The Seder, Social Justice, and Leroy Jessop

Bored in VernalBible, FLDS, Jews, LDS lessons, Mormons, polygamy, religion, sacrament, symbols 30 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #13

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.

Comments 30

  1. Since we are talking Jews, I’ll quote one of my favorite, Saul Bellow, “I had concluded long ago, that the Chosen were chosen to read God’s mind. Over the millennia, this turned out to be a zero sum game.”

    Granted the Jews have a couple of millennia on the Mormons, but maybe we shouldn’t be as slow in realizing that feeling you are “Chosen” to be the exclusive bearers of God’s word is a bad, bad idea.

    As for the vagaries of the criminal justice system, racism far out paces religion in heinous prosecutorial overreaching. Maybe locking people up is just a bad idea in general and has nothing to do with religion, except for “when ye have done it to one of the least of these.” Criminal justice, just like ecclesiastical justice tends to follow another guy’s admonition about the powerful practicing unrighteous dominion.

    Besides, Jessop made the unfortunate decision to locate in Texas — George Bush’s state, the state of kill all the criminals, the state of self-righteous cowboy hats and conservative tribalism in most of its worst forms.

  2. First, I’ll put in a plug for my post of last year on this subject, Christ in the Passover ( ).

    While it is true that Jews have assigned all kinds of different meanings to the story of the Passover, (one can find a plethora of Haggadot, the liturgy of the Seder, which deal with the holocaust, women’s issues, the Israel-Palestine conflict, etc) the main story deals simply with God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage. But, it must be remembered that their bondage was partially their own fault.

    Jacob’s family settled comfortably into the Land of Goshen when God specifically told them their land of inheritance was Canaan. Abraham prophesied that his people would be in bondage for 400 years because “they were strangers in a land not theirs.” (Genesis 15:13-14). When a Pharaoh rose up who “knew not Joseph,” their time was up. And they were enslaved.

    So, part of the lesson, for me, has to do with making sure we do not put ourselves in a position where we might have a problem and need to be rescued from our own decisions. The other part is that in spite of that tendency, Jesus Christ is there to redeem us from those mistakes. Just as He did the Jews long ago.

  3. I think the connection between the passover and the struggle of others who perhaps stand apart from us is a challenging one. For me it raises questions of whether we can support someone else in their sinner, i.e. how far can we take the message to love the sinner while hating the sin, to use a common Mormon cliche.

    I suppose that my heart tells me that oppression and discrimination are the more dangerous sins to battle socially or collectively and that we should let the consequences for wrong-doing work themselves out according to the law of restoration (i.e. you get good for good etc. Alma 41). This means that we fight against intolerance and that we let individuals work out their own salvation.

    BiV, I think the connections made here are challenging and insightful, thank you. (I only hope I have not completely mis-read you as I am disposed to do…)

  4. You make a good point about social justice for FLDS men. While few people condone 30 year old men having sex with 15 years girls–excluding the Utah State Legislature which gave member Kevin Garn a standing ovation after he admitted to his hot tubbing incident–yet, the sentences given the FLDS men are far greater than those which non-religious rapists receive. I detect a shred of hypocrisy in Mormons who want to throw the book at FLDS polygamists but make heroes of their own ancestors who went to prison for plural marriages–some of which were to girls younger than 18.

  5. Stephen, I know! The FLDS are men who take care of their babies, and the injustice of what has happened here really steams me.

    Ulysses, in this post I certainly haven’t made any claims that the Church is the exclusive bearer of God’s word. Rather, I have pointed out the similarities in our symbolic identification with the Jewish Exodus.

    Jeff, perhaps only an ex-Jew could get away with the statement that bondage in Egypt was the Jews’ fault! Thanks for the link.

    Aaron, good comment, I think you only mis-read me on feminist issues 🙂

    CC, Kevin Garn = eyeroll. Why indeed are our ancestors heroes for doing the EXACT SAME THING as these men? Do we think the FLDS are any less religiously motivated than the pioneers?

  6. #2: “As for the vagaries of the criminal justice system, racism far out paces religion in heinous prosecutorial overreaching.”

    Yes. A white person who commits murder is substantially more likely to get the death penalty than a black person who commits murder.

    Alternatively — rather than concluding that the criminal justice system is biased against whites — you could question whether there are some other factors at play here, like the possibility that the kind of murders white vs. black people tend to commit are different, with the former tending to specialize in truly nasty, hang-worthy murders, and the latter tending more to just ordinary decent killing.

