I mean, I get why people think otherwise. Recently, people have been excommunicated, among other reasons, for advocating women’s ordination to the priesthood and for marrying the person they love.[fn1] Ammon and his cohort have adopted the grammar of Mormonism and Mormon scripture to justify their armed trespass (or sedition or terrorism or whatever—let’s just say their lawbreaking), a justification that the church forcefully and unequivocally rejected.[fn2] Their actions are a clear violation of the 12th Article of Faith and certainly do more harm, both socially and to the reputation of the church, than trying to get into the Priesthood session of Conference or marrying a same-sex partner, and it seems unfair that Bundy et al. won’t face any ecclesiastical consequences.[fn3]
But that doesn’t mean Bundy—or other participants—should be excommunicated. The disappointment that they don’t appear to be facing any church discipline parallels the disappointment many have expressed that the government is treating them with kid gloves. It’s not, I think, that anybody wants to see the FBI go in with guns blazing. But in recent high-profile cases, police haven’t exercised the same restraint around black men and women. That police would shoot a 12-year-old African-American boy with a fake gun, but not do anything about a dozen white men with real guns actually breaking the law, seems unjust and unfair.
But, as Jamelle Bouie convincingly lays out at Slate, “why won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one.” Going in violently against white criminals doesn’t reduce the chances that the police will go in violently against black criminals; rather, it legitimizes state violence.
Similarly, excommunicating Ammon Bundy wouldn’t do anything to help gay couples or advocates for women’s ordination. Instead, it would further legitimize excommunication as a tool for dealing with sinners and bad actors, and would move the church further into the space of a resort for saints, rather than a hospital for sinners. The problem is, that’s not what the church is for. Elder Wirthlin explained that
[t]he Church is not a place where perfect people gather to say perfect things, or have perfect thoughts, or have perfect feelings. The Church is a place where imperfect people gather to provide encouragement, support, and service to each other as we press on in our journey to return to our Heavenly Father.
Excommunication shunts off some of those imperfect people, and its threat discourages other imperfect people from participating. And that hurts all of us.
So no, Ammon Bundy shouldn’t be excommunicated, as satisfying as that should be. The church, with its forceful denunciation of his acts and of their religious basis, responded perfectly, and I applaud that response. It’s a model of how the institutional church should react to members acting badly.
[fn1] I’d be thoroughly remiss if I didn’t point you to Mike Austin’s take on this, of course.
[fn2] Among other things, the church says that “[t]his armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. ”
[fn3] Of course, they’ll probably serve jail time, so there’s always that.