I’ve been following David Hayward’s blog at nakedpastor.com for some time now. (No, it’s not a site about naughty priests. The “naked” bit is purely metaphorical.) He’s become proof to me that religious leaders can be self-reflective, thoughtful, and honest with themselves and those whom they shepherd. There’s no arrogance, no patronizing mantle of the priesthood, no demands for obedience. He seems to be a guy who sincerely wants to do the right thing and isn’t afraid to publicly admit that spiritual leadership can be intimidating and awe-inspiring.

Today’s comic floored me. One of Hayward’s gifts is to distil issues that affect all religious communities. This particular cartoon wasn’t targeted at Mormonism, but it nails the LDS Church with as much precision as South Park’s episodes “Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?” and “Probably“:

From the big, broad desk that creates an impassable boundary of authority between the bishop and his visitor, to the hole in the floor that causes the dissenter to drop out of existence, that’s how it works. The man who sits behind an enormous desk and resorts to booby traps to do away with honest dissent is not a spiritual leader who speaks for God. He is a coward who refuses to engage someone because he probably knows deep down that he’d lose in a fair fight.

Kicking people out of the church is not something that was ever associated with Jesus. As a practice it is deeply tied to political power and maintaining authority by the privileged group. All early excommunications had to do with those who preached a nonconformist theology — Simon Magus, Montanus, Marcion of Sinope, Valentinus, Novation, Sabellius, Arius . . . The list goes on. After the rise of institutional Catholicism excommunication became a means of preserving dogmatic control and silencing debate. By the middle ages, Kings and Popes were excommunicating each other as they squabbled for power in Europe. Throwing someone out of the church is tied to attempting to discredit someone and deprive them of a voice or authority among fellow believers.

“Excommunicate” means “to cut off from communion.” To deny someone community, companionship, and common fellows. If you look at the word in a more concrete sense — Ex Communicate — the point hits home. Like an ex spouse or ex friend, an ex communicate has also lost a line of communication. They’ve been shut out. They may want to have a conversation, but the powers that be aren’t interested in returning the favour.

Mormons also use the term “Disfellowship” to describe a lesser form of ex communication, which usually lasts a year and isn’t meant to be permanent. But I don’t really know if I’d want to go back to people who wanted to “Dis-Fellow” me, or deprive me of friendship and peers. Terms of disfellowshipment include not being allowed to pray in public or address the congregation — again, depriving the victim of communication.

What would Jesus do, when confronted with someone engaged in a serious personal struggle with theology? I certainly don’t think he’d kick them out. Excommunication as a term and procedure isn’t in the bible, and the scriptural references used to justify it are vague at best. I’ve heard Mormons use Matthew 18:8-9 to explain why we excommunicate. But the metaphor talks about one person and their own body; it seems to really be about self-purification, and that jives with Jesus’ numerous teachings about minding your own business and not wasting your time looking out for sinners to stone.

Excommunication is no different from forcible conversion. I don’t see any difference between LDS authorities who call a “court of love” and the Spaniards who forcibly made Catholics of American Indians or Muslims who offered conversion or beheading to those they conquered. Dragging someone in or out of a faith system has nothing to do with what is in the best interest of church members. It has everything to do with what is in the best interest of church leaders.

3 thoughts on “WWJD?

  1. You make an excellent point. What people fail to perceive, I think, is that the verses used to support excommunication (most notably, I think, the discussion in John of the vine and branch) aren’t talking about being cut off from the church, but from God Himself. Very clearly, I think, Jesus makes the point that we, and we alone, can cut ourselves off from Heavenly Father. It’s not about what we do, but about what’s in our hearts–another point Jesus makes consistently throughout Matthew. For someone else to “shut the Kingdom of Heaven” in your face (Matt. 23) is for them to deny THEMSELVES access to God–not the person they’re trying to deny.

    God is welcoming, and so should the community of Christ be; wherever two believers gather, there His church is, and all that. I see a glimmer of this in church doctrine re: salvation, that we all get another chance to accept the Gospel after we die. God doesn’t reject us; even when we reject Him, it’s never final.

    Therefore, it’s especially unfortunate that so many church members–of all denominations–spend their time judging each other. What ever happened to praying in a closet, to holding your faith close? I see a lot of the Pharisees not so much in church doctrine, but in church members. As a caveat, I honestly think it’s worse in the Northeast; it takes more work to be religious, here, and I think such an oppositional culture brings out the worst in some people.

  2. You had me with you right up until that end bit. Sure, excommunicating people is bad, but it’s really not in the same category as actually beheading people. IMHO.

  3. They’re similar in this way: they’re creating systems, where survival depends on homogeneity. You can join, or you can suffer. No, beheading someone isn’t the same as excommunicating them, but what IS the same is making someone’s continued quality of life dependent on a certain belief system. The Spaniards told the Moriscos they could convert, and conform, or leave Spain; they could leave, but their lives as they knew it (home, community, profession) were over. Likewise, today, many people’s continued life-as-they-know-it depends on espousing LDS beliefs: jobs, neighborhood associations, marriages, other family relationships, and friendships are at stake.

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