I am a huge soccer enthusiast. I grew up playing in my neighborhood parks, at the nearby indoor soccer facility, and on my high school team. My dad would take me to Camp Randall stadium to watch the Wisconsin men’s team play on the hard Astroturf. Later, I served a mission in Brazil and played soccer on many P-days and for a few minutes most other days with the “moleques” in the street, trying to scoot their scuffed up balls into the homemade goals that would be hastily dragged to safety whenever a car came down the street. So of course, I loved the recent World Cup—that one time every four years when the world gathers to celebrate our global religion, and time almost stands still.
Turns out that I was not the only one strategically saving up sick days to stay home last month (cough, cough) in order to partake in this holy sporting communion. At By Common Consent, the religious fervor reached fever pitch on the World Cup thread, where gomez made a pithy comment that keeps racing nimbly around what my kids describe as the open spaces and empty vistas inside my skull: “Love football. Hate FIFA.”
Now FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (the British at first would not deign to join the world organization of the sport they created, thus the French name), runs the World Cup and in large part dictates the rules and organization of the entire sport on our planet. If soccer is the world religion, then FIFA is its church, and president Sepp Blatter, whose name sounds like that of a villain from the Hunger Games, is its high priest.
It may not surprise you to hear that FIFA is not well-loved by soccer fans. Recently, comedian John Oliver’s rant against FIFA went viral—clearly he struck a chord with fans as he described FIFA’s many misdeeds and missteps.
He explains the dissonance: “FIFA is awful, but the product they push is amazing…They’re basically Walter White…and the World Cup is blue meth.”
You might notice some disturbing parallels in what journalist Maggie Lin has to say:
“FIFA has been marred by valid accusations ranging from corruption and money laundering to media suppression and election rigging. Critics have called out FIFA…an immeasurable number of times on these controversies, but as a governing body without official subjects, FIFA needs to answer to no one.”
“In the midst of everything, FIFA has pulled its fair share of Big Brother moments in attempts at silencing its critics…However, with every World Cup FIFA tries to limit the freedom of journalists. And each time it tries, FIFA only attracts negative attention to itself.”
“[But] despite the allegations and controversy, FIFA is still the major ruling body of international football and the…World Cup is still one of the most anticipated events in the world.”
“FIFA does have something to worry about, though. If they are not careful, their legacy can be irreversibly tarnished. With the advent of the Internet and social media, it is becoming increasingly difficult for FIFA to hide behind its false do-good publicity stunts…”
“The thing is, FIFA does have the ability to be an actual force in change…However, due to the track record of current FIFA officials, it seems that the only way things will change is with the inauguration of a new crop of officials.”
Sound familiar? If you’ve spent any time with disaffected members you would not be surprised to hear something like this: “Love the gospel. Hate the Church.”
Let me say up front that this is obviously a flawed analogy. Unlike the leadership of FIFA, I do not believe that our church leaders are motivated by greed or power. That is not my experience. Personally, I have no doubt of their good intentions. But it is an explicit part of our doctrine that we should not trust in the arm of flesh. I am not aware that D&C 121 posits an exception for church leaders. All men (and presumably women) who have power are prone to unrighteous dominion—that means me and you and all of our church leaders. And, the more power we have, the more potential we have to misuse it. We—all of us—get things wrong, even when we’re trying to do right. Repeat after me: unrighteous dominion does not require malicious intent. That is why I worry about the parallels between FIFA and the Church.
Now for those of you who believe that the Church is exactly the way it should be, and that the status quo is self-justifying—if some policy or doctrine currently exists then it must come from God and therefore there must be a divine though perhaps mysterious reason for it—I’m not addressing you in this post. You are welcome to read the rest of what I say, but know that from here on out I am talking to other members and not to you.
Instead, I am talking to those members who believe that we–each of us—constitute the Church, and therefore are responsible for making the Church better. We need to ask ourselves if we are going to let the Church, in its well-meaning way, become like FIFA, where our dear Mormon friends leave and our dear non-Mormon friends never join with us because they love the gospel but they hate the Church.
For you and me, we must decide whether we are going to make our ward a place where people want to be. Do the visitors know they are welcome and do the strangers—those who seem foreign to our background and experience—feel loved? If they don’t, we need to take a hard look at ourselves. If our lessons are boring and our sacrament meetings are dull and lifeless, we damn well need to do something about it. We can share different perspectives, we can bear our testimonies, we can volunteer to perform musical numbers, we can prepare our lessons so that they engage and feed the soul. And if that doesn’t work, we can take our conversations to the halls, choosing to make our interactions warm and authentic. We are the Church.
For our local leaders, they can decide whether policy takes precedence over the person, whether counseling can give way to listening, whether the Church Handbook of Instructions speaks louder than the cries of pain from the members’ hearts, whether rules and church discipline trump inclusion and pastoral care.
For our General Authorities, they can decide to more actively acknowledge that revelation does not come in a vacuum, and they can resist the temptation to insist that policy changes are never made in response to “pressure”. A healthy organization listens, really listens, to its constituent parts—it does not cut itself off from critical feedback, like a brain severing itself from the spinal cord and nerve endings because it already knows what the body needs. I have yet to meet a leader at any level, including apostles, who professes to have a bat-phone to God. They need input from us. Revelation is not magical; it involves knowledge, reason, conversation, experimentation. We are taught that revelation comes by studying it out in our minds, and we cannot study what we have not allowed ourselves to be exposed to.
By doing these things we just might be able to change direction. We can become an institution that people can delight in just as they delight in the gospel. But to do so, we must look in the mirror and ask some hard questions.
Will we be known as the church whose policies confer second-class status on gays, the church that decides to die on the hilltop defending DOMA, rather than as the church that is dying to defend the downtrodden?
Will we be known as the church that persists in excluding women from full participation in church governance despite lacking doctrinal support for such exclusion?
Will we be known as the church that excommunicates sincere and committed dissenters, rather than as the church that hears their cries and provides balm for their wounds?
Will we be known as the church that spends on lavish shopping malls and luxury condominiums while refusing transparency in the disbursement of tithes and offerings, rather than as the church that is the model of financial openness and that gives lavishly to the poor, provides the luxury of shelter for the homeless, and disburses life-saving medical care for the sick?
I hope not. The product we push—the gospel—is amazing. It is the blue meth of religion, without the dreadful side effects. But many of our children and grandchildren will not give it a chance—their sense of justice and goodness, ironically, will keep them away—unless we each do our part to start redeeming the Church so that it does not continue down the road of becoming the religious equivalent of FIFA.