Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Enduring (and) the Church

This post was written in response to a discussion thread on Feminist Mormon Housewives (more specifically to a comment [#81] that the Anti-Nephi-Lehies were not pacifists, just people trying to avoid any possible temptation to relapse into sin). As I wrote, it got longer and longer, perhaps too long for a comment in an online forum, but I submitted it anyway.

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The Anti-Nephi-Lehies were, quite essentially, pacifists or, as I prefer to call them, peacemakers. In their attempts to make and keep peace with God and themselves, they buried the weapons they’d used in so many murders and changed their collective name as witnesses that, in the words of king Benjamin’s people, they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do [and to be] good continually” (Mosiah 5:2); that their very natures had been transplanted into the doctrines of Christ and his gospel of peace. By deciding “that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their lives; and rather than take away from a brother they would give unto him; and rather than spend their days in idleness they would labor abundantly with their hands” (Alma 24:18), they showed their devotion to the cause of eternal peace, which ultimately comes through service and sacrifice, especially that sacrifice offered in similitude of Christ—for the lasting benefit of others. They showed their belief that Christ would come to them, that he would not leave them comfortless if they could just endure the violence from without and from within: the jabs, the bullying, the finger of scorn, and the incessant temptation to give up their covenants and to give in to sin. In their conscious resistance of evil, then, including the evil of war, they were intent on offering their last full measure of devotion, firm in the hope that they would find eternal rest and bring peace to others if only they honored the covenants they’d made. If that’s not the essential principle and embodiment of pacifism, I don’t know what is.

Further, if that’s not the essential principle of Mormonism, of Restoration theology—at the center of which stands Christ, the Prince of Peace, the Man who, Isaiah tells us, “was wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5); the Man who was chastised, oppressed, and afflicted for our peace, all without opening his mouth; the Man through whose “stripes we are healed” (53:5)—I don’t know what is. Having read Lisa’s post and most of the responses to it and through my own experience as a dues-paying member of the Church, I’m convinced that what we really need is a greater emphasis on this, on finding peace for ourselves through Christ and his institutionalized priesthood and on helping others find that same peace.

I realize, however, that this isn’t an easy answer and that most “active” members don’t actually seek or try to understand that peace themselves, even though, when it comes down to it, we all want the warmth of peace to cover our inadequacies and sins, to bolster our aching hearts. I’ve sat through Gospel Doctrine classes and Sacrament Meetings in which Christ is only a cursory player, his name only coming up at the end of a clichéd prayer (“Please help us to take this lesson into our daily lives” or “Please bless those who couldn’t be here today that they can be here next week” or, my favorite as prayed at the beginning of the meeting, “Please help us to travel home in safety when the time comes”) or during the blessing of the sacrament, often also (unfortunately) a clichéd experience. I think this failure often comes because we get so bogged down in keeping up appearances, policies, and programs and playing to what we perceive other people ought to think of us, that we neglect the better part, the salvational aspect of Church membership. If only we could see the sorrow hidden in each heart, could understand the silent struggles of the outwardly tied together Gospel Doctrine teacher/Relief Society/Elders' Quorum president. If only we could see that keeping up with the Joneses might just mean floundering through depression or chronic illness or the pain of a physically and/or emotionally and/or sexually abusive relationship or, as seems to be the case with many in this forum, the depths of doubt or self-doubt.

And yet, I’m glad I don’t see those things. I’m grateful for my own specialized tutorial, which consists of personalized tests that, to a large degree, have come through active engagement with the Church as a social institution with bureaucratic leanings and as an organization of people I wouldn’t dream of associating with otherwise. Literally. I’d much sooner converse with an old friend or a good book or sit at my laptop writing as I would venture out my door to attend Church weekly, to interact with people I’m only slightly acquainted with and may not even care for (or want to care for) personally.

And there’s the rub.

In my efforts to find and commune with Christ, I’ve learned that his Church (which I’ve been a part of for my entire life) afflicts as much as it comforts, if not sometimes more. As someone with deep inclinations toward criticism and as something of an outsider in my chosen Faith (I’m an at-home dad of three little girls and I also consider myself a feminist, someone interested in and influenced by the way social constructions of gender influence individuals), I sometimes wonder if the Church has place for my difference, for my gendered and reasoned faith. And I always return to a lesson I learned from a perceptive, thoughtful, and thought-provoking Institute teacher and later reiterated in my reading of Eugene England (now deceased), Mormon teacher, writer, and critic.

Towards the end of an Institute class called “The Power of the Word,” a course focused on teaching us to make greater use of the depth and breadth of scriptural resources and references available to Latter-day Saints in our efforts to study and teach the gospel, the teacher warned us that our newfound insights would tempt us to judge gospel teachers more harshly, against the light of our own understanding. Then he suggested that we could avoid this temptation to unjust criticism by teaching from our seats, by which he meant we could use our intellectual and scriptural insights and personal experiences to help make the classroom experience better for others. Shortly thereafter I stopped holding my comments back and, a number of times since, teachers have pulled me aside after class to thank me for guiding their discussion, in ways unbeknownst to me, where it needed to go.

This insight resonated within years later when I read England’s essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” Responding to the clichéd Mormon statement that while the gospel is true, the Church is not necessarily, that it’s “something to be endured for the sake of the gospel” it houses and espouses, he suggests, rather, that “The Church is as true—as effective—as the gospel because it involves us directly in proving [the central] contraries” of the universe, forcing us, as a matter of faith, to “work[…] constructively with [those] […] oppositions within ourselves and especially between people, [and to] struggl[e] with paradoxes and polarities at an experiential level that can redeem us.” He then gives this piercing witness: “The Church is true because it is concrete, not theoretical; in all its contradictions and problems, it is at least as productive of good as is the gospel,” simply because its practical application of covenant theology moves us into contact with those who are different from us and with whom we would not otherwise associate. In his words:

Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline. It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, physical, and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (or may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them. It stretches us and challenges us, though disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be—and thus gives us a chance to be made better than we might choose to be, but ultimately need and want to be.

Through this testimony he not only shows us how the imperfect, personal dimension of the Restored Church can temper and ultimately redeem and exalt us, but he implies that we should approach activity in the Church as servants rather than consumers. Through this light, I’ve learned to ask myself how the Lord might use my essential otherness as a means to bless and bring peace to others instead of constantly wondering what (or how!) I can get out of a lesson when the teacher just doesn’t seem to get it, meaning (however selfishly) that they don’t see things my way or do things as I would do them (always a frustrating an exasperating proposition). I’ve also learned that the best way to help others change is to love them into it, realizing that, most often, they’re not the ones needing to change—I am; and that as my vision of the gospel increases and I begin to see God, others, and myself—however darkly—as God does, my capacity to abide the challenge of Church membership and activity increases.

And in the end I’m drawn to conclude that I don’t think God would have it any other way. For only, I’m convinced, as we endure the slings and arrows of Church membership can we draw closer to and become like him, the omnipotent and omniscient Being who puts up with our flawed and fumbling attempts to serve, standing by us, even strengthening us when he might much rather be in the lobbies of eternity, conversing with gods about the glory and majesty of this universe and beyond.

Then again, maybe not; his love is perfect and I’m convinced he’d much rather abide with us. I for one am grateful that this love endures even when mine does not.