Until this morning, I hadn’t really been following the Jodi Arias case. I almost never do follow these big, Nancy Grace/CNN-full-coverage murder trials. Anyway, the Jodi Arias case is the latest, apparently, the latest car wreck we all are compelled to rubberneck at as we drive past. Jodi Arias murdered her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Stabbed him, slit his throat, shot him thirty times. And the trial was lurid enough, with grisly photos to look at, and recorded phone sex to listen to, and allegations of abusive behavior by him. (Which, frankly, I kind of believe). And her testimony, which apparently went on forever and got pretty strange and contradictory and unbelievable.
No, I wouldn’t bother myself with this case at all, really, except for this: the Mormon blood atonement angle. Travis Alexander, it seems, was LDS. And was having a rather kinky affair with Arias. So, according to Brian Carr, a friend of Arias’, we blood-atoned him. Says Carr, “If Jodi went on the stand and said that it wasn’t her and that the Mormons did this, then they will go after her and her family – their lives are on the line so she is covering up with her story.” We murdered him, ’cause he was being naughty.
I totally remember doing that kind of thing, don’t you? When I was sixteen, freshly ordained as a priest, I remember our duties: we had to prepare the sacrament, collect fast offerings, and murder adulterers. Ah, the memories! Sneaking around, truncheon and dagger in hand, waiting for those vile sinners to fall asleep, then slipping into their homes and driving a blade through their black black hearts! Halcyon days!
My initial reaction to this preposterous nonsense was to laugh at it. But this is potentially damaging to the Church. Not that anyone’s going to believe that we go around murdering folks who sleep around. No, my fear is, folks read it, wonder what’s going on, google ‘Mormons blood atonement,’ and find stuff that makes us look, at least historically, kind of loony.
One way we could get in front of this would be to just flat out denounce blood atonement. I remember Orson Scott Card once, tongue firmly in cheek, defining blood atonement as “something Mormons have never preached, especially Jedediah M. Grant.” In other words, yeah, it was a thing. Obviously, the Church has repeatedly issued statements saying we no longer practice blood atonement; that certainly helps. It’s no longer part of our doctrine or practice. But it was once, and was defended, by, among others, Elder McConkie, and as recently as 1978. And we’ve never just flat out said ‘it’s a thing some LDS leaders used to teach, but it’s crazy and they were wrong.’
To orient ourselves, this Wikipedia article is generally pretty accurate. It’ll be one of the first things folks will find. Church authorities taught it, including Jedediah Grant. We believed that some sins are sufficiently heinous that Christ’s atonement was insufficient–that sinners, to gain full forgiveness, needed to allow their own blood to be shed. We didn’t, you know, kill people, but we did teach that hanging was an inappropriate punishment for murder. It’s why Utah still allowed the death penalty via firing squad well after other states had all gone to lethal injection.
And see, that last part is the one that bothers me. I don’t particularly care if Jedediah M. Grant said kooky things 150 years ago. I don’t particularly care if Brigham Young taught this nutty doctrine. I do care that their beliefs continued to influence public policy in the state of Utah in my lifetime.
And I care a lot that Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a General Authority that I remember with great fondness from my youth, continued to defend blood atonement as a doctrine as late as 1978.
Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t actually speak with any kind of authority on this. I think blood atonement is weird and creepy. I think the ‘infinite atonement’ of Jesus Christ means just that; it’s infinite. I think this notion that you have to have your blood spilled to personally atone for wrong-doing is doctrinally, uh, bewildering. But that’s just me, just my opinion.
But there’s a reason that something wacky that a few General Authorities believed and taught in the 1870s was something Elder McConkie felt obliged to defend in the 1970s. It’s because of what I consider a misunderstanding of the doctrine of continuing revelation.
We believe that there are prophets on the earth today, that the leaders of the LDS faith receive revelations. And a popular folk doctrine insists that everything spoken by any General Authority from the pulpit in General Conference, is automatically scripture; the word of the Lord, the will of the Lord. If Jedediah M. Grant was an apostle (and he was), and if he spoke of blood atonement from the pulpit at General Conference (and he did), then we are obliged to believe in it today, and defend it, even if our current prophet no longer insists that we practice it.
By the same token, General Authorities, from the pulpit, insisted that plural marriage was not just something we practiced, but absolutely central to our entire belief system. And General Authorities, from the pulpit, insisted that black members of the Church were in some very real sense inferior to white members of the Church, and that that was a justification for denying them the Priesthood. And General Authorities, from the pulpit, insisted that homosexuality itself was a mortal sin regardless of practice; not just engaging in gay sex, but wanting to.
The Church no longer teaches any of those things. But we can’t quite bring ourselves to repudiate them either. We can’t quite manage to say what nonetheless seems obvious; that some talks, once spoken from the pulpit in General Conference, explored ideas that we no longer regard as true. That the doctrine of ‘continuing revelation’ is, at times, superceded by the doctrine of ‘line upon line, precept on precept.’ That, at times, further light and knowledge received, not only by revelation, but also from reason and science and research, renders the ideas of the past irrelevant, or offensive, or untrue. That new knowledge trumps old knowledge, even for us, at least some of the time.
I believe in God and I believe in continuing revelation. But for me, praying, seeking answers to prayers, listening to the Spirit, all of that is incredibly difficult. It’s about feelings, thoughts, impressions. And I have reason to believe that it’s just as difficult for General Authorities too. This wonderful article describes the endlessly difficult process through which President Kimball received the revelation on Priesthood. The hours of contemplation and prayer, day after day. That accords with my experience. And while it’s certainly possible that that process is easier for General Authorities than it is for me–and absolutely certain that they’re worthier and more spiritual than me–I actually think that we may misunderstand an apostolic calling. It may not be about having the right to receive revelation. It may be more about an obligation to pursue it.
Just once, I would love to hear a talk in which some doctrine that the Church once taught and that no one teaches anymore is just flat out repudiated. Blood atonement seems like a pretty good candidate for that. In the meantime, it’s our responsibility to read, study, pray, use our minds and use our spirits, to never quit struggling toward the light.