Picketing Zion

Pants, now prayers. Some LDS feminists have raised the banner again and invited members to send letters to general authorities petitioning that women give prayers in General Conference. Once again, it’s a fairly (strategically?) trivial issue that has become symbolic in the effort to bring policy and practice in closer alignment.

I’ve done some more thinking about appropriate responses to concerns with Church policies. Last time, I suggested reorienting our expectations and proactively fulfilling some of those needs that the Church isn’t necessarily responsible for meeting. I am still a fan of that approach, but I’m not sure it adequately addressed Mormons’ commitment to community. That community element, responsible for so much of the cultural codes and excess baggage we would do well to shrug off, is also the source of our profoundest spiritual growth and fulfillment.  It isn’t quite as simple as taking the teachings, ordinances, and our personal revelation and leaving the building of Zion to the millennium.

After all, I can study teachings, participate in ordinances and pray in relative spiritual or emotional isolation.  In fact, my freshman year of college, I did that very thing, and felt quite smug about it. After attending sacrament, I’d hold my own personal scripture study. It felt far superior to tedious gospel lessons riddled with clichéd questions and trite answers, and I didn’t have to bother with all that cumbersome human baggage in BYU ward life.  It wasn’t too long before I stumbled on Eugene England’s essays and began to discover what it meant to be part of a community. I started to realize my own spirituality was uncomfortably and inextricably tied to others; that salvation is relational; that my own growth and happiness is contingent, in so many ways, on how much charity and mercy I extend to other people. In the words of Daniel Coleman, I learned spirituality is “not just an inner feeling…or process of interior discernment…it is the way we live out our relationships with our environment and with other people, as well as with our secret selves.”  I discovered that Mormonism is more than ordinances, revelation, and teachings. It is also a community trying to use those things to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Before I promptly set the bar heaven-high, I suppose I should remember that this kingdom of heaven was compared “unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.”  And out of this net, we ramshackle vessels are to come together as the “body of Christ,” a “household of faith,” “one flock,” “fellow citizens,” a “people of one heart and one mind” – Zion.

Not only that, but this community has an element of order—rather than the organic nature of a circle of friends or the spontaneity of a neighborhood party. There are vertical lines of hierarchy that intersect with horizontal lines of brotherhood and sisterhood.  The mix of equality (all are equal before God) and stewardship (God designates people to certain service and responsibility) can be difficult to navigate, especially when these stewardship roles are filled by “imperfect but honest” men and women who are trying to receive and act on revelation in the midst of their own weakness, cultural context, personal experience, and subjective concerns.

To make it even more complicated for Mormons, there are scriptural mandates against “steadying the ark,” or intruding on responsibilities God has handed over to particular individuals. Does that mean we sit back and let leaders just take the reins? Well, not that simple either; we’re also taught that every member is an essential part of the “body of Christ.” My take-away from that Pauline analogy has as much to do with my responsibility to participate as it does with my need to feel valued. And the same canon that tells us to be “anxiously engaged” also tells us to receive the words of the prophets “in all patience.”

What do we do then? When to participate, when to refrain? When to question, when to sustain? And more importantly, how?

Letter writing? Marches? Blogging? No one seems to have found a silver bullet. But I do know that if we create a culture where activism is the response to every single issue in the Church (and there are plenty of issues), I’m going to be too tired to go anymore.

Not to mention that I just don’t think an adversarial approach works in a community that rests on trust more than rights, on shared weakness more than merit. Furthermore, there is the potential to create a misleading sense of direct causation. Dialogue can open spaces for revelation where direct petitions seem to only corner leaders into reaction. That isn’t a posture anyone, I think, would really like to promote.  I like H.W. Trevor-Roper’s sentiment: “Heat and stress do not provoke new thought: rather, they drive men back into customary, defensive postures…but in the mild warmth of peace, the gentle give-and-take of free and considered discussion.”

