Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ecclesiastical Evolution

The spectacle of it! With a few powerful words yelled out a bit louder than the rest, the place erupted into a frenzy of redemption. And it happened every time. The pale upturned palms of ten thousand hands darted and swirled above pastel dress shirts and brightly colored dresses. Starbursts of reflected light sparkled off the women’s gold earrings dangling and shaking with their heads.
“Believe!” shouted the preacher again.
Winding Road [Flickr page]

Religions like to claim that the Truth ever was as they now are. They have the pure doctrine revealed by God, to them and their forebears, unchanging and eternal. If you want to find out what Christianity was from the moment that Jesus breathed the Holy Ghost on the disciples, for example, you need only visit the Conservative Laestadian church I used to attend.

Inconveniently, other churches make their own claims. The Churches of Christ claim to be, well, the Churches of Christ–just as they were established by the Apostles traveling around in the book of Acts, except perhaps for the Greek architecture. Joseph Smith did not invent a new religion involving crudely imitated King James English, an entirely mistranslated Egyptian funerary text, and adapted Masonic rituals and symbols, harrumph the Mormon powers that be. No, he restored “the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth, which God authorized to be established ... by a wiser, heaven-tutored Joseph Smith, once again allowing everyone to receive the joy and blessings that come from living it.”

What is really happening, of course, is that religions make their ancestors in their own images. The past is dimly and selectively visualized through a screen imposed by the present. Whatever is being practiced today–strict confession of sins or more relaxed general absolution, instrumental music or just singing a capella, magic underwear, whatever–is absolutely what happened all along with the true believers of yore.1

But it isn’t.

Lurching through Laestadianism

There are many cases of ecclesiastical evolution in my old church, none of which its elders are eager to acknowledge. Some examples that come to mind: Nobody stands in the pews rejoicing about grace anymore, false spirits are nowhere to be found, sinners have largely dispensed with confession and all its mental hang-ups, and a lot of entertainment video is being watched on private little screens. But those are peripheral things I personally observed during my decades of membership. A larger issue, and one that few believers know about (I certainly didn’t, until researching it), is that the church’s main theme of proclaiming sins forgiven has slowly evolved into existence over the entire span of Christian history.

The Laestadian Lutheran church centers its doctrine and practice around a ritual of absolution that the Bible declines to illustrate with a single solid example, even in Saul’s conversion or the case where it would seem most instructive–Peter’s denial of Christ.2 The whole thing revolves around the preaching of “the gospel” (the term being narrowly construed for doctrinal purposes), a proclamation that one’s sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name and blood, which was never actually used in any of the Gospels!3

Church history is also a problem for this group’s idea of itself as a special group of believers who have passed along the keys of absolution in an unbroken chain from Jesus and the disciples. There’s just no historical evidence for that. Rather, it is clear that there was a slow evolution of Christian thought, over many painful centuries, about the nature of sin and to what extent it might be forgiven.

My research and discussion of this topic is the one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I dare to consider original. Writing my conclusions about it also marked the end of my belief in the doctrines of Conservative Laestadianism. This is important stuff if you’re a Laestadian of any type, so let me summarize what I wrote about it in §5.1.2 with the next few paragraphs.

Arriving at Absolution

The earliest Christian writers never thought to mention what became such an important aspect of Catholic (and, I might add, Conservative Laestadian) doctrine and practice, the absolution of sins by the proclamation of another human being. And the fact that they wrote about other means by which sins could be forgiven makes their silence about absolution all the more problematic.

At first, sins could only be forgiven once, and only once, through the spiritual washing of baptism. Then the idea of a second chance materialized, but that was all you’d get. This “two strikes and you’re out” arrangement evolved into a harsh system of cruel penalties that dished out misery and humiliation to anyone who dared confess to committing sin.

It wasn’t until the fifth century that the bishops started sharing the keys with ordinary priests and limits of grace finally disappeared. Even then, it seems that there was little attention paid to absolution into the early middle ages, at least when it came to the practice of everyday Christians.

All in all, there was a tortuously slow expansion of those Christians who were authorized to use the keys. At first the authority was neither claimed by nor given to anyone at all. Then the bishops appeared, keys in hand. Then the priests to whom they hesitantly delegated their authority got copies, and later monks did, too, within the walls of their closed communities. And finally, when Luther’s system appeared, laymen got their chance to employ the keys, in theory if not so apparently in actual practice.4

As if all that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that Laestadianism began without its 19th-century founders using the supposedly indispensable keys to let themselves into the Kingdom.5 Things had hummed along with visions and revelations for a good nine years before one of those guys, Juhani Raattamaa, finally stumbled on the idea of comforting a desperate woman by preaching that her sins were forgiven via his proclamation that it was so. He was struck by how well it seemed to work and, upon returning home, found support for what he’d done in Luther’s writings.6 And on that pebble of forgotten Lutheran practice was built an entire church.

No wonder church elders don’t like people to read or think too much about their own history.

A Return to Ecstacy?

Knowing how much my former religion has evolved while simultaneously claiming never to do so, I got to thinking about what that church might look like in the future. It certainly will be very different than it is now.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see all but a devoted core group surrender the idea that contraception is a sin. That core group, of course, will then be the source for new members, most all of whom are supplied via procreation. Laestadianism attracts hardly any converts in its long-standing population centers of Finland and North America. Babies are the key–lots and lots of babies.

But there are two places where Laestadianism is attracting converts, hundreds of them: Togo and Ghana. What would a West African Laestadian Lutheran Church look like in the year 2044, as the (further evolved) movement celebrates the Bicentennial of Laestadius’s awakening in the presence of Milla Clementsdotter aka “Lapp Mary”?

Perhaps things will go full circle, in a sense. The services of African Laestadians might wind up a lot like those of the spiritually awakened Sámi 200 years earlier, with fervent preaching and ecstatic outbursts.

My latest short story “Africa 2044” is a brief musing about how that might appear as seen through the eyes of Koffi, a lukewarm believer who is thinking too much while translating a sermon. It’s available via this link or under the “Fiction” sidebar to the right.


  1. In a  2014 sermon, an LLC preacher acknowledged that things really aren’t so unchanging and eternal after all, about one issue at least. I found his candor about that refreshing as well as the fact that he didn’t just skip over an inconvenient verse (Titus 2:3) during his line-by-line exposition of the text. The Spirit today guides believers to abstain from alcohol, he said, but fermentation was a method of preservation and “there was some wine consumed in biblical times by believers. And what we don’t know, necessarily, is the alchohol content and then also whatever customs of the times were acceptable to believers. ‘But not given to much,’ he does say, so certainly not drunkards” (15:30). 

  2. Regarding conversion by absolution, see An Examination of the Pearl, §4.2.5. Regarding absolution as the sole means of grace, see §4.6.2. Regarding the oft-cited example of the “Keys to the Kingdom” passages in Mark 7:6-7 and Matthew 15:7-9, see §7.1. Regarding Saul’s conversion, see §7.2

  3. As I wrote in §4.3.3, the “story of Nathan rebuking David of his sin and then pronouncing that he was forgiven of it (2 Sam. 12) strikes me as the only plausible example in the Bible of the Laestadian-style absolution being employed.” But “one must recognize that there was not even a remote mention of Jesus during the encounter. Imagine the noise that Christian apologists would have made of such a thing if it were there, seeing how they scour the Old Testament for the vaguest of statements that might be considered messianic prophecies! No, it was the time of the ‘Old Covenant,’ when the forgiveness of sins supposedly was facilitated through animal sacrifices.” 

