After posting my blog, A Letter to Mormons, I received a comment from a woman who spoke to an issue I think many of us have struggled with on both sides of the fence. I want to bring attention to this quote because I have spent weeks sifting through its meaning and how it made me feel.
The woman wrote, “I live in Utah, where my husband and I have moved to dedicate our lives to sharing truth with Mormons and helping them out of their religious cult, which is exactly what it is.”
When I read this comment, my heart sank, blood rushed to my head, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I physically bristled. I immediately began imagining how hurtful this statement could be to the Mormons following the comments on my blog. The whole purpose of my letter was to connect with my Mormon neighbors and this divisive comment broke my heart. I will admit that I struggled with anger as I felt the need to defend all the open-hearted, courageous, loving Mormons who had poured their hearts out in their responses to me and trusted me enough to share their stories. After I processed my initial disappointment, I paused. I paused and considered all the times I had heard this term used in my circle of influence while growing up. It was not until this moment that I realized how damaging this 4-letter word could be. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never thought about the implications of this language until now. I had always assumed that Mormons knew what non-Mormons meant when they used the term “cult” and that any hurt feelings were due to a misunderstanding. Please forgive me for my short-sightedness. As I was reflecting I began to put myself in the shoes of my Mormon neighbors (and new friends, Praise God) and it brought me back to the many moments of name-calling, shaming, and embarrassment I’ve endured throughout my life when I didn’t fit someone’s mold. I began to realize how painful this must be to hear and how nasty it must sound even when the person using the word doesn’t have malicious intent.
First, I want to share (for better or worse) how this term was used in my world. I grew up in a non-denominational Christian household and I was taught that a cult was any faction of Christianity that adds to or changes the Holy Bible, or any religious group that dismisses or alters the main tenets of the Christian faith with unorthodox beliefs. If this is the theological definition and it’s taken at face value, then it explains why Mormonism (with its addition of The Book of Mormon) would be referred to as a cult by non-Mormons who practice the Christian faith and believe the Bible is the Word of God. So, I grew up believing that the term “cult” was a religious technicality that described why and how our faiths and belief systems are different, and although an important difference from my faith perspective, I had not considered all the inherent damage that could be caused from casually throwing this word around.
After some soul searching the last couple of months I’ve come to realize that even when non-Mormons believe this definition, refer to this definition, and use this definition to substantiate their desire to share their faith with Mormons, the issue is how this word makes people feel…what it does to a person’s heart. In our present day and age, the word “cult” goes beyond the theological definition and carries a much heavier and sinister connotation since the tragedies of the Jonestown massacre in 1978, the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, TX in 1993, the 1997 California Heaven’s Gate group suicide, and many others.
Words matter. Words can cut us to the bone and labels can destroy any chance of connection we may have with another person. Even if you are referring to the genuine theological definition please stop and consider how this word might make people feel. Consider what is heard when you use this label. When I hear the word “cult”, I picture darkness, fear, coercion, abduction, suicide, murder, death, loss, powerlessness, brain-washing, evil. If we are truly seeking to share the love of Jesus Christ with our Mormon neighbors, are these the words we want them hearing us use to describe them? Are these the words that open another’s heart to our faith story? Are these the words that build bridges and fuse connections? Are these the words that open the doors to vulnerability and whole-heartedness? Are these the words that ignite receptiveness and intrigue? Do these words break down walls and allow for authentic, loving, respectful dialogue?
If someone approaches me with a label that feels like name-calling, my defenses go up, my walls get higher, my heart closes shop and there is no longer room for relationship. I am not going to hear how you love me and care for me and want to share your heart with me after you’ve insinuated that I am dark, scary, and evil. Labeling is not helpful. Relationship is helpful. Breaking bread and fellowship are helpful. Lifting others up is helpful. Loving one another, sharing each other’s story, giving context to why we believe what we believe is helpful. Pointing fingers, calling names, using words that make others feel like they have to defend who they are and what they believe is not helpful…even when you have the best of intentions.
Regardless of technical definitions, the words we use to speak to one another or about one another often carry emotional meaning, which in turn causes emotional reactions. Regardless of why you choose to use a certain term, considering how your language affects a person’s heart is more important than driving home the point you are trying to make. The words you choose matter.
With all of this being said, I also had comments from readers that have experienced what they called a “kidnapping” of a loved one by the Mormon Church. I have not experienced this with the LDS community, but I want to share my story. There are churches of all faiths and denominations that have unfit representatives who use their church to abuse power and perpetuate sin. My great aunt was preyed upon by a “pastor” of an evangelical church in rural Oklahoma. She wasn’t able to have children, so he used the hole in her heart, the vulnerability, the pain to convince her to adopt him. He has parents, a wife and kids, a church and yet he is also an adopted son of my great aunt. She uses her life savings to pay for his expensive trips, his gorgeous house, and his kid’s college tuition. As soon as she began to show signs of forgetfulness, he moved her into a nursing home and wouldn’t let her leave. My family isn’t allowed to visit her because he is now her guardian and has requested that none of us be allowed into the nursing facility to see her. It has been a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, rage-inducing, grief-stricken process to watch and live. So, please let me say that if you’ve experienced something similar I can understand, truly understand, why you would look at the religion affiliated with that person or those people who tore your family apart and feel nothing but disgust, fear, and anger towards them. The challenges for me and for anyone who has experienced something comparable to this is to (1) refrain from judging the whole lot according to the actions of a few and (2) seek the heart of Jesus who is the only one with the grace to love and forgive all people under all circumstances.
If we do witness this sort of behavior in our faith communities, we must speak up. If there are people attending a church, any church, who begin to shun their family because they practice a different faith or if there are people being “ex-communicated” for their sin, their lack of faith, their decisions, their lifestyle, their humanness, then we are called by Jesus to call this out. Jesus was not exclusionary. Jesus did not say “love those who are like you” or “love those who live up to your moral standards” or “love those who attend the same church” or “love those who never show their sin.” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31.
In summary, if we’re going to love like Jesus and proclaim a faith in a God who is Love then we must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must be cautious and caring with our words, bold in our response to injustice, forgiving of those who have hurt us, and inclusive of all of God’s image bearers! When we share our faith and our truth and our beliefs, may we do so with words of love void of judgement, words of connection void of shame, words that build bridges instead of walls and words that embrace the hearts of others in the warmth of agape love. May we always speak our truth with kindness. Words matter!