Some time ago (Feb 2006), Stephen M (Ethesis) asked me to write a guest post for his blog. When he finally convinced me that he was serious (I am, after all, the most reviled participant in the bloggernacle), I came up with this. It was originally posted at Stephen’s blog. This is the one of the first blog articles that I wrote under my own name. It is reposted here for your enjoyment.

A good friend of mine is a bit older than me. His family is Sephardic, and he’s got binders full of family photos and letters written in the cyrillic alphabet. As he turns through them, he can tell you exactly who went to which death camp or concentration camp, whether they survived, and who got out of Europe altogether. A few years ago he was with his aunt at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC, and she spotted her younger brother in one of the photos of death camp prisoners that was on display there. He was very young — if he were LDS, he might have been a deacon — but at an age that was older, at any rate, than she’d ever seen her little brother. He died there in the death camp. My friend is Jewish, of course, and it’s quite something to hear him describe it.

He told me an interesting story from his childhood once. He and his brother and his father were going through boxes in the attic, and they found a box that had some of his father’s WWII stuff in it. His father had belonged to the US Army and had fought in Europe. The box included some neat stuff like knives and medals and identification cards — the kind of stuff that fascinates young boys. They dug through the box finding treasure after treasure until they reached the bottom. At the bottom of the box was a Nazi flag. His father explained that when he was a young man he’d taken it as a trophy from the flag pole at the city center of a town that his regiment had liberated, and he disposed of it forthwith. Years earlier, when he’d claimed it as a trophy, it had represented for him the clear triumph of freedom over tyranny. But off the field of battle, it was nothing more than a symbol of suffering and of evil.

That thrown-away flag — it’s a salient representation of the different ways people view the impact of WWII. All too often, we hear a story about how the war went just as God wanted it to: The good guys won, the clear triumph of freedom over tyranny and all that (as though tyranny never had lasting consequences or even stood a chance). But is that what God wanted? A war and a Holocaust and the Allies riding in to save the day?

In our own time it’s been said that the Soviets failed because God backed the Muslims in Afghanistan. This sounds a bit strange to American ears. We prefer to explain the Soviet fall in terms of God’s partiality for Western capitalism. As rational as we like to think we are, we’re as likely as anyone to see the whim of God as an ever-present moral beacon. During the Carter administration God wanted the USA to yank support from its second-tier autocratic allies. During the Reagan administration God wanted the defeat of communism. During the George H. W. Bush administration God wanted food distributed in Somalia. During the Clinton administration God wanted to end the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. Now we have George W. Bush’s administration, and God wants the USA to rid the world of terrorism. One hears an awful lot about what God wants.

Though God doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the minutia, one thing is clear: God really delivers on the big ticket items. At all times and on all sides and for all purposes, we get an earful about what God wants, and given enough time, it all happens. There is peace and there is war. There is want and there is plenty. There is health and there is disease. And the whim of God operates more like a sanitizer than a beacon; it’s what God wants, and that makes at all so clean and contained — like the victory of freedom over tyranny in WWII. It masks the mess and complication that we’d otherwise deem “reality.” It gives us license to think cleanly about unclean things.

To some degree, we Mormons rely on prophets to tell us what God wants. In the good old days, God made polygamy the pride of Mormonism — even Jesus was a polygamist. In the good old days, God gave a simple answer to the question of who holds the priesthood and when. In the good old days, God prescribed economic collectivism. There are several schools of thought concerning the role of God’s desire and human foible in each of these. Whatever else happened, it’s a fair bet that God got what He wanted. And it all comes off pretty tidily when you think of it that way.

Everyone lays some claim to cosmic goodness — from utter lunatics, like the president of Iran, to otherwise reasonable folks like British Prime Ministers and American Presidents; from cranks to bona fide religious leaders; even people like you and me. After all, our lives get pretty messy, too. And come on, God really is on our side, right?