Sunday, November 15, 2015

Truth, Lord, Yet the Dogs Eat of the Crumbs...

My initial reaction to the new LDS Church Handbook of Instructions' directives regarding the children of gay couples was something akin to horror. Excommunicating individuals in same-sex marriages was one thing, but why exclude the kids? Wasn't that directly contradictory to the Savior's own teaching regarding children, that his disciples should suffer them to come unto him?

But as I began to reflect more deeply on precisely what the Church is doing through this policy clarification, it dawned on me that this situation is far more complex than it appears either to conservatives or liberals in Mormondom. The piece of this policy which is new -- the policy excluding children of same-sex couples from membership in the Church -- is the piece that both conservatives and liberals have had the most difficulty understanding. Many conservatives have leapt to the defense of the policy by suggesting it is about protecting children from confusing contradictions, or because the children of gay couples are analogous to the children of polygamists. But as I will explain briefly in a bit, neither of those explanations really hold up to scrutiny. Liberals, on the other hand, have viewed that part of the policy as a desperate attempt on the part of Church leaders to insulate the Church from pro-gay thinking, though, as I will also explain, that also doesn't really hold up either.

There are scriptural texts that read on this policy, and they are neither Matthew 19:13-14 ("the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, suffer little children...") nor Declaration No. 1. They are Mark 7:25-30 / Matthew 15:22 -28. These are texts which I think neither conservatives nor liberals will be inclined to read on the new policy on children, even though it seems to me the text most analogous to this situation.

Matthew and Mark both offer an account of a Gentile woman who comes to Jesus seeking a blessing for her daughter, and being rebuffed and refused by Jesus, who explains to her that "it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs" (Mark 7:27). Here's the full version of the story as recounted in Matthew:
And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (emphasis is mine)
This perplexing story doesn't fit the nice, liberal paradigm of a fuzzy, warm Jesus who blesses everybody regardless of race or sexual orientation. In fact, it's hard not to read this text without cringing at Jesus' seeming insult to the woman based on her nationality. But neither does it fit the conservative paradigm of Jesus loving everybody while drawing a hard line against sin. Here, sin has nothing to do with Jesus' act of exclusion. And Jesus, in the end blesses the child because of the woman's persistent and humble faith (though he might not have blessed, if the woman had not persevered). Liberals will fret about this text, because to them it looks like Jesus is unnecessarily toying with or testing someone rather than immediately giving her what she needs for the well-being of her child. Conservatives will reject the application of this text to the new policy on the kids of gay couples because the scope of the Church's work was eventually broadened to encompass Gentiles, something they refuse to consider as possible in relation to gays. But I say, what if what is going on here in terms of the new policy is more complex (and wonderful) than what either liberals or conservatives are willing to countenance at the moment?

Something dawned on me one morning as I reflected on the question: "But... Why the children?" The argument about protecting the children from contradictory and confusing messages makes no sense. There is not a single child in the world who is not already bombarded by a host of messages that contradict what they learn in the home. America has always been roiled in controversy about what kids are taught in schools. Kids learn stuff on the playground, on TV and on the Internet that horrify most parents, gay and straight. LDS parents, of all parents, should know that you simply can't protect kids against contradictory messages. It makes even less sense given that LDS leaders have said children of gay couples are certainly welcome to attend church; just not be members of it. How will that not send a confusing or contradictory message to these kids?

Nor does the argument about kids of gay couples being analogous to kids of polygamous couples make much sense. The reason for that earlier prohibition was rooted in the Church's complicated history with polygamy, a practice based on a doctrine which the Church has never formally disavowed. Kids of gay couples are not going to grow up and enter same-sex marriages (unless they are gay). There's no need for them to "disavow" the practice in order guarantee that they won't enter into it themselves.

Liberals have been arguing that since neither of those rationales for the policy make sense, the only reasonable remaining explanation is the LDS Church hierarchy's animus against gay people, and its desire to keep pro-gay sentiment out of the Church. Exclude the kids and you will not only drive the parents away, but also prevent members of the Church from seeing that not only are gay couples normal, but their kids are just as well adjusted and happy as everyone else's.

I do not find that liberal argument compelling first because of personal experience with the Church's hierarchy that persuades me they in fact hold no animus against gay people: quite the contrary. But also, because I know that growing numbers of Church members already view their gay family members and neighbors in very positive terms, and I do not believe that Church leaders are naive enough to think it will be possible (or even necessarily desirable) to prevent pro-gay attitudes from spreading in the Church.

Defining same-sex marriage as apostasy has also upset liberal Mormons and the LGBT community. The upset is understandable, given the extremely pejorative connotations of the word "apostate" in Mormon circles. But in the strictest sense, the term apostasy is used by the LDS Church simply to differentiate between what is doctrine and what is not. Its purpose is to uphold the teaching authority of the Church, not to classify people in negative terms. And what this policy clarification does is simply to affirm what Church leaders have repeatedly stated in every major recent pronouncement on this subject: that same-sex marriage stands outside the official doctrine of the church. No one should be surprised by this. This is not news.

But in the flurry of arguments about whether the policy relating to the children of gay couples is discriminatory or not and whether it was motivated by animus, people have failed to recognize that the new policy, by addressing the status of children, seems to be the church's first ever recognition that gay couples and their children constitute a family unit. It is albeit a family unit that stands outside the doctrine of the Church. But this recognition, to me, is the only thing that makes sense of the policy as it relates to children.

This simultaneous strengthening of the doctrinal position and the recognition of a kind of integrity of gay families is particularly poignant, given the LDS Church view of salvation as something that happens in and through families. Does this point to a gap between the doctrine as it is currently articulated, and the fullness of human experience, as manifested in gay families?

