Mormon Lectionary Project: Year 2
2 hours ago
Cutting my own path...
In a church that readily — or, perhaps, merely repeatedly — reminds us of the fallibility of our leaders, yet urges us to sustain them, we can’t help but ask ourselves how we sustain those who are mistaken (especially in light of D&C 121:39). Sometimes the mistakes are small or inadvertent. Sometimes they’re howlers. Sometimes they resolve themselves. And sometimes they persist for generations.
I think the problem is born of two errors: a mischaracterization of what it means to sustain our leaders… and a misunderstanding of what our responsibility is to those who might disagree with us.
The principle of sustaining our leaders is often coupled with the principle of obedience. It’s natural for leadership to feel sustained when they observe obedience… but this is an error of perspective. When I raise my hand to the square to sustain someone in their position — regardless of whether it be the President of the Church or the person who prints the ward bulletin — I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them.
The term “sustain” is rich with meaning. Food sustains us. Love sustains us. Unblinking obedience does not sustain us. My sustaining vote is evidenced and manifest when I pray for their success — when I’m rooting for them and helping them to magnify their calling. And, like food and love, the act of sustaining is reciprocative. My sustaining vote is accepted when those I sustain embrace and facilitate me in my work as the sustainer.
And when we disagree — and we will, it’s inevitable — we’re not called upon to simply succumb to the demands of begrudging obedience, which is a destructive act; we’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship.
This is easier when the person we’re sustaining lives in our ward and when the lines of communication are vivid and vibrant — full of life and light. It’s much harder when the lines of communication have crumpled under the crushing weight of a growing and global membership. And since the act of sustaining is reciprocative, the difficulties that arise from broken or missing lines of communication don’t fall solely on the shoulders of those who have grievances. They must be shared by all parties, jointly and severally. Calling on those who feel wronged to bear their grief in silence is to reject their sustaining vote. And who, then, carries the greater sin? Instead, it behooves our distant leaders to open lines of communication and to clear the way for dialogue. Only then can the process work as it should — feeding the Body of Christ.
Sadly, the grieved don’t always want to be comforted. Sometimes, they want to simply walk away, to defect — which is the true meaning of apostasy. What, then, is our responsibility to the defector? It’s clear, really. Among the lost sheep there are those who were left behind accidentally… and there are those who simply walked off. But no distinction is made in the scriptures. The good shepherd goes after all of them. At no point does the shepherd cut them off or throw them to the wolves.
Do we all passively note the increasing references to obedience as the first commandment, and the passing of free agency as a tangible LDS belief, without remembering the beauty of Matthew 22: 36-40, or the savage rationalizations and emotions that led to Dachau, My Lai, or Mountain Meadows? The obedience path is one which has a ditch on either side, and I am convinced that present fears of the disorder on the one side are pushing us toward the abyss on the other.
The abyss is described by Stanley Milgram in his 1974 book, "Obedience to Authority", which reports his extensive work on the destructive consequences of blind obedience of being submissive to control from others. In a famous series of laboratory experiments begun at Yale University and repeated at different sites around the world, student assistants were instructed by university researchers to administer electric shocks to fellow students who were participating in a study to determine the effect of negative feedback on learning. The more mistakes the learner made, the higher the intensity of the charge sent by the student behind the one-way glass. As the learners writhed increasingly from the pain being inflicted upon them when they made mistakes, some of the student assistants said they did not want to hurt the subjects and wished to stop. Their consciences were speaking to them. When reassured by the white jacketed scholars that this was an important experiment that had to be carried on to conclusion and that many other people had been willing to carry through with these same responsibilities in previous runs of the experiment, most of the students proceeded to inflict well-nigh unbearable suffering, even when those behind the glass begged and pleaded to be unwired and one subject screamed, "I've got a weak heart!'', then slumped in his chair. In truth, the electric shocks were not actually being sent; the recipients were all actors. The real subjects in the study were the student assistants themselves. Milgram was trying to determine the limits of obedience and the vulnerability of personal conscience when authority and precedent press hard against it. He was sobered by what he found. A pre-experiment prediction was that not even one in a hundred assistants would go to the limit of the electronic equipment. In reality, nearly two-thirds of them did.
Why did students lack the courage to say no to their superiors? The fact that the experiment was described to them as being highly important, the assurances that others had obediently carried these responsibilities through in the past, and the air of confidence shown by the authorities, all contributed to the successful suppression of personal judgment and the courage to act on it. When interviewed following the experiments, many of the students said they felt sure what they were doing was wrong, but their belief that they were part of something larger, and the authorities' calm assurances, led them to surrender the claims of their own conscience.
People of any age, but especially the young, are susceptible to control by others. This is particularly true among Mormons, precisely because of our strong emphasis on respecting those in authority. Even those who believe that obedience to religious authorities can never be excessive must recognize that a blindly obedient mentality nurtured within a religious context can lead to extreme vulnerability outside it. The scale of scams and success of swindlers in Utah is one evidence that Mormons too easily defer judgment to others if, for whatever reason, they decide to trust them. An obedient people is a people easily led--by whoever comes along.
The analogy of the fasces--the bundle of flimsy sticks bound tightly with cords to form a mighty instrument--is often used to justify organizational discipline and obedience to a single person or elite. It illustrates the strength of directed thought and action, yet despite the fact that this image appeared on the American dime for decades, we must remember that it was the symbol from which the fascists (or Nazis) took their name. Willingness to blindly accept orders from other persons involves the transfer of control from inside the self to an external locus. The individual feels an increasing sense of duty to the leaders but loses a sense of responsibility for his or her own actions and their consequences, thus producing the "crimes of obedience'' that have ravaged virtually all totalitarian societies and from which no society or group can claim immunity.
