It would seem that in most religious communities governed by Christian social and religious norms there is a tension between what might be called “natural law” or “eternal principles” and the Judeo-Christian injunction to love God and neighbor. In other words, there is a general understanding that there are certain laws or principles that universally govern these communities (chastity, health codes, rules of conduct, etc). These laws or principles may or may not be fully natural or eternal in the sense of timelessly unchanging (principles regarding marriage and health have changed drastically in the history of the Mormon community, for example) but that they are laws in some sense means that they govern the community in the present, and we can even abstract from the particular instances these laws to more general, universal laws–we no longer practice polygamy but the principle of marriage remains binding. The specifics of what the Word of Wisdom is haven’t always stayed the same, but that some kind of law of health is incumbent upon us remains. The tension arises when we see factions align themselves more with the upholding of law and tradition, or more with the advocating of love and tolerance (not that such factions of necessity must form. There is no doubt that too much loyalty to one is detrimental to benefitting from loyalty to the other).
These thoughts began to initially form as I read Rosalynde Welch’s recent essay, “Shame, Stigma, and Social Engineering.” Rosalynde is one of the bright intellectual lights of Mormonism, and agree or disagree with her, she is perfectly consistent in providing smart, insightful opinions for discussion and debate through virtually all of the articles she authors. In this particular case I disagree with her, but in this essay, instead of specifically addressing her points directly, I want to point to a more general trend I (think) I see in a certain worldview, one I believe that Rosalynde more or less advocates or shares. Essentially, I’m trying to put my finger on why I have not resonated with it and what follows is that attempt.
This worldview is one that, on the whole, aligns itself with the upholding of law and tradition. Compassion and sympathy and tolerance are appropriate and even urgent in their time and place but our being in the world should also reflect the brute fact that the world/universe we live in is unyielding and conforms to the above-mentioned natural laws or eternal principles (or at least the current governing laws). Jesus was compassionate and sympathetic as well but he never hesitated to take people to task when they violated a law or principle. If the Pharisees were crushed by his indictments, or the moneychangers in the temple were offended by his uncompromising fidelity to truth, then so be it. That same unyieldingness would save others. So, one can advocate pure compassion and love on the backs of sympathetic turtles all the way down, but this same person ignores the necessary laws and natural order without which love couldn’t be meaningful in the first place, redemption and salvation not being possible in the absence of one or the other.
My problem with this, if it is actually true, is that such a worldview assumes the role of being a mirror or enacter of the law, as if the laws and the rigid structures of the moral world would not be active without direct and constant human intervention. But if there are laws and principles at all then by their very nature they are independent of and resistant to human intervention. When we sin or violate religious or community norms there are natural consequences that cannot be avoided, no matter how individual members of the community might try or not try to doubly reinforce them. That there are human-independent laws on which our obedience or our sin are predicated means that the violation of these brings human-independent consequences and results.
My fear is that this sort of view therefore causes us to heap additional punishment, shame, and consequence on people who already are or someday will bear the burden of their decisions regardless of our own policing of others’ moral actions, and we end up contributing to pain and suffering rather than relieving it. In other words, more to the point of Rosalynde’s article, shame and guilt are natural consequences of the violation of eternal and social norms, and such would not be the case if they were not norms. That these must be actually communicated to community members is no doubt critical. But this communication also naturally occurs through traditional practices and institutions–class instruction, reading sacred texts, hearing testimony, observing how families and relationships function, listening to teachings and warnings of apostles and prophets. There is virtually no member of any LDS religious community who does not know about the importance of marriage and therefore the undesirability of divorce. In such a family-centric community like Mormonism one can easily anticipate the natural consequences of ending a marriage, regardless and apart from social stigma–effects on children, parents, covenants, church standing, etc that are unavoidable. Applying additional social pressure and dishonor, even through trying to artificially reinforce teachings about marriage (as if the violator of the social norm simply didn’t quite understand what she was doing) is in essence taking on a mandate of re-revealing the law over and over, ensuring its lawfulness by insisting on justice outside the normative force of the law itself. This happens when we insist on some kind of punishment or judgment beyond which the law already metes out as the law. Consequently, I think we should completely jettison any kind of mechanism that we might attach ourselves to that sees any good in providing additional shame and opprobrium beyond what the sin in question naturally dispenses. Shame should quite simply be not a part of our expressive vocabulary, nor seen as having any social utility that we must point to and reinforce. Kierkegaard, interestingly, combined the law and love in his phrase, “dutiful love,” that it is our lawful duty to love God and neighbor because Christ’s existence and sacrifice fulfilled the Law and drenched the world in grace. The law that concerns us then, as far as our neighbor is concerned simply is (yet more demandingly than anything else) the law of love.