The God Who Snips

Here is what I checked off my bucket list today: Teach a priesthood lesson about castration and tell a room full of Mormon men that it is a procedure that God, at least metaphorically, wants them to undergo.

It didn’t start off like this. Really. It was just going to be a standard, correlated, out-of-the box lesson based on Elder Bednar’s recent conference talk “Meek and Lowly of Heart.” It’s all stuff I’ve taught before: God wants us to be teachable, humble, compliant–so obey stuff and you will be happy. You know, the only real lesson we really ever teach.

But then I started thinking too much about some of the places in the scriptures where “meek and lowly of heart” occur. Especially this one from Matthew 11: 28-30:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I know how this one is supposed to go. God is comparing us to a team of oxen. We need to submit to him and keep his commandments, and, if we do, he will take our suffering on himself because that what a yoke is: it is a device for distributing a load and not just a burden placed upon our backs. If we keep the commandments, Jesus will be our yoke-mate

This is one of those readings that struck me as so profound when I first heard it that I just accepted it and started teaching it to everyone else. It is comforting to think of Jesus as my yoke-mate–my partner in all of the suffering and horribleness that the world has to offer. What a great understanding of the atonement!

But the more I thought about, the less sense this reading made. In the first place, Jesus is asking us to accept both a burden and a yoke. Both, it seems, are voluntary choices that we make and not things that we have to accept because life is just hard. And nothing in the text  suggests that Jesus is offering to be part of the yoke-deal. He is the driver in this metaphor, not another one of the oxen. If we are yoked together, it is with our fellow beasts.

But here’s where it really gets tricky: you don’t have to convince an ox to accept a yoke. Being willing to accept a burden is just part of oxen nature–part of the definition of what it means to be an ox instead of something else. There is no species of animal called an “ox.” It is a term that describes how an animal is used. An ox is just the name we give to a male bovine that has been made willing to pull a load, which is not something that male bovines are born willing to do. An ox is a bull who has changed its nature.

This is important. Bulls are the poster-bovines of toxic masculinity. They snort and belch and charge at you with their horns. If you try to put a yoke on a bull, you will probably end up gored or tossed over a fence or otherwise incapacitated. Oxen, on the other hand, will happily submit to load. It’s what they have been trained to do. It’s why they exist. It is in their nature. And how do you turn a bull into an ox? It is an extensive process that involves training, re-education, operant conditioning . . . . and castration. Mainly castration.

What Jesus seems to be telling us in Matthew 11 is not, “be an ox that takes the yoke instead of an ox who doesn’t take yoke.” There is no such thing as an ox who won’t take a yoke. What Jesus is telling us is that we should be oxen and not bulls, which is the same as telling us that we need to change because He can’t use is the way we are. Bulls, when they are alone and following their natures, wreck china shops. But when they change that nature and accept a yoke, they join with other recovering bulls to plant crops, plow fields, haul granite, and build kingdoms.

Keep this in mind as we turn to a passage in the Book of Mormon that also talks about meek-and-lowliness: King Benjamin’s address to the Nephites in the first part of Mosiah (3:19):

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

See how it connects? In much the same way that the natural bull is useless to someone who wants to plow a field or build a city, the natural man is useless to someone who wants to build the Kingdom of God. For the bull the answer is castration and sensitivity training. For the disciple, it is the only slightly less frightening prospect of a mighty change of heart that makes us willing to sacrifice everything that is not the Kingdom of God.

Now, let’s be honest here. Metaphors have their limits, and this one has more limits than most.  In the first place, it is unforgivably sexist. It treats male experience as universally human and completely writes female nature out of the equation. It is also a metaphor that can be easily used to tell people to be complacent in their servitude and not to seek justice in this life. And then there’s the fact that eeewww–it’s so icky. I have no defenses to offer on any of these grounds.

But it would be difficult to imagine, in the ancient world, a more concrete and vivid illustration of the doctrine that human nature needs to change in order to accept God. We have to become less proud, less violent, less toxic, and more willing to share the work with other people. We have to allow God to yoke us to each other–to work together to do something worthwhile. And we can’t do that until we yield to the enticings of the holy spirit and become something fundamentally different. We have to change our natures. If we don’t, we are no use to Christ in building His kingdom.

Anyway, that was my lesson today, full of polite, but anatomically correct discussions of what happens when a bull becomes an ox. Snip, snip. And how, you may ask, did it go over?

Well, you know, some people just can’t take a yoke.

Comments

  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I don’t want to be all gender-essentialist or anything, but women do tend to be more willing to work cooperatively to achieve common goals, which is why organizations that include substantial portions of women outperform boys’ clubs handily.

