We are introduced to the concept of “chosen people” almost as soon as the bible opens. Though the earth is covered with the children of God there is one line (Isaac and Jacob’s) of one family (Sarah and Abraham’s) that is chosen to do a specific work for God. They are not chosen for their strength or prowess. They are landless nomads, and not by choice. They lie to survive, are often chased from place to place, have to deal and negotiate to even have a place to bury their dead, and suffer from extreme family dysfunction. By no means are these people the best God has to work with. And even within this deeply imperfect family God chooses the weak, younger sons to carry on the covenant. The usual tenor of the ancient myths is turned on its head. These people are not royalty. They are not demi-gods blessed with supernatural strength or cunning or some other gift that would be taken for granted must be had in order to serve a God. They are nobodies. And even as nobodies, God chooses the nobody among the nobodies to carry on the covenant.
But God is not done yet. Just when the reader has adapted to this perplexing narrative, and begins to be assured they understand the story and characters—which ones are good and which bad—it is all flipped on its head again as the tragedies of Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau are articulated, leaving the reader disoriented and raw, their heart aching in surprised empathy for the very people whose exile and estrangement only a moment ago they accepted as inevitable and necessary. God called Isaac and Jacob for their specific weaknesses, but Hagar, Ishmael and Esau are still heard by God, and they are still under God’s blessing and protection.
Jesus carries on this grand tradition all throughout his ministry when, over and over again, it is the sinners, the outcasts, the people who play fast and loose with the rules, and the marginalized who are declared to be the beloved of God’s kingdom, while those who keep the law with exactitude are called to repentance. But just as the outcast followers of Christ feel they are now able to identify the enemy, we are yet again left confounded as the absolute personification of the enemy, Saul, the most pharisaic of the Pharisees, is called by the Christ against whom he had fought with burning righteous fervor to proclaim the message of the gospel.
Scripture is nothing if not God constantly warning us that we are not as good at judging as we think we are; that we think we know how to label people, but we don’t—and we are going to be very, very surprised with how this all works out.
In times of insecurity individuals and groups seek out a scapegoat to blame for their problems. Scapegoats provide a way for groups to solidify by offering an outsider as an enemy against whom blame and anger, which might otherwise be aimed internally, can be deflected outward instead. But sometimes outsiders can only be blamed so far with any satisfaction. Over time the group begins to realize that in spite of all the blame they have placed elsewhere they still have problems. It is not always enough to have an outsider to villify for the sake of group unity, we may come to feel we must take aim at false insiders who we now see as even more to blame than outsiders for our perceived problems. Fortunately we have a whole slew of labels to choose from that come with so much baggage that we can use them as identifiers of the enemy with almost no effort at all but still to great effect: Intellectuals! TBMs! Liberals! Feminists! Conservatives! Progressives! Millennials! Boomers! Fox News Watchers! Snowflakes! We preach, we blog, we post, exposing the enemy hiding among us as the source of our problems, and we give them an ultimatum: Become like us or take the problems with you and go! But darn it if the blasted goat doesn’t keep coming back!
We’ve forgotten something important about our own history. Something sacred and tragic. We already sent a scapegoat out into the wilderness to pay for our failings. We labeled him and maligned him and let him be blamed for our problems and struggles and fears. Then, just like now, we didn’t recognize him when we did it. We were too eager for someone to blame to ask too many questions. We didn’t know that it was God that we made our scapegoat. And he accepted it, not only for us personally as pained sinners, but also for us communally. So that next time we would take a moment to stop and really look at the person we were attempting to cast out. So that, while we didn’t see God in God, we might see God in this person.
This is where the spirit comes in. The spirit is disruptive to lazy and toxic patterns of enemy hunting and label making. The spirit gives pause, and makes us take a real look under the label into the eyes of the human buried beneath. The spirit is what pushes us off balance enough to make us a little dizzy. A little hesitant. It makes us realize that when we don’t understand another person it may not be because there is nothing there worth understanding, but is rather because we really just don’t understand—but can if we will be still and listen. And must if we are to see as God sees. And what we find is that the very labels that used to make us feel so safe and sure begin to chafe. They are just a little less comfortable than they used to be. At first perhaps only a little, but the irritation grows more and more until it becomes unbearable—because you’ve actually seen the person under the label, and you cannot bear to be guilty of casting God out again.
The only interest that God has in our labels is to rip them off and destroy them. It is God’s own spirit that helps us to see beyond them until the day comes when we don’t see them at all; only the God-created person who was there all along. No longer a scapegoat, no longer an enemy, but something of such complex depth and beauty that we will cry and laugh to think we could have ever thought we could label and blame and cast them out. This path is hard—so hard, Christ says, it will rarely be walked even by his own followers. But at its end, with bloodied feet and broken heart and bowed head, we will find there is still one label left that perfectly describes what we have finally learned to see: Family.
 For more on this read Not In God’s Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Wow, what a great and true post. Bravo!
Wonderful post. Thank you. I find it very instructive that, in abridging the Book of Mormon with a eye fixed on the people of our day, Mormon and Moroni somehow did not see a need to warn about feminists, intellectuals, and homosexuals; but rather chose to warn about wealth, tribalism, and ignoring the poor. It’s almost as if they were prophetic.
I appreciate this post, but I disagree that the scapegoat, the goat “for Azazel” was a type for Christ. There is more depth to that symbolism than is revealed in LDS literature.
