Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When The Mormon Church Was Dead Wrong And Too Stubborn to See It

This past week I've experienced a roller coaster of emotions. My wife and I welcomed a baby boy into our family. This most peaceful and good news was followed two days later by the sad and troubling news that our collective Mormon family will now officially exclude many (one is too many) priceless souls from joining the collective church family. Though the gospel of Jesus Christ is radically inclusive, the LDS Church is anything but. Even if you want to hope that the news is okay, you have to admit that the optics of this are brutal. And I'm left with the same question as Arwen Taylor, who hit the nail on the head:
Here's what I want to ask everyone who defends the new anti-gay family policy: What can you imagine the church doing that you would absolutely not support? Can you imagine the church taking an action that would cause you to say, 'No, this violates my conscience, this goes too far, this is not done in love?' Because if not, then you don't get to make moral arguments in support of this; you've ceded your moral reasoning to someone else's authority.
At every single juncture in the past we've been demonstrably wrong about homosexuality. A few months ago I implied my personal belief that our church persists in being wrong about homosexuality in a carefully worded open letter to Elder Christofferson. (A counselor in my stake presidency expressed concern to me about suggesting the Brethren are "wrong", but that just sparked another blog post on how if we acknowledge they're fallible then we should probably stop pretending that they can't be wrong.)

To learn of the problematic handbook changes feels like a sucker punch straight out of Salt Lake. And to be clear, my sorrow lies with Salt Lake, not my local ward and stake. My local leaders have been most loving and kind as well as inclusive and sensitive as we've counseled together. My loving stake president even reached out to me personally Saturday morning because he knew this would cause me great concern (like his counselor, he too had read my open letter to Elder Christofferson and we'd previously spoken in person about some of my concerns.) The thing is I haven't been able to respond--I'm too stunned. I think I'm going to need time to step back and take a sabbatical. In the meantime I simply wish to restate unequivocally my conviction that ALL families, regardless of the sexuality of the parents, deserve to be strengthened. Are we collectively too stubborn to see the harm the Church is now doing to real families and children? Even more sad than the handbook changes is to see so many loved ones try and defend it or pass the blame to God.

I thought we were learning to be better. I'm afraid I was wrong. This much is now clear: a significant number of Mormons--including Mormon leaders--have failed to learn some critical lessons from our collective past. One couple, in writing to their stake president, wondered about how some of the saddest episodes of our past may have played out differently if only someone had spoken truth and reason to power: 
Perhaps if someone in the Parowan and Cedar City stakes had had the courage to voice their opinion to their stake presidents in those fateful secret meetings back in 1857, the Mountain Meadows Massacre could have been avoided. Or perhaps if others in the Willie and Martin handcart companies had joined their voices with Levi Savage who warned against the late travel (and was severely chastised for not having faith in his leaders), the resulting suffering and death could have been prevented. Perhaps if church leaders in Brigham Young’s day had stood up to the policy change he instituted that denied blacks the priesthood and temple blessings (and which the church now acknowledges was based on racist cultural attitudes of that age), our church could have avoided causing untold emotional and spiritual injury to thousands of black people – as well as to the white members who perpetuated harmful racist attitudes (even to this day) because of the false folk doctrines they were taught in an attempt to justify an increasingly unjustifiable policy.
I sometimes wonder who, if anyone, has the ear of the First Presidency. I wonder if they're simply surrounded by "yes men" or if any have expressed to them concern about these handbook changes. I'm particularly concerned that they're not listening to our LGBT brothers and sisters. Most people don't get the chance nowadays to have the ear of the First Presidency directly. The distance can give the impression that the First Presidency doesn't need the collective wisdom of the rank and file church membership--apparently we are to presume inspiration despite a lacunae of any compelling evidence.

Moreover, despite President Uchtdorf's frank admission that there have been times when church leaders have made mistakes, too often we've been too stubborn to learn from those mistakes to be better in the present. Apparently leaders are also too stubborn to apologize for past wrongs. Of all the wisdom in The Lion King, this may be the ultimate: “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
The Mormon Past Can Hurt (the Present too), But We Must Learn From It.

It is clear that many Mormons today still have much to learn from our past. I particularly have in mind The Stewart Udall Sequence--"a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent", which is filled with all kinds of customized lessons Latter-day Saints ought to be learning from today. Stewart Udall wasn't the only dissenting Mormon voice shamed for correctly following his conscience over the "authority" of church leaders. Readers of my blog may recall I once shared how brother Lowry Nelson had the ear of the First Presidency but they refused to allow themselves to question whether it was perhaps Nelson who was right while they were wrong. In fact history is filled with other Mormon voices who followed their conscience to dissent and have since been vindicated by history. But as a member of President John F. Kennedy's cabinet (Secretary of the Interior), Stewart Udall was likely the most prominent. I can't help but think about today's parallels and how Mormons who fail to remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it.

