The Shameful Book Club: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer for May

IMG_4801So… behind…on posts! For once I’m actually not all that behind on reading the books, but life changes (new job YAY engagement YAY) have really slowed down my posting. But anyone…here’s May’s selection!

There was a period of time when my boyfriend and I were not terribly happy with our lives, so we fell deep into a codependent relationship with all the wonderful programming TLC had to offer. One of these was, of course, Sister Wives. Man, were we obsessed with Sister Wives. This turned into an obsession with the FLDS church, which I find fascinating. I want to say, before I get too deep into this post, that personally I am not religious, but I respect religion immensely. It does profound good for people that I have witnessed with my own eyes. I love it when people are strong in their faith, and I find inspirational and powerful things to appreciate in many religions. But also, some things are harmful.

Some harmless faiths fuel harmful tendencies in people. Most faiths have promoted and still promote to an extent bigotry against many groups of people, like the LGBTQIA community, people of color (Mormons have a deep history of racism), and women. Most faiths have a shocking history of violence (certainly all the big ones do). Some faiths are cults. I’m looking at you, Scientology. I’m also very hesitant when it comes to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Fundamentalism, in anything, is dangerous. I know a lot of amazing Mormons (the faith was founded in my neck of the woods, after all), and none of them subscribe to harmful, abusive practices that some of the FLDS sects of their religion do. Child brides, blood atonement, incest, racism…it can get pretty bad, and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven shows just how bad it can be. Before I get caught up in the general summary of this book, my intention is to talk about the cycle of hate and the harm that brings. That will come near the end of the post.

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Brenda and Erica with husband/father Allen Lafferty

It’s hard to offer a tidy summary of Under the Banner of Heaven because it’s so sprawling, but basically it is about the brutal murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty by Brenda’s brothers-in-law (Erica’s uncles) and the very involved reason why it came to pass, which is incredibly religious in nature. Brenda and her daughter were killed because she had the audacity to stand up against her brother-in-law’s increasingly fanatic religious rhetoric. Before I start my own discussion of Under the Banner of Heaven, I want to point you to a blog post written by my friend Carly in her lovely blog Three Books in a Tub. It’s a lot of fun!

So, there is so much I want to say about this book. First, it’s amazing. Jon Krakauer dives into the subjects of his work with such a devotion to detail and context. You cannot understand why the brutal murders of Brenda and Erica happened without first understanding the violent history of the Mormons and the FLDS culture that was born of that history. Krakauer shows you the perfect storm that has formed as a result of that history, which has made people like the Lafferty brothers and Brian David Mitchell, the kidnapper of Elizabeth Smart, see these acts as commandments from God.

I think everyone should read this book right now because of the tension, fear, and hate surrounding different religions and people in this country and the world. Reading the Mormons’ story is a good reminder that a) separation between church and state is critical, b) Christians are not and never have been the most tolerant of folk, c) when you marginalize and brutalize people, they will eventually rise up and fight back, d) you cannot live in a vacuum, not matter how hard you try, and c) group think is toxic, and critical thinking is insanely valuable. Both the territorial and inflexible Mormons and the “gentiles” (non-Mormons) who harassed, abused, murdered, and drove the Mormons outside of the US are to blame for the soup of religious fanaticism that resulted in the murder case that Krakauer covered in this book.

There were times when it was difficult for me to read this book. I cannot fathom how someone can get so wrapped up in a faith to the point where they are suffering delusions and becoming detached from reality. This probably has more to do with mental illness than faith. Not even close to every religious person becomes a harmful fanatic. But it was also difficult for me because of how easy it is to write Mormonism off as completely insane. As a modern religion, born in America in the age of publishing, its weird quirks are incredibly fresh and remarkably preserved. It’s very hard not to look at Joseph Smith and scream charlatan. I often wonder how he was able to build such a strong following in Western New York and create what is now the fastest growing religion in the world. But luckily for my biased ass, Krakauer does a wonderful job of setting the scene for the birth of the LDS church. It truly was right place, right time. Western New York was a hotbed for new spiritual movements during what has become known as the Great Awakening. If you want to go down a fun spiral, look up Lily Dale, NY. It’s so interesting.

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Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other more ancient religions have the benefit of time to obscure their more ridiculous aspects. Those more “out there” ideas have taken on a new shape, however, and believers now have the benefit of centuries of refining and theorizing behind their faiths. They have decided how these things fit in the context of a rational, modern life, and it works. Because of where I’m coming from spiritually, most of the theological history brought up in Under the Banner of Heaven sounds ridiculous to me, but I am not here to shame or harm anyone for it. It’s just clearly not for me. Of course, many people at the time of Mormonism’s emergence were not ok with it (much like our society’s current reaction to Scientology). That’s why there was tons of persecution and anti-LDS legislation directed at the Mormons in the mid-1800s. A lot of this was violent and unjustified.

When a people are systematically destroyed over and over again, when their prophet is murdered in what amounts to a lynching, when they are driven from home after home, they tend to want to fight back. The Mormons are some of the greatest community builders ever (out of necessity), but with that skill came a tendency to act like an all-encompassing virus where ever they were forced to relocate. Thinking they were free of the gentiles each time, they set up a strong community and instituted religious law. As other gentile settlers made their way further west, the Mormons were made to assimilate to the United States’ laws and methods of governance. The Mormons also tended (FLDS communities still do) to make their money in less than straight forward methods, ranging from unconventional tactics to straight-up fraud. When it came down to it, the Mormons wanted to live life their way, but in the eyes of the US government and the gentiles, their way of life was harmful and irreconcilable with the current law of the land. And this disagreement would inevitably come to a bloody head, and the Mormons would move further west. Over and over again.

