Friday, December 24, 2010

Peace On Earth

To every one of my fellow MoHo (and non-MoHo) bloggers, friends, family and readers: May the selfless giving and grateful receiving of this brief season extend throughout the coming year and beyond. Most of all, may you find peace, joy, acceptance, fellowship, goodwill, enlightenment and love.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Of the World

Thanks to everyone who has visited and checked up on me despite how quiet my blog has been the past few weeks. I can't believe it's been two months since I've published a blog post. This isn't exactly a holiday-themed post, but the holidays have gotten the thinking about my place in the world as families and friends gather this time of year.

Growing up in the church, I was always told how the "last days" are full of horrible things in society (known by Mormons as "the world"). I was taught to be "in the world, but not of the world." I confess that in my youth I was always the dutiful, good Mormon boy, but I never completely understood the obsession with the wall between "in" and "of" when it came to the world around me. I knew so many good people of all stripes and saw so many good things in the world that had nothing at all to do with the church. I still do. The difference is that now I don't see them through a glass darkly. I see them with my own eyes, vivid and unfiltered. I am now “of the world.”

There was a time when I believed that the church was the epitome of truth on earth. But I never bought into the notion that by being the "royal-priesthood-holy-nation-peculiar-people," mostly sequestered from the larger society (the “of the world” folk), the LDS church was the best of the goodness on this little blue planet. Perhaps we should call it the "bestness" on earth since goodness in the church is so refined, or rarefied to be more accurate. The air is so thin at that altitude of hubris that it's no wonder that a dogmatic view of what is good prevails over good defined by universal virtues such as thoughtfulness and compassion.

As I've broadened my perspective and realm of experience outside “the kingdom,” it has become clear that, despite the very real challenges and meanness in our society, we live in a genuinely wonderful world, not as full of the destruction and evil as we're so often told. Seeing the vast goodness in the world comes from deciding what to focus on and how to interact with the people around us. I've found I really like being "of the world" because that means I'm part of it. Being "of the world" allows me to live a full life rather than merely disdainfully tolerate what surrounds me. Being "of the world" gives me a chance to know people in all their complexity and contradiction. Being "of the world" gives me a window into things and places and ideas that are rich with meaning and wisdom and love. Being "of the world" deepens my connection to my fellow human beings. I enjoy the fact that my life is no longer dictated by a preposition.

Our life on earth is not like living in Cold War era Berlin, unless we make it that way. While it's part of human nature to be a bit tribal and seek out refuges in which we can find comfort and support with those who believe and think as we do, too much isolation leads to some scary stuff. We can all think back on the things we've done and the things that have been done to us in the name of tribalism. It's one thing to have a "good fences make good neighbors" approach to dealing with people. A bit of caution and a little distance aren't inherently bad. But it's something altogether different, and insidious, to live life in an enclave and rely on a gate akin to Checkpoint Charlie as the only point of interaction and experience with "the world." In Mormondom, Checkpoint Charlie is the body of prophets and apostles, with local priesthood leadership and cadre of the dogmatic staffing the checkpoint.

Here's what I mean by that. The brethren tell us what is "of the world" and dictate the terms of how the worthy and elect of the kingdom should interact with the people and things "in the world." Their surrogates ensure that these decrees are enforced. If our interactions occur outside that narrow range of what is defined as acceptable (often in confusing and contradictory ways), then we are deemed to be "of" the world rather than simply "in" it. This "of" vs. "in" approach makes many people simultaneously respect and distrust Mormons. Being the "chosen people" comes at a high cost. To continue using the troublesome economic metaphors that are so much a part of Mormon culture and the larger culture of evangelical Christendom, the "return on the investment" isn't very good. The result is often in the "loss" column. We lose some of our humanity by being too tribal, even (perhaps especially) if it is in the name of being royal, holy and peculiar.

As the parts of the world influenced by Christianity celebrate Christmas in various ways, my hope is that we can tear down a few walls, break through the checkpoint, and embrace each other as equals. We can still live in our own houses, have our own opinions and beliefs, and live according to our own conscience. But let’s enjoy our common humanity a little more often. Maybe we can rejoice as a new and glorious morning casts light on a broader notion of what is good. And maybe that light will help everyone see that we can make more room at the table in the inn where there is fellowship, goodwill and peace.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sun, The Wind and a Cloud of Dust

