“You can’t trust Melanie but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.” Ordell in Jackie Brown
‘He that saith he receiveth [my law] and doeth it not, the same… shall be cast out’ (D&C 41:5).
According to the D&C, there is a point at which an individual’s sins can become so detrimental to the community that they need to be formally excluded (cf. D&C 41:5). Excommunication is a difficult topic that requires care. This discussion is not intended to focus upon those times when excommunication has been used and there is, seemingly, no direct impact upon the community (though I am sure this sometimes happens). Rather I want to consider whether it might be possible to accept sinners as part of the community, even when their sins are potentially destructive. Wendell Berry wrote: ‘A community can trust its liars to be liars… and so enjoy them’. If a community could accept the sins of another with this type of love then excommunication might not be such an essential part of our ecclesiology. Yet, I am sceptical of such an approach to sin and the community.
Church discipline is intends to ‘save the soul’ of the sinner, safeguard the integrity of the Church and ‘protect the innocent’. Excommunication can be used in any of these three circumstances. Protecting the innocent refers to various vulnerable groups who might be at risk of various forms of predatory behaviour. I believe excommunication should be used primarily to protect the community form these situations rather than safeguarding the integrity of the Church (although I can imagine times when this would be necessary). Moreover I believe those situations when excommunication is necessary to save the soul are even more infrequent.
Following Berry we can ask, if liars can be trusted to be liars does a religious community need excommunication to protect itself? For Berry ‘a community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included… But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership.’ We cannot ignore the exclusionary pain that must be felt by the excommunicated person when that trust is formally removed. ‘To know in this matter is to be safe’. Certainly there is something attractive about this form of tolerant community which readily loves and accepts those people who could potentially hurt it. Perhaps Zion could be conceived as such a place.
However, there are a number of problems with Berry’s position. Knowing someone is a liar may protect others from potentially being deceived but there are other scenarios when that ‘knowing’ may not be a sufficient protection. Children, for example, might be less capable of appropriately trusting someone to be a liar. Does ‘knowing’ someone is a liar require suspicion toward anything said by that individual? It seems unlikely that someone who is trusted to be a liar could ever serve as a teacher. In fact, this approach to sin is entirely reductive. Our subjectivity, in this approach, is constituted almost entirely by our sins and it fails to recognise that people are far more complex. Defining anyone as either perpetually truthful or dishonest is spurious. Berry’s view also assumes that personality is stable and this assumption might be problematic for those who believe that Christ can help us turn from some of our sins. Even if we believe that people do not change then as a community we need to think carefully about what forgiveness means in these circumstances.
Having been guilty of sin in my life, the idea of being forever defined by those acts in my relationship with other people is horrifying. Trusting someone to be a liar would constrain our ability to build bonds of fellowship with them, it would constrain their ability to love us and it would very possibly drive them away. In short, trusting someone to be a liar limits our ability to experience the liar as fully human.
Before Christmas, mmiles wrote an excellent post considering how we demonstrate forgiveness to those who suffer from dispositions that could potentially damage members of a community. In her post she speaks of people who have been part of the ‘criminal justice system’. Her post highlights, from a different direction, the difficult questions a community must ask about how to love, accept and sustain people with a variety of challenges. I do not think that I am arguing against her viewpoint (that we should do what we can to protect people from themselves at times). I agree that communities should counsel together regarding how to ensure that our communities are safe for everyone.
In this vein, although excommunication has been framed as a means of protecting the members of the Church/congregation it may also serve another function. Excommunication provides a space for the ward to heal and grow with the expectation that this person will re-enter the community. Sometimes we cannot ignore the pain that a particular action may have caused. Excommunication therefore could focus upon how the community responds to the sins of another rather than focusing upon the salvation of the individual. In other words, re-baptism symbolises a community’s refusal to define that person by their previous life. It then becomes part of a re-birth into a community who willing accepts you (with open arms and raised hands) to become one with them again. Perhaps, every re-baptism could stand as symbol for our continued sanctification as a community.