The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
Dealing With Spiritual Abuse
“Dealing with Spiritual Abuse” was originally a presentation given at the Sunstone Theological Symposium in August 1992.
[p.109]I have not borne my testimony on fast Sunday in church for well over a decade. I don’t know why: reticence, frustration, disappointment, small children underfoot, perhaps grief or a rapid succession of painful paradigm shifts. But at the outset I have decided to make a public statement of my religious beliefs because it may help clarify why I have concluded that an organization like the Mormon Alliance is urgently needed in the Mormon community. (The Mormon Alliance was organized in 1992 as a non-profit corporation to counter defamation of and spiritual abuse in the church.)
I believe that I exist, that you exist, and that we inhabit a cosmos ordered upon principles that are complex, obscure, maddeningly elusive, and in a state of flux. I believe the natural world I experience with my senses is real, but that its exact nature lies beyond human sensory capacity, even when enhanced by technology. I believe we humans and our understandings are limited and imperfect. I believe that, for the [p.110]foreseeable future, we must content ourselves with perceptions of truth rather than with truth itself.
Because I believe we exist, it is easy for me to believe that God exists. Our existence makes probable the existence of other intelligent beings. If there is one intelligent being, and another more intelligent, there is probably another more intelligent than the first two. The most intelligent of all these is God. This is not proof, I know. For this reason I sometimes doubt the reality of the spiritual world and life after death. I am a child of my generation. I have existential angst. My doubts, though, are mostly emotional. At bottom I believe in life after death because I have experienced life before death. To me eternal life seems no more amazing than mortal life; and the reality of immortal souls, no more implausible than the reality of mortal bodies.
I believe in an other-dimensional, spiritual realm that is co-extensive with the natural. The two are intertwined and interdependent. The natural world gives shape to the spiritual, while the spiritual gives life to the natural. They relate to each other like blood to the body, like oxygen to the blood. I believe this not because I have seen into the spiritual world with my natural eyes, but because I have seen into myself. The kingdom of God is within each of us. Our access to the spiritual world is primarily through our own being. The way to the spirit world is not upward, but inward. Of course, there is no proof of this either. Proof is natural and outward. I believe in proof, when I can get it. But I also believe in experience. We experience the spiritual world when we think, or calculate, or discern, when we respond to beauty or truth, when we suffer or doubt, when we love or hate, when we dream, and even when we despair. I despair sometimes because I cannot know the spiritual world as I know the natural, but neither can I know that natural world as I do the [p.111]spiritual. The natural world seems to me so real and yet so meaningless, while the supernatural world seems so unreal and yet so full of significance.
I believe the most significant element of the spiritual world is God; and I believe the most significant aspect of God is that God did not choose to be insulated from the natural world. This is why I am a Christian: I believe that God entered the world with all its pain and limitations in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He is Lord and Savior. He atoned for our sins and loves us in our sins and imperfections and was willing to make himself less than we are so that we could be made equal to God. I accept without reservation the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am not ashamed of it. I believe also in the existence of a goddess, a female counterpart to Christ, a Bride of the Bridegroom. She is his equal. She too descended to earth to be our constant companion, to mourn with us, comfort us, reprove us, inspire us, bring us into a newness of life, and lead us into all truth. This Lord and Lady are equal partners in our creation, redemption, and exaltation. The purpose of existence is to know them as we are known by them and to share with them eternal life. With divine help mortals are capable of becoming like them. I believe this because we have longings to be good and fair and just and merciful, even if we cannot perfectly achieve these things. Some people have made the journey to spiritual maturation and have entered into the presence of God. I believe in angels and devils, in spirits good and bad. I believe some angelic beings visit the earth and live among us as mortals to share our pains and griefs. I believe heraldic angels sometimes visit mortals with personal messages and with messages for others. Some people are born with the gift to perceive the supernatural world.
I believe Joseph Smith was one of these people—a man gifted and flawed, spiritual and natural, careless and caring, [p.112]passionate and aloof, known for good and evil. I believe he saw angels who conferred on him spiritual power and authority by which he revealed the mind and will of God through scriptural texts. Taken together, these texts proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ with clarity and set forth a cosmogony, cosmology, angiology, sotetiology, and eschatology that is as rich as it is undervalued.
