Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #6

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true

tankman

Postcard #6 I’m committed to following my own moral compass.

What will you do?

The day is September 11th, 1857. A wagon train of 120 emigrants has been trying to make its way past your settlement and on to California. Normally you would be anxiously engaged in commerce—supplying provisions to these wretched folk at a handsome profit. But not this morning. This morning finds you and fifty of your Mormon neighbors escorting the emigrants into a mountain meadow. You hear a militia leader promise the travelers they will be safely conducted out of the settlement, but you know the truth. At the signal, you and your brethren are to turn on the emigrants and open fire. Shoot them in the head—every man, woman, and child.

What will you do? 

In your gut, you know this is cold-blooded murder, even if you did hear them uttering foul oaths and slurs. And yet the orders are clear. If this were a matter of military protocol, you could refuse to obey this unlawful command from a superior officer. But the group of men issuing the orders are also your religious leaders, and your allegiance to them is unconditional and absolute. Submission to priesthood authority signifies your faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion to God himself. A scripture comes to your mind: Whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same.

So, what will you do?

Until a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how I would have answered that question. 

I was taught to believe that obedience to my Church’s leaders was always right, even if they asked me to do something wrong. I accepted this way of thinking because those leaders taught me that obeying them was the same as obeying God. I should trust them, they said, because they would not–could not–lead us astray.

Surely no Stake President would order me to shoot unarmed men, women, and children. And surely no prophet would persuade my 14 year old daughter she’s been chosen as his next wife and that by accepting his proposition our family’s exaltation would be guaranteed. These disquieting scenarios from history are easy to dismiss because they seem so improbable in today’s church. But they could teach us much. We have learned by sad experience . . .

Now that I am less naive about human nature and Church history I’ve become more cautious about surrendering my moral agency to human leaders. 

This willingness to ignore the whisperings of our own conscience frightens me. I’ve come to believe that yielding our agency to mortal men ignores basic realities about human nature. For one thing, it eliminates the need for moral discernment. For another, it renders us extremely vulnerable to potential acts of unrighteous dominion. 

Fortunately, our ecclesiastical history shows, on the balance, a preponderance of virtue. But an honest account must also admit to injustice, violence, and vice–and these were often perpetuated precisely because members were willing to violate their conscience out of loyalty to someone whose words they believed to be equal to God’s. 

Leaders are human. I say this with generosity. Like the rest of us, the men tasked with leading the Church don’t always see beyond their cultural biases and paradigms–despite what I trust to be their earnest desire to be faithful to what they view as God’s will. Mormon theology permits no doctrine of prophetic infallibility—for it would render agency inoperative. 

I’m grateful for the combined wisdom and counsel of Church leaders–I would be foolish to esteem it lightly–but sustaining priesthood leaders does not justify me in violating my own conscience. The Nuremberg defense (“I was just following orders”) was an insult to the memory of 6 million Jews and I find myself shocked whenever I hear friends and neighbors admit that they would choose to obey the prophet even if they knew he was wrong, because they felt God would reward them for their obedience.    

As a child, we would sing “Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you. In the right the Holy Spirit guides, and its light is forever shining o’er you…” I don’t hear that song much these days. There is a risk, perhaps, in encouraging 14 million people to develop the moral discernment necessary to work through the rightness of each choice. The Spirit, after all, bloweth where it listeth.  Still, part of me grieves to hear our children bellowing Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet; He knows the way!  

I suppose a part of us prefers to be unburdened of the moral responsibility for choosing, for working through the moral calculus of life’s toughest choices. But don’t we abdicate our moral birthright when we allow another to be the keeper of our conscience?  

the-moral-compassI readily admit that my sense of right and wrong is limited–I’m as susceptible as anyone to biases, paradigms, and ingrained cultural attitudes–still, I am ultimately accountable. I can’t shift the burden of moral responsibility on another, even in the name of obedience. I must follow the moral compass within my own heart, the one that points to kindness, to mercy, generosity, equality, and love.

______________________

Post Script: The Mountain Meadows Massacre  involved many factors besides Mormon settlers being steeped in a culture of obedience. I don’t wish to oversimplify this tragic event. Mormon readers may find a sympathetic but historically responsible explanation in the Ensign article linked here.

