I grew up in a Southern Baptist home, studied theology in college and graduate school – including attending the entire Catholic catechism course, visiting synagogues, and attending silent retreats at Buddhist centers. I was in my thirties before I met the missionaries and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. With my work as a counselor, and now as a chaplain, I am constantly working with many kinds of different people in a very diverse environment. Usually as a counselor, people come to me exploring many issues that skirt around some spiritual struggle but need to work it out in a way outside of a spiritual framework all together. When I get a page as a chaplain, I have no idea what faith tradition someone holds until I get there and can talk with them. I had to do chapel services when only Jews came, or only humanists came, or a mix of charismatic evangelicals and old-school Catholics. Last week I did a funeral where the only song requested was a George Jones drinking song. Even as foster parents, we have no idea what kind of religious or cultural experiences will land on our doorstep at any moment.
It’s a challenge to navigate a world in which so many different kinds of people share living space, educational space, work space, and the laws that govern us all. It’s also what makes us so very rich in texture as a nation, and often the very thing that provides common ground with which we can bridge those differences.
My assigned lesson to teach Relief Society class was Elder Oaks’ General Conference talk, “Loving Others and Living with Differences”. In this talk, Elder Oaks points out that the Savior gave us the “new commandment” of loving others, and that He commanded it three different times (John 13:34; John 15:12; see also verse 17). “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Elder Oaks said:
The teaching to love one another had been a central teaching of the Savior’s ministry. The second great commandment was “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). Jesus even taught, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). But the commandment to love others as He had loved His flock was to His disciples—and is to us—a challenge that was unique. “Actually,” President Thomas S. Monson taught us last April, “love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar. His life was a legacy of love.”
This becomes especially hard for us, though, when we live in a world full of people who do not share our beliefs or are in other ways very different from us. Our faith also develops a lifestyle of obedience and covenant-keeping, which further sets us apart from many in the world, and it is sometimes difficult to know how to interact within those dynamics. Elder Oaks said, “It is difficult because we must live among those who do not share our beliefs and values and covenant obligations.” We must remember, though, that the behavior of others – even when less than the standard we have set for ourselves – does not make them “less” than us. Our covenants are ours, and we are the ones held to them. We cannot punish other people for not keeping covenants that we ourselves made for ourselves. We can teach people about covenants, and invite them to make their own in some way, and learn together with them line upon line, but we cannot punish them for not keeping covenants they haven’t made.
We also cannot be cruel to them just because they haven’t made the same covenants that we have. We cannot avoid those who have not made our same covenants for any reason. We be a light to the world if we do not find a way to live in it. Elder Oaks said:
In His great Intercessory Prayer, offered just before His Crucifixion, Jesus prayed for His followers: “I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). Then, to the Father He pleaded, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (verse 15).
We are not commanded to avoid those who haven’t made covenants, but to go to them and live amongst them and teach them and minister to them and invite them to learn about covenants. The best way for anyone to learn about our faith, regardless of what their own faith might be, is for us to just live our faith everyday. But they will not see it if we are not living amongst them and interacting with them in our everyday lives that we share. Elder Oaks said:
We are to live in the world but not be of the world. We must live in the world because, as Jesus taught in a parable, His kingdom is “like leaven,” whose function is to raise the whole mass by its influence (see Luke 13:21; Matthew 13:33; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6–8). His followers cannot do that if they associate only with those who share their beliefs and practices. But the Savior also taught that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (see John 14:15).
Our faith includes very specific doctrine taught us by the Savior, including the terms of the covenants we have made and the “rules” and format of the ordinances we perform. Because these have been laid out so specifically, there is no reason for us to debate about them. We know what the terms are, and it is up to us to keep our covenants by applying the principles we know to be true. There is no reason for their to be contention within the church because we know what we believe and who we believe.
“There shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.
“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
“Behold, this is … my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”
~ (3 Nephi 11:28–30)
In the same way, contending with others outside our faith is not acceptable. Arguing with those who disagree with us or even hate on us does not help bring peace to them. Become ugly or participating in negative interactions with those who don’t appreciate our faith does not add to their light. Elder Oaks taught us that:
“the Bible teaches that “wise men turn away wrath” (Proverbs 29:8). The early Apostles taught that we should “follow after the things [that] make for peace” (Romans 14:19) and “[speak] the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), “for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). In modern revelation the Lord commanded that the glad tidings of the restored gospel should be declared “every man to his neighbor, in mildness and in meekness” (D&C 38:41), “with all humility, … reviling not against revilers” (D&C 19:30).”
That said, we must not compromise what we believe just because others disagree with us.
Elder Oaks said:
“Even as we seek to be meek and to avoid contention, we must not compromise or dilute our commitment to the truths we understand. We must not surrender our positions or our values. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the covenants we have made inevitably cast us as combatants in the eternal contest between truth and error. There is no middle ground in that contest.”
