Burying the Past

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Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Burying the Past is a documentary of the little known American west terrorist event known as the Mountain Meadows massacre in 1857, and the film also documents the recent attempts at reconciliation all these years later. The Mountain Meadows massacre is the story of an Arkansas wagon train company that was traveling through Utah on its way to California. For some reason that may never be fully known, Mormons, many of who dressed as Indians, attacked the wagon train beginning on September 7th and ironically ending on the 11th. When it was all said and done, some 120 innocent men, women, and children had lost their lives. Only 17 small children were spared.

The stories from these survivors have obviously created a lot of tension between the descendants of these survivors and the LDS Church. The former, for the most part, is still upset that the LDS Church has never admitted culpability, and that only one individual--John D. Lee--was ever convicted and punished (he was executed almost 20 years after the massacre).

This is part of the film that really makes it stand out from other historical documentaries of the Mountain Meadows massacre. In a way, the story continues into our own day, and this is what most of Burying the Past is focused on. There are interviews with descendants of the survivors as well as with the descendants of John D. Lee. It was interesting to see how he is almost regarded as a martyr by his descendants. The film documents a Lee family reunion in which his family is unabashedly praising him, not for his murder, but strangely for how honorable he was. It struck me as almost like a big support group that needs to get together in order to somehow deal with the fact that they all derive from a murderer. They are also still bitter about the way their distant ancestor became the scapegoat for the massacre, and how their family has been looked down upon and treated way back when.

Back in 1988, a descendant of one of the survivors--Ron Loving--came to one of these reunions and befriended Vern Lee. Together they formed the Mountain Meadows Association. In addition to fostering mutual understanding and reconciliation, they began to push the LDS Church to restore the dilapidated 1932 monument, which was dedicated to the victims. As sort of a means of atonement, the people of southern Utah got behind the restoration project. This all culminated in a new monument that was dedicated in 1999.

What made this dedication even more poignant and significant was the accidental discovery of bones exhumed near the 1932 site. The dedication thus also became an interment service for these victims.

Burying the Past is a truly interesting and well-done film, but unfortunately it's simply a humanist message. It seems to be in favor of reconciliation without an ultimate basis for it. The only basis in the film comes from a loving human heart. But why should love and reconciliation be modeled? It's that missing Ultimate Basis who not only serves this function, but also serves as an example for all to follow (1 Peter 2:21).

R. M. Sivulka
Salt Lake City, UT
Easter 2005 

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