Sunday, September 13, 2009

Elder Ballard on Defensiveness --

I read a talk by Elder M. Russell Ballard lately that I wanted to comment on. Some of the turning points in my faith of late are coming not because of the historical details surrounding the LDS church’s founding, but because of things the current leaders are saying. In order to be a Latter-day Saint in good standing I’m supposed to believe these men are prophets, seers, and revelators. Often they fall far short of that mark.

The talk:

This talk is certainly not all bad, but I think there are elements of it that completely exemplify my “issues” with the LDS church and its leaders.

This is a BYU commencement address and not just one of the usual firesides. Of all the things he could have spoken about on such an important day, the thrust of this address is on telling the graduates how to promote the LDS church. Even on their special day, it’s not about them. It’s about how they can be of better use to the LDS church.

Although this talk is about not being defensive, the way he frames the discussion is incredibly defensive.

A quote: “First suggestion: Don’t let irrelevant issues drown out the more important subjects.”

Who gets to decide what issues are irrelevant? This is just an excuse for avoiding subjects we don’t want to talk about because they’re difficult.

On polygamy:

“An example is polygamy. This ended in the Church as an official practice in 1890. It’s now 2009. Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our Church.”

We’re still talking about it because it was an unusual practice that attracts people’s curiosity, and it’s relevant because it’s still part of our doctrine. It didn’t end in 1890. It hasn’t ended now.

Surely he knows that polygamy persisted unofficially within the church for decades after 1890. Even some of the apostles continued to practice it after that. What he says is factually correct because of the word "official", but it's intentionally misleading.

Polygamy is still officially practiced in the temple in the way sealings to deceased spouses are performed. Two apostles are eternally married to both deceased wives and current wives, and expect to be from now until the end of time. That’s polygamy. They’re polygamists. Perhaps not in the “here and now” legal definition, but from the eternal viewpoint and in their viewpoint they are polygamists. Otherwise why be sealed to a second wife? Marry her for time only instead.

In his discussion about why people might be defensive he places the blame on others outside the LDS church for their reaction to the church and its message, without acknowledging any possible responsibility or provocation on the part of the LDS church or its leaders. Or likewise anything unusual about the events themselves.

He promotes cognitive dissonance by suggesting that members of the LDS church are defensive out of an unreasonable fear of religious persecution, when really they’re defensive because the claims of the church are fantastic and many of its practices what many would consider extremely out of the ordinary. It’s not that the church is misunderstood. It’s very well understood. It’s that most people consider it weird and unusual and its actual practices and beliefs have been shrouded in deception from the beginning.

People are not defensive because they think we're outnumbered. They're defensive because we belong to a church that was restored through an angel presenting golden plates to a man who translated them by looking at a rock in a hat. 99% of the people on the planet are going to see that as just plain weird, and especially when you learn some of the actual history it's hard not to be defensive when all the historical facts just don't add up to what you have been taught. If they want people to quit being defensive the apostles themselves need to take on the issues and explain them satisfactorily and not just skirt around the difficult facts, while at the same time criticizing us for being "defensive".

Comparing the content of the Joseph Smith movie to even what was taught in the church in the 1990s shows that the apostles are just as defensive as we are. They're not going to talk about polygamy. They're not going to talk about Joseph Smith and Hyrum having pistols and firing back at the mob. They're not going to talk about the battle of Crooked River, where the saints fired on a unit of the Missouri State Militia, provoking the extermination order. They're not going to talk about the Salt Sermon, the Council of Fifty, Blood Atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, 20th century apostles' often outrageous statements on race, or dozens of other issues. And at the same time they are going to criticize us for being defensive.

Other examples of "defensiveness".

Gordon B Hinckley’s response to a question by Larry King some years ago, about the doctrine that God was once a man: "I don't know that we teach that anymore". That doctrine still shows up in lesson manuals and continues to show up in conference talks and in the Ensign. He knew perfectly well we still teach it, but didn’t want to discuss it.

The regret recently expressed by the First Presidency about the Mountain Meadows Massacre was not the apology some might have expected. Even though church leaders were at least involved in the cover up of the incident, if not in the planning itself, the LDS church continues to use lawyer talk to avoid any appearance of responsibility in it. They express “regret”, but stop short of anything that might be considered acceptance of responsibility in a courtroom.