There is a fable by Æsop that tells of an argument between the Sun and the Wind. 
While arguing over which of them is most powerful, the Sun and the Wind see a man walking along the road below them. The Wind challenges the Sun to see which of them can get the man to take off his cloak. While the Sun hides behind a cloud, the Wind goes first, blowing powerful gusts to force the coat off of the man. The more the Wind blows, the tighter the man wraps the coat around himself. After many attempts, the Wind gives up, exhausted and out of breath. Then the Sun takes its turn, directing its heat toward the man. As the man becomes warmer and warmer in the radiance of the Sun, he decides to remove his cloak. 
The moral: Gentleness does more than violence (as stated by Jean de la Fontaine) or, alternatively, Moderation produces better results and extremes.
To apply Æsop's fable to my experience in Mormondom: I see the sun as the kindness, openness and love experienced among members at the personal level. I see the wind as the demands of the prevailing church culture (which the hierarchy both actively reinforces and passively allows to flourish) to conform to rigidity, dogma and human authority. What makes dealing with this even more maddening is that there is so much inconsistency and lack of clarity, even amidst declarations that the church’s positions are consistent and clear. 
There are far too many in the church who are more than happy to shake the dust of their feet with dismissiveness and contempt for any who view the world or live life differently than they do and blow that dust into a whirlwind. The most recent proof of this comes in the form of widely-circulated public addresses by Boyd Packer, Keith McMullin and Bruce Hafen over the last two years, the church’s clumsy involvement as proponents of Prop 8 in California and similar political campaigns elsewhere over the past decade or so, and the flatulent windbaggery of surrogates of church leadership and rank-and-file Mormons who feel compelled to stir up the wind even more by rushing to the aid of their celebrity fear-mongers. We now have a cloud of dust so expansive and dense that it blocks the light and warmth of reason and compassion within Mormon society regarding homosexuality.
Is it even possible to change this sad state of affairs? How do we calm the winds and let the dust settle? Efforts like those of Marlin Jensen in Oakland a few weeks ago, and the public statement read by church spokesperson Michael Otterson just a few days ago are a start. Jensen spoke with compassion and, just as important, he listened. The statement Otterson read was thankfully devoid of the dismissive term “so-called” found so often in Mormon language. It also spoke with greater respect toward gay rights groups and gay people in general. The statement made plain there are disagreements, but it also mentioned common groud. It condemned bullying and cruelty, and seemed to issue a challenge to the membership of the church to reflect on what it really means to love one another. Perhaps someone can start a Facebook group in support of that.
Having seen for myself how the church has a history of speaking out of both sides of its mouth, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach. As you might have guessed by now, I’m a bit jaded.
As I’ve been thinking about what comes next, this came to mind: For many years, people have compared the somewhat mysterious workings of church headquarters to those of the Kremlin of the Soviet era. The church seems to be communicating in coded messages so much of the time. It’s as though public speeches by the general authorities (especially general conference) are like speeches to the Politburo. Then, a spokesperson will “clarify” with the PR interpretation to the media and the general public. My take on the latest cable from LDS HQ is that the church may be going through its own Cuban Missile Crisis. There is something going on behind the scenes that cannot be clearly known, in part because of the secretive and enigmatic nature of hierarchy and bureaucracy of the church.
On any given Sunday, Mormons tell each other how wonderful it is that the leadership of the church is completely united. Mormons love the fantastical, and this is no exception. There is every indication that the leadership of the church is grappling with what it means institutionally and doctrinally to have gay people in the church. The vexing question is how the church can provide a truly meaningful and inclusive place for gay people as individuals and as families to find spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and whether it really wants to. As yet, the brethren do not have a unified answer. 
The dust among Mormons---in church meetings and classes, within families, among groups of friends, on Facebook, in conversations, within the Bloggernacle, an here in our little Mohosphere---will be in the air for a while. But it will eventually settle. Once it does, it will be for church leaders to decide whether they want to be the Wind or the Sun.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Sense of Decency

