One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father, who was a blessed peacemaker, settling disputes in our family by using a Samoan saying he had learned on his mission in the South Seas a few years before. “E eseese pato,” he would say, which meant literally, “Ducks are different”—or in other words, “Each of us is unique; be tolerant. People are different, but that’s not necessarily bad.”
I feel certain that this oft-repeated experience with my father was the beginning of my understanding about differences in people.
President Gordon B. Hinckley recently commented on a problem that is related to the principle my father taught. He said: “We live in a society that feeds on criticism. Faultfinding is the substance of columnists and commentators, and there is too much of this among our own people. It is so easy to find fault, and to resist doing so requires much discipline. … The enemy of truth would divide us and cultivate within us attitudes of criticism which, if permitted to prevail, will only deter us in the pursuit of our great divinely given goal. We cannot afford to permit it to happen.” (Ensign, May 1982, p. 46.)
How should we respond in these troubled times as we are faced with daily criticism and hostility in the world? and how should we respond to the everyday frictions and failings in our own lives?
I would like to suggest that part of the answer can be found in two phrases in our own Articles of Faith. The eleventh article of faith reads: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Italics added.)
“Allow all men the same privilege” expresses, of course, the idea of religious tolerance. And I like to think that this is a gospel principle that can be extended to include tolerance in all its forms, which is what my father wanted me to understand.
In the thirteenth article of faith is another phrase that is related to the first: “We believe … in doing good to all men.” (Italics added.)
It seems to me that “doing good to all men” expresses a quality that goes a step beyond “allowing all men the same privilege”—something we might call compassion, or the Savior’s kind of love. I believe tolerance leads to compassion, and that there are no shortcuts to Christlike love which can bypass tolerance.
The opposite of tolerance, of course, is intolerance, or self-righteousness—other words for the faultfinding and criticism President Hinckley described. Why are we sometimes critical and intolerant of those around us?
I suggest that it’s because of the kinds of differences my father pointed out to me. We separate ourselves from others by the differences we see. We feel comfortable with those who dress like we do, think like we do, and act like we do; and we feel uncomfortable with those who are different.
Physical deformities or differences, for example, can sometimes cause discomfort. Of course, most people would never openly draw attention to such differences. But would you put forth the effort to get past the difference to establish a warm relationship? The gospel teaches us that that which is eternal in us provides kinship that no physical differences should undermine.
Age is one difference that should make very little difference. How well I remember, when I was thirty five, the tender moment when a lovely eighty-two-year-old woman whom I had idealized told me she prized me as her friend. Foolishly I had never seen friendship bridging the so-called age barrier in that way. But much of what I know I have learned from watching and listening to those older and wiser and those younger and wiser than I.
Some differences, like the physical ones I’ve just noted, don’t matter at all and should never divide us. Most cultural differences also fall into this category. We are a worldwide church and represent many different cultures. We cannot afford lapses into provincialism.
As a young bride, newly arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I experienced some cultural shock. In those days Boston billed itself as the hub of culture, which included the leading families of a society very unfamiliar to me. In our first Relief Society meeting in a little old house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, I listened as a strong, faithful, wise woman (a longtime resident) implored us:
“Now don’t you Utah girls come here and hold your noses for four years wishing you were back in the only true West, where things are done right. Absorb this wonderful culture! Learn New England cookery. Get to know your Yankee neighbors. That may take some patience, but it’s well worth it. Catholics are people. Take the subway over to the Esplanade and hear the Boston Symphony, free, this summer. Do it; then you, as well as your husbands, will have something to take home.”
I believed her. Her sound advice changed my responses, and changed my life. When our four years were over, my husband brought home a Ph.D., and I came back loving New England—its speech patterns, seafood, Catholics, and all. This kind sister taught me about differences and a most impressive lesson on tolerance, and I learned that tolerating differences can lead to love.
Tolerance so often does lead to love. Most of our missionaries serving throughout the world would bear testimony to that, as would those who have returned. What an inspired program, sending us as missionaries all over the world, where we personally confront different languages, often different dress, different customs, and different food. We arrive as strangers and foreigners, uncomfortable and very aware of differences, but with a precious message of restored truth to deliver. That message motivates us to look beyond the differences; and as we teach these strangers who they are—the children of our Heavenly Father, our own brothers and sisters in an eternal family—differences give way to kinship.
Because my father served for three years in Samoa, I grew up loving the Samoan people, their customs, their food, and their language. My brother served in Alaska. Our son served in Germany. Our daughter served in Argentina. My husband and I served in New England. We’ve also spent much time in Israel and have had extended visits to Yugoslavia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. So in three generations my family has had the blessing of going over much of the world delivering a message, but also bringing home a message of kinship and love for many peoples.
I can see in my mind’s eye dear Sini Salanoa, our Samoan friend, half a world away from his beloved islands for the first time, asking us in his broken English to “be his family” during his time in Boston in 1953. And beautiful, fourteen-year-old Julie Wang, whom we met in K’Liao, a tiny fishing village in Taiwan. In her quiet Chinese manner she described her first prayers, which began with sweet familiarity: “Hello, God. This is Julie Wang.” Or fine, spiritual Gunther Myer from Germany, who joined our family for scripture study on Sunday evenings for a whole year. These represent so many who have enriched our lives. There are no divisive differences between us. Our commitment to the gospel becomes the great common denominator. We know whose we are, all of us.
