Rusty’s post speculating about the ultimate fate of missionaries involved in bizarre baptizing schemes over at Nine Moons has reminded me again of a thorny issue I’ve considered from time to time: the occasional spiritual necessity of defying the church.
Like every lifelong Mormon, I sat through the youth lessons on peer pressure that always featured the same narrative: bad kids want good Sister Molly to [make a bong, watch an R-rated movie, go to a frat party, cheat on a test]. Good Sister Molly is sorely tempted. They’re her best or only friends, they threaten to ostracize her, they cajole and crook their fingers seductively, they mock and insinuate that she’s been brainwashed by her parents’ bizarre faith–they pull out all the stops. But in the end good Sister Molly walks serenely away, her resolve to Stand For Truth and Righteousness, as we were constantly told to do in Young Women, deepened, her values and self-respect intact.
Somehow even the prissiest, most dated of those stories always inspire me. I have spent much of my life longing to be a person of absolute and unwavering devotion to principle, and too often failing to be that person (although I continue to long, ardently, and continue to fail as well). But what I wish I had somehow understood, particularly before my mission, was that while it’s always correct to Stand For Truth and Righteousness, Truth and Righteousness simply won’t always coincide with the instructions that come out of the mouths of one’s local–or even general–priesthood leaders. (And, for that matter, that it’s really quite unfair to expect any human being to be above error.) My failure to make that distinction, a distinction I acknowledge is usually far from evident, has sometimes cost me a lot of self-doubt, frustration, and misery.
For example: it’s now patently obvious to me that I should have bowed quietly out of seminary and Young Women’s. Seminary especially made me miserable. I had little to say to the other youth, and I struggled and struggled to believe some of the more ridiculous things I was taught there. But I heard only one official explanation for my misery: if you don’t like a church program, something’s wrong with you. Try harder. Have a better attitude. Repent. Suppress your unseemly objections, and make more of an effort to fit in. I never quite managed to seriously entertain the possibility that if I didn’t like a church program, there might be something wrong with the church program. Or, far more likely, the church program and I just weren’t a good fit for each other, and each of us would simply be happier without the other. That a separate peace might be made with church programs, and further, that extensive self-flagellation over one’s failure to thrive in them is a waste of time and emotional energy. Instead I alternately reveled in and despaired over my evidently congenital propensity for apostasy. As an adult, it’s been an enormous release from guilt and self-doubt to realize, for example, that under most circumstances Enrichment Night simply isn’t for me, and under no conceivable circumstances is Pursuit of Excellence ever likely to be for me. Except as a metaphysical exercise, there’s no need to work out whose “fault” it is, the program’s or mine. I can just quietly not participate, at considerable gain to my spiritual life and peace of mind.
In mission life the stakes were much higher, since they involved people’s souls. The pressure for numbers was relentless. For a long time I found myself locked in the same dynamic: on some level I knew that the programs the APs foisted on us every several months were fairly ridiculous. But the lurking doubt that my distaste was just evidence of my congenital apostasy persisted. It wasn’t until my last area that I found the confidence to disagree with one of the APs over the way a particular sister had been taught and baptized–in haste, in violation of several of the church’s guidelines, and just in time for the “miracle” of our mission achieving exactly the 150 baptisms that had been our collective goal for the year. I still feel good about the way I was able to express my disagreement to the AP, who was an utterly sincere if somewhat overzealous young man. I wasn’t angry. I was calm and collected but clear: the sister shouldn’t have been baptized, and I wasn’t about to pressure anyone else in her family into baptism. We walked away from the conversation disagreeing about the situation, but with no hard feelings, I think.
At the end of his podcast about what we might call the “soccer” baptisms he witnessed in Guatemala, John Dehlin speaks of the need to inoculate missionaries against such abuses of the gospel, to teach missionaries to trust their own consciences. The danger of an authority structure that’s so nearly absolute is that it can so easily begin to erode people’s very souls in this way, corrupt them into doubting or denying their own deepest, most sacred knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil.
Let me hasten to add that I have no interest in rebellion for rebellion’s sake. I’ve long since come to the conclusion, as I suspect most people who stick with the Church have to, that the vast majority of what my general and local leaders ask me to do is, at the very least, spiritually harmless. I shrugged and took out my second earring when the directive came down, although I sincerely doubt that a second earring is going to lead me to damnation. But I consider such acts, which cost my conscience nothing, an important part of the price I pay for the inevitable occasional moments of spiritual civil disobedience, when it is wrong, really wrong, to do as one’s told. These constant, harmless obediences are a demonstration of my loyalty, a demonstration I feel is necessary to those moments when I have to no choice but to defy or dissent.
So when we teach good Sister Molly to Stand For Truth and Righteousness, let’s also teach her that the bad kids with the pot might who want her to sell her soul for a mess of pottage might someday appear in the guise of her zone leaders, her Mormon peers, or her bishop.
Stand for Truth and Righteousness, Molly. Do what is right, let the consequence follow. The price of acting against conscience and surrendering self-respect, even to as worthy an institution as the Church itself, is simply far too high.
- 14 June 2007