I've been trying to put Boyd K. Packer's Oct 3, 2010 general conference talk into some context. I've reflected on a few things in Mormon history and American history (those being to of the most significant parts of my heritage and experience) that might help me do so. I've also read several responses of others out there in the Mohosphere. In my last post, I suggested there were two main options in response to Packer's talk. Because of how Mormon culture deals with controversy, I thought at the time that we should just put this talk on the shelf, ride out the firestorm and hope that we can re-establish the kind of dialogue occurring in the Oakland California Stake which culminated in some supportive words by Elder Marlin Jensen.
I've changed my mind. I think we have to seize this moment. We need to acknowledge what Packer said and challenge it. We need to discuss the impacts his kind of thinking has on the youth, on single adults and on married adults who are working through what their sexuality means for their lives. We need to discuss the impacts on the families and friends of GLBT people however they identify. We need to face this head on and decide that no matter what the brethren say, they are not dealing with this in a thoughtful, compassionate way. At least not yet. But we can be thoughtful and compassionate, both of which are sometimes very difficult.
One blogger asked his fellow Mohos to point out examples from Packer's talk on October 3 that were hurtful or hateful. This blogger said he listened to Packer's talk twice and did not hear such things. I have four examples to cite from Packer's talk that are hurtful and hateful:
1) Packer conflates homosexuality and pornography. He uses the logical fallacy of guilt-by-association and his general lack of clarity to affix the label of “addiction” to both homosexuality and pornography. This shows a lack of understanding (perhaps even a lack of willingness to understand) the realities of addiction and the real-life experiences of gay people. He doesn’t even bother to attempt to distinguish between orientation and behavior. He merely talks of “tendencies” as though being gay is as simple as liking the color yellow or preferring chocolate ice cream. Such lack of thoughtfulness by the next in line to the presidency of the church is hurtful.
2) His statement: "[The full expression of love] is to be shared only and solely between man and woman, husband and wife, with that one who is our companion forever. On this the gospel is very plain." This denies any legitimacy to committed same-sex couples; it also seems to suggest that heterosexual couples not sealed in the temple have a less-than-legitimate marriage. He may not have intended that, but knowing first-hand how the general authorities labor over and revise their talks, I take it he meant to say it this way.
3) His statement: "Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father." So, he is saying that my self-awareness of being gay is a delusion, and my actually being gay is impure and unnatural. God gives us all sorts of things to deal with in this life, as has been pointed out by other bloggers. Sometimes, we are given good things in our life which others see as bad to help us build inner strength and to challenge unquestioned social "standards" which are man-made or which are derived from imperfect interpretations of universal laws. Two examples of this in my life are being gay and being committed to critical thinking. Some see these things as good. Some see them as troublesome. I see it as living a life of truth. Boyd Packer is on record as saying that “some things that are true are not very useful." I don’t understand how a rational person could hold to such a belief.
4) His statement: "History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day." Actually, history demonstrates the opposite. Humanity has legalized “that which is basically wrong or evil” on many occasions. However, I will grant that when people try to legislate something that is basically wrong or evil, pain is one result. Here are two examples of how Boyd's concept of history doesn't add up:
First: Societies throughout human history have enshrined in their laws the evil practice of human slavery. Even the Bible discusses how to treat slaves rather than condemning the practice. The original U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, established that slaves were 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation in Congress. That it was later changed does not alter the fact that something basically wrong and immoral was once the law, a purportedly divine one at that. Thankfully, in the relatively recent past, societies changed their laws to reflect the fact that slavery is wrong. Thus, society changed the moral standard by law to reflect what is right and good.
Ironically, Quentin Cook mentioned slavery in his talk during the conference. I presume he didn’t know that Brigham Young at one time held slaves in the Territory of Deseret. The history of the church is a bit more mixed on this issue than we are led to believe. So is the church’s record regarding interracial relationships, which is my next example.
Second: For centuries, people have used both religious and secular arguments to decry interracial marriage as wrong and unnatural. Most states had laws specifically banning interracial marriage. Eventually, through the legislative process or through the courts, those laws began to change. Some states clung to the old morally wrong laws. It took action by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967(!) to make the final, binding and morally right decision to strike down those laws and bring the entire nation into line with what was right as a matter of rational thought, morality and human dignity.
Even after this, church leaders---including Packer---still warned of the “dangers” of interracial marriage. These “dangers” included marital strife and negative social effects children from such marriage would experience. So, rather than counsel against racial prejudice, church members were counseled to avoid interracial marriages for the sake of the children. Does anyone see any parallels here???
Societies have paid the price for treating their fellow human beings as less than fully human. Individuals, families, communities and entire nations have experienced pain and penalties for maintaining moral standards that are wrong. Other than appeals to tradition (which themselves involve selective memory of what the traditions have actually entailed), and self-serving interpretations of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, we have not been shown in any rational way that respects human dignity how gay relationships are inherently morally wrong.
I was struck by the lack of decency displayed by Packer in his talk, which was a culmination of so many of his past tirades. To be sure, he has spoken with eloquence and kindness on other subjects. He has devoted his life to church service. I presume he has been a dutiful husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. His commitment to his beliefs is clear. He speaks his mind fervently and sincerely. He is not evil. But he is willfully ignorant.
It’s important to realize that Packer is not speaking about private matters here. He is a public figure on whose words millions of active Mormons rely to guide their personal lives and their actions toward their fellow human beings. Packer doesn't get a pass on this talk because he is a product of a different era or because he has strong opinions or because he believes he is speaking out of love or because he inartfully spoke his mind or because he lives in the Bubblenacle where groupthink passes for thoughtfulness. He’s a human being, just like the rest of us, but he is held to a higher standard because of his position. When public figures speak, they must consider how their words will be perceived and used. This is especially true for public figures who are charged with preaching the gospel of Christ, which at its most fundamental is about faith, hope and love.
Anita Bryant fervently believed she was speaking out of love during her campaign of homophobic hate in the 1970s, the legacy of which lives on today. (Proponents of Prop 8 echoed her "Save the Children" campaign in their campaign literature and ads on TV and the web). A sampling of her words then: Exhibit A: "If gays are granted rights, next we'll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards." Exhibit B: "As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children." Bryant said repeatedly that she prayed for homosexuals. My stomach turns just trying to imagine the content of those prayers. Her steaming pile of reckless hate still casts its stench even after it has been mostly repudiated.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy sincerely believed he was serving the public good by conducting his public witch hunt for supposed communists in the 1950s. The epic exchange between McCarthy and U.S. Army Chief Counsel Joseph N. Welch gave the country a view into how committed McCarthy was to his bitter cause. During Welch's televised testimony, McCarthy, without prior announcement, started to publicly assassinate the character of a junior lawyer, Fred Fisher, who was under Welch's supervision. Welch's comments are as relevant today as they ever were. Some excerpts:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad.... I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.

"Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough.
Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
McCarthy continued to castigate Fisher. But Welch refused to answer any further questions about him. In the wake of being exposed as the fear-mongering it was, McCarthy's crusade began to fade. But untold damage had been done. The effects of McCarthy's actions linger today and his tactics are still used, now with even more subtlety.
I fear that well-meaning but utterly misguided zealots are continuing to inflict damage on gay people still within the church. Many of us are living life outside the church. But we still care for those still inside Mormondom, whatever their individual circumstances and views about their sexuality may be. The reason I “can’t leave it alone” is because I don’t want others to be beaten down as long as I allowed myself to be. A lot has been said in the Mohosphere about not internalizing the homophobia in Packer’s talk and the words of others like him. I wholeheartedly agree. But in doing so, and in modeling that for others, we can’t sweep this talk aside too quickly.
I don't think Boyd Packer was trying to show a lack of decency in his talk or in the other words he's said that have been hurtful. Rather, I think it either doesn't matter to him because his sense of duty trumps his interest in decency or he has lost sight of what being decent to others looks like in reality.

The church has had to uncomfortably live with many racist statements by Brigham Young, who, no doubt, was certain that he was preaching fundamental doctrine about which he felt strongly. (I wish the church would repudiate those statements instead of sweeping them under the rug. But it is not my place to do that. Only the brethren can make those decisions.) The church will also have to uncomfortably live with the myriad statements made by Packer and other leaders that have thrown gay people under the bus. I have no doubt they have been certain that they were preaching fundamental doctrine about which they felt strongly. They believe they are soldiers in a war for the souls of men. They believe they have the truth in its purest form. I take them at their word that they believe to their very core that the survival of civilization is at stake. I know this because the brethren have been preaching this in one form or another since the church was organized. Others have been preaching it for longer than that. And yet, civilization lumbers along, with all its complexity and beauty. Doom is not upon us unless we create it ourselves.
Packer’s comments on Sunday further complicate the already difficult emotional challenges within Mormon families with gay family members. He tells priesthood leaders to use their authority to “cast out evil influences,” thereby granting dangerous license to leaders and giving false assurance to people who are seeking counsel that will actually help. By using his position to make pronouncements that are out of line with what seem to be a “we’re not sure about the cause” approach by the church, he has undermined efforts at the local levels of the church to create meaningful dialogue between people of different perspectives and experience. These things are not only hurtful and hateful. They are profoundly sad. It’s noteworthy that no one even attempted to soften the effect of Packer’s words at the end of the conference. At the very least, failing to strike a different tone was a missed opportunity.
Boyd K. Packer has looked back to a darker time and has driven a pillar of salt into a wound that was only beginning to heal. I repeat my hope that other leaders and the membership of the church will do what they can to remove the salt and look forward with compassion and decency. Until that happens, we need to keep talking about this and not let it be swept under a rug in the name of "sustaining our leaders" because even if they are praying for revelation about the role of gay people in the church, right now they aren't asking the right questions and do not yet have the full measure of empathy and compassion to be true ministers to all the people.
Let the brethren say what they need to say in general conference, in press releases, in talks to Evergreen conferences, in their private discussions. As individual Mormons, let us say what we need to say to each other at the local level. Some of us are outside the church. Some of us are still involved. We all have influence somewhere. We can all find ways to engage in the conversation that needs to happen. I’ve posted Carol Lynn Pearson's poem "I'll Walk With You" as a fixture here on my blog. Every time I’ve shared this poem with someone, I’ve seen its positive effect. It shows what love really is: reaching out to each other in genuine fellowship. There are thousands of other things we can do. This isn't about changing the church. It’s about changing how we see each other. It's about reconnecting as human beings and resisting the easier path of divisiveness.
It's up to us to reclaim the sense of decency innate in us as individuals and as a community.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Boyd the Destroyer

I didn't think I would watch much, if any, of general conference this time around. But, like a moth to a flame, I watched Boyd K. Packer's talk. About halfway into it, a phrase came to my mind once recalled by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing the first atomic bomb detonation: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
This is not hyperbole. This really is about life and death. It's about light and darkness, warmth and coldness, love and fear. Out of generosity, I can only assume that Boyd was unaware of the disturbing trend of suicides among young people who were gay or questioning their sexuality. It’s possible that he hasn’t been paying attention to the havoc within many Mormon families struggling to make sense of contradictions between their knowledge that their gay family members are good, loving, moral people and the rhetoric and actions of their church. In any event, great timing [dripping sarcasm]!

