Following the surprising resurrection of Jesus Christ, the eleven remaining apostles were gathered together at Galilee, “into a mountain where Jesus had appointed.” As if they were not already startled enough, in that moment Jesus left them the following challenge: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:16-20).
Over the last two thousand years, anyone claiming to follow the man Jesus – including institutions, leaders and normal ole’ disciples – has made teaching His message of faith and repentance a part of their life. Joseph Smith himself was told at various points, “Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people” (D&C 18:14) – even as an exclusive focus:
- “Say nothing but repentance unto this generation; keep my commandments, and assist to bring forth my work, according to my commandments, and you shall be blessed” (D&C 6:9)
- “And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost” (D&C 19:31)
- “Lift up your voice as with the sound of a trump, both long and loud, and cry repentance…preparing the way of the Lord for his second coming” (D&C 34:16)
What Christians call the “Great Commission” is taking the message of Christ crucified to the world at large – encouraging people everywhere to yield themselves to God and His word…especially when doing so is hard.
Those seeking to share the Christian message have never claimed to be perfect – and indeed, accept Christ’s own label of “the weak and the simple” charged to carry this message to the world (D&C 1:19) – or what Paul also called “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise…and mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
For me, at least, this implies a sense of “we’re all human” and “doing our best” and “learning along the way” for all of Christ’s followers – including the prophets.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing, then, when members raise ideas and make suggestions to leaders. And I don’t agree with portrayals of the Church of Jesus Christ as purely a top-down affair. That’s neither the gospel or the God I know (who is a lover of dialogue). The God I know would not be offended by sincere and genuine requests, for instance, from some of my brothers and sisters who identify as gay – for Church leaders to ask God whether there will be any further revelation on their own situation. I’ve personally been touched by the humility and earnestness of some of those written petitions.
Recently, however, something quite different has begun happening. Over the last couple of years, in particular, I’ve been struck at the number of people flipping the script, as it were, calling not on people in the world to repent, but instead issuing declarations to the prophets themselves.
This has happened for decades, of course, from voices outside of the Church accusing leaders of dishonesty, etc. But now, more and more, members themselves are making accusations. On one hand, are those who argue the Church has become too aligned with teachings in the world – somehow losing its sacred mission in the process. On the other hand, are those who argue the Church needs to align itself more with what is currently celebrated in the world – if it is to “truly reflect” God’s love.
Around the gay rights movement, in particular, some inside and outside the Church have made bold declarations of needed change – perhaps none more forceful and indignant than a recent Sam Wolfe editorial in the faithfully antagonist Salt Lake Tribune:
General and local leaders of this church must repent for failing to follow the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the First and Second Great Commandments. Samuel asked then as now: “How long will you suffer yourselves to be led by foolish and blind guides? How long will ye choose darkness rather than light?” Justice cries out: Wo unto you for professing to lead Christ’s church while failing to love LGBTQ people as yourselves!…I am filled with the Spirit of indignation out of love for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, whom to know is to love, as Jesus has loved you.
Another gay-identifying Mormon man who I personally know and respect wrote recently:
The recent policy changes demonstrate a woeful and intentional lack of understanding of what it is truly like to be LGBTQ…I find that to be an enormous moral lapse – a lapse that can’t help but erode the moral authority of their actions. This is not to say they and the Church are entirely morally bankrupt, they are imperfect and on their own spiritual journey of progression like the rest of us. But when they attempt to exercise authority or power over the Church, its members, and doctrines without the requisite virtues of empathy and compassion, “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man…”
A third man I also respect, Bob Reese, a pioneer in Mormon dialogue – recently wrote recently wrote lamenting the “negative emotions, such as fear and anger” which “likely lie at the heart of the new policies on LGBT families, in spite of assurances to the contrary.” “Viewed from this perspective,” he went on to describe the recent Mormon policy as “a failure of love, resulting from our refusal to see all of God’s children as equal, all as ‘alike unto him'” He went on to suggest that if others could see this through a “lens of love,” they would likewise see this as just another of many “periodic episodes of madness” in the institutional church that “break God’s heart as well as our own.”