I believe people are called of God to their spiritual convictions. Some are called to one religion, some to another, and some to none at all. Some have the gift to believe; others have the gift to be skeptics. Some are called by birth; others, by rebirth. All are precious in the sight of God. Each is deserving of the understanding and respect of the others. For those called by birth or rebirth to be Latter-day Saints, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true and living church on the face of the whole earth. This is not to deny the truths to which God has called others, nor to assert that the LDS church is above criticism, it is only to reaffirm the truths to which God has called us Mormons.
I believe in the restoration of the priesthood and of the church and in the gift of apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, and teachers. I believe that the church is good and is capable of greater good, and that God has called Latter-day Saints, leaders and members, to repent and forgive, to be vulnerable to pain and reproach without responding in kind, and to bring good out of evil. I believe in the spiritual efficacy of the ordinances of the gospel, the endowment, the sealings, the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, and in vicarious ordinances for the dead.
I believe in the fruits and gifts of the spirit and that all these blessings have been given to the Latter-day Saints to help us build Zion—a true community that eschews selfish-[p.113]ness lust, greed, elitism, self-righteousness, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and authoritarianism and is founded upon the principles of justice, fairness, mercy, equality, truth, and charity—the mutual, reciprocal, and unconditional love of God. I believe in the institutions of church and state and that they should (1) guarantee to all individuals the right to develop their gifts, characteristics, talents, dignity, person-hood, and potentials, (2) restrict the arbitrary use of power upon any individuals or institutions, and (3) encourage the growth and development of voluntary communities based upon free and open covenants. In the words of my friend Fred Voros, I believe that baptism washes away our sins, not our rights. I believe it is consistent with my faith as a Christian and a Mormon to write and speak my views, to disagree even with my leaders, and to state my dissent and my reasons therefor and, if I am ignored, to raise my voice, to express my distress or indignation, and even to resort to sarcasm and satire. I believe in this because I love Mormonism and want to see it flourish. I have made this statement because I wish to show that I have worked to resist spiritual abuse and to assist its victims not as an outsider, but as a believing Mormon.
Cardinal among my beliefs is that unrighteous dominion, spiritual abuse, theological correctness, and ecclesiastical tyranny are utterly repugnant to the teachings of Jesus Christ, to the assumptions and aspirations of the restoration, and to the goals and objectives of the LDS church. In saying this I do not indulge a juvenile idealism that lusts for human perfection. I am not talking about personal human foibles. I have already said that I believe in human limitations and imperfections and in the need to repent and forgive. I condemn not people but bad principles, not our heritage but false traditions, not our leaders but un-[p.114]wholesome teachings, damaging expectations, and unjust procedures that tend to create a climate of intimidation and to justify spiritual abuse.
I have used the term “spiritual abuse” both in the title and text of these remarks. I learned that term from a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. The authors are Christian ministers. Their book is not about Mormonism, but about spiritual abuse in Protestantism. Without intending to do so, these authors describe with disturbing accuracy many abusive practices of the LDS church. The authors, unfortunately, do not provide a reliable, formal definition of spiritual abuse. However, Margaret Toscano, Fred Voros, and James Gardner (my nephew) have helped to create such a definition.
The short version is this: Spiritual abuse is the persistent exercise of power by spiritual or ecclesiastical leaders in a way that serves the demands of the leaders to the detriment of the members. The long version is more complex, but necessary if spiritual abuse is to be distinguished from mere insults, violence, or other forms of hurt. Spiritual abuse is the persistent exploitation by spiritual or ecclesiastical leaders in a religious system of an imbalance of power between the leaders and the followers, whereby the leaders maintain control through the exercise of their authority without adequate accountability by taking actions, making definitions, creating rules, or rendering judgments that are unfair, unequal, and nonreciprocal, while taking advantage of or promoting the inexperience, ignorance, fear, confusion, weakness, or delusion of the followers, in order to perpetuate the power imbalance and thereby gratify temporarily the demands of the leaders or the perceived interests of the ecclesiastical institution to the detriment and at the expense of the spiritual needs, rights, entitlements, dignities, or empow-[p.115]erment of the followers. Let me illustrate these generalities with some specifics.
