Liberal Mormons love to whine and gripe about their bad experiences with Church authorities. And seriously, who can blame them? Think of the poor, assertive relief society sister whose perspective is dismissed or undervalued by the ward brethren. The gospel doctrine teacher whose open-ended and exploratory style is rejected as not “spiritual” enough. The thoughtful missionary made to endure the overbearing censure of another hyper-orthodox elder not much older or more mature than he is. Given Mormonism’s lay priesthood, its rule excluding one of the sexes from formal positions of priesthood authority and what some would describe as a lack of checks and balances at the local level, perhaps Mormon congregational life is a ticking timebomb of bad experiences just waiting to go off!
Joseph Smith was keenly aware of the temptations faced by those in authority to abuse their positions of power. As he once famously declared, in D&C 121:39:
“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”
As you probably never would have guessed, I think we all need a place to vent about our personal experiences with being on the receiving (or giving) end of unrighteous dominion. I also think there is virtue in airing our grievances with authority in the right forum. (And if BCC isn’t for airing grievances, what the heck is it for?) But I think there is even more virtue in sharing constructive advice on how to best deal with experiences of unrighteous dominion. So, let’s purge, people. I’ll start. Here’s my all-time favorite experience with unrighteous dominion:
About a year into my mission, I was transferred to a small, dusty town in the middle of the Argentine pampas. My companion was a native Argentine, and one of our first tasks together was to locate a new aprtment and negoitate a new lease. We found a dumpy house that fit our budget, and that we thought we could stand, and we then met with the landlord to finalize the lease terms. The mission had given us a form contract used by all Argentine missions to secure new housing. We presented it to the landlord.
The landlord was not pleased with the contract at all. He explained to us that many of its provisions were obviously appropriate for apartment high-rises in Buenos Aires, but had no application to a house rental in La Pampa. He obviously had a point. We could plainly read the provisions in question, and we recognized that since such a large percentage of Argentine missionaries lived in highrises in or around Buenos Aires, it made sense that the form contract contained these terms; however, it also made sense that the landlord would object to them. The landlord provided us with a form contract of his own, and asked that we take it to our mission president for approval.
Later that afternoon, we went to the local post office and I called the Mission Office from one of the semi-private phonebooths inside. My intent was to inform the Assistants to the President of the contract problem, and ask them if they could seek approval to use the contract provided by the landlord. I made my call, and Elder “Mathews” answered the phone.
Elder Mathews had only been A.P. for a couple of months, but he already had a bad reputation. He was the kind of elder who, after losing a game of “padle” to a local youth, would storm off and exclaim: “Hey buddy, my shoes cost more than your house!” Yes, a real class act. Anyway, I had never actually spoken with Mathews before, so I naively figured that doing so would be a non-event.
As I proceeded to calmly explain to Mathews the nature of our request, I was rudely interrupted by his callous and demeaning tone. “Elder Brown!,” he exclaimed haughtily. “The contract you were given was drawn up by attorneys in Buenos Aires who were hired by the Church! Area President So-and-So hired the local authorities who hired the attorneys, and President So-and-So was given his calling by President Benson! Therefore, if you question the mission contract, you are failing to sustain the Prophet, and you are undermining the Church!”
I was stunned. Dumb-founded. Was this a dream? Did Elder Mathews really just say what I think he said? Was he serious? (Yes, he was). The rest of the phonecall is a bit hazy to me. I somehow managed to take a conciliatory tone with Elder Mathews, and by the end of the phonecall, he was only slightly mad, as opposed to boiling mad. I actually wanted to reach through the telephone and bite his head off, but I was so taken aback by what had happened that I didn’t even tell him off. I was cognizant of the fact that, as A.P., Elder Mathews could probably have me shipped off to some po-dunk hamlet to rot if I crossed him. Thus, I constrained myself.
I hung up with Elder Mathews and immediately called the Mission President. Someone needed to get an earful after what had just happened. But I was not optimistic that talking to President “Fowler” would accomplish much. He was not the most pro-active or assertive of mission presidents. He was the type of guy who, if you told him, “President, I’ve contracted leprosy, the young women in my ward are trying to seduce me, and my companion tries to strangle me nightly with chicken wire!,” would tell you to “just pray and read your scriptures.” You know the type. So my expectations were low.
As I unloaded onto President Fowler, I barely let him get a word in edgewise, except for the occasional conciliatory sputter. I remember very little of what I said, other than my last line: “If Elder Mathews can’t do his job as A.P., then he needs to be replaced by someone who will!” Somehow, the conversation ended, and I stormed out of the phonebooth. As we were leaving, my amused companion told me about a comment he overheard from another post office visitor while I was yelling on the phone: “What I wouldn’t do to be able to speak English like that!” I guess the locals were unaccustomed to hearing loud, irate, mile-a-minute English from Mormon missionaries.
I honestly don’t remember how the contract issue played out. I believe that the President did finally approve the new contract I sent to him, so I guess you could say I got the last laugh on Elder Mathews. In any event, I never did run into Mathews again, so the issue never again came up.
I would also like to believe the the persuasiveness of my arguemnt to the President is what let to our contract being approved. However, given my indignant reaction to Elder Mathews, it may have been that the President was just pursuing the path of least resistance and trying to get the whole episode to blow over. Is there some moral here as to how to react to instances of unrighteous dominion? Perhaps not.
Obviously, this story is more notable for the jaw-dropping bone-headedness of the A.P.’s behavior than it is for any true harm I was actually made to suffer. But it does illustrate, if in a somewhat outlandish fashion, a quintessential example of how “some men, as soon as they get a little authority,” will exercise unrighteous dominion.
What’s your worst (or best) experience with unrighteous dominion? How did you deal with it? Did it permanently disillusion you, or did you get over it and move on? Let’s hear them, folks. Purge. I promise you’ll feel better.