Justice and Fairness

Justice and Fairness November 25, 2013

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.

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