Legalism, or performance preoccupation. The most spiritually abusive behavior or attitude identified by Johnson and VanVonderen is legalism, or performance preoccupation. Legalism is a form of religious perfectionism that focuses on the careful performance of some behaviors and the careful avoidance of others. Religiously legalistic people feel that spirituality is the payment we receive for doing good works, rather than a gift from God which empowers us to do good works. The problem with legalism is that (a) it emphasizes material or visible success and outward respectability rather than holiness, (b) it values image over individual or community spirituality, (c) it leads people to view God not as a loving Savior, but as a relentless taskmaster, never satisfied, vindictive, distant, and intolerant of even the slightest mistake, (d) it promotes the judgment of others’ performance rather than personal repentance, and (e) it can cause leaders to promote statistically verifiable works to justify continued use of compulsory means.
Power posturing. Johnson and VanVonderen write: “Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. This is necessary because their spiritual authority isn’t real—based on genuine godly character—it is postured” (63-64). This is an obvious problem in the LDS church, where the watch-cry is no longer “Holiness to the Lord,” but “Follow the Brethren.” The over-emphasis on obedience to church leaders, if continued unabated, will eclipse personal revelation, personal responsibility, and personal devotion, and will eventually end in a leadership that is out of touch with reality or corrupted by special privilege.
Shaming. Shaming is another spiritually abusive [p.116]technique. It includes name calling, belittling, put downs, comparing the abused unfavorably with others, and wrongful and unjustified discipline. The most memorable example of this technique I can recall occurred when Apostle Bruce R. McConkie went to Brigham Young University and, in an address delivered to 12,000 or so students and faculty, publicly denounced certain passages of George Pace’s book on developing a personal relationship with Christ. Elder McConkie gave no prior warning of his intentions, made no prior attempt to work things out privately with Brother Pace, engaged in no prior discussions to understand Brother Pace’s message. Elder McConkie merely shamed Brother Pace before his peers and students, not by name, but in such a way that there could be no doubt who was meant. Although I have been told by more than one insider that Brother McConkie later expressed regret for this incident, he never apologized publicly; and George Pace has born the scars of this humiliation for years. This is an act of spiritual abuse, but no more so than shaming people by calling them apostates, anti-Mormon, or enemies of the church, when there is neither basis in fact nor justifiable reason to do so.
Secretiveness: Johnson and VanVonderen say, “When you see people in a religious system being secretive—watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate” (78). This is not to gainsay the need for confidentiality with respect to personal finances, health, family issues, and victimless transgressions, so long as the confidentiality is intended to protect the member. In Mormonism, however, secretiveness, especially with respect to such community issues as our history, our finances, and the deliberations of the church’s governing councils is legendary. Church leaders wrongly justify secretiveness for public relations reasons—to protect the good name or image of the [p.117]church; or leaders, expressing a patronizing view, insist that members be treated like children and given “milk before meat,” even if they are sick to death of milk and are dying for meat and potatoes.
The demand for “Peace and Unity.” True peace and unity are important spiritual values. But, to quote Johnson and VanVonderen: “experiencing true peace and unity does not mean pretending to get along or acting like we agree when we don’t” (90). Pseudo-community is a term used by Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) to refer to false communities in which people hide their concerns and disagreements behind masks of courtesy and respectability (86-90). False peace-keepers are those who encourage others to get along while preventing them from dealing with the fundamental issues that are pulling them apart. A true peace-maker is one who faces conflict, not one who covers it up. For real peace to happen, there must be more than a truce; the real reason for hostilities must be addressed, grievances must be aired, knowledge and understanding of the opposing positions must be acquired, and then there must be change, repentance and forgiveness on all sides, followed finally by healing and genuine community. This can not happen if false peace-keepers hinder the process by covering up the problems.
Unspoken rules. Another quote from the book: “In abusive spiritual systems, people’s lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families, but are not said out loud” (67). In our church we have unspoken rules: We cannot say the prophet is too old. We cannot ask how much our leaders are paid. We will not hear told in general conference any stories about the historical practice of polygamy. The existence of unspoken rules is abusive because it [p.118]engenders hypocrisy: we claim allegiance to one set of values, but we live by another.