That means we need a replacement for this inherently adversarial and political language of “rights,” “oppressors,” and “victims.” And on a different part of the spectrum, other critics voice their concerns with a sense of ownership that makes the Church sound like the heirloom quilt they inherited from their grandmother. The former seems to ignore the horizontal lines of community that bind laymembers and leaders and focuses only on the vertical lines of stewardship. This approach treats the Church like a corporate or political institution that requires an active and vocal, even angry, union to keep them accountable. It fails to acknowledge the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that entitle us all to charity, mercy, compassion, patience and long-suffering—leader and laymember alike. The latter approach, on the other hand, seems to ignore those vertical lines of stewardship by treating the Church like a personal heirloom that, by virtue of our birth, heritage, or tradition, is ours to claim. It doesn’t acknowledge that, while the Church is, in so many ways, meant to be a product of our own hands—and thus, reliant on us to shape and improve—there is also a nonconstructed element that is not ours to claim. That part is divine will, which may direct the Church at a pace we don’t enjoy, through channels we don’t like, or by means we don’t understand. (Deciding which is which isn’t something I’ll tackle in this blog post!)

And when it all just gets too exhausting or hard, I start all over again with that simple question: “Will ye also go away?”

And I remember that we’re all still in this because somehow, in some form, we came to the same answer.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

And it helps.

  • http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/ Brad

    Thanks for this — I think it is a useful corrective to a perhaps too anxious movement within the LDS community. I agree that we probably don’t want to go far down the road of adversarial activism, but what is the discontented liberal to do?

    You say, “Dialogue can open spaces for revelation where direct petitions seem to only corner leaders into reaction.”

    How is that dialogue supposed to happen? Lay members of the church aren’t given many options when it comes to interacting with the hierarchy. From what I understand, the ‘Let women pray’ event is using creative means to circumvent the church’s stated policy of redirecting letters to general authorities back to local leaders. Do you see a way for members of the church to faithfully advocate (agitate?) for change?

    • Jewels

      I do. If all these individuals met with their Stake President and asked him to pass their concerns on to church leadership, it would reach the apostles and prophet of the church. It’s called the proper chain of authority because God’s house is a house of order. Concerns like this are addressed at the highest level of authority when people follow the guidelines of the church. I truly believe their concerns would have been addressed more effectively- and probably quicker- if done that way.

      • http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/ Brad

        Jewels, that may be so… would you have objected to the activism if it were done in this decentralized ‘within-the-bounds-the-bretheren-have-set’ manner?

        From where I stand, it seems as if a big part of these (really mild) protests (the pants thing and now the let women pray thing) has been to show that there is a relatively large number of people who are on the same page in terms of their feelings about church culture. If this latest campaign is successful, there will be an actual large pile of letters that will symbolize the discontent of hundreds (thousands?) of saints who are perplexed by the church’s position on this issue. Individual meetings with local leaders would not produce that same kind of tangible result.

        Additionally, I would expect that it is a rare stake president who would actually forward these types of concerns up the chain. These guys are tremendously busy with the business of the stake, and I imagine that the concerns of the individual member would be (politely) dismissed.

    • Rachael

      Great questions, Brad- thanks.
      As I stated in the post, I really don’t know what discontented liberals (or conservatives or anyone, for that matter) are to do. I can think of a few things that I think help, if not solve, the situation, if you want my take on it. One is to get used to tension. This church is a church of paradoxes, and those tensions are a source of stimulating friction and rich depth as much as they are a source of frustration or pain. Another is to use a dose of pragmatism; I can think of many instances where a pragmatic view of what could have been an ideologically offensive situation took a lot of wind out of my indignant sails, and gave me a broader perspective than my narrow idealistic worldview could provide. We can become more educated on these situations and then write about them. An important factor in the priesthood changes was well-done historical research. I’ve seen great research done on women and healing in the early Church; it raises dialogue in a more informed, less political way– and I know our leaders read. I think we can do surveys– a factor, I believe, in temple changes. Facebook events are flashy and easy and honestly, you can buy 5000 likes for $5 from any number of companies; the negative and magnifying effects of online anonymity make them even less trustworthy or even pleasant, in my opinion. But carefully and thoughtfully done surveys can capture a more representative sample of member experiences. Those are just some thoughts off the cuff. As for dialogue with the hierarchy; I’d like to know more about how efforts at discussing issues with local and area leaders have gone. I think letters aren’t a bad idea, and if this Pray event wasn’t publicized in quite the way it has been, I think it would have been a smart move (and from what I understand, they aren’t all redirected back to local leaders). Whew, this answer has become a post!

      • http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/ Brad

        Rachel, thanks for the thoughtful reply. Your suggestions (research, polling, etc.) seem out of the reach of the typical lay member. Perhaps I’m too cynical about these kinds of things, but I have a hard time believing that most local leaders would forward the concerns of their members up the hierarchy. These guys have a lot on their respective plates already, and in my experience, most of them would prefer to keep their heads down.

