Of Cowardice

It’s not really as nice as it looks.

Corbeil-Essonnes is a suburb to the southeast of Paris. Like many Parisian suburbs, it has a broad mix of cultures and incomes, from those who live in private mansions to those who are crammed into immense low-income housing projects. And, like many Parisian suburbs, it has Mormon missionaries running around in it, trying to spread the word. In 1992 I was one of those missionaries.

The train station in central Corbeil is a squat, unremarkable structure that serves a suburban rail line. On a spring morning my companion and I were sitting in that squat little station, waiting for a train to come while eyeing co-travelers with that missionary eye: “will I have the guts to approach this person”? That morning, I don’t think we approached anybody. It’s not easy to do.

As we were waiting for the train, I heard the noise of an argument and then screaming from the main hall of the train station. My companion and I got up to see what was happening, and were shocked: a man and his girlfriend were having an argument, and the man had struck this woman (who was now on the ground, in pain). As we and several others approached, the pair continued shouting at each other. The man then removed his belt and proceeded to lash the woman with it as she lay on the ground. I had never seen something that awful before, and was stunned. As the man whipped this woman with his belt, a dozen or so men (myself included) gathered around and encircled the attacker. He ignored us, consumed with some fury that is difficult to describe. One man among us stepped forward to attempt to stop the attacker, and was whipped in the face. In a few moments the police arrived and took the attacker into custody.

My companion and I went our way, taking the train to someplace I don’t remember and probably knocking doors fruitlessly and wandering the streets. I don’t remember much else from that day. But I do remember, every day, that I was not the one who tried to stop the attacker. I should have been that person, but I wasn’t. I was a servant of Jesus Christ, set apart to represent him, but I was slow to act, slow to help, too afraid to do anything. And let’s keep some perspective: I wasn’t presented with the prospect of going behind enemy lines on a suicide mission — I had the chance to stop a man from beating his girlfriend in public. I did nothing. This was cowardice.

As a man in the Church, you don’t have to look very hard to see people being treated poorly. Typically, it’s the women who suffer: ‘unimportant’ callings; no recognition for their work; exclusion from the ‘important’ conversations; casual, jokey sexism; the arbitrary enforcement of gender roles that we don’t understand. I find myself again standing by as people I know and love suffer in front of me. Let me clarify: I don’t really believe that female ordination is the answer (I view this as new wine in old bottles), and I am not meaning to say that the Church is some evil male oppressor, beating women down in fury. On the contrary, I believe the vast majority of LDS women feel happy, and I think the Church is pretty darned great. But I’ve also seen men (and sometimes women) in the Church who use their callings (or the mere fact of their gender) as an excuse to belittle women. I’m haunted by my own history of cowardice and sexism. And I just want to say that I’m sorry, that we really, really need to do better, and that I’d like to help where I can. Women deserve the chance to lead, to teach, to manage affairs in the Church and we don’t let them do this nearly the way we should. There are enormous wells of potential out there that are unrealized because of gender. There must be countless ways we can remedy this while still realizing the importance of families and the ultimate priority they present.

I won’t be standing in the line with the Ordain Women folks (for many reasons, but mostly because heck I’ll just watch online, thanks). At heart I am in many ways a party line, orthodox member. But I don’t like the cowardice of sexism that our Church structure permits, and as a servant of Jesus Christ I hope I can do something to help.

Comments

  1. Thanks for a balanced, heartfelt, thoughtful post, Steve.

    This mirrors my own feelings: recognizing issues that I believe need to be addressed and wanting to support and help in any way I can, but not agreeing fully with some of the actions and words of some of those I want to support and help.

    I don’t know all the best answers, but I am certain there are answers – and I know there are answers that would move things forward, without sacrificing our communal uniqueness or any core, inviolable doctrine, that are better than the status quo. Maybe those answers can lead to other answers, and other answers, and other answers – until we reach, perhaps, the best answers.

  2. unendowed says:

    Thank you for this. The “new wine in old bottles” is not an angle I’ve considered before–I’ll have to give that some thought.

