Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Experience With Religious Persecution

"Kill those Jehovas! Kill those Jehovas!"

That was my first real experience with religious persecution. I was in second grade, and that day is forever burned into my brain. I was in the classroom, with one of my best friends (don't even remember his name now, he move later that year). A girl I knew (and liked) was talking to another girl abut religion. The other Girl was Jehovas Witness. "What's that?!" I asked, trying to look and sound cool, and not-ignorant.

My friend then told me he had heard all about them from his Mom. "They were a cult!...  had their own 'bible' called the "Green Dragon"...  worship the Devil!... Brainwash people!...".

I have always have a bit of a hero fixation - always like heroes - always wanted to be one. I grew up watching Battlestar Galactica (the original TV series, not the lame reboot), Buck rogers, Jason of Star Command, Justice League, Knight Rider, A-Team, The Equalizer (At one point, that was my career plan - Join the military, train as special forces, and become the equalizer...). I used to play knights, rescue heroes, space explorers...

Still like heroes - real heroes.

Always wanted to be a hero. And fight evil.

So... I spent recess marching around the playground like an idiot, with my friend, shouting "Kill those Jehovas! Kill those Jehovas!..."

After recess our teacher gave us a stern talking to for our inappropriate behavior. More importantly, she planted a seed of doubt as to the veracity of my friends claims.

That troubled me. Why would he lie? I asked my mother (a voracious consumer of books and their contents) about the Jehovah Witness. She provided a reasonably thorough education (for one who is not a Jehovas Witness) regarding their beliefs, noting the similarities and differences to the Latter Day Saint faith.

I felt... Humiliated, Embarrassed, Crushed, Betrayed. That day was the end of my friendship with that kid. Though in retrospect it wasn't my stupid friends fault. And it probably wasn't his stupid Mom's fault. Perhaps not even their stupid preachers fault. Who know where the ignorance sprang from, a misunderstanding during a heated religious conversation with some preacher, an angry half-truth from a disaffected member of the faith. An early historical event taken out of context...

I don't remember if I ever apologized to the girl. But that day is a permanent scar in my memory.

My next taste of religious persecution came in high-school - some christian group sent their kids to a bible school, and they came back armed with anti-mormon propaganda, some of which was slipped into my locker. That was the same year somebody drove past me as I was walking home from school and yelled "Mormon A-hole!". Also the same year I received a letter full of anti-mormon "questions" from a friend. My encyclopedia Mom was again the source I turned to. She put the various statements into context, separated the truths, half-truths and lies into neat little piles. She produced plenty of source material to read (our house had more books than wall space).

Somewhere right around that time (the summer after, I think) I participated in 'friendly ribbing' of a kid who had suddenly decided to join some new age, vegetarian group. It sounded so weird. I quit within a few seconds, and followed him outside after the meeting to apologize. He made a few cracks about Mormons, and we parted friends.

Of course, after that, I served a mission in Florida, where there were billboards advertising a hotline to call in order to save your Mormon friends from their satanic cult, where I had a number of Christians pray for my soul. Where the friends of one girl we gave a Book of  Mormon to took it form her and burned it. Where a teenage girl had a prayer group pray over her and push on her stomach until she threw up and convinced her that it was the devil coming out of her. Where I heard all about the "Joe Smith and his Mormon mafia, who kidnapped virgins and took them to the Salt Lake temple to force them to marry old men." and this was known to be true because some of the girls had jumped out of the tower and into the great Salt Lake, where they swam to safety and escaped (Look at a map of Salt Lake City. Note the location of the Temple and The great Salt Lake. Impressive feat, no?).

And now, with the internet allowing every idiot (including myself) a voice...

I have seen plenty of anti-mormon propaganda, I have also seen plenty of anti-islamic propaganda. Fortunately, on my mission, I met a devout muslim, who came from the Middle east to the U.S. to study medicine, and was at that time a successful Doctor. He gave me a Quran as a trade for the Book of Mormon we offered him. My brief experience with him serves as a counter-point to the claims I now hear. The copy of the Quran a source from which I could fact-check claims, and read quotes in context.

I am forever regretful, and forever grateful for my encounter with that girl in 2nd grade. I wish I could find her and apologize to her, but because of that experience I am slower to listen to propaganda, quicker to question the accusatory claims, and somewhat better at seeking common ground. (Though I still have an infuriating habit of challenging peoples' strong beliefs - the always/never/all/none kinds of beliefs, not because I agree or disagree with them, mostly out of curiosity, and to deepen the conversation, but inevitably I upset people and then I feel bad for weeks/months/years...).

I am also grateful for the example my mother set, of reading, studying, digging deeper - seeking context, motive, understanding.

I have concluded the most (if not all) persecution comes from ignorance. And from a lack of personal conversion.

I believe that in all religions (and many groups who think they aren't religions), there are those who are converted and those who are brainwashed. The converted recognize their group as one filled with both truth and flaws. They recognize that most if not all others are ultimately seeking, stumbling toward greater truth, and they are thus willing to share, co-exist seek, common ground...

The brainwashed are weakly connected to an ancillary idea, a person, a group... They have no foundation, no real confidence, so they cling desperately to it, and consider everything else - no matter how different or similar - a threat. They must therefore attack it, belittle it, destroy it, minimize it, subdue it, assimilate it. Only their way of thinking can be tolerated.

This ramble probably has a couple endings, and probably should have ended paragraphs ago. So to close? We are more alike than we are different. We can find a way to co-exist. We are better off for the diversity, we don't always have to agree - or even support each other - to co-exist. We can find a way to compromise. It is either that, or more blood.

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