Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.

                The last two posts on the Millennial Mormons blog have sent me thinking. Obviously my mind first went to Chinese literature and political philosophy. In what follows, I’ve tried to outline what I find troubling in the attitudes of Blake Oakley and Samantha Shelley. A brief recap of what they said: Blake Oakley reemphasized the astounding fact that the Church’s doctrine has not changed in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, while Samantha Oakley wrote thatthe Church, and Jesus, still love gay people. It’s the last bit that draws my attention, and that’s the aspect I’d like to address.
                I left a comment on the post that was sadly censored, but I’ll repost it here:

“The problem is not that “the church” “hates” LGBT people. The problem is that the culture and system of thought we have created cause LGBT people to hate themselves.

There are a few important points in what I just said that will raise questions:

1) “The culture and system of thought we have created”

I’m sure your first reaction to that statement will be that this is the revealed word of the Lord. The problem with holding to that is that in order to believe that anything is revealed by God by prophets, you either have to believe that EVERYTHING every prophet has ever taught AS COMING FROM GOD is in fact truth revealed from God, or you have to have an alternative method by which to judge what is and is not revelation.

If you choose the former, then by necessity, you believe: that everything Brigham Young ever taught was the word of God (he taught that there wasn’t a single word he had uttered on the pulpit that wasn’t the will of God)–this includes blood atonement, that slavery is moral, and that black people are inherently inferior. I doubt you accept that as the word and will of God.

That leaves you to choose the second option–that there has to be some criterion external to revelation by which we gauge whether or not what the prophet says EVEN WHEN THEY SAY IT IS THE WILL OF GOD (because Brigham Young did). To believe this you must, by necessity, believe that there is something higher and more important than revelation.

To discover what that criterion is, ask yourself this: in 1852 Brigham Young testified that slavery was ordained of God; would you as a Latter-day Saint at that time be morally obligated to believe that, or morally obligated to stand against God’s prophet and make arguments against slavery? If so, by what criteria would you judge the morality of Brigham Young’s assertion?

What’s happening here is far more complicated than revelation. I posit that it is the process of cultural creation. We create the culture, call it revelation, and then marginalize people as a result. For more information on the evolution of church doctrine over time, see the book “This is My Doctrine,” available on Amazon.

2) What causes LGBT people to hate themselves?

If it was only one or two LGBT people experiencing self-hatred or loathing for their attractions to people of the same sex or gender dysmorphia, then we could call it a statistical fluke. Based on research from John Dehlin, the accounts of LGBT people, and my own experience as a gay man in the church, I can say with surety that it is far more than just a few. Every LGBT person I have ever met has experienced deep hatred of themselves, their situation, or their life at one point or another. Because of its common occurrence, we must assume that there is some external variable causing this phenomenon.

All evidence that I have received and my own personal experience points that it is the very culture and system of thought we call “the church” or “Mormonism” that causes this. It is the very doctrines of the church that create a world view under which LGBT people do not belong in the eternities–they must first be transformed into something they are not or have never been–in effect, to gain exaltation, they must die.

Your sentiments here are well-intentioned, but they fail to grasp the heart of the issue. And the heart of the issue is this: that our experience in life is created by the paradigm through which we approach it, that our paradigms are constructed, and that any paradigm we construct that marginalizes people, causes disproportionate numbers of youth to be on the streets (see the LGBT youth homelessness rate in Utah), causes disproportionate amounts of people to kill themselves (see the research on LGBT youth suicide in conservative communities, and especially Utah), fails to live up to the values of universal compassion that we espouse as the crowning value of our faith community.

Declarations of “this is the word of God” are not and never will be enough in the face of the realities of self-hatred, youth homelessness, and suicide that I argue are the result of the system of thought you present. And yes, sadly, that implicates anyone and everyone who is a part of furthering the cultural paradigm that causes these phenomena. Me, you, and each of us bear responsibility.

May we all be brave enough to rethink our deeply held beliefs, because in the final analysis, beliefs are not sacred. Human life is.”

