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5/26/15

WWJD?


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 I’ve seen a lot of statements recently from Mormons frustrated by the upswing in activism and attempts at reformation by other members of the LDS Church. These same people are also generally supportive of the recent excommunications or disciplinary councils for members like Taylor Knuth-Bishop, (gay, married Mormon) Marisa and Carson Calderwood, (apostasy, not literal believers) or Kirk and Lindsay Van Allen (rejected polygamy as reveled in D&C 132.) For these members, it makes sense for the church to excommunicate people who openly disagree with key doctrines in the church. After all,

“Why should the church have to change to suit the needs of a few people?”

“God’s laws are unchanging! We can’t bend God’s will just to suit what is popular in modern society!”

I understand the frustration. If the church works for you and makes you happy, it can be hard to empathize with people who don’t feel the same way. Furthermore, if you feel like the excommunicated people are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the church, you may ask yourself:

“Why should they want to be a member anyway? Why remain in an organization that you don’t agree with?”

I’m not a religious scholar, so forgive me when I offer an answer that seems overly simple. But here are two theologically-based reasons for why a Christian-identifying Church shouldn’t excommunicate people, and why a Christian church should change, not only to accept ideas that are popular in modern society, but also to accommodate the needs of only a few people:

1.       It’s what Jesus wouldn’t do.
2.       It’s what Jesus would do.

1. When John Dehlin and Kate Kelly first announced they were facing church disciplinary councils and excommunication, my friend Jana Reiss wrote a great post titled “An in-depth look at every individual excommunicated by Jesus in the scripture.” Short answer? Jesus did not excommunicate people.

In fact, Jesus broke or bent the rules of his own religious tradition to accommodate those who were often excluded or socially excommunicated the sick, the “sinners” and the otherwise “unclean.” It seems that even if Jesus thought the person was sinning, he still wanted them as part of his flock. He saved the adulteress, healed the sick woman on the Sabbath, and he encouraged his disciples to “feed my sheep,” even the sheep who seemed lost or disobedient. It is hard to heal the sick, feed the sheep, or forgive the sinner if you have excommunicated them from your congregation.

This is usually when Mormons tell me that even though Jesus saved the adulteress woman from being stoned, he still exhorted her to “go and sin no more.” Somehow, this is seen as justification for punishing those who do not believe correctly, because like the adulteress, members who contradict church teachings are sinning, and need to be told to stop.

 And yet, when Jesus speaks to the adulteress, he places the burden of repentance on the woman, not her religious community. He does not instruct the church members to make sure she doesn’t sin anymore. It’s up to her, and up to Jesus to forgive her. Jesus deliberately intervened against those who would punish her according to religious law in order to set a new precedent: sins are resolved between God and the individual. A religious community should foster and strengthen the relationship between a sinner (and we are all sinners) and God, not sever the relationship as a punishment for sins. In fact, it seems pretty blasphemous to this admittedly heathen Mormon to assume human men can do better than Jesus.

What about when Jesus cleansed the temple? Isn’t that setting a precedent that the unrighteous or contradictory need to be cleansed from our places of worship?  Upon further reflection, it seems Jesus only gets at all militant and starts breaking out the scourges when people do things that actively prevent others from seeing God. The merchants in the temple were preventing worship, and keeping others from God, I’d say forcibly removing someone from their congregation has a similar effect. But again, openly heathen retired Mormon, here.  

Furthermore, I recently read a sermon called “Breaking the Rules” by Kevin Ruffcorn. In citing times where Jesus broke with religious tradition, namely the time Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath; he notes that the Savior broke the rules to set people free. Not just the sick, but also the synagogue leaders held in bondage by traditions that kept people from God.  According to Luke, when Jesus healed the sick woman, the leader of the synagogue was humiliated and angry, but the people surrounding him rejoiced at the miracles occurring around them. It seems Jesus was okay changing a rule to fit with popular opinion, and even okay with the religious authorities feeling a little humiliated by their strict devotion to authoritarian practice. This seems opposite of how the Mormon Church functions now, in which religious leaders humiliate and isolate the individuals the Savior would run to.

2.  So what would Jesus do? Why should the church change and accept people with beliefs seemingly in conflict with what the church teaches?