  4. This paragraph and the three preceding ones are adapted and condensed from §5.1.2. If there is one part of An Examination of the Pearl that I really would like Laestadians to read, it’s that. 

  5. “This belated realization by Raattamaa, the timing of his ‘discovery of the keys’ and Laestadius’ initial misgivings to it, and the lack of first-hand accounts of the keys being used in conversion before the discovery makes it seem that the early awakenings did not involve the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins from a believer to a penitent one. But that is completely contrary to the Conservative Laestadian doctrine that such a personal proclamation is the only way for one to receive forgiveness of his sins, including the ‘greatest sin’ of unbelief.... It seems like a vexing problem indeed for a church to teach that its doctrine never changes and yet have its founders entering into ‘living faith’ without the benefit of the very proclamation of the forgiveness of sins that is one of its distinguishing characteristics and central doctrines” (§4.1.4). 

  6. The support is indeed there. Luther invented the idea of absolution from one ordinary believer to another (§5.4.3). It just took about 1500 years from the time Jesus conveyed the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter or the disciples, depending on which Gospel passage you read. 


Friday, December 19, 2014

Into the Abyss

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
—Job 5:7
Don’t Look Down! [Flickr page]

At the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got–a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”1

And for a little over two hundred years, we managed to do so. But it is now unraveling before our eyes. The government is no longer accountable to its citizens for much of anything. And many of those citizens are too demoralized and misinformed to even care.

Black men are shot and choked to death, and their police killers get off without any consequence? Those dark thugs must have had it coming, says the right-wing echo chamber to itself inside its comfortable white suburbs.

The NSA is snooping on the communications of every American citizen without warrant or cause, against the clear wording of the Fourth Amendment? I’ve got nothing to hide, says the mass of boot-licking authoritarians, and their elected representatives keep the surveillance duly funded as if Edward Snowden had never breathed a word.

Rough Weather [Flickr page]

Rep. Justin Amash, one of the few exceptional members of the U.S. House of Representatives with some principles about the Constitution he swore to uphold and defend, said on his Facebook timeline that the new Intelligence Authorization Act, H.R. 4681, contains “one of the most egregious sections of law I’ve encountered during my time as a representative: It grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American.”2 And it passed the House 325-100.

The CIA tortures people, sometimes to the point of death, and attempts to dodge and bully to cover it up? The only person charged, who will ever be charged, is the whistleblower. Support our brave men and women in uniform, say the bootlickers, confident that they will never have a feeding tube shoved up their ass in a wet dungeon.

Again, Rep. Amash (the man is a Republican!):

It’s with a heavy heart that I’ve begun reading the CIA torture report released by the Senate intelligence committee. It documents inhumane acts committed by representatives of our government. Members of our intelligence community have extraordinarily difficult jobs, and the rank-and-file employees serve our country with distinction. It should sadden all of us that a few in the intelligence community have cast a shadow on the important work of so many.

“Most troubling for a free country such as ours,” he continues, “is the repeated, perhaps systematic deception committed by senior public servants against elected officials who are entrusted with supervising their work. The nature of intelligence work requires certain secrecy, but it is unconscionable for senior appointees to hide essential details of interrogation from Congress and even the president.”3

The Constitution for which Franklin and Jefferson and the rest of those brave idealists risked their lives, the document that brought reverential tears to my eyes when I looked at a leaf of it under glass at the National Archives one year–is becoming nothing more than a quaint relic. Like the millions of Bibles that sit unread on shelves and pulpits, it is now mostly ignored by those who have sworn allegiance to it. Except, in both cases, there are a handful of selected portions still convenient for the party line.

Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out their photo pages in my Flickr photostream. They are Copyright © 2014-15 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Justice

On the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries’ thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Protest sign in NYC: “Danger, Police in Area”
Updated with a discussion of the physical evidence after a friend challenged me on my omission of it. He made a valid point, and I’ve edited the essay accordingly.

On July 25, 2014, the office of a white prosecutor in St. Louis County, Missouri charged a black policeman named Dawon Gore with felony assault, according to an online article by a local CBS affiliate, for “striking a MetroLink passenger on the hand with his expandable baton following an argument.” The officer was “jailed on a $3,500, cash-only bond.”

On Tuesday, November 24, 2014, the same white prosecutor, Robert McColloch, announced a decision by a 75% white grand jury not to indict a white policeman for shooting to death a young black man named Michael Brown.

Unlike Officer Gore, Officer Wilson never set foot in jail after inflicting violence on a citizen. He sat at home on paid administrative leave, enjoying a financial perk his black colleague went without. And now, while Michael Brown lies in his grave with bullet wounds riddling his lifeless body, Darren Wilson remains a free man.

Mother of Michael Brown, Lesley McSpadden. [Flickr page]

McCulloch described his “sworn duty and that of the grand jury,” in lofty terms during Tuesday’s 20 minute announcement, as millions of black Americans (and not a few white ones, including me) shook their heads in disgust with the realization that Darren Wilson would not be sitting at a defendant’s table in Missouri criminal court. Their duty was, the white prosecutor said, “to seek justice and not simply obtain an indictment or conviction.”

Obtaining indictments against police who shoot civilians doesn’t seem to be his strong suit.1 According to a detailed and even-handed article by Heather Cole back in September, his “office has brought to grand juries at least five cases over six deaths at the hands of police,” and they all turned out the way Wilson’s case did: No true bill, game over.

Ms. Cole took a detailed look at McCulloch’s prosecution history and made some interesting findings. The following three bullet points are quoted directly from her article two months ago:

  • “McCulloch’s office has prosecuted at least 33 police officers or former police officers, according to a list provided by McCulloch’s executive assistant, Edward Magee. McCulloch has been prosecutor since 1991.”

  • “McCulloch’s office also has at least four times presented information to a grand jury about police officers who shot suspects to death while on the job, according to a search of St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives. None of those grand juries indicted the officers.”

  • “After a grand jury and a federal investigation exonerated a federal agent and a police officer in the fatal 2000 shooting of two black men during an attempted drug arrest, McCulloch called the shooting victims ‘bums.’”2


“There is no question that Darren Wilson caused the death of Michael Brown by shooting him,” McCulloch said in his statement, which sounded more like a defense attorney’s closing argument than a prosecutor’s announcement of a failed bid for indictment. But, he went on, “the inquiry does not end there. The law allows a law enforcement officer to use deadly force in certain situations.” And according to his grand jury’s decision, this was one of them: “They determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson.” Not even probable cause! This is not the much higher courtroom standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Know my name [Flickr page]

Never mind these inconvenient bits of evidence, all supposedly given due consideration by the grand jury: Eleven witnesses said Mr. Brown was running away from Officer Wilson when he was being fired upon, as opposed to just three who said he wasn’t.3 Twelve of them said Mr. Brown put his hands in the air when he was being shot at, as opposed to two who said he didn’t.4 Five witnesses said Officer Wilson continued firing, repeatedly, at Mr. Brown while he was on the ground, as opposed to four who said he didn’t.5

These figures (and some of my wording about them) are from a very informative and disturbing table of witness interviews composed by Laura Santhanam and Vanessa Dennis for PBS Newshour. Take a look; it’s important.