    I agree with your point that the Church is mostly great with some bad spots. I think helping clean up the bad stuff is a privilege as a member–part of building the Kingdom of God. Pretending nothing is wrong and that “all is well in Zion,” or throwing up our hands and declaring the Church irredeemably broken, are both too extreme to be useful. Staying in the messy middle–and maintaining our empathy for those who disagree–is where the good work gets done.

    There’s a bunch of yelling about OW in the comments over at Exponent today. Hopefully people here will be kinder.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    That is a terrifying memory, and all to easy to relate to, Steve. Thanks for the thoughts.

  4. Really well said, Steve. Thanks.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I liked the framing of this with your mission story.

  6. This is interesting. When I read the article re: the Church’s statement to OW by Peggy Fletcher Stack I saw your comment about how the church unfortunately upped the ante. My first thought was, “that was brave.”

  7. I thought it was an obvious point, Amanda, not a brave one. I didn’t mean it as a slight against the Church.

  8. While I am with you in terms of the Ordain Women project, I have to admit that I have questions that aren’t easily answered. But as you point out, there are many ways that we and the church can do better. We now have women giving prayers in General Conference, which never made any sense to me as to why they would be excluded. But here are a couple of suggestions that could be possible for the church to consider in terms of “policy” realignment that would help women to be more involved in leadership.

    First, there are a lot of leadership roles that women are currently excluded from by policy that are NOT priesthood specific callings. Sunday School presidencies ought to be open to men or women (although I know many feel that those callings are trivial, but maybe if someone did them well, *cough*SisterX*cough*, it might be different). My own current calling as ward mission leader, especially given the increase in numbers of sister missionaries, is another that I see no specific reason for it to be a priesthood only calling.

    Our current bishop is good at this, but I suspect that it is not generally done, is to include the Relief Society president in all PEC meetings as an equal participant, and not just at Ward Council. Relief Society presidencies ought to also be included in stake leadership meetings associated with stake conferences, along with Priesthood quorum leadership. Most of the topics involved in these meetings are either just as applicable to stewardship over the sisters in the ward as priesthood is to the men, and I can’t recall us ever discussing anything that would not be appropriate for inviting those sisters to participate.

    I am sure there are others, but these spring to mind immediately as areas where I don’t see the priesthood holding a trump card. These kind of policy issues could easily be changed. We ought to start asking those questions, and not be cowards about them, as you so eloquently describe.

  9. I must respectfully disagree with part of the message of this well-written and thoughtful post. I honestly know of no one with any significant church experience who believes that Primary and RS are ‘unimportant’ callings. I personally would drop my current calling (financial clerk) and take a Primary calling in a heartbeat. Children are infinitely more important than finance, and I can bear a powerful testimony of the blessings of witnessing the sacrifices of my fellow Latter-day Saints. I hear repeatedly that teaching is the most important calling in the Church and praise from the pulpit for good teaching. My wife is continually praised for her work as a Primary chorister. I have never seen a woman excluded from an ‘important’ conversation, rather I have seen priesthood leadership seek out conversations with RS leaders and women on the front lines who knew what is actually going on and what to do about it. I have heard casual, jokey sexism, but view it as a relic of an older generation and discourage it when I can. It is certainly not encouraged in my Utah ward and stake.

  10. You’re a good egg, Steve Evans.

  11. Old Man, terrific – so let’s have female clerks. No big deal, right? It’s comforting that your experience is that all is well in Zion.

  12. That’s a poignant story. I would hope I would have intervened, but it’s easier to say that when it’s a story and not something you’re personally experiencing.

    I don’t like juxtaposing the image of a woman being lashed with a belt to how women are treated within the church. That image is way off. I know that since my perspective is that of the privileged class it can’t be considered valid, and I’ve no doubt people will throw out their personal anecdotes to the contrary, but nevertheless, I don’t feel it’s fair. The last paragraph makes it sound like this piece was written in anticipation of how Ordain Women will be treated at their next General Conference protest. It’s as though, when the OW protesters become more vociferous, refuse to leave the line when denied tickets, and get chased to the curb with the other GC protesters, I’m expected to react as though they were being lashed like the woman in the subway.

    If I’m reading more into this than intended, it nevertheless appears to be the correct extrapolation, and I think I’d have to reject it. As with most protest movements (indeed the very objective of a protest movement), OW’s goal is to force sympathetic observers to realize they’re either “with us, or against us”. To me, this piece plays into that goal — ie., I’m to picture myself as the guy with the whip, or as the guy standing there watching, or as the guy who tries to step in. It’s not a fair comparison and deny that I’m any sort of coward not to stand with OW, regardless what sympathy I might have.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    Steve, I think your response to Old Man uses some needlessly charged code words…

    As for female clerks? Great!

  14. Martin: “I don’t like juxtaposing the image of a woman being lashed with a belt to how women are treated within the church. That image is way off.”

    That’s fair. It’s a very strong image and as I said, I didn’t mean to imply that this is what’s happening to LDS women. Rather, I offer the story up as an explanation of where I’m coming from personally.

  15. PS I made it clear that this isn’t about OW specifically at all.

  16. Old Man, I don’t disagree with you about the importance of teaching children. I’m happy everyone in the church has the opportunity to do that because it is hugely important. But there are also a lot of other positions where individual women might excel depending on their talents: financial clerk, high council, sunday school president, bishop, mission president, etc. The fact that women are not considered for these positions means that the church is losing out on taking advantage of half of its members talents. Primary is important. Some women are good at primary. That doesn’t negate the underlying issue of underutilized women.

  17. Steve, you certainly made it clear this wasn’t about OW, but unfortunately you’ve drawn a direct parallel between your not being the one to step in to help the woman and how women are treated in the Church. It’s much like Mark Antony saying “But Brutus is an honorable man”.
    Can we all do more? Absolutely! It’s just your parallelism that comes off as extreme.

  18. Frank, I think others have raised that as well. What can I say – people’s views are affected by their personal experiences. This is one of mine, and it came to mind as I thought about the contemporary treatment of women in the Church. An extreme parallel, sure, but that was what my memory brought to my attention. Again, this post may be as much about my own state of mind as anything else.

    That said, it’s interesting how for some people the extreme nature of my experience is the focal point, rather than looking at the actual issue of the post: how can we as members of the Church treat women better?

  19. I have to say I come from a different angle. My experience in the church has been the opposite. Women are treated like Saints and it’s the men who are continuously told to “shape up”. I’ve been in a troubled marriage, and we’ve gone to many counselling sessions with our Bishop. No matter what my wife does to belittle, control, and abuse me, the consistent message we get is still, I’m the man, grow a pair and deal with it. I’m the one who’s screwed up, I’m the priesthood holder so it’s my job to fix it, no matter how she behaves towards me. So I suck it up, try my best and continue to be criticized daily by a woman who behaves like a tyrant in the home. But it’s all my fault. Nobody listens to me because I’m a man and she’s a woman. And OF COURSE I’ve done hurtful things, mainly pornography, and I’m no choirboy, but I’m honestly trying to repent and change my life. Her behavior has never changed, though, and I wear the scarlet letter so things are never her fault. She’s got a permanent free pass to treat me however she likes, because she’s the “victim”! Friends and family have recognized both sides to the problems in our relationship, and they give me good support, but as for the church, nada. Been through 3 Bishops dealing with our issues and it’s always the same response – poor sister! I stay active because I have a testimony, and I believe these failings in the church are the failings of men who have been browbeaten by the feminist movement to err on the side of caution in favor of women.

  20. Mike, I’m sorry you’re hurting. I can’t speak to your situation, because I don’t know you, but I think it is important to point out that inequality hurts men too. When women are not equal, they are both put on a pedestal and infantilized. Through both of those things, culpability and responsibility is taken away from women. We should bear equal responsibility for our sins. We should be just as culpable as men. Again, I’m sorry you’re hurting, but I think your comment illustrates an important consequence of the inequality. It’s not good for anyone. It is certainly not good for the church or the body of Christ.

  21. Whoa. Mike’s comments perfectly capture what I’ve been through.

  22. wreddyornot says:

    How can we as members of the Church treat women better?

    Lets start by asking Heavenly Father where Heavenly Mother is. Let’s ask both personally and also ask our patriarchy on up the line clear to the prophet? Where is our Heavenly Mother? What does She have to say about these issues?

