Justice and Fairness

It’s been interesting to follow discussions about gender and priesthood during the last several months. One theme lately has caught my attention: the idea that women’s ordination is required for the sake of justice. Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by virtue of excluding women from priesthood offices, treating the women members unfairly? Is the ordination of women to priesthood offices the just thing to do?

The simple answer, I think, is no.

Do I think the Church and the members would benefit from having more women present in Church leadership, or from making changes to the way women participate in and relate to the priesthood? Absolutely.

But do I think justice or fairness demands it? No, I don’t. There are many compelling reasons for changes to happen; but I don’t think hanging our hats on Justice or Equality will get us far as long as we—or Church leaders–are working with the canon that we have. And as long as we believe that the canon should inform our understanding of God and the Church, I think we need to confront the complicated elements that may not translate perfectly into our modern sociopolitical values.

Given the scriptural record, it seems evident that God does not operate solely on principles of justice and fairness. In fact, part of what makes Jesus the Savior is that he overcomes justice and fairness in the name of mercy and grace; and throughout the New Testament, Christ constantly challenges people’s perceptions of fairness and equality. The fundamental elements of Christianity defy fairness; we don’t “deserve” forgiveness, we don’t “deserve” grace, we don’t “deserve” power, we don’t “deserve” position, we don’t “deserve” authority. Yet we believe God offers these things.

Of course, God’s “unfairness,” if we want to call it that, also cuts more ambiguously. There are numerous examples of God discriminating, or making distinctions and treating individuals or groups differently. We don’t believe prophets “deserve” their position; they are “weak things of the earth” chosen to do God’s work. The Levites didn’t “deserve” their priesthood responsibilities– but their lineage was set apart for certain duties. The Syrophenician woman didn’t “deserve” not to receive the blessings of Christ’s gospel, but there was a particular order Christ seemed to be following. The Gentiles didn’t deserve to wait behind the Jews to hear the disciple’s teachings, but certain promises seem to have held God to a set sequence. The laborers who only worked one hour didn’t really “deserve” the same pay as those who worked twelve. In fact, in many of the scriptures, it seems like God is operating on either a different idea of fairness, or with something else in mind altogether.

Does that mean there is never a logical causality behind divine assignations? Or that we should condone abuses that occur in the name of God’s supposed “mysterious” will, or practice quietism? Of course not. But I think it’s vital we understand that God seems to sometimes work on an uncomfortably collective, symbolic, macro level for our modern tastes. That requires our individualist ethos, with its justified claims to egalitarianism, fairness, and justice, to collide with quite a different way of thinking — and be tempered by the encounter. In the moments when I am understanding the church in a monochrome filter of one particular value or another, it has been useful to step back and see the different patterns that emerge, wherever I may find myself in them.

For this reason, perhaps, I was never bothered as a young girl when my male peers passed the sacrament. Well, part of the reason is that I was raised by a delightfully irreverent mother who refuses to take positions or rank too seriously. Okay, and another reason was that I knew my male friends were very capable of being complete twits, so there was no way that they were passing the sacrament because they “earned” it and I didn’t. But I also think that part of the reason I never felt my sense of justice being violated was because I implicitly understood that justice was never the real determinant. That those boys didn’t “deserve” the assignment, anymore than I “deserved” my callings, and consequently their assignments reflected not an internal merit of their own, but a larger collective order that I didn’t find myself taking too personally.

Is it possible that the order was wrong, or that it will change? Of course; I think the ever-present challenge of defeating the biases and limitations of the mortal experience to build God’s kingdom in his way requires us to constantly study, discuss, reflect, and question the way things are. But I also think that it requires us to reserve some of those questions for our own assumptions.

When we take for granted that our notions of equality and justice are self-evident templates for understanding and improving the Church, I think we are simplifying or ignoring a canon (and the provocative questions it raises) that plays an important role in our doctrine. And I don’t believe that the changes and conversations many hope to see will be realized by appealing to the clean, black-and-white certainties of political justice.

  • Cadence Woodland

    You raise many really good points, but I would push back slightly on the idea that justice isn’t a major part of LDS theology. There several memorable passages about justice in the BoM stating that if justice is not met and fulfilled, God’s very divinity is in question. (I recognize that the passage in question is dealing with issues of sin and redemption and mercy, but I don’t see that those ideas are so far removed from the questions of women’s ordination. If in fact women are kept from the priesthood through error or lack of asking for further information on the subject, I can see that falling into one of the proverbial “sins of omission.”)

    I really love what you said about God operating on mercy and grace, but I wouldn’t agree at all that Christ “overcomes” justice. I’d rather argue that he overcomes the flawed, human attempts at it and offers instead true, cosmic, pertinent, and individual justice – free from prejudice, human tradition, etc. – as the higher model to follow. God must be perfectly just, otherwise he “ceases to be God.” To say then that justice isn’t really a core idea of our theology is pretty hard for me to agree with. I’d agree that it doesn’t figure so much in our day to day application of our theology (I’d absolutely concur that our focus there is very much on mercy and grace), but I do say that justice is pretty key of our cosmic understanding of God and his nature.

    Which in return, makes me (personally) believe that justice and fairness is a very real and useful theme to address issues of who is excluded from administrative, ritualistic, financial, and authoritative leadership and position, and why. If God is perfectly just, and to some our current gendered division of authority feels so deeply unjust, where is the disconnect? If with us, that’s an obstacle that can be overcome with further light and truth. But if with God…for many, myself included, that’s a far more troubling idea.

    • Rachael

      Cadence, I agree that justice is part of the cosmic understanding of God and his nature; I was trying to point out here that it’s not the only factor, and there are situations in which it doesn’t seem to be a factor at all–or at least, not in the straightforward way we understand it. Your comment touches on some of the provocative questions that I think are important to discuss if we are using pretty charged words like “justice” and “equality,” though.