Dear Mormon member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I have no problem using people’s preferred pronouns ❤️),

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus. There’s just so much about that ascetic Jewish hippie that I find absolutely fascinating. I’ve been pondering his teachings on love, principally, his commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Dear believing friend, I know I’m a blasphemous, sacrilegious apostate, but I’m asking—would you be my neighbor? Would you, at least for the duration of this article, love me as you love yourself?

I promise, I’m striving to do the same for you. I love you. There, I said it. I love you. Even though we have polar opposite world views and even though we’re supposed to be arch nemeses or whatever, I still really love you.

I accept you 100 percent as you are. I don’t need you to leave the church. I don’t even necessarily want you to leave the church. I want you to be happy. And if being in the church makes you happy, then by all means, STAY IN THE GOSH DANG CHURCH!

Love is all about acceptance, non-judgment. I don’t judge you for staying. I don’t think you are stupid or weak or cowardly. I just think we are different people. And through different genetics and life experiences, different people develop different ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

I accept your decision. I trust you are acting in accordance with your greatest understanding and your noblest intentions. I don’t need you to change in order to accept you and the importance of your life mission.

I openly admit this non-judgmental love I have for you is a relic from my religious life. Yes, I am still compelled by the archetype of love embodied in the figure of Christ.

In the Mormon atonement tradition, Jesus didn’t just sustain the punishment for humanity’s sins on the cross, he also felt in the garden every single pain that every single individual will ever feel. Why? So that he could be their ally and their advocate.

Their advocate. Their defensor, not a low-wage half-hearted court-appointed attorney who knows the case is already closed. He will perfectly defend every hardened criminal, every salacious sinner, and every agnostic, pot-smoking, social justice anarcho-commie fouling up your news feed with the same ferocity with which he will defend you. I wonder how would he defend me to you and you to me.

What if we all followed that example? What if every time we encountered someone who made us uncomfortable, we got to know them until we reached the point where we could not only accept them, but become their greatest advocate? What if we truly followed Jesus’s command to love our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves?

So far this article has been a result of that exercise—an attempt to become an advocate for something that continues to cause me varying degrees of personal anguish: religion.

You see, despite my differences in perspective, I know there is good in religion because I’ve experienced it myself. Had I not, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I know what it is like to be enveloped in peace after prayer, like an anchored boat on a glassy lake.

I know what it like to be baptized with fire, to feel so much light shining through your countenance and so much love pouring through your heart that you could actually burst.

I know what it’s like to hear the voice of God, to perceive the divine Logos like a lightning flash of intelligence in your consciousness, piercing your soul like a laser beam.

I know what it’s like to experience instant bodily healing after the laying on of hands.

I know what it’s like to find golden glowing joy distilling in your soul through meaningful service.

I know what it is like to feel electricity up your spine and goosebumps from head to toe at the sincere expression of a profound idea.

I know what it is like to feel an ecstatic energy that leads to the overcoming of insurmountable obstacles and the accomplishment of impossible tasks.

I know what it is like to prostrate yourself on the earth, weeping with gratitude as the innermost wish of your heart is granted in the most personal and miraculous of ways.

I know because I’ve experienced all of it for myself, just like you have. You don’t have to bear your testimony to convince me of your sincerity. I already know you’re sincere. I love you and I’m happy for you! Truly, the moments of transcendence, peace, and revelation are some of life’s most beautiful gifts!

Friend, if you’ve read this far without dismissal, would you consider following the example of Jesus and playing the advocate for this here devil?

I’m not asking much. Though it would be nice, I don’t need you to understand me. I’m comfortable with who I am and what I know. What I’m asking is that you accept me, just as I accept you.

Please accept that my reality is JUST AS REAL to me as your reality is to you. I am trying to be as sincere and thorough in my search for truth and goodness as you are.

When you hear me tell my story, please don’t fill in the blanks with ulterior motives. You don’t have to delegitimize my experience to make yours feel more legitimate.

When I tell you I’m happy, please don’t ad lib, “for now.” When you see me hurting or vulnerable, please don’t make yourself my judge by saying, “this man hath brought it upon himself,” because I know you have difficult times too.

When I tell you that the spiritual experiences I mentioned above continue to occur in my life in even greater abundance as an atheist, please don’t assume I am deceiving or deceived.

“You say honey is sweet and so do I,” said Joseph Smith. We know what tastes good to our souls. I knew it as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I know it now. My taste buds haven’t changed.

I trust you are authentic in your experiences. Please love me enough to trust the same for me.

What I have learned hasn’t erased my memory of spiritual experiences. It has only added more contextual information to them, given me a more comprehensive view of them.

So please know that when I speak out against religious traditions, it is not because I am trying to erase your experiences. I express my ideas because, like you, I believe my perspective can help reduce suffering and create a more peaceful global neighborhood. I shared my beliefs the whole time I was a member of the church, especially the two years I spent in a foreign country as a full-time missionary. Why should I be expected not to share them now?

When I contradict your ideas, I am not questioning your character. If anything, I am simply accepting the invitation, “Come, let us reason together.”

Please believe when I say it hurts me to hear you, a dear friend, say that your way is the ONLY path to happiness, or that only faithful members can experience true joy, or that others like me only have a fragment of the truth, when you haven’t walked my path or felt my joy or comprehended my truth. How can you know what is in another’s heart? Does your joy become more valid by invalidating mine?

If you have analyzed the evidence and still can’t agree with my position, perhaps you could consider that the God who “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” could even speak to an atheist in a way I can understand and that he is just as active in my life as he is in yours.

Perhaps then you might be able to find some golden threads of wisdom in my perspective rather than dismissing me out of fear or resentment. Perhaps then you might consider me, if not a member of the church, a member of the body of Christ, with a purpose that is different than yours but still crucial to the operation of the whole organism. I promise I am trying to maintain that perspective toward you.

Even if we are no more than each other’s “opposition in all things,” we can still delight in each other’s role in providing the resistance that helps us ascend like a soaring kite. We can even acknowledge the integral role we play in providing the other with a sense of purpose.

Perhaps with that kind of non-judgmental love and acceptance, we will see that the lines and labels that have been used to divide us are more imaginary and that our commonalities are more real. Perhaps then we will be less afraid of each other and therefore less likely to perpetuate cycles of hate.  Perhaps we will find that we even need each other. Perhaps then we will truly understand what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Dear member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, won’t you be my neighbor?

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Tanner Gilliland is a writer, artist, and jazz hands enthusiast based in Salt Lake City, UT. Check out his art on Instagram: @tanner_gilliland, his jokes on Twitter: @tgilliland789, and his poverty on Venmo: Tanner-Gilliland

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