Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hazards of Obedience

To quote the late great BYU historian Richard Poll:
James Madison cautioned: "When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated." Because I believe with Madison that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity "through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy, and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith 
I believe that revelation may come through visions, dreams, and visitations, as God wills, but my Madisonian skepticism rejects the notion that the mind of a prophet-any prophet-is a fax machine linked to a divine transmitter.
-"A Liahona Latter-day Saint" or in pdf form here:

And to quote BCC emeritus blogger, Aaron Brown:
I long for the day when LDS church meetings and materials tout not only the virtues of obedience, but its potential hazards as well. As my daughter gets older, I guess I’ll have to supplement the messages she receives in church with correctives that keep her more balanced than the diet of weekly obedience rhetoric from her church meetings is likely to provide her. Unfortunate, really, but that’s life in the modern-day Mormon Church I guess. 
(I’m not speaking to the merits of the Church’s position on gay marriage at all. I’m speaking to the one-sidedness of LDS discourse on obedience in general, of which this editorial is a disturbing and all-too-typical example, nothing more).
-Aaron Brown, comment #67

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.


Anonymous said...

"Blessings come from obedience, yes — but from obedience to laws decreed “before the foundations of the world,” D&C 130 tells us. Not from obedience to made-up arbitrary rules used as litmus tests for institutional acquiescence. When we elevate obedience for the sake of rule-keeping above all else, regardless of the actual value or content of the rules, we’ve become idolaters of law, and we’ve distorted and diminished godly obedience to a pathetic and obsequious form of self-congratulation."

Anonymous said...

Oh, you've hit a sore spot for me. I struggle constantly with how to help my children experience the best of Mormonism while shielding them a lot of damaging and false notions taught as gospel in our church. Like omni-infallibility, as you've rightly highlighted.


ji said...

So if I choose to be obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ, am I to be likened to a Nazi death camp guard?

I don't know where all this obedience talk comes from -- I'm an active member, but no one goes around giving me commandments to which I much be obedient. Who is giving the commandments to so many others who complain about being so commanded? Why do they not have the backbone to make their own decisions?

Somehow, I think the obedience card is being far overplayed. But even so, Jesus himself said "If ye love me, keep my commandments." There is a place in the gospel for willing obedience.

Clean Cut said...

Obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ is one thing. But too often I see a conflation between obedience to persons in authority as though that is the same thing as obeying the principles of the Gospel

Clean Cut said...

Solid post by Rock Waterman:

"Things are really getting out of control lately, as we hear the incessant drumbeat to obey our leaders, who cite the now ubiquitous teaching that "obedience is the first law of heaven" as if A) that phrase was actually a doctrine of the church, and B) it means anything close to what they think it means.

"That statement has never appeared in any revelation from God, cannot be found in any of the standard works, and was never taught by Joseph Smith. Yet somehow that flim-flammery has attained the status of First All-Encompassing Doctrine of the Church -If you don't count the other counterfeit that claims the president of the Church is incapable of leading the church astray. Those twin bamboozlements are practically joined at the hip."

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad to have come across your very well written post on this topic. I think Perfect Obedience has become the first, last and only remaining doctrine of our church, sadly. Obedience to men with the keys is all that is left. All else can be chaos, but thank God for these men, upon whom His blessings magically flow. It would seem that even God Himself is subject to their Keys, bound by the power of Grant Von Harrison. What a day we live in!

Anonymous Bishop