Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Under The Banner Of Heaven

Hold on to your hats, (and maybe get a seat cushion) because I've got some opinions about this one.

First of all, I'm not a frequent reader (or anytime reader) of the warped mental state of a murderer or of anti-mormon literature. I made an exception for this book. You'll see why.

While not exclusively about the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter, Erica, the jacket's description about her murder and her murderers snagged my interest. Brenda was my first cousin and even though her murder took place when I was not quite nine years old, I remember it and was traumatized by it.

I remember driving with her and her husband, Alan, back to my Aunt's house after a family reunion activity at a park. She was gorgeous and on the way home, she told me she'd pierce my ears (a highly desired goal of mine). After she was murdered, we went to the funeral and I remember all of the police cars surrounding the stake center. Her murder was, as yet, unsolved, and the Laffertys were still on the loose. It was scary and sad and I had nightmares afterwards. Were they coming after all her relations? Even the cousins two states away?

The book is kind to Brenda. She was a young mother to 15 month old Erica, and realized fairly early on that the family she married into was not what she originally thought. I think the most tragic thing revealed is the posthumous knowledge about how unhappy she was. She left journals describing the mess around her and her desire to leave. But, she thought she could still save her marriage, and her husband from the influences of his brothers.

Her older brothers-in-law became convinced that they didn't have to pay taxes, didn't have to have driver's licenses, didn't have to work and that the LDS church had gone astray when it did away with polygamy. They started having meetings, organizing a School of Prophets and limiting the freedom of their wives, who they now believed were to be subject and subservient to them. No more access to money or driving, the wives listened to Brenda, who of all the wives of the six Lafferty brothers, was the most educated and, probably more importantly, the least exposed to their perversions. She convinced the wife of the eldest brother, Ron, to leave her husband and protect their six children as he talked about arranging for his eldest daughter, only twelve, into a polygamous marriage.

Ron's wife left, and Ron fell further into a delusional state. While doped out on marijuana and alcohol, he'd have "revelations" that he'd type into a computer and discuss with the other members of the group - mostly his brothers, but a few others as well. Eventually, he received what he called, the "removal revelation" that commanded that Brenda, Erica, the RS president who helped his wife through their divorced and the stake president that presided over his ex-communication should be killed.

While most of the group told Ron that this was a bad thing, and they would not support it, his brother Dan believed that his brother had honestly received the revelation and worked with him to accomplish it. They consecrated a knife to use. They picked the date - pioneer day, and in one of the controversies that is still not understood, discussed it in front of their mother and Brenda's husband, Alan.

Dan Lafferty, Ron's younger brother, is the worst kind of scary. Polite and nice and completely deceived, he still believes that he was commanded to kill an innocent woman and her baby and feels no remorse. He believes that he is Elijah and will be the one to foretell the second coming of Christ. He thinks he is good. He thinks he's just trying harder to be good than the rest of us.

Somehow, in his and every other story of fundamentalism that Krakauer exposed, their justification for doing evil and ignoring good is all founded on extreme and polarizing doctrines. Polygamy. Visions. Revelation. Line of succession. All legitimate things to think and worry about, but they seem to completely ignore the important things that Christ taught while on earth. Say...something like....blessed are the peacemakers. And loving our neighbors. And repentance, hope, forgiveness, charity and love. I think until we master these, the mysteries of promise of further knowledge is a long ways away.

Kraukauer argues that religion, particularly the history of the LDS religion is prone to produce extremists who do more harm than good. Much like that of Islamic fundamentalists, the religion's history is one of violence and secrecy.

I can't say he is entirely wrong. I do think there is a propensity for believers to fall into extreme behavior. However, while Krakauer believes it has something to do with the doctrine or leaders, I believe it is entirely due to opposition.

Good things - the best things - are perverted the most.

The family, a loving shelter for children to grow up protected and loved, is crumbling in every society in the world. Parent's don't have to be committed to each other, or their children, any longer and children are left exposed and expected to understand adult things way too early. Like why mommy has sleepovers. Or why I have two daddies. Adults may be free to do adult things, but adults don't live in bubbles. Our children see it. And they use our example for the basis of their own family. These are not good things. Abuse, neglect, control...all contrary to what loving mothers and fathers are expected to do.

Sex, a necessary and beautiful part of The Plan of Happiness, a way to express love, joy and commitment to a husband or wife and bring children into the world is viewed either as a dirty and ugly thing to stay away from or view with distaste, even within a loving marriage, or as a pornographic and debasing way to treat another human being. Pedophiles, fetishes, adultery...all selfish and about the individual's own pleasure. If it feels good, do it regardless of who you hurt. A complete perversion.

Religion, a means to learn about worship God. And yet, so much evil, so much harm throughout history to His children has been brought about by its name. I don't believe any evil has been done by those truly devoted to God. I really don't. It has all been done by those influenced, knowingly or not, by the great deceiver, Satan. I think those who don't believe, like Krakauer himself, find it awfully easy to find fault with faith, with religion, because they focus and magnify the imperfections of man. He translates it into an imperfect or non-existent God, which is easy for him to do. He has the proof. Look! This man murdered his sister-in-law! That is no God I believe in. Well, Jon, neither do I.

There were parts of this book I read like a Jon Stossel book. You know the guy who does those myths and consumer reports? Like Stossel, Krakauer sounds so informed, so fair and accurate that his expose seems complete and thoroughly researched until you read about something that you actual know about...perhaps even more than he and his "year" of studying. I know very little about the fundamentalist LDS offshoots who thrive in southern Utah, Colorado, Canada and Mexico. I've never been all that curious. But I know a bit about the LDS church. And in my lifetime of study, there is so much to learn about the good things, the important things, that there isn't much interest or energy for me to worry about people who think that the church went off course when it banned polygamy or allowed all worthy males to hold the priesthood.

So, like most readers I imagine, I found myself thinking, "cuckcoo!" when he described the living situation of polygamist families. But, his bias was loud and clear, and when he wrote about the history that we share....about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and John Taylor, I knew the spirit of the book. Every single one of his sources was a dissenter or apostate...as if they had the inside track to truth. Shading, innuendo, rumors and hearsay are all given as proof and fact of corruption and deception.

While I'm not naive enough to think that the church has no black eyes in its history, I can't admire a critic who presents only one side of a story. Krakauer commits a real blunder by limiting the story of faith to people with none or an extremely warped sense of it. And he certainly didn't provide justice to my cousin's story.

Brenda Lafferty's story was a story about the LDS faith. Of goodness. Of kindness and strength in helping her neighbor. Of a willingness to stand up to evil and unholiness. Brenda Lafferty's story is the real story of a believer.

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