The Face of Zion

I’ve been in well over 20 wards in my relatively short lifetime. Some I remember fondly, others…….not so fondly. The last two wards in which my family and I have resided have been eye-opening experiences for my wife. She’s had strongly (though not exclusively) negative experiences with ward members. I’m sure most of you are familiar with these in some way or another; they are unfortunately not exceptional: purposive exclusion, gossip, derisive comments, biting criticism, cold indifference, etc. We’ve experienced the same to varying degrees in other wards, but in these two cases she has had the opportunity for the first time to become a member of communities of women outside of the Church. What she found, for her, was astonishing; these women were welcoming of her in ways that so many women in our wards had not been. When they discovered she was a Mormon (a point she did not readily volunteer at first, fearing a backlash), there was mostly just curiosity, though occasionally peppered with fascinating conversations with the Christian women in these groups about shared and cherished values and beliefs.

She has struggled to reconcile her experiences with these non-Mormon women–women who have not covenanted to love her, to mourn with her, to comfort her, but do so freely and eagerly nonetheless–with her experiences among so many brothers and sisters in the church who have done far less, and often quite the opposite. Of course, she would be the first to insist that there have been many fellow members with whom she has bonded and mutually loved in these ways. But there have been quite enough experiences which signal that, as a people, we seem to have a long, long, way to go before we see Zion.

The recent Pew Survey on Mormons in America reveals that while largely “satisfied with their lives and content with their communities,” “many Mormons feel they are misunderstood, discriminated against and not accepted by other Americans as part of mainstream society.” This predominantly collective sense of discrimination has been informally dubbed the “Mormon persecution complex,” arising, I presume, out of the initial Missouri degradations and continuing through U.S. government persecution of a polygamous LDS Church through to the end of the nineteenth century. Following the gradual end of polygamy, a general cultural and religious stigma regarding Mormons seemed to remain, despite Mormonism’s outrageously successful assimilation into American society. However, as many Mormons tiredly continue to point out to fellow anxious Mormons, cultural and religious ignominy is not the same as the material and substantive persecution of the nineteenth century. Not with so many Mormons becoming increasingly visible in government, business, entertainment, sports, the arts, etc., and especially not with the vast majority of mainstream Mormons blending so successfully into American society.

That point, however, is moot. Even if Mormons begin to experience genuine, nineteenth-century style persecution or worse, a much more urgent and relevant task remains perpetually before us, one that relegates concern for public perception or physical external persecution to the background: the task of Zion.

There are too many holes, gaps, forgotten souls, and festering wounds in our own community for us to be overly concerned about what nonresidents are thinking and doing. Not that public perception is simply of no concern, but our reasons for desiring a certain national and international comprehension of us as a people must be tied inextricably to how important we consider the internal construction of Zion to be. The wounds we incur in the houses of our friends are always deeper and more destructive than the cuts and stings of distant and foreign opponents. What would it look like to the world, in any case, if this inner cleansing and establishing of Zion was the public face of Mormonism? One particular social community is a remarkably enlightening example.

The Lil’wat Peoples Movement is the largest political group amongst the Stl’atl’imx people, the indigenous people of British Columbia’s western dry belt. [1] They have historically been faced with the tragically typical misfortunes of native groups in the West–epidemic suicides, alcoholism, systemic racism, substandard living conditions and education, encroachment on traditional lands by government and other groups, etc. The Lil’wat do work vigorously and publicly to overcome these conditions and fight against imposing external forces to the best of their ability. However, they do not bemoan their genuine victimhood. Instead, they use the commission incumbent upon them because of traditional and ancestral duties to ask themselves where they have failed to meet their obligations to others. This is the united face they present to the world, and the principal way they have chosen to battle oppression and stay true to their identity.

