My Last Sunday School Class

The last time I went to Sunday School I was home visiting my parents. At this point I hadn’t attended church regularly in years, but when I went home it wasn’t so bad seeing familiar faces and getting the chance to sing a few hymns. Most of the lyrics were rubbish but I like working through each harmony line in a four-part hymn.

The Sunday School lesson was on the bit in the Old Testament where the Hebrews go to war against pretty much anybody they come across on their way from Egypt to their final home in Palestine. The teacher, a former bishop who had given me positively oodles of terrible personal advice under the guise of revealing God’s will to me, waxed poetic about the virtues of slaughtering not only all the men, but every last woman, child, cow, chicken, pig, ox, and dormouse in a conquered city.

I had been out of Church long enough that I didn’t receive this with the same glassy-eyed acceptance that seemed to possess the rest of the class. I hadn’t heard the story in long enough, and my mind had been cleared enough, that when I heard this I instantly thought to myself, this story is unbelievably messed up.

I couldn’t come right out and say it, because that would have roused the entranced zombies from their scripture-induced coma and caused them to attack my brains. But I still wanted to make a go of it, so I raised my hand and adopted the well-practised tone of self-doubting humility that Mormon women unconsciously master by the age of twelve and said the following:

“I find this story difficult to deal with. The idea that a loving Heavenly Father would want people to murder civilian men, women, children, and even their pets and livestock just doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. How important is it that this story be literally true? Isn’t it possible that whatever scribe was writing out this story just got a bit overexcited with patriotism when retelling a war story? Couldn’t this be hyperbole, as when a football fan describes a match saying things like “We slaughtered them. We destroyed them. We pulled down the stadium and burned it to the ground.” I think a lot of people might agree that it causes concern when people say it’s all right to murder children because God told them to. We certainly don’t put up with people like that today.”

The Sunday School teacher had no answer, but a kindly, matronly woman I’d known since I was a small child spoke up after me, saying she had similar feelings about this tale. A few old people who had been dozing in the back row blinked and looked around, having been roused be the sudden sound of everyone inhaling sharply and holding their breath nervously.

The bishop was in the lesson that day, and he instantly took over the conversation. He shifted in his chair so that he could twist to look right at me. He jabbed his finger in my direction and said:

“You just don’t understand the will of the Lord. Those children would have grown up to be wicked, so it was better to kill them before that happened. We know that this is how it happened because Moses wrote it himself, and to say that this isn’t literally true is to question God’s judgement.”

It wasn’t his words, but rather his tone and the quickness of his assertion that drew the attention of the room with far greater alarm than anything I had said. Literally everyone blushed, gasped, or simply stared at the man with an expression that read, “Wow. You are a bit of a cunt.”

When I had heard through the grapevine that this man had been appointed bishop, I was surprised. He was a man who engaged in questionable business practices that were very likely illegal, and everybody knew it. He had wealth and flouted it whilst being notoriously stingy and harsh toward his children. He was cruel and humourless and could not take any kind of joke for any reason whatsoever. And this was the best the ward could come up with for their Dear Leader?

The kindly old lady looked at me and gave a knowing wink and nod. Even if she didn’t suspect that I was a closeted apostate, she did want me to know that I wasn’t crazy for being rational and it wasn’t wrong for me to speak up. She probably took it as a comfort that a young person seemed unafraid of allowing for personal interpretation.

I had no such comfort. On that day I realised that Mormonism is beyond redemption and not worth the effort of trying to reform. It’s a spiritual Ponzi scheme run by snake oil salesman, and every copy of the Book of Mormon ought to be stamped with a warning label reading “THE CONTENTS OF THIS BOOK ARE A LOAD OF RUBBISH.” I could show up once in a while and try to change things with honest questions, or I could even take the old woman’s route of quietly living as a member with tolerant ideas, hoping for better days. But nothing would change so long as the people with authority were the kind of men who thought genocide was perfectly fine so long as somebody’s invisible friend thought it was a swell idea.

I never went to Church again after that. I made sure to schedule visits to family and friends so that I’d never be around on a Sunday. I didn’t want to waste my time being alternately bored, offended, or angered by lies and lies about lies. I didn’t want to have to pretend I was a believer and then make awkward excuses for never bearing my testimony with all the requisite tears and clichés. I didn’t want to not have an answer when people asked me what calling I did not have in the home ward I did not attend. It just wasn’t worth it.

So bishop, should you ever stumble across this post, I hope by now you’ve thought about what you said, and how it made you sound like a manic Jihadi in front of people who were meant to trust you. I hope you’ve changed, but if you haven’t, It’s not too late to quit being a twat.

And that’s all the energy I care to expend on making LDS Inc. a better place.

Guest Post by St. Ain’t: “Everybody put your hands up!”

In a few days, SLC will be cheek by jowl with party members ready for the annual “I’m part of the Mormon elite, how ’bout you?” zip up your magic Wonder Undies and join the General Conference doodah parade on Temple Square. Members will be solemnly asked to raise their hands and sustain the board of directors, um, the general authorities of LD$ Inc.