The Book of Mormon does have a few things to say about what we do with our learning. Of course, that’s not to say that the BoM addresses intellectualism per se–as one doesn’t need to be credentialed to have an intellectual bent. Even so the BoM does seem to place the evils of riches and learning pretty-much within the same frame of reference.
One of the finest posts to ever appear on Times and Seasons.
As Mary Grey points out so well, God chooses us, not so much for our “righteousness,” but for His own reasons. To follow God, you and I are going to have to give up a lot of our cherished notions of what Godliness is, and try with humility to discern His will, even when it goes against all we have been taught.
Thank you very much.
I just wanted to second Taiwan Missionary’s comment that this is one of the finest posts to ever appear on Times and Seasons.
Mary, I agree with the other commenters–that this is a fine post. I was rather thunder struck by it–especially when I got to the final word.
I do, however, want to kind of slip in from the side and say that certain labels are appropriate–though, perhaps, it might be better to speak of “identity” rather than labels (for my purposes). The scriptures are replete with references to how we might succeed or fail to be identified with or as the Lord’s people. Of course, I realize that it is the Lord who is doing the “labelling” here. Even so, as it relates to ourselves–we should be willing to take upon us God’s “label” and despise whatever shame the world might heap upon us for so doing.
That said, I understand that I’m talking about something a bit different from what you’ve set forth so well in your OP. I guess what I’m trying to do is make a plug for accepting an identity that we might receive through covenant making while, at the same time, being careful not to label others inappropriately. Generally, the gospel is unidirectional in its application–in that it has to do with how *I’m* expected to love others rather than how they’re expected to love me. And so I agree that we should try to strip away all labels that set us at variance with others–except, of course, those that cannot be removed; those that are the imprimatur of God.
Which brings me to my finale point: while it’s true that the gospel is about restoration–it is also about progression. And so as we continue forward we will not only learn to see ourselves and others for who and what we really are — the “God-created person” as you say — we will also see that we’ve become more than what we were; that our identity has expanded because of our willingness to live up to the “label” that God has placed on us.
Such glorious truth and wisdom in this post. Thank you! Another difficult and frightening endeavor is to strip away the labels we give ourselves and accept and truly feel God’s love for us despite our inadequacies. I have felt God’s pure love for me flowing directly into me only once in my life, but I can never forget or deny it. When we have felt that and realize that God loves every other soul just as completely, it can also help us see and love others freely and wholly, abandoning our preconceptions about who is worthy of love and for what reasons.
Great post. As Jack notes, I think there are some labels that are eternal and meaningful (“mother,” “father,” “disciple.”) but more to your point: in any group of people there are going to be attitudes, behaviors, and sentiments that cluster together, and it’s fine to label these to point out social realities in a group (e.g. “Blue-Dog Democrats” and “Tea Partiers”). In the Latter-day Saint context, we’re not all cut from the same cloth, but we’re not all completely unique either. Clustering is a social reality, and it’s IMHO it’s okay to recognize that.
As you point out, it is problematic when we take those groupings too seriously or affix those labels and categories with some supernal significance because yes, God doesn’t care about what grouping you’re in, he cares about following his commandments. While membership in some groups (e.g. New Atheists) may be correlated with not being a disciple of Christ, it’s the lack of discipleship, and not the group membership per se which is the thing.
Thank you, Mary Grey. This is beautiful and important.
I think today part of the urge to cast out the scapegoat, physically or emotionally, comes out of a fear that if we welcome people who we see as sinning, we appear to condone sin. This is especially true for things that fall under the category of “defending the family.”
Jesus was constantly accused of condoning sin because he spent time with sinners–it’s one of the themes of the Gospels. He didn’t, of course, but He did condone sinful people (as if there’s any other kind). He loved them, He wanted them to change, and He knew His influence could help them do that. He also knew that change was most likely to happen when they felt welcome, safe, and loved.
I think Church members today would do well to follow His example. Leave what boundary maintenance is necessary to those the Lord has called to do it, and to whom he will give the revelation necessary to do it in the Lord’s way–don’t try to steady the ark. Our job as members is to love and welcome everyone, so our influence and the influence of the Church as an institution can help them (and us) to change.
@Stephen C, I agree that clustering is a social reality, but one we should strive to overcome in the Church. “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” The Church is structured to help us do that: we are assigned people to minister to rather than serving our friends, we are assigned to wards or branches rather than choosing a like-minded congregation, etc. Clustering is also a form of data reduction: rather than dealing with the richness and complexity of individuals, we reduce them to their group memberships. Identifying and labeling clusters can be a useful tool in the social sciences, but I think it’s harmful to bring it to church.
I’ve loved this whole series, and this is the best post yet. Thanks for your insights and your call to take the hard road in gathering the family of God.
So very, very humbling…It is the nature and disposition of almost all bloggers…So many pretentious thumbs-up…So many indignant thumbs-down…What is man(kind), that Thou art mindful of us…just poor, wayfaring strangers…go my way and sin no more.
just some random thoughts that popped into my head while reading. thank you, I appreciate painful course-corrections (or at least I should).
An astonishing post with a lifetime of lived gospel experience behind it. I find this hard work even within my own family, and I think have possibly disengaged at this point elsewhere. Good work sister.