It's already happening. On the one hand, there have been many Latter-day Saints who have responded with compassion and grace in the face of this weeks news. By far my favorite story comes from my friend Lon Young, who exemplified what it means to "mourn with those that mourn". On the other hand, this week I've heard/seen "Latter-day Saints" shame fellow Latter-day Saints for placing greater loyalty to following their own conscience over following LDS authorities. Though the nature of the issue is different, the behavior being exhibited and arguments being made today are almost exactly the same as those you can read in the saga of Stewart Udall (particularly parts 4 & 5), so without further ado, I present The Stewart Udall Sequence: a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent, written by a local friend of mine, Jonathan Streeter, here in San Antonio:

Part I: The Conscience of a Jack Mormon

Meet Stewart Udall and discover how he let his conscience guide his life. His deliberate decision to distance himself from the church is articulated in a note he wrote at the time. Those principles can be seen in his remarkable record of compassion.

Part II: Orthodoxy and Antipathy

When Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall took office, he received criticism about racist Mormon teachings. His exchange with the First Presidency reveals much about the perspective of Church leaders at the time.

Part III: The Letter

After seeing no change in church policy or teachings for years, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall writes an open letter condemning the priesthood ban and racist teachings. It did not go unnoticed.

Part IV: Who's On The Lord's Side Who?

After writing his letter, Stewart Udall received numerous letters from faithful Latter-day Saints. What does the content of those letters tell us about the heart of Mormonism regarding race at that time? (Spoiler alert: We're seeing today some of the same messages of chastisement: "Don't criticize the leadership," "Don't embarrass the Church," "Get out of the Church," "You're too prideful," etc. from both members and leaders.)

Part V: The Apostles and the Primitive Church

In addition to letters from other members, Stewart received letters from two Apostles. Would they echo the sentiments of the many members who castigated the outspoken Udall or take a different tone?

Part VI: By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know

The exchange between Udall and those who wrote him reveal the fruit that Mormonism bore in race relations. By examining 4 remarkable individuals at key points in the history of segregation, we may compare fruit and discover the lesson of Stewart Udall.


Aimee said...

I am hoping for some institutional vulnerability on this one. I would be proud if they came back and said, "wow, we made a big mistake here." That would be courageous and something that would restore my hope for the direction this church is going. Our generation responses well to transparency. I wish they would trust us with that.

Mungagungadin said...

I think it comes down to

1) the church leadership isn't swayed by members

2) the church leadership isn't swayed by Jesus

that really leaves us in the biggest pickle ever.

Vickie said...

Which make anyone with a heart & brain question it's claim to be the true church. We all know questioning (thinking) out loud leads to excommunication. Wondering which brethren will now administer excommunication now that Packerd has passed.

Vickie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clean Cut said...

It's been years since I've believed in such a thing as a "one and only true church." I'm a Mormon in the mold of Gina Colvin of "A Thoughtful Faith." I don't need the church to be true. I just need it to be good. And this handbook change is most definitely NOT good. I don't even need the church to be right. I just need it to be ennobling. And this is anything but noble. In fact it's exclusive, divisive, and hurtful.

My idea of Zion is so much more inclusive--one that welcomes all of God's children. Thus, I use my personal authority to love without conditions and be radically inclusive. And I've never felt more Christian.

Traditionally, Mormons have tended to place much emphasis on righteousness and purity, but a close look at the historical Jesus reveals that He himself was actually quite subversive to the righteousness/purity system of the contemporary religious establishment. I saw this very clearly while reading Marcus Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith". One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following:

"Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God" (Borg, p. 54.)

In other words, "an interpretation of scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Borg uses a specific example on page 59 that is particularly relevant to this handbook nightmare today:

"I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever nonreligious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something 'dirty' about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus.

"It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage [Galatians 3:28] in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means, 'In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay.' Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of 'life in the spirit' and the ethos of compassion imply it."

Obadiah said...

I am bi-sexual and celibate and have been inactive since the late 70s. I was baptized in 1976, but because I could not pay tithing, I could not hold the priesthood or go through the Temple. Now this evil memorandum I would never attend the LDS church ever again. How could the Brethren be so heartless to children? EVIL EVIL. I hope the LGBT community files a class action lawsuit and destroys the church.

Tiani said...

Nice, courageous post. It's appreciated. It seems that more and more people are finding their voice, which will make it harder and harder for the status quo.

President said...

I hope you spend just as much time and effort finding "fault" and "false preaching" in every other religion as you do the LDS religion. It would only be fair for all organized religions to hear from you about what they are doing wrong and what changes need to be made.
I guess I'm just confused at how someone who doesn't believe in the religion could be so emotional about what it preaches? We live in a country where we can choose to go to whatever church we want, and/or not believe or go to any church at all. If a church doesn't teach what someone believes to be correct they have zero obligation to continue going or believing in that church. So many non-LDS members are consumed with what LDS members believe and I can't figure out what drives them. Are they trying to "save" members from what those members believe to be true as the non-members see something wrong about it? You often speak of you being on your own spiritual journey and how everyone should walk their own path to Christ. I guess I'm confused why if you want that for yourself why you are so passionate about the way others choose to walk on their paths? How many hours have you spent blogging, commenting, researching things about what you believe to be wrong in the LDS church? Why not use that time and effort to better yourself through Christ in whatever way you feel he wants you to do. Why not use it to spend more family time? Why not use it to serve others?


