October 16, 2008 by The Mormon Worker
by Cory Bushman
“Christ’s teaching to live each day as if it were your last is much smarter than the world’s teaching to get more and more money for the future. Both sides will die, but only one will die prepared and happy. Disciples of Christ will be poor, but that does not mean that they will be sad. It may mean that they will live out on the land or sleep under the stars, that they will be hungry three times a day (just before each meal), that they will be so tired at night that they will fall asleep easily and sleep right through the night, that they will use their time to listen to and help others, and that when they die, their death will have meaning.”
–Leo Tolstoy (What I Believe)
Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.
D & C 18:10
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
The late American novelist and humanist Kurt Vonnegut expressed the importance of The Sermon on the Mount in his last work, A Man Without A Country. Vonnegut wrote, “How do humanists feel about Jesus? I say of Jesus, as all humanists do, If what he said is good, and so much of it is absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not? But if Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I’d just as soon be a rattlesnake.”
In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut tells of a man by the name of Powers Hapgood who was born to a middle-class family in Indianapolis, Indiana. Hapgood became involved in organizing to gain better pay and safer working conditions for his working-class brothers. Powers Hapgood was arrested in a picket line and brought before a judge. The judge, knowing Hapgood’s history asked, “Mr. Hapgood, here you are, you’re a graduate of Harvard. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Hapgood answered the judge: “Why, because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir.”
Recently I was given a gift of a small box with the words, “Plans for the Overthrow” wood burned into the top. Inside of the box is a copy of The Sermon on the Mount. These radical words literally tell us exactly what we must do in order to overthrow chains of oppression and follow Christ.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” (St. Matthew 5:38-48)
Aware of the label of insanity given to those who chose to live the teachings of Christ literally, Tolstoy wrote, “What will sound most crazy in the future will be when they tell how we had a Teacher who showed us clearly and simply what we needed to do to have a better life, and we all said that his rules were too difficult.” We have read, reread, shared and committed to memory the Sermon on the Mount, but has it penetrated our hearts? Has it caused a stirring of the soul and a desire to change the way we live and to obey the teachings Christ? In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma asks us this same question.
“And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?”
Kurt Vonnegut referred to saints as “people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.” We are surrounded by saints. In Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gulag, she includes an account of Margarete Buber-Neumann’s arrest and imprisonment at the Butyrka prison. A fellow inmate had been arrested while wearing “a light summer dress which had turned to rags”. Applebaum tells of Margarete and her fellow cell mates determination to make this woman a new dress. They used rough towels, and burnt ends of matches to mark the pattern. Lighted matches took the place of scissors, and the thread used to sew the dress together was removed from existing clothing. Margarete wrote of the finished product; “The towel dress…went from hand to hand and was beautifully embroidered at the neck, the sleeves, and round the bottom of the skirt. When it was finally finished it was dampened down and carefully folded. The fortunate possessor slept on it at night. Believe it or not, but when it was produced in the morning, it was really delightful; it would not have disgraced the window of a fashionable dress shop.”
Emma Goldman, a famous Jewish anarchist and outspoken atheist, had a similar prison experience, which was recorded in her biography, Living My Life. “Christmas was approaching and my companions were in nervous wonderment as to what the day of days would bring them. Nowhere is Christianity so utterly devoid of meaning as in prison.” Due to their circumstances, few of the women had outside family and friends who would remember them on Christmas day, but Goldman stated that her inmates “clung to the hope that the day of their Saviour’s birth would bring them some kindness.” Long before Christmas, Goldman began to ask “family, comrades, and friends” to send her gifts including; bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, brooches, and other trinkets. Goldman was allowed to store these items in her cell and on Christmas Eve, while the rest of her prison mates were attending the cinema, the gifts were distributed, with the help of three of her neighbors and the prison matron. Goldman recorded, “When the women returned from the cinema, the cell-block resounded with exclamation of happy astonishment. “Santa Claus’s been here! He’s brung me something grand!” “Me, too! Me, too!” reechoed from cell to cell.” Goldman wrote of that Christmas in the Missouri penitentiary as the Christmas which brought her “greater joy than many previous ones outside.” She continued to express her gratitude for friends who allowed her to “bring a gleam of sunshine into the dark lives of (her) fellow-sufferers.”
Another saint, who was caught “behaving decently in a strikingly indecent society” was President Spencer W. Kimball. During one of his many layovers at an airport, he noticed a young pregnant woman with a small child standing in a long line. The woman had been advised by her doctor not to pick up her child unless it was absolutely necessary, which caused onlookers to criticize her parenting skills. President Kimball, then an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the first to ask the woman if she needed assistance. President Kimball not only arranged a flight for the woman and encouraged others in line to assist her, but he also took the time to pick up the child and calm her. When all was made right, President Kimball moved on.
This is an experience that President Kimball most likely did not remember, until he received a letter years later from a returned missionary. The letter told the story of the airport, that he was the baby that the expectant mother gave birth to, and that through President Kimball’s kindness and example, the family became acquainted with the LDS church. Mother Teresa said that, “following Jesus is simple, but not easy. Love until it hurts and then love more.”
The women of Butyrka prison, Emma Goldman and her cellmates, and our beloved Prophet Spencer W. Kimball are all great examples of saints. It is important to note that their actions, their great acts of service, are all things that each one of us are capable of. We can all behave decently in a strikingly indecent society.
In Hebrews 13:2 it reads, “Be not fearful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” In September of 2003, I saw a young boy sitting on the sidewalk, in the shadows of the Salt Lake Temple, holding a sign which read, “talk to me.” The boy wasn’t accepting food or money, just conversation. I was struck by the loneliness and isolation that the world offers, that would cause one to beg for human interaction on the street.
On moving into an apartment in a populated area, I was given a packet of community information. Included in the packet was a pamphlet discouraging residents to give to panhandlers. I was struck by the information found in the pamphlet, and immediately my thoughts turned to The Sermon on the Mount and what the Savior would think of the promotion of neglecting His children. Mother Teresa stated that “In the poor we meet Jesus in the most distressing disguises.” It is easy to help those who we feel deserve help or who we can relate to, but that is not what Christ has asked us to do. Catholic Worker Dorothy Day wrote, “The true atheist is the one who denies God’s image in the ‘least of these.’”
DEATH WITH MEANING
Leon Gieco urgently wrote, “All I ask of God is that I not be indifferent to suffering, that parched death does not find me empty and alone without having done enough.” We should all have such fear, fear that we will not do all that God has asked of us, that we will not relieve the suffering of the world, that we will find ourselves having not done enough. We will all die. We are all mortal beings. Each of us must make the choice to live a life that will give our death meaning. It is that simple. There is a Russian peasant saying which states, “If you drink, you’ll die, and if you don’t drink, you’ll die. Better drink and die.” This is what it means to follow Christ today, to drink of life, to walk in the path of Christ, and to live a life which will give death meaning. We must learn to live lives of meaning, lives that not even death can destroy. Tolstoy said that if Christ were here today he would plead, “For thousands of years you have been doing it your way. Now try my way.”
Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything
upside down. —Oscar Romero