Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On The Priesthood as a Male Dominance Hierarchy

I am coming to the conclusion that the foremost paradigm and purpose of the LDS Church is to establish an authoritarian male dominance hierarchy, and to require members' absolute obedience to this authority.  I believe we need to set aside such authoritarian hierarchy if we are to truly love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Can we practice unconditional, egalitarian Love a Church that seems to thrive on authoritarian control over our lives?  Yes, I believe we can. But we need to explore what "The Priesthood" is and how it affects what we do in our culture.

In the natural world, a "dominance hierarchy" is social order among some kinds of animals, where the group is ordered hierarchically under a single, primary leader or set of leaders. Some animal groups have an "alpha male" leader, to whom all other males defer, and who controls the reproductive rights of the group. While some of these orders are focused on only one alpha, in more complex hierarchies, there is a kind of linear hierarchy, where each individual in the pack is either dominant or submissive to another individual in the group.  There are no true 'equals'.

In the "male dominance hierarchy", the males adopt the right of dominion, and females are subordinate to males.  Most natural male dominance hierarchies are polygynous in nature -- the higher up the male is in the hierarchy, the more females he possesses for breeding purposes.

Consider the following material from Abraham chapter 3:
"If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; ... Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.
"And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all."
(Abraham 3:16-19)
These words perfectly describe a dominance hierarchy in the form of a *linear ranking system*, where each spirit -- that is each of us -- is recognized as either dominant or submissive relative to every other member, creating a linear distribution of rank. Whenever two of us are together, one is dominant, one is subordinate in terms of "intelligence".  And in this case, the use of the term "intelligence" refers to the eternal value and worth/worthiness of the individual.

You may well say, at this point, that such distinction is not part of the gospel, for in Section 78, Joseph Smith, introducing the concepts of the United Order and consecration, describes the goal of being equal in both earthly and heavenly things.

Yes, we can say that all Mormons are equal.  It's just that some are more equal than others; and in fact, hierarchy pervades everything we do and are in the Church, and our one purpose is to support the hierarchy through our absolute obedience.

Consider a bit more of what is said in Abraham 3:
"Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
"And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;  And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;"
(Abraham 3:22-25)
I don't think it is at all a stretch to observe that the LDS church, with respect to its priesthood, is strictly hierarchical.  Indeed, our English word "hierarchy" derives from the Greek term for "high priest"/"Hierarch", so priesthood is by very nature a hierarchy.

But there are three troubling elements here:

  1. There is a strict elitism in these verses in Abraham.  Those who lead were designated to do so from before this world -- there is nothing you or I can do about this.  This elitism has justified the ban on giving the priesthood to blacks, as well as fostering a kind of familial patronage/nepotism among LDS leadership.  Most LDS leaders are part of an elite group of Mormons who share common ancestry.  The rest of us are subordinate.
  2. Our purpose in life, exclusively, is to OBEY -- to prove that we will do what we are commanded. According to Abraham 3:25, life is not about learning or development, but rather, is the final test to see if we will obey.  Full stop.
  3. When we combine this strict hierarchy with D&C sections 131 and 132, observing the practice by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith as demonstrated in the case of Zina Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, we see that the pattern of male dominance hierarchy was an inherent part of the Priesthood.

One of the most important things Lindsay Hansen Park has demonstrated in her "Year of Polygamy" podcasts is that the term "Priesthood" has significant meaning to fundamentalist Mormonism.  "The Priesthood" is the code-word for male dominance hierarchy, obedience, and subjugation of women through polygamy. Obedient females are rewarded with exaltation as wives of progressively more important priesthood leaders, and lesser males are ultimately pushed out of the society as "unworthy".

We may think that this use of "The Priesthood" no longer carries the same baggage in our modern, mainstream church, but I don't think we can avoid it. The reality is that the term, today, continues to adhere to its original meaning of male dominance hierarchy, but we simply omit living polygamy.

Every aspect of our church is informed by this paradigm.  What we think, feel, and do as Mormons is conditioned to be framed by obedience to the male leaders of the Church.  We revere our Prophets, Seers, and Revelators as being special witness of the Name of Jesus Christ.  Lest we miss this point, Dallin Oaks has made it clear that this "Name" is the "Authority" of Jesus Christ.  The Order of the Church is hierarchical obedience to this authority, "whether by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same."

When we view core teachings of the Church today, through the temple and Family Proclamation, this paradigm becomes very clear.  The roles of men and women are distinct, and the role of the man is to lead.  In the temple, we covenant that women are to hearken to the counsel of their husbands, as their husbands hearken to the counsel of the Lord.  This is the very definition of a hierarchical relationship between men and women.  And the male dominance hierarchy is clearly demonstrated in how God commands action through the hierarchy of men, and men "return and report" back through the hierarchy to god.