In one case, the enforcement of an unspoken rule ended in the excommunication of an individual who challenged the stake president’s mistaken understanding of common consent. The church law of common consent, as set forth in the revelations (D&C 20:60-67; 26:2; 28; 38:34-35; 41:9-11; 42:11; 102:9; 124:124-145) entitles members to vote any leader in and out of church office, regardless of whether the leader was called by revelation. But an unspoken rule of the church is that one is never to vote no, unless one has specific knowledge of wrongdoing, usually a sexual transgression, on the part of the leader whose name is presented. The stake president excommunicated this member for exercising his right to vote no without such specific knowledge, while apparently unaware of the teachings of church president Joseph F. Smith given in general conference in 1904:
We desire that the Latter-day Saints will exercise the liberty wherewith they have been made free by the gospel of Jesus Christ; for they are entitled to know the right from the wrong, to see the truth and draw the line between it and error; and it is their privilege to judge for themselves and to act upon their own free agency with regard to their choice as to sustaining or otherwise those who should exercise the presiding functions among them. We desire the Latter-day Saints at this conference to exercise their prerogative, which is, to vote as the Spirit of the Lord prompts them on the measures and the men that may be presented to them (in Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971], 48).
[p.119]The “Can’t Talk” rule. One particularly abusive unspoken rule deserves special mention: the “Can’t Talk Rule,” which may be stated best this way: If you bring up a problem, you become the problem (68). This rule contradicts the main assumption of the Restoration: if we are to receive greater light and knowledge, we must seek it. If Joseph Smith had not asked God which church was right, there would have been no Mormonism. Revelations come when they are sought. When people raise problems and issues, they are just asking questions. They are not denying authority; they are asking authority to do its job. And the answers authorities give do not end the discussion. They merely turn it in new directions and raise fresh questions. This is quite tedious work, and the best way to avoid it is to ignore questions, deny problems, and scapegoat those who raise them. This is effective, but highly abusive.
Other techniques. Johnson and VanVonderen list a number of other abusive techniques: the misuse of scripture, the demand that wives submit to husbands, the requirement that members just forgive and never confront abusers, the advice simply to ignore rather than deal with the past, the admonition to make checklists of dos and don’ts, the tactic of “bait and switch,” and the technique of “triangulation” by which accusers refuse to confront the accused directly but only through some mediator. The authors also deal at length with the problem of false authority—authority based solely on ecclesiastical office and unrelated to love, truth, and spirituality.
Ecclesiastical tyranny. In addition to these abuses, some Mormons endure what I call ecclesiastical tyranny—the failure or refusal of church leaders to apply principles of fairness and due process in church administration or church courts, now called “disciplinary councils.” The rules governing these [p.120]councils are found in two places: the revelations (D&C 42, 102, 107, 121, 134) and in the church’s General Handbook of Instructions. Unfortunately the procedural protections provided in the revelations are undermined in important ways by certain directives of the Handbook.
According to Doctrine and Covenants 102, members when disciplined by a high council are entitled to one-half the council to insure that the accused is not subjected to insult or injustice (v. 15). Two or more high councilors are to present the evidence (v. 13). The accused is entitled to an impartial judge (v. 20). The evidence is to be examined in its true light (v. 16). In cases where doctrine is at issue, the decision must be based on “sufficient writings”; if the case cannot be disposed of by this recourse, the president may seek revelation on the doctrine (v. 23). However, no person is ever to be judged by evidence obtained by revelation (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 214). The general principles that govern the admissibility of evidence in a court of law apply in a disciplinary council, which includes the right of accuser, accused, and high councilors to call, examine, and cross-examine witnesses (Gospel Doctrine, 40; Juvenile Instructor 37 [15 Feb. 1902]: 114). Accuser and accused have the right to make closing statements (w. 16-18). The stake presidency has the responsibility of formulating a tentative decision (v. 19), but only the high council can render that decision final by a majority vote (v. 92). The accused has a right to have the decision reconsidered (vv. 20-21) and, after reconsideration, to appeal the final decision to the First Presidency of the church (v. 26). If the accused is still not satisfied, Doctrine and Covenants 107 establishes a right of appeal to the general assembly of the priesthood quorums of the church (v. 32). From this there is but one more appeal, to the president of the High Priesthood plus twelve high priests [p.121]acting as a court of last resort (v. 80). There are special procedures for trying a president of the church or of the high priesthood (vv. 32, 82, 83). No person is exempt from these procedures nor can they by any means be abridged (v. 84).