    Also, this is the second time today I’ve read about castrating livestock, the first being Pitchfork’s retrospective review of PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (you will not be surprised to learn that they gave it a 10). Clearly God is trying to tell me something; perhaps if I start using Propecia–a testosterone suppressant–I’ll regrow a lush head of hair and achieve greater advancement, in both worldly and ecclesiastical settings.

  2. So, in the Matthew passage, if Jesus is asking us to take His yoke upon us, this assumes that we’re already oxen, we’ve already been castrated. We’ve just been pulling other, heavier loads. Our nature has already been fundamentally changed to ox, and what he’s offering us is something better and easier than we’ve been used to.

    As someone who doesn’t need the putative benefits of castration (because, you know, I’m a lady), and somebody who has been socialized from birth to put my needs last and focus on what other people want (because, you know, I’m a lady), that’s given me something to think about.

  3. Another thought. Take my yoke upon you – is another way of calling us to be a disciple. Do what he does.

    He helps carry the heavy burdens. That’s the yoke he refers to. He yokes himself with those who are in need.

    You want to follow me? Then take up my yoke. Go a s do thou likewise.

    It’s not so much an admonition for us to join with him in bearing our own burdens. But us to lighten the burdens of others. That’s his yoke after all. Go pick it up off the ground over there and get to work.

  4. So positive reinforcement animal training is one of my things. And the problem with the way you are looking at the metaphor for me is that in real life the bull/ox has not say in what happens to it. A bull doesn’t choose to be castrated. A castrated animal does not chose to pull a cart. An ox cannot yoke itself. Ox become trained oxen attached to a cart because an outside force (a person) steps in and decides it’s fate for it. If we are really going to dissect this metaphor, this to me is the starting place. At the point where the metaphorical ox exists, God has already castrated it.

  5. Interesting. “nothing in the text suggests that Jesus is offering to be part of the yoke-deal.” Indeed, I’ve never thought about it this way. I wonder how many LDS think it’s “obvious” that Jesus is the yoke-fellow and, on the other hand, how many LDS have never heard or had this occur to them.

  6. Kristin Brown says:

    Creative ending Kevin. It placed a smile on my face. Being the only woman in a family of six men I appreciate and agree with your thoughts. I have been “tossed over the fence” and have heard enough snorting and belching by some in our family. But others have made necessary changes. They are meek, humble, pleasant to be around and are useful in building the kingdom of God. Whether we are talking about male oxen or 10 virgins there are some painful experiences to go through before reaching the desired outcome. We all need our natures changed by humbly receiving the truth and living in a manner in which the Holy Spirit is our guide. Thanks Kevin, this was fun.

  7. Michael Austin says:

    ReTx: Yeah, that’s why I put in that part about metaphors having their limits. Every metaphor involves similarities and differences, and the trick is what you pull out as the similarities and what you reject as the differences. The “good shepherd” takes on a whole new meaning when you add the idea that the sheep he is leaving the ninety and nine to go and find is probably going to end up being somebody’s dinner.

  8. Kristin Brown says:

    Oops, sorry Michael. I read your post and Kevin’s at the same time.

  9. Michael Austin says:

    Ben, I have heard this for years, and it appears to be at least semi-official:

    “You come unto Christ to be yoked with Him and with His power, so that you’re not pulling life’s load alone. You’re pulling life’s load yoked with the Savior and Redeemer of the world, and suddenly your problems, no matter how serious they are, become lighter.”
    –Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “The Mission and Ministry of the Savior,” Ensign, June 2005, 18.

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/09/take-my-yoke-upon-you?lang=eng

  10. Michael Austin says:

    Kristin, no worries. Kevin is who I want to be when I grow up.

  11. The idea that Christ is yoked with us is new to me too. Jesus says that it’s *his* yoke. I read it that we’re exchanging our heavy yoke and burden to bear the easy yoke and light burden that Jesus gives us. Exchanging our heavy sins and troubles for Christ’s easy yoke of grace and forgiveness.

    Why should this anxious load
    Press down your weary mind?

    I’ll drop my burden at his feet
    And bear a song away.

  12. I confess I had not thought much about this scripture before, but I like your take. I’m still making up my mind about the yoke pun.

  13. Actually, Mythbusters tested the bull in a china shop metaphor. The had a room with tall shelves of china and he broke not a one. He ran around carefully avoiding the shelves. I haven’t been able to use that comparison since though I have four sons who as kids were kind of like what you think a bull in a China shop would be like. Oh, well. The rest of the OP was excellent though.