But how effective has the practice of sustaining its leadership been in stemming the flood of abuse cases in the Mormon church? Is a balance between supporting the church and providing protection and support for abuse victims possible? Let’s examine the last few decades.

If you look at the number of reported incidents of ecclesiastical abuse (see Mormon Alliance.org), coupled with the number of court cases in the US alone, to cite just a few. Using this method has been as effective as calling 911 six months after a life-threatening emergency.

“Sustaining leadership” is one of the many tools of coercion used to keep the church members in lock-step with the ga’s humanly flawed will. It is a weapon of fear used to muzzle victims and parents who, in good faith, go to their Bishop to report abuse. And it is the nail in the cognitive coffin for those, like me, that have gone to their leaders expecting help and instead are told to keep quiet and not harm the church, don’t hurt the priesthood holder/guilty party, and to acknowledge their (the victim’s) part of the blame. The victim’s silence is then guaranteed for the rest of their lives by having it become a condition of Temple recommends, church callings, and their exalted (or not) status in the next life.

Can you imagine a 9 year old standing up in church and voting to not sustain a Bishop because she had told him in her baptism interview the year before that her Daddy touched her in naughty places and she begged the Bishop to get him to stop, but the Bishop did nothing? Should the mother stand up instead, when she has been told by that same Bishop that the abuse happens because she hasn’t been ‘submitting’ to her husband as instructed by the scriptures?

Or maybe the 12 year old boy who’s been abused by his Scout leader since Webelos? Certainly not the boy’s father, who was abused by his scout leader 20 years before and the dad’s church calling (and in many cases his job) is dependent on sustaining the ward and stake leadership.

The church says that it is perfect, but the members are not. Then why does this perfect church act more like a corporation intent on the $$$ bottom line, than the disciples of christ it claims to be? The LDS church declares itself the “one true faith”; yet Mormons share the same horrific record as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews and other insular religious societies; 1 out of 4 Mormon girls, 1 out of 6 boys will be abused.

Rather than change procedures to protect its most valuable asset (children, as future members) the church seeks only to limit its liability. The CHI tells the Bishop to check with local and state laws first, and only to notify authorities in abuse cases if they are required to by law. And the church has a cadre of lawyers assigned to challenge those legal requirements. It’s about monetary liability, not moral obligation to its most vulnerable members.

Christ said suffer the children to come unto Him; shouldn’t this apply to the victims coming to their church leaders for protection, counseling and ultimately, healing? Unless the church faces up to the fallibility of its leadership and changes policy and procedures accordingly, the abuse will continue.

Until then, raising your hands serves only to stir the hot air spouted from the podium.

The post that will get me excommunicated

I didn’t pay any attention to Ginrul Confernz, as my BYU brethren were wont to pronounce it. I spent the weekend pubbing and clubbing in my hometown. (It’s the rather sprawly one with the horribly oversized airport on the lower right corner of the map.) The advantage of this laziness is that I can reap the fruit of everyone else’s labour.

Looks like most of the talks were the usual — follow the prophet, gender roles, tithing, missionary work et cetera et cetera. Apart from honourable mention given to the soppy yet sweet talk on gratitude by CEO Monson, the headline-grabber was Boyd K. Packer’s latest assault on The Gay.

This evening @porlob put forth the question: “Anyone else starting to think Boyd K. Packer is a big ol’ closet-case? He’s always had hangups on sex and and gayness.”

The answer: Yes. Unequivocally, absolutely, unreservedly. No person who devotes as much of their professional career as Packer has to sexual repression and denial can possibly be a healthy individual. Given the timely release of the most comprehensive study of American sexual behaviour ever, it seems that 8% of American males are gay or bisexual. (My guess is that the number is likely a percentage point or two higher, given that homosexuality is very likely to be under-reported due to stigma.) Eight percent. Let’s see. There are twelve apostles in the LDS church. What’s one divided by twelve? Gee whiz, it’s eight percent.

Based on pure statistics, somebody in the quorum is just a little more fabulous than the rest. My money’s on Packer. He was the 10th of 11 children; younger sons are more likely to be gay. Each older brother increases the probability of being gay by a third. Packer is the fifth son.

It’s interesting that all published accounts of Packer’s courtship with his wife, Donna, show her as the initiator. The story goes that Packer was asked to give a talk in a ward he did not usually attend. His future wife was present and thought to herself “Now, this is the type of man I would wish to marry.”

