The Sanctity of Dissent
by Paul James Toscano
The Sanctity of Dissent
“The Sanctity of Dissent” was originally delivered to the B. H. Roberts Society in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 13 May 1993.
[p.133]I wish here to explain why I think dissent should be embraced by the church as holy—that is, inspired and ordained of God as necessary to the spiritual well-being of the church.
To dissent is to differ in sentiment or opinion, to disagree with the philosophy, methods, or goals of others, especially the majority. It is to withhold one’s assent. Dissent is almost always disruptive. It can be dangerous, even violent. There exist forms of dissent as acceptable as casting a ballot, as provocative as crossing a boundary, as intolerable as terrorism or hate crimes. Moreover, the purposes of dissent may range from the sublimely noble to the utterly contemptible. Clearly, a community need not endure every manifestation of dissent.
Nevertheless, dissent, in its essence, is holy. Jesus himself was a dissenter, and this fact alone hallows dissent. “Think not,” he said, “that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). The sword is asserted here not as a metaphor for physical violence, but as the cruciform symbol of opposition. The cutting edge of [p.134]contrary opinion can divide a complacent community, challenging its received wisdom and settled opinions. Actual physical confrontation, though sometimes necessary, is not essential. The essence of dissent—that is, dissent stripped of any specific form or context—is the fundamental right to disagree and to express that disagreement. In this essay when I speak of dissent, I mean this essential freedom of opposition. In the first part of this essay I will discuss ten reasons why I believe dissent is sacred; later I will show how dissent is further sanctified by the adoption of certain means and objectives.
Dissent is holy because without it there can be no consent. Consent is a voluntary meeting of the minds. It is the agreement of free individuals who share a perception of what is mutually beneficial or at least acceptable to them. Consent is meaningful only where dissent is permitted and protected. Consent draws its power from the possibility of dissent. Unless the consenting parties are free to dissent, their consent is without substance and pointless. Thus if dissent is proscribed, assent is illusory. Like a fascist election, it is a counterfeit—a fraud—because behind it there is no true accord. To eliminate dissent, then, is to curtail personal freedom, to forbid individuals from voicing their true opinions. It is to silence both their hopes and their fears. It is to force people to accept what they deem unacceptable, even harmful. By eliminating dissent, a community takes from its members the power to resist or contradict. It neutralizes opposition by abridging an individual’s right to protest, to object, to cry out in pain. Such a system is a prison in which every act of kindness may be an exploitation; and every act of love, a rape.
Dissent is holy because it is the backbone of individual freedom, the freedom from arbitrary compulsion. Any pro-[p.135]scription of dissent is an attack on this hallowed principle. Such attacks are being made by church leaders at all levels. The prevailing view of the current leadership is that we are free only to choose what is good. “After all,” the argument goes, “the commandments are clear. There are prophets to guide us. Why be free, when you can be right?” This is the most succinct summation of the salvation plan of compulsion scripturally attributed to Satan as I ever expect to hear.
Goodness, however, does not result from obedience, even obedience to someone good. It results from spiritual transformation, a change of heart, a rebirth. Goodness is personal spiritual maturity. We cannot mature spiritually if we are under compulsion, if we are required to yield to others the responsibility for our words and deeds. Goodness results from turning our hearts to God, from listening to the voice of God within our hearts, within the hearts of our family and friends, within the hearts of all the concerned members of our religious community. We cannot be free and slavishly follow a prescribed catechism. We cannot be organization men and women. We must work out our own salvation, not with smugness and certainty, but “with fear and trembling” (Philip. 2:12).
Dissent is holy because it is essential to salvation. Adam and Eve dissented in Eden as a necessary step toward spiritual growth. Christ’s dissent led him to the cross and beyond. A child dissents when he or she follows the scriptural admonition to “leave father and mother” (Gen. 2:24). An adult dissents whenever he or she exercises independent judgment or personal initiative. Jesus intended for us to dissent. He said,
I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daugh-[p.136]ter in law against her mother in law. A man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me (Matt. 10:35-38).
