Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer

In June this year, I picked up Krakauer’s book at the classic Oxford Book Store in Darjeeling.

The Oxford Book & Stationary Store has a good collection of books and articles on the people and history of Darjeeling, Sikkim & other eastern-Himalayan countries. It also has books on Buddhism and mountain-climbing. The building facade is charmingly old-school, a rare treat in a town like Darjeeling where everything “old” is constantly being torn down.

To get back to the book- I bought it because of Krakauer’s classic mountaineering book “Into Thin Air“. And also for the movie adaptation of “Into the Wild”. I expected a riveting read from him and well…he delivered.

I must admit, I never expected to be taken through such a well-researched book on the history of the Mormon church and the splinter organisation of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints! The FLDS, to me, has always been a largely Daily Mail kind of tabloid story that I have read occasionally with the guilt of binging on junk.

In a nut-shell, the FLDS for me, was all about stories that came dripping with the typical crime of closed groups- abuse, paedophilia, incest and congenital signs of in-breeding (all tabloid hooks, I agree. Also, apologies for the bad-pun!). In keeping with that tradition of voyeuristic crime journalism, Krakauer presents the horrific murder of a woman and her 15-month baby, by her fundamentalist brothers-in-law.

But in classic Krakauer fashion, he takes the story from being tabloid click-bait to one of understanding how the crime of the Brothers Lafferty evolve, from being a vicious act of violence to the inevitable consequence of a lifetime of beliefs coupled with a history of domestic abuse.

Getting to know the Mormons and all that came afterwards…

The Lafferty story is told in parallel to the history of Mormonism itself. From the “prophetic revelations” of founder Joseph Smith, to the persecution and hence migration of the community to the desert lands of Utah, Krakauer helps outsiders like me understand a culture so alien to. It also reminds me that we really need to understand the context of where people have come from before we begin to judge them.

A history of violence- as with almost all dissenters/re-interpreters of established religions & idealogies, Joseph Smith faced the brutal consequence of his radical beliefs. He was attacked and shot to death by a mob, while in custody. Image from Wikipedia

Along the way, the Mormons themselves are also revealed to be no babe-in-the-woods. They have their own sense of entitlement, as well as a highly militant defence philosophy. An example of the Mountain Meadows massacre can be made, where the Mormons of the day are alleged to have participated in a horrific killing of emigrant men, women and children passing through their lands towards California. The church (Latter Day Saints/LDS) has made various rebuttals to such allegations, especially when it comes to protecting the image of their third President- Brigham Young. Inevitably, these rebuttals include a degree of demonisation of the Paiute Indians (used as mercenaries & scapegoats in the bitter animosity between Mormons and the non-Mormons/gentiles/United States).

Unfortunately, the Paiute have not left us their version of the events and history has shown us, that more often than not, that the white man has often hideously manipulated and destroyed the native American perspective.

Do we tend to be more critical of new faiths?

To be honest, personally speaking, it is very difficult for me to accept the Mormon belief-system given a very jarring divergence from rationality or logical-argumentation. At the same time, are we being more critical of the Mormons (or their non-mainstream cousins the FLDS) just because their religion is less than 200 years old and their prophet has so many proven human flaws, unlike the prophets and holy men of other religions? To quote from a quotation in the book “Whether a belief is considered to be a delusion or not depends partly upon the intensity with which it is defended, and partly upon the numbers of people subscribing to it“- Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners & Madmen.

Given the thousands, if not millions of such non-rational thoughts that gains respectability through the passage of time, the only thing that could keep me sane is by constantly passing everything through the filter of The Laws of Science. {Now, don’t say that is a delusion!}

Are religious people mad?

Inevitably, the Lafferty murder trial becomes an American court-room drama. The defence team of the oldest Lafferty brother, claims the insanity appeal, and takes the judgement into a territory of deciding whether believers of revelations from “God” (like the adherants of Mormonism and its fundamentalist splinters) are delusional.

In the course of the argument, some very interesting perspectives are presented. On the side of the defence we have an army of psychiatrists and psychologists saying a man has to be mad when he says “God” told him to kill a woman and her child.

On the other side the prosecution manages to bring in Stephen Golding, the forensic psychologist and co-author of “the bible of mental health professionals”, the DSM- IV. Golding argues that Ron is a religious zealot, but not a clinically diagnosed mad person. Ron’s beliefs are extreme, as are the beliefs of zealots in religion or politics ” ‘A zealot is simply someone who has an extreme, fervently held belief’ and is willing to go ‘to great lengths to impose those beliefs, act on those beliefs…’ “

Golding also explains that unlike schizophrenics, Ron also seems to have a sense of shared humour, and could enjoy a “good joke”. There is indeed a sick humour in the final moments when the judge asks Ron to choose between a lethal injection or a firing squad.

” ‘I’ve already had the lethal injection of Mormonism’, Ron barked back. ‘And I kind of wanted to try something different this time…I’ll take the firing squad. How’s that? Is that pretty clear?‘”

3 thoughts on “Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer

  1. Oh my goodness! Impressive article dude! Many thanks, However I am going through problems with your RSS.
    I don’t know why I am unable to subscribe
    to it. Is there anybody getting the same RSS problems?
    Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond?


    1. Hmmm… I’ll have to look up the RSS bit, but there’s a follow button on the right hand panel… Thank you! 🙂


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