In response to opposition to the building of an LDS temple in Stockholm, Sweden in 1985, New Testament scholar and Church of Sweden Bishop Krister Stendahl advocated that we leave room for “holy envy” of other faiths, meaning that you purposively recognize elements of other faith traditions that you admire and would like to see incorporated into your own tradition. Perhaps, as in the case of the  Lil’wat people, we might adopt a particular holy envying that exemplifies belief in the constant collective transformation and edification of a community and the physical, emotional, and religious redemption of each and every one of its members.

Our understanding of being a covenant people likewise creates particular obligations and understandings of our role in the world. Thus, the building of Zion should be a united inward task that is inseparable from the face we present to the world and ways we seek to make a difference in it. Repentance is the heart of the gospel; it should seize and unsettle us at every level–individually, as families, and as a community. [2] When our attitude and orientation to what matters most as members of the church is one of seeking to cleanse the inner vessel first, any inordinate concern for negative or positive public perception is replaced with a serious concern for our own standing before God and the Zion God has always and will always want us to build. The internal construction of Zion then becomes inextricably entangled with the ways in which we relate and reach out to the world. These dual elements are beautifully combined in Doctrine and Covenants 45:

And it shall be called the New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the Saints of the Most High….And it shall come to pass that the righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy (66, 71).

Perhaps then, for example, when we see encroachments on religious freedoms we will be first in line to defend other minority communities (e.g., Muslims and other religious minorities) and their rights to free association and assembly, defending them as a community who unequivocally knows both what it is like to be a religiously stigmatized group in America and precisely to what religious tasks it is called. The world would thus recognize the face of Zion as a refuge for all peoples precisely because its original architects have engineered it as such for themselves.

[1] This example was provided to me in a recent conversation with a friend.

[2] See Norbert’s recent excellent post on this. 


  1. The difference between Mormons and Muslims in terms of American life is that the left loves Muslims and hates Mormons; the right isn’t fond of either group.

  2. Sometimes it seems that Family First becomes Family Only. We have an obligation to our children to teach them to love and serve all others, not just a chosen few. I have to say that I have ‘charity’ envy of some religions who freely care for others without worrying about what it will do to the Ward budget.

  3. ” When our attitude and orientation to what matters most as members of the church is one of seeking to cleanse the inner vessel first, any inordinate concern for negative or positive public perception is replaced with a serious concern for our own standing before God and the Zion God has always and will always want us to build. ”


    I’ve had this vision of myself as a person who is far less concerned with how well the people around me are doing ‘living the gospel’ than I am with how I, myself, am doing. In fact, in this vision, I really don’t focus one bit on how they are doing. They may hate, harm, in small or great ways. They may dislike me, or ignore me. They may paint an ugly, or just untrue picture of me. They could hardly do my ego and my darkness justice, anyway – I simply don’t care. But I myself am always desiring to lift rather than to make a smidgen more problematic the ironies and difficulties they face. I never return railing for railing, or worry how my gifts appear in the light of theirs.

    I have been in the proximity of this person at various times. Sometimes it has lasted only hours, or even just a glance, sometimes days, or even weeks. But I have never been able to sustain it before the rampaging elephant of my ego.

  4. Wonderfully written. I have lived in two Utah wards where the women fail to connect in real and authentic ways. Women are too insecure and competitive to be open and honest and share, and I’ve contributed to the problem before as well. The strong female relationships I have formed have come through secular means, which I am grateful, but I do get envious when I read church history and learn of the strong bonds pioneer women shared, compared to those of today. Women in Mormon culture are deeply suspicious of one another, I think in part to our sex-phobic rhetoric that warns women of other women, of pornography, modesty, and not measuring up as a wife and mother. In our cultural interpretations of this doctrinal perspectives, another woman can literally destroy your family, in so many ways! By putting a spiritual standard on homemaking, it automatically gives the task a competitive position for many women. I think as a church and as a Relief Society we have a tremendous responsibility, as well as an amazing opportunity to do better.