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2 thoughts on “Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #6

  1. Michael Keith

    I agree with your premise that we will be responsible for our own decisions and actions no matter what. Your words are well thought out, and I completely agree with your essay on principle. I guess my question would be, do you sustain the first presidency and quorum of the twelve as prophets? Do you believe Joseph Smith was the prophet of the restoration? Or, do you see sustaining the brethren as giving up your own agency? Do you believe they were called by God, and prepared to serve in the capacities wherein they were called? Please let me say that I don’t ask these questions to contend with anything you have said. I am just curious.

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    Reply
    1. lonyoung1973 Post author

      Thank you for the questions, Michael. Any discussion of obedience to authority in the Church circles back to these very questions you raise. Often, there’s an implicit understanding that sustaining a leader is synonymous with obeying a leader. When that leader is ‘the Prophet,” that imperative for obedience is often assumed to be absolute, brooking no exceptions.

      The short answer to each of your questions is “yes.” But that answer would be incomplete and misleading without clarifying what I mean when I say sustain, its relationship to obedience, and what is meant by the word prophet.

      Let’s start with obedience. My wife and I just came back from the temple for our date night, so the covenant Eve makes to Adam is still fresh in my mind. It might be a helpful starting point. Setting aside these asymmetrical relationships to God, in which the woman pledges allegiance to her husband while her husband pledges fealty directly to God, there is an important proviso in Eve’s covenant. In the temple drama, Eve vows to hearken to the counsel of her husband as he hearkens to the Father. This clause—an escape clause—ensures that no woman binds herself to following her husband unconditionally. She may choose to obey, but there is a kind of heuristic, a ranking of primary and secondary allegiances, by which potential conflicts of loyalty are resolved. For me, this kind of obedience honors a reality reflected in Eve’s temple covenant: that a husband’s counsel is not binding if it does not accord with higher principles. Like Eve to her imperfect spouse, my obedience to mortal authority must always carry that same escape clause.

      Which brings us to sustaining. I submit that sustaining can involve—and sometimes must require—raising objections, presenting alternative viewpoints, pointing out potential problems, etc. In my own experiences as an ecclesiastical leader, counselors who felt empowered to raise objections to one of my proposals never served me better than when forcing me to reexamine and reevaluate—helping me identify blind spots or reminding me not to sacrifice higher values for lower values. Similarly, a survey of history shows this is also true of citizens who challenge their elected officials to live up to our country’s highest values. This takes the moral courage of an abolitionist, or a suffragette, or a civil rights activist. Precisely because they want to sustain their country, (which is to say, to strengthen and support it, and bring to fruition its highest values) they sometimes challenged its leaders to reexamine and reevaluate, they gave voice to the disenfranchised, and stirred them up in remembrance of our country’s highest ideals.

      So I no longer conflate sustaining a leader with obeying a leader. I sustain my religious leaders as I actively contribute my time, means, and whole-hearted service to helping them do godly work. I sustain them by giving them the benefit of the doubt, being generous in interpreting their motives and gracious about their imperfections. I gladly put my shoulder to the same wheel they do, and push along, push along, towards Zion.

      My post mentions that our Church leaders are not inerrant. When I referred to the theological notion of infallibility rendering moral agency inoperative, I meant that such a construct does not admit the possibility for a leader to be fallen, to err, to exercise unrighteous dominion, or lead astray. We glibly say God’s “hands are tied” to prevent horrific crimes against humanity such as genocide, and yet we swallow the non-doctrinal notion that “God would never permit me or anyone else who leads this Church to lead you astray.”

      So what is a Prophet, if not an infallible, inerrant spokesperson for God to whom we should unconditionally surrender our allegiance? Well, the role of prophet is not an ecclesiastical office in the Church, it’s not a position, and is not associated with any administrative “keys.” A prophet is one who challenges, who awakens us from our stupor, who afflicts the comfortable, who calls us to live up to our values. Not a fore-teller but a forth-teller. A prophet forces us to confront ourselves in the mirror, the flattering fog of self-delusion wiped away, our pretenses stripped and we are revealed for who we are. This is revelation. A group of men may, at any given time, be called to lead the Church, their right to administrative authority duly recognized, but it seems to me they are only prophets when acting as such. Joseph Smith admitted as much, saying he was “only a prophet when acting as such.” That’s refreshingly honest, and a good tonic for the unseemly and spiritually corrosive leader adulation to which we sometimes fall prey. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a multi-billion dollar luxury shopping mall, the “Brethren” may be officially recognized Trustees of the Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But when they call us to remember the poor and the needy and to serve “the least of these” in our midst, they are prophets of God.

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