One person listed as a witness in that table isn’t included in these tallies–Darren Wilson. Why not? Because his testimony was self-serving and unchallenged, his very appearance before the grand jury a gift from an easygoing prosecutor. As Justice Scalia–no friend of liberal causes–wrote for the majority in United States v. Williams, “[N]either in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify, or to have exculpatory evidence presented.” That’s because the grand jury’s function is “only to examine ‘upon what foundation [the charge] is made’ by the prosecutor,” rather than inquiring “‘upon what foundation [the charge may be] denied,’ or otherwise to try the suspect’s defenses.”

And why wasn’t Wilson challenged? Because Bob McCulloch, the person who was supposed to do that job in a trial after obtaining the indictment he was ostensibly seeking, didn’t bother to do so when allowing Wilson to appear in this grand jury proceeding, long and extensive as it was. That’s certainly the impression attorney and media legal analyst Lisa Bloom gave in various fiery tweets she launched into Tuesday night’s angry darkness.

Kids playing outside Michael Brown’s funeral

“So many missed opportunities for cross examination of Wilson,” she wrote in one. There should “have been a grueling session, not the tea party the transcript shows.”

In another, she said, “Maybe we should take up a collection to teach the Ferguson prosecutors how to cross examine an adverse witness. Step 1: ask tough questions.”

And then there was this scathing summary she offered about the way McCulloch did (or didn’t do) his job: “An attorney who does not aggressively cross-examine the target of an investigation is an attorney who does not want to get to the truth.”

There is a lot of suspicion about McCulloch not wanting much truth when it came to the way the real witnesses were treated, too. The New York Daily News (admittedly, not law review material) points out that one of them who “testified he saw Brown on his knees with his hands up” had been “ridiculed by prosecutors”:

“Basically just about everything that you said on Aug. 13, and much of what you said today isn’t consistent with the physical evidence that we have in this case, OK,” the prosecutor said.

Fist bump across the divide, with Lt. Jerry Lohr

In the view of Ronald Kuby, a defense attorney the News interviewed for their article, that “wildly improper commentary encapsulates what the prosecutors were doing. Steering the grand jury not to indict.”6

Shaun King asked his 103,000 Twitter followers to think about this on Tuesday: “Have you ever, in your life, seen a prosecutor more proud that he did not get an indictment than McCulloch was tonight?”


This discussion would be incomplete without a mention of the physical evidence–two autopsy reports that apparently match up with Wilson’s testimony, self-serving and unchallenged though it was.7 I’ll be candid here, in a highly charged subject area where candor seems to be in short supply: It speaks to my own sympathies toward the black community and against the prosecutor that I did not include it in the original version of this essay until a friend on Facebook pointed it out.

So here we go, briefly, because it’s late. If I had been inclined to support Wilson’s point of view from the outset, I probably would have focused on this part and the essay would have taken on a different tone. We are subjective creatures, all of us. I try to be honest about that mental limitation, at least, and work to overcome it.

The St. Louis County Medical Examiner’s report is currently accessible here, and a private one performed for Mr. Brown’s family is here. I’ll let the analysis from two media sources do the talking here. The first is by Eyder Peralta and Krishnadev Calamur of National Public Radio, not exactly a hotbed of reactionary racism. Peralta and Calamur came up with “two findings of major importance” in the autopsy reports.

  • “First, the autopsy found that Michael Brown was never shot in the back, as some early witnesses claimed.”

  • “Second, they found Brown’s blood inside the police car and on Wilson’s gun. This implies that there was close-range contact as Wilson alleges.”

They also note “the photographs taken of Wilson on the day of the confrontation” and the diagnosis doctors gave him of just having a bruise. That, they say, “seems to cast some doubt on Wilson’s testimony about the intensity of the confrontation.”8

The other media analysis I came across in my late-stage rebalancing effort was an article by Paul G. Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah. “The physical evidence,” he concludes, “gave no reason to doubt Wilson’s testimony.” Cassell reviewed the reports and the Medical Examiner’s testimony and says

the ME thought that the soot would be indicative of the gun that fired the bullet causing the wound having been only 6 to 9 inches away. The soot was consistent with that discharged from a gun. The official report from the Office of Medical Examiner later confirmed that “the previously described particles of foreign particulate matter are consistent with products that are discharged from the barrel of a firearm.”

The significance of this wound and related physical evidence, says Cassell,

is that it places Brown’s right hand within 6 to 9 inches of the barrel of Wilson’s firearm. This physical evidence is thus quite consistent with Wilson’s testimony that Brown was trying to get hold of Wilson’s weapon, creating a fear in Wilson that he was going to get shot. It also creates a problem for those who view Brown as having been somehow accosted by Wilson and was just trying to escape.9

Reasonable doubt? Perhaps so. Does it make all that witness evidence just evaporate and eliminate probable cause for a trial that could get this material examined, under proper cross-examination? Here’s Lisa Bloom again, in a few tweets she sent on November 27, after going over Wilson’s testimony a second time:

If Mike Brown twisted Wilson’s gun-holding hand backwards into Wilson’s pelvis, why doesn’t Wilson have a wrist injury or even redness?

Prosecutors never asked Darren Wilson how Mike Brown “grabbed” his gun without leaving a single fingerprint.

“What do I do not to get beaten inside my car,” Darren Wilson said he thought. Yet prosecutors never asked why he didn’t hit the gas.

And does the physical evidence get McColloch off the hook for the way he conducted this whole exercise, seeming to act more as Wilson’s defense attorney than the people’s prosecutor? It doesn’t seem so to me, even as a non-attorney with my admitted biases.

Remember, Michael Brown’s family had no effective advocate during this process, nobody challenging Wilson and actually accusing him of a crime. That was the prosecution’s job, and a lot of people with real expertise are saying he didn’t do it. There still seems to be an ugly underside of the whole mess, and a valid reason for a lot of people to be angry. Especially ones who look more like Michael Brown and Dawon Gore than Robert McColloch or Darren Wilson or the vast majority of police in their neighborhoods, and have seen justice denied time after time.


The American Bar Association’s standards for prosecutors refer to the role as “an administrator of justice, an advocate, and an officer of the court.”10 Mr. McCulloch didn’t seem too focused on the second part of that. You know, the bit about advocating for the citizens he serves, most of whom are black and would presumably prefer not to have cops get away with shooting at them.

Black men are people, too [Flickr page]

He began his announcement with a criticism not of the guy he was supposed to be prosecuting, but of social media for “accounts filled with speculation and little if any solid, accurate information.” His unusually protracted grand jury hearing–25 days!–ended without even a recommendation that charges be filed.

According to Eric Citron, however, this was “not your typical grand jury investigation.” That was the subtitle of his blog posting Tuesday night discussing how United States v. Williams applied to this case. The grand jury process “protected Wilson because the prosecutor was willing to let it,” he wrote. He wasn’t willing to come out and say for certain that “this is a case about prosecutorial or institutional bias in which Wilson was treated far too well.”

Perhaps it was, he said, but maybe “it is a case about reviving a much more robust role for the grand jury, so that others get the same legal process on display this week.” Yeah, maybe so. And perhaps the Koch brothers will start voting Democrat.