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The stunning LDS temple in Salt Lake City

When the Mormons finally made it out to Utah, it was still under Mexican control. As US settlers traveled to California for the gold rush and to settle out west, the Mormons became increasingly nervous about the US government. This built to an enormous irrational fear and paranoia that ultimately resulted in some devastating violent encounters. The Mountain Hills Massacre is especially painful to hear about.

In the later 1800s, as the US government took control of Utah and other western territories, the Mormons were forced to conform. This is what ultimately lead to the split between the mainstream LDS church and the FLDS church. The Fundamentalists are of the opinion that the mainstream church has turned its back on the true religion, and they mean to live it fully and properly. This includes plural wives and living as far from the restrictions of the government as possible.

On the topic of bigamy…the institution of monogamous marriage is, in my opinion, a method of control. I personally want to be married to only one person, and I definitely want a wedding (which as it turns out will be happening rather soon in my life), but I don’t believe it is the only way to live. I also don’t believe that polyamory is the devil. I don’t believe that bigamy is necessarily bad. Our legal system is structured to accommodate monogamous (and heterosexual until just recently) marriages, so adjusting legal benefits of marriage for multiple partners would take time and be a headache, but I honestly don’t see why being married to multiple people would be bad. What IS bad? Saying only men can be married to multiple wives, that women can be taken from their husbands and families and given to another man at the will of the prophet, that children can be married to men, that incest is encouraged, that interracial marriage is evil and illegal, and that homosexuality (or any LGBTQ leanings) is a sin. Let’s not twist any words here.

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Ron left, Dan right

So it was here that the Lafferty brothers found themselves in the ’80s. They were already devoted Mormons, doing good work in their community, but then Ron Lafferty began leaning more radical with his theology. This resulted in his excommunication from the mainstream LDS Church, which does not tolerate the FLDS ways, and the loss of his wife and family. But that didn’t stop him from influencing his brothers and living this radicalized life. But Brenda fought back and was vocal about her opposition to Ron brainwashing her husband. She played a big role getting Ron’s wife to leave him (due to abusive circumstances), and she rejected his ideology in her home. Particularly bigamy.

Ron saw Brenda as the cause for his downfall, and so he took blood atonement for the perceived wrongs done to him. Blood atonement was preached in the early days of the LDS church as a reaction to all the violence done to Mormons at the time. Basically, take the blood of those who have hurt you as payment. Another LDS tenant that would contribute to this is their strong connection with God. They believe that God speaks directly to them, especially their profits. And when God gives you a directive, you must honor it. To Ron and his brother Dan, what they did made complete sense, and neither of them think they did anything wrong. God spoke to Ron and told him to remove Brenda and Erica, as well as others he felt ruined him. Luckily, he never was able to take more lives.

So I basically just summed up the book for everyone in 2000 words, but what I really want to talk about is what we can learn about hate from reading this. The Mormons were met with some vitriolic hate very early on in their development for really no good reason. Of course, the more hate the Mormons were given, the more hate they returned, and vice versa. We’re seeing a lot of that happen right now in America. I am not a love trumps hater, and I firmly believe that we need to stand up to white supremacists and Nazis, but there are others that we need to take a different approach with. A conversation goes a really long way.

When you don’t sit and listen to the lives, beliefs, and experiences of others, but instead jump to half-baked conclusions and extreme reactions, you cause a ripple effect of harm that shapes generations. When you use racial slurs or show racist iconography (yes, the Confederate flag is racist), stereotype someone who is different from you, support police brutality (because if you’re not speaking out against it you are complicit), judge people on EBT, deny healthcare to women, insight hate against Muslims, treat people poorly because they have less of an education…the list goes on… you are shaping a future of violence. Those people react in violent, desperate ways after a while because they see no alternative. This turns into regular practice and becomes a part of culture. So now you have a bigger problem: systemic violence and hate deeply rooted.

This country has really gotten me down lately, and I’m pretty disgusted at the things I’ve been seeing and hearing. But I’m also not a love trumps hate subscriber, as I mentioned. It’s easy to say you have love in your heart, or to knit a hat. I’m for action. Turn your anger at all of these injustices into fiery action. Donate your time, money, and possessions. Speak up when you see bullshit! Attend local meetings and get involved in local politics. Literally open your home to others in your neighborhood. If we stand any chance of creating a happy future, it needs to be done by showing up and directly combating the hate with positive counteractions that directly improve our communities and the people who live in them.

Phew, that got intense. So yeah, a pretty heavy and complicated story. If you are a true crime lover or interested in religion, you need to read this book. If you enjoy long form journalism, definitely read this book. It blew me away!

I am behind with my shame here, of course, but I’m still listening to Mists of Avalon and have finished up Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman as my June read (late) and Atonement by Ian McEwan as my July read. Atonement is a hard one for me to admit because I have a quote from it tattooed onto my body. The shame runs so deep. I’m currently cracking open Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson for my August adventure! So read along if you’d like and stay tuned for more! I’d love to hear your thoughts on Under the Banner of Heaven, true crime, and/or the FLDS church in the comments. SSDGM. Read on, my friends!

 

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