  5. One of the reasons I love Elder Wirthlin’s “Concern for the One” is that he places the primary reponsbility for building Zion on those who are not tired, different or have strayed. In fact, in the case of those who feel different, he says explicitly that it is the responsibility of the dominant instrument (the piercing piccolo) to allow all other instruments to play in the orchestra and not drown them out.

    Like Norbert’s post highlights, I need to be more concerned about “me” than about “them” (or even, primarily, “us”). I need to model what I want for others. If I don’t, I’m a hypocrite. More than anything else, I need to believe in the concept of, “We love him, because he first loved us.” Often, others will love us only if we truly love them first – and we have to love them for who they are, not just for whom we would like them to be ideally.

    Yes, we have a long, long way to go – but I’ve seen it work in more than one unit, and it’s wonderous to behold when it does.

  6. This is a bit of a tangent, but I’ve now served in callings that necessitated that I attend the relevant unit/ward council in perhaps 8 different units. These have been very diverse units–everything from a small struggling branch to a large flourishing ward and everything in between. At some point in each of those unit/ward councils, I’ve heard from someone in the unit that the unit was the most unfriendly unit they’d ever attended, and also heard from someone else (at another time) that the unit was the most friendly that they’d ever attended.

    My takeaway from this is that whether you find a ward or its members to be welcoming or friendly (or not) depends on a lot of different factors: the attendee, who the attendee meets in the ward, who the attendee meets in the ward first, how the personality of the attendee segues with others in the ward, how comfortable the ward was before the attendee got there, the personalities of those in leadership positions, etc.

    None of that is to take away from the post; obviously no member should be engaged in viscous gossip about another. But I do think sometimes we chalk a “lack of Zion-like community” up to what might be better explained as personalities and circumstances not meshing well, which is a prosaic occurrence.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    JimBob, I’ve noticed that as well. I’ve found in my own life that sometimes I’m more active in friendshipping and then in other situations I’m frankly worn out, exhausted or the like and am more passive. Sometimes when I’ve been passive others have stepped it up and in others they haven’t. It was easy when I was tired to want others to make the difference but perhaps unfair to be angry when they didn’t. Also, different people have different interests. It’s easy to click with people whose personalities mesh with yours or who have similar interests. The challenge is in doing it when they don’t. I think it’s far too easy to assume people aren’t warm and welcoming and have a negative view when others are just as shy as you are.

    I remember several wards I had very negative views about. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become much more charitable about them. None of this is to assume every individual can rise up and simply feel a connection. It’s hard and we’re not always in a place where we can do it. But I do think we should be charitable in our judgments. The ward you don’t like others find perfect.

    Tom (1). I don’t think that’s true. Lots of liberals have tons of bias against Muslims. I’ve heard quite a few making unkind comments and unwarranted generalizations.

  8. Latter-day Guy says:

    jimbob, by “viscous gossip, did you mean this ?

  9. I liked this post — thanks.

    “The world would thus recognize the face of Zion as a refuge for all peoples precisely because its original architects have engineered it as such for themselves.”

    This made me think of Karen’s recent thought experiment (I think posted here at BCC) about what it would be like if a majority of people in our society were LDS — would we as vigorously protect religious freedom, on the grounds of the inherent desirability of true religious pluralism, as we do today? How else would society look if there were no separation of church and state and the current LDS Church (as opposed to Christ’s Millennial reign, in which we believe the Church will play a significant role) were the majority, state religion? Would it be Zion or would we be lacking because our majority status led us to impose our faith on others, overlooking some rights/freedoms in the process?

  10. Peter LLC says:

    Also, different people have different interests.

    Indeed. Having religion in common may not result in much overlap.