But there’s no avoiding the barbs in the point Citron made earlier in his essay. The prosecutor would have done things differently if he wanted things to go differently:

[W]hen a prosecutor really wants an indictment, you would not expect the grand jury process to look anything like what happened in Darren Wilson’s case. The prosecutor would have no obligation to put forward the conflicting eyewitness testimony, or introduce pictures of Officer Wilson’s injuries–although grand jury members could ask for them if they somehow knew they existed. Instead, the prosecutor could put forward only the first few witnesses corroborating his own theory, along with the evidence that Wilson fired ten shots from a substantial distance away.

Former prosecutor Charlie Reece was not so reserved: “I can tell you the way that the prosecutor handled this case is a miscarriage of justice. This is just horrible.”11


Is there really any question about why people protest when the system has failed them, why a few (and it only takes a few) in the thick of things might start fires and overturn vehicles?12

“Why protest?” tweeted Deray Mckesson on Tuesday night as it was happening. “Because we refuse to be scared into silence. Because we refuse to drown in a pool of our tears.” Drbrowne tweeted, “Don’t [you] dare package our fears and pains, sell them back to us in exchange for rage and tears, then label us irrational, uncivilized, savage.”

And from Stephanie came this tweet with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag: “My God what must the ’60s have been like?! Fear. Injustice. Brutality. Racial divide. Sounds a bit like 2014.” Unfortunately, it sounds like the nation W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about 111 ago, too, one that had “not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land.”13

Photo credits: Shawn Semmler (girl with “Hands Up” sign, CC); “Youth Radio” (Lesley McSpadden, kids playing, Black men are people, CC-NC-SA); Otto Yamamoto, (“Police in Area” sign, CC-SA, adapted); Vladimir Badikov (fist bump, CC-NC-SA, adapted).


  1. In fairness, it appears that grand juries rarely decide to indict police officers, in any event. 

  2. Heather Cole, “Background check: Looking at McCulloch’s prosecution history.” Missouri Lawyers Weekly, September 8, 2014.​2014/09/08/​background-check-looking-at-mccullochs-prosecution-history 

  3. Witnesses 12, 16, 25, 30, 37, 42, 43, 45, 46, 57, and 64 said Brown was running away when being fired upon. Witnesses 34, 44, and 48 said he wasn’t. Witness 14 gave inconsistent answers between interview No. 1 and No. 2. PBS Newshour table, column 8. 

  4. Witnesses 14, 16, 22, 35, 37, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 48, and 64 said his hands were up; witnesses 10 and 30 said they weren’t. Table, column 10. 

  5. Witnesses 37, 41, 42, 45, and 46 said Wilson kept firing with Brown on the ground; witnesses 12, 14, 16, and 44 said he didn’t. Table, column 5. 

  6. “MICHAEL BROWN SHOOTING EXPLAINED: Step-by-step review of the confrontation between Ferguson cop Darren Wilson and the unarmed teen,” New York Daily News, Nov. 26, 2014 (​1ygARm6). 

  7. Update, December 3: Also worth noting is that, apparently, “the sworn testimony of Wilson’s squad supervisor directly contradicts” Wilson’s about seeing Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson and realizing “they matched the description of two suspects wanted in connection with the robbery of nearby Ferguson Market.” From Laura Collins’ Daily Mail article of December 2, 2014. The Mail is of course not law review material, either, but the article makes some great points and offers a link to the pertinent volume of grand jury testimony. 

  8. Eyder Peralta and Krishnadev Calamur, “Ferguson Documents: How The Grand Jury Reached A Decision.” The Two-Way, NPR,​blogs/thetwo-way/​2014/11/25/​366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision. Nov. 25, 2014. 

  9. Paul G. Cassell, “The physical evidence in the Michael Brown case supported the officer.” Washington Post,​news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/​2014/11/28/​the-physical-evidence-in-the-michael-brown-case-supported-the-officer. Nov. 28, 2014. I’ve omitted Cassell’s meticulous page:line references to the transcripts in my quotations. 

  10. From the ABA’s website. Note the disclaimer they put right up front there: “These standards are intended to be used as a guide to professional conduct and performance. They are not intended to be used as criteria for the judicial evaluation of alleged misconduct of the prosecutor to determine the validity of a conviction.” Also, note my own important disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and am certainly in no position to evaluate the legal ethics of Robert McCulloch’s conduct. But, speaking purely as an ordinary Joe Citizen sifting through media reports, something sure smells funny about all this to me. 

  11.​CharlieReece/status/​537072172695834624. See also “The Ferguson Lie” on Scott H. Greenfield’s Simple Justice blog. “We were played,” he writes. “McCulloch’s lengthy spiel before announcing ‘no true bill’ was to spread the lie.” 

  12. Update, December 3: A grand jury in New York has declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner. 

  13. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), p. 8. (Kindle ed.) 


Wednesday, November 19, 2014


A friend in my old church sent me some of her sonnets recently. She has an M.A. in Theology (Old Testament), plus another one in English. A very bright woman with some eclectic interests.

With her permission, I selected one of them to reprint here. (Does one even say “print” on a blog?) I’ve interspersed some of my seasonal photography between the poem’s three rhyming quatrains and the final rhyming couplet.

The photos get progressively warmer in color, matching the increasingly hopeful mood of the lines. But there isn’t a perfect match. After taking in the text along with my Pacific Northwest images, you might go over it again a second time, ignoring them and focusing on the slightly different farm scene the poet visualized when writing in Minnesota.

Now, before reading the Wikipedia article about sonnets, I might have supposed a “quatrain” to be something involving the transmission and driveshafts of a four-wheel drive vehicle. But even in my ignorance, I can see a certain formalistic beauty to this. Or, better put, you can hear it, when you slow down and let that silent narrator read the lines inside your head.

Alexandra writes from a devoutly religious perspective. Can you see the subtle redemptive theme she paints into the background of her Autumn harvest picture? Nicely done, I thought.


They are harvesting today. Now the sun

Shows brown earth slashed, overturned; over there

Trickling rivulets to colder fast streams run,

And like marks of passing life, branches bare

Farm on a Frosty Morning [Flickr page]

Stick out from the shivering naked trees

Around those upturned acres of soil. Cast

To that dark cut earth are leaves. The fall breeze

Has done its work so they unto the last

Inland Northwest Fall Colors [Flickr page]

Are down. The gates and roads surround the field;

So I know past black dust, there is a way,

A sure path that leads to where all the yield

Of harvest is in barns from where a ray

Golden Sky [Flickr page]

Comes glowing, lights on the turning earth bare

To shine the fruit of hope in harvest’s air.

—Alexandra Glynn
Click on individual images to enlarge, or check out my photostream on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2014 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. The poem is Copyright © Alexandra Glynn, All Rights Reserved, reprinted by permission.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Maternal Martyrdom

“They’re workhorses,” says Dr. Singer [of her patients, ultra-Orthodox Israeli women]. “Their lives, looking from the outside, look like a form of slavery, never-ending. Sometimes I’m incredibly admiring of their stamina, what they’re able to do day after day, after so many children.”
—Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement
Chains [Flickr page]

In a public Facebook post, a member of my old church recently directed some comments at a former member whose wife died giving birth to her seventh child. He cited the biblical command “to go and multiply and fill the earth” and said his conscience would not let him agree to the use of birth control. That isn’t just his personal feeling, though: “The Holy Spirit speaks to and tells me what is acceptable,” he said, adding that the woman’s death, “was God’s will. We don’t always understand why.”

And then he lectured this man who had tragically lost a wife and mother of the many children they already had: “It is very selfish of you to blame God for this. If you want to see her in death you need to repent and believe the Gospel.”

