The Community of Christ – a Peace Church Alternative
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been ‘investigating’the Community of Christ through reading their official website and engaging with a few of their other community blogs. I am struck by their candor, their genuine desire to becoming a peace church and by the peaceful vision and rhetoric of their church leadership. The Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), is the second largest church in the Latter Day Saint movement with 250’000 members worldwide gathered in community in 50 different countries. It traces its history back to the first vision received by Joseph Smith Jr. in the sacred grove and is therefore firmly grounded in the idea of being part of the literal Restoration of Christ’s ancient church in the latter days.
After the ‘scattering’ of the Saints that followed the assassination of the Prophet Joseph and of his brother Hyrum Smith at Carthage Jail in Illinois in 1844, a small group of Saints stayed behind and did not take part in the exodus led by Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley. They rejected polygamy, which was also discontinued by the LDS church in 1890, and did not see what LDS today refer to as sacred temple ceremonies as part of their own sacraments. On the other hand, important historic church sites like the Kirtland Temple and the Temple site in Independence, Missouri, remained in the custody of the RLDS church and are today used as educational and spiritual centers to the Church.
Emma Smith, the widow of the prophet Joseph, literally became the mother of the early RLDS movement by preparing her son, Joseph Smith III, to becoming the movement’s new prophet-president at his coming of age in 1860. His ordination as the new prophet was to coincide with the ‘reorganization’ of the church. In 2010, the Community of Christ will celebrate the 150th anniversary of that crucial 1860 conference in which Joseph Smith III accepted his prophetic calling. Rather than seeing the building of Zion as a short-term enterprise, the son of Joseph Smith Jr. sensed that the building of the Kingdom of God would be a difficult and long-term activity.
His son, Fredrick Madison Smith, served as prophet-president of the church from 1916-1946, and like few others he was a strong advocate of the social expression of the gospel, because the concept of Zion in his mind was a way to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to life in both the Church and the world. A succession of brothers in the Smith family succeeded Fredrick as visionary leaders of the movement throughout the 20th century, until 1978 (also an important date for the LDS church) when Wallace B. Smith, the great-grandson of the prophet Joseph Smith Jr., became head of the movement. Wallace B. Smith became the last direct descendant of Joseph Smith Jr. to preside over the RLDS movement, but through his unique ministry women were ordained to the priesthood and a temple was erected on the Temple site in Independence, Missouri, dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice.
In 1997, W. Grant McMurray, Wallace B. Smith’s successor, called the church to a new vision: to articulate a clear and compelling Christ-centered theology of peace and justice grounded in the scriptures, faith and tradition of the Restoration movement. In 2000, the RLDS church changed its name to “the Community of Christ” to better reflect the church’s theology and mission: “to proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of Joy, Hope, Love and Peace”. This encapsulated two central tenents of the Church: (1) the centrality of Christ, and (2) the emphasis of building model communities, based on the movement’s long-standing tradition of seeking to establish Zion.
I like this second idea of creating model communities or signal communities, as the Community of Christ also calls them. I advocated a similar idea in the 9th and 10th nonviolent articles of faith. I am intrigued by how this is conceived by the Community of Christ and in what ways they carry out this vision.
Stephen M. Veazey was ordained at the 2005 World Conference as president-prophet of the Community of Christ, and in hisfirst sermon called the Church “to share the peace of Jesus Christ”:
The cause of Zion is the pursuit of conditions and relationships that bring this foretaste of God’s ultimate will for creation increasingly into all aspects of life: families, congregations, neighborhoods, nations, and the world. It is grounded in the scriptural concept of shalom, or God’s peace, for all of creation. The scriptures proclaim that the ultimate will of God for creation is wholeness, balance, and peace. God’s shalom integrates a whole range of concepts that point the way to the ultimate redemption of creation, including reconciliation, justice, well-being, stewardship, generosity, righteousness, the worth of all people, and true community. This is the peaceable kingdom of God!
The seal of the Community of Christ emphasizes the child who leads the efforts to create a peaceable kingdom. What I like is (1) the central message of peace of the Community of Christ that the seal represents, (2) the Church’s focus to establish Zion communities across the world, and (3) that a child will lead the way to the peaceable kingdom as prophesied by the prophet Isaiah of the Old Testament: “and a little child shall lead them, and they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters covers the sea”. It is important to see the present call to members of the Community of Christ to becoming peacemakers in a historical context. Stephen Veasey did so most elegantly in his 2005 sermon:
If there is one consistent theme at the heart of our journey as a people of faith, it is the cause of Zion. This phrase captures the sense of divine call to enflesh the gospel in community living, through which the physical and spiritual needs of people are to be met, and through which harmony, security, and peace can be realized.
Initially, though, we must confess that our limited understanding and zealous attempts to bring the dream to reality fell short and generated reactions that resulted in serious tensions and even violence—the very antithesis of the vision of God’s kingdom on earth. Isn’t it ironic that it was a self-defense military company, called Zion’s Camp, to whom the revelation now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 102 was first addressed? They were headed for Jackson County, Missouri, from Kirtland, Ohio, prepared for armed conflict if necessary, when they were told to pursue a different approach:
And again, I say unto you, Sue for peace, not only the people that have smitten you, but also to all people; and lift up an ensign of peace, and make a proclamation for peace unto the ends of the earth.
I highly recommend you to read his entire conference address, as it presents in my opinion perhaps the most realistic and down-to-earth analyses of what Zion ought to be for those who are “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and that are followers of Jesus Christ in the Restoration movement. But like other young adults in the Community of Christ, I seriously think that ‘a commitment to non-violence and non-participation in the military’ is key for the Community of Christ and other LDS members that are so inclined to embarking on a more authentic journey towards becoming a peace church, partly for the simple reason that adherence to nonviolence is a basic characteristic of peace churches as they are now traditionally understood.
The longer I dwell on these issues, the clearer it becomes to me that the need to understand, teach and practice nonviolence within the Restoration movement is the first step towards becoming a prophetic people seeking peace and justice in the world. Hopefully, the ideas of a latter day satyagraha presented on this site will capture the imagination of those that are truly seeking to establish Zion in the latter days.