I remember when my mother told me to hit someone.
A junior high school classmate had adopted the habit of punching me in the shoulder whenever he found me within arm’s reach. I tried very hard to adopt an ethos I thought conventional Christian culture demanded. I turned the other shoulder, and after several weeks both my shoulders were badly bruised.
I looked to my mother to re-charge my failing faith in traditional Christian ethics. Now, David, you really can be better than this other boy, she would say to my complaint. Jesus would want you to be a peacemaker. And back to school I would go, renewed in my resignation to suffer, silently, for righteousness’ sake.
“Why don’t you punch him back?” was my mother’s question.
It felt like someone had used my head to crack the Liberty Bell.
I can do that?, I thought (my voice having been rung right out of my head). What about Jesus?
My mother taught me not to let even Jesus tell me what to do.
It may not be obvious, but my mother and her best lesson are very old fashioned. Two hundred years ago, America’s political independence left its inherently revolutionary spirit without a cause, and the consequence was a proliferation along the frontier of new religions that—in a very Jesus-y way—deliberately rejected the presumption of the country’s traditional religions to determine how people should think and behave. Not only Shakers and Quakers and Owenites and Oneida-ists, but New Lights, Reformed Baptists, and Camp-Meeting Methodists looked at the way religion in America was done and chose to do it differently, even in the face of public condemnation.
My mother is the heir of the Mormon spirit from that antique era that saw that convention never justifies itself, and that authority is always contingent. The old-time religion my mother instilled in me, the spirituality I still value, is the wherewithal to say to anyone, “You’re not the boss of me.”
Now, in my case, it’s true, this punch-first-and-turn-a-cheek-later-if-necessary philosophy is mostly self-serving and obstructionist. But my mother demonstrates that being obstinately committed to one’s own course of action can make everyone’s world a better place.
Since retiring years ago, my mother has been giving volunteer service at a local elementary school, facing down the squealing, unruly energy of other people’s children for free. This in spite of common sense and everyone’s assurance that the effort of pushing five children into respectable adulthood has bought her a rest. Anyway, she’s got her own grandchildren to spoil.
At the other extreme, she has also has been giving volunteer service at a local elderly care facility, facing down the grim vision of twilight. This in spite of common sense and everyone’s assurance that, at her age, she should be cruising the Caribbean or bungee-jumping, not confronting the spectre of geriatric debilitation on a daily basis. At least get paid for it.
When you think about it, you discover that this last item is characteristic of the very religious attitude she communicated to me years ago. If death bothers you, punch it in the face.
I not only respect this approach to the world, I love it. I see real divinity in the determination to do, whatever the opposition, or not to do, whatever the incentive. Because we surely can’t be our selves, our true and fully realized selves, if we bow to social pressure, follow convenient conventions, and do what we’re told. One of the things that makes God must be that his or her faith resides solely in himself. Or herself.
That’s another of those cheeky ideas of early Mormonism that keeps me Mormon and makes a great Mother’s Day message: there are lots of gods and at least half of them are women.
No doubt. One of them is my mom.
David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College in Memphis. He is the author of Theatre and Religion on Krishna’s Stage and “My Mormonism: a primer for non-Mormons and Mormons,” alike. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.