But then I remember that Boyd has been an enthusiastic standard bearer for gay-bashing for decades. From the pamphlet For Young Men Only that endorses physical violence against gay people, to the To The One publication that goes to great lengths to give gay people false, condescending assurances and condemnation alike, to the 1993 “All-Church Coordinating Council” talk mentioned in my last post that speaks of dangers and destruction, to railing against gay rights and gay marriage, to this talk today, Packer reveals himself as a bigot of the highest degree. His very name has become a pejorative at this point. What compassionate person would want to associate themselves with the name President Boyd Kenneth Packer? What kind of Christianity is this???
Another image that came to mind in watching Boyd's talk today was Ricardo Montalban's final scene in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which the obsessed-with-vengeance Khan character is trying to destroy his nemesis. He launches into an epic monologue and literally spits his last words. In the end, Khan merely destroys himself. 
Boyd is nearing the end of his days. And yet, here is one more spittle-laden monologue of doom. (I'll be honest here, it’s taking every ounce of strength I have not to wish him ill.) With this talk, he is breathing new life into all of his previous spew. He has always been a cold, bitter, fear-mongerer. To disagree with him is to defy his divine authority. Such hubris is staggering. I thought he might discover his humanity in his old age. It's clear that he hasn't; it's unlikely he ever will. For that reason, I pity him. He becomes smaller and more pathetic with each hateful word, no matter how quietly spoken. Such vitriol destroys the soul. Such toxicity poisons the mind and heart. 
He talks in terms of threats. He warns of doom on the doorstep. Despite Boyd's monotone delivery, he's just as overly dramatic as Montalban's performance in the Star Trek film. Because he is so certain of his divine right as a holy prophet on whose every word the people of the earth should hang, he has no respect for the experiences and feelings of gay people, who he sees as willfully rebelling against God himself. He couldn't even bring himself to use the terms "gay", "homosexual" or "SSA." Though he professes concern for the soul, he dehumanizes his fellow human beings. Though he fears for civilization, he shows contempt for the notion of a multifaceted democratic society. It is his province to speak, and our province to obey. It’s that simple for him. How dare we lowly ones disagree! 
The most tragic victim of this is Boyd himself. However, he's taking down others with him. We cannot let that happen. It is because of the bigotry, fear, and smallness of people like Boyd that the world is too often violent, hateful and petty. His bitter words lead other small-minded, thoughtless people to hurt (spiritually, emotionally and physically). It's clear to me that Boyd does not know true love. It’s clear that Boyd fails to understand that the course he suggests does more to destroy society than all the things in his various litanies ever could.
His brand of virulent hate spreads. Its insidious influence creeps up quietly. It makes us all a little bitter if we aren't careful. It makes the difficult, emotionally-charged discourse we need to have as a society into almost insurmountable obstacles. It appeals to our basest instincts rather than the better angels of our nature.  
Most of the world won't even realize that Boyd K. Packer ever gave the talk he did today. But the membership of the church will know. I don't hold out any hope that his talk will be repudiated or clarified by church officialdom. Therefore, it will be up to individual members of the church and local leaders to decide what to do with this talk. Within the confines of current Mormon social mores, there are two choices: 1) Endorse and actively teach what Boyd has said today, or 2) Quietly put this talk on the shelf and pretend like it doesn’t exist.  
Option #1 will lead to more vitriol, family tension, self-hatred and countless other kinds of grief and tragedy. The church continues to lose more and more of the honest in heart who can no longer stand the coldness, darkness and fear-mongering that seems to have taken hold. But there’s a chance to make the church a place of compassion rather than vengeance.  So, I suggest Option #2. Mormon culture is familiar with this approach, because that’s how doctrinal contradictions and troublesome historical irregularities are dealt with. Usually, I don’t like the put-it-on-the-shelf method. But in this case, it’s probably the best way to go---until the leaders and members of the church are ready to have a real, open and honest conversation where ALL voices are given a place and valued. 
The church has a choice. I plead with any who have influence to help build a critical mass, not of destruction but of love and healing:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Personal Side of Civility