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, thank you.

Unknown said...

Great post, Spence. If people would like to see the full letter I wrote to my local leaders that you excerpted above (i.e., preventing the Mountain Meadows massacre, etc.), you can see it here.

Only grace can save us from this said...

Senator Urquhart also "draws a parallel to Mormonism's previous ban — discarded in 1978 — against black men and boys holding the faith's priesthood and black women participating in temple rituals.

For more than a century Latter-day Saints "ostracized" blacks, "denying them rites and privileges," he said, then "explaining away the racial bigotry as a mystery of God."

But, he said, "it was just bigotry ... [that] found its way into church practice (and leadership manuals) and was, then, unfortunately, followed for generations. It was never of God. It was fear, misunderstanding and bigotry."

That same thing is happening today with the treatment of gays, Urquhart wrote. It is based on "fear, misunderstanding, and bigotry. It's not of God. It's of man."

And, he concluded, "it needs to change."

Anonymous said...

"Mormons use the word "sustain" to communicate their support of those in ecclesiastical authority. Some will think that by publicly dissenting from the new policy I am not sustaining the First Presidency and the Twelve. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"I dissent because I love Mormonism, and I cannot bear to see its leaders cause so much unnecessary suffering and harm. I dissent because obedience now costs too much, to my moral integrity, to the church, and to the families of Mormons whom I love.

"Church discipline or excommunication is a consequence I am prepared to accept. Not because I want to leave — I pray that I can stay. But because in a moment like this, my Mormonism will not let me do otherwise."

BenB said...

Where did the quote from Arwen Taylor come from? Can you provide a link?

Clean Cut said...

Arwen had made that awesome comment on Facebook. Sorry I don't have the link--just had saved the comment.

I've already heard about a friend whose stake president is considering taking disciplinary action on him for sharing his thoughtful opinion that criticizes this handbook policy.

It's really asinine that a child's baptism would have to be approved by the First Presidency because they have gay parents, but the decision to excommunicate a member can be made by a local leader without approval from the First Presidency.

Matt P. said...

I know a lot of Mormon people are struggling with the church's current position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, based on what they perceive is God's approach to this issue and I would just like to address that for a moment...

Remember when the church used to counsel gays to undergo therapy - that included shock therapy? It didn't work, it just really hurt people - physically, emotionally, and mentally. They don't do that anymore.

Then more recently they counseled gays to marry women and pretend to be straight. That didn't work, it just resulted in a lot of broken homes and divorces and unhappiness for all involved. They have stopped doing that now too.

They also used to insist that being gay was a choice. They have since backed away from that one too, acknowledge that sexual attraction is in fact something people are born with.

That's all in my lifetime. Pretty recent history. Can you honestly say you know what the churches views/teachings will be in 10 years on this question? Five years? One year? NO WAY you can say that.

I believe as well as you do that God doesn't change his mind about things. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But remember that the teachings of his appointed leaders have changed over the years on many issues. It wasn't long ago that more than one of our prophets taught that interracial marriage was a sin (Brigham Young even said that the punishment for that would be "death on the spot") and the church has since said that that was never correct. That was NEVER a sin.

So how are you be sure what the Lord's take is on homosexual's rights? Clearly the church has struggled with the question and is STILL struggling to work it out. You can only do your best to try do what is right by your brothers and sisters - and I think your best bet would be to err on the side of love, and compassion. And taking a hard-line, adversarial stance against them is not that bet.

You have nothing to lose by approaching this question with love and fairness. There is no way God would hold that against you in times when our leaders are still unsure how to approach it. But if you approach it with a hard-lined adversarial stance of unacceptance, and it turns out you are wrong, I think you will regret it.

All of that said, no matter what your thoughts are on this, no matter how you vote at the end of the day. The number one thing to remember is this: They are our brothers and sisters. We love them and we want them to enjoy the blessings of the gospel and God's teachings. We want them in church with us every week. I do not live the word of wisdom (clearly - look at me), but should I not go to church until I work that out? Then do not deny anyone else of those blessings by keeping them away. Keeping them away by making them feel uncomfortable in church. By not reaching out to them. By not accepting them into your life as a friend. By keeping them away from your family and not making them feel like they would be comfortable in your home. By judging them for what you perceive makes them unworthy.

If you cannot walk away from the idea that they are sinners, remember that we are all sinners. If you are weighing in your head whose sins are worse: mine or my brothers, you are in the wrong and need to change your thinking. If I am guilty of sin (again, we all are) that is between ME and GOD and not you. Do not judge me for my sins, do not distance yourself from me, do not constantly remind me of them. You will be happy when others give you the same consideration.

Clean Cut said...

"The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you think homosexuality is a sin. Let me say that again. It does not matter if you think homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is simply another expression of human love. It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because people are dying. Kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life. As a Youth Pastor, this makes me physically ill. And as a human, it should make you feel the same way."

Clean Cut said...

"One question stands foremost in my mind, is this the will of God or the will of man?"

That's the haunting question that ended this heartfelt 1967 letter to President David O. McKay
. It still cries up to Mormon leaders today in new but equally haunting ways.

"I too have been born of goodly parents"