He then goes on to give the beautiful example of the woman caught in adultery. While Jesus does not shame her the way the other religious leaders had tried to do, He also commands her to “go and sin no more”. He was kind to her, and did not condemn her, but also did not tolerate her sin. We can remain firm in what we know to be truth, while being inclusive of those around us, but without compromising who we are or what our faith represents. The distinction, he says, is between what is our own personal worship in a dedicated space and what is public arena with many people choosing many different kinds of faith expressions:
In dedicated spaces, like temples, houses of worship, and our own homes, we should teach the truth and the commandments plainly and thoroughly as we understand them from the plan of salvation revealed in the restored gospel. Our right to do so is protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and religion, as well as by the privacy that is honored even in countries without formal constitutional guarantees.
In public, what religious persons say and do involves other considerations. The free exercise of religion covers most public actions, but it is subject to qualifications necessary to accommodate the beliefs and practices of others. Laws can prohibit behavior that is generally recognized as wrong or unacceptable, like sexual exploitation, violence, or terrorist behavior, even when done by extremists in the name of religion. Less grievous behaviors, even though unacceptable to some believers, may simply need to be endured if legalized by what a Book of Mormon prophet called “the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26).
This has come up for me in chaplaincy, in that as a Latter-day Saint, my personal prayers are always addressed to Heavenly Father. I close my prayers “in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” This is how it is to be done for me personally, and for my family, and at my church meetings. However, the Brethren have instructed me to be more inclusive when it is a general setting or some kind of public meeting or a kind of ceremony that includes an opening and closing prayer. A prayer in that context is not my own personal prayer, but a public aspect of one piece of a ceremony involving many different people from many different faiths. We cannot invite people to worship if they are not comfortably introduced to God, and so our wording of prayers in such settings may change to be more inclusive of others or to reflect their personal faith expression. Elder Oaks said:
On the subject of public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious. We should be wise in explaining and pursuing our positions and in exercising our influence. In doing so, we ask that others not be offended by our sincere religious beliefs and the free exercise of our religion. We encourage all of us to practice the Savior’s Golden Rule: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12).
There may be times, he said, where laws even change in ways we disagree with – or, as has happened in world history, when one group of people may target another group of people. While we do not surrender our testimonies, we must never attack others because of their faith or any other difference. We are all children of our Heavenly Father, and we must love them as He would love them. Even when laws are made that threaten our own worship expression, this does not give us permission to be cruel or to contend with others. Elder Oaks said:
When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries. In any event, we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.
This weekend we took our children to Kansas City for Spring Break vacation of church history sites, one of which included the visitor’s center at Independence. Across the street from the vistitor’s center is the “bumpershoot” (secular local term) building from the Reform Latter-day Saints. We explained to our children that after Joseph Smith was killed, the apostles prayed about who the next prophet was and how he was to be called. The Lord answered that it was Brigham Young, and we told stories of how this was confirmed to the people. Some, though, chose not to follow the prophet and wanted to pick their own prophet and start their own church. Those people left our church and started their own church, and that was their building.
Once we finished the tour of our visitor’s center, a sweet missionary asked what the kids learned. The kids shared several things, and then seeing the “bumpershoot” out the front glass windows behind the missionary, one of them pointed to it and said “except those bad people don’t even know who the prophet is!” I had to pull that child aside and explain to them that those are not bad people. They are living true to the faith they were taught, and there are many pieces of truth that they have. The choice of their ancestors choosing not to follow the prophet was one that was hard and sad, but it does not make those people bad. People are people, and sometimes people make good choices and sometimes they make bad choices. We are the same way: everyday we make good choices and bad choices, and we have so much still to learn.
Elder Oaks said:
Surely we can teach our children values and standards of behavior without having them distance themselves or show disrespect to any who are different.
Further, he said we must never use our faith to oppress or bully anyone, nor is it okay to isolate ourselves from those who are different or who have not made the same covenants we have made. We cannot punish others for not keeping covenants they have not made. It is never our job to judge others, whether they have made covenants or not. He also commanded us (not just the youth) that:
We challenge all youth to avoid bullying, insults, or language and practices that deliberately inflict pain on others. All of these violate the Savior’s command to love one another.
We must “be kind and have courage”.
We need to focus on ourselves and the covenants we have made. Our focus on others should be one of service, one of following promptings, one of doing good so that others can experience the love of God we have found. The Savior only ever invited people to get to know more. He never pushed it at them or compelled them. We are following Lucifer’s plan instead of the Saviors when we try to compel, when we try to shame, or when we try to force others to think the way we do. We ourselves have not come to understand what we know except by invitation, by personal pondering, and by praying to our Father ourselves to ask what is true and real and good for us. Others need the same opportunity, and we strengthen each other when we love through invitation and example.
Elder Oaks closed with:
As difficult as it is to live in the turmoil surrounding us, our Savior’s command to love one another as He loves us is probably our greatest challenge.