Reflecting on what I think was a productive and challenging discussion generated by my last post, here is a follow-up, but on a more personal level.
There are many people whose devotion to the church leads them realize how much the church works for them on a personal level, how much it means to them, how truly it resonates in their soul. It is hard for these people to understand how this same process doesn't occur for other people. 
I am one among a specific group of "other" people. It is hard for true believers to understand this group. I and others in this group have been devoted to the church; we've done what we've been asked; we've consecrated our time, talents and everything else we could to the building up of the "Kingdom of God" on the earth and the establishment of Zion. I and others in this group have prayerfully studied the gospel; we have followed the counsel of church leaders even when it seemed to go against what we felt most deeply. And even after all that, I and other people in this group have come to the sad conclusion that the church doesn't work for us on a personal level, that it has caused us pain, that it no longer resonates in our souls. 
I've observed that while the disaffected may not agree with the true believers, most don't really have a problem with the idea that the church works for the believers. But it is almost universally horrifying to the believers to accept that anything less than absolute devotion to the brethren will bring happiness. They believe that any other route will lead to sorrow. And many of them can't seem to help themselves from saying this to the disaffected they know, and even seeking out the disaffected they don't know. Sometimes, they seek out blogs like mine and post comments to "save" me from myself.
I don't mind stating for the record that one of the main reasons for my disaffection from the church is because I am gay. I don't see a real place for myself in the church where I can be the full, complete person I am. Sure, I have serious questions about church doctrine and history that are part of my feelings of disaffection. But the most deeply-felt reason is that the primary emotional reaction I feel regarding the church is rejection. Tell me, true believers, do you expect me and other gay people to spend not only this life but also the eternities in a celestial kingdom whose society rejects us for being who we are? I wish there was a way I could help true-believing Mormons understand what we feel.
I have PERSONAL experience with local and general leaders of the church who have told me individually and over the pulpit in a group setting that homosexuality (not just homosexual behavior) is wrong, dangerous, threatening to society. I have been told that gay people are part of a subversive conspiracy to undermine the family as the foundation of civilization; that the "homosexual agenda" is to destroy the legal rights of churches and individuals who believe homosexuality is immoral. This isn't new. These same ideas are what I was taught as a teenager reading The Miracle of Forgiveness---a book highly recommended to me by my church leaders throughout my life. (If you don't remember, that book uses the phrase "Threat to Family Life" as a heading in the chapter titled "Crime Against Nature" in reference to homosexuality).
In a post a while back, I wrote that in the course of discussions about difficult issues, shouting has a part to play as we work through the process of having a dialogue in a civil society. I don't mind some shouting here on my blog or out there in the world. I don't think it reduces the civility, just as I don't think protests are uncivilized simply because they are loud. Many talks in general conference have involved pulpit pounding and raised voices (the best recent example being Jeffrey Holland's talk where he dismissed some historians' views of Mormon origins as "frankly pathetic"). Shouting can be a healthy, productive part of the process.
I created this blog to work through the difficult emotions involved in being a gay Mormon. I appreciate the supportive words and the challenging words alike. I hope people will visit and consider what I have to say. I also hope that visitors realize that commenters are guests--welcome guests, but guests all the same. 
A recent commenter here on my blog mentioned that the church and its leaders love gay people. I think they honestly believe they love me. But they way I have personally felt that love shown leads me to the conclusion that this love is something along the lines of how a person loves an injured animal. The love is genuine, but it also involves a sense of superiority, a need to control, and an element of fear.
Platitudes about love do not undo the hurtful actions of church leaders and members. This isn't just about me. It's also about thousands of people who have been deeply hurt by the institution that promised healing. I'm not talking about being offended. I'm talking about being hurt. A response that these things were done with good intentions, with love or with a sense of duty to preserve morality does not heal the wounds---and it misses the point. If the church wants to kick out someone either for being attracted to someone of the same sex (and it's not just about sex, thank you) or for behavior prohibited by current church standards, fine. But it's an entirely different matter when the president of the church along with the full Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles tells Mormons to dedicate their time, talents and financial means to a campaign ostensibly designed to "protect marriage" but which included specific distortions, obfuscation and fear-mongering (which church leaders seem to have taken no forceful steps to stop within the broad coalition of which they were a part). 
The message that sends to me is that the church doesn't believe gay people are as human as persons it designates as "normal" or "worthy." It tells me that the church has contempt for gay people who are entirely outside the church. It tells me that the leaders of the church believe gay people have some insidious collective agenda to limit the right to the free exercise of religion. If you have any trust in our system of government whatsoever, how can you believe that the court would limit the free exercise of religion in the ways that have been so recklessly and disingenuously thrown around? The main agenda for most gay people, like most people in general, is to be respected and left to live life with the same dignity and rights and responsibilities of citizenship to which all citizens are entitled under our Constitution.
The church's actions regarding gay people in society also show me that the official church priorities are more about fighting a battle in the political sphere than truly ministering to those seeking a place at the table of fellowship. If I walk into an LDS meetinghouse and say that I'm gay, that I'm not going to change, but that I want to worship and contribute, am I truly going to be welcomed with Christian fellowship and love?
Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree on this point, but love does not include degrading my humanity by telling me I am an abomination for kissing a guy, which would be considered "homosexual behavior" by some leaders at every level. Love does not include telling me that calling myself "gay" isn't appropriate. I don't call Mormons so-called Christians. I just call them Christians, even if their version of Christianity differs from mine. So I claim the same respect for myself. Why is it so hard to just call a person gay who wants to be identified that way?
I'm pretty sure the leaders of the church don't hate me. But most of them don't know how to love me. I think that stems from the fact that most of the church fears gay people. That's not because they're Mormons. It's because they are part of a larger society that fears gay people, at least to some degree. For some, the degree of that fear might be slight---and a factor of lack of meaningful relationships with gay people. For others, that fear might be almost apoplectic---often because of something unresolved in that person's life that leads to hate. Yoda said it well: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." 
An often-quoted talk by Boyd Packer is worth quoting again here: 
“The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals. Our local leaders must deal with all three of them with ever-increasing frequency. In each case, the members who are hurting have the conviction that the Church somehow is doing something wrong to members or that the Church is not doing enough for them.
“Those who are hurting think they are not understood. They are looking for a champion, an advocate, someone with office and influence from whom they can receive comfort. They ask us to speak about their troubles in general conference, to put something in the curriculum, or to provide a special program to support them in their problems or with their activism.
“When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates -- sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected. The question is not whether they need help and comfort. That goes without saying. The question is ‘How?’”
How, indeed? I’ll venture to say that it doesn’t include fear, marginalization or condescension.
It seems to me that the test of civil society and the survival of the Mormon church come down to how we deal with that only thing we really have to fear: Fear itself. And if remember correctly, someone once said: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear; because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." How about we start there.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Civility is also Advanced Citizenship