  11. Sharee Hughes says:

    I am an older single woman, and although I think I live in the best ward in the church, I do not have a close bonding with other women in my ward, in that we do things socially together outside of the ward. But I don’t consider that necessary. I have friends that I inteact with socially that are not in my ward. There are women that I like and consider friends and I enjoy the company of many of them in our neighborhood book club and a study group some of us attend. But if we do not have interests in common, I do not think of them (or myself) to be “exclusionary.” I have been in wards that have not been really warm and friendly (when the same person comes up to you 3 weeks in a row and asks if you’re new in the ward, there’s something missing), and I have been in wards where the people have bent over backwards to welcome me. Somehow there needs to be a middle ground, an openess and acceptance of everyone, a welcoming of new members, even if close friendships do not form. Gossip, derisive comments, biting criticism and cold indifference are not a part of the Gospel and do not belong in any church setting. What we need to do is be open and accepting ourselves and see if that might make a difference to others. I know it is not all that simple, but it should be, if we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

  12. yes, Sharee, when i ask you for the third time whether you’re new there is something missing. it is memory. i had to check 3 times to be sure to spell your name correctly and only 2 seconds had passed, not an entire week. i’ve been married to what’s-his-name for almost 30 years. you’d think i might have figured out what he’s called by now. i just plug along trying to be as inoffensive as possible.

  13. i have stopped asking what’s-his-name if he’s new here…
    but i will probably start again soon enough.

  14. My wife and I were subject to a change in ward boundaries a few months ago, we being moved to another ward with whom we had little dealings (other than that bishop keeping me as the bishop’s agent for building scheduling). We had been in our prior ward (and various versions of that ward) for some 24 years. We had close friendships and being moved to a new ward (which involved two subdivisions with roughly 8 active families and 12 inactives) was not something we were looking to but we pressed forward.
    Our experiences in the new ward have not been the best. Introduction to my fellow priesthood brethren was limited to the group leader mentioning them by name, me and other transferees also just by name. Nothing about background, nothing whereby we could get a sense of who our fellow brethren are….
    My wife has now been called to primary which so far has proven to be a good experience.
    I’ve now been called to teach the TFOT lesson so am working on means of getting to know my brethren better, including me introducing myself my first lesson.
    We hope it will get better…
    In the meanwhile, I still attend my former ward’s priesthood meeting since there’s no conflict in the schedule and I am otherwise attending all meetings in the new ward. Being required to change wards does not mean I must ignore close friendships….

  15. “i’ve been married to what’s-his-name for almost 30 years.”

    BCotW nomination

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    As I think back, I have seen similar accounts of women feeling excluded by a clique in Relief Society, but I can’t recall any Melchizedek Priesthood holder stating that they were being actively excluded by their quorum. Are Mormon men more accepting of strangers? Do women feel threatened in their existing relationships by a newcomer?

    In any case, if I were in your situation, I would go talk to my bishop about it, and try to talk to the Relief Society president. Women who do not open themselves to new members of the Relief Society are failing to obey the Second Great Commandment, and are failing the test that the Savior says he will use at the Last Judgment: whether we treated our neighbors as if they were the Savior. That means the women are betraying the motto of the Relief Society: Charity Never Faileth. They need some special lessons and exhortation by the bishop and their leaders, there may need to be some change in the leadership, and there need to be special efforts made to involved everyone so they can make new friends. I would take specific action, because the symptoms are those of people failing to live up to their covenants.

  17. (no. 16) Please, let’s not get the bishop involved in this — he isn’t a teacher dealing with children in the schoolyard. Any adult can deal with this matter him- or herself.

  18. Sharee Hughes says:

    So, Marta, does what’s his name remember your name? :-)

    And second Ray in nominating “I’ve been maried to what’s-his-name for 30 years” as BCofW.

  19. RTS,

    I’m not sure “actively excluded” is the right word, but men who have just moved into a ward and who are then placed quickly into the primary (instead of a calling where they get to actually interact with other men) are often almost entirely ignored.

    The best solution I’ve seen is to decrease ward sizes. A ward that’s small enough that it needs help from everyone who is willing to help can’t afford to exclude anyone.

