A Mirror Too Horrible

“There is no gender inequality in the doctrine of the church, there are just people who apply it unfairly.”  I heard this statement over and over while growing up in the church, attending BYU, attending relief society, and talking with smart people about tough issues.  It shored up my identity as a Mormon of fairness and conscience, and provided comforting walls to my Mormon reality.

In 2006, I was working in Afghanistan to help reform the criminal justice system.  Many things have changed in Afghanistan since then, including legal protections provided to women.  But in 2006 there was one horrible reality that broke my heart every time I thought about it.  Rape was not a crime in the penal code.  It was an affirmative defense to the crime of adultery.  That meant that theoretically, if a woman was raped, both she and the man would be charged with adultery.  Then she could raise the affirmative defense that she did not consent to the sexual contact.  And the judge could evaluate whether to accept that defense.  Putting aside the devastating cultural and psychological consequences of this process when it worked, it treated a victim like a criminal, assumed that the police would treat the man and woman equally, that the woman would have both the courage and knowledge to defend herself in this way, and that she could access effective advocacy in the system to help her technically raise the defense.  Shaky propositions all around.  The clear, fundamental unfairness of this law was manifestly apparent.

One afternoon I was having lunch with a delightful, articulate, and educated female judge.  At the end of the lunch I asked her what she thought about the debate swirling in legal circles in Kabul about the penal code containing no rape provisions.  She said “there is no gender inequality in the law, there are just people who apply it unfairly.”

I don’t really have words for what physically happened to me when I heard her say that.  My leg muscles went a little weak, my heart pounded, and my vision started graying out a bit on the edges.  I finished my conversation with her with my hearing tinny and far away.  It was a mirror too horrible to hold up to myself.  The same reasoning, the same words, that I had just accepted in my own faith tradition were being used by a bright and articulate woman to describe a terrible, systematic, and abusive situation.  The reasoning, though not sound, was allowing her to continue living her life.  It provided comforting walls to her reality as an Afghan judge.

My life changed after this.  I had to accept the fact that although I had prided myself on critical thinking skills, I was walling off a part of my heart from my mind and excusing things that should not be excused, because the mirror was too horrible to look in.  I was coming to a conclusion first, and then cherry picking sound-bytes that allowed me to keep moving forward in a way that was comfortable.  I prized the conclusion over all else, and grasped for reasons afterwards.

I approach my faith differently now.  I accept that good people can make wrong decisions.  I accept that well-meaning people can be clouded by prejudice.  But I cannot allow them to speak for me when my own conscience suffers at their words.  Most of all, I cannot allow conclusion-encouraged sound-bytes that contradict logic and reality to provide a weak balm to my own injured sense of right.  My conscience demands more of me.  It demands that I jettison empty rhetoric for a thoughtful, if painful, approach to how I will treat others.

“This is being done to protect the children.”  If you cannot seriously say this sentence without laying out an elaborate hypothetical context before uttering it, it should not be said.  If the face of the words is directly contradictory to the meaning of the situation, it should not be said.  If the reason is so facially false that it is obvious to everyone, even yourself, then it should not be said.  If the conclusion is dictating the reason, then it should not be said.

Real families, real children are not only not being protected, they are being emotionally ripped apart by the new handbook rules.  Children being asked to “disavow” their parents are not being protected.  Children of gay parents who have already been baptized, and are now uncertain about their place in church are not being protected.  Children who already feel vulnerable and ostracized being officially labeled and excluded by the church are not being protected.  The thin sauce of conscience-soothing nonsense cannot cover up the unfair reality.

Where am I now in my faith?  Now that I have promised to try and jettison a habit of indulging in conclusion-based religious logic?  In an uncomfortable place.  In an uncertain one.  But there is peace here—there is a foundation I’m more sure of, because I’ve determined that there are some truths I do accept as completely legitimate guides to my action.  Foremost among them are the words of Jesus:  As I have loved you, love one another.  That is a wall I can stand on.