AS MY SPIRITUAL LIFE HAS WIDENED its embrace, I’m coming to understand that the yearning for atonement is truly universal. Spiritual practices in the East, such as yoga and loving-kindness meditation, effect the same soul-change that prayer, baptism, and communion do in the West: they move us from separateness to sacred union. I’ve seen religions doing their finest work when they unite instead of divide, when they lead us to at-one-ment. In fact, the word religion itself means to join together, to bind (as does its Sanskrit cousin, yoga). So when I learn that my religious community–a group whose hearts should be knit together in love–is poised, once again, to rend one of its members from the fabric of fellowship, I’m filled with anguish.
For those not following the issue, this Sunday, a stake president will decide if John Dehlin should be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Further stoking the flames of a fire not yet cooled after the excommunication of Kate Kelly this past summer, Dehlin’s ecclesiastical censuring has elicited copious amounts of invective from both sides of the debate.
I don’t wish to drive the wedge any deeper. Neither his priesthood leader, nor Mr. Dehlin himself deserves to be vilified. If we could see into their hearts, we would agree that they are both men of good will, following honorable but mutually conflicting motives.
As an unconventional Mormon myself, I cherish an inclusive community, and believe the Body of Christ is strengthened by diversity, not weakened. How I resonate to Paul’s teaching on the subject: “If the whole body were the eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, where were the smelling?” When I hear fellow Latter-day Saints clamoring for someone’s ouster, I want to protest, like Paul, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you…those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” (1 Corinthians 12:17-22)
And now, it seems, an amputation has been scheduled.
We may all concede, however reluctantly, that sometimes a limb must be amputated to save a life. So when I hear others reasoning that the health of the Church necessitates the amputation of some of its members, I can’t dispute the soundness of the logic, at least in principle. An organization, like an organism, needs a system for excreting toxic waste, fending off foreign invaders, and sloughing off dead tissue. But amputations are always tragic, and the mortal threat must be real, not imagined. Chopping off a foot because its warty toe doesn’t meet an institutional aesthetic does not constitute a mortal threat. Nor would a wise surgeon remove an organ until fully understanding how its various and sometimes subtle functions are contributing to the overall health of the organism.
And when an amputation is deemed medically necessary, that does not mean that such an outcome was inevitable. It usually represents a chronic failure to provide the attentive care and proper conditions for healing and well-being. This is a perspective borne from my experiences serving with my family in India among the leprosy-affected.
One insidious feature of the disease is permanent damage to nerve endings in the extremities. Fortunately, the micro-bacterium that causes the disease is easily neutralized and with simple treatment poses no further risk to the patient. A leprosy patient’s body is, for all intents and purposes, healthy. However, the patient, whose nerve endings have been compromised, has become insensitive to the pain inflicted on parts of his or her body, such as to the feet or hands.
Let’s suppose such a person steps on shards of broken glass. She would not perceive the injury being suffered by her foot. And when she lifts a scorching hot lid from the cooking pot, she will not know how her hand blisters from the heat. Insensitive to wound after wound, and numb to the need for healing, her wounds become infected and sores spread; ulcers, untreated, eat away at perfectly healthy tissue, until, one day, a doctor will conclude that an amputation has become necessary in order to save a person’s life.
John Dehlin’s ecclesiastical surgeon may reach the same conclusion this Sunday. But let there be no mistake: this excommunication, this severing of a member from the Body of Christ, represents yet another failure. A failure to be sensitive to the very real pain and discomfort some members are feeling, to be responsive to their wounds and attentive to our care-giving. A failure to view lumpy toes and unsightly moles in their proper perspective, as well as the forbearance to put up with some stinky pits now and then. We have need of thee. We have need of thee.
May we come to recognize our inherent and indivisible unity. May we come to realize that the health and well-being of a part is the health and well-being of the whole. These understandings, after all, are key insights into the nature of atonement. As the Body of Christ, may we not lose our sensitivity to the pain and wounding experienced by some of our members. And when injury leads to infection, and we worry that the infection will spread, let us be less keen to maim ourselves. Instead of a surgeon’s knife, let us liberally apply the healing balm of love.