustices” (Potter, Liberation Theology in the Book of Mormon)

Elder Christofferson's talk in the April 2013 Conference, titled Redemption, referenced the critical need for modern Latter Day Saints to not forget that the redemptive work we've taken on isn't merely about salvation, but one of justice and love; one that acts against the suffering of others. This path, Elder Christofferson mentions, is one of a temporal nature, it is subjective to reality and is not an objective connotation: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mathew 20:28). In this example, Elder Christofferson demands that we gear our efforts to do good as an action, not as simple rhetoric:

"This kind of redemptive work means helping people with their problems. It means befriending the poor and the weak, alleviating suffering, righting wrongs, defending truth, strengthening the rising generation, and achieving security and happiness at home. Much of our redemptive work on earth is to help others grow and achieve their just hopes and aspirations" (Conference 2013, Christofferson)

Doing good, is far from a neutral stance of doing nothing. Even more potent than his reflection of the Savior's acts is his mentioning of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables and the fictional but powerful action of Bishop Bienvenu's charity to Jean Valjean--a criminal and protagonist. Aside from the fact that the novel takes place in France's revolutionary stage, to which Elder Christofferson said is a narrative that "has always touched and inspired" him (April Conference 2013), we learn from the Apostle's words that the savior and traditional culture of all Mormons never was founded on objective realities; that there is a moral imperative to every action we perform as Latter Day Saints.

Mormon individuals frequently summon this moral effect. They do so whenever someone is need in their local wards, the institution gathers resources to help countries who've been affected by natural disasters, and has even had something to say about Gay Marriage in the United States--I prefer not to engage this topic because it adds another layer of complexity and deserves a whole dialogue unto itself.

This very issue is one where we see the dialectical hand in the politics of the institution of religion in the Latter Day Saint Church. As Mormon individuals, we are encouraged to participate in our local and national politics but to take a stand and introduce that within spiritual spaces is neither appropriate nor relevant (Cook, Oct 2013). Yet when the issue endangers personal morality, it receives a free pass within church discourses--formally and informally.

Potter notes the continuing debate of gay marriage and Mormon opinion; this reveals reveals the political nature of the church and its membership. To go on as politically neutral is an ill-conceived logic. Political and individual morality, is not a disconnected issue. Individual moral choices are influenced by religion which in turn affects communities, communities are organized by politics; therefore, individual morality founded by religious philosophies pertains to societal thought and action which is managed by politics. The two are interwoven.

Potter then introduces the dilemma of which moral side may be justified in the chapels of Mormon congregations. While this a perfectly good question and a matter that deserves attention, I admit to its complexity--Potter provides a credible argument of leaning towards the Left in these matters. Nevertheless, the question I pose asks something very specific in terms of morality. What is it about undocumented students not having an equal opportunity to education, or the separation and deportation of their families, that is not enough of a moral issue to discuss openly?

A Raza Mormon Liberation Theology, A Migrant One...

The arrival of the undocumented as a moral plight to be sympathized with by Mormon individuals and the LDS Church, is still one in progress. Church members hold conflicted views since the 12th Article of Faith proclaims: 12) We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law (Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith). The legality of undocumented immigrants then becomes the crux of the question. Which moral issue holds more weight?

The moral conundrum, however, is easily dismissed when we acknowledge the words spoken by Latter day apostles at the October 2013 General Conference: "Our twelfth article of faith states our belief in being subject to civil authority and 'in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.' But man’s laws cannot make moral what God has declared immoral. Commitment to our highest priority—to love and serve God—requires that we look to His law for our standard of behavior" (Oaks, Oct. 2013); "Remember: sin, even if legalized by man, is still sin in the eyes of God!" (Nelson, Oct. 2013). Deportations and separating families, though legalized by man, are still sin in the eyes of God!

Our leaders have firmly stated that the law does not live above the morals upheld by the gospel. So what's the issue? The issue of morality becomes complex when it is acknowledged that the United States had a hand in pushing millions of migrants north in seeking refuge from the turmoil occurring in their home countries; this is the unethical and tragic responsibility of millions migrating to borders through political intervention and imperialism--the CIA had its hands in hundreds of assassinations of Latin American political leaders, along with the training of death squads for the slaughter of the Latin American subaltern (Harvest of Empire, 2012). The Frontera shuts down dependent on the politics of what occurs North of the border, and South. Who moves between the two are also factors of accountability stemming from U.S. interests; so if U.S. politics and imperialism are the heirs of this movement, of migrants risking their lives to cross various national borders to escape the oppression that we as a nation have produced, do we not have a moral obligation to address the issue we are indirectly or directly generating?

Undocumented immigrants are in the United States through an ill-conceived unjustly constructed racist-nativist piece of immigration legislation that does not take into account the imperialism and oppression created by the United States. I ask again, brothers and sisters, hermanos y hermanas,...is there no moral cause to address the unjust nature of the deportation and separation of families? Is there no moral foundation to allow young Latino youth to become involved politically to defend their paperless brothers and sisters, their families? Is there no moral cause to permit our chapels as sites of resistance and action; as spaces of dialogue, counseling and immigration policy updates? Is there no moral cause to say something?

I argue for a space and place--the two are quite different, one being security of location and the other being the conditions that operate culturally in that location--where the issue of undocumented immigration may be tackled on by our Spanish-Speaking Mormon congregations. For bishops to provide updates on reform and to publicly advocate, on the pulpit, for our community to become engaged and act...to do something! We begin by reframing a public discourse of Mormon and take on a liberation theological stance of the faith, a more honest, and what I feel is a more accurate tone of our spirituality. What I argue for is no different than what other religious institutions have come to advocate for and support; a voice for God's people--does it matter that it's a Brown one? An undocumented one?

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