When Eugene England was teaching at BYU, having a question about the nature of god, he received a strong letter of reprimand by Bruce R. McConkie explaining how this hierarchy applied within the Church today.  He wrote:

"It is not in your province to set in order the Church or to determine what is doctrines shall be. It is axiomatic among us to know that God has given apostles and prophets “for the edifying of the body of Christ,” and that their ministry is to see that “we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (Eph. 4:11-16.) This means, among other things, that it is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent. You do not have a divine commission to correct me or any of the Brethren. The Lord does not operate that way. If I lead the Church astray, that is my responsibility, but the fact still remains that I am the one appointed with all the rest involved so to do. The appointment is not given to the faculty at Brigham Young University or to any of the members of the Church. The Lord’s house is a house of order and those who hold the keys are appointed to proclaim the doctrines."
(Bruce R. McConkie letter to Eugene England, 2/1/81)

Although the middle part of this message, stating "it is my province to teach the Church what the doctrine is, it is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent", is often used to demonstrate how dictatorial Bruce R McConkie was, we need to understand the full context of the quote.  In context, Bruce R McConkie's full statement above is entirely consistent with the mindset of Church leaders today respecting the discipline they expect from their hierarchical priesthood authorities at all levels in the Church.

Male dominance hierarchy infects every aspect of our Church.  We teach children to follow the prophet, he knows the way, and if I obey, I'll be happy all day.  We teach teenagers that they are unworthy if they deviate in any way from the teachings of the leaders of the Church, and if they entertain any aspects of their emerging sexual identity, they are "unworthy".  Teenagers regularly submit to Priesthood interviews, where the power dynamic of male dominance is strongly reinforced.  The temple endowment and sealing/marriage create covenants to formally lock members into the the male dominance hierarchy, promising that the only real power in the world is the Priesthood.  (And when the temple endowment was created, this had the specific meaning of "Polygamy").  As men progress in their adult lives, the elected ones are given progressive leadership responsibilities commensurate to their obedience to authority, while women are in supportive roles and lesser males are cast aside.

And the worst sin is to embrace any kind of gender identity that doesn't conform to the male dominance hierarchy and subordinate model for women!  Such individuals must be cast out of our presence!  To the male dominance hierarchy, LGBTQ people are an existential threat.

Even many who leave the church are still adversely affected by the male dominance hierarchy.  Feminists justifiably object to it, yet to presume that the answer is to "ordain women", while an important step in the right direction, ordination does not address the elephant in the room: that dominance hierarchy -- the literal meaning of "priesthood" -- is inherently unequal.  A far better thought would be to consider a more egalitarian model and abandon "priesthood" altogether.

The tension around male dominance hierarchy creates a tension in response within the disaffected or unorthodox Mormon communities -- something we are witnessing today.  If a male rises to a position of influence, then any behaviors reflecting the indoctrinated tendencies toward male dominance become troubling.  On one hand, the male in a position of influence needs to be aware and sensitive to his putative privilege, avoiding triggering actions and statements.  On the other hand, subordinated men and women will tend to interpret actions of the influential male in the light of privilege and male dominance.  It can be a no-win situation.

So what do we do about it?

1.  I think we first need to realize that male dominance hierarchy is not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a natural tendency of some animals including humans, but this is one of those tendencies that we can put into the category, "The natural man is an enemy to god".  

Jesus, noting that his disciples tended to jockey and fight together to see who was higher in the linear hierarchy, demonstrated that humility -- lowering oneself to serve the very least of these -- is the most exalted position.

Scripture tells us that in Christ, the formal "hierarchy" of the priesthood was done away.  The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of how in Old Testament times, there were priests after the order of Melchizedek.  From this, I believe Joseph Smith felt the need to "restore" such priesthood) -- except that the author of the Hebrews point in discussing this was to demonstrate that in Christ, such hierarchy (literally, "high priesthood") was done away among mankind, and that Jesus, alone, was our High Priest.

2.  The primary commandment, that is, the first, second, greatest, last, and new commandment is to love one another as Jesus has loved us.  This love is perfect, unconditional, complete, and *equal*.

And as we interpret the word "love", we cannot do so within the current Mormon understanding of the word.  To Mormons, love means this:

  • The "dominant" person demonstrates love by correcting the subordinate.
  • The "subordinate" person demonstrates love by obeying the dominant.
Love among equals doesn't work this way.  Sure, there are times when we correct each other in love, and certainly we want to do things that the other person would like us to do -- correcting and obedience are part of healthy, equal relationships.  But there cannot be hierarchy in these loving relationships -- to be One, we must embrace and accept each other in differences, without placing a precedence on one over the other.

I suggest an interesting test.  if I can both give and receive correction without resentment or retaliation, I'm probably in an equal relationship. If I and my partner have a mutual tendency to serve one another with delight, then we are approaching godly love.

Let's just be friends, then.

When Jesus finished his mortal ministry, he changed the relationship between his disciples and him, to one of being "friends".

A friend is a unique relationship -- it's to be equal to each other.  If, according to our doctrine, Jesus Christ is the creator and god over our world, then the idea that he refers to himself as our friend should mean a very great deal to us.  It means that we must set aside any kind of hierarchy, any kind of evaluation as to who is "dominant" versus "subordinate", and start working together in love.  "Priesthood" is an obsolete construct, born of a time when kings and priests controlled people's lives.

Jesus gave us, again and anew, a last commandment: That we love one another as he has loved us.  And as Jesus is our friend in love and equality, then let us do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis of the human element in today's church; I hope to see the church continue to organize itself more along the lines in the D&C rather than the way it is now.