Sunday, October 31, 2010

Putting President Packer's Remarks in Context

Much has been said in reference to remarks made by President Boyd K. Packer's at the recent General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For those unfamiliar with General Conference, it is a semi-annual meeting that takes place in Salt Lake City every October and April.  It is broadcast to the entire church membership and takes the place of traditional Sunday worship services the weekend it is held.  It is divided into 4 general sessions, 2 on Saturday and 2 on Sunday, each of which lasts for 2 hours.  There is an additional session Saturday night for the Priesthood (which is made up of all men ages 12 and up).  A women's meeting is held the week prior and is also broadcast to the entire church membership.  During conference, leaders of the church (which includes general church leadership and those in the auxiliaries like Primary, Young Men, and Young Women) give prepared talks on a wide variety of gospel-related topics.  President Packer's talk was entitled "Cleansing the Inner Vessel" and focused mainly on the concept of God's love and the importance of repentance.  I hope that anyone who found his remarks upsetting reads the entire talk instead of the few soundbytes or quotes that have been used in the media.  That's the first step in establishing proper perspective.  Too often quotes by themselves appear far worse than they were intended.  Context within the talk itself should not be underestimated.  

Before starting, my point in writing this isn't to convince anyone that President Packer is right or wrong or that Latter-day Saint doctrine is right or wrong.  My purpose is to provide proper context of Mormon beliefs (as best as I personally understand them) so that even in disagreement, at least people can have a fuller understanding of why he would say such a thing.  That said, the quote that has caused the most controversy is this:
"We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From the Book of Mormon we learn that “wickedness never was happiness.  Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn temptations toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Remember, God is our Heavenly Father."
In reading this purely from the vantage point of the average, non-LDS reader, I can totally understand why some people would be upset by it.  I was, admittedly, not paying as close of attention to this talk when it was given enough for this statement to really stick out.  But seeing the controversy a few days later and then reading it, knowing what I do about our doctrine and culture, nothing he said surprised me.  There are a few key concepts of LDS doctrine and understanding that need to be made clear for this to make any sense.

The first point to understand is that "Mormonism" is more than just a religion.  In reality it is much more of a culture that is practiced by its members 24/7.  I think since so many Latter-day Saints are American and the church was founded in the US, people just equate it with American culture.  There are, of course, many similarities, but many differences as well.  Would we be as upset about comments or beliefs if they came from a different culture like, say, the Far East?  I wonder.  I think it's easy to be more accepting of other cultures when we don't have to deal with another culture on a regular basis.  The more we deal with it, the more we see the positives and negatives (at least from our perspective) that every culture has.  Most times when we are exposed to other cultures, it is in fleeting moments or with a few people and even then it's usually something positive (a dance, a custom, artwork, etc.).  It's a different story when people we know very well are part of that culture and we have an idea how they view and react to things.  I've noticed with my own extended family (most of whom are not Latter-day Saints), are all about being inclusive and celebrating diversity--except when it comes to Mormon stuff.  They don't regard it as a culture because they simply see us as part of the same culture as them (which in most ways we are) and we just have "weird" beliefs rather than a different cultural perspective.  See how easy it is to blur the line?

In addition to recognizing Mormonism as a culture (and a culture that has sub-cultures within it such as "Utah Mormonism" that I have blogged about), we must also understand some key LDS doctrinal points for Packer's remarks to be in proper perspective.  First, Latter-day Saints believe that everyone that is alive, that has lived, and that will live are literal children of God.  As such, we believe we have the potential to be like him.  But along with that potential comes many elements that make us quite different from God that must be overcome.  The best scripture verse that explains this is in the Book of Mormon in the book of Mosiah, chapter 3 verse 19:
"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."
Basically, the "natural man" is a human being with all our flaws.  Everyone is born with certain tendencies, shortcomings, and challenges.  While some are easier to overcome than others, we all have some sort of challenges that we inevitably have to overcome sometime in or even throughout life.  This is known as self-mastery.  Mormons aren't the only ones who teach and believe in the concept of self-mastery; it's a powerful concept that many people follow and is useful in setting goals, bettering ourselves, and overcoming challenges, regardless of what they are.  Many Eastern cultures practice self-mastery as well as many other people; basically, you are in charge of what you are.