That knowledge also helps us in relationships where there are differences that do matter—differences involving values, principles, truth, and the confirming religious experience we call testimony. Truth demands our allegiance, but it should not be a barrier to tolerance and compassion and love. To accept and love others, we do not have to adopt their ideas or be condescending. When others differ from us in these essential matters, we must learn to see with eyes that separate people from their traditions and sins. Good people can have mistaken beliefs.
Moreover, having truth in our possession, knowing righteous and true principles, doesn’t automatically make a Latter-day Saint better or more righteous than others. It could have that effect—but it is living what we know, not knowing alone, that is really important. Joseph Smith taught us: “All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: It is the doctrine of the devil to retard the human mind, and hinder our progress, by filling us with self-righteousness. The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. … If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 241.)
The gospel teaches us not to condemn our brothers and sisters for their weaknesses and sins, but to show them by our lives how it is possible to escape sin through learning and living the truth. At the 1983 BYU women’s conference, Church Commissioner of Education Henry B. Eyring gave a keynote address entitled “The Rope.” In it he suggested a powerful metaphor: we are like mountain climbers, he said, bound to each other as children of God. As he spoke, I thought how Satan must laugh when we push each other down—by faultfinding criticism, name-calling, and labeling—when part of our purpose in mortality is to learn to lift each other up.
The temptation to label others is ever present. Fat/skinny; liberal/conservative; LDS/non-LDS (some Presbyterian friends once told us they hated being referred to as non-Mormons); white collar/blue collar—such labels often become indelible and nearly impossible to remove. And they shrink our capacity for genuine understanding and love of the people involved.
I often think of the eleven-year-old boy I taught in Primary many years ago. He had been labeled “troublemaker,” “incorrigible.” But as I came to know him, I found the labels were wrong; they should have been “bright,” “quick,” “ahead of everyone.” He was bored because he knew all the answers. He had only to be challenged.
Do we allow a brother or sister to change, to repent, or do we keep labels firmly in place—long after they have become meaningless?
We are like climbers, as Commissioner Eyring suggested. We must move ever higher but not by stepping on others to get our footing. The moment we’ve found a handhold or foothold of truth, we must mark it well and reach out to those behind or below that they may find it, too.
Again, “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”
That is the way of Christ. Can we learn his responses? Did he distance himself from sinners? In addressing the Relief Society on 9 June 1842, Joseph Smith said:
“Christ said he came to call sinners to repentance, to save them. Christ was condemned by the self-righteous Jews because He took sinners into His society. He took them upon the principle that they repented of their sins. It is the object of this society to reform persons, not to take those that are corrupt and foster them in their wickedness; but if they repent, we are bound to take them, and by kindness sanctify and cleanse them from all unrighteousness by our influence in watching over them. … Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness.” (Teachings, p. 240.) Recently I heard of an excommunicated man who stormed out of his Church court bitter and unrepentant. Many of us, if we had participated in that court, might have said, “Well, good. He’ll have time to make his peace”; and others might even have thought, “Good riddance.” But one of the high councilors present spent three evenings a week for the next several years visiting this man until, mellowed, repentant, and regenerated, he was reinstated in the Church.
“Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake their sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness.”
What should my response be to the excommunicant, recent or of long standing? Or the young unwed mother? Or the LDS boy—or any boy—of missionary age fighting a drug or alcohol problem? Why not this response from Isaiah 1:18–19:
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
“If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.” [Isa. 1:18–19]
This is one of the most beautiful messages of the gospel, but sometimes, alas, one that we keep secret from those we are reluctant to reach out to in love.
And what should be my response to those of other religions, whatever they may be? Could we apply the counsel given to Lyman Sherman in Doctrine and Covenants 108:7?
“Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations and in all your doings.” [D&C 108:7]
The word all appears four times in that verse. It doesn’t leave much room for exceptions.
And lastly, what of those who define themselves as our enemies—for example, those who wear away their lives publishing and promoting anti-LDS materials? The scriptures are clear: we must pray for them. (See Matt. 5:44.) Do we instead, in the face of organized opposition, return jab for jab, becoming (if you’ll pardon the label) anti-anti-LDS, spending our strength jousting while the cause of truth begs for champions and while the positive work of the kingdom waits? Our charge is to teach the nations; and, even if they reject our teachings, the love we’ve extended should never be withdrawn. Our ultimate response to those who suppose themselves our enemies must be love.
If we can learn patience, allowing all men the privilege of seeing truth at their own pace, we will have moved measurably toward the compassion and love of the Savior, who saw no enemies among his crucifiers. His example stands for all time to teach us the tender path from tolerance to compassion and perfect love. With every provocation to rage against his adversaries, he said rather, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32; italics added), thus offering himself on our behalf, that we might have room to repent.
Can we do any less for our Father’s far-flung family?