If there’s one central theme to Packer’s career, it’s self-denial. Glancing over the greatest hits of his career, it’s easy to see the signs of a deeply conflicted man who represses himself so badly that he can’t ponder a world where all men don’t need similar restraints. This is a bloke who disdains art and music if it doesn’t serve a utilitarian function of promoting “The Spirit.” I found a fairly comprehensive list of his speeches, and a disproportionate number are addressed at the youth, and a disproportionate number address masturbation, sex and pornography. It is nearly impossible for him to give a talk that is aimed at youth without sexualising them to some degree. These highlights stuck out at me, and I think they offer us a glimpse into his state of mind when we consider that his talks may be aimed at himself as much as they were at us:

  1. 1965: I’m a Person: In an uncharacteristic speech, Packer tells us we should “feel free, perfectly free, uninhibited” and affirms the importance of feeling like “a person” with “eternal worth.” This hardly sounds like the mean-spirited old man we hear from today.
  2. 1970: The Path to Manhood: Packer’s appropriately-titled début as a member of the twelve highlights the necessity of marrying a woman in the temple and pillow talk with his military bunkmate in which he asks “What did I do wrong?” He relates how a military supervisor told him that he was too uptight and needed to go out and have some fun. Packer congratulates himself for never giving in to self-gratification.
  3. 1972: Why Stay Morally Clean?: Packer tells teenagers to stay out of each others’ pants. Sex is only for procreation, and nobody has any reason to grope one another.
  4. 1976: To Young Men Only: Don’t touch yourself. Self-gratification is evil. Gay sex is evil. If you touch yourself, you will go gay. If someone tries to get gay with you, beat them up.
  5. 1981: Marriage – Divorce is evil. Sex is only permitted in marriage. Do not lose faith in marriage. Do not lose faith in marriage. Do not lose faith in marriage.
  6. 1986: Little Children – The top two gravest threats to children are the idea that any two adults can have sex even if they aren’t married and “misuse of that procreative power in degraded acts of perversion is widely promoted as the right of consenting adults.” The biggest threat to kids is two people enjoying themselves in a consensual relationship. Not lack of access to education, physical abuse, or malnutrition.
  7. 1989: To Young Women and Men – AIDS and crack and Satanism is your doom if you give into temptation.
  8. 1993: Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council – Gays, lesbians, feminists and intellectuals (all groups that advocate self-acceptance and explosion of stigmatising gender roles) are the greatest threat the church faces.
  9. 1996: The Unwritten Order of Things – Even when you are dead, you don’t deserve to have some attention for yourself. Even your funeral needs to be co-opted as a marketing tool for The Church. High-ranking priesthood leaders should never indulge themselves and come down from the stand to sit with their families during church. Don’t ever ask to be released from a calling.
  10. 1997: The Father and the Family – Packer begins with an overtly sexual definition of why people have families but later reprises his wish that everyone can feel like “a person.”
  11. 2009: Counsel to Young Men – Stay pure and worthy. Don’t wank and don’t let anyone else wank for you.
  12. 2010: October Conference – Gay is a choice. The church will continue to try to stigmatise homosexual relationships by preventing them from gaining social and legal standing.

It makes sense that a man who refuses to confront his own sexuality would give sermons demonizing free thought demonising self-indulgence. The most telling passage, for me, comes from “For Young Men Only.” Dim the lights and read this passage aloud to yourself in a sultry voice. It quickly becomes clear that no person comfortable with their sexuality could have possibly imagined that the following would have any value in a meeting meant for spiritual education:

Now a warning! I am hesitant to even mention it, for it is not pleasant. It must be labeled as major transgression. But I will speak plainly. There are some circumstances in which young men may be tempted to handle one another, to have contact with one another physically in unusual ways. Latter-day Saint young men are not to do this. Sometimes this begins in a moment of idle foolishness, when boys are just playing around. But it is not foolishness. It is remarkably dangerous. Such practices, however tempting, are perversion. When a young man is finding his way into manhood, such experiences can misdirect his normal desires and pervert him not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. It was intended that we use this power only with our partner in marriage. I repeat, very plainly, physical mischief with another man is forbidden. It is forbidden by the Lord. There are some men who entice young men to join them in these immoral acts. If you are ever approached to participate in anything like that, it is time to vigorously resist.

Now skip to the following and imagine yourself alone in a room, penning these words, tears trickling down your face as you force yourself to believe them:

There is a falsehood that some are born with an attraction to their own kind, with nothing they can do about it. They are just “that way” and can only yield to those desires. That is a malicious and destructive lie. While it is a convincing idea to some, it is of the devil. No one is locked into that kind of life. From our premortal life we were directed into a physical body. There is no mismatching of bodies and spirits. Boys are to become men –masculine, manly men –ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.

Verbal self-flagellation if I ever read it. If you are trying to force yourself to believe such words, the best method would be to get others to believe them too. The level of obsession is ridiculous. Packer’s in the closet, but the door is made of glass. The cheap shot that I simply can’t avoid taking is the irony of a repressed self-loathing gay man with the surname of “Packer.” He is someone to be pitied and loathed. When he shuffles off the mortal coil, the world will be a better place. In different circumstances, he could have led a happier and more productive life. However, the part of me that wants to forgive him for being the victim of a system that assaulted his identity from birth is overwhelmed by the part of me that holds him responsible for the deaths of countless LGBT youth.

Come out of the closet, Boyd. It isn’t too late. You can’t take back the years of agony you inflicted on the trusting souls who believed you spoke for God, but now that you’re at the end of your life and your health is beginning to fail, would it really be so bad to go through the last rite of honesty?

WWJD?

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.