I believe these procedures, when coupled with adequate notice and opportunity to prepare a defense, are sufficient to protect members from abuse in any disciplinary context. However, a number of the directives of the General Handbook of Instructions undermine these procedures. I will review only the most glaring procedural contradictions and problems.
Perhaps most disturbing is the tradition, reinforced by the Handbook, of according to Melchizedek priesthood holders the full procedural protections of scripture by ensuring them a hearing before the stake high council, while relegating non-Melchizedek priesthood holders, including adult women, to the less formal and less procedurally protected jurisdiction of the bishop’s court. But even in a high council court setting the procedural protections of the revelations have been seriously eroded by the Handbook.
Another directive (Handbook, 10-2) requires the stake president or bishop to investigate the case. This directive conflicts with the requirement that the president or bishop be a judge and with the revelation of Doctrine and Covenants 102 that the judge be impartial. How can the judge be impartial if he is to weigh the evidence he himself has gathered? These directives require the bishop or stake president to act simultaneously in the conflicting roles as policeman, accuser, prosecutor, and judge—all of which are at odds with his role as pastor.
The Handbook (10-2) allows a bishop or stake president to ignore all the procedural safeguards if informal rather that than formal discipline is chosen by the leader. Informal discipline includes: private counsel/caution and informal [p.122]probation, which can include indefinitely prohibiting the member from partaking of the sacrament, from holding church position, from attending the temple, from holding a temple recommend, etc. This directive does not protect a member from a bishop or stake president who may impose any of these deeply punitive sanctions unrighteously, or without adequate cause, or without sufficient evidence, or for improper reasons; nor does it take into account that members so disciplined are given no procedural recourse to correct abuses of the system.
Another directive prohibits bishops and stake presidents from giving to an accused member any specific information about the evidence that will be brought against the member in the disciplinary council (Handbook, 10-6). Moreover, the accused’s witnesses may not attend the hearing together (10-7), while the accusers (who are often the members of the bishopric, stake presidency, or high council) are not prohibited from acting in concert against the accused. Other directives remove the final decision from the majority of the high council and rest it solely with the president of the stake (10-8), who, especially in cases of apostasy, is the individual usually bringing the charges.
The Handbook is at odds with the revelations, in part, because a confusion exists between the judicial functions of a high council and the governing functions of the Council of the Twelve. Though unanimity is required of the Twelve in reaching their decisions (D&C 107:27), there is nothing in the revelations that requires unanimity in the judicial decisions of a high council. If the high council does not act unanimously, this does not mean inspiration is lacking. The revelations do not allow the stake president to use his authority to manipulate a unanimous decision. To do so would render the participation of the high council a formality. The [p.123]resident is of course entitled to inspiration, but he is not entitled to have the last word. Only a majority of the high council may express the mind of the Lord in a disciplinary council (D&C 102:22). Nor may the high councilors abdicate this responsibility. In a church disciplinary council, unity is not the objective. Truth is the objective. And the majority rules. It should be reversible error to interpose procedures that violate this process or ignore it.
Perhaps the most treacherous mechanism of spiritual abuse in Mormonism is the use of a distorted concept of apostasy to prevent members from expressing their religious views. The dictionary definition of “apostasy” is rebellion against God or abandonment of one’s faith. In the Old Testament it refers to Israel’s unfaithfulness to God (see Jer. 2:19; 5:6; c.f. Josh. 22:22; 2 Chr. 33:19). In the New Testament it refers to the abandonment of Christian faith (see Heb. 6:6). Elder Bruce R. McConkie defined “apostasy” in Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958) as the “abandonment and forsaking of … true principles” (41). All these are acceptable definitions for ordinary purposes, but no one of them could be used by a disciplinary council to determine if a member should be excommunicated or disfellowshipped. Many members lose or abandon their faith for various reasons. Some continue to attend church; others remain very involved with their faithful families and friends. Often we hold out hope that these individuals will return to full fellowship. Even though their “falling away” or “abandonment of faith” may technically be apostasy, church policy is, rightly, that they not be excommunicated, even if they join another (non-polygamist) church.
