Excommunication: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Excommunication: Cruel and Unusual Punishment October 31, 2016
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Photo used with permission.

Last week there was so much going on in the Mormon world, that I did the classic response of not writing about any of it. Goodness. It’s my goal to address many of these topics this week.

Tyler Glenn came out with his album, Excommunication October 21. An album I know has everything to do with his reaction to the November 5th policy dealing with homosexual members of our church — which was leaked just last year — and his ensuing pain and faith crisis. It reminds me of the strange relationship we have as a church with “discipline.” And how we are one of the very few Christian churches that continue to hold courts where members are interrogated and probed for often very personal, private information (especially dealing with sexual sins) and then doled out punishments as part of the repentance process that keep members from participating in their ward communities as they normally would (i.e. not allowed to take the sacrament, not allowed to hold callings, not allowed to attend the temple, disfellowshipped, and in extreme cases, excommunicated). Excommunicated means to officially exclude, cut off or expel. Think about that for a minute when it comes to the ideas of family, community, church sanctuaries, etc…..

Now I know many will say that these are loving gestures — “Courts of Love” — meant to help people return to God’s good graces, meant to help people right their wrongs, meant to help people regain redemption, meant to help victims feel that justice was served, etc. But there are plenty of Christian people involved in just these types of processes without the added humiliation and shame of official church discipline. I know many members who feel they have been helped by their disciplinary councils. However, I also know many who feel they have been deeply damaged by these proceedings… or feel like their family members have been. I know many members who have had their own faith shaken, and walked away from church attendance, because it’s too painful when their loved ones are disciplined in such ways.

Since this practice is helpful to some, but traumatic for many… I do not believe we need this type of system to be part of the equation when corrective measures need to be taken. When justice needs to be served, that’s what government authorities are for. Otherwise, personal progress can be approached from a ministering position of ecclesiastical leadership (support, love, resources, etc.) that does not rely on the shaming practice of finding people “unworthy” (a term I find has huge negative impact on the self-esteem and ensuing ability for people to make positive changes in their life). The realities are that in our church, there is too much inconsistency in how punishments get doled out anyway. There are times when I am shocked that any discipline has happened at all (i.e. teens masturbating, victim of date rape, “belief” crimes) and others were I’m shocked none took place (i.e. child abuse, domestic violence, monetary fraud). This is a broken system — an unnecessary system — a shaming system. And I hope we can take our own doctrine to heart when we look at times when people have been led astray by incorrect “traditions of their fathers” (Alma 9:16), in order to have the humility needed to reassess and head in more positive, healing directions.

I would like to offer the following guest post, by a return author, Maya Dehlin… of what it was like for her and her siblings during the time that her father was facing excommunication from our church. Whether or not this type of practice is helpful for some… the fact remains that it is incredibly damaging to many. Damaging to one’s internal psyche, to systemic relationships within family and community, to one’s sense of spirituality, and our church body as a whole. As I read her words, I had a sharp and painful intake of breath — reminded of the spiritual abuse and emotional violence we often dole out without ever considering we might be in the wrong. I would hope this practice would be reconsidered by the general authorities of our church for the sake of relational wellbeing and good mental health. We have a tremendous amount of impact to consider as far as how our “traditions” affect individuals and families that need church to be a sanctuary and place of respite.

Today’s guest post is written by Maya Dehlin. Opinions shared on guest posts may not completely reflect the positions of the blog’s author. 

Maya is an 18 year old, recent graduate of high school. She received the prestigious Utah’s Sterling Scholar in English, runs her own photography business (Tear Off the Mask) and is currently taking a year off of college to nanny in New Jersey.  

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Image used with permission.

After listening to “John, Give ‘Em Hell” (from the Excommunication album by Tyler Glenn) (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTuJOFCryZs) I was brought back to February 9th of 2015 in the most beautiful of ways. Here’s a small snippet of a personal narrative essay I wrote about that night, titled “For My Five Glimpses of Heaven.”

“Each exhale emanating from my broken ribcage
each raindrop kissing my pores with tiny, ambrosial kisses
each star, pushing its way through the fathomless black to my open eyes
each blade of grass, bending gently beneath my back
a prayer.”

“Oh God, please…with everything I cling to and with everything inside of me…the heart that You set alight with passion, the mind You dreamed into being, and the blundering hands that You have gently corrected and guided. Stay near me.”

“That night, four of us lay side-by-side in a queen bed. One of us suggests a “back train,” where we all face the same direction and scratch each other’s backs. Twenty fingers gently brush down four spines, and the touch seems to sweep away the innocent worries that our hearts hold. Three hours pass by. Mama and Daddy haven’t returned. Our twisted DNA consists of 50% the same genetic material. All siblings share this biological equation. We exhibit the same strong nose, the same rich brown hair, the same gawky height—the same apprehensive fear. Our hearts and our hurts remain inexplicably intertwined for this night. We stay close together, afraid to leave each other’s sides.

“My dad was excommunicated from the LDS church in February of 2015. Excommunication, by definition, revokes church membership and the entirety of eternal blessings. Among these? Temple marriage and family sealings. Family sealings. My family’s eternity. I used to always envision the six of us…floating around blackness, hearing the violent echoes of each other’s voices and desperately clawing at our surroundings to make it back to one another’s arms. Or maybe it included jail cells, side by side…sound proof walls extending from ceiling to floor, one family member per cell. No more forehead kisses from my daddy in the mornings. No longer the sweet lull of my mother’s voice coming from the kitchen window. My big sister’s curls, my little brother’s fingers intertwining with mine, and the fierce, ribcage-crushing sort of love from my little sister…gone from me, and permanently.

“But now I know. Give me endless black, and I will find my way to them every time. I will scrub the darkness from my memories and call to them until my voice gives out.

“Give me walls from ceiling to floor, and I commit to spend each day scraping away at the surface until I find my way to them. I promise to slip my love through the cracks in the mortar, for them to feel.
Give me hell, and I will be at peace…for my five glimpses of heaven remain ingrained in me.”

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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