The long-simmering dispute between Jewish leaders, particularly the children of Holocaust survivors, and the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) is boiling over. And as is often the case, the issue at hand is not really the problem. It’s merely the battleground being used by each side to pursue a whole other agenda. That is probably why the two groups are talking past each other, with neither side getting any satisfaction.
In case you didn’t know, LDS has a standing practice of performing posthumous conversions. That’s right; they convert people after they have died. Basically it boils down to their desire to keep families together in the after-life.
Mormons believe that when they die they will be reunited with family members who were faithful Mormons. Thus, church members have a solemn obligation to identify the deceased — especially those who weren’t Mormons — and baptize them by proxy to give them the option of accepting Christ and becoming Mormon in the afterlife.
Not surprisingly, the children of people who died because they were Jews find this especially offensive. There is a particularly bitter irony to this practice given that during the Holocaust, living Jews were not able to convert out of the Jewish faith in order to save their own lives, even if they wanted to.
So the Mormon’s practice is a kind of twisted double whammy, which offers the wrong solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist. But that is not how church leaders see it at all. They think that they are doing these souls a favor, making what they call a “freewill offering” which “should not be a source of friction to anyone”. Are they kidding?
It’s not that I doubt the sincerity of the LDS leadership, but it’s hard to understand how they miss the implication of what they are doing or why it might be deeply painful to the families of those whom they have converted. It’s hard to understand how they miss the perceived ugliness of anything that even smacks of forced conversion, especially for people who have been forcibly converted or died resisting such efforts for two thousand years.
So why do they keep at it? Are they that mean-spirited? I don’t think so. They look so clean cut and speak so nicely when they offer their faith in the world. So what’s really going on?
What’s going on is that this is not about a few Jews, or even the doctrine of posthumous conversion.
This is about a twisted understanding of religious freedom which accepts none of the obligations which accompany the kind of religious freedom we treasure in this country. This is about Mormons insisting on their right to do what they want no matter how much pain it causes others. As LDS leader, Lance B. Wickman, told the AP, “We don’t think any faith group has the right to ask another to change its doctrines”.
Of course, he is correct that no one faith group should ask another to change its doctrines. But one group can point out how the practice of those doctrines is hurtful. And then, it becomes the obligation of those causing the pain, not to change their doctrines, but to consider how to fulfill them differently. And at the very least, to consider a response that is more sensitive than “you can’t make me stop, so why should I?”
This is all especially ironic given the history of persecution faced by Mormons, especially in the years their faith was founded. How many Mormons suffered because other Christians felt that they had the right to persecute them? In many instances, those persecuting Mormons did have the law on their side. But just because we have the right to do something, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
Of course, it would not hurt for Jewish leaders to chill out a bit also. After all, unless they really buy into LDS doctrine, the church’s actions are totally irrelevant. And if they do buy into the doctrine, then the church is doing their dead relatives a favor!
I don’t mean to sound glib, but invoking the Holocaust may not be the most appropriate way to address this situation. Mormons didn’t perpetrate the Holocaust and to the extent that they believe they are actually performing a service to those departed souls, such arguments can not really be appreciated.
Both Jews and Mormons have suffered because of their beliefs. No, the two are not equivalent. But if your Mormon relative was murdered because of his or her faith, that distinction is probably (appropriately?) lost on you. So wearing the mantle of the world’s greatest victims is not likely to bring a solution.
Both Mormons and Jews have a vested interest in maintaining religious liberty in this nation. And both have a vested interest in assuring that the liberty exercised by any one group, not trump that of others. We actually share a common fate in this world, even if we do not believe that same can be said for our fate in the next world.
Perhaps a better route to resolving this conflict could be found, not by invoking past history or current rights, but in nurturing genuine relationships which create obligations between both communities – obligations born of mutual understanding and greater respect. I look forward to hearing from any in the LDS community who are interested in walking down that road with me.