22 November 2013

When Mercy Seasons Judgment

One of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays is The Merchant of Venice.  The plot follows Antonio, a merchant who has placed virtually all of his money in some ships at sea that he is sure will be safe.  A friend, Bassanio, comes and asks him for a loan to assist him in the wooing of a woman named Portia.  Antonio instead seeks out a loan in his own name through the Jewish merchant, Shylock.  Antonio has long mocked and made fun of Shylock, who sees his chance to get revenge on the Christian Antonio and tells him that he will give the money so long as Antonio puts down a pound of his own flesh as collateral on the loan just in case his ship doesn't (literally) come in.

Of course since this happens within the first act of the play, Antonio's ships all run into trouble or we would have no story.  The climax of the play occurs in the courtroom where Shylock demands justice upon the bond that he has claim to and Antonio begs for mercy.  The lawyer Balthazar (actually Portia in disguise), tries to convince Shylock of the benefits of mercy (not least of which because Bassanio is married to her now and can pay off the bond three times over), but Shylock sticks to his guns.  He is tired of being usurped by the conniving and mean Christians.  Tired of being mocked and used because of his faith.  In the end he stands by the absurd demands of the contract to the letter.  Even when Portia asks him to have a doctor on hand for the inevitable need of Antonio after he's lost a pound of his flesh, Shylock refuses, stating that he does not have any legal obligation to provide one.

So Portia decides instead to give him a taste of his own medicine and says that if Shylock is to take any more or less than an exact pound, then the bond his forfeit.  What's more, should he take anything other than flesh, the bond is forfeit.  No blood - not a single drop - can be spilled.  It's an impossible situation and Shylock leaves the play with no justice - and under court order to denounce his faith and to be baptized a Christian.

Although the play also includes a rather silly (and perhaps even pointless) subplot involving Portia's love life - what interests me most about this play is the way history has evolved our views on it.  In Shakespeare's day, Shylock was a pure villain.  In our post World War II world, Shylock is much more sympathetic.  His demands for justice are read more as the attempts of a marginalized man to gain some respect (even if it is through rather extreme ways) than as the devil himself battling the quality of mercy.  Instead of a pure hero and pure villain, we end up with two men fighting head to head like rams - neither are pure anything.  Both have done good, and not so good things.  It amazes me how easy it was for both men to assume and judge and criticize and demand.  How easy it is for any of us to refuse to see and appreciate the difficulties we place on one another.

I read another essay with my students at the end of the year by Emerson that is called "Circles" that touches on this principle.  It's brain-bending essay that suggests that the truth that we know should always be expanding.  Sometimes, Emerson says, truths trump truths.  Both things are still true - but our understanding of how to act on and apply these truths shifts.  The example I give is of Nephi and Laban in The Book of Mormon.  Nephi, who has been raised to follow the Law of Moses, has been taught that to kill is wrong.  But then he's told to kill.  It is true that killing is wrong.  It is also true that if Laban is not killed, then "generations will dwindle in unbelief" - and the second truth overcomes the need to follow the first in this instance.  So what is the real truth?  The real truth here as far as I can see is that you follow God.  Following God allows an individual to obey both truths, even when they seem to contradict.

I've thought about this principle of following the higher law a lot this year.  When I attend Sunday School and they talk about how the standards of God never change.  When I watch my fellow sisters "protest" with pants or by asking to go to the Priesthood meeting.  When I read stories of the homosexual LDS community and the way that they are striving to live the gospel in a church that, on the whole, still contains a membership that doesn't know what to do with them.  I look at all of the debate and all the frustration and all the holier-than-thou and "I obviously know more than you" on both sides of the table and wish that somehow we could all just stop being so busy being right for one second and understand that ultimately we're all shooting for doing what God wants us to do.  What if we stopped to consider that it is totally possible for God to answer the prayers of two people differently on the same topic?  To tell one person to vote democrat and the other republican.  To tell one person to protest and the other to stay home.  To tell one person to watch a movie and the other not to.

I don't consider myself outside of guilt on this topic.  Only last week I sat through a Sunday School lesson where ideas on topics that I don't share (re: rated R movies and the limitations of the priesthood) were presented as doctrine and I had to hold back some frustration.  What I am suggesting is not that we refrain from all judgement, but that we more often season our justice, as Portia suggests, with mercy.  Give each other the benefit of the doubt.  And, most of all, allow individuals the right to worship "how, where, or what they may".

21 November 2013

Why I listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving

Side note: Do you think some people don't capitalize words in their blog titles (or anywhere on their blog) for a design choice or because they just don't know what to capitalize?

It was Halloween several years ago.  I got into my car and turned on the radio.  The station that I'd been listening to the day before was now joyfully ringing out the tunes of "Jingle Bell Rock".  "Those Utahn's love their Christmas," I thought.  "Surely you should wait until at least Black Friday."

A few weeks later Christmas lights started showing up on houses.  "Understandable," I decided.  No one wants to hang lights when it's below freezing.  But surely you should at least wait to turn them on until after Thanksgiving - the Christmas season is much better enjoyed in small but potent doses.  Too much Rudolph can't be good for anyone.

Then the first snow came.  The first real snow.  The first "I can make a snowman" snow.  The first agonizing Narnian snow that always makes me simultaneously homesick for childhood and for combination creepy/charming kidnapping you but still friendly faun friends.  And I couldn't help myself.  I turned on the radio and was in Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra heaven before anyone had even thought about buying their Thanksgiving turkey.

"This is wrong!" I thought.  "But why does it feel so right?!"

Because, said a little voice in my head.  Christmas is awesome.  But no really - it's full of awe.  And the Spirit.  And Scrooge said we should keep Christmas all the year.

There's been a slew of posts on my Facebook feed lately from people who demand for the official divorce of Christmas and Thanksgiving.  "Stop listening to Christmas music!  You're forgetting Thanksgiving!" People say.  "Putting up your tree before Thanksgiving is just wrong."

I'll admit - I don't quite get it.  What about Thanksgiving and Christmas are so fundamentally different that they can't be mixed?  I understand the special quality of Christmas that is, in part, maintained by its four reserved weeks in a year, and even that is too many weeks for me to hear "Jingle Bell Rock" several hundred times.  (Or worse: "Christmas Shoes".)  But must we be so dictatorial about it?

I believe that Thanksgiving is a perfect segue into Christmas.  It puts into our minds just a little bit longer that the true meaning of the holiday season - all two months of it - rests in a spirit of gratitude.  Gratitude for our country and for the men and women who worked hard and overcame so much to "(preserve) us a nation."  It is about gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, which include the freedom of religion and worship of God in whatever manner we deem best.

So while I totally support not putting up your Christmas decor in July or leaving your Christmas lights up all year ('cause that's soooo white trash), I will fully support the right to bring in the spirit of Christmas (which is really the spirit of Christ) as early as they like.