What on earth happened in Oregon?
If you haven’t been paying attention to the news, on Monday The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement in response to the armed occupation in Oregon.
It goes back, way back, all the way to the Old West. It’s the age-old battle for land, fought by ranchers who drive their cattle for grazing. The government owns more than half the land, and the ranchers feel that they are not treated fairly. They may very well be right, and their are real civil rights issues and negotiations that need to happen and be resolved.
However, how to resolve it is the issue.
In effort to find good and healthy ways to stand up for themselves and to resolve these issues, many of the ranchers and their families have come together in protest and gatherings to figure out what to do. Some of them have thought that a public awareness campaign would be enough to bring to light what’s been happening and how they feel their rights have been violated. They wanted to hold some rallies to get people paying attention, so that they would have good attendance at some town hall meetings the government agreed to attend.
One of these rallies happened Saturday night. It was a peaceful rally to show support for two ranchers sentenced to five years of prison for illegally grazing their cattle on federal reserve land. More specifically, charges of arson that they set fires on land they rightfully leased, but that the fire spread into federal reserve land. The government responded that the charges were not about the fire, but that the family was illegally hunting deer on reserve land, and the fires were set to cover up the illegal hunting – poaching. The ranchers say that’s not true, that they “they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires.”
These father and son ranchers, like many generations of ranchers, have a history of clashing with the government over land rights and the use of the land they legally lease. Even the senator for their state issued a statement acknowledging the legitimate questions and “frustrations” the ranchers have, but urging them to use the appropriate political process to fight for their rights. Hence the rally, which was all patriotic flags protest signs, with the crowds throwing pennies at the courthouse as a symbol of their efforts to buy back the land they have lived on for generations since settling there but continue to have to lease from the government – including being punished by rules and regulations they perceive as interfering with their ranching needs.
It’s an economic battle, too. The refuge was newly created, in comparison to how long the ranchers there have run the land, and its website says it is there to protect the migration and nesting of birds. The protesters say the government has kicked ranchers out of their homes and off the land where they have lived for generations, interrupted logging and mining and ranching, and that once wealthy communities are now in poverty.
It was meant to be a peaceful rally against oppression, like any other protest rally for basic rights.
But at the very end of the rally, a handful of men – some say a dozen, while others say as many as 150 men and their families – decided it was timed for armed resistance.
Perhaps led by the example of their father, who himself has held standoffs against the government, because he hadn’t paid grazing fees in twenty years and got busted for owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Bundy brothers led men from the rally to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their plan was to “occupy” the refuge in protest; the government says they broke into the welcome center. The Bundy boys say they want to “‘restore the rights to people so they can use the land and resources” for ranching, logging, mining and recreation.” The government says the family has a long history of fighting against the government, and that the family is using a legitimate cause to try and spark of protest in hopes of protest against the government spreading across the entire country.
That’s why it got to be news everywhere.
Supporters of the original rally in defense of the ranchers included many from the surrounding northeast states, because there are real problems for real ranchers who need real help in fighting for their rights to live on land they have grown up on and protected their entire lives for generations.
What they did not expect was for militia groups to show up and use their cause as a reason to cry out for the overthrow of the government.
No staff were in the welcome center at the time, so their are no hostages involved.
The Bundy brothers say they are there for the peaceful takeback of land ranchers already own, and that they plan to stay long-term.
The men who have joined them there, however, are posting goodbye videos on their facebook pages for their families.
What does any of that have to do with the church?
Nothing, really, until one of the pictures posted on Twitter with the hashtag of #BundyMilitia included a picture of one of the militia men who would not give his name, but said he was going by “Captain Moroni”.
The implication, then, was that this was some kind of government protest after the likes of Moroni, who is a well-known and well-loved character in the Book of Mormon. Captain Moroni, the many-greats-grandfather of the Moroni who hid the book at the end of the ancient native wards here, and then appeared later to Joseph Smith to show him where the book was, himself led the people with a flag flying for liberty.
It’s a poor application of the story, though, because Captain Moroni wasn’t just fighting against the government.
He was calling the people to make covenants.
The story is in Alma 46, and comes in the context of protestors, for sure, but the protestors are protesting against the prophet Helaman. Their leader is Amalickiah, who is using false flattery to lead the people away into thinking they can be rich and wealthy and better off if they ignore the prophets and do what they want intstead of living according to the commandments of God. Captain Moroni’s response is to create a flag, as we do, a “title of liberty” as a symbol for who we are and have the right to be:
12 And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
13 And he fastened on his head-plate, and his breastplate, and his shields, and girded on his armor about his loins; and he took the pole, which had on the end thereof his rent coat, (and he called it the title of liberty) and he bowed himself to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land—
Here we have the first mention of “land” – a people’s heart, their very lives, are always connected to the land upon which they live. It is the motherly symbol of Heavenly Parents, the very mother earth who nourishes us and provides the womb in which we live our mortal lives. We see it in the Jews who fight for a land that has always been theirs, and we see it in the Palestinians who are a people who fight for a land upon which to live, and we see it in the Natives everywhere that remember the sacredness of the land the rest of us have forgotten how to see.
14 For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church.
15 And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.
16 And therefore, at this time, Moroni prayed that the cause of the Christians, and the freedom of the land might be favored.
The freedom of this land has always, always, always been contingent upon our faithfulness. That was the nature of this covenant. It is how the natives lived as good stewards of the land they protected and cared for and danced upon and breathed until we came to destroy so much of it. The betrayal of the land has always been connected to peoples being scattered, to families going into exile, and to nations wandering in the dessert. The betrayal of covenants has always been connected to falling out of favor, losing protection we didn’t know we had, and falling away from those sent to show us the way.
