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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: