18 June 2014

A House Defiled: Excommunication

All one needs to do to read up on the recent court summons of two of the most well-known progressive voices in the Mormon Church is to google search the names of Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, and John Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories. The story has received national coverage and has blown up online. What first began as a collective outcry at the possible threat of excommunication of voices that advocate for greater transparency, acceptance, equality, and big-tent Mormonism which would make all feel welcome, has become a war of words and rhetoric within the church. Every day there are more blog posts and editorials pushing back on more progressive members of the Church saying, in effect, "step in line or get out." This is my attempt at a rebuttal to all those who agree with threatening these individuals and those like them with disciplinary action and possible excommunication.



First, I think it is important to mention that, although both Kate and John have been grouped together in this story, they don't necessarily share the same positions on everything. But nonetheless, they are progressive voices in a rigidly conservative Church who are asking for greater openness, inclusion, and equality.

The argument I hear over and over against women and the priesthood is that women are not any more or less valued in the church. That they are given "different, but equal roles." It shocks me to read the words of women promoting this idea of "different but equal." One would have thought we already learned from history that "separate but equal" turns out not to be so equal after all. 

One of the many problems with this idea that the roles are equal is this:

Women's roles are always connected to men. Men, or should I say boys, get the priesthood at age 12, regardless of their affiliation with women. Even I, a gay man who will never be married to a woman, received the priesthood at age 12 because, well, "that's just how it works."

Women are told in the church that their greatest role is that of a mother. The immediate problem with this is that not all women get to be mothers. When they are able to be mothers, it is required by the church that they marry a man. They must also be fertile and have no health issues related to child bearing or else have the resources and time to go through adoption agencies.

On the one hand you have boys who really just need to show up to church after the age of 12 to receive their role. In the other, women must find a man, marry him, grow a child for nine months, and then give birth to receive their's. But that won't change the fact that they will be defined by their husbands position in the church. Always the bishop's wife, never the bishop. As if they were somehow Ill-equipped to handle such a role.

In the recent KUER interview, PR representative of the church was asked, "Where in Mormon doctrine does it state that women cannot hold the priesthood?" After all, there are many accounts in the early church of women "exercising the priesthood" by laying on hands on the sick (and oxen), conducted washing and annointings in the upper room of Joseph's Nauvoo store, the Nauvoo temple, and all subsequent temples, and passed on the priesthood to their sons when their husbands had died.

After the PR representative tried to avoid answering the question for awhile and after the interviewer pressed her for an answer to the simple question, she finally obliged.

Her answer was, "it doesn't."

So, if it is not doctrine, and if there are women across the world in the church that truly feel that they have been moved upon by the spirit to talk about this issue, as many of them have stated- even going as far as citing their patriarchal blessing, why is Kate Kelly being punished for asking leaders to hear their plea? And if it is not doctrine, where has she "led people astray" in asking to be included in the priesthood?

There is a huge problem in the church right now. As Paul Toscano puts it in his book, The Sanctity of Dissent, "...the modern LDS church has become crushingly legalistic. It emphasizes strict adherence to rules. It sees righteousness and spirituality in terms of church membership. It teaches that one's standing before God depends on one's loyalty and obedience to the men in charge. In practice, it contradicts Jesus' teachings that we should have no masters."

"The ecclesiastical bureaucracy doubts the power of God to spiritually transform the rank and file members of the world-wide church. It sees itself as a spiritual elite whose primary duty is to reinforce true worship. So it makes additions to the gospel message. It makes up rules. It promises those who obey them that they will become citadels of rectitude safe from the vicissitudes of life. For this reason, in the modern church to avoid sin is a more certain course than to repent, to judge rightly more serviceable than to forgive, and to follow the Brethren more reliable than to follow the spirit."

In other words, the church today has become as guilty of the Pharisees of old, measuring the limits of their garment lines, the modesty of the outfits of their 6 year olds, pointing out at the sinners of the world from inside their bunker of belief, drawing black and white lines through the grey of real life, all the while shunning the lepers of our day and ensuring that anyone who dares to question their ridged set of policies and teachings and beliefs is labeled the enemy while they build multi-billion dollar malls and invest in for-profit endeavors across the world. You are looking at the modern day appearance of the Pharisees of old- the ones Christ called hypocrites and liars. They profess the name of Christ and teach of his power but don't actually believe God might work in ways other than through their ridged bureaucracy of public relations committees, legal entities, and multi-million dollar advertising agencies. 


John and Kate and others like them are members of the church that are trying to get people to wake up and realize that the church has become co-opted by corporate white male America and has wandered quite a distance from the true message of Christ who called ALL unto him and who spent his time, not with the religious leaders and the self-proclaimed "righteous" of the day, but with the lepers and the adulterers and the outcasts and the poor. They are trying to get people to see how they have become a church that excludes anyone that would dare be different. That Christ might not be pleased with an isolationist "peculiar people" who are overwhelmingly republican, insist on American culture and ideals the world over, refuse to let their children play at non-mormon houses, file legal briefs against the validity of loving, committed relationships, discourage anyone from reading anything about the church that is not published by it, and label any piece of literature that shed less than positive light on the church as "anti-mormon." These are the people are trying to pop the bubble that is preventing the real message of Christ to permeate the world and cross the boundaries of differences and the concept of "the other," and the leadership is threatened by potential loss of control- so they label them apostates. 

