Friday, April 30, 2010

On Being Offended and Being Offensive

Two Sundays ago, I heard a husband and wife speak in a sacrament meeting I attended. They looked and sounded like pleasant, down-to-earth people. They definitely didn't come out of central casting for a church video (thankfully). She spoke of some trials her family had faced the past few years. She spoke in general terms, but with a very meaningful, personal tone. The husband did likewise, for about the first half of his talk. Then, either out of heartfelt belief or out of a sense of duty to display public penance, I'm not sure, he spoke of his eleven-year period of inactivity in the church with rhetorical sackcloth and ashes.

I'm not writing this to argue with his feelings. I don't question his sincerity or his earnestness. But (you saw that coming, right), I feel SO frustrated when people tell stories in church about people--themselves or others--who have become inactive or left the church altogether because they were offended. The story usually ends with either 1) the return of the prodigal in a twisting of what
that parable really means, or 2) judgmentalism strikingly similar to that of a person standing on the Rameumptom. (Good tangent story here.) The problem isn't in the telling of the story. The problem is devaluing the person in favor of the needs of institutional integrity and reinforcing groupthink.

Removing oneself from a situation because someone said or did something offensive is totally legitimate in my book. Everyone has a limit to their patience. And it doesn't matter whether the offensive comments or actions where intentional or not. In Mormon culture, almost inevitable judgment and assumptions are made about the person who was offended. The offended person is deemed weak, unworthy, prideful, rebellious, faithless, bothersome. Some might even label them dangerous. Whereas the person doing the offending is seen mostly a divine instrument to test the patience, faith and devotion of the person who was offended.

Turning the tables, what would the Mormon cultural response be if I excluded a Mormon friend from a social event because it was a wine tasting because I didn't want them to feel uncomfortable? What if my Mormon friend felt offended because they were excluded regardless of my "good intentions?" Wouldn't Mormon culture dictate that being offended in that circumstance be justified because "How dare that unrighteous hedonist not invite you and allow you to just bring some sparkling apple cider rather than cut you out of a social event!"

What about being offended by something because the intent was to hurt, belittle or push away a person? Isn't being offended in that kind of situation justified and even a healthy short-term response? Granted, long-term bitterness and resentment over being offended can eat away at the soul. But being dismissive of someone because they haven't "gotten over it" within what we believe to be the correct timeframe is unworthy of a person professing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The confusion of personal righteousness for personal spirituality is one of the things that can lead to offensive treatment of others. The systematic exclusion and vilification of gay and lesbian members is an example (and that's not even getting into the treatment of bisexual, transgendered or people who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity). But the Mormon culture of exclusion extends to anyone who doesn't fit within the narrow band of "acceptable" or "worthy" or whatever term might be used. There are exclusions based on the word of wisdom, the number of ear piercings (women), wearing a non-white shirt to church (men), racial and ethnic background, the divide between descendants of Utah pioneers and converts, frequency of temple attendance, whether you have a temple recommend, political affiliation and belief; the list goes on. As of last General Conference, it also seems to extend to
wearing flip-flops to church.

The need for acceptance can compel many a Mormon to return to regular participation in the church feeling the pressure to proclaim how utterly miserable life was without the constant involvement of the church. Many fear confronting their questions and misgivings about the church out of fear of that same supposed misery. As though somehow the only way to true spirituality is through regimented attendance at church meetings and unquestioning obedience to church authority and culture. Fortunately, some
people of note in the church don't ascribe to this limited view, but it seems that most do.

Perhaps that view of spirituality works for some people. It certainly doesn't work for me. Believe me, I've tried it. This isn't some "casting the church away lightly" exercise. I poured my soul into it. The church just doesn't work for me like it does for others.

As I've built my friendships, support network and sense of spirituality apart from the church, I've felt much more fulfilled. I'm finding what works for me. That may offend the sensibilities of some in the church. I guess like most things, it's a mater of perspective. Cue Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker "You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Maybe I should tell the deacons quorum instructor I had as a kid that his use of Star Wars analogies in lessons at church opened the door to my disaffection. May the Force be with you.


  1. Excellent thoughts and ideas. I came to the same conclusion years ago.

    This confusion between personal righteousness and personal spirituality seems to me to be the center of what's wrong with religion in general.

    The focus turns to keeping up appearances, over compensating for one's perceived failure of what is dictated as righteous.

    This teaches us to make misguided judgments based mainly on visual perception of appearance and behavior as to who is righteous and thus spiritual. This is deception, conscious and unconscious, of who we are and who we think others are. Offense ensues.

    Spirituality can create righteousness, but as soon as we try to dictate to each other what is righteous, that becomes our ego speaking. Spiritually can not exist when the ego is in charge.

    Ironic in that I've stroked my ego by writing this. LOL!

  2. I think that its healthy to remove yourself from a situation that is uncomfortable or unpleasant for you. If you were to subject yourself to repeated treatment that caused you to feel guilty, anxious or less than others week after week, people would question your sanity. And of course im using "you" in a broader sense, meaning everyone. Why should it be any different with a religion? Especially when it is one that is so pervasive in every aspect of life.

    Im glad that you have made the decision to do something thats healthy for you. :)

  3. An observation: In reading your post, I had a rather tangential thought. I remember teaching about the “Plan of Happiness” and finding it particularly ironic when I found myself so unhappy trying to do the things I was supposed to do after my mission (i.e., date, go to Sunday School, teach things I was beginning to question myself). Perhaps the emphasis should be placed upon peace instead because it implies continuity, balance, and harmony with one’s surroundings and with one’s self.

  4. @TGD: Ego isn't all bad, so long as it isn't "in charge" as you said. Our self-awareness is a big part of exploring our spirituality. I agree that too often religions focus on displays of compliance rather than working on true spirituality.

    @Konrad: I used to feel guilty at church. I actually think that's a big draw for a lot of active Mormons. It's not a good motivation, but it's a widespread from my experience. The past few years, I've felt mostly frustrated at church because I don't see that I have a meaningful place in it. I don't fit within the narrow band of the "acceptable." It's agonizing to sit in church and listen to the pontification of members who can't see beyond their own noses. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good, amazing people in the church. But the group dynamic in the church doesn't reward personal spirituality or self-discovery. It rewards outward expressions and conformity. Not that I have strong opinions on the matter.

    @GMB: Keep the tangents coming. I love what you wrote in your comment. (Thanks for joining up as a follower, btw. I've enjoyed your blog a lot, having lurked a while before I clicked the follow button).

    Reframing the "Plan of Happiness" as the "Plan of Peace" with a focus on balance and harmony--both internally and in our relationships with others--would be amazing. Even though it's unlikely to change anytime soon, think of what the church could be if that were the focus.

    I've felt unhappiness similar to what you experiences as I kept plugging along in the process of doing was I was "supposed to do"--both in terms of my personal life and in teaching or doing other church callings. Finally realizing that most of my discontent stems from hanging onto the limited view of happiness that I learned growing up in Mormon culture has helped me become a better, more balanced person.