To be very clear, I don’t have a problem with people either being deeply frustrated or sharing these concerns (even if I don’t happen to resonate with them myself). A call to repentance, after all, can be and often is a loving thing to do. If I had personally reached similar conclusions about identity as those who identify as gay, I think I would probably share their frustration.
If there’s something that troubles me in these (three of many) calls-to-repentance directed to the prophets, it is the virtual absence of acknowledgment regarding interesting and profoundly different interpretations at play in the conversation – including meaningful differences in how people think about identity, sexuality, compassion/inclusion, self-acceptance, choice, change, hatred, the source of suffering – not to mention contrasting interpretations of the scriptures being cited.
In my experience, acknowledging these interpretive differences almost always invites both curiosity and new levels of respect in the conversation – “hmmm, that’s interesting that someone could see love or choice so differently – maybe we should talk about this.” Depending on where we fall with these questions, this kind of awareness also underscores how otherwise thoughtful people reach very different conclusions about pretty much everything, including the recent Mormon policy clarifications themselves.
And for some people, I suppose that may have the opposite effect hoped for…after all, if you can rally people to believe Church leaders are calling people to not accept people for who they are – that could translate into some real pressure for institutional change! (Heaven forbid people start considering this as a fundamental disagreement about whether to accept a particular view of identity, rather than whether to accept people themselves…)
To be sure, the kinds of critiques described above often arise from people who have grappled with these questions for decades – exploring the complexities on many levels. I can vouch for that being the case with two of the authors above – knowing them personally and experiencing with each a genuine interest in fostering a more thoughtful conversation.
To any who shares this interest, in particular, I would ask you to consider the subtle “power play” that happens whenever we fail to acknowledge another way to interpret what we’re convicted about – allowing for another place for people to stand (including the Mormon prophets themselves).
Of course, this kind of a power play happens on both sides – with religious folks just as prone to portraying their message in a way that no sensible person could possibly disagree – without being, perhaps, an “anti-Christ.”
That’s something Mark and I have started writing about – pushing back against on both versions as unhelpful – and pursuing more legitimate space that welcomes conviction, while making space for thoughtful disagreement. On the conservative side, for instance, I would love to see religious folks sharing their convictions – without insinuating that people who disagree with them are possessed or inspired by Satan.
And on the other side, those frustrated at what they experience as the Church’s failure in loving, acceptance and compassion, go ahead and share that! And go ahead and invite people to be more inclusive and loving. Then consider adding something like this, “of course, the people I’m saying have failed to love are coming from a very different view of identity and sexuality. Even though I disagree with them, I can understand how that may lead them to a different view of what is the “loving thing to do,” in this case.
My gay Christian friend Arthur, is a good example of doing this. In his summary of the same interpretive question about love, he wrote, “On one hand, the obvious question it raises in my mind is ‘what sort of love can embrace discrimination against others – the deliberate prevention of their fulfillment as human beings?’ On the other, ‘what sort of love can deliberately prevent the fulfillment of their temporal and eternal destiny as human beings?’”
Most fundamentally, my own conviction is that especially on interesting questions such as these (a) thoughtful, good-hearted people can disagree about lots of important things and (b) I want to work for greater space where those thoughtful people can (really) come together to explore.
Within this space – think of it! – we get to ask each other real questions – and listen to each others’ real answers. For instance, in that kind of a space, here is what I would say right now – one question I would introduce.
To those calling on the prophets to repent right now, I would raise one sincere question of my own – a query I first heard from Pastor Francis Chan, whom my wife and I love and admire. Speaking about the cultural debate around same-sex relationships, Chan proposes this is primarily “not about sexuality” or whether something is a “sin” – suggesting that a lot of that is “secondary.” The “bottom line,” he continues, “What I say to people – whatever issue you are dealing with here: Are you willing to surrender to God, no matter what He says?”