Hard words from the Prince of Peace. They mean that essential to salvation is the sacred freedom to dissent from the wisdom of the group—the family, the church, the state—in order to be true to the wisdom of God. Easy to say. That is why so many find it easier simply to consent, even when consent is cajoled or coerced. Many such members are fond of saying of the church to their dissenting brothers and sisters: “Love it or leave it.” These souls cannot accept the possibility that the church might be wrong, might be headed toward idolatry. But it can. It always has in the past. And it always will. The church is no purer than its members. It can sin. And it can also be corrected and improved, not just by leaders, but by members who take responsibility for its health, spirituality, and well-being. In defense of dissent, Brigham Young once said: “Now when I was an Elder I was as willing to correct an error in the Brethren as I am now. But the people do not see it so. Now if you should be with the 12 or any body you would have a right to correct an error as well as with a member but you could not correct them by cutting them off from the church because they are over you in the priesthood” (in Wilford Woodruff’s journal, 2 June 1857, LDS archives). The Doctrine and Covenants urges every member to cry repentance to his or her generation. What is such a cry, but the voice of dissent?
Dissent is holy because it is the root of personal responsibility and spiritual maturation. Without dissent, self-deter-[p.137]mination is not possible. Only those who are free to disagree with the prevailing views of the group can learn the full implications of their personal views. Only those free to dissent can fully take part in the decision-making processes that shape their lives and destinies. Only they, by participating in the governing decisions of the group, can experience spiritual and intellectual development. For this reason, dissent is an indispensable component of every moral organization dedicated to the empowerment and salvation of the individual. A system that punishes dissent thwarts personal growth, perpetuates childishness, and promotes arrested adolescence. It will come, eventually, to value compliance and obedience above the personal sanctity of its members. In such a system individuals will be valued only if they repress their personal spiritual insights in the interest of conformity. Those who do not or cannot comply will be scapegoated or marginalized. Such a system will urge or even compel its members to live by principles they do not truly value and to submit to values they do not truly accept. Inevitably such a system will become joyless and unforgiving in its denial of the truth. It will become evil.
Dissent is holy because it is essential to continuing, personal revelation. The most vital role of revelation is to initiate change, correction, reproof, not to reinforce the status quo. To eliminate dissent, then, is to risk silencing the “still small voice” of the holy spirit speaking to us the discourse of dissent. Though Mormonism is based on the concept of continuing revelation, the church does not accept God as dissenter, in spite of his incarnation as a rebellious rabbi. The argument against the sanctity of dissent goes like this: “The church is not a democracy. It is a theocracy. It is governed by God through his chosen prophets and apostles. When we sustain them, we give our consent, we agree to obey [p.138]our leaders because they have been chosen by God and are inspired to know what is best for us.” This view contradicts the weight of scripture and religious experience. Prophets do not always speak as prophets. Prophecy is a spiritual gift, not an office. Contact with God is uncertain at best, even for the best of us. Jesus said, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
Salvation and spirituality are like the wind—real but uncertain, powerful but outside human control. It is improper for the church to insist that our authorized leaders may be relied upon with certainty. This assertion wrongly suggests that members may rely upon the church and its leaders for salvation. But the church is not the source of salvation. The church is what needs to be saved. Salvation is God’s work, not our work. In scripture God states emphatically, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of [men and women]” (Moses 1:39).