The bereaved father pointed out that, though he remarried after a few years, his “children never got a real mom again.” Was that “God’s will somehow?” he asked. “We knew how to prevent this, but we did not dare to do anything. Lots of dreams never came true.” And a woman died.

His Laestadian critic responded, “My own wife would never put herself and her own dreams and wants before the word of God.”

It’s no wonder that the Laestadian Lutheran Church prefers its members not to engage in discussions of “faith matters” on social media sites. But there’s actually nothing contrary to Conservative Laestadian doctrine in what the man said. It really is that bad. Consider this statement from an LLC presentation to ministers and board members in 2010:

Despite God’s command or ordinance, birth control is widely practiced. People defend their disobedience with a variety of reasons including the psychological and physical burdens of raising children, economics, pursuit of an education or a career, concerns about overpopulation, etc. These arguments are rooted in unbelief and selfishness. Believing husbands and wives know these arguments well. The threefold enemy frequently tempts us with them. We wish, however, to cast aside these arguments as well “and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God,” and bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”1

This seems like an opportune time to repost an essay I wrote two years ago about contraception and Conservative Laestadianism. It originally appeared on the Learning to Live Free blog, where thousands of people have seen it. Apparently it could stand to be read by a few more.

It’s an important discussion to keep having. For women in fundamentalist religions that demand unrestricted access to their wombs, the stakes could not be higher. Their beliefs force them to confront an even worse prospect than physical death, lost dreams, and health problems both mental and physical. What they fear most of all is the threat articulated by an article in the June 2001 issue of my old church’s Voice of Zion newletter: eternal death, when “the loss of a soul is irrecoverable, and no compensation can be made for it any longer.” Then the “‘Son of Man’ will appear with all of His angels to execute judgment. Christ will then reward every person according to his works.”

“There is no way to escape the righteous judgment of God,” the article warns. Nor is there a way of escape from this vicious threat of damnation that was put into the minds of desperate young parents in their childhood and reinforced ever since. When the hell of eternity is the cost of disobedience, regarding birth control or anything else decided by the “living congregation of God,” it can seem like no amount of self-sacrifice in this one short life on earth would ever be too high a price to pay.2

Laestadians who are sick of hearing such dreary and backward language from their church do have reason to hope for better things, however. Despite the official claims about “unity,” liberal voices are now being heard that express much more compassionate and sensible viewpoints. Here is what one of them recently said in response to an interviewer’s question about contraception:

I will refer to a press meeting from this year’s summer services, where Aino Kannianen gave a presentation. She spoke on this matter, particularly, how we accept [the number of] children just the way God gives them to us. But there are situations, where because of health reasons, or because of other difficult circumstances, this can be dangerous. Preserving and honoring life requires that one does consider these issues.

“So, you are not completely absolute anymore?” the interviewer asked.

“This is a matter the parents need to decide on,” was the reponse. “Nobody needs to give birth risking their lives because of it.”

This wasn’t some fringe heretic or borderline unbeliever muttering over the coffee table to a few trusted friends. It was Viljo Juntunen, the new chairman of the SRK board of directors, speaking during an interview with a radio program in Finland.3 The SRK is the Finnish counterpart to the LLC, a far bigger one that comprises most of the 100,000 or so Conservative Laestadians across the globe.


Before proceeding with this repost (slightly edited for readability with a few additional notes) let me answer a criticism I occasionally hear: Why do I keep writing about a religion I’ve rejected? Why keep bringing up problems with it? Because, when it comes to this particular church, few other people are in as good a position to do so.

I devoted a year of essentially full-time work to researching and writing a gigantic book about a faith that I’d spent forty years living and loving, because it proved itself false to me in many different ways. My own deep-seated fears about eternal damnation, pounded into my skull from childhood, forced me to confront the church by learning about it, in exasperating detail. Braver people leave it with much less difficulty.

Quite a few people have told me that my work has made a difference in their lives. I’m pretty certain that there are women who have taken their bodies and health into their own hands partly as a result of what they learned from this essay when it was originally posted two years ago. In a world of outrages inflicted by elites and tyrants whose power is far beyond the reach of our puny voices, it is rewarding to have a little place where one’s careful work is appreciated, where it really does have some impact.

And unlike that Laestadian critic who confidently pronounced judgement on a man who’d lost a wife to dogmatic beliefs, I am not content to say, as he did, “You can’t believe with your mind.” Yes, actually, you can. That’s all you have to believe anything with. And you’ve got every right to expect people to make sense when they tell you what you should be doing with your body.

Maternal Martyrdom, Revisited

Like the Second Temple Judaism that preceded it, Christianity is a religion based on blood sacrifice. That may seem like a jarring summation of a faith that is, for the average believer, less about theology than the happy commotion of little children playing, the smell of hot dish warming in the church kitchen, and the joy of singing songs that are as beloved and familiar as the hundred other voices ringing out from the pews alongside you. But it’s the harsh reality behind all the love and comfort: Jesus’ “blood of the covenant” was “poured out for many” (Mark 14:24), just as Moses took the blood of young bulls “and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (Exodus 24:8).4

The sacrificial victims were not just animals or the one who was called the Son of God. Judges 11 tells us of Jephthah vowing to God that he would make a human sacrifice in exchange for permission to do a bunch of other killing, and fulfilling the vow with his own daughter. God even commanded the Israelites to give him “the firstborn of your sons,” the same as they were to do with their oxen and sheep. “It shall be with its mother seven days; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me” (Exodus 22:29-30). Then there is the Old Testament’s most famous story of human sacrifice, where Abraham was about to slice open his 12-year old son until God stopped him.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since the Epistle to the Hebrews, that incident has been showcased by Christian writers and preachers as a test of faith that Abraham passed. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son” (Heb. 11:17). On Father’s Day of 2012, the pastor of the Rockford, Minnesota LLC devoted his sermon to Abraham’s “leap of faith,” the fact that “he had to kind of shut down his thinking.” He couldn’t think about it, or “use his carnal reason,” because, the preacher admitted, “what God asked of him was inhuman, was–if we say, in a human language–it was wrong. It was something nobody should do.”5

Well, what are you supposed to do when God (or the voices in your head) tell you to “take your son and offer him as burnt offering unto me”? Never mind your natural response that “This is inhuman. This is wrong.”6 Just obey: “If you don’t understand, you believe.”7

Mothers on the Altar

The same blind obedience is being expected of Conservative Laestadian women regarding contraception, even when their lives are at risk. They must put their bodies on the sacrificial altar, or risk the damnation of their souls instead. It is a picture that Hanna Pylväinen paints vividly in her book We Sinners, with the story of a Laestadian mother having her seventh child, an experience that torments her economically, emotionally, and physically.

