Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On Being Mormon Amid Injustice

To me, the historical and doctrinal issues of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) pale in comparison to its acts of injustice.  Our beliefs in religion are often the result of culture, and things cultural are kind of a shared mythology.  It may be just me, but the mythology is not a shelf breaker.

From my perspective, the church has been profoundly unjust on a number of issues in my life: Blacks, ERA, Birth Control, Feminism, Marriage Equality, Male-only Ordination, CES brainwashing, Missionary Manipulation, Worthiness Manipulation, Tithing, All-things-sexuality, Excommunications, the November 2015 Policy, Religious exclusion and bigotry in the name of "Religious freedom"...  the list is endless, really.

As I wandered in the borderlands for many years, I developed an immunity to the historical and doctrinal issues, and could somewhat ignore all the issues of injustice, because, for the most part, they didn't affect me personally.  Or so I thought.  Then, two things happened: my daughter came out as a lesbian, and a couple of years later, proposition 8 happened.

I remember distinctly when and where I first articulated the complete collapse of my shelf.  I was talking to a non-LDS colleague and said that as a result of the underhanded manipulation by the Church with respect to Prop 8, I can no longer morally, ethically, and financially sustain my church.  It was in November 2008.  I was Ward Mission Leader at the time, paying tens of thousands of dollars per year in Tithing, thus supporting oppression of those, like my daughter, who were committing suicide as a result of LDS policies.

A while later, I took an assignment in India as a way to gracefully exit regular church activity.  It worked!  I preserved all my LDS connections among family and friends while not being present at church.  I always had the India travel excuse…

But did I do right?  No.

Ginetta Sagan of Amnesty International said, “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor."

I did not speak up.  I just disappeared.  And, to my disappointment, I found the same injustice pervades all organized religions and cultures.  And, I yearned for home, for tribe.  Add to that, the travel was having deleterious effects on my family.  So I came back to activity.

The first Sunday back, amid a discussion about the bogus signs of the times, I ceased to be silent.  I called a rabble-rouser named John Dehlin​ that afternoon, and as a result, I have chosen to stay active in the LDS Church.  It’s been an interesting ride.  I have learned a lot.

I am passionate about this choice.  We can choose to leave, and for many that is right choice. It’s a way of voting with our feet.   Another choice is to to stay and be silent, yet in my experience, it killed me inside and leaves me complicit in the injustice.  Or we can choose to influence change.  And that is largely a quest for Don Quixote de La Mancha -- typically nothing short of insane.

Yet I relate to Don Quixote.  So here is my quest:

We need people in the church who can affect change, if for no other reason but to prevent injustice and change hearts.

But how can we *effectively* affect change and prevent injustice?  That is the real challenge!   That's why I emphasized the word *effectively*.  We can speak out all the time, but if we choose this route, will we be effective?

Recently I saw a video of an LDS couple asking if they would be welcome in the Church if they advocate for praying to Heavenly Mother or openly point out doctrinal issues, such as how the Book of Mormon’s definition of God incarnating as Christ.  They want to be accepted and welcome in the church while advocating for doctrinal positions *against* the mainstream cultural narrative.  Is this going to be effective?  I think not.

First of all, they're picking the wrong battles: the nature of god is the ultimate unknowable--no one can say for sure who or what god is.  To strongly argue one position over another simply leads to disagreements, and when someone is openly fighting against the comfortable cultural narrative, they are going to be rejected.

And once rejected in our advocacy, we become the "other", the "apostate", the out-group, the "enemy".  Instead of changing hearts and preventing injustice, such "fighting" and advocacy hardens hearts and strengthens the resolve of the oppressors.

How then do we affect change and prevent injustice?  First we need to understand why there is injustice.

Injustice is an identity strategy that dehumanizes others in order to strengthen in-group identity.  Bullying, hypocrisy, name-calling, boundary management, white-and-black thinking, demands for loyalty to the in-group--these are all part of this same identity strategy dynamic.

So, when we openly position ourselves as advocates, we are playing into the current church's identity strategy. We become the enemy -- the Apostate -- giving a focus for the church to strengthen the identity of the True Believing Mormon.

So open, militant advocacy is precisely the opposite of being an *effective* voice for change and thus preventing injustice.

What changes hearts and eliminates injustice is only one thing: Love.  This isn't an abstract strategy.  It is impossible to be unjust to someone you truly love.  In using this word, I mean "agape" (non-condescending Godly love) and not "eros" (sexual love) or philios (familial love).