    While we probably do overincarcerate — mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenses are a Really Bad Idea — the majority of people in prison (at least in California) are there for doing harm to, as you put it, “the least of these my brethren.” The sad truth is that one of the worst things about being a poor American (where you are subsidized to a level of comfort that a lower-middle class American would have enjoyed in the 1940s) is that you have to live among other poor Americans, a tragic percentage of which have no compunction about preying on their neighbors. (Rich Americans are probably just as wicked, but like Bernie Madoff, they tend to do their wickedness at a decent distance, often to people whose own greed makes them vulnerable. They don’t bother their immediate neighbors — appearances, you know.) Most guys in prison should be happy they didn’t live in Moses’ time; they’d already have been stoned to death. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of defending modern notions of “social justice”, in dealing with criminals, by traditions initiated by people who had rather more vigorous attitudes towards people who do evil.

    Sorry for the rant — we here in California just finished sentencing Rodney Alcala to his third death sentence for a murder of a young girl in 1979 (and for killing five other women since then), a case which had a particularly destructive effect on my wife’s childhood innocence, due to some connections. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I too often see “social justice” raised as a reason why this man, who should’ve been hung at least two decades ago, ought not to have unhyphenated justice done to him.

    BTW, my cowboy hat isn’t at all self-righteous. My pith helmet, on the other hand, does get a bit supercilious now and again.

    #6: “Why indeed….?” Say it with me: “That was then, this is now.” The universal solvent of embarrassing parallels.

  7. BiV”

    “Jeff, perhaps only an ex-Jew could get away with the statement that bondage in Egypt was the Jews’ fault! Thanks for the link.”

    Not an ex-Jew, I am a Jew from birth, not adopted into….. And I only said, partly! 🙂

  8. “vigorous attitudes toward people who do evil”
    So Thomas, do you really want to equate FLDS marriage practices to serial murder?? How do you think OT Hebrews would have viewed Jessop’s “crime?”

  9. #9 — Er…no. So I didn’t. Rant directed towards “Maybe locking people up is just a bad idea in general.”

    But now that you mention in, I don’t know — do the FLDS men ever marry multiple women who are sisters to each other, as was common in mainstream LDS polygamy (including Joseph’s and Brigham’s practice)? Not supposed to do that (Leviticus 18:18), though it doesn’t specify the punishment if you do. On the other hand, if you marry a mother and her daughter (also done in pioneer Utah, and apparently in the case of two of Joseph’s wives, Patty B. Sessions and Sylvia P. Sessions Lyon), Leviticus 20:14 is pretty hard-core: “And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you.”

  10. The FLDS are men who take care of their babies, and the injustice of what has happened here really steams me.

    I guess maybe we have different ideas about the meaning of “taking care of their babies” and “injustice.” Because aren’t the FLDS men who allow their teenage daughters to be coerced into marriages to middle-age lechers and who allow their teenage sons to be cast out from the community on pretexts because there aren’t enough girls to go around?

  11. #12 — The FLDS do marry women who are sisters – just check out Wikipedia’s article on Rulon Jeffs (the FLDS Prophet before Warren Jeffs) for a wedding photo of Rulon with two sisters, Edna and Mary Fischer:

    I’ve heard that Warren married women and then later married their daughters (from previous marriages) so that’s in violation of Leviticus 20:14. He has also married women who were previously married to his father, which I don’t think is permitted by the Bible, either.

    But then again, weren’t Rachel and Leah sisters?

  12. #5 – Regarding the sentences that FLDS members receive, I think several factors come into play. Once is the likelihood of recidivism. I don’t think any of the indicted men have expressed regret or made an apology or stated that they wouldn’t do it again. Warren Jeffs could “assign” them a new 14-year-old co-bride at any time.

    In addition, Leroy Jessop father MULTIPLE children with his victim while she was still underage. And he asked Warren Jeffs if he could yank her out of school after she just finished eighth grade, so she could spend more time at home. Jessop lied to a doctor by telling him that he was his underage victim’s “uncle.” When a Child Protective Services worker asked the underage girl how old she was, Jessop told the girl “You are 18.” Pictures of the underage girl with her baby were deleted from Jessop’s home computer the day after law enforcement personnel began to search YFZ ranch for a victim of abuse. All this information came out at the trial and probably resulted in Leroy’s longer sentence.