Unfortunately, divine salvation seems fairly unpredictable to many of us. We long for certainty, for security, for safety. And the institutional church is all too willing to assume the burden of providing these. Individuals are encouraged to follow the Spirit in the process of conversion or reactivation; but once in the fold, they are told to “follow the Brethren.” Inspiration and revelation are then limited to the variety that confirms that leaders are right or, even if wrong, that they are to be obeyed. In this way, the church establishes itself as the principle agent of salvation and in doing so contravenes such warnings as: “Trust not in the arm of flesh” (D&C 1:19), and “I am the Lord thy God… thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). The church cannot [p.139]substitute for the Spirit of God, because the church has no divine power to heal us, forgive us, redeem us, resurrect us, exalt us, or fill us with the love that is stronger than the cords of death. The church does, of course, have a divine role: to encourage repentance and forgiveness, to mitigate fear, foster faith, raise hope, and promote charity. But it can do this only if it permits dissent. If it prohibits dissent, it will undercut its divine role and relegate itself to the profane business of hawking self-improvement schemes and motivating material success. Its main mission will be limited to the production of respectable citizens who make good employees rather than Saints, and fine family members rather than friends of God.
Mormonism without dissent is what Hugh Nibley calls “world’s fair Mormonism,” what Michael Quinn calls, “cookie cutter Mormonism,” and what I call “McMormonism, or fast food Mormonism.” The McMormon church favors sin avoidance over repentance, purity over holiness, and morality over mystery. Preachments focus on safety— safety from the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (Hamlet III, i, 62-63), safety from the very experiences of life that, as premortal spirits, we are said to have been so anxious to encounter as essential to the attainment of wisdom. By quashing dissent the modern church discourages members from relying on the voice of the Spirit in their hearts and encourages them to rely on idols, both sacred and secular, both living and dead.
Dissent is holy because it is an antidote to idolatry. The essence of idolatry is to mistake the part for the whole, to see as simple what is complex. The divine nature is whole and dynamic, while the symbols, texts, rituals, and myths of the divine are, in comparison, incomplete and static. When the corporate church fixes the attention of its members on these lesser constructs rather than the greater, it begins to distance [p.140]them from authentic worship. When this happens, the voice of God is muted in the ecclesiastical institution, but it continues to speak a discourse of dissent through the church’s loyal critics. The prohibition of dissent in such times facilitates idolatry. It stimulates the adulation of authority, priesthood, church affiliation, theology, scripture, rules, and traditions rather than the worship of God. Brigham Young said:
What is commonly termed idolatry has arisen from a few sincere men, full of faith and having a little knowledge, urging upon a backsliding people to preserve some customs—to cling to some fashions or figures, to put them in mind of that God with whom their fathers were acquainted… Idols have been introduced … to preserve among the people the idea of the true God (Journal of Discourses 6:194).
Idolatry is the invention of well-meaning persons attempting to preserve some semblance of faith. It is often promoted in the name of spiritual certitude or purity. But a truly religious life is not one of certainty, security, or safety. No fixed patterns or formulas were meant to work for everyone. The spiritual journey is tailor-made for the individual taking it. It is through the instrumentality of dissent that idolatry is contradicted, the personal dimension of religion restored, and the right of each individual to worship God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience preserved.
Dissent is holy because it gives sight to the blind. A system that proscribes dissent blinds itself. There are many kinds of sight: foresight, insight, hindsight. Perhaps the most valuable is ironic sight. Usually, we think of irony as sarcasm, but it has a broader literary meaning: irony is the technique of seeing or communicating two or more meanings in a single [p.141]utterance. In a religious context ironic vision is the vision that sees simultaneously the natural and the supernatural, the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane, the cosmic and the mundane, that sees in a symbol, event, or experience various levels of meaning at once, that sees ourselves as others see us. Ironic vision allows us to escape the prison of our egos and view our lives and relationships from new and differing perspectives. To see ourselves as we are seen by those who employ us and whom we employ, by those who depend on us and on whom we depend, by those who teach and learn from us, who lead and follow us, who love and hate us. To see from these shifting perspectives is probably one of the most repentance-inducing experiences any individual can have. This may be the greatest, if not least valued, of the spiritual gifts.
