A few years ago, a friend of mine from Israel came to church with me. He was curious about Mormonism, and he happened to come on – you guessed it – a Fast Sunday. I prepared him ahead of time for the likelihood of congregants offering unusual personal stories from the pulpit, thinking that by doing so I was covering most of my bases. It ended up being a pleasant enough meeting, mostly filled with streams of little kids getting up and being cute in front of the microphone. I felt a certain amount of relief heading into Sunday School for the second hour.
This was a large, well-attended ward in Utah County. The Sunday School was packed, and it was clear from the lack of a set time for visitor introductions that few visitors came. No one knew there was a non-Mormon in their midst. And then the Sunday School teacher, an older gentleman, began to talk about the Holy Land and the Last Days. As he built up steam I found myself shrinking down in my seat and doing a literal facepalm. The teacher was nice enough, and obviously sincere. But his lengthy diatribe made it quite clear that he was not as informed on these matters as he apparently thought. My friend kept silent, and then turned and stared at me, his eyes bulging, as the teacher exclaimed:
“Those people just don’t understand who they are! There is so much ignorance! That’s why they’re so wicked, and why we need to help them understand just how important and special they are!”
It was one of the first times I’d really listened to, really taken in, that common, utterly Mormon phrase. In the context of a Sunday School lesson with an Israeli present it was ironic to say the least: my friend, like all Jewish Israelis, had grown up in a school system with a rigorous curriculum of instruction in Jewish history from antiquity to the present, including subjects ranging from the Hebrew Bible to modern Israeli history. He was unquestionably far more knowledgeable than our Sunday School teacher. And as the grandchild of a man who fled to Israel from Belorussia – the only member of an entire village to escape the gas chambers – my friend was more than shocked to hear himself sweepingly characterized as wicked and ignorant (but also special and important).
Since then I’ve come to pay attention whenever I hear someone say “if you only understood who you are” in Mormon contexts. It seems to come up most often in discussions of gender roles and women. “If you only understood your role as a woman, you would be content/pacified/happy.” I can’t help but wonder – what, exactly, is not understood here? What does the speaker know that the hearer does not?