  13. Lori #12 — I think Moses (or his Instructor) decided, from Rachel and Leah’s experience, that getting two sisters married to the same man was nuttin’ but trouble. (Clearly this was what Irving Berlin was thinking of when he wrote “Sisters”: “Lord help the sister/Who comes between me and my man!”

    But again, Leviticus didn’t assign a penalty for marrying sisters, so maybe it was more “guideline” than rule. The “no mother and daughter” rule looks pretty firm, though. Under the Mosaic law, it would be time for a Warrenbecue. Toss the girls on the fire, too; can’t have “wickedness” about.

    The Hebrews had some decent “social justice” customs, for their time, but I’m glad we’ve improved on their thinking. We’d have rotator-cuff injuries galore from heaving all the rocks the Mosaic law commands that we throw at people who, to our ways of thinking, don’t deserve treatment quite that strict.

  14. BIV:

    I’m having a hard time following you on this one and I don’t see any social injustice. I think Pedophilia is one of the worst crimes against humanity. This one strikes home for me as my Daughter is 15. To think of a grown man having sex with her is beyond comprehension. I realize the norms were different in the days of Abraham, Issac, Jacob; and even in the days Joesph and Brigham. The concept of Polygamy was justifiable in their days, but clearly not necessary this day and age, especially with a 15 year old girl.

  15. Ken, I understand how you feel, and I have 7 daughters myself. However, I cannot stress enough that the FLDS situation is light years away from pedophilia. This is a culture and a religion with a different value system, economic structure, and faith than most are used to. Whether or not any of us agree with that system, who are we to say that they are wrong and we are right? For centuries, millennia perhaps, young women in different cultural milieu than our own have entered into the world of adulthood as they reach puberty. This is not the choice I would make. It is not the choice I would wish for my children. But I believe it is a valid choice for these people. Their girls are trained from a young age to be ready to marry and have children. We may believe that we give our daughters a better choice, but we train them as well, in different ways. We train them to be baptized and ally themselves with the Church by the time they are 8 years old. We train our boys to go on missions. Why do we think our unusual culture “in this day and age” is so superior to what has been successfully practiced by many different cultures over time?

    Now, the (recent) laws of Texas have assigned an arbitrary age of consent. I believe that if the FLDS are to live within the bounds of the United States and enjoy privileges here, they must remain subject to these laws. However, when sentencing them for their crimes, the court should not discriminate because of their religious views. In these kinds of cases, it is customary for offenders to receive lighter sentences due to mitigating factors such as first time offense and consent of the victim. These were present in the Leroy Jessop case but were ignored by the jury. This harsh of a sentence is virtually unheard of, except for the most horrible, repeated, violent rapes. All of the dispassionate legal opinions I have read in this case agree that the 75 year sentence was unusual and extreme. And I find no other explanation but that it was done in religious persecution.

  16. Not to be rude, but I’d like to have a show of hands here how many people who have responded favorably to flds men have ancestors with polygamy in their background.

    This is something that as a convert I have a hard time dealing with. And once I say that, I know that I am going to be labeled anti-even though I’ve been a member for well over 20 years. I’m sorry but I don’t see the government involvement of this case as religious persecution. We have a tendency of railing against the government; and by government I’m including DHS when they don’t step into a situation that could have prevented a tragic situation from occuring,(i.e) jonestown massacre, where over half of the victims were children and recently a case in jersey where a child of 17 was found eating out of a garbage can because he was literatlly being starved to death.
    As it was the medical records for these children were laxidacal (Iknow I spelled it wrong)at best. They couldn’t even tell who was related to whom from all inter-relationships and the false reporting.
    I may be in the minority, but I’m glad the government stepped in and did something because I don’t think the children had a say in any of the things that went on.

  17. Post

    Dblock, I am also a convert. (of over 20 years). I find the majority of LDS, even with polygamous backgrounds, would heartily agree with you. Indeed, I am surprised that I had as positive a response as I did on this post.

  18. BIv:

    Like we have in the past, we will have to agree to disagree. I think the Rape of a child should be punished by death.

  19. Yes, well on a recently posted article on child brides, on FMH, I basically said the same things and then I said something about the smoot papers and got branded an Anti, which I found offensive. I don’t understand how otherwise educated woman can speak so glowing of an era in church history which did little to protect the rights of woman and children.

    Am I wrong in thinking this. I don’t think so. I think the practice leads to abuse and for people not to recognize this in this day and age is a crime.