A religious system that proscribes dissent, that requires its members to accept the party-line on all important questions contrary to their true feelings, robs its members of ironic vision. Introspection will become more and more difficult. Individuals will find themselves increasingly unable to see the world, their organization, themselves, or their relationships from the vantage point of other members or of non-members of their group. Specifically, without ironic vision in the church, individual Mormons will not be inclined to ask important questions: How is the LDS church in its second century like the Christian church in its second century? How is the current leadership and membership of the church responsible for the continued practice of polygamy by Mormon fundamentalists? How do others view us when we brag about our living prophet, and then show them the actual condition of the president of the church? What does the church look and feel like from the point of view of a conservative? a widow? a survivalist? a bishop? a divorcee? a [p.142]troubled teenager? a homosexual? a high councilor? an apostle? an apostle’s wife? In the absence of dissent, members will have little impetus to ask: What are the church’s problems? What causes those problems? What must be done to eliminate those problems? The Old Testament proverb states: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18). Dissent is crucial to this very vision.
Dissent is holy because it can also heal institutional blindness. In the New Testament, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of blindness as if it were a sin (Matt. 23). I used to be confused by this denunciation. Why should Jesus treat blindness as sin? Blindness is a sin when it is self-inflicted by those who do not wish to see the sins they have committed or enabled, who do not wish to see their own pain and suffering, or the pain and suffering they have caused others. This type of blindness is denial. It is the ultimate mechanism of control to which abusers retreat when their abuses are exposed. Self-inflicted blindness may be institutionalized. Institutions do this by punishing truth telling and rewarding the denial or repression of truth. This cannot happen in an institution, unless there exist individual leaders willing to enforce such punishments and rewards.
How are such accomplices identified and empowered in the church? By the following mechanism: First, the leadership of the church must be stratified into descending classes of power: First Presidency, Council of the Twelve, First Quorum of Seventy, right down to the bishops and quorum presidents. Then rules, spoken and unspoken, must be developed to govern each of these groups and, more importantly, an individual’s advancement from one of these groups to another. If an individual is to move into a higher strata of leadership—with its increased power, privileges, and tenure—he must demonstrate not only obedience to all church [p.143]policies, but political correctness and acumen in recognizing and submitting to the personal views of the top brass. To advance one must “anticipate counsel,” to use the phrase of one general authority. Thus only the truly correlated may ascend to the inner circles of leadership, with all their benefits and rewards. The system ensures that only those juniors who have become faithful replicas of their seniors will participate in the most important decisions of the leadership elite.
This is precisely the system that was employed by Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev to ensure the stability of communism in the Soviet Union. For this reason, I refer to this system in Mormonism as the Brezhnevization of the church. Its problem, however, is that it not only screens out the uncorrelated and undesirable, it also screens out the capable and creative. In the Soviet Union, the leadership became incapable of responding to the needs of the people or of the group. Corruption and incompetence crippled the country. The leadership responded to criticism by becoming evermore rigid and authoritarian. Finally, compelled by desperate circumstances, the leadership had no other choice than to make concessions. This was like putting a crack in an already weakened and swollen dam. The internal pressures caused a breach and a flood that no amount of renewed authoritarianism could avert or contain. The problem with rewarding consent and punishing dissent is that it causes self-inflicted blindness that deprives the institution of vision, ironic or otherwise. Dissent is holy because it is, perhaps, the only corrective to institutional blindness, the only means of giving to its blind members insight, foresight, and hindsight into perspectives to which their minds would otherwise be closed. Dissent is holy because, even if the blind refuse to see, its purpose is to prepare against the hour of disaster, when the blind lead the blind into a ditch.
[p.144]Dissent is holy because it is the foundation of peace. Though the principal reason for the elimination of dissent is to avoid discord and disruption, the elimination of dissent does not promote peace. Instead, the absence of dissent is evidence of unspoken turmoil hidden by repression, suppression, or oppression. Yes, dissent is noisy. And some feel dissent should be silenced in the interest of tranquility. But tranquility is not peace. Silence is not peace. In fact, silence when imposed by the strong on the weak is one of the most efficient mechanisms of control. The first act of physical, sexual, or spiritual abusers is to silence their victims. Real peace is based on freedom, authenticity, and love. These cannot flower in the inhospitable climate of suppression and repression. We should not listen to those who cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace—when peace is merely a euphemism for subjugation. The Book of Mormon admonition, “Wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well!” (2 Ne. 28:24-25), warns us to avoid confusing peace with its counterfeits: politeness, pseudo-community, feigned love, and the comfortable familiarity of the status quo.