Free societies, however, are based on the ideal that each individual is an irreducible, independent moral agent. Those who are able to think for themselves, are not only essential to the existence of free institutions but also fully prepared to enjoy and benefit from the blessings of life itself. For them, obedience is to principles, not persons; an informed conscience is their guide. General Alexander W. Doniphan possessed the unusual courage to resist a written military order, and Joseph Smith was spared execution on the morning of 1 November 1838 (HC 3:190-99). We honor Doniphan for disobeying his military superior; his ultimate loyalty was to principle.
The irony today, regarding the obedience issue within the LDS Church, is that distinctions are rarely made between loyalty to leaders and loyalty to principle. It is simply assumed that they are one and the same. Yet this union would require a claim of infallibility, not only for the president of the Mormon Church but for the entire priesthood. Omni-infallibility. Since such a claim has never been made and scriptures clearly warn us about the dangers of exercising unrighteous dominion (D&C 121:39), we inevitably face the task of making distinctions about obedience. My ultimate loyalty may be to God, but how do I know God's will? Through the study of scripture? By listening to Church leaders? By applying gospel principles? Or, by sensing the still small voice? These sources of understanding are not always consistent; but even if they were, they could not fully anticipate or inform every action or judgment I must make. New situations constantly confront me; only an enlightened and prayerful conscience can blend divine intent with personal knowledge to guide my decisions. No one has the wisdom or right to do this for me.
Gospel principles and the Church are not synonymous. But one reason these concepts have become so blurred is that we seem to be making obedience to Church into a terminal principle, rather than an instrumental one. It has become an end in itself. Therein lies the confusion about the first commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22: 37--40). Loyalty to God and love of neighbor are the ends. Obedience to enduring principles is a means. Once obedience itself becomes an end, however, the believer no longer takes full responsibility for the consequences of his or her own actions. If things go awry, the sin be on someone else's head. Never mind those sinned against. Fortunately, "love thy neighbor as thyself," the ultimate principle, dams this stream of faulty reasoning.
I recall being pleased originally with the new FHE and CES initiatives of the church leaders, since they seemed likely to enhance and strengthen both family life and systematic religious instruction around the church. However, I was increasingly restive and concerned about certain other signs indicating that a new postwar generation of church leaders was moving to magnify and intensify its control not only over organizational processes, but also over the religious and intellectual life of its members and individuals. In particular, a revitalized "correlation" effort (rather dilatory since the 1920s) began gradually to centralize operations of the entire ecclesiastical organization, including all the accessories, under the apostles and the First Presidency, with operational authority confined to the priesthood ranks. Although not apparent during the 1960s, at least not to the rank and file, this "correlation" process was gradually to have certain consequences and implications (some no doubt unintended) during the succeeding decade: for example, reduction in the status and power of LDS women, both in their ecclesiastical and in their domestic roles; reduction in the tenure and authority of local bishops, stake presidents, and mission presidents; standardization and reduction in the intellectual rigor of church publications and instructional materials for the auxiliaries (such as Sunday school); declining tolerance in the priesthood leadership for independent intellectual activities of members that it could not control (publications, symposia, study groups, "firesides," and so on); and the interposition of a large paid, professional civil service-like bureaucracy between the members and their lay priesthood leaders in the planning and implementation of the "correlated" policies and teachings from headquarters.
Polygamy. How many people want me to talk about polygamy? I know you all are curious. Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and the polygamists their own sense about human nature. "It's just what you would expect men to do;" or "Yeah, that is what I would like" – (laughter) – that sort of thing. Neither of those, I think, is accurate in Joseph Smith's case.
It's a perplexing problem for Mormons for a variety of reasons. One important reason is that it is so contrary to Mormon contemporary ideas of family – companionate, eternal friends going on with their children forever, versus a community wives constituting a family. So that is an ideological problem for Mormons.
It's also perplexing because Joseph Smith himself gave so few rationales for it. The best rationale is one revelation written down in 1843. That is virtually all he said on the subject, and plural marriages are depicted simply as part of the restoration of the ancient order of things. Smith brings priesthood out of the Bible. He brings temples out of the Bible. He brings the temple rituals out of the rituals for sanctifying priests in the book of Exodus, and he brings polygamy out of the Bible. That is all he said, that the injunction for polygamy is to go and do the works of Abraham. Beyond that, it's hard to understand.
In actual fact, polygamy seemed to have served a function in society. We now have a fine-grained study of polygamy in one community where we know every family in the community and all of the details about them. And what polygamy seems to have been was a way in which young women without male protection – no father, no older brother, no near relative to care for them – were absorbed into Mormon society.
Polygamy went up when the immigration rates went up. And the young women who came into these families in this little town were young women in that position. Not all of them – but that was the single most common type of plural wife. More than 50 percent of them fit this description. So it was a way of caring for people and may have contributed to the resilience of the society.
But Mormons themselves are puzzled about the meaning of polygamy, beyond what Joseph Smith said about it.There are also Mormons who remain ignorant of Joseph Smith's involvement with polygamy, and especially polyandry. I'm not surprised by this because even the most historically literate don't have enough answers to piece together the complete puzzle perfectly. Some still accept it as a "doctrine" even if not currently practiced; others flat out reject it. But it's a part of our history that won't go away, so Mormons continue to be "puzzled" by it.