  23. I think it’s the story of Mormonism that revelation follows social demand for prompting on questions. We’re not going to learn anything more about our heavenly parents until our church is in a position to want an answer.

  24. Just to say it, endowed women already have the Priesthood, and they use it in the performance of ordinances in the temple, some of which are not “overseen” actively by men.

    What they don’t have is an office in the Priesthood to which they are ordained – or a current policy authorizing them to preform ordinances outside the temple. Contrary to the PR Department response to the OW request to attend the Priesthood session, this had not been the case throughout history.

    So, there are a few very simple changes that could be made without changing doctrine in any way – and, I think, breaking or even cracking the current wine bottle:

    1) We have a meeting called the Women’s General Meeting. Make the other meeting the Men’s General Meeting. The first one now is open to all females eight years old and higher; do the same for the males. I see no reason why that couldn’t happen immediately – or why there should be an age difference with the two meetings.

    2) Authorize men and women to serve in every presidency that oversees an organization that currently isn’t specifically designed to serve only one sex. (The Ward Mission, Sunday School, Primary, YSA, SA, etc.) Bishoprics are trickier right now, but all the others would be a simple start.

    3) Eliminate PEC entirely and make the Ward and Stake Councils THE governing councils at the local level. They already are supposed to be the primary councils, so it’s not as big a stretch as some people assume.

    Given what I said at the beginning of this comment, I also would love to see a fuller, more inclusive recognition of the Priesthood all endowed members hold, regardless of ordinal performance authorization. I believe that understanding, preaching and embracing that core concept is important as a foundational step. There was a General Conference talk by one of the sisters recently that hinted at it (I can’t remember who it was), but I would love to see it taught more fully and openly.

  25. I enjoyed and agreed with the points in the article. I disagree with the idea that, “it’s the story of Mormonism that revelation follows social demand for prompting on questions.”

    I feel like it is some type of accepted doctrine in the bloggernacle that the ONLY reason for the change/revelation regarding polygamy and the priesthood were the outside social pressures on the church. A lot of people fought for changes regarding polygamy and priesthood within the upper leadership ranks of the church. Hugh B. Brown argued for change on the priesthood. So did Spencer W. Kimball. Yes, there was societal pressure. But to say it was solely societal pressure that caused or brought about the revelation on the priesthood takes away from the efforts of the good people within the church praying and earnestly seeking change.

    The same is true here. If more women are allowed into leadership positions in the church that will be a wonderful change. But if that happens let’s give some credit to the leadership of the church itself. Let’s not assume they are all just ignoring the problem now and any furutre change on this issue will be because of the Ordain Women movement.

    Sorry, I will climb off my soapbox now.

  26. Fwiw, Marc, what Steve said and what you said aren’t the same thing.

  27. Marc, I don’t disagree with you. I think you’re reading too much into my comment; I was thinking more in the vein of how much of the D&C is in response to direct questions that bubbled up from time to time, instead of unbidden. I have no problem giving credit to the leadership of the Church.

  28. Kristine says:

    Marc, I think it’s more likely that denizens of the bloggernacle assume the possibility/fact of revelation as so well-established that it doesn’t need to be discussed, and the involvement of social pressure and rank-and-file members gets discussed here more often because it doesn’t get discussed in Sunday School.

  29. Yeah, in retrospect I probably read too much into your comment. Apologies.

  30. J. Stapley says:

    This is a complete tangent, but who in church leadership was pushing for an end to polygamy in the 1890s? I agree about the Priesthood/Temple restriction, but the polygamy bit is a curveball.

  31. I have to disagree with Ray. Women do not receive the priesthood when they are endowed. Performance of ordinances is done under the authority of the temple president.

  32. As we regularly revisit this topic it feels like it’s worth linking to some of the key articles written by some of the profound voices within the bloggernacle in order to keep context rather than rehashing yet again the same ideas. Review those ideas and then ask yourselves, are we implementing such changes within our family, Ward, Stake, Church?