Dissent is holy because it safeguards the community from self-destruction. To eliminate dissent is to doom the organization. Unless the discourse of dissent is permitted, protected, and encouraged, an organization has no way to test the adequacy of its decisions to meet the problems of the group. It has no way to assure that its policies accord with spiritual truth, with natural reality, or with the needs of its members. Only by allowing dissent to be expressed and to accumulate support on the basis of merit alone can a group be assured that its decisions are made in light of the experience of all its concerned members rather than the limited experience of its leadership enclave. Of course, there are [p.145]problems with democratic governance. The majority almost never has the technical knowledge possessed by an expert minority; and the wisdom of the majority is by no means infallible. This is precisely the point. What is necessary to protect the community from both the wrongheadedness of the multitude and the narrow-mindedness of the elite is a courageous and loyal opposition. When the wisdom of the many and the prudence of the few fail, an organization is most likely to find the vitality and vision to survive in the voices of its dissenting members.
Let me now discuss briefly seven means and objectives that can add to the sanctity of dissent: Dissent is hallowed when its objective is the eradication of evil. Many of us do not believe in evil. Or if we do we see it as only illusory or superficial. Many do not believe in evil people, evil groups, or evil systems. This view informed England prior to World War II. Many Britons believed Hitler was not evil, merely misunderstood, and that it was possible to make peace with him. This view obtained even after the Anschluss of Austria, the attack on Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Poland. For those who do not believe in evil, there seems little justification for dissent. The holiest dissent, with all its discord and cantankerousness, is asserted to oppose evil, to expose evil, to resist evil. I believe in the reality of evil. But, for me, evil is something quite specific: it is the persistent or systematic abuse of power by the strong to the detriment of the weak. Evil in this sense can corrupt individuals and institutions. The church is not exempt. Within its divinely authorized structures, evil can and does manifest itself as spiritual abuse, which I have defined and discussed in other places.
Evil must not be confused with one’s personal sins. I am not here calling for personal perfection in leaders or in members. I understand that everyone is susceptible to fool-[p.146]ishness, bad judgment, contrariness, selfishness, and sin. These are not the issue. They should not be confused with spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is systemic. It is a sin of relationship. It is a community sin. Church leaders who commit spiritual abuse do so not simply because they are imperfect, but because they hold a false concept of authority which is shared by the membership. When church leaders perpetrate spiritual abuse, it is only because church members enable them to do so. Let me emphasize that it is dangerous to permanently stigmatize any person or institution as evil. This too is an abuse. Notwithstanding, it is critical to see that the heart of darkness, the soul of evil, is the deliberate perpetuation and exploitation of powerlessness by the strong, often with the complicity of the weak. The antidote to such unhallowed control is the sanctity of dissent.
Dissent is further sanctified when its substance is truth. Truth telling is the holiest discourse of dissent. But truth telling is hard. We do not deal in truth directly. We deal in shifting perceptions of truth. Our knowledge, whether attained by study or by faith, whether sacred or secular, is incomplete, limited, inaccurate, and flawed. We see through a glass darkly. Different people see the same events and hear the same words differently. Intentions are often misunderstood. The same facts give rise to differing conclusions depending upon one’s assumptions, convictions, intentions, and expectations. Each of us is flawed and often disposed to manage or mismanage the truth in our own interest. In the hands of controlling people, truth becomes a terrible weapon.
