A recent article caught my attention, entitled "Feds take down the world's 'largest dark web child porn marketplace'." A more accurate headline would have been "Feds take down the world's 'largest known dark web child porn marketplace so far'", but nobody wants to hear that. The marketplace was jointly taken down by Germany, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with additional cooperation from fourteen other countries. This is a beautiful example of international brotherhood and also a beautiful example of what federal law enforcement can accomplish when it isn't busy trying to arrest people for smoking a plant. The main guy behind it, Jong Woo Son, is now serving a prison sentence of - eighteen months. I kid you not. That better be just the beginning of his problems, because even the judge who sentenced Brock Turner is looking at that and going "Seriously guys?" Personally, I think everyone with any degree of involvement should be shot and used as Halloween decorations, but nobody asked me.
I imagine that seeing all of this child pornography and tracking down the children and infants involved must be traumatic enough for the investigators. But on top of that, they knew about this marketplace for a couple years, even figured out Jong Woo Son's identity, but were forced to be patient and cautious, even to buy some of the porn themselves, in order to eventually take the whole thing down. That must have been hell. And I'm not gonna lie, it disturbs me very much to imagine God watching every second of this rampant child and infant abuse and doing nothing to stop it. But the alternative is even more disturbing. The alternative is that these children and infants just got very unlucky with their one shot at life, and nobody is ever ever going to make it up to them, and the bastards who did this to them will never get what's coming to them because nothing that mortal justice can do to them, let alone what it will actually do, is good enough. At least God offers a long-term solution.
I believe that God allows injustice in this life for at least three reasons. One, so we can learn to appreciate joy by contrasting it with suffering. Two, so we can develop our character by choosing how to react to our circumstances. Personally, I think anyone who applies either of these reasons to children and infants getting raped should be punched in the throat, but nobody asked me. The third and, I believe, only relevant reason in this case is that our freedom to make our own choices and decide what kind of people we want to be - indeed, the primary purpose of being alive in the first place - is too sacred for God to take away, even when those choices and those people are terrible. Jong Woo Son and his ilk have made their choices at the expense of countless innocents. But they won't live forever, and they won't avoid being held accountable for those choices.
"It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." - Luke 17:2
Yet another recent headline, this one of a Pew poll, reports what everyone already knew: that the number of self-identified Christians in the United States of America is in rapid decline. The natural impulse is to blame "the wickedness of the world", but I think Christianity more or less has itself to blame for this. Now I believe that the vast majority of denominations and individual Christians are, on the balance, good, and this is not an attack on anyone in particular. But one can hardly blame young people for leaving in many cases when they realize that the Earth is more than six to ten thousand years old, that their gay friends and family members aren't evil, that the Republican Party platform isn't scripture, and/or that a god who sends a solid majority of his children to live in circumstances where they will never have the opportunity to avoid burning in hell forever is unworthy of worship. The historical atrocities and the scandals and hypocrisy of various preachers, priests and bishops probably don't help either.
"Fundamentalists are to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art." - Robin Tyler
And yet the "liberal" churches aren't doing better. If anything they're doing worse. It's a bizarre fact of life that while countless people are leaving Christianity over LGBTQ issues, every single denomination that has embraced same-sex marriage is plummeting. Some are on course for swift extinction. I would imagine this is more a case of correlation than causation. I would imagine it has more to do with the the denominations in question loosening, softening, and dumbing down their doctrine to the point where Jesus is just a guy who said we should be nice to people. And many, many people want to believe in that version of Jesus, but by and large they have little to no interest in organized religion. Why go to church for the same sermon you could get from an episode of "Barney"? So appealing to them is a doomed endeavor from the start.
"[I]t is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds." - Jeffrey R. Holland
Of course the main reason I'm hearing about this poll is what it says about my denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those within the Church may or may not have noticed how all the bragging about how fast we're growing has quietly disappeared in the last few years. That's because it's not true anymore. It's also not true, as detractors assert until they're blue in the face, that we're shrinking. In fact this poll reports that we're holding steady at 2% of the American population. (Probably less than half of that percentage actually goes to church on a semi-regular basis, but whatever, we still love them.) So, yay? Other churches are shrinking but ours isn't. The bar for success has been set pretty dang low nowadays.
My church is certainly not devoid of real and perceived problems, and has also lost thousands of members (though not as many members as it's gained, which is where the detractors' basic algebra skills suffer a critical failure). But I believe it's managed to hold steady by making adjustments and compromises where it needs to, and standing firm where it needs to. It makes constant course corrections, as it's done throughout its history, to hew to the state of "optimal tension" described by Armand Mauss and others. For example, President Russell M. Nelson has made changes to reduce the amount of time that the Church takes members away from their homes and families, yet church standards and callings remain rather "strict" and "demanding" by the standards of most denominations, which ensures that participation actually has significance and makes lasting changes in people's lives.
"Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation..." - Joseph Smith Jr.
The negative reputation of organized religion is not entirely undeserved. But the great strength of organized religion that gets overlooked, that individuals simply can't replicate, is its ability to unify and empower people to accomplish good in the world. Organizations like my church and the Catholic Church are able to leverage their collective faith into countless local and global humanitarian efforts that of course no normal person could ever hope to replicate. That's not to say secular charities aren't wonderful, obviously, but just to illustrate that as far as faith is concerned, working together has far more practical efficacy than being "spiritual but not religious" on one's own. Believers, when they aren't being pricks, also edify and strengthen each other when they unite. This sense of community is such a basic need for most people that those who leave religion, or even those who are openly hostile to religion, struggle to find a secular replacement for it. And even when believers are being pricks, like me, they can still teach us how to love, if we choose to learn, which I usually don't because it's hard.
"In the life of the true Church, there are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve - or possibly even associate with - and thus opportunities to learn to love unconditionally. There is constant encouragement, even pressure, to be 'active': to have a 'calling' and thus to have to grapple with relationships and management, with other people's ideas and wishes, their feelings and failures; to attend classes and meetings and to have to listen to other people's sometimes misinformed or prejudiced notions and to have to make some constructive response; to have leaders and occasionally to be hurt by their weakness and blindness, even unrighteous dominion; and then to be made a leader and find that you, too, with all the best intentions, can be weak and blind and unrighteous. Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be - and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be." - Eugene England
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.