Latter-day Saints have an interesting perspective on the atonement of Jesus Christ. According to the Book of Mormon, not only did Jesus die on the cross to save mankind from sin, he also suffered “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.” This he did “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people…” (Alma 7: 11-12).
Though not a believer in the Book of Mormon or even Jesus Christ, I love this archetypal example of empathy. I think it is one of the most profound and under-appreciated aspects of Mormon theology.
Here we have a god who was not content to simply die for us, but who was willing to suffer all the pain, sickness, and heartbreak of every single one of us, so that he might know how to heal us. This he did not just for the faithful few, but even for those who would reject, persecute, and kill him.
Though he was without sin, he understood by personal experience all the conditions that led others to sin. Thus, at judgment day, the Jesus of Mormonism takes the role of defender and advocate. Truly, Latter-day Saints believe in a god who came not to condemn the world, but to save it.
When people sing “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus,” I wonder if that concept of empathy enters their minds. Does their decision to “love as he did” include love for their enemies — a love Jesus taught was more important than love of friends? Does that Christ-like love imply seeking to truly understand where their enemies are coming from? Does it include walking a mile in their proverbial shoes? Does it entail even becoming their advocate?
Lets look at a real example.
Since its release in April, Tyler Glenn’s song “Trash” has created no small stir in the Mormon community. The music video depicts the once-faithful rock star drinking alcohol, spitting on a painting of Joseph Smith, and performing secret handshakes from the LDS endowment ceremony.
Feeling like the victims of a spiritual assault, many members of the church have been enraged by what they consider to be a blatant attack on their beliefs. Some have condemned or dismissed Tyler. Some have expressed their deep sorrow. Others have made misguided attempts to spin his message to defend the church.
Observing the full range of reactions among faithful Latter-day Saints, one thing is too frequently absent — Christlike empathy.
If Latter-day Saints are serious about trying to be like Jesus, how should they react to such an offensive message? Should they declare their disgust at Tyler’s damnable disrespect or lament his taffy-pulling laziness? Should they merely ignore the video as one more piece of anti-Mormon material? Should they reach out and tell Tyler how sad they are for him and how worried they are about his spiritual state?
I submit that the Jesus would do none of those things. I believe that the Jesus of Mormonism would be empathetic. He wouldn’t be content mourning the apostasy of his once favored musician. He wouldn’t shake his head with disapproval and post his indignation on Facebook or before fellow believers.
The Jesus I believed in would want to understand. The Jesus I believed in would try to put himself in Tyler’s place, to feel what he feels, so that he might know how to comfort, not condemn him.
How many Latter-day Saints who saw Tyler’s music video tried to understand where he was coming from? How many listened to his story? How many have tried to understand what it means to be an LGBT member of the church? How many have taken the time to get to know LGBT individuals? How many have marched in their support, welcomed them into their home, and held them as they wept?
How many Latter-day Saints who saw Tyler’s video have been willing to investigate the information that led him out of the church so they could know “according to the flesh” what it felt like for him to question his beliefs? How many have taken it upon themselves to sort out all the issues so that they could know by their own experience how to succor others who struggle with their faith?
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus, the friend of publicans and sinners, portrayed himself not as one of the official ecclesiastical leaders, but as a hated heretic. He, the empathetic outcast, administered the healing art while the official representatives of God passed by.
Until the church can learn to practice true empathy as exemplified by Jesus, it will remain as incapable of helping as the priest and Levite of the parable. It will watch as marriages crumble, families fall apart, and lives are taken. And though it screams about priesthood authority until it’s blue in the face, it will not posses true healing power until it learns what Jesus truly meant when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”