For all these reasons, authentic truth-tellers must first search their own hearts for and rid themselves of any inclination to be self-serving, or to perpetuate or exploit the weak, even if the weak seem to deserve it, even if the weak have the [p.147]outward appearance of being strong. Truth telling requires us to face and admit our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and sins. As truth tellers we must be willing to reveal our own lack of knowledge, flawed logic, faulty intuitions, misunderstandings, inexperience, fears, doubts, fantasies, false hopes, egotistical dreams, and uninformed or unsettled opinions. We must be willing to confess the abuses we have perpetrated or enabled and to acknowledge how we have been controlled, compelled, and dominated by others. We must make these disclosures at the proper level of abstraction. It will not do for us to reveal the abuses of others with great specificity and then to relate our own with great generality.
In other words, we must not only be forthright but even-handed, not only factually accurate but intellectually honest. Our motives and agendas must be clear. We cannot allow ourselves to hide our hurt, our pain, our anger behind facades of composure and value neutral rhetoric. Disinformation and nondisclosure merely postpone the moment of truth. If we wish to tell the truth, we must be willing to make fools of ourselves, rather than to cover our sins, gratify our pride, and deflect humiliation. Our stories must be without melodrama, without romantic excess, without flawless characters, without deceptions. We must accept that, as truth tellers, we will often appear politically incorrect and less astute than our opponents.
Our dissent is further sanctified when we take seriously the views of others. Dissent, if it is to be effective, must follow the golden rule. It must treat others as it would be treated. It must listen, even when its opposition is unpleasant, confused, discordant, and controlling. We cannot be like those in the free-speech movement of the 1960s who, in the interest of the cause of free speech, suppressed the speech of their opponents. Listening is not easy. There is [p.148]always the temptation to stop listening, to be defensive, to protect ourselves, to anticipate rejection by rejecting others first. Dissent does not allow us to withdraw from others. Dissent is to criticize, not to trivialize. True dissent is not possible if we associate only with those who are like us, who comfort us, who tell us what we want to hear. We cannot truly dissent if we cease to hear our loyal opposition. Dissent is holiest when it treats the views of others as it wishes its own views to be treated.
Dissent is further sanctified when it promotes genuine community. By telling truth and listening to truth, we come to terms with our own experiences of abuse and the experiences of others; we breakdown facades; we take responsibility for our personal and our community shadows. Through dissent we provide each other with the common bread of authenticity and the common cup of charity. However, to take responsibility is not to take blame. No person can assume the culpability for the freely chosen beliefs, acts, and words of others. Those who do will invariably try to impose righteousness to avoid this vicarious guilt. Too many church leaders think this way. But leaders are not responsible for the wrongs of members; nor can members avoid personal responsibility by blindly following leaders. We are, however, all responsible for the well-being of the church.
Such responsible dissent possesses the spiritual power to awaken consciousness, raise awareness, create paradigms, alter opinions, heal wounds, and bring wholeness and holiness to our community. But it must be remembered that dissent raises the stakes. It is by nature confrontational. Even when carefully and artfully advanced, truth telling and dissent are usually not well-received. One of the recurring mistakes of my life has been my silly belief that I would somehow endear myself to others by telling them what I [p.149]believe to be the truth. Jesus, however, did not say that the truth would make us well-liked. He said that “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). What he did not say was that it would first make everybody madder than hell.
But this is just another reason why dissent is holy: it fosters accountability. To tell the truth is to call to account, to call to repent. This is unpleasant business. It invites reciprocity. It invites calls to repentance to be levelled in return. When this happens, we must listen to each other. If we do not, we risk entering a vicious cycle of mutual distrust and backbiting that will postpone healing. Confrontation is often necessary to break this vicious cycle, especially if abusive individuals respond to calls to account with denial, with self-inflicted blindness. In such instances, confrontation is to dissenters what a scalpel is to a surgeon: it inflicts the wounds that heal. Nevertheless, hurt feelings may be lessened if our call is not petty, trivial, or mean-spirited—if the discourse of dissent is not directed against personal short-comings, petty sins, and pet peeves—but in favor of liberty and love and against the perpetuation or exploitation of powerlessness.