He illustrates, “What if He said in this book, ‘Chinese people have to stand on their heads’ (just an example)…I’ll try to stand on my head! I mean, he’s God! What if he said, ‘Chinese people don’t get to marry.’ He’s God! I don’t like that – but I’m going to surrender, because I understand the difference between a Creator and a created being. So whatever!”
So before we get to what this book actually says, I have to say, ‘do you just surrender…would you surrender? I mean, if you disagree with God on an issue – would you submit to him? I really believe that’s the core issue here. I really think we jump to [discussion of sexuality] too quickly, rather than saying – at the core of your being, do you believe in a Creator? And if He is your Creator, would you surrender to whatever He would ask you to do?
He continues, “And then, if so – and that’s the kind of person I want to be as well – let’s look at this book [the Bible] together. Because a lot of following Jesus is to deny yourself, picking up your cross and following me…it’s about not doing very much some of the things you very much want to do. That’s a major part of following Jesus.”
And he concludes with something every healthy conversation includes – an admission he could be wrong, “Maybe I’m wrong about some of this – I’m just a human being, I’m going to be off on things. If your interpretation is different than that, help me see that – in scripture. Let’s study this book together – and you tell me, what does it say?” (Watch the full clip here)
I love the question he poses here – “How would you respond to a substantial disagreement with God? Would you yield to Him – or not?”
That’s the kind of question that could work in all of us, pressing us all in good directions. And what if we added to that a healthy collective acknowledgment that, “hey, maybe I’m even wrong!”
Bottom line: You keep your conviction – and I’ll keep mine…but let’s meet in the middle…where we can have a real conversation.
And from where I stand (making space for others to disagree), the prophets are not people who need to be called to repentance. They are men who see eternity – and our identity – differently and I would say more clearly than perhaps we see ourselves. As Elder David Bednar has recently said of his service among the apostles, “I have come to know their greatest desire is to discern and do the will of our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son. As we counsel together, inspiration has been received and decisions have been made that reflect a degree of light and truth far beyond human intelligence, reasoning, and experience. As we work together in unity on perplexing problems, our collective understanding of an issue has been enlarged in marvelous ways by the power of the Holy Ghost.”
I believe that. And to those who don’t, I’m okay with that too (really!)…as long as we can make space for each of us to stand where we are, without insisting the other is a demon. That means we respect each other – with no requirement that we respect each others’ ideas.
Do we have a deal?
After reaching out to Bob Reese last week, one of the authors cited above, we enjoyed a lengthy conversation this Sunday allowing me to ask questions about his recent writing. Following that, he sent me a note that illustrates for me an example of raising questions from a healthy and humble place – out of which productive conversation and continued learning can continue to emerge (for everyone involved).
Excerpts from Bob’s note follow:
I really appreciated our conversation/dialogue this morning. I found it helpful and enlightening. Having respectful dialogue is a matter of infinite hope.
I was conflicted as I usually am about what to write and how to write it, which is why I was so late in commenting [on the Mormon policy change]. I have had responses on both ends of the spectrum: those who think I was too hard on the church and those who didn’t think I was hard enough…
I know [some] are uncomfortable with some of my rhetoric. So, I listen and try to learn without sacrificing my essential approach, which is summarized at the end of my shorter piece: “In any situation what is the most loving thing I can do?” Is the most loving thing to challenge the church when I think it is wrong on moral issues that can affect people’s lives in dramatic (even ultimate) ways? I try to do that but hope I always do it respectfully and carefully…
Hugh Nibley said that the prophets and church fathers were willing to challenge God over what they saw as injustices in the world, even at the risk of offending God. Nibley said, “And God loved them for it!” I have to give an account of my moral choices/behavior. Sometimes that behavior is manifest as loyal obedience; other times is is manifest as loyal challenging–being willing to say and do things that I feel bound by conscience to do–even if it elicits punishment from my leaders (as it has done on occasion) or even ultimate disapproval of the heavens. I don’t do it lightly or thoughtlessly and I always hold open the possibility that I may be wrong. I trust God will forgive me if I am wrong.