Who Am I? On Iconography, Faith, and Self-Identity

In one of the great classic works of French literature, the author Victor Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent nineteen years in prison, growing angrier and more filled with hate toward the world with each passing day. The first five years were for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family, but then he suffered for fourteen additional years for attempting to run away. The story of Les Misérables follows his journey from his release from prison on parole to a life of service, sacrifice, love, mercy, grace, and, ultimately, redemption.

In the musical adaptation of this story, a pivotal moment takes place early in the story when Jean Valjean, who had been gifted a meal and safe shelter for the night from a kindly bishop, gives in to temptation, steals the bishop’s silverware and runs off, only to be captured by the local constables. Valjean claims that the silver was given as a gift from the bishop but the police, not believing the words of a criminal, bring him back to the bishop. In an act of true mercy, the bishop tells the men that he had indeed given Valjean the silverware as a gift but says that Valjean forgot the silver candlesticks that were also given as a gift. The bishop thanks the policemen for the service and sends them on their way.

Jean Valjean, who has never been treated this way before, responds in shock. In the musical, the bishop tells Valjean:

And remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

What follows next is this soliloquy from Jean Valjean:

What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night
Become a dog on the run
Have I fallen so far
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate
The cries in the dark that nobody hears
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?
If there's another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Jean Valjean accepts this precious gift of freedom from the bishop and leaves. Realising that he will never be able to escape the demons of his past, he breaks his parole and changes his name, and starts life anew. Staying true to his word, he becomes a model citizen, running a factory and serving as mayor of his town.

However, his past forever haunts him in the actions of his parole officer, Inspector Javert. Javert arrested a man he believed to be Jean Valjean and the real Valjean, learning of this, goes to the trial, thinking that this may be his ticket to freedom. Realising that an innocent man is about to be found guilty, though, Valjean experiences internal turmoil and makes a decision that is reflected in these lines:

Who am I?
Can I conceal myself for evermore?
Pretend I'm not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope, when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
Who am I? Who am I?
I'm Jean Valjean!

I wish to ask this question and try to answer it: Who am I? I invite you to ask this question of yourself.

Who am I?

I am a son. I am a brother. I am a nephew. I am a cousin. I am an uncle. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a teacher. I am an Eagle Scout. I am a former small business owner. I am a bibliophile. I am a tabletop gaming enthusiast. I am a volunteer substance abuse prevention specialist and youth leadership trainer. I am an avid listener to podcasts and a political junkie. I am the kind of person who listens to NPR when I am not listening to podcasts and watches late-night comedy shows to get the news because the actual news is often too depressing to process without interjecting comedy. I am, in short, many things.

Take a look at me on any given day, and you will see signs of all these things that make up parts of who I am: my wristbands for a podcast I listen to and for Operation Snowball, Inc, an organisation I have been a part of for more than 25 years; my backpack with the symbols of the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, a youth leadership program that has been a part of my life since I was 16 years old, a pretzel to remind others where I work. Even the small metal slinky is there for a purpose. My laptop computer is covered in stickers. If you were to visit my home or my office, you would see the symbols and icons of many things that are a part of who I am.

And yet, these are all just parts of me; they are not me.

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am a holder of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood. Most importantly, I am a son of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. That is who I am. It is my past, my present, and my future.

However, you may not know this about me if you were to rely upon the symbols that surround me, the iconography of organisations and programs. As Latter-day Saints, we are Christians. And as Christians, we are often asked by other Christians, “Why don’t you use the cross as a symbol of your faith?” (Other than on the military uniforms of Latter-day Saint chaplains and, as of last year, the markers in Google Maps, you will not find the cross associated with us in the same way you might with other faiths.)

The shortest and least interesting answer is simply that Christians in the early 19th century America did not generally use the cross on their buildings until after the Latter-day Saints had traveled across the Great Basin and settled in the very northern reaches of Mexico, later to become the Utah Territory, and so they were cut off from the larger Christian community when the cross began to become a more common symbol of Christianity.

But that’s the boring answer to a boring question. A much more interesting and more thorough answer comes to us as we consider a better question: why didn’t we start using the symbol of the cross when we learned that this was the symbol being used widely?

