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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Importunate Women: Faithful Activism and Questioning in a Gospel Context

The past couple of years seemed to have been the agony and the ecstasy for Mormon feminists. Never have there been such so many consecutive, positive changes (incremental as they are) in the way the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treats and engages with the female half of its membership. The missionary age change. Prayers in General Conference by women. A push for more inclusion in ward councils. There is evidence that the Church is listening to the dialogue created by the events created by Mormon feminists seeking for more equality in the Church. Yet it often seems as if the Church makes three steps forward, only to take two steps back. 

A case in point is the recent statement made by the Church’s efforts against the feminist Mormon group Ordain Women, who wanted to sit and listen peacefully to the priesthood session of the LDS General Conference. Ordain Women collected a group of Mormon women and men together to go to the LDS Temple Square in Salt Lake City and peacefully and calmly request to be admitted, so that they could listen to the session in person. Despite the fact that one does not really have to hold the priesthood, nor does one even have to be a member of the Church to be admitted into this session…yet it does appear that one does have to be a man. On those grounds, after a personal request from the couple of hundred people who had gathered, the Church representative guarding the door declined each request and then a garbage truck was parked in front of the door to make sure that the Mormon women who were making the request could not get in once the meeting had started.

That was in 2013. Now in the Spring 2014 Conference, Ordain Women is going to attempt the same action. The Church PR Departmentrecently put out a statement which, on the one hand seemed to be pleading Ordain Women to re-consider as fellow members of the faith, and on the other hand, seemed to be doing its best to stigmatize and alienate those who were acting on their consciences in this way. When the PR department used words such as “extreme” and  “small” to describe a group that has made concentrated efforts to demonstrate that they want to remain faithful to the Church and active in their faith, while maintaining their dignity and integrity of belief, then I believe the Church’s PR department is making a great mistake in demeaning peaceful and calm activism. When it suggests that the group is “detracting from the dialogue,” when it actually appears that Ordain Women are the ones who are instigating that dialogue (many of the Church’s recent changes have occurred after Ordain Women’s related demonstrations), then that makes it appear as spin doctoring, not revelation.
I can understand why the Church would want to tone down the pressure that is being put on them by Mormon feminists. No one likes to look bad, especially when you are seeking unity among a large group of diverse people. But the Church’s PR department compounds the supposed problem by seeming dismissive and insensitive to their own fellow Church members. Many of these feminist women and men have temple recommends and hold callings and are active in their faith. I know this because I know some of them and have been impressed with their spirituality, their intelligence, their diplomacy, and their kindness. Minority as they are, Ordain Women are a growing group and when representatives of the Church treat them in an Un-Christian like manner (like the indignity of parking a garbage truck in front of them!), then that makes the Ordain Women group seem like the hurt party, and makes them all the more appealing to those like me who have sat on the fence about officially joining them (although I have not made asecret of my support for female ordination, and have admired the group’s sincere efforts, including those of OW founder Kate Kelly).    

I have read/heard many members of the Church attack the Mormon feminists in unkind and distorting ways, especially targeting those feminists who make a public “spectacle” and use activism as a way to make themselves heard among a people who would rather not listen. And, in a way, I understand the impulse to resent disruptions like these. After all, General Conference is generally seen as a time of great spirituality, healing, and renewal for most Latter-day Saints. It seems unseemly to use that time to stage a protest.

But let’s forget that emotional impulse for a moment and step back and ask the “big picture” question that this situation demands. Is it good for religious members to “protest,” question, and ask things of their own Church? Must a good Mormon/Latter-day Saint (or Catholic, or Protestant, or Muslim, or Orthodox Jew, or Quaker, etc.) defer to the judgment of their leaders in all things, never asking, never questioning, never searching deeper than the latest PR release or the sound bites related in Church approved manuals? Is inquiry a dirty word among the religious faithful? And, further still, is there ever an appropriate time when a peaceful and orderly demonstration of those questions and concerns can be held, even during very public and prominent places and times?

As a Mormon and a Christian, my mind first goes to the Gospels and the example of the Savior. As our exemplar, was there ever a time where he challenged the religious authority of his day? The question is barely asked before numerous examples of his “demonstrations” comes to mind. Jesus grappled in the public sphere against the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Prominently, I think of Jesus “cleansing” the temple in Matthew 21:12-16:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?

