Many of us have recently participated in the “Eternal Marriage” lesson from the Joseph Fielding Smith manual. The lesson’s final section carries the heading “As a husband and wife faithfully observe all the ordinances and principles of the gospel, their joy in marriage grows sweeter.” The paragraphs in the section, however, lean toward defining this joy negatively, in terms of avoiding divorce. This tendency can have the effect of making our divorced sisters and brothers seem “less than” those whose marriages are currently working.
Lest we believe that speaking laxly of divorce encourages people to “take the easy way out,” let me be clear: nobody wants to get divorced. As Tracy M has written, “The unraveling and separating of lives is painful and messy, no matter how mature or well-intentioned the parties.” Her post bravely pushes back against many of the facile narratives that we and others use to explain divorce. I encourage everyone to go read it, as well as her earlier post about divorce and children.
The issue here isn’t so much that our theology privileges marriage (to the extent that it privileges anything, as it inevitably must, some people will get the short end of the stick), but that this theological privileging manifests itself as a stigma within our community. I’m not here to argue that we should change our theology just because it causes people pain, but rather that we as a community have, at minimum, a moral responsibility not to exacerbate this pain unnecessarily. Indeed, I’d argue that we have an obligation to work on finding ways of bringing those left on the outside by our theology into the fold. This we must do if Zion is our aim, for Zion requires that we join together in one heart.
In fact, I’m going to suggest that Mormon theology itself gives us the resources to meet this responsibility. Sam Brown has argued that early Mormon thought about priesthood and sealing focused on uniting the human family in what he calls a “great chain of belonging.” Sometimes we talk, though, in ways that imply that divorce cuts people (and especially women) off from this chain.
Men, whether single, married, or divorced, remain connected to the chain so long as they hold the Melchizedek priesthood, which binds men together through lines of authority that are extended every time a man ordains another man to the priesthood. In terms of perpetuating the divine chain of interconnection, every Melchizedek priesthood holder has this potentiality (although few in practice perform very many ordinations). Even so, our teaching that the highest order of the priesthood can only be jointly exercised by husband and wife does limit the participation of single and divorced men in the part of the chain that is bound together by sealing.
The case is far different for women. Because our theology of how exactly the temple endowment empowers women is vague, their only clear access to priesthood comes through men, either as spouses or as priesthood leaders who issue callings wherein, as Elder Oaks recently taught, women act using priesthood authority. Single women may be sealed to their parents, but can only be end links on the chain (or web of chains) that connects us all. Divorced women have a more difficult situation: they either remain sealed to partners from whom they have been civilly divorced, or, if they have children who were born in the covenant, are bound through that covenant to their children’s father (which can make things all the more painful if the sealing is canceled). Because they (unlike their former husbands) cannot be sealed to a new partner without a cancellation of the prior sealing, they face greater obstacles to the perpetuation of their divine interconnection.
These theological points can pose real discomfort. What about the child whose sealing to an abusive natural parent seems irrevocable? The woman whose husband leaves her and soon ends up in a temple marriage with another woman? The husband who loves his children and longs to remain sealed to them, but whose ex-wife turns them against him? The children who, by remaining sealed to their natural parents, keep the wound perpetually open in themselves and in their parents? What if nobody’s committed any major sins, but the relationship just seems not to be working out, prolonged effort notwithstanding? I have witnessed these and other similarly painful situations in the lives of people close to me, sometimes more than once.
Our usual theological solution to these points of discomfort involves appealing to the next life, in which a merciful God will sort everything out. Given the complexities of most situations, looking to a God whose comprehension exceeds ours is probably the only recourse.
Again, though, I’m less interested in the theology itself than in how we apply it as a community that is striving toward Zion. While the appeal to the next life can provide genuine comfort for some, for others it can have the effect of reducing them to placeholders. As one friend put it, “It sucks to have people tell you you’d be better off dead.” We need, in other words, to find a way of including these people in our community now, not in some distant futurity.
