This past Monday one of the radio talk shows I listen to asked about what happened in Church during the weekend. In the wake of the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, the host, Brian Lehrer, asked how the religious sermons given in the region had confronted these decisions.
Of course, in LDS congregations this past Sunday was Fast Sunday, leaving the subject of the testimonies given up to those who chose to speak. In my own case, I heard no hint of a mention of these subjects, or any controversial current events, in the testimonies given or in lessons taught. Should there have been?
It is clear that our current LDS practice is, in general, to avoid anything that might breed contention. And I understand and agree with that practice. A worship service should be for worship—for bringing each of those in the congregation closer to God. So surely we should do and say things in our services that will accomplish that goal.
But I suspect that we are, in a sense, dodging the difficult in the way we do this. It seems to me that controversies like Ferguson and Staten Island last week, and like the U.S. Senate report on CIA “enhanced interrogation” this week are moral questions—questions that should be addressed in a religious context somehow. And the involvement of Mormons, respected Mormons by the accounts of those who know them personally, in the latter controversy perhaps suggests that these are not merely distant or academic questions but issues that each of us may have to face. And if we have to face similar issues, shouldn’t we confront the moral and religious questions in Church?
The scriptures may even support the idea that we should confront things like this at Church. In the New Testament, Christ says he brings not peace, but a sword, and adds that the gospel will set us at variance with our families. Elder Holland suggested that the Savior did not preach “comfortable doctrine, easy on the ear,” but instead He upset “those who thought he spoke only soothing platitudes.” Despite this, I think, few of us go to Church expecting to be pricked in our hearts. Indeed, at common complaint I hear from those struggling with Church attendance is that they don’t get anything out of Church—they complain of being offended by what is said in our meetings. [I admit, of course, that often offensive things ARE said. But such situations can also be opportunities for re-evaluating our assumptions and understanding or figuring out how to love those we disagree with or who err.]
The problem for local leaders, of course, is that dealing with these questions is far from easy. Controversial subjects can easily lead to anger and frustration instead of resolution to change or understanding of what is moral. And even if a teacher or speaker can successfully convert a subject that inspires hot feelings into motivation for personal improvement or better understanding of the basic principles of the gospel, can we really be certain that the comments a teacher receives or the feelings among those in the congregation will be equally focused on righteousness?
I don’t know the answer to this issue. Our practice of avoiding contention may have left us without an important venue for learning how to discuss the controversial and explore how to connect those issues to the gospel. In a way, we are collectively ashamed of our inability to handle discord.
Sadly, it sometimes doesn’t appear that our collective experience on blogs and other social media has taught us much in this regard. So I can’t blame local leaders and members for avoiding controversial topics.