The woman’s pregnancy is a dangerous one, and the latest in a long parade of C-section deliveries puts her on an operating table, studying the looming medical equipment: “bags of blood hanging like deflated lungs, collapsed balloons, and their readiness paralyzed her” (p. 145). She describes the sensations (“a pinching in her chest,” “the feeling of being made of many numbed parts”) and the despair (“she had run out of fantasies–out of husbands to imagine, homes to build, pianos–there was nothing, only life itself, only long and hard and always more of it, always more,” p. 145). Then an image comes

to her of her abdomen as prey, ants to jelly on the counter, jelly on the knife, and she thought about Abraham and Isaac, about Abraham tying Isaac to the table, and she wondered how long it took him, and did he tie Isaac carefully. She thought she would try to get up, but she couldn’t, she was bound, or her muscles were, and she said, or thought she said, I don’t want to die, as if to ask God Himself to hold the scalpel. [p. 146]

The cords binding mothers to the birthing bed and operating table were very real in the 1970s. It was a “lenient mind” that would put “pity for the mother before having love in the truth concerning family planning, especially then when humanly speaking, the birth could appear dangerous,” according to the August 1976 edition of the LLC’s Voice of Zion newspaper. In 1979, from the other side of the Atlantic, the SRK’s Päivämies matched the dogmatism: “Never in any form does the prevention of human life come into question for God’s children.” But, there is always the eternal consolation prize: “Even if it were to happen that a believing mother or child would die in childbirth, or during pregnancy, they would go to heaven.”

Nine Patch Self-Portrait

It may be tempting to consider all that an artifact of a harsh and misguided period of Laestadian history, when wrong spirits ran rampant and caretaking meetings of wayward church members were a weekly spectacle. But the pastor of the Phoenix LLC dispels any such illusion in his 2012 Mother’s Day sermon. He tells the story of a “dear sister” who was faced with “a childbirth that was going to cause her to die.” She had been warned by her doctors “that if you have another child, the chances are very great that the mother will die.”8 She and her husband decided–on their own! As if the expectations of a high-pressure religious environment played no part–“that they would trust in God’s goodness.”9

“God’s will” turned out to have little to do with the mother’s health. She became pregnant and, “after the birth of that child, it became evident that there was nothing the doctors could do to save this mother’s life.” No, they had already done their job–by warning the mother that she was playing Russian roulette with her uterus.

With evident emotion, the pastor recounts the dying mother’s denial of any bitterness about the outcome, and how she said, “I would much rather go to heaven with a clean conscience.” I don’t know if she left any kids behind, but if so, any pangs of guilt about leaving them without a mother are never mentioned. And again we hear the praise of blind, uninformed faith: “How simply this husband and wife trusted in the goodness and the protection and the care of the Heavenly Father.”10

Now, the “pillar and ground of truth,” which Conservative Laestadianism has the conceit to call itself, can’t quite bring itself to talk this way when it knows the public is listening. Then it mutters acknowledgments that the wisdom of man, in the form of medical professionals, might just have something to say on the topic. The 2012 statement by the former SRK Secretary-General Tuomas Hänninen in response to a question from the Finnish news site Kotimaa24 is an example of the doublespeak:

The use or rejection of contraception is not a matter of authorization for each individual case, but rather a question of faith. Life is full of choices, and a person who wants to preserve faith and a good conscience makes the choice from that basis. In extreme cases, and for health reasons, it is good to listen to the treating physician.11

Another example is from a few years earlier, the No. 5 issue of the SRK’s Päivämies newspaper in 2009 (emphasis added):

Believing fathers and mothers have comprehended as an unrelinquishable value the scriptural teaching that God is the Lord of life and death. He has the power to give life and the power to take it away. For this reason in our Christianity, we have considered children as gifts from God; they bring blessing, joy, meaning, and richness to our lives. That’s why even the parents of large families have wanted to accept children, even though it has perhaps meant that they have had to give up certain things. The basis for Christian parents’ decisions has been obedience to God’s Word, faith upon God as the omnipotent Creator, and trust in His guidance and care.... The preservation of the life of both the mother and child is important. A doctor, who has great professional ethics, helps humanity and respects a patient’s wishes by preserving life and maintaining health. Surely parents do not relate belittlingly to their doctor’s assessment given from a medical perspective. In difficult situations, faith guides us to make decisions based on preserving life according to God’s Word.


If you are an exhausted, desperate mother faced with the possibility of yet another pregnancy, perhaps a life-threatening one at that, the stakes are unthinkably high. Don’t you have the right to understand just why you should subject yourself to that peril? Or should you just tune out everything but the men who sit at their pulpits and urge you, as the Rockford pastor did, to put blind trust in God, “trust his congregation. Let us trust this congregation more than ourselves.”

It is telling that he describes the reasonable speculations Abraham might have had after hearing the divine death sentence pronounced on his innocent son, to wonder “if God exists, if this is just nonsense, foolishness, the creation of my own mind. Maybe I should turn back, go back home, and try to forget the whole thing.”12

But God was there, the preacher says, and showed Abraham what he was to do. And when God speaks, you’d better listen. As Luther put it, “we must simply maintain that when we hear God saying something, we are to believe it and not to debate about it but rather take our intellect captive in the obedience of Christ.”13

Perhaps the most detailed attempt at a defense of Conservative Laestadianism’s anti-contraception position to ever see print is a document that Seppo Lohi presented at the SRK’s 2009 Summer Services. His argument is mostly grounded in tradition, with little biblical support.14

First, he cites the Genesis commands to “be fruitful and multiply,” which he considers to have established “new life” as “a fundamental task of marriage.” He makes a bizarre appeal to Mark 10:6-9, Jesus’ directive about the permanence of marriage. And he rounds things out with statements in Mark 10:14 and a few verses in Matthew 18 about receiving and becoming as children.

The Genesis commands are the strongest of some very weak arguments. Lohi gets some help from Luther there: “Therefore, the word of God, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply,’ is not a command, but more than a mere command, namely a Divine Act, not being in our power to hinder or neglect.” But Mark 10:6-9 (What God has joined together let not man put asunder) has absolutely nothing to do with contraception. Neither do Mark 10:14 (“Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me”) or the verses in Matthew 18 (e.g., “Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven”).

This is all explained in §4.7.6 of my book An Examination of the Pearl, under the subheading “Human Rights Concerns.” And, as discussed there, it is a tricky business to rely on the Bible to establish the sanctity of life.

Exodus 21:22 imposes a mere civil penalty for hurting a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry. Leviticus 27 places monetary valuations on human life (less for women than men, naturally), and assigns no value at all to infants less than a month old. Hosea rants against Ephraim that he will “slay even the beloved fruit of their womb” (9:16). The people of Samaria had “rebelled against her God,” according to Hosea, so “they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up” (Hos. 13:16).

So, then, is there no biblical position against contraception worth talking about, other than that “be fruitful and multiply” business? In her book Quiverfull, Kathryn Joyce cites those Genesis passages, and also two others that fundamentalist Christians have relied on to oppose contraception: Psalm 127, with its talk about the fruit of the womb and arrows in a quiver, and “the biblical story of Onan, slain by God for spilling his seed on the ground.”15 Let’s take a look at these three main points in turn.


Psalm 127:3-5 says, “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.” It was very important for a man (certainly not a woman) in that patriarchal society to have heirs who could continue and extend his household with its livestock, landholdings, buildings, slaves, etc. Look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, and how important it was for him to have a legitimate heir. (Ishmael got pushed aside as soon as Isaac was miraculously born, as the story goes.)

Laestadian doctrine has long fancied that there is some vague cloud of unconceived children floating out there somewhere who are all God’s property. They wait to be conveyed into existence one after another by women who have no option but to bear them and fill some man’s quiver. Along those lines, the Phoenix pastor makes much of the way his sermon text (1 Sam. 1:27-28) says that Hannah (the biblical figure, not the novelist) “lent” her child to the Lord.