Excommunicable apostasy must be more than mere unbelief, more than disagreement, more even than dissension, contention, or opposition. To be excommunicable, apostasy [p.124]must be to one’s religion what treason is to one’s country. To avoid condemning as apostasy mere lack of faith or differences of opinion, the formal definition of excommunicable apostasy must be carefully drafted so it does not have too wide a sweep. Fred Voros and I developed the following proposed definitional language:
A member may be excommunicated for apostasy only upon proof of one or more of the following: (1) public renunciation of the divine authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when accompanied by the commission of one or more overt acts intended to destroy the church, its members, or its property; or (2) perpetration of any criminal or fraudulent act intended to injure the church, its members, its property, or its reputation; or (3) the knowing and unauthorized creation or procurement, in whole or in part, of a new marriage contract, the knowing and unauthorized performance or procurement of the endowment ceremony, the knowing and unauthorized conferral of and ordination to priesthood office, or setting apart to church office; or (4) support of the apostate activities defined above given with the intent to destroy the church.
The purpose of this definition is to allow for a member’s dissent, disagreement, disassociation, and even opposition, while permitting excommunication for only palpably injurious or destructive acts committed against the church. The proposal requires that excommunicable apostasy be proved by competent evidence, rather than by suppositions or feelings. Under part one of this proposal, a member could not be excommunicated simply for publicly or privately question-[p.125]ing or renouncing the church’s claim to truth, divine authority, or inspiration unless the member could be shown to have committed one or more overt acts intended to destroy the church, its members, or its property. Thus a member’s right to doubt, disagree, disbelieve, and dissent would be protected. However, if the renunciation element of the definition could not be proved, a member could, nevertheless, be excommunicated for perpetrating any criminal or fraudulent acts intended to injure the church, its members, its property, or its reputation. The injuries here, particularly to reputation, must be demonstrated and must result from a criminal or fraudulent act, but not a tortious one (for example, slander or libel). The purpose of this segment is to protect the church from the criminal or fraudulent activities of members claiming to accept the truth of the church, while protecting such members whose conduct falls short of crime or fraud. The third segment of the definition allows the church to excommunicate members, whether they accept or reject the divine authority of the church, if they either perform or procure an ordination, endowment, or marriage sealing without proper permission of the duly constituted leaders of the church. This allows the church to expel members who perform without permission those ordinances that create special relationships of authority and power within the structure of the church. Finally, to support, financially or otherwise, any of the aforementioned apostate activities with intent to destroy the church would also constitute proper grounds for excommunication.
This proposal is very different from the church’s current three-part definition found in the General Handbook of lnstructions—adefinition that authorizes excommunications for any reason or arguably no reason at all. Part one of the Handbook definition makes excommunicable as apostasy an “act in [p.126]clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders” (10-3). Thus a member who makes an open or public statement may be excommunicated as an apostate if the church or any one of its leaders (local, regional, or general) considers the statement to be in opposition to that leader’s views, even if the leader is acting in bad faith, illegally, under a mistake or misunderstanding, without proper authority, contrary to the established ordinances, revelations, or procedures of the church, or under circumstances where there is good reason for differences of opinion. This definition condemns as apostasy even courageous acts of faith, such as the open, deliberate, and loyal opposition of such individuals as Paul the apostle (Gal. 2:11-14), Samuel the Lamanite (3 Ne. 23), and even Jesus himself (Matt. 23).