        I generally agree with the sentiment of your post. We should be careful to protect the perhaps fragile bonds of community that a too confrontational style of activism risks damaging, but I don’t think this means passively submitting to everything that is thrust upon us by the institution. We have an obligation to build the Zion together, and to the extent that we shut out a portion of the community, that Zion will be so much the poorer.

        A metaphor I have come to really love is the idea that Zion is a tent (language used by Isaiah). Scripture tells us to enlarge the place of the tent. We are to lengthen the cords and strengthen the stakes. The lines that anchor the ‘big tent’ of Zion depend on tension. In my mind, the kind of activism that All Enlisted is calling for is squarely in the Mormon tradition (and so is the resistance it has engendered). Will individuals (on both sides) stray too far? Certainly, but overall, the back and forth that is created by these kinds of movements is healthy for the community. Too much consensus leads to stagnation and complacency.

        • Rachael

          I agree with you that we have an obligation to build Zion together; my question is whether this kind of activism is, indeed, building. I’m not sure the expression has to be “either”/”or”- it’s not “activism” or “silence.” My examples were meant to demonstrate that– and if those methods don’t really work for everyone, I am eager for others to come up with alternatives. I don’t think this kind of activism is an ultimately constructive one– it may have good effects like raising awareness or dialogue, but I’m not sure the cost (short-term and long-term) is worth the exclusive use of it. I am familiar with the metaphor of the tent and think it is very useful in many ways, particularly your reference to the role of tension. On the other hand, I am confused at how All Enlisted-style activism is “squarely in the Mormon tradition”– there is quite a big difference between lobbying/marching against the outside community and lobbying against each other. I’m not familiar with any instances of the latter in Mormonism, but perhaps I’m just ignorant of them. I agree that stagnation and complacency should be avoided; I’m simply saying that the back-and-forth can be created more gently. It’s like marriage; its vitality depends on a balance of friction and cooperation, but dialogue must occur with both sides “on the same team” for it to flourish, don’t you think?

          • JohnH

            I can think of a few instances where there were disagreements within Mormonism; it is the reason the Community of Christ and the FLDS exist.

          • http://amateurmormontheology.wordpress.com/ Brad

            It seems like we might have very different ideas about what the ‘pants’ and ‘let women pray’ events are. They don’t feel to me anything like ‘marching’ or ‘protesting.’ The letter writing campaign is certainly a form of lobbying, but if it is done respectfully, I don’t see this as adversarial engagement. Lobbying isn’t ‘against’ anyone. It is a way of communicating and hopefully a way to open dialogue.

            I guess my main concern is that it can feel like discouraging activism or labeling it as ‘too adversarial’ is just another way of silencing dissent. I read the Bowman piece you linked to below with a great deal of interest. I am just having a hard time seeing how one’s clothing choice constitutes confrontation or a letter counts as protest.

            I was talking with my wife about this, and she made the point that church is where we go to strengthen our faith — not make statements about it. I am sympathetic to this argument, but I don’t know what other forum is available.

          • Rachael

            Brad –
            I am not equating the Pants or Prayer events as “marching” and “protesting” (though one of the initial instigators used this exact language and seemed to have this trajectory in mind). But you say: “I am just having a hard time seeing how one’s clothing choice constitutes confrontation or a letter counts as protest.” That is my precise point. If they had made a simple, personal clothing choice, or a simple, personal letter, then it’s not a protest. But these were not personal, private decisions. They were highly and deliberately publicized and, at least with the Pants issue, terribly unnuanced (an inevitable problem of social media, I think). I know it’s very difficult to maintain a position between the gravitational pull of extremes, but the choice between “strengthening faith” and “making statements about it,” just like “protest” and “silence,” is a false one. There are faithful, loyal, and thoughtful ways to make statements, ask questions, or express concerns & ideas about one’s faith (Bruce Hafen comments on this briefly in an excellent talk here. I don’t think public lobbying is able to effectively get these sentiments across, and especially not when it’s done through the often-distorting microphone of social media (for example- the original message on the Facebook event stressed that they were faithful members “presenting ideas and concerns,” but this is quickly lost in the echo chamber of social media). I think efforts would be better spent in establishing two-way dialogue; encouraging stake presidents or area authorities to hold more Q&As with members, perhaps– maybe something similar will happen at the GA level, or their line of communication between the stake/area level will be sufficient. That seems more sustainable and less divisive.

