File under: Rationalization via selective use of lexicons

I like referring to non-Mormons as “Heathens.” Heathen is one of those Mormon terms that has come on hard times owing to the politically correct nature of American Culture, trying to be "sensitive" and all. It is seen as being archaic and offensive, perhaps even faintly ridiculous. (”It is so silly for Mormons to call scattered Israel Heathens.” Chuckle. Chuckle.) One will search Church publications in vain for its recent use to refer to non-Mormons outside of the context of scriptural quotations, because those PC guys are entirely too eager to not offend. Today, we are encouraged to use the less loaded “non-member”. I respectfully dissent for two reasons: (and I will insert a colon here to be grammatically correct)

First, using the word Heathen defines church membership in a certain way, connoting the fact that most of the membership of the Church used to be non-Israelites and are now Israelites only by adoption. The word pops up quite a bit in the scriptures, where it is used to refer to those who are not part of the covenant people of God, like we are now, the chosen, the elect of God, unlike the unclean swine surrounding us. In this sense, it invites Mormons to see their self-righteousness in national terms. We are not merely an association. We are a people, a nation of former Heathens, not Heathens any longer. Yet it is a peculiar kind of goyim, an unheathen type of goyim, one where membership comes via covenant and adoption rather than birth, except of course those who are natural Israel by birth, but we are going to ignore them since they have rejected the Restored Gospel. (In this sense it is a very American conception of nationhood, even though it is very unBiblical, especially since Nephi calls the Heathens "scattered Israel" and us "Gentiles" I do not see any reason to pay attention to him). In contrast, “non-member” is too aseptic and not contentious enough. It does not invoke the same imagery of being a goyim. Unless we point out that everyone who is non-member is a Heathen swine, then being Mormon just becomes more like joining the Elks Club, rather than cosmic adoption into the household of God (especially when a lot of those Heathens are already literal lineage of Abraham, and we have to differentiate ourselves from them somehow, right? I mean, come on, promises to Abraham, whatever!).

Second, using the word Heathen defines the non-Mormoness of others in a pejorative way. In the Old Testament the word we translate as “Heathen” is “goy” (yes, that is right, look it up, the Hebrew "goy" is translated to both "Heathen" and "Gentile"). In the New Testament it is “ethnos” (which, surprise, surprise, is translated to both "heathen" and "gentile" in the KJV NT). In both cases it means something like “unclean pagan pigs who are the vomitous blight of the earth.” Our English word “Gentile” has the same pejorative root, especially when used among Mormons, going back to the Latin word “gentes” which I wish meant something like “tribes” or “nations”, but actually means "foreigners", as in, "not My people" like in Hosea 1:9-10. Tribes and nations suggest a rich notion of identity, but that is not what the etymology of the words really suggest, so let's pretend that isn't the case. We assume that a foreign nation has customs and ideas of its own, like Philistines and Canaanites, which are evil and the Lord warns us repeatedly from intermingling with them. In contrast, “non-Mormon” is simply a negation. It implies that they are not us, and therefore not the Lord's elect, but I want to be explicit. To be sure, the idea of a foreigner can be dangerous, but it is worth it since we need to build and Them versus Us notion of community. We can see them as the bad-guys by labeling them as Heathens, but this is really no worse than calling them “non-members” since I am only making what is implicit overtly explicit. On the other hand, a mere non-member offers nothing. He is simply a non-. I would much rather risk offending people who are not Mormons so we can maintain an egocentric identity, even if we do have to call Israelites by birth "Heathens", so we can have some dignity as non-Others.


Mo Mommy said... @ April 10, 2006 at 10:38 AM

I thought Heathen was just what I call my babysitter. Who knew?

Stephen said... @ April 10, 2006 at 9:21 PM

Not a bad snark at all.

Made it worth reading the original essay.

Anonymous said... @ April 11, 2006 at 3:43 PM

Was that post written by the husband of Heathen Omar?

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