Part two of the Handbook definition of excommunicable apostasy includes the “persistent teaching as Church doctrine of information that is not Church doctrine after members are corrected” by their bishops or high authority (10-3). Again the definition is too broad; for under it members who are merely mistaken or stubborn could be condemned as apostates. This is too harsh a punishment to impose upon persons who, though difficult, lack hostile intent and have committed no destructive acts. Moreover, much church doctrine is too elusive, inchoate, and controversial to serve as a standard for orthodoxy. Besides, the excommunication of mere dissenters would constitute an assault on personal liberty and a trespass on the human rights of members. Therefore, none of the following should be considered excommunicable apostasy: (1) speculating about church history, doctrine, or scripture; (2) maintaining, expressing, publishing, or speaking one’s dissenting opinions; (3) believing (not practicing) or teaching (not intentionally supporting the [p.127]practice of) a doctrine that is sincerely held, but questionable or even false (e.g., that there are people on the dark side of the moon and they dress like Quakers) or a doctrine that has been characterized by the church or its leaders as scripturally unsound, but which has historical, literary, or scientific support; (4) expressing personal differences with or even animosity toward church leaders—for to define the latter as apostasy is to value loyalty to church leaders over loyalty to God.
Part three of the Handbook definition condemns as excommunicable apostasy the “adherence by a member to the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by bishops or higher authorities” ( 10-3 ). This definition is impossibly vague. The word cult is essentially a slur; any religion can be called a cult. The LDS church is regularly defamed in this way by anti-Mormons. This definition would arguably make excommunicable a person’s membership in or support of a family if some of its members were polygamists. Excommunicable apostasy must be more than mere association in or involvement with a group. At the very least, it must be proved that the group is dedicated to the commission of specifically defined apostate acts; and then it must be shown that the accused member is a competent adult with control over his or her relationship to the group and is knowingly and intentionally involved as a supporter or perpetrator of its acts. To expel members without proving all of these elements is to promote a kind of Mormon McCarthyism—the punishment of people for mere associations that are either innocent, ill-advised, or coerced.
Why—in a church that has so much to offer and so many texts and traditions that contradict dominion, tyranny, and theological correctness—do we find so many examples of spiritual abuse? I believe the answer is faithlessness and fear.
[p.128]There is a growing tendency for church leaders to reinterpret and preach the gospel in legalistic and judgmental terms, thereby undermining the Saints’ faith in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ and his power to save. Moreover, there is fear—fear of impurity, fear of being contaminated with the things of the world, fear of being deceived, fear of displeasing God, fear of being persecuted or mocked. Our leaders, too, are afraid—afraid they will be held accountable for our sins, afraid they will fall short of their callings, afraid they will leave the church in worse condition than it was when it was put into their care.
These fears are very real. And to offset them, we anticipate our persecutors, our competitors, our detractors, and our critics. We try to avoid sin rather than to repent of it. We try to neutralize the effects of evil, real or imagined, even before the evil has occurred. We launch preemptire strikes. We engage in prior restraint.
In doing this we often objectify others, treating them as categories of evil rather than as individual persons with hopes and fears. In this way we manage to avoid their personhood altogether and deal with them as enemies, or apostates, or anti-Mormons, or liberals, right-wingers, fundamentalists, or intellectuals. Thus we nullify them as people. We do not have to be influenced by them. We do not have to consider what they say, or if they are in pain, or if we have caused that pain. We can just banish them from our world view altogether. We can make them nonpersons. As the Book of Mormon says, we “notice them not” (Morm. 8:39). This is a terrible temptation. Especially for a people who themselves have been objectified as enemies, non-Christian, cultist, foolish, and anti-intellectual. If Mormonism has become closed and repressive, it may be because it was the object of persecution and abuse. As D. Michael Quinn has observed about our [p.129]Mormon history, those who have been abused often grow to be abusive to others. If we perceive ourselves as victims, always victims, then we can always justify as self-defense our abusive treatment of others.