19 And when Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had written upon the rent part, and crying with a loud voice, saying:
20 Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them.
He wasn’t calling the people to himself. He called the people to God, through covenant making.
22 Now this was the covenant which they made, and they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression.
23 Moroni said unto them: Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces; yea, and now behold, let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren, and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain.
Their covenant was not to fight the government. Their covenant was to keep the commandments of God, knowing that God would provide for and protect them as they did. This did not mean hard things would never happen to them, but that their families would be gathered and that they would not be abandoned by God.
In chapter 43, we read part of what is being quoted in Oregon: Captain Moroni’s call for why the people needed to prepare to fight against the government:
45 Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.
The cause of the Nephites was “a better cause” than just trying to conquer peoples and land. The cause of the Nephites was not wealth or power or to be king, but freedom to live and to raise families and to worship.
46 And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.
The Lord told the people that when necessary, they may defend themselves to protect their wives and children, their homes, and their freedom to worship. That’s it.
Further the Lord also specifically clarified that fighting for those things had the prerequisite of already living within the law.
There are no excuses for breaking the law, and then declaring the government to be out-of-bounds and oppressive, even when it’s true.
Fight legally, within the process, they said, within the bounds given you.
A protest rally is certainly within the bounds of the legal process.
Breaking into buildings, not so much.
The Washington Post article shared the point of the Pahoran story as well:
People are drawn to the historical Captain Moroni because he’s the military studmuffin of the Book of Mormon; the character is brash and decisive, even “angry” (Alma 44:17, 59:13). He gets the job done. He sees himself as a Nephite patriot who loves God and country and gets rid of interlopers.
But he’s also, on at least one occasion, flat-out wrong, and that lesson should be a cautionary tale here.
There’s a telling scene in the Book of Mormon when Captain Moroni writes to Pahoran, the chief judge who’s responsible for keeping the military well-stocked. (See here for a longer post about what this passage teaches about the perils of anger.)
In the story, Captain Moroni has just about had it with the government, which has effectively “crapped out” on him and gone AWOL. In his case, the anger arises because the government hasn’t done enough, while in the Bundy case, it’s because the government has allegedly interfered too much. Still the result is the same: the good captain offers a veiled threat that the next time he’s in town he’s going to bring some armed ragamuffins along with him to make his point more forcefully (Alma 60:25–27; 30).
Stupid damned government, not caring a whit about the people. Stupid government agents, sitting on their thrones and grasping for power (Alma 60:11, 18).
I won’t give away the rest of the story, but it turns out that Captain Moroni is 100% wrong about Pahoran, who is in fact a righteous representative of a decent government with the people’s best interests at heart. Whoops.
So here is what I wish. I wish that the Bundy family and the self-proclaimed “Captain Moronis” of Mormondom would take a closer look at what they are doing. Do they really imagine that God is on their side, inspiring them to cheat on their taxes and set fire to government land?
I agree with this author that there are times we absolutely must stand up against oppressive regimes who are cruel and violate its people. There are even civil rights we must fight for, and as a woman and a Deaf person and a mother of little brown girls, I think about this often and am grateful for so many who have done just that. The Post article continues:
Ammon Bundy is not a moral hero, standing up to a government that systematically harms citizens; he’s illegally opposing a government that dares to ask his family to pay taxes like everybody else.
A government that says whenever they graze their cattle on lands legally owned by the government, they should pay a fee for that.
Or that people should not set fire to federal lands.
Or that they should honorably serve their prison sentences when they’ve been convicted in a court of law.
It’s a blight on the Mormon faith that some of the armed militia men taking over a federal building are LDS. This is a place where innocent people go to birdwatch, for crying out loud.
I do not live in the northeast, but after a great deal of reading this week, have learned the ranchers really have some serious causes that we could do better in supporting their efforts in getting some resolutions.
I feel less confident that guns are the way to solve it, even if only because the government is surely to have bigger and better guns than what they allow ranchers to carry around.
I also agree, however, that the land has her own rights, and that over-mining or over-logging or over-grazing isn’t going to help the birds or trees in which they live or the other animals finding their habitats there.
When the church released its statement, it acknowledged there was a conflict between the ranchers and the government. The ranchers were not dismissed, but neither were the birds ignored. It very simply reminded us of our Articles of Faith, one of which declares that we are to live abiding to the law. My kids know it, and can quote it for you:
12 We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
Everything depends on it, you guys.
Not on the law, but on our covenant-keeping, on us doing what we have agreed to do.
Angelic protection depends on it. Provision depends on it. The temples depend on it.
That’s the Moroni my kids know best, the one who sits atop our temples, declaring the priesthood has been restored and temples again stand on the earth.
That’s the Moroni I tell stories about, when they fall into arguments before breakfast can even happen or think that pushing each other down to get to the table first will somehow allot them more food.
It’s a trick, I say. It’s an illusion, I tell them. The pushing and shoving to get there first, the arguing over who gets which fork, the fighting about who has how much of what on which color plate. None of it is of God. It’s a distraction, I remind them. The adversary is tricking you into being passionate about something that isn’t as important, so that you are distracted from what Heavenly Father already said is important.
What’s important is that we are kind to each other.
What’s important is that we eat together as a family.
What’s important is that we live in such a way that we when bow our heads for God to bless our food before we eat it, He really can because the Savior declares us as covenant-keepers. What’s important is that we are not praying empty words, but a sincere pleading for blessing. What’s important is that our breakfast gives us strength and energy to live well and wisely, so that we can go about doing the work of God – which is always, always, always about caring for others and meeting the needs of those who need help.
That’s our title of liberty, because it’s covenant-keeping that sets us free to be all He promised we could be.