Anna presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli

Well, of course she did; the child was Samuel, who was destined to become an important prophet. But you can’t make that a generalization of God’s views about children, not when he slaughters so many of them without hesitation–in Sodom (children weren’t even considered as part of the ten “righteous” whose presence would have spared the city, Gen. 18:32), in Egypt (the passover plague, Exod. 12:29-30), and in Midian (“kill every male among the little ones,” Num. 31:17, KJV). Remember, this was the God who inspired the Psalmist to write, “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Ps. 137:8-9, KJV).16

There is a subtle but important issue in calling the fruit of the womb “his” reward, as the KJV does. With such wording, it is understandable that one might view the fruit of the womb as something God can demand as his own. But other translations render the passage without that possessive pronoun, and with no such implication of ownership or control:

NASB: “Behold, children are a gift [or heritage] of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.”

Luther (my translation from German): “See, children are a gift [Gabe] of the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a present [Geschenk].”

Finnish (1776): “Katso, lapset ovat Herran lahja, ja kohdun hedelmä on anto.”

One could see the same possessive implication in the KJV when it calls the fruit of the womb a “reward.” The other translations call it a “gift” or “heritage,” putting the emphasis on the child as something from God. Wasn’t the next generation more a bounty given to mankind–when God looked favorably on them–than a tribute owed to him? In the ancient world where women were expendable, dominated, and possessed, the “fruit of the womb” was produce, in an all-too-literal sense.


This leads to the second point of Scriptural support: God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. He said it twice, first after the creation of Adam and Eve and then after Noah parked his ark on the mountainside. Well, actually it was never said. Not in either of those stories, anyhow, because the stories are not true.

Evolutionary science completely disproves the ancient Creation myths of Genesis. (Yes, myths, plural–there are two conflicting stories in Gen. 1 and Gen. 2-3.) At no point was there any first pair of humans standing around having to be told to make babies and populate the earth. Every early human, no matter how many thousands and millions of years back you go in prehistory, had parents who had reproduced without any divine sex education and were pretty much human themselves. Darwin had this figured out a long time ago: “In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term ‘man’ ought to be used.”17

And it is just not possible for the entire human race to have descended from a single father and mother. Genetic evidence now makes clear that there have never been fewer than about a thousand members of Homo sapiens throughout the more than 100,000 years of its existence, which began in Africa, not Mesopotamia.18

Noah’s flood supposedly concluded with kangaroos continent-hopping around the world to Australia, and with God making his second pronouncement about replenishing the earth. Those who believe this story, an obvious adaptation of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, are in a dwindling minority even among Conservative Laestadians, certainly among those in Finland. One ordained SRK priest with whom I’ve corresponded expressed shock and disbelief that people in the LLC actually take the story seriously.

The LLC preacher who said to someone back in 2009, “Why is Ed worried about Noah’s Ark? None of us believe it, either,” was just being honest about the situation. (Though not so much when he took part in a meeting a year later, where I would be pressured to profess belief in, among other things, Noah’s Ark.) Rather than belabor this posting with the devastating critique that the story deserves, I refer interested readers to Jason Long’s 101 Reasons Why Noah’s Story Doesn’t Float.

Now, let’s suppose–against overwhelming evidence–that the Eden and the Noah stories are true. Do they actually have anything to do with Christian doctrine? No; despite centuries of earnest exposition by Christian preachers from the Gospel writers onward, they do not.

The Fall myth wasn’t even about original sin. The Bible mentions nothing about it until Paul finally comes along with his “one sinner, one redeemer” idea in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. What happened here (as with the supposed messianic prophecies that never quite add up) is that Christian theologians went back and looked over the ancient Scriptures and invented ways to give historical credibility to their new story about Jesus.

Another example is God clothing Adam and Eve with animal skins in place of their fig leaf aprons. Saying that God did so as a precursor to Jesus’ sacrifice is just something Christian theology made up. One could just as easily say that God replaced the fig leaves because he knew that Jesus would someday curse a fig tree. He did, and it is just about as relevant–that is, not at all.

Even if you make the two gigantic leaps of accepting the stories as accurate and also relevant, there is still the issue of God’s commands in the Old Testament being overruled in the New. Through his claimed representatives or directly, God commanded all sorts of crazy and horrible things in the Old Testament. Almost all of it is forgotten and ignored by Christians today.

The usual excuse is that Jesus fulfilled the law and thus the Old Testament doesn’t apply. Of course, for some reason, one still must honor one’s father and mother, avoid “sitting in the seat of the scornful,” and not hunt or fish on Sunday. When there is a handy verse to be found in the Old Testament that supports somebody’s idea of right and wrong, they don’t hesitate to pluck it out and quote it.

“Be fruitful and multiply” fares no better than the command to avoid sitting on furniture used by menstruating women (Lev. 15:20), for a number of reasons. First, with seven billion people, the earth has been replenished beyond the Genesis writer’s wildest imaginings. The whole point of the command has been achieved, and then some. If covering the face of the planet with billions of people–many times more than have ever lived–is not “replenishing” it, then the term is meaningless.

Second, perhaps surprisingly, some New Testament writers viewed children very differently than as a welcome gift. Look at how Paul felt about marriage in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. Not only did he view it as more favorable to be unmarried, but he even told men “that have wives be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:29-30). The time was short, and there was no point bringing children into this world that was about to end. The way to avoid that back then, of course, was celibacy.


The third point, the Onan story (Gen. 38:3-10), was all about fulfilling the Old Testament requirement to raise up an heir. Again, that was very important back then, and was a duty that Onan owed to his dead brother. God specifically ordered Onan to undertake the task, and he disobeyed the command. God killed him, as he threatened and killed many others for disobeying his commands.19

There’s nothing special about the life of a speculative not-yet-conceived child here. It’s all about submission. That is, I think, also largely the case in Laestadianism.

Enough Already

Despite what is claimed by Laestadian preachers who know almost nothing about biblical scholarship, the collection of essays we call “the Bible” is not a single book with a unified message. It is futile to dig through “the Bible” looking for what “it” has to say on such a modern subject as the health of women, who were expendable and pretty much treated as property, when different passages provide contradicting answers about such fundamental things as whether God wants everyone to be saved, the value of the Old Testament sacrifices, and salvation by faith or by works.

The contradictions we’ve seen here concerning the value of children are just a small example of the conflict lurking between those mostly unread pages whose gilt edges sparkle under the pulpit lights. The writers of Genesis couldn’t even agree on details of the Flood story. (Were there seven pairs of ritually clean animals, or one? Forty days of flooding, or 150? See An Examination of the Pearl, §4.3.2.) So some ancient editor merged the conflicting accounts together.

None of the Old Testament writers were remotely the same kinds of “believers” as the writers of the Gospels. And the Gospel disagreed with each other! Not just about trivialities, but such fundamental points of doctrine as whether Jesus was divine (John 14:9-11) or not (Mark 10:17-18) and whether he revealed esoteric meanings of his parables to the disciples in secret (Mark 4:11; Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10) or always spoke openly, saying nothing in secrecy (John 18:20).

Of course, this will not stop the preachers from citing and creatively interpreting their hand-picked passages from “God’s Word,” claiming the authority of God as they do so. They are the Holy men who speak as moved by the Holy Ghost, they claim, ironically citing a passage (2 Peter 1:19-21) from the single most discredited book of the New Testament.20

When any criticism is raised, they point to the Serpent’s question of Eve: “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Gen. 3:1). There is a sad irony here, too: They are citing a character in a mythic story–long since proven false–to keep you from entertaining the possibility that what they say might be false. And remember that, even in the story, the Serpent was actually the one who told the truth: Adam and Eve did not die upon touching the fruit (Gen. 3:4). Instead, as he said would happen, “the eyes of them both were opened” (3:7).