  • http://timesandseasons.org Ben S

    Excellent formulation. While I’m terribly sympathetic, I’m equally terribly uncomfortable with the petitioning, which seems a mixing of worlds; lobbying and pressure are too political and adversarial for the realm of religion and dialogue.

    • Rachael

      I agree. I think Matt Bowman set some good groundwork on working towards a theology of dissent in his Dialogue article.

  • http://pattichatter.tumblr.com Patti

    I love the idea that the gospel is more than it’s ordinances; it is also working through those ordinances in a community! Thank you for your well thought article. And there are many things about the gospel and the hierarchy that are a double edged sword – be actively engaged vs wait on the Lord, follow the Prophets vs personal revelation, questioning vs “have enough faith” – and we are all in varying spaces within those contradictions. I do believe we all need a space to express, be heard and valued, and to question for answers. The trick seems to be keeping a unified community while we acknowledge we are all at different places and stages in the expressions of the contradictions anyone of us faces in our growth in the gospel.

    • Rachael

      Compassionately put, Patti- thank you.

  • IDIAT

    H2 21.2.24 generally says that members with doctrinal questions or personal matters should direct them to local leaders. The awkward thing is that who gives prayers in GC doesn’t really fall in either category. Therefore, the part that says “Stake leaders who need clarification about doctrinal OR OTHER CHURCH MATTERS may write in behalf of their members to the First Presidency.” I don’t know if there is doctrine in support of having only male GA’s give the prayers in GC. And it’s not really a personal matter because it deals with a broad spectrum of church membership. Presuming there is no doctrine, then I think approaching the SP with gender equality issues, and asking for a copy of the letter from SP to First Presidency, is really the way to go. “That is doing things in order and in wisdom and through proper line of authority. What to do if the SP refuses to write the First Presidency on your behalf? That’s when I think you can go “over his head” and write a letter directly to the First Presidency, but I think you better be accurate and fair in describing the efforts you went through to have your SP write on your behalf. The real test is whether we, as members, are willing to accept the explanation that might eventually come. Will we pray about it? Will we already have our minds made up so that, if the answer isn’t what we want, we’ll reject it outright? I’m afraid, reading many comments out there, that there are far to many people who claim they’ve received personal revelation on such and such a policy/doctrine/practice. They “just know” the church is wrong on (insert name of latest and greatest uproar.) Maybe I’m lucky, but each and every time I’ve prayed to recieve spiritual confirmation of something church leaders have asked me to do or something doctrine, (as we’re admonished to do), I’ve received that confirmation. And I’ve had plenty of things that initially caused me to scratch my head, but over time and after careful thought, prayer and study, I’ve received that confirmation.

    • Rachael

      I’m glad you’ve had such positive experiences with personal confirmation; it’s hard to suspend your own beliefs and convictions to put them to a different test. I also share your hope in communicating with and through local leaders like stake presidents– I haven’t heard the activists mentioning the use of those methods and I’d like to think it would be effective. I think one of the difficulties is that a generation intoxicated by social media will have difficulty adapting from a world of instantaneous information, overexposure, rapid-fire exchanges, and polarization to a kind of dialogue or process of change that is more private, more tiered, more cautious, and that involves people (leaders and laymembers alike) of considerable diversity. Of course, I’m a part of that generation, and I have found that maintaining patience for the “process” of dialogue or change can be really taxing :)

  • paul

    Sometimes the only way to “love” a community or church (or child or friend) is to get right in its face. It is the only way change occurs, esp. in recalcitrant organizations like the LDS Church – for example, the way blow-back from Prop 8 created a shift, however slight, in “official” attitudes toward homosexuality. Catholics learned this the hard way. Surely there were many thousands of members over many decades who knew what was going on in that organization and said nothing. While Mormons may not be faced with anything so dire as child abuse, the time is long-overdue that LDS gender issues be addressed. Elaine Dalton’s recent BYU Devotional quote: (“You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights.”) is a discouraging indicator of just how far Mormon women have yet to go. The leadership – especially the female general officers – seem to believe the world is still like 19th century Utah! This is a problem you can’t deal with gently. It is systemic, ingrained, and self-perpetuating because existing leaders chose new leaders from their own cohort. Unless they understand that members are not going to put up with it anymore – much like what occured with Prop 8 (lots of LDS families have gay sons, one part of the blow-back) – nothing changes. Ever.