This is understandable but wrong. Those who have been abused in the past are only postponing the moment of their own healing by repaying those abuses with further abuse in the present. What we need is to understand our fears, our pain, our deep resentments and hurts—and the fears, pain, resentment, and hurts of others. Knowledge is the doorway to spirituality. It is to this end that God gives us spiritual gifts. Prophecy, revelation, instruction, inspiration, insight, even the gifts of healing and tongues were given, not to prove that we are right, but to give us understanding of ourselves and others, so that we might love others as we are loved by God. Fear arises upon ignorance. Love arises upon knowledge. Without knowledge and understanding there can be no love, no hope, no joy. Knowing others requires that we listen to them, respect them, deal with them injustice, fairness, mercy, compassion, and hope. Only in such climate can we open our hearts to each other. This is not to say that there is no place for anger or reproof or criticism, but these things must be mutual and reciprocal, and there must exist adequate procedures for dealing with dissent, disagreement, discord, and disputation. Power must never be used to favor one over another, only to assure a level playing for all. We need not be neutral, but we must be even-handed. The fact that we are full of passionate convictions should not disable us from accommodating the convictions and passions of others, even if they are quite different from our own. Every right we claim for ourselves, we must willingly accord to our detractors. And for every control we impose on others, we must be willing to have a like control imposed on us. Only by engaging in this [p.130]kind of reciprocity can we understand the wisdom of creating as few controls and prohibitions as possible in order to maximize self-determination, self-definition, and self-actualization. We must not interfere too much in the spiritual journeys of others. If we prevent people from making mistakes, we prevent them from spiritual growth. This is, in part, the meaning of Jesus’ statement: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Unfortunately, many of us are too hurt, too fearful, too exhausted even to desire understanding and knowledge. We can love those who are like us, but not those who are different. We are convinced that our pain and our sorrow is worse and our views, our assumptions, and our aspirations are better than anyone else’s. We defend our insularity, our xenophobia, our elitism, our narcissism as purity. In the name of keeping our doctrine pure, our church pure, our traditions pure, we ignore the pleas and criticisms of others and turn ever more inward, clinging ever more fiercely to our obsession that we, we few, we band of brothers, we alone are God’s chosen, we alone are his people, we alone are the elect. And thus, by imperceptible degrees are we led carefully into idolatry, in which we prize self-love above charity, self-help above sacrifice, self-aggrandizement above spirituality, self-atonement above Christ’s atonement, and self-praise above the praise of God.
I have said all this in other ways in other places. Talking about these things is important. We must continue to talk. But we must also act both to promote what is good and to oppose what is bad in Mormonism. And to this end the Mormon Alliance was organized as a non-profit corporation on 4 July 1992. The date has no political significance. It is not an organization about politics either of the left, the center, or the right. Its mission and purpose is to uncover, identify, [p.131]define, name, chronicle, resist, and even combat acts and threats of defamation and spiritual abuse perpetrated on Mormon individuals and institutions by Mormon and non-Mormon individuals and institutions. Within the Alliance there are four major divisions: the Reconciliation Committee, the Defense Committee, the Case Reports Committee, and the Common Consent Committee.
A. The Reconciliation Committee opens and maintains a correspondence with the leadership of the church on issues of importance to the Alliance.
B. The Defense Committee acts to contradict anti-Mormon sentiments and in a constructive way assist in defending the church, its leaders, and its members from libel, slander, and defamation by non-Mormon individuals or institutions.
C. The Case Reports Committee compiles, verifies, and publishes accounts of defamation and spiritual abuse and the courageous acts of individuals working to resist spiritual abuse.
D. The Common Consent Committee promotes principles of justice, fairness, even-handedness, equity, and due process in the treatment of Mormon individuals and institutions by other Mormon individuals and institutions.
The Mormon Alliance is about change. I believe in change. We are changed by birth, by life, by rebirth, and by death. Our eschatology tells us that when Christ comes the whole world order will be changed. I believe this too—the strange teaching that the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and that we shall all be changed. The yoke of the oppressor shall be lifted. The haughty shall be humbled, and the hearts of the hardened, broken. The old, corrupt world of greed, power, lust, and abuse, shall be made new again. The lamb and the lion shall lie down [p.132]together without any ire, and Ephraim be crowed with his blessings in Zion, and Jesus descend in his chariot of fire.
Yes, we shall all be changed. I believe the time for change is upon us. Those who choose now to advance it must be bold and courageous, willing to take risks, willing to suffer abuse, discouragement, and loss. Nevertheless, I believe that those who make this effort with purity of heart will have the blessing and help of the Almighty and will find, in the end, that they have played some small part in strengthening the Saints and in helping the church to receive the healing spirituality that today—in this hour of darkness—is our most pressing need.