If you thought my last post was too sharp, you might want to pass on this one. If you liked it... This is the right place, drive on. (Oh, and this is a long post. But it’s my blog, so there you go.)
Dallin Oaks, one of the twelve apostles of the church, gave a speech on Constitution Day (Sep 17) about, ostensibly, the Constitution. It was more than that though. It also addressed "judicial activism"---a term I loathe because only people on the losing side of a matter before the court truly favor judicial passivity. Can we just stop using the term, please? It's meaningless, divisive and doesn't advance the interests of civil political discourse which was another major point of Oaks' talk. It's pretty clear that the chief underlying purpose of his speech was to deal with the fallout from the church's involvement in the firestorm over gay marriage. In my last post, I wrote about the need for dialogue between people of differing views. Here's a chance for me to contribute to that process, since Elder Oaks and I don't exactly see eye to eye.
From the conclusion of his speech: "If representative government is to function effectively under our constitutions, we must have civility in political discourse. We currently have an excess of ugliness and contentiousness in our communications on many political issues. I don’t need to give examples; we have all been exposed to it, and some of us have occasionally been part of it. We all bear some responsibility for the current political polarization and the stalemates that have resulted from it. We ought to tone it down. Meaningful debate and discussion about policies, programs, and procedures is essential to a democratic society. But contentiousness for the sake of division is bad for democracy. It is bad for law observance. It is bad for neighborly relations. And it is particularly destructive as an example for the rising generation, who, if not taught better, will perpetuate and magnify its ugliness and divisiveness for generations to come."
Call me an ungrateful malcontent, but Oaks' comments about civility are too little too late. He's trying to engage in the civil discussion that a true prophet, seer and revelator should have realized was needed many years ago. And exactly who is being contentious for the sake of division? Please don't misunderstand me. I've wanted for a long time, and still want, the discourse on all issues in the public sphere to be more civil, more rational, and more focused on our common humanity. But most people in the Western Hemisphere have moved on to sing a new tune about the place of gay people in human society. The church needs to catch up and recognize that if it continues to ignore daily life in the real world it risks becoming irrelevant.
I agree that we can tone it down. I think we can also turn down the volume. But here's the problem. What we really need is to play a new song. The same, tired strains aren't doing us any good. If gay marriage is a study in advanced citizenship as I suggested not long ago, civility in public discourse is a graduate-level course. For over a decade, the church has hidden behind "broad coalitions," violated election regulations, used vitriolic surrogates to engage in fear-mongering, distortion and misinformation and manipulated members into donating money and time to political campaigns by directly referencing the language of the temple covenant regarding the law of consecration. For far longer than that, the church has vilified gay people as dangerous, subversive and a threat to civilization. They're wrong. And I think they know it.
Perhaps the better angels of human nature have finally become a driving force in the minds and hearts of some within the hierarchy of the church. Maybe they are beginning to see the humanity of their gay family members and friends. But I can't help but think that the church's relative silence about the federal lawsuits involving Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act and this public address by Oaks are due mostly to the fact that the church is paying a heavy price in the realm of public relations. If the church’s position on gay marriage was so divine, correct and unimpeachable, why didn't a single LDS lawyer offer his or her talents as an advocate to the cause of defending Prop 8 in a court of law? [Crickets chirping.] And were there no LDS expert witnesses on the matter who could testify, subject to the rules of evidence and the rigors of cross-examination? There certainly seemed to be a lot of experts during the Prop 8 campaign and the similar campaigns that preceded it. [More crickets chirping, even more audibly.]