Laestadian women need to open their eyes as well, before any more of them bleed to death on the sacrificial altar of a faith that requires their fertility for its survival. At long last, some of them are choosing to be the survivors instead, finally claiming their lives, their minds, and their bodies as their own. It’s about time.

Originally posted October 3, 2012 on the Learning to Live Free blog at​2012/10/​maternal-martyrdom.html. See also my related post on that blog, Seeking Clarity in the Face of Tragedy and the 100+ comments provided by readers.
Image credits: Nine Patch Self-Portrait by Linda Frost. Anna presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Wikimedia Commons


  1. “God is Lord over Life and Death,” presented at the 2010 LLC Ministers’ and Board Members’ Meeting (PDF). The Bible quote is from 2 Cor. 10:5 (KJV). 

  2. These two paragraphs are adapted from my related post on the Learning to Live Free blog, “Seeking Clarity in the Face of Tragedy.” 

  3. Yle Areena Ykkosaamu, July 2, 2014,​radio/2272326. The interview with Juntunen begins at the 25:40 mark, and the remarks quoted begin at 37:00. Thanks to an anonymous correspondent for the transcription and translation. 

  4. Scripture quotations taken from the NASB unless otherwise indicated. 

  5. Haapsaari 2012, 14:30-18:00: God told Abraham to kill his only son (Ishmael didn’t count). This was a great trial. “And I think, when there are people who dare to say that I don’t believe if I don’t understand–that I only am willing to accept and believe this which I can understand–I think they should read about Abraham. He did not understand. Or what do you think? Do you think that he understood? Do you think he saw plainly what was going to happen? No way. He didn’t. He had to take this leap of faith. He had to kind of shut down his thinking. He could not think. He could not use his carnal reason. Because what God asked of him was inhuman, was–if we say, in a human language–it was wrong. It was something nobody should do.” 

  6. Haapsaari 2012, 19:00-19:40: “And now God says, take your son and offer him as burnt offering unto me. What would you have done? [Would you have] run away? [Would you have] said, I can’t? This is inhuman. This is wrong. This is impossible. Whatever else, but not this.” 

  7. Haapsaari 2012,21:30-23:00: “So what do you do if you don’t understand? There is only one way to go over it. There’s only one bridge, and that’s faith. If you don’t understand, you believe. Then faith is the most important matter. There is no other way to go over it but through faith. So we see how understanding and believing are kind of opposites to one other. It’s not wrong if we understand something about the matters of faith and doctrine. It’s not wrong if we understand the matters of this life well. If we have good gifts for this temporal life, it’s not sin. It’s not a questionable issue. But we see that no one could by their own human reason go over [overcome] this trial without faith. It’s impossible.” 

  8. Note: The former Laestadian introduced at the beginning of this essay did not explicitly consult with doctors about the medical danger of new pregnancies. In fact, he tells me, there may be “a difference here between Finland and the USA: In Finland, Laestadians are allowed to listen to the doctor nowadays.” Perhaps that is somewhat true now in the LLC, too, at least in theory. But there are strong social pressures against actually following through on any advice to use contraception. See the discussion about listening to “medical information and advice” in my extoots posting “Seeking Clarity in the Face of Tragedy.” 

  9. Jurmu 2012, 38:10-39:00: “One dear sister once said, as she was struggling with her own life, she had a very difficult... in fact, a childbirth that was going to cause her to die. Prior to her pregnancy, the doctors had told them, husband and wife together, that if you have another child, the chances are very great that the mother will die. The husband and wife visited over this matter with the doctor and then amongst themselves personally. And they decided, amongst the two of them, that they would trust in God’s goodness.” 

  10. Jurmu 2012, 39:00-40:10: “And what is God’s will? As it turned out, this wife became pregnant. And after the birth of that child, it became evident that there was nothing the doctors could do to save this mother’s live. And in the final visit that the husband and wife had together, the husband asked his wife, ‘Are you bitter to God because of our decision?’ The wife said, ‘Not at all.’ She said, ‘I would much rather go to heaven with a clean conscience.’ How simply this husband and wife trusted in the goodness and the protection and the care of the Heavenly Father.” 

  11. Johannes Ijäs, “Vanhoillislestadiolaisten johto kommentoi ehkäisykieltoa,” Kotimaa24, Sept. 26, 2012. Emphasis added. 

  12. Haapsaari 2012, 24:00-25:00: “[I]n the midst of this trial, God showed him the way. God showed him the place where to go. He may have had so [many] trials, temptations, and doubts that he might have even thought during this trip, [wondering]... if God exists, if this is just nonsense, foolishness, the creation of my own mind. Maybe I should turn back, go back home, and try to forget the whole thing. So God showed him, ‘There you are to go.’ It must have been a painful, but also in a way comforting, sight. God is there and he shows me what I am to do.” 

  13. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis (c. 1535). English version: George V. Schick, trans., Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House (1958). Ch. 3, v. 5. 

  14. Seppo Lohi, Minä uskon Jumalaan, Isään (I Believe in God the Father). Oripää Summer Services: SRK (2009). Reproduced at​2009/07/15/​seppo-lohen-perustelut. Translation provided to the author Dec. 2011 by Antti Samuli Kinnunen. 

  15. Katheryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Boston: Beacon Press (2009), p. 146. 

  16. In its original form, this essay also cited Judah’s casual dismissal of Tamar’s unborn child, Genesis 38. I am relegating that to a footnote now because his morality is clearly not held up as exemplary, even to many pious Bible readers with a simplistic view of the text as a single inspired narrative. It’s not fair to blame the Bible for everything done by that one son of Jacob, given what a complex character he is as the flawed head of the tribe of Judah. It is a valuable illustration of the limited value that was placed on the life of an unborn child back then, however: “When Judah learned that his daughter-in-law was ‘with child by whoredom,’ his response was, ‘Bring her forth, and let her be burnt’ (Gen. 38:24). Not much concern there for the unborn child. It was only when she produced some things that Judah had left during his own sexual encounter with her that he backed down. Oops, never mind!” 

  17. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: Murray (1871), p. 226. 

  18. Jerry Coyne, “How big was the human population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted.” Why Evolution is True website, September 18, 2011 posting

  19. Leviticus 26 provides a lurid example of God’s threats for disobedience. He will inflict sudden terror, consumption and fever on the disobedient that will waste away their eyes. He will cause their enemies to rule over them. If that doesn’t make the people obey, he will punish them seven times more, rendering the land barren. If that doesn’t work, he will increase the plague seven times again, letting loose the beasts of the field to kill their children and cattle, and reduce their number until their roads lie deserted. If that doesn’t do the trick, he will send pestilence among them. Finally, as a last resort, he will act with “wrathful hostility” against them, whereupon they will eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, he will heap their remains on the remains of their idols and lay waste their cities. At least the idea of eternal torture wasn’t contemplated, here or anywhere else in the Old Testament. 

  20. “There is less debate among scholars of the New Testament about the authorship of 2 Peter than for any of the other books sometimes considered forgeries. Whoever wrote 2 Peter, it was not Simon Peter.” Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. New York: HarperCollins Publishers (2011).