The character assassination of Thomas B Marsh and others who left the early church over matters of principle, and not character flaws as we usually teach.

When was the last time a president of the church was interviewed by a journalist in a meaningful way where the issues were engaged? When was the last time you read a report of Thomas S Monson being interviewed the way Gordon B Hinckley was, or participating in any threatening event other than a temple dedication surrounded by the adoring masses? When do you see LDS apostles going out in public and speaking to crowds of non-members? Perhaps offering to address the Southern Baptist Convention with an explanation of why the LDS church is Christian? Renting an auditorium and opening it up to all comers for a discourse on why Joseph Smith can be considered a true prophet of God?

Somehow the Old Testament story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal comes to mind.

The apostles stick to safe situations like stake conferences and large gatherings of members and don’t expose themselves to hostile crowds, or in general to people with hard questions. They invite us to do that instead.

Another defensive quote from Elder Ballard’s talk:

“When all is said and done, the most important thing about you and your testimony is that you base your beliefs on what Jesus Christ taught, and you try to follow Him by living your life in a way acceptable to our Heavenly Father and to the Lord. “ . . . “They are His commandments, and no one is authorized to change them except by direct revelation to God’s chosen prophet.” . . . “We follow Jesus Christ’s doctrine of striving to live the Word of Wisdom,”

He doesn't get into other specifics, but you can already begin to follow this line of reasoning, that every teaching of the church is "following the teachings of Jesus" because the church is led by Christ and a prophet said it. Saying we "follow the teachings of Jesus" is tremendously deceptive, because probably four million people on Earth in total really believe that logic applies to the Word of Wisdom, or many of the other distinctive things we define as teachings of Christ not accepted by the rest of the Christian world. This is an example of deceptively using a term or concept that you have redefined, without expressing the fact that you have intentionally redefined it to mean something different than the person you are talking to understands it to mean. Like earnestly saying we support the marriage of one man and one woman, while at the same time we have two apostles sealed to multiple women. Of course the church still practices polygamy. We just twist the definition so it appears to mean we have renounced it, when really it is still an integral part of our doctrine.

Looking at his examples of “true doctrine”, an even worse problem is that he lists four examples of core teachings of the church, and nowhere is salvation through faith in Christ mentioned. What he talks about are behavioral practices that are part of Christian ethics and not the kind of saving faith required by the actual gospel of Jesus Christ. The most important doctrine is collected under item 5 as just one of the generic first principles of the gospel, which ironically he actually mentions last.

I initially read this talk a couple of weeks ago and found it to be infuriating, because I thought he was encouraging people to be deceptive in the way they presented the church to others. I felt this talk itself was deceptive and harmful because it “blamed the victims”. Us. The people who aren’t surrounded by faithful church members all the time and actually have to explain these things to people. Those of us who don’t have the luxury of hiding behind professional PR staff or speaking from a pulpit where we can carefully shade the meanings of our words and delicately step around things that are uncomfortable.

After some time I came to appreciate that his approach is less intentionally deceptive than it is a reflection of a mindset that infects the members of the LDS church from top to bottom. That mindset is an internal mental compass that steers the thoughts away from unpleasant subjects and towards more positive and uplifting ones. It’s an internal defense mechanism that allows people to be satisfied in the LDS church and to avoid the anger and frustration that plague many of the rest of us. I believe that people in his position don’t even see the issues that make the rest of us defensive. Their mental filtering mechanism tags them as unimportant and their thoughts just don’t even rest there. Plus having been an LDS church leader for so many years he has pre-programmed responses to thousands of questions and issues that no longer even require thought. Just push the appropriate mental button and roll the tape.

To be fair there were some good things about this talk.

The LDS Newsroom quotes about “Big Love” are good ones and promote a positive reaction to questions about the show.

His points about the Mountain Meadows movie itself were likewise good ones. However, the church’s response to the disaster itself has been defensive, as previously discussed.

This is a very nice talk. With some exceptions I think Elder Ballard is probably a nice person. I think he exemplifies the subject he is addressing, though, and causes harm by pushing the blame on a) people with serious and inconvenient questions about the church, and b) people who in my view are more objective and not able to block the serious flaws in the LDS church, its leaders, and its history out of their minds when trying to honestly discuss it with others. Much of the blame for this situation rests with him and his contemporaries, and he accepts none of it.

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