    One I regularly review and have actively followed as a member of the Bishopric driving changes within our Ward is the treatise Neylan McBaine presented at the 2012 FAIR Conference:

    http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-to-do-the-business-of-the-church-a-cooperative-paradigm

    Then there is Brad’s Different Buy Equal post from BCC:
    http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/04/15/different-but-equal-another-post-on-gendered-priesthood/

    Rosalynde Welch’s thought experiment on a female priesthood:
    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/09/thinkable-priesthoods-usable-pasts/

    And there are several others across BCC, FMH, Exponent, T&S, etc that offer relevant inputs to changes that can be made today without any revelation and should be made in order to foster a message of and actions toward greater equality. Unfortunately a large gap remains between how the Church treats women and how it should if we were truly asking What Would Jesus Do and then living up to that attitude. Most of those changes would not require ordination to implement.

  33. “Performance of ordinances is done under the authority of the temple president.”

    I agree and didn’t say otherwise.

  34. Hey OD, I know I’m just rehashing here, but harsh, dude!

  35. PS I’m just kidding. Solid comment.

  36. Wow! The original poster’s self-esteem cowardice in his young adulthood is comparable to the church’s leadership in the matter of women in the church? Now he wants to do better in fighting the cruelty and injustice of the church? I don’t see that. I see wonder and beauty and opportunity and grace and hope and kindness and love.

  37. Wow! You completely read the post wrong!

  38. Peter Yates says:

    Steve, brilliant and correct as always.
    If experience leads to treating our spouse, child, grandchild, sibling, parent or a stranger with kindness, love, tolerance, and patience, it is worth it.

  39. Peter, your first sentence makes me blush, but your second sentence is I think absolutely true. Thanks.

  40. Turin Turambar says:

    Steve: As to your missionary anecdote, I think you should cut yourself some slack. Violence is intimidating to a boy in a foreign country who isn’t around it all the time and hasn’t had the opportunity to prepare himself for how he should act in that situation. With the other men, you had the courage to encircle the attacker.

    Mike: I think your post demonstrates how patriarchy hurts men, too.

  41. J. Stapley

    Follow-up on the tangent: I’m not sure what the deliberations were before the first manifesto in 1890. Lorenzo Snow, among others, made efforts to stop the practice prior to the second manifesto according to the link below.

    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/037-8-27-35.pdf

  42. “Performance of ordinances is done under the authority of the temple president.” True enough, Mark, however, does anybody question that the male ordinance workers need priesthood ordination to function as such? You seem to be suggesting that female ordinance workers are somehow ‘channeling’ the temple president’s priesthood (insert altogether sticky discussion viz difference between authority and power here). I’m not aware of any revealed doctrine on this point. Happy to be better informed, but it sounds like you’re just making something up convenient to your position. If you’re correct, why can’t young women bless the sacrament “under the authority of the” Bishop, etc? Also, let us not forget the practice–it petered out in the 30s-40s–of endowed RS sisters giving a modified washing and anointing to women who were at the point of childbirth (outside the temple, of course). By what authority/power were they acting? The waters are obviously muddier than your comment will admit.

    Not to derail the OP’s main point that, even short of female ordination, more can and ought to be done, and that sexism within the church is no hysterical fantasy.

  43. Based on my experiences as a ward YW pres on two different occasions, I feel a that good first step would be to allow women more autonomy in the callings they currently hold. I know this varies from ward to ward, but I could not plan a program or activity without submitting it to the bishopric for approval. After putting much time and consideration into our yearly “young women in excellence” program, I submitted it to the bishopric- it was reverent, relevant, and the speakers and music were chosen carefully to convey meaningful messages in a reasonable amount of time (ideally less than 40 minutes). I was told that, while the program was indeed lovely, we needed to invite a member of the bishopric to be our closing speaker.
    Suddenly, my carefully tailored meeting- designed both to help our YW recognize their own great worth, and to see powerful examples of female leaders who loved them- became an over-long meeting with an extra talk thrown in at the last minute by someone who had participated in none of the planning and prayerful preparation for the event.
    The take away message? Our meeting was not good enough to stand on it’s own.
    The reality? Some of the spirit and message was lost as many participants became fidgety and distracted by a meeting that ran 15 minutes too long.
    I’ve a number of other examples, but suffice it to say, in that calling (which I love), I repeatedly felt as though my best efforts were not good enough, and my inspiration was just plain wrong.

