By Andrew Michaelson
In recent discussions I’ve seen regarding the recent high-profile disciplinary councils called by the LDS Church, many people appeal to a particular idea of Jesus to make their point. I’ve been introduced to a Jesus who is pure love, whose only concern is to include others and to prevent pain. I’ve also been introduced to another Jesus who is absolutely unbending in his desire for justice, who demands doctrinal and ecclesiastical certainty in his followers. From my most recent reading of the New Testament, both of these Jesuses seems foreign to me. Here’s what I see instead—a Jesus who intentionally creates difficult, awkward, and even painful circumstances to make his followers confront themselves, their ideas, and their deepest desires.
One excellent example of this is Jesus’ “bread of life” sermon in John 6. Here, he confronts the masses’ expectation of Jesus providing them with food (vv. 26-27) and the Jewish leaders’ expectation of a clear heavenly sign (vv. 41-42). Then things get interesting—Jesus announces that only those who “eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood” will have eternal life (vv. 54-57). He gives no further explanation. Yes, the masses miss the point, and yes, the Jewish leaders are understandably confused, but in this instance, even those closest to Jesus—his disciples—are challenged by this statement: “Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (v. 60). The result? “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (v. 66). Jesus created an uncomfortable situation that required everyone—the people, the Jewish leadership, and even his own disciples—to rethink their ideas of who he was and what God wanted from them.
The first of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Here, the term “before” has the sense of “in front of,” and this verse might be better expressed as “Thou shalt have no other gods between the two of us.” But what kind of gods? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). These “gods” approximate things above and below, but don’t quite do them justice. Such images would include isolating only one aspect of Jesus’ character and worshipping that aspect to the exclusion of anything else. Worshiping a Jesus who stresses kindness without firmness or a Jesus who stresses firmness without kindness is worshiping a false idol. These limiting images approximate the nature of God, but are an inadequate replacement for God. The Jesus described above, the one who “came not to send peace, but a sword,” (Matt. 10:34) essentially asks his disciples to confront themselves and these images or ideas that they have created which are getting in the way of an unadulterated relationship with God. Jesus declares that these self-fashioned images need to be broken and discarded. In this sense, Jesus is an iconoclast—literally, an “image breaker”—who leaves the rubble of incorrect assumptions, unrealistic expectations, and unfounded hopes in his wake. He offers, instead, something much more meaningful (seeing God clearly) and authentic (seeing ourselves clearly). This destruction of images that are near and dear to us causes real pain.
Maxine Hanks recently offered a fascinating perspective on what these publicized disciplinary councils represent. As one who has seen the effects of a disciplinary council in her own life play out over the past two decades, her voice deserves to be heard. She sees these sorts of meetings as being necessary for the LDS Church to confront itself, and, in a sense, break down its artificially created images in order for members to see God and each other more clearly. Disciplinary councils are initiated by Church leaders to “break” the false images that an individual member has created, but the “breaking” can work in the opposite direction as well; Church leaders must also confront the images they may have created of the individual members whom they meet with, their motivations, their thoughts, and their hearts. In such a setting of mutual humility and willingness for one’s images to be broken by God, all of those involved are able to see each other—and God—more clearly. According to Hanks, rather than being cruel punishments, these disciplinary councils are opportunities for decision-making, iconoclasm, and ultimately, healing. In addition to God’s commitment to heal individuals (e.g. 3 Nephi 9:13), the community’s responsibility to heal others is explicit in the Book of Mormon, and binding upon all Mormons. Speaking to those who wished to enter the community through baptism, the prophet Alma explained that they must be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, [be] willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Here is a recognition that all will need to be comforted, perhaps due to the painful reverberations from the iconoclasm that Jesus requires. While God is the one who heals individuals at the most fundamental level, it is the community that facilitates this healing (which includes the time before, during, and after disciplinary councils). Thus, the difficult and painful confrontation with the images of our own creation is couched within a covenant community whose responsibility it is to heal one another.
“The Risen Christ” by Michelangelo
This idea of Jesus following pain with healing is expressed well by Irving Stone’s Michelangelo. The artist describes his “Risen Christ” sculpture in words fitting of his subject: “Have faith in God’s goodness. I have surmounted my cross. I have conquered it. So can you, yours. Violence passes. Love remains.” If nothing else, this recent public debate about LDS Church discipline has helped me to more clearly recognize a much larger issue at stake: What do we think of Jesus, and how much of that image is of our own making? I’m afraid that, in the midst of the stones being cast by both sides of the issue, a challenging, yet loving Jesus has been caught in the crossfire.