Not Selma, But Significant: Brief Reflections on Saturday and Ordain Women

Pretty much any movement can learn a lot from the Civil Rights movement.

This past weekend, a group of women associated with Ordain Women lined up peacefully and asked to be admitted to the all-male Priesthood Session of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As the Church had previously announced, the women were denied admittance to the meeting.

A friend involved with the effort on Saturday referred to the event as her Selma. Selma, Alabama is the site of two 1965 voting rights marches. The first of those marches ended in a bloody crackdown of the marchers at the hands of the Alabama State Police.

I highly recommend the episode of the PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” which tells the story of the Selma marches, including the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson weeks before the marches.

There are limits to comparing protests against the government and ones against a church, even the LDS Church.

One is that the state (the government) has coercive force. It has a police force and army. They can arrest you. They can take away your life and property. Even when they shouldn’t…they have the means to do so.

At the same time, the methods of bringing about change are different. In the case of Selma, while the March was in Alabama and was met by the Alabama state police, the audience for Congress and President Johnson. Alabama was not going to change by itself. However, the federal system allowed for an appeal to the national constitution and political sentiments beyond Alabama.

Now, I am sure my friend was not saying that her experience was the same as that of those at Selma. Instead, it was her Selma. I respect that and I appreciate the transformative nature of such an experience.

We can be thankful that calling for changes within the Church will not lead to cracked skulls and bloodshed. However, this does not minimize the concerns about gender equality within a religious community or the sincerity of those calling for change.

Also, it does not minimize hurt feelings and exclusion that people are experiencing or have experienced. Within a religious community, a sense of belonging is one of the most important things that we have. Our experiences are central to our religious life. Of course, this also means that some people do not feel the same exclusion or hurt that others do.

Our varied experiences are a major reason that this will be a long and slow process. The appeal to universal principles will only go so far. They do not resonate in the same way to everyones experience.

In my post on Friday, I addressed how Ordain has already succeeding in shaping this public dialogue and where it might go from here. That is not something for me to decide, but I will be watching with interest. Important figures like Kate Kelly and Joanna Brooks are already starting to shape the narrative about the events of Saturday.

The key, I think, is for the movement to not become about this past Saturday. In this way, keeping an “eye on the prize” or keeping an eye on the long-term goal should give not only focus, but also hope.

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Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • douglas hunter

    “There are limits to comparing protests against the government and ones against a church, even the LDS Church.

    One is that the state (the government) has coercive force. It has a police force and army. They can arrest you. They can take away your life and property. Even when they shouldn’t…they have the means to do so.”

    You’ve used the wrong term here, both the state and the Church have coercive force. It’s violent force that marks the difference between the government and the church.

    “At the same time, the methods of bringing about change are different.”

    Perhaps but both can be framed within the notion of justice. The discourse on justice as manifest in democratic governance, and as a central element of God’s relation to humanity was common in the civil rights movement and one does not have to get too deep into theology to recognize that ordaining women can be framed as relying on God’s justice too; although I admit that the LDS notion of justice doesn’t work so well in this case since it conflates justice and the enforcing of law. The LDS notion of justice relies on force, where as a understanding of justice that is a bit more in line with the New Testament sees justice as being beyond the law. Justice is beyond force,justice is weak, and that is still one of the most stunning things about the civil rights movement, the way weakness brought about justice. Anyway, lets ordain women and move on.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Take away the potential for violence, I do not see it as force. It may be a form of social pressure. I agree with John Stuart Mill that such pressure are nothing to be sneezed at. However, they do not reach the level of coercive force. In other words, I am sticking with that claim. In addition, any force the Church has we voluntarily give to it. The same cannot be seriously said about the state.

      • Rae

        Churches may not be able to take away your property, or even take your life, but they can take away your salvation.

        For adherents, church authorities are the gatekeepers to salvation, and, as such, there is a measure of coercion in that if you don’t obey what the leaders ask you to do, disobedience to them puts you in a position of being disobedient to God (out of my mouth or my prophet’s it is the same).

        And for Mormons, the inability to be counted worthy of temple attendance is tantamount to cutting you off from your eternal family. To overstep the boundaries of behavior is to open the door to church discipline up to and including excommunication. And that’s not just excommunication from attendance at church functions and participation, it’s excommunication from sealing blessings: Anyone unworthy of the blessings is unworthy of remaining part of the family.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

          Oh, indeed. I guess I am just hoping for a tad more irony in how we view the connection between churches and salvation. While they help us come unto Christ (this is why I am a member of the LDS Church) they are not the gate-keepers of salvation. I am not even sure if there is a gate. Christ is the path.

          “For adherents, church authorities are the gatekeepers to salvation, and, as such, there is a measure of coercion in that if you don’t obey what the leaders ask you to do, disobedience to them puts you in a position of being disobedient to God (out of my mouth or my prophet’s it is the same).”

          That is dangerous when taken literally. Granted it is very Mormon. That is were the need for irony comes in. By irony, I mean the ability to distance ourselves from claims to truth and authority and recognize the contingent nature of all such claims.

          I think I am being more theological in the comments than I was in the post.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      I actually do not see it as a matter of justice. In has a certain relevance on justice in the extent that religious belief can impact the political, economic, and familial realms. In many ways it does mirror matters of justice. Anyways, this is mostly a Rawlsian quibble. It is a matter of fairness and equality but within a voluntary non-profit entity. It think that is why I see it as an important, but very different matter.


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