  20. I’ve had the same experience, Jacob, starting when I was in high school and went to a non-denominational youth activity with a friend. I had never been so welcomed in my own church, and that made me really sad. It was hard to go back to my ward the next week.

    I really liked Nora’s comment (#2) about “family first” becoming “family only.” I got into that very issue a few years ago, when one of my friends turned on me for supporting Obama and began attacking my integrity, my morals, and my standing in the church. I told her I couldn’t believe she would treat a friend that way, and she said she would do whatever it took to protect her family.

    RTS – something to do with the nature of the groups, maybe? Relief Society is a “sisterhood,” supposed to be all about seeking out and helping those in need. Are there different expectations for priesthood quorums? Or maybe men do feel excluded but don’t feel comfortable expressing it because it would somehow be “feminine” to be hurt by being left out? (Don’t ask me, I can’t imagine why people would think that, but I certainly know people who would.)

    The idea of Zion being “a refuge for all peoples” is just so beautiful. Right now there are a lot of people who need to seek refuge from our church. I’m really looking forward to that changing.

  21. Mark Brown says:

    Are Mormon men more accepting of strangers?

    RTS, the answer to your question is No. Most men do not go to church to finds friends or good fellowship, we have had that hope beaten out of us. We have learned by sad experience that church is the place you go to be berated, and we attend with that expectation.

  22. Mark (@21). I must disagree to the extent that it can’t happen. As noted in my earlier comment, I and my wife have been in the same ward (well, different configurations with different names but basically most of the same people) for some 24 years. As a result I can say (with a straight face) that I developed friendships with several brethren in that ward. No, it didn’t happen overnight but it take place.
    When we learned of we and certain other families being transferred to another ward, I and my wife were BOTH in tears over it because we had through various life’s events with friends, friends who became such because of being in the same ward for so many years). Again, that’s why I still attend priesthood in my old ward because I miss those friends….

  23. StillConfused says:

    To OP, tell your wife to hang with the Feminist Mormon Housewives group. They are accepting of all.

    On a serious note, I have never really had many church female friends. I found them to be a bit to catty. In addition, because I have a very diverse group of friends, clients etc, I have to be really careful with friends who are close minded. They can say some really ignorant things, bless their hearts.

  24. I live in Utah and work for the church, although I am not originally from Utah. I have had terrible experiences with neighbors, local leaders, supervisors, coworkers, and family. It is an embarrassment to me that this is the condition of the church. There are some really good and kind people, but most of them are not in leadership positions. I could go on and on, but on the point of Zion: we are not Zion, and we treat each other badly, so badly that I think it’s often worse in the church than outside. Pride and competition brings judging and belittling, and it’s gotten really, really bad in my world, to the point that I really don’t want to participate much in “church” anymore, but rather just live the gospel.

    I am convinced nothing is more important and nothing will be of greater weight at judgment day than how well we treat our fellow man. And I don’t mean how well we pretend to be nice, because a lot of people haven’t gotten very good at performance, at appearing to care. Good members can’t be obviously rude or mean, so they’ve gotten very good at subtlety, passive-aggressiveness, and manipulation all while appearing to be nice, kind, and caring. Not everyone is this way, in fact many aren’t, but many, many are. People think they can fool people when their words are not in agreement with their true feelings, but their true feelings are always communicated one way or another.

    So Zion is nowhere right now, at least that I know of. You have to build your own little world with people that are kind to you and love you. Chances are that’s not going to happen within your ward, so you have to find good friends wherever they are and keep with them. You also have to be careful what you disclose to others because sometimes people use that against you, leaders included. It’s sad to me, but by their fruits you shall know them. Not what they say, but what they do, because they’ll all tell you their pure motives and try to shame you into thinking they would ever have any malicious intent.

    Zion is the pure in heart, so seek that out. Zion definitely isn’t Utah, the ward, or any other physical place. It’s in people, but only some people in the church.

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