  44. I loved this and I apologize for being nit picky. “Women deserve the chance to lead” and “we don’t let them do this nearly the way we should” feels like fingernails on the chalkboard to me. Power and authority–not as the world giveth–is not men’s to give anymore than equality was white men’s to cede to Blacks. It belongs to all but was taken from some on the basis of race or sex.

    Otherwise, I loved it all.

    As far as physical violence not equating women’s treatment in the church, it reminds me of those who downplay domestic emotional abuse vs physical abuse as “not as bad” because the bruises are not visible. Having watched a close female relative subjected to it for over 3 decades, I can see scars on her heart just as deep as if she’d been slashed.

  45. Martine, I agree with you entirely, but it is a fact of the Church today that men run the show.

  46. I think it’s the story of Mormonism that revelation follows social demand for prompting on questions. We’re not going to learn anything more about our heavenly parents until our church is in a position to want an answer.

    Wow, Evans. That is awesome. Is it more than 140 characters? Somebody should tweet that.

  47. I understand, Steve. We’re all conditioned to think that way.

  48. perfect example, Meggle (March 18, 11:03 p.m.) — thanks for bringing that to the discussion.

  49. L-dG, my statement on the performance of temple ordinances in the temple comes from my parents, who recently returned from serving as temple president and matron in Peru. President B. was very clear, that as he was instructed, female ordinance workers do not hold the priesthood. My mother concurred. The current church position on the topic is clear. But as you point out, it runs into problems when the idea is extrapolated to other ordinances, like the sacrament or healing blessings.
    I don’t think we have a Grand Unified Theory of the Priesthood revealed to us in its entirety. My concern is that with the bits and pieces we do have, we construct flimsy explanations to fill in the gaps. As we do so, we often rely on policies that have worked in the past. We don’t always distinguish between doctrine and tradition, so it’s important to point out the difference when we try to move forward.
    My concern is that if we accept a policy as doctrine, we often accept all the justifications that have sprouted up to support it. If we’re willing to conclude that an endowed woman has the priesthood but can only use it in a very limited situation, then it’s easy to accept the policy that she can’t be a Sunday school president, hold a YM meeting, or pray in sacrament meeting.

  50. Martine: “It belongs to all but was taken from some on the basis of race or sex.”

    Steve: “Martine, I agree with you entirely”

    Okay, good to have you on the record.

  51. Geez, Publius.

  52. “Queens and priestesses”. Seems like little more than an issue of timing.

  53. I really feel that any endowed member of the LDS church, especially the female endowed members, are very aware of the powers females are given to use the Priesthood.I am a “liberal” mormon feminist (deemed by others, don’t feel like i personally label myself that way) and I think God has meant for there to be a lot of power and authority for women on the earth, and that is reflected in sacred temple ceremonies. Even in the wedding ceremony there is a point where the woman has to choose to follow and accept her husband. There is no lack of agency involved. If you are endowed you know what I am talking about. If you aren’t endowed, please trust in the witnesses you have seen of strong LDS women in your life. I believe God to be fair, and yes, at times I have felt sexism at church activities or in the way I am treated, but I don’t hold that against Jesus Christ or His gospel. I think everyone in the church prone to making stupid, silly mistakes… and even more so, calculated, purposeful error. But does that effect who Jesus is? No. Does it effect his ability to save me? No. In fact, I’m appreciative that this gospel will give people who do hold unsightly views about women and “my palce” the chance to be reeducated according to God’s law. That is comfort enough for me to keep going, keep fighting, and keep being a witness.

  54. Sorry Steve, but I don’t see much difference between the way you reacted in France and the way you are scared to take a stand now. I’m casting stones at myself too, because I’m on the sidelines myself. I would give you that writing this OP is a step toward the boyfriend, but it’s still a long ways from getting close enough to risk getting a strap in your face or actually taking the attacker down. Also to be fair, the Church is a powerful boyfriend that seems to defy the police. That’s why I’m not intervening either.

  55. Dan, the thing is: I’m not particularly afraid of taking a stand now. And I don’t believe at all that the Church is the abusive boyfriend here.

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