It is very common in the Bloggernaccle to talk about an exodus of members from the Church. These members are usually described as a cohesive demographic. The two examples I’ve seen most frequently are (1) young Millennials who are disillusioned by the discrepancy between real history and CES whitewashing and (2) good women whose contributions and perspectives are devalued and rejected by the institution at large.
I don’t have any insider or objective data on these concerns, and so I couldn’t say where they fall on the spectrum from urban legend to imminent crisis, but I suspect the problem is genuine based purely on my own experiences. The question becomes: what should we do about it?
Cynthia L proffered a twist on the usual tale of the lost sheep at By Common Consent on Saturday. In her parable, sheep wander away because there are holes in the fence. Disagreement arises among the shepherds. One group insists that we ought to repair the holes to protect the sheep. The other insists that if God had wanted a fence without holes, He would have created a fence without holes. And, this callous bunch adds, who wants those stupid sheep that keep getting lost anyway?
Let me start by saying that I think this parable succeeds at its stated purpose. The title of Cynthia’s post is “Why I speak up: our responsibilities as farm hands for the shepherd,” and in terms of explaining the motivations good Mormon men and women have to criticize the status quo I find it eloquent and reasonable. But there is a problem, probably unintentional, that I want to raise not by way of repudiation or contradiction but rather to proffer a third-way alternative.
The problem with the parable is that fences are, by definition, not supposed to have holes in them. The entire purpose of a fence around sheep is to keep the sheep in and the wolves out. A hole, therefore, is by definition a flaw. This means that in Cynthia’s parable we have only two options if we want to disagree with her: assert the absurd notion that a hole-riddled fence is a good thing or cruelly blame the sheep who wander and are lost.
In practice, this amounts to a presumption that when teachings or policies of the Church cause people heartache or doubt, then it is the Church that is in the wrong. There is certainly historical precedent for the Church being wrong. The most obvious, of course, is the racial priesthood ban. During the time when the ban was in force, it was frequently defended as being a matter of doctrine. Now that it has been rescinded, however, those statements have been implicitly rejected while the folk theology that sprouted up to explain the ban has been explicitly repudiated. Might certain of the Church’s policies—particularly those regarding the role of women or of homosexuals—similarly turn out to be prejudice and the tradition of men masquerading as the will of God? Yes, it is conceivable that this could be the case. But it is not a foregone conclusion.
I want to be very clear that my concern is not with any and all criticism of the status quo. Mindless worship of the status quo is indefensible for reasons that are clear both historically (the aforementioned racial priesthood ban) and doctrinally (continuing revelation and an open canon). But reflexive criticism of the status quo whenever it comes into question is an equal and opposite absolutism. This absolutism, even when it is unintended, necessitates depicting anyone who doesn’t condemn the status quo as both intellectually deficient (e.g. farm hands who think holes in fences are a design feature) and morally deficient (e.g. farm hands who think some lost lambs aren’t worth trying to save). This negative depiction itself has two problems: first, it leads to greater contention among the farm hands and second, it exacerbates the pain that the wandering sheep already feel.
Here is one example to make this discussion a bit more concrete. About a decade before the financial crisis, President Hinckley counseled members to avoid large debt for homes. The talk probably hurt those in the audience who had no choice but to purchase a home using debt or who had just taken out a large mortgage and couldn’t feasibly do anything about it now. In hindsight, however, the wisdom of the talk is clear. It is possible that the Church will change its position on controversial issues in the future, but it is also possible that it will not, and that we will come to see the wisdom of this decision at some future date. (Credit where credit is due: this particular example came from Julie Smith.)
I am not asking for Cynthia or anyone else to stop following their conscience in standing up for suffering and endangered sheep. My hope is simply for an understanding between the farm hands that—even when our beliefs diverge—we share a common ambition to be the best shepherds that we can be.
In the end, the only real fence is love. It is the love of our Savior, who loved us first, that draws us to Him. It is my personal conviction that Heavenly Father loves us that helps me find calm amidst the confusion and uncertainty of my own life. And it is that love that we need to strive to emulate not only in response to God, but also in response to each other.
But love does not always mean harmlessness, at least in the short run. There are times, as with Jacob’s sermon, where the truth cuts not only the wicked but even the innocent. I believe that anyone who is eager to give such a sermon is unworthy to give it, but also that we cannot assume that whatever causes pain or heartache in the short run must be abandoned. Sometimes as farm hands the power to take away suffering is out of our hands (for any of many numerous possible reasons), and the best we can do is minister to those whose pain we have not the power or the right to take away.
I believe the status quo is always a transition point to something better, but also that attempts to liberalize the Church’s teachings in some regards are flawed. But I welcome those who disagree with me as my fellow farm hands, and hope that we can always prioritize service over winning ideological battles. For that reason, I always carry within myself the kernel of doubt: what if they, and not I, are in the right?