  20. Dblock (and Ken, and others)
    I don’t think you are WRONG to think this. However, I hope you will try to recognize that others have valid reasons why they believe the way they do. I think it is possible that women and even very young women in Fundamentalist groups are making an informed choice. I think it is possible that God had something to do with polygamy in the OT and in the nineteenth-century Mormon practice. I don’t see much of a difference in the way it is practiced by Fundamentalist groups today. If God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” the “this day and age” argument doesn’t hold much water.

  21. I’ll weigh in again and suggest that we need to be clear in our language. Whatever you may think about older men marrying teenage girls (I’m agin’ it), it’s not “pedophilia.” We may prefer, in our enlightened time, to delay the onset of presumed adulthood to, oh, thirty (or older, for my bro. in law), but biologically, puberty is a useful bright line between “pedophilia” and just “yuck.” Hang the former; no argument from me; the latter gets more complicated, especially in light of what was acceptable in most of the world until just the last century.

    What makes me shake my head, is that the same people (generally speaking) who think it’s horrible for FLDS teenage girls to marry older men, are adamantly opposed to teaching other teenage girls abstinence-based sex ed — because (in part) that is a value judgment that teenage girls shouldn’t be having sex.

  22. I agree with you up to a point, how can they make an informed choice, if they

    1) aren’t taught about any other way of life
    2) are told that they are bad and sinful and are going to go to hell if they don’t obey all the commandments as set forth in their particular organization. This is what makes fundamentalist dangerous. And I mean all fundamentalist in every religion, not just lds faith.


    You are comparing apples to oranges..

    One thing has nothing to do with the other for the following reason

    1) Condoning older men with pre pubescent girls for sexual gratification and then using religion as a means to justify the activity is wrong both legally, emotionally and spiritually

    2) Most parents are opposed to abstinence based sex education because the classes are making a judgment against the girls who are sexually active(by consent with someone who is usually their own age). The classes don’t provide the kids with the basics of how to prevent an STD, or even how to use a condom correctly. Which I know is the point of Abstinence based education, but I also think its criminal neglect in this day and age that we keep out children in the dark and not teach them things that will help to save their lives.

    On a side note, I’m always amazed that parents speak about their daughters sexually activity, but never their sons. Even on talk shows, its always the teen age daughters, How about teaching our sons about respect.

  23. #26: “Condoning older men with pre pubescent girls for sexual gratification…”

    Please read my post again.

    If a teenager is too immature to fairly consent to sex in the context of a polygamous marriage, she’s too immature to consent to sex with an equally-immature teenage boy. The vast majority of teenagers who have sex are acting like total bloody idiots, with no realistic comprehension whatsoever of the risks they’re taking. If that’s a value judgment, I’ve got no problems with anyone making it.

    Frankly, most high school kids will blow off whatever you tell them anyway, so the utility of either prophylactic-based or abstinence-based sex ed is probably marginal anyway.

  24. BIV:

    My suggestion would be to read the second chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon. Polygamy is appropriate when (Jacob 2:28-29) 1) the Lord commands it, and 2) It is to rise up a righteous seed. Like any other behavior, you can judge it by it’s Fruits (Matthew 7), if the Fruits are good the behavior is good. The end result of the passage in Jacob is that those who do not follow his command on this issue, “Cursed will be their lands”. If this is not a perfect description of the FLDS, I don’t know what is. Anyone that has visited Colorado City or Hilldale will understand by point. It is the armpit of the universe and most of the population is sucking off the Government tit.

  25. 27. Thomas: “If a teenager is too immature to fairly consent to sex in the context of a polygamous marriage, she’s too immature to consent to sex with an equally-immature teenage boy.”
    This makes absolutely no sense. Statutory rape laws are in place to punish cases of an adult taking sexual advantage of a minor (especially in cases where the minor is economically, socially, and/or legally unequal to the adult, as with the FLDS indictments). The law isn’t there to criminalize teenage experimentation.

  26. Good Thought.the God of Abraham Issac and Jacob has the right to proclaim the whole truth! If you knew the way to a betetr life that offered forgiveness and joy and peace…wouldn’t you want to share it with a lost and dying world..Jewish people need redemption just like us Gentiles do how is it that scientology,cult practices..and occult practices homosexuality.and so many other blatant ‘sins’ that offend a Holy God does not seem to cause you to cast them out as non Jews which is what the Holy Scripture.

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