At a Passover Seder this week, President Barack Obama’s message to American Jews focused on social justice. Obama said that the message of the Exodus teaches of oppression to be fought and freedom to be won, and that we all have a responsibility to fight against suffering and discrimination wherever we find it. Some Jewish journalists discussing the remarks saw them as a veiled reprimand against Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Others heartily agreed that Jews should be particularly sensitive to oppression. The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer enthused:
“I’ve viewed Passover as an opportunity not just to reflect on the historical oppression of my own people but on the suffering of others in the present day… Passover doesn’t exist merely for Jews to congratulate ourselves on our continued existence — although that is no mean feat. The reminder that we were once slaves in Egypt is meant to make us consider contemporary questions of justice… If you’re unable to take away from Passover an understanding of your own role as a Jew in fighting the injustice done to other people who do not also happen to be Jewish, the experience is meaningless.”
It could be that the symbolic elements of the Jewish Passover are more meaningful to Mormons than to any religious group outside the Jews themselves. We recognize the emblems of the Seder to be representative of the Messiah who came in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The lesson material includes several connections between descriptions of the Passover in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ. It was during a Passover seder that Jesus proclaimed that the meal represented Himself and that He was instituting the New Covenant, which is celebrated by Christians in the form of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland admonished Latter-day Saints to view this sacrament as our passover, remembrance of our safety and deliverance and redemption.
In addition, Mormons experienced their own Exodus when they were led out of the boundaries of the United States by their “American Moses,” Brigham Young. Leonard J. Arrington subtitled his biography of Young “American Moses,” explaining:
“Brigham was the same sort of a leader as Moses in serving people for a long period of time, in achieving their goal of entering into a kingdom blessed by God… Brigham was something for us that Moses was for the people of Israel. He led his people figuratively and quite literally, and they survived because of that leadership and their faith.
I do think the epic stories which identify the early Mormons and the children of Israel as a people persecuted for their religious convictions are meaningful. Obama’s exhortation to use this as a motivator to fight injustice rings true to my “Latter-day Israelite” heart. And this is why I’ve identified so strongly with the plight of the FLDS men of the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas who are now being sentenced for their plural marriages. I don’t expect any of the readers here at Mormon Matters to agree with me on this. But I’m sad that the justice system is sending hard-working, religiously-motivated men to prison, depriving their young wives and children of their loving care. I often wonder why we, with the heritage we have of being misunderstood for our unusual marital practices, are not more sympathetic to the men who have been sentenced this month. In particular, I speak of Merril Leroy Jessop, who was sentenced March 19th to a 75-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine. To me, this seems a clear case of religious discrimination and oppression. Jessop was accused of having sex with a girl who was 15 years old when he was 31 and already married. Even if you think these men are criminals who deserve to be punished and these young women are victims, the sentence is excessive. A Wikipedia article states that the average sentence for convicted rapists was 11.8 years, while the actual time served was 5.4 years. What sets this case apart from many other similar situations? The prosecution asked the jury to send a message to a collective group of people, to make the price so high to dissuade others from doing the same. This is unconstitutional and in my eyes constitutes religious persecution.
I don’t want to go on about this particular case — it’s only one example of what I see as injustice and oppression, and there are of course many more. But I do appreciate President Obama’s invitation to connect Exodus and the Passover story with social justice. I thought I’d share with you what’s going through my mind during this Passover week, and what I’ll be thinking of as LDS Sunday School classes comfortably discuss Moses.