In the October 2022 General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explored this question about the cross. After sharing several historical examples about the evolution of the cross as a symbol of Christianity, he referenced this statement from a talk then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve gave nearly 50 years earlier in 1975:

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian brethren who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ.”

When asked what was the symbol of our faith, if not the cross, Elder Hinckley replied that “the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.”

As is so often the case, this sounds much simpler than it really is. What does it mean for us, as members of the Lord’s Restored Church in these latter days, to become the “only meaningful expression of our faith”?

Each morning in seminary, I ask the youth to take turns reciting the Rockford Stake vision and invitations:

With faith in Jesus Christ, we joyfully walk the covenant path that leads to life eternal, inviting all God's children to join us in the journey.
We will read the Book of Mormon daily.
We will strive to minister as the Savior would.
We will testify daily of the Saviour and His love.
We will attend the temple as often as we can.

To be the “only meaningful expression of our faith” is to commit to walking the covenant path. Studying the Book of Mormon daily can help us understand the power of walking this path, not with murmuring as Laman and Lemuel did, but with joy, as Nephi did. Through the Book of Mormon, we learn from Ammon, Aaron, Omner, Himni, Alma, Amulek, and many others how to minister as the Saviour would. As we walk the covenant path, we are inspired to testify of the Saviour as we “love, share, and invite,” often by simply living the Gospel in our day-to-day actions. As we commit to attending the temple as often as we can, we realise the power of inviting all of God’s children to join us on the covenant path, not just those now with us but also those who have gone before us.

By doing these things, we, too, will be able to “sing the song of redeeming love,” having “the image of God engraven upon our countenances” (see Alma 26:13 and Alma 5:26). As this happens, we become more and more like our Father in Heaven, with “hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.”

While this all sounds fine and dandy on a Sunday morning when we are surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ, it becomes much more challenging once we go out among our brothers and sisters in the world around us. Perhaps this is why Elder Holland shared these further insights regarding our decision as Latter-day Saints to not use the cross as a symbol of our faith:

These considerations—especially the latter—bring me to what may be the most important of all scriptural references to the cross. It has nothing to do with pendants or jewelry, with steeples or signposts. It has to do, rather, with the rock-ribbed integrity and stiff moral backbone that Christians should bring to the call Jesus has given to every one of His disciples. In every land and age, He has said to us all, “If any man [or woman] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

[For the members of the Church to be the symbols of our faith] speaks of the crosses we bear rather than the ones we wear. To be a follower of Jesus Christ, one must sometimes carry a burden—your own or someone else’s—and go where sacrifice is required and suffering is inevitable. A true Christian cannot follow the Master only in those matters with which he or she agrees. No. We follow Him everywhere, including, if necessary, into arenas filled with tears and trouble, where sometimes we may stand very much alone.

What does it mean to bear a cross? What burdens do we carry?

Perhaps you, like me, carry the burden of personal or family struggles, of a life that is nothing like you planned. Perhaps you have the burden of caring for a loved one with an infirmity or other illness. Perhaps you carry the burden of addiction, whatever it may be. Perhaps you carry the burden of bitter disappointment, seeking after righteous desires that, for reasons that defy logic, have been denied to you.

Whatever your burden, know this:

You are not alone.

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are joined together through the sacred covenants we made at baptism and beyond. Do we remember the terms that our Father in Heaven has laid out before us? If we wish to be “redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that [we] may have eternal life,” as Alma taught in Mosiah 18, then we must be willing to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in, even until death” (see Mosiah 18:8-10).

At the end of his life, Jean Valjean found the redemption he so desperately sought. He finally saw himself as God had always seen him. As he passed, we are asked to consider these words:

Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

We do not have to wait until tomorrow comes. We can be strong and stand with our Father in Heaven and with our Saviour today. We can start to make the future a brighter place today as we tear down the barricades in our lives and walk with full purpose of heart along the covenant path. As we do so, I testify that God will lead us, guide us, and walk beside us. With faith in Jesus Christ, we joyfully walk the covenant path that leads to life eternal, inviting all God's children to join us in the journey. And join us in the journey they will, because they will see the light of the Gospel shining brightly in each of us, “the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.”


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