One way to do this is through sacramentalism. Even if Mormonism doesn’t teach transubstantiation (beautiful idea though it may be), our doctrine of the eucharist is still one of real presence, albeit along more Calvinist lines. In the sacrament prayers’ statement that the Spirit may be with us, we are, through eucharistic participation, promised the presence in our beings of a member of the Godhead—a promise that can be actualized in the present.
The Spirit’s presence serves to cleanse our hearts, teach us truth, and comfort us in times of trouble, but it also serves, to use Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:13-14 (KJV), as the earnest of our inheritance, the present taste of a promise still in progress:
13 In whom [i.e., Christ] ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,
14 Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.
The Spirit, that is, enables us to enjoy the fruits of sealing now when we trust in Jesus. We do not take the sacrament to remind us of our lack, but to experience, in real time, the blessings that Jesus’ sacrifice betokens. Partaking of the sacrament actualizes the Atonement for us in the present, no matter how much sorting out we still happen to need.
If the sacrament, frequently touted as the holiest ordinance outside the temple, can make our future healing real in the present, can we not extend this sacramentalism to the ordinances that bind the entire human family together? Can we make our weekly and daily life in community such that the divorced among us do not feel cut off from these sacerdotal ties? There is pain enough in the experience of divorce that we who call ourselves Christians do not need to add to it through careless applications of the very theology that promises the balm of healing. If the means by which everything will work out remain mysterious, let us as a community join together in faith, not leaving some of our members to wrestle alone with their pain and doubts. We cannot, after all, be saved without them. Now is the day.
I conclude with some practical suggestions about how we might more effectively build Zion together with our divorced brothers and sisters. I invite you to add further ideas in the comments.
First and foremost is to keep Jesus central in our teachings and worship. I see the value, with respect to families, in “teaching the ideal,” but the fact that even those who appear to be happily married fall short of the ideal means that, absent pervasive emphasis on the Atonement, constant harping on the ideal can become depressing rather than hopeful. We are called to worship Jesus, not practice familyolatry. We ought to bear deep testimony about his influence in our lives more often than we do. So teach LDS doctrine about the family, but don’t let it outweigh teaching about Jesus.
Second, we ought to be very wary of becoming Job’s comforters with respect to the divorced among us. We should be humble about how little of people’s situations we really know and not jump to conclusions about who is at fault. Don’t assume that the husband had a porn problem, that anybody was cheating on anybody else, or anything else of the kind. Even if you know that such things are true in a particular case, they do not capture the full complexity of the situation, so have some charity and back off. Remember your own shortcomings and put it all in the hands of Jesus. Show kindness, love, and a willingness to listen.
Third, we might also benefit from shifting the balance of emphasis in our sealing theology away from the nuclear family and toward the whole human family. The nuclear family is very important, because it is the laboratory for teaching us how to live in harmony with people who differ from us. These lessons, though, must be put to use far beyond our nuclear families if we are to realize the vision articulated by Joseph Smith in D&C 128:18, according to which the sealing power binds the whole human family together:
[I]t is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time.
It’s good for us to think about the serious labor of making our families work, but let’s keep the big picture in mind. As I’ve been suggesting, the big picture, especially considered sacramentally, has plenty of room for faithful people left out by the nuclear family model. God hasn’t left them out, so why should we?
Finally, remember that, no matter how sensitive you try to be, you’re going to end up hurting people (which is no doubt true of this post as well). Here’s where the Zion stuff really comes in. I love the idea of Zion, because it calls us to live the teachings of Jesus together in community with other imperfect people. This is hard, because we’re constantly bumping up against flaws in ourselves and in others. Zion calls us to love each other in our flaws, to be quick to forgive when others wound us (whether intentionally or unintentionally, as is often the case). It calls us to be charitable toward those whose life experience differs from ours. Beyond this, though, as Kristine wisely reminds us, Zion doesn’t just call us to share each other’s burdens and miseries, but each other’s joy as well. Zion, that great manifestation of Jesus’ grace, makes it so that others’ joy can also be our own.