As long as this is the method of the church bureaucracy- a constant flow of carefully constructed PR statements and risk-management, the silencing and banishing of differing opinions, ideas and legitimate criticism, it will never "fill the earth." The earth is made up of very different individuals with very different experiences, talents, cultural backgrounds, and ideas. If one of us is god's child, we all are, and each of our voices are important. If anything, these progressive voices are the only hope in taking the message of the church to the world. The numbers are showing that the Church's current methods simply are not working and it is because they have insisted on creating small little boxes that everyone must fit into to be welcome.

The defenders of these excommunications often argue, "this isn't a democracy." But no one is asking this to be put to vote. You're right, it isn't a democracy, but the leaders do proclaim the power of the spirit to work in each of us. The leadership has effectively high-jacked the power of the spirit by saying, "you can be moved or taught by the spirit, but only if the spirit confirms what we say." It isn't a democracy, but it isn't a dictatorship either. It claims to be Christ's church, yet denies the power Christ has to work in the lives of every individual no matter what they look like, how differently from you they sin, who they love, where they live, or how educated they are. 

The Word of Wisdom was born out of constant complaints from Emma about the mess she had to clean up after the men. The Relief Society was a born out of a group of women who organized independently and wrote up a constitution which they later brought before Joseph Smith who adopted it into the church. The program known as "mutual" was created by members in one stake which got the attention of church leaders who adopted it into the church. One cannot say there is no precedence for independently inspired members to organize and start something new.

The leadership of the church is necessarily limited by their own life experiences which filter their understanding of the world, just like we are all limited by our own unique experience. Isn't it interesting that arguably the most beloved current leader is the only one not from white Mormon America- he's from Germany. Why does he seem so refreshing? Most of them come from a homogeneous background where the church has always been at the center of life. Do people from other walks of life not have anything to offer? A different experience or life-lesson learned that would help them see things that others might not? Might the businessmen and lawyers and doctors who make up the leadership be influenced by their elite status in society? Might not people from other walks of life be able to see things in a way that would allude the leadership?

But no. The leadership denies that the spirit could possibly move upon the membership of the church if it would say anything different from them. Well, perhaps this growing movement is exactly that- the spirit working in the church to correct the course of a house defiled.

George Albert Smith
"If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak." 
-Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Page 216

Joseph Smith 
"I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine." 
-History of the Church, 5:340

Brigham Young 
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not." 
-Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1954], 135

Further Reading:

I borrowed some vivid imagery painted by another blogger who wrote an awesome essay called, "The Uncomfortable God." Read it when you have the chance and be amazed.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post

Liz Bennett said...

I find it interesting that you can find so much evil in a church that does so much good in the world. I am sorry about your grievances. I am thankful to be a woman. I am thankful God gave me the right to bear children. Men will never know what an amazing gift they are missing because it impossible for God to give them this right. They cannot hold up signs and petition for God to reconsider. That right belongs to women and I am thankful everyday that God gave me this role. Not every man in the world can hold the priesthood, is not freely given. Most women can bear children regardless of their faith. Men and women are different, it made sense in kindergarten and it still does.

Jonathan Adamson said...

Liz, I find it equally interesting that one can so easily discount the harm done by the church simply because it does some amount of good for some people. Your words about baring children are just as exclusionary as words justifying the underrepresentation of women in church leadership positions. My grandmother adopted because of health issues and there are many women who are entirely excluded from the "amazing gift of child baring." What do you say to those women? Do you pity them and think it sad that they are not "blessed" with that role like you do men? Because that would cause needless shame causing them to wonder if God has punished them in some way.

Furthermore, for every mother there is a father. Both genders play the role of parent and it is not unique to one gender or the other.

And lastly, are you limiting Gods ability to work in mysterious ways and move his church by working in the hearts of individuals who are situated in such a way that they are open to the whispering of the spirit in ways others might not have ears to hear? I always think it brave of people who confine God to a box that he must abide by.

Sean Smith said...

Liz- I think a more apt analogy to a woman's ability to bear children is a man's ability to father children. As I'm sure you're aware, this power has nothing to do with the Priesthood. The vast majority of teenage boys and adult men can father children with or without the Priesthood. Many men who do have the Priesthood cannot, either because of age or other physical issues.

The same goes for women- most women of reproductive age are fertile and can conceive and bear children. But is this really a good reason to deny someone ecclesiastical power? If we don't base men's Priesthood blessings on their ability to biologically reproduce, what bearing does this have on women holding the Priesthood?

Armando Bravo said...

Good answer, Sean. There must not be fight between male and female, but the aim is gender equality. Cheers.

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