    • Rachael

      Paul, I’m not sure I agree with your sentiments. I do not think the Church is our child, nor even, in the sense you seem to be implying, our friend. It is not an corporation we can sue, a child we can scold, or a friend we can chew out. The unique mixture of vertical and horizontal relationships that constitute the Church community make those analogies simply ineffective. I’m not sure there really is an analogy that works; the Church’s dynamics are unique. Plus, those analogies all set up an overly robust subject-object polarity that I think the whole “body of Christ” imagery is designed to counteract. We might agree to disagree on how we view the Church and what language is best suited for it.

      Let me be clear: I agree that there are gender issues that are long-overdue to be addressed. I rejoice to see different demographics enter Church leadership (as they continue to do, though perhaps at a slower pace than we would like). I agree that expressing our ideas and sharing our experiences is a critical part of revelation– how I understand it, at least (our leaders are not omniscient, and I think they benefit from understanding people’s experiences to help locate the right questions to be asking or concerns–out of the millions of concerns we have in this world– to focus on). But I do not think “getting right in their face” is appropriate or effective (as much as my own hot-tempered and impatient nature is naturally inclined towards it; I revisit D&C 121 often). Changes in views towards homosexuality have changed gradually because of peaceful and cooperative dialogue between Church leaders and gay-rights leaders, engaging with members and their stories, and perhaps better research. Did any of that require “getting in their face”? Again, I’m saying the options are not “silence” or “activism.” I think both of those bear bad fruit. There are more temperate and compassionate ways. I don’t think we are ever excused, no matter our position, from exercising compassion or love.

  • paul

    Understand & appreciate what you are saying, Rachael – nontheless, the time for patience and gentle persuasion has passed. The bare-bones result of comments like Dalton’s is an exodus, recently documented, of the best and brightest -and that’s just the younger (18-28) women. Yesterday the Army gave the OK for women in combat. Contrast THAT with Dalton’s statement and you wonder if she’s even sane! In addition to exodus, you’ve also got to consider the “quality” (and yes, I use that term advisedly) of converts. From what I’ve seen the last ten years, missionaries are “converting” d0wn&outers (again, used advisedly) rather than people, esp. women, with degrees and careers. The long-term implication of these two trends is devastating. We will lose the church. It will become even more anachronistic and irrevelant, instead of, dare I say it, the progressive force for good it could and should be. Yes “progressive”; Yes “force”; and Yes, “good”! Call it liberation theology if you want, but it’s where the rubber meets the road on this planet, and without that orientation a religion is useless. To be always behind the curve on social issues that improve the common good, that makes life better for everybody, that liberates human potential, is not acceptible.

    • JohnH

      From what is recorded in every book of scripture that is available to me missionaries have always been primarily converting the “down&outers” and very rarely the wise, learned, rich, etc. This is also true from what I have read of the entire history of the Church; converts have always come primarily from the poor. The church still appears to grow and do okay for itself even with all of those that “will inherit the earth”.

      I don’t think the Church is what you should be concerned about losing but the Ordinances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose Church it is and not our own. I know that Christ leads and guides the Church by way of revelation. Yes, bringing issues to the awareness of Church leadership is one of the best ways of getting revelation for the Church but even still the revelation comes at the time of the Lord and not our own, assuming the thing desired is even part of Gods plan for His children which it may not be.

    • Collin

      Paul, the churches that have followed your advice are losing members much quicker than the LDS church. Churches that “get with the times” cannot be an anchor of faith in a world at sea. There are women who are converting to Islam in Great Britain who say that they converted because they were attracted to the traditional teachings of Islam. In other words, they did not find those things in the Church of England.

      But the LDS church does change. Polygamy changed. Blacks and the priesthood changed. Attitudes towards gays have been changing. The church changes slowly, but that is a strength as much as a weakness. It will resist new ideas in order to test them out, in order to see their strength and appropriateness.

      At some point, I have to believe that you don’t believe that the brethren are inspired by God. You are free to believe that if you want, but we are definitely coming from different perspectives and you do not necessarily speak for me when you agitate for change.

  • Elizabeth

    Hip hip hurrah! Beautifully said and spot on. Thank you so much.


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