The concrete example I can best give is when someone I deeply love -- my daughter -- came out to me as gay, I could no longer maintain any aspect of injustice towards my LGBT brothers and sisters.  As long as I thought of LGBT as "the other", even if I condescendingly though that they were children of god in error, I was dehumanizing them.  My heart had to change.

In the case of blacks, the way I was changed was to work in an environment where my black brothers and sisters were equals.  Then, one day, a black colleague and I were on a curb flagging a cab in DC, and the cab passed by my black friend and picked me up first.  I became a witness to injustice, subtle as it was, but only possible because a black was my friend, my equal, and hence, I could feel what he felt.

The answer to how we affect change is clearly before us in our religious narrative.  Jesus Christ was not a passive pushover--he was a revolutionary anti-establishment change agent.  He spoke forcefully against injustice, and he was crucified for it: the ultimate in injustice and dehumanization.

While he chose the route of militant advocacy, he taught his disciples the Way of non-violence: they were to remain "righteous" in exactly the way church leaders of their time defined "righteous".  And most of all, they were to be loving, both to each other and to their enemies.

These aren't abstract strategies.  We must have our own identity strategy if we are to be effective: we must present our identity as "faithful mormon" by authentically being "faithful Mormon".  We must not "other" our Mormon brothers and sisters, but rather, find deep and powerful ways to serve them, to wash their feet in humble service.

You may object to this as being acquiescing to their game.  You may think that we are pretending--and you would be right in a very important way: if we pretend, we fail.

No, to affect change we must actually BE Mormons: true blue, through and through.  We must have our own identity strategy as to what IS a Mormon, in a way with which our unjust Mormon brothers and sisters can *identify*.

Jesus said, love your enemies.  Do good to them the despitefully abuse you.  Walk the second mile.  That you may BE (identified as) children of god.   Jesus laid out the ultimate identity strategy to affect change one heart at a time.  You cannot hate a child of God.

So how do we identify as a true Mormon yet stand as witness against oppression?  We adopt the first and only definition of "Mormon" in Mosiah 18:

A Mormon is one who is willing to lift one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and stand as witness of God's unconditional love at all times and in all places they may be.

This definition of Mormon is one I can subscribe to with all my heart and soul.

Our identity strategy will affect change:

1.  We lift each other's burdens:  this is the Ammon principle: you don't change hearts and minds by first telling that they are wrong--you first demonstrate committed service.  When we are viewed as helping out in our wards, as being willing to home teach, serve in a calling, clean the chapel, help people move--they cannot reject us.  By serving with them, we develop mutual love and respect.

2.  We mourn with those who mourn.  Empathy.  We really listen with our souls, not only to those we agree with, not only with those who just have experienced tragedy but we spend time really listening to our fearful brothers and sisters who are ignorantly (or not so ignorantly) committing injustice. Their injustice is often the result of their fears and anger -- they, too, are mourning through their acts of fear and anger.  While we may not agree with them, we need to fully understand them without pushing our agenda.  We need them to embrace with their whole heart that we understand their fears and can share moments of deep connection in love.

3.  We comfort those who stand in need of comfort.  There are many victims of LDS injustice.  Our true Mormon identity is one who heals injustice by providing a safe refuge to those victimized by injustice.  We befriend the broken-hearted.  We become peer/equal friends to the outcasts.  We reach out to defend in loving ways, those who have been brutalized by malignant leaders.

4.  We stand as witnesses.  Once we have developed a mutual, loving relationship, and have demonstrated our enduring love through service, we have the moral authority to witness of an unconditionally loving god in the face of injustice.  By framing our spoken statement of opposition in the frame of our personal witness of a loving God, we become effective agents of change.

But what do we change?  If we seek to change the Church and culture, we're going to be disappointed.  It not only is an impossible task, but it is profoundly wearying and frustrating to tilt at such large windmills.

I think we need to lower expectations. Putting things in perspective: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, could not change the corporate leaders of the church of his day. How on earth do we expect to change ours?

We can't.

But we can touch those in our very small sphere of influence, lifting burdens, mourning, comforting, and bearing witness.

None of that need result in change of the system of oppression in which we are found. It never does.

But what it does do is two things. One, we have not been silent, and therefore are not complicit in the abuse. Two, we save lives. Literally. Spiritually, in every way possible.

We may find ourselves, like Jesus and his followers did, cast out of the corporate church. They can take away our membership. They can make us unwelcome in the building. But they can NEVER take away our Mormon Identity!

That is why we embrace who we truly are: We're Mormons, true, blue, through and through, and in the face of injustice, we will lift each other's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, comfort those standing in need of comfort, and we will stand as witnesses of God, as Jesus Christ did, in loving, open defiance against injustice at all times, and in all places we may find it.

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