If it does, this is where Biblical texts related to the New Testament "grafting in" of the Gentiles (such as the story of the "woman of Canaan") become interesting. Mormon liberals frequently compare today's LGBT concerns to the LDS Church's problem of blacks and the priesthood. But in terms of the theological challenge, the relationship of LGBT people to the Church looks much more like the relationship between Gentiles and the Church in ancient times. Unlike the exclusion of blacks from Priesthood ordination in modern times, Gentiles were not excluded in the ancient Church on the basis of race or lineage. Gentiles could join the Church, but in order to do so, they had to submit to the Mosaic law and be circumcised, among other things. What was momentous about the revelation Peter received in Acts 10, and the subsequent baptism of the Gentile Cornelius and his entire household (everyone who claimed his home as their primary residence?), was that it set aside the law that the Church abided at that time. (The Lord to Peter: "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.") The subsequent confusion caused by Peter's precipitous baptism of Cornelius was later clarified at the Council of Jerusalem (described in Acts 15). It was no longer necessary for Gentiles (or anyone) to submit to the Mosaic law in order to be a member of the Church.

Like pre-Jerusalem-Council Gentiles, modern gays can be members of the Church, but in order to do so they must submit to ecclesiastical law that forbids them from having intimate relationships or legal same-sex marriage. The only scriptural law currently prohibiting homosexual behavior is found in the Book of Leviticus, part of the very law that the Council of Jerusalem set aside.

I don't think Christ in the Mark 7 / Matthew 15 texts was merely testing the faith of the woman of Canaan. He was making a clear cut statement about the scope of his ministry, in much the same way, I think, that the LDS Church's current handbook policy regarding gay families does. The exchange between Jesus and the woman about bread, children, crumbs and dogs revealed that saving faith was not confined to the children of Israel; and it was at the point where the nature of this particular woman's faith revealed itself that Christ literally could no longer withhold the blessing from her. "Her daughter was made whole from that very hour."

Another core principle of the Gospel that applies in this situation has to do with the Lord's declaration that he is "no respecter of persons." Regardless of our status in or out of the Church, we are all equal in the sight of God. The happenstances of race or lineage or economic station or gender or sexual orientation or whatever other incidentals that make differences between us in this world are all part of the "person," the outward aspect, that God does not look upon. "For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). In D&C section 1, the Lord says "I am no respecter of persons," but he contrasts that declaration with a world order in which "the devil shall have power over his own dominion," before the Lord "shall reign [in the midst of the Saints], and shall come down in judgment upon Idumea, or the world" (vs. 35-36). Does the Lord remind us that he is no respecter of persons here to emphasize that one of the primary sins of the world upon which he shall come down in judgment is its elevation of the outward over the inward, of the superficial over the substantial, of the "person" over the eternal? Perhaps a necessary precursor to the Lord's coming down will be to eliminate those worldly distinctions from our midst, a work still in progress.

The LDS Church hierarchy has named members of the LGBT community "apostates," something on a par with Jesus referring to Gentiles as "dogs." There may still be, even in the wake of this policy clarification which has cut so many so deeply, LGBT Mormons in same-sex relationships who are willing to persevere in faith within the LDS community. My sense is that if we do, there will be blessings Christ cannot possibly withhold from us or, for that matter, our children.


liesel said...

I really appreciate reading of the depth and humility and testimony in your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them. This was great food for thought.

austinrory said...

Thanks for this John. Very thoughtful. I always appreciate your insights.

MoHoHawaii said...

Unfortunately, the real reason for this policy is probably legal. The best read I have of the situation is that the Church is laying the groundwork of a legal strategy to be used by its for-profit businesses against anti-discrimination laws and Obamacare. Under the recent Hobby Lobby ruling by the Supreme Court, "religious freedom" can be asserted by closely-held corporations. In order to bolster a Hobby Lobby-style defense, the Church thinks it needs to lay some groundwork now, such as transforming its rejection of gay marriages to be based on doctrinal rather than moral reasons. In short, Bonneville International and Zions Bank want to deny benefits to legally married gay couples on the basis that such marriages, while fully recognized as legitimate, are contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of their owner.

To me, the fact that the Church seems perfectly willing to cause harm to itself, its reputation, its members and to the innocent children who will be affected by the policy is horrifying enough. That this is most likely being done to protect its for-profit businesses, instead of for any coherent doctrinal or pastoral reason, is beyond horrifying.

Who Me? said...

MoHoHawaii, let's start out with some clarification. Zions Bank is a publicly held company. You can buy stock in it. There's no way the church is trying to keep Zion's bank from having to give benefits to it's gay worker's families, because it's not a closely held company.

I don't see the kind of vendetta against gays that you seem to perceive among the church leaders. The church generally keeps its for-profit businesses in alignment with standard practices, and I suspect that includes benefits for family members of gay employees. The not-for-profit enterprises are a different matter, of course, but I doubt that it played a role in the policy change.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting read. But the overwhelming truth about this situation can be read more plainly. Church leaders, acting in the name of God, are promoting the idea that gay people and their children are not equal or worthy, to be whole within the church or community.

The practical effect of their promotion of this policy is to do harm gay people and their children for being who they are. No other way around it.

My words are not the sentiments of Satan, but simply reflect the sensibilities of American law, justice and morality.

While you may feel nothing but sincerity in your relationships with the Apostles and their motivations, the practical effect of their policy, and their active promotion of it, is incredibly harmful to gay people and their families.

Joseph Smith was a progressive young man. Today's Church is led by very conservative old men. Their views on gay people appear to be less a reflection of God's will than the culture and world view they know best.