Dissent is sanctified when it is sacrificial, tactful, hopeful, charitable, clear, courageous, and grace-filled. Jesus cautioned us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Those church members who dissent vocally or publicly must be prepared for criticism and censure, for accusations of impurity, impiety, and impropriety, for charges of unchristianlike conduct and apostasy. They must be prepared to lose their temple recommends, to be disfellowshipped, and to be excommunicated. Let there be no mistake, these are highly punitive actions which, if not administered with the utmost care and the utmost consideration for fairness and due process, become acts of abuse and even violence. Nevertheless, when these abuses come, dissent is made holier if abused [p.150]dissenters do not become heartless, reckless, or cruel; if they face abuse without returning abuse; if they remain fair and forthright in the face of denial; if they rely on the inner strength and authorization of the Holy Spirit when abandoned by family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, fellow members and when threatened with the loss of jobs, careers, and financial security. Clearly, dissent is not for everyone, nor is it necessary that everyone dissent. For this reason, too, dissent is holy: it is a spiritual vocation. Not all are called. But those who are will probably not find peace or spiritual fulfillment in any other way.
There is one more reason I believe dissent to be holy. It is, perhaps, the most important of all. I will make my point with a story: In 1412, there was born to French peasants of Domremy-a-Pucell, a girl—Jeanne to the French, Joan to us. When she was twelve, she began to see and hear in vision St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. In 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War, just when the English were about to capture Orleans, Joan was exhorted by these heavenly beings to save France. She presented herself to the king and a board of theologians approved her claims. At the age of seventeen and with no experience of combat, she—clad in armor, mounted on a charger, and holding aloft a white banner emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis (the symbol of God’s grace)— led the French in battle after battle to a stunning and decisive victory against the English. At the dauphin’s coronation she held the place of honor beside him. Later, King Charles withdrew his support for further campaigns, but Joan continued, engaging the English at Compiegne, near Paris. There, captured by Burgundian soldiers, she was sold to the English, who turned her over to an ecclesiastical court at Rouen to be tried for heresy and sorcery. She underwent fourteen months of interrogation. She was accused of consorting with demons, [p.151]of wearing a man’s apparel, and of insubordination. But her most seditious crime, her most heinous sin was that she believed that she was directly responsible to God and not to the Catholic church. She penitently confessed herself a sinner and was sentenced to life imprisonment rather than to death. But once in prison, she set aside the counsels of the church and, in direct response to the revelations of God, resumed wearing men’s clothes. For this she was condemned as a relapsed heretic and, on the 30th day of May of 1431, in the Old Market Square of Rouen, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Twenty-five years later, the church retried her case and proclaimed her innocent. In 1920 she was canonized St. Joan by Pope Benedict XV. Dissent is holy because it requires us to be ultimately responsible not to any earthly power, but to God directly.
I know that what I am saying now will not touch some of you. Some have lost faith in Mormonism. Some have no faith in spiritual callings or religious ideals. The pain and disillusionment have been too great. I have no judgment for you. I hope you have none for me. But the current state of our faith does not matter. God, whose grace is sufficient for us, can raise even our lost faith from the dead. What matters now is that we acknowledge to ourselves the evil and abuse that are occurring all around us in our community; that we accept that the heartache of its victims is real; that their pain is real; that in our church the dysfunction, the breakdown of faith, the loss of hope, the rejection of love are all real; and that real, too, is the long litany of our community sins: pride, compulsion, egotism, and fear.
Earlier, I said that the sword is the cruciform symbol of dissent against cruelty, corruption, unhallowed control, against denial, false peace, and forced silence. Jesus spoke the discourse of divine dissent against such evils in history.
[p.152]The Holy Ghost continues in the present to speak this same discourse in the hearts of many of us. Those who hear that voice, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, must give up all hope of banal material success, must take up—not the sword—but the cross and, like St. Joan, find sanctuary in the sanctity of dissent.