Jesus would change the rules to be more inclusive of others.  Mormons are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, it’s a parable used to teach us to be kind to the sick and the needy. A few weeks ago, my mom gave a Family Home Evening lesson on the Good Samaritan, and it seems as though Mormonism often skims over some significant parts of the story.

The traveler who helps the Good Samaritan may or may not have been Jewish.  But if he was Jewish, he would have been raised to reject the Samaritan. Not because the Samaritan and Jewish people necessarily held dramatically different beliefs, but because they held different interpretations of the same beliefs. Samaritans believed their scriptures were the only word of God, and Jewish people believed their scriptures were the true word. Furthermore, Samaritans married outside the tribes of Israel, making them sinners in the eyes of the Jews.

But they still worshiped the same God, and obeyed the same basic commandments.

 I’d say the same is true for many of the Mormons currently facing disciplinary actions. Regardless of their orthodoxy, the excommunicated members did not choose to leave themselves; they saw something in Mormonism still worth identifying with. Rejecting them via church discipline mirrors the behavior of the Priest and the Levite in Christ’s allegory, not the Samaritan.

Growing up, it was hard to understand why the Priest and the Levite would not help the injured traveler. I think Mormons are taught to believe we have evolved past this. I don’t know a single Mormon who wouldn’t stop and help someone physically hurt on the side of the road. But I don’t think that was what Jesus meant.

Jesus wanted people who believed in God in different ways to interact with each other. He wanted them to see each other as neighbors. He wanted to end the tradition of Jews and Samaritans as seeing one another as “unclean” for believing in God differently. Jesus wanted the contradictory ideas to exist side by side. When Mormons applaud the excommunication of members, who in their eyes (and in the eyes of church leadership) don’t believe in the right way, they are ignoring the counsel of Christ. So yes, I’d say Jesus would be okay with making changes to the church, even accepting opinions of the minority in order to achieve greater unity. He placed the hated Samaritan in a position of power and grace, not a position of excommunication for breaking the rules.

But wait! If we just let everyone believe what they want, and don’t excommunicate them, and we start to accept beliefs and changes based on “popular culture” won’t the church have to accept bestiality and child abuse and kicking puppies and eating babies? Isn’t God’s house one of order?

Sure, but the thing is, Jesus already clarified on the nature of the two greatest commandments: Love God, and love one another. Now some people may identify different ways to love God, and each other, but as I already mentioned, I think Jesus is okay with that. I also believe people are inherently good, and won’t start up an online petition to allow puppy kicking in the LDS temples, or podcasting baby recipes. And if they do, I’ll eat my hat. But so far, the changes I see advocated for by the excommunicated members of the church stem from a desire to be good, authentic and honest, and in the case of LGBTQ and women's rights, a desire to stand with "the least of these." You can disagree with me, but I don’t think you (or anyone) should excommunicate me, or the people like me.

Because in the end I don’t believe the people who advocate for LGBT rights, or believe “apostate” doctrines are sinning. I don’t think I am sinning for following my conscience and leaving the church. But I do think there are ways to be a believing, orthodox Mormon, and to disagree with members who are different, and even believe they are making a mistake, and STILL reject the idea of excommunication as theologically sound.  Mormonism identifies itself as a religion of progression, it claims to believe all things, and hope all things, and be in a place of active listening for further revelation and insight.

I guess that means I have something in common with the Mormons frustrated by their “apostate” peers. Excommunication, disciplinary councils, and exclusion seem contradictory to the teachings of the church I was raised in. I guess I’m even asking the same questions disgruntled Mormons ask:

Why would you want to be Christian if you don’t believe in doing what Christ taught? Why would you want to believe in a Savior and redeemer if you don’t want to feed his sheep, heal his sick, and forgive his sinners?  

If the presence of “apostates” in your church bothers you so much, why don’t you just form a new church? (Maybe one with a fancy Rameumpton?) Why don’t you just leave? 

If you answer has something to do with your testimony, or what feels right, or what you know to be true, how hard is it to extend that grace to your siblings in Christ who believe differently, or even not at all?

It’s very frustrating indeed.  


Anyway.


I’m not sure why I felt compelled to write the most Jesus-centric post of my entire blogging career. I’m actively seeking peace in my post-Mormon life. I’m not a literal or orthodox believer in any significant way. But something about the sanctity of my doubts makes me want to protect those who walk this road with me. Maybe that's enough.