And now for the Chinese literature.
Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman,” published in 1918, laid the foundation of China’s “New Culture Movement.” Suffering from paranoia, the purported author of the diary brings the reader with him on his slow descent into madness. First, he fears that the Zhao family’s dog is somehow angry at him. Then, out on the street, he notices how everyone is talking about him. They’re watching him. They’re whispering plots against him. “It’s as if they’re afraid of me,” he writes, “but also as if they want to hurt me.” What is it? What could they be planning? What were they going to do?
                They wanted to eat him. He realizes it in third entry—the people on the street, his neighbors, and even his older brother were all planning on eating him. This sends the madman on a
frightened journey towards the source of their cannibalistic designs. Looking for any precedence in history, he looks back through the Confucian classics. Confucianism had been the foundation of Chinese society for nearly two thousand years. As he reads through the books, the madman slowly realizes that the hidden meaning between “benevolence,” “way,” and “virtue” was “eat people,” “eat people,” “eat people.”
                In the final scenes of the book, the community and elder brother confront the madman. As he begins to promise them that they can change—that they don’t need to eat him or anyone else—that there is still hope for them, they call him “crazy” and lock him in his room. In the closing passages, written in the confinement of his room, the mandman realizes that it’s too late to save any of them. But the children—they haven’t been corrupted yet. And so his diary ends with a simple plea. “Save the children.”
                The most striking piece of Lu Xun’s short story is what’s left out. While it’s very clear that the community thinks he is mad, there is never any explanation of whether or not he was correct about the people’s cannibalism. This forces the reader to ask a question—the very question that propelled readers of “Diary of a Madman” to rise up against the Confucian culture of the past—was the madman insane because he was imagining the cannibalism? Or was it because he was insane enough to speak against it?
                This question is reminiscent of the works of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Attending the trial of Nazi war criminal Albert Eichmann, Arendt was struck that he didn’t seem particularly evil. In fact, he was disappointingly normal. He didn’t personally make the abhorrent decisions—he only carried out orders given to him from above. And yet, his work was responsible for the death of millions of Jews. Reflecting on the trial, Arendt wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which she argued that Eichmann’s evil was not spectacular in its villainy, but in its banality. In the German philosophical tradition, banality represented simple thoughtlessness; a refusal to engage in the critical thinking necessary for true selfhood and true moral living. Eichmann simply carried out the orders someone gave to him, refusing to consider his individual actions as carrying moral weight.
                Likewise, Lu Xun’s madman notes that no one particular person was to blame for the cannibalism that threatened his life. Rather, it was the system of customs and traditions that shaped them. Lu Xun’s critique was that the Confucian moral system turned people against each other, causing the rich to metaphorically consume the poor, and even families to turn against one another. But because they held Confucianism as sacred, they were trapped up in the banality of evil. Eichmann was not particularly wicked. He could have been anyone’s father or grandfather. He was merely convinced of the sacredness of Nazism. He held his beliefs as sacred. And the result was the ultimate tragedy.
                I hesitate to use the example of Eichmann because the hyperbole of Nazism is not directly applicable to the conversation of LGBT issues and Mormonism. I do not mean to say that any of my further analysis bears any resemblance to that particular brand of pure evil; I bring it up to explain and emphasize the banal characteristic of evil.
Walking away from Arendt’s insight and Lu Xun’s madman, we are forced to ask ourselves a series of questions. Are beliefs sacred? Can what we believe be a source of harm to other people? Are values we hold up, like “charity,” “obedience,” and “traditional family,” really just masks for “eat people,” “eat people,” “eat people”? I argue that these questions are essential for anyone who takes morality seriously. And I argue that your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.

                I’ve got to qualify this. Belief is a complex process driven by sacred personal experiences, family connections, and deep historical relationships. I don’t mean to say that personal experiences with the divine are not sacred. I don’t mean to say that family relationships are not sacred. What I mean to say is that your conclusions in regards to what they mean are not sacred.
                We encounter a problem when people begin to lead conclusion-driven lives. When people treat their beliefs as sacred, they act as if the conversation is closed. Their beliefs enter a realm beyond questioning and beyond criticism. The answer has been reached. The solutions are at hand. This is how the Confucians in “Diary of a Madman” approached life. This is how Albert Eichmann approached things. And this is how so many on both sides of LGBT issues in Mormonism approach things. And I include myself in this criticism.
                But obviously I do have an agenda with this post. I’d love to say that we just need to listen to each other and everything would be fine. And I do think that we should listen to each other more. But equally important in that process is speaking up. And this is what I have to say about the church’s love for LGBT members:
                Behind the sincere (and I do think they’re sincere) expressions of love lies a dire, albeit banal phenomenon. The problem is not one of intention—it is systemic. As a system of belief, Mormonism simply precludes eternal LGBT identities. This leaves LGBT Mormons floundering for a place. And it results in real harms—youth homelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
                And so I say that Mormonism eats LGBT people.
                Let me repeat myself: Mormonism eats LGBT people.
             And so, Samantha Shelley, when you tell me the church and Jesus love LGBT people, what so many of us hear is not "come, let us love you," but "come, let us feast on you." 
And this is a banal phenomenon. It is not purposeful. It happens because people hold their beliefs to be more important than the sanctity of life. It is a tragedy. And tragically those who realize it are often labeled insane. Doubters and LGBT people alike can easily identify with Lu Xun’s madman when, in regards to the eyes that peer at him and the whispers he hears around him, he says “it’s as if they’re afraid of me…but also as if they want to hurt me.”
I end now with the same wish I wrote at the end of my censored comment.
May we all, myself included, have the bravery to question everything we believe. Because your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.
In fact, they may just be eating people.

No comments:

Post a Comment