This isn't just about gay marriage. It's about fear of gay people. But when the dust of Prop 8 settled and people began to see the base motives, the public relations tide began to turn against the church. Too many people have gay family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors who they love and respect. It takes time, and there is often a price to pay, but as the Mormon hymn says, "Though the mountains depart and the earth's fountains burst, truth, the sum of existence will weather the worst. Eternal, unchanged evermore." And the truth is, gay people are normal. The court didn't make it up, it didn't subvert the voice of the voters. It simply recognized the truth, just as are growing numbers of people.
My instinct is to view Oaks' words as PR damage control. However, if there is more talk like this in general conference in a couple of weeks, if church leaders foster a more open environment within the church (including the church's online presence, both official and unofficial), and if there are tangible initiatives by the church to engage in meaningful discourse with the GLBT community and with people of various opinions and viewpoints, then I'll begin to believe this isn't just about PR. A few talks and press releases about civil political discourse will not contain the firestorm the church has unleashed and stoked since the late 1990s. For now, I'll take Oaks at his word and hope for productive dialogue. But I'm going to take a "trust but verify" approach to this.
From sad personal experience and based on the church's checkered history in the political sphere, I'm pretty jaded about the motives of the hierarchy of the church regarding issues of public importance. Not that you could tell that from my blog. It’s also possible that Oaks fancies himself as an elder of Israel rescuing the U.S. Constitution as it hangs by a thread. (I’ve been to the National Archives and seen with my own eyes that the Constitution is written on paper, not on a piece of Captain Moroni’s coat. Ergo, no threads to hang from.) I have to give Elder Oaks credit: he delivered his words from the bully pulpit of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Well played.
Here’s a thought: if it was good enough for Brigham Young to hold debates in the Tabernacle, let’s do it again. The church may not like gambling, but they’re all in on this one. If the leaders of the church at the highest level are serious about open discourse about political matters in a civil society, then they have to be serious about doing so in a public forum, subject to alternative points of view in real time. That’s how we do things in the real America. You know, the one founded on the rule of law. As one of the historical centers of public gatherings in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle would be the perfect place for such a discussion. We could all pause with awe to listen to a pin drop when someone makes a particularly salient or compelling point. And the economy of the Salt Lake Valley would get a boost from all the people who would want to attend such an event. It's a win-win.
So, for what little my small voice might be worth, I call on the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to host a public debate on the role of gay people in society in the Tabernacle within one year’s time. With enough notice, I’m sure Ted Olson and David Boies could be persuaded to present. Maybe we can get someone from the Family Research Council to show up as well (with or without a “luggage assistant”). The church can designate whoever it wants to present its perspective. 
Interestingly, Oaks quotes an eloquent statement about patriotism from Adlai Stevenson: "What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? . . . A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." I wholeheartedly agree. Stevenson is perhaps one of the most underestimated and under-appreciated statesman in the history of the United States. 
I think some more of Stevenson’s eloquent insights can help us better understand the topics at hand. First: "I believe that if we really want human brotherhood to spread and increase until it makes life safe and sane, we must also be certain that there is no one true faith or path by which it may spread." So, brethren, maybe you can tone down the "we're right and you're wrong because we’re the one true church" rhetoric, and allow for the possibility that a marriage between two men or two women isn't going to doom the earth to a fiery end. (Note: Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont haven’t been destroyed by plagues, deluges or locusts. Neither have Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Just something to keep in mind.) It sounds trite, but it’s true: If you don’t like gay marriage, then don’t get one.
Second: "I believe in the forgiveness of sin and the redemption of ignorance." I can forgive the church's missteps and horrific treatment of the sons and daughters of God who are gay. The related issue is whether the church is willing to be redeemed of its ignorance regarding the realities of life for gay people. Newsflash for the Brethren: Gay people don’t need to be healed from their “affliction,” “burden” or “problem.” Please back off the sad, tired notion that “gay” isn’t a legitimate word for self-identification. Maybe some people don’t want to use it. Fine. They don’t have to. But if you get to use the words “saint,” “apostle” or “prophet” for your identity, I think you might wish to consider, just maybe, pretty please with sugar on top, allowing me privilege of using the word GAY to describe myself.
And a final quote from Stevenson: "Man is a strange animal. He generally cannot read the handwriting on the wall until his back is up against it." Acceptance of gay people as full, normal, valuable members of society--just the way we are---is the handwriting on the wall. If those sustained by many Mormons as prophets, seers and revelators can come down to earth for just a moment to associate with us mere mortals, perhaps they can more clearly read what is so clearly and painstakingly written on the wall. Having eyes, see ye not, brethren? Please open your eyes, your ears, your minds, your hearts. Stop backing yourselves against the wall. Lead your people to stop backing themselves against the wall. Let us reason together. We're waiting, but we can't wait forever.
(Oh, and Elder Oaks, next time you might want to look into what Adlai Stevenson stood for before you quote him to lend credibility to a thesis he would use his last breath to oppose. He’s way out of your league.)