The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.
We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression. Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.
Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them. Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.
The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008. The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore. But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage. Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.
The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions . The earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years. The conviction carries a potential life sentence.
Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves. But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices. There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.
When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary. But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture. No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon. Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.
Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions. This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example, from legitimate challenges to their ideology.
The same effect is present in the religious community. The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice. Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb. Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.
But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us. In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories. Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments. In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.
When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good. When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.
To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.
It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead. Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by. But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man. He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery. In a rhetorical end to the story, Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?” The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.
Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance. Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.