  14. I loved this post! I just could not get over the fact that I had no idea that “there is no species of animal called an “ox.” It is a term that describes how an animal is used. An ox is just the name we give to a male bovine that has been made willing to pull a load, which is not something that male bovines are born willing to do. An ox is a bull who has changed its nature.” All of a sudden this scripture has a whole new meaning for me! Guess I am just a sheltered city girl! Haha

  15. AK Transplanted says:

    I can’t wait for the next time this scripture comes up in EQ.

    And thanks for the last line. It put a needed smile on my face tonight!

  16. Love this on so many levels.

    Thanks.

    (Excepting the whole castration implication…. thank the heavens metaphors have limitations…)

  17. I think the last thing we need is more emasculation of men in the church. Even in a “clever” lesson like this, it’s really just reinforcing the church stereotypes. Bulls are not “toxic masculinity” and the inverse is not true either: that cows are angelic feminine creatures.

    You were doing really well until you got to that part.

  18. Most men undergo castration in their old age. A lowering of testosterone levels begins around 30 and continues throughout life. By 60 many men have entered “Andropause” a condition similar to “Menopause” but not as noticeable in men as in women. Men lose muscle mass, ambitious drive and libido. Looking at the senior leaders of the church you see it is lead by “oxen” who are well into andropause and don’t want to make waves. If you want to see if you are an ox or not, see your doctor and ask to have your testosterone levels checked. If it is under 10, you have entered andropause and have become an ox. That condition can be reversed by testosterone replacement therapy. See your doctor and see if you are an ox or a bull!

  19. I would be very curious to know from which sources and in which ways Chompers considers men in the Church to be emasculated.

  20. In the #Metoo era, this line seems appropriate: “…the answer is castration and sensitivity training.” Somewhat uncomfortable to think about, when Nephi counsels us to “liken the scriptures unto ourselves.” After centuries, though, of the objectification and subordination of women, perhaps it is more appropriate than we realize.

  21. Michael, you never cease to amaze me. This is a great post, and that’s not just a bunch of bull.

  22. Ox-aged parent of bull-aged men says:

    Thanks for this!

    For the last several weeks, I have been watching my newly returned missionary son and his friends—also newly returned missionaries this summer—ride their road bikes, build a deck for a neighbor, speak in church, study in school, sing and play instruments, play board games, cook and eat together, share stories and laugh and understand and learn from each other, etc. I have noticed how quickly and easily and willingly and even joyfully they use their strong and fluid and uninjured bodies to help me and others around them by building, hauling, lifting, cleaning—all so simple for them while that physical work has become hard for me. I have also been reflecting a lot on how supportive they were of each other as they grew up and how they reached out to include others, especially toward the end of their teen years.

    Sure, these guys had their share of conflict, and sure they broke stuff and built crazy things in the yards and basements, and left huge messes for their parents, and did truly dumb stuff without helmets, and made their family car insurance rates jump up. But somehow, their being together so much as they grew up, and being nurtured by parents who valued being together and valued work and fun—those things helped them become not just willing to work together but also made them prefer to be and work together. As the beneficiary of their physical strength, and also as the happy observer of their joyful craziness over the years, I am glad for all their bullishness, and glad for how they have learned to be yoked together just through their life long practice of it.

    Community (group yoke!) is a powerful thing.

  23. The agricultural metaphors probably were better understood by the vast hordes engaged in agriculture pre-1900 (or so) than by those of us unconcerned with the differences between stallions and geldings.

  24. Jack Hughes says:

    Great post, Michael. The phrase “toxic masculinity” has unfortunately become a conservative dog whistle, and mentioning it out loud in church would ironically send the large Fox News-viewing contingent of my EQ into a rage. I hope it was better received in your ward.

  25. Interesting, Michael. Extending the metaphor, apparently young bulls are already castrated long before they start being trained as oxen— presumably they are not studded out. So pedigree is not valued at all compared to training.

  26. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Jack: one rather large drawback of the EQ/HP merger is the massive influx of Tucker Carlson-watching retirees into my quiet EQ community. Can’t offend their delicate sensibilities.

  27. And speaking on this very “sensitive” issue, it is true that in early Christianity some devoted followers – practitioners of extreme asceticism – chose to literally make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12). Eusebius stated that the great 2nd century Christian theologian Origen was one of these, but not all scholars agree.

    Thank goodness the practice didn’t catch on.

  28. How does this inform Malachi 4:2-3 “growing up as ‘calves of the stall.'”

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