In thinking about this post, for whatever reasons I thought about the movie X-Men:3 where they find a "cure" to the mutations and the reaction it gets from the "mutant" community both for and against (by the way, not saying gays are mutants, just using a parallel!!!).  I wonder what would happen if there were some shot that could make someone "straight" with a shot or pill.  Who would take it?  Who would consider it a complete insult?  I have heard of similar debates amongst the deaf and dwarf communities where operations are available that can "correct" those disabilities.  Just a random thought...

I think it's important to note that President Packer did not explicitly mention homosexuality in his talk, though his comments about marriage preceding that do imply that's what he means, though again, the Church has promoted protecting the "traditional" definition of marriage (one man, one woman), not simply anti-gay marriage.  To Latter-day Saints, homosexuality is definitely included in what he meant by "any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel" but it is not the only such relationship he is talking about.  Indeed, "straight" sexual relationships outside the bounds of marriage (whether before, during, or after marriage) are under that umbrella as well as those relationships that society as a whole consider wrong (sexual relations with children or close relatives, for instance).  Basically it boils down to standards.  Mormons believe that God has established very specific behavioral standards that he asks us to follow.  These are known as commandments and they include sexual and social behavior.  We are free, of course, to choose whether or not to follow these commandments, but like pretty much everything in life, there are always consequences for disobeying commandments (and also for following them).  Some of these consequences may not be apparent immediately or even that soon down the road.  Also, as has been pointed out by many other commentators, it's not "being gay" that gets people in trouble in the LDS Church; it's acting on those actions that gets people in trouble, the same trouble as "straight" people doing much the same with anyone they're not married to.  In other words, it's not just gay people that are told they shouldn't have sexual relations; it's anyone not married (which includes me!).  Again, it goes back to standards and who they came from.

From there, another key point is that Latter-day Saints believe that God does not give us challenges and obstacles that we cannot overcome.  In addition to the famous verse in Matthew 19:26: "...but with God all things are possible,"  in 1 Nephi 3:7 we read: the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them."  In other words, since Mormons believe God has commanded certain behaviors as acceptable and not, then there must be a way to overcome the feelings and tendencies that lead to those that are "wrong" (which leads back to self mastery).  Now, while Mormons believe that anything can be overcome to put yourself in harmony with the commandments of God, that doesn't mean we have or even claim to have easy answers as to how many challenges and obstacles can be overcome.  Indeed, most obstacles (not just those involving sexual behavior) are not easily overcome.  Many times, the answer lies in desire, prayer, fasting, humility, and patience.  

Unfortunately, what's happened is that too many Latter-day Saints have used those standards and beliefs as a weapon to judge and even condemn other people.  Going back to the main idea of Packer's remarks, it was the loving and forgiving nature of God, not the condemnation.  And no, Mormons do not believe that gays will burn in hell.  We have a far different view of "hell" than the traditional Christian view.  To Latter-day Saints, life is not a pass/fail course; it's fully graded with all the proper curves, extra credit, and exceptions!  Everyone will be rewarded for the good and bad they do, not an automatic "go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200" card or "get out of jail free" card.  :)  

Putting it all together, again, I'm not here to say "we're right" or that Packer was correct, but more to show why he said what he said and why most Latter-day Saints didn't really think twice about it (nothing new!).  I obviously believe what he said is true, not only in relation to Mormon beliefs, but in what I believe personally as well.  In the end, we are the masters of our minds and bodies and we will be accountable for our actions based on the knowledge we have.  So, summarizing:
  1. Mormonism is very much a culture that has its own understandings and perspectives.  Respecting us doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with us though!  
  2. Mormons believe that all people are children of God and can be like him, but that takes a lot of effort, desire, and work.  
  3. Mormons believe all people have challenges and obstacles to overcome, but they can be overcome. 
  4. Mormons believe that all obstacles can eventually be overcome with the help of God and that he does not give us something that we cannot deal with.  This is known as self-mastery and is a concept not unique to Mormonism.  
  5. Homosexuality is not specifically "targeted" by Later-day Saints, nor was it specifically targeted by President Packer.  It is one of many behaviors that Latter-day Saints consider in opposition to the standards set by God.        


Unknown said...

Well stated.

Granny J said...

Thanks Jon! Very well thought out and stated.... IMHO!

Andrea, Maria and James said...

Wow, your blog was wonderful, clear, succinct...thanks. I just wish your background didn't have the white clouds, it was hard to read. Good job!