The Gospel of John 2:15 adds the details of a whip being used by Jesus at this point:
And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables…
Jesus made a ruckus. At the temple. With a whip. In comparison, the Ordain Women group peacefully singing hymns and standing quietly in line seems pretty mild. Yet, like Jesus, these faithful Mormon feminists felt like a great mistake had been made in the Church, and they were courageous enough to take the example of Jesus and make their voice heard, albeit in a more peaceful and mild way than overturning tables, driving out cattle, and employing a “scourge of small cords.” Talk about spectacle.
But I already hear the protestation to this: “But Jesus was the Son of God! He, of course, has the right to do this!” Well, yes, he was, and, yes, he does. But let’s remember that Jesus said, “Come follow me.”

Jesus also give what I think is a very revealing parable when applied to our modern context. The tale is often called “The Parable of the Unjust Judge,” or more apt with Mormon feminists “The Parable of the Importunate Widow.” The parable is found in Luke 18:1-7:
And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
 According to Merriam-Webster, the word “importunate” means “troublesomely urgent: overly persistent in request or demand.” Another online dictionary defines the adjective as, “urgent or persistent in solicitation, sometimes annoyingly so. Pertinacious, as solicitations or demands. Troublesome; annoying.” I know of many Mormons who would gleefully attach these descriptions to the Mormon feminists’ efforts to be heard within the current patriarchal structure of the Church.
But the greater question then becomes why did Jesus use the example of just such a woman to show the persistence one should use in prying answers out of a God who “bears with them long” and that one should “trouble” God and his judges with their pleas?

Yes, imperfect people as they are, many leaders and members of the Church are showing their annoyance at such a persistent, trouble-making, importunate women! But the irony, of course, is that those same importunate women (and men) are employing the advice of Jesus Christ in persisting after their righteous desires, even when others criticize them for their efforts to bring their concerns to the feet of the Lord’s prophets and judges. Jesus seemed to indicate that we should ignore those who think we are annoying or trouble makers. What is more important is that we are following our consciences, wherever they may take us. Like the popular Mormon hymn says, “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.”

I recently read a Mormon feminist’s Facebook post that quoted from Martin Luther King’s letter in Birmingham Jail, which she was applying to the Ordain Women movement, and addressing its critics. I thought the quote was very appropriate to the situation:

You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

I am very fond of the current leadership of the Church, especially the First Presidency. In matters of the increasing transparency of Church History, the loving tolerance showed my men like President Uchtdorf and President Monson, the broadening of the tent of Mormonism to include a more diverse church membership—we are making progress in areas that are remarkable and humbling. Although we are bleeding members because, even now, they haven’t found a welcoming heart among those members of the Church who should know better, yet I also believe we are seeing the emergence of a New Mormon Faithful, a new type of Mormon who can maintain their faith in the Restored Gospel, despite the understandable human frailty of its members and leaders. 

The New Mormon Faithful is represented by a new type of Latter-day Saint who is informed and educated about the complexities and even the dark spots of their faith, but who also have a spiritual anchor that has given them access to the personal revelation that is required to maintain faith in times of trouble.  I have seen many of these kinds of Mormons, and they inspire me. I have found many of their number among the Mormon feminists I have met and cared about, and have seen many of them represent the Ordain Women movement. Whether I will ever officially count myself among their number remains yet to be seen.

For the moment, I certainly admire these good women and men and believe it is their right to inquire, ask and, yes, even agitate faithfully about the issues which they feel prompted to engage in. To try and censor them, or diminish them, or alienate, or “other” them, would show what is wrong with us, not what is wrong with them. For all we know, they are about their Heavenly Father and Mother’s business.  For “shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”


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  2. Beautiful!

    I would not be found confronting church authority at the General Priesthood session, and I will not wear pants to church to make a statement, it is not where my Savior would have me personally. I have been directed in other ways to support the need for women to understand their role in the priesthood and to include more female representation because there is a problem here whether we choose to see it or not.

    Just this past Sunday I heard a sister say "I don't know why they are doing it this way, I just don't question the Bishopric". If you allow church leaders to become your personal authority rather than the facilitators of the church they are designed to be, then you have made them into idols and infallible objects. This is not fair to them nor to you and it interrupts ones ability to develop a private personal relationship with Christ Himself.

    If one has not studied why these women are doing what they are doing then one may error in assuming these women are prideful. If one does not believe doctrines and policies come about by prophets seeking to know the needs of the people then perhaps they are not versed in doctrine or the procedures of the Church, many changes have come about precisely because members question authority.

    For those paying attention to the drama unfolding this is an opportunity to open your mind through study and prayer, not to close it with judgment and lack of understanding or education.

    If you find yourself bitter and agitated at the scene these women are creating, perhaps it is because your soul is hungering for further light and knowledge.

  3. I love this! Thank you for such thoughtful writing.

  4. I should also note that I keep referring to "Mormon feminists" in the third person, which gives the impression that I am not one. That is certainly not the case. I happily use that self identifier. I am a Mormon feminist.

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