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?
I 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.