Last night I went to a birthday party. I could be wrong, but I think everyone there was Mormon and most attend a young single adult congregation that I used to attend. At some point early on, the conversation turned toward what had happened that day in Relief Society. (If you’re not Mormon, that’s the meeting at church where all the women gather for a lesson.) Apparently, the woman giving the lesson veered away from the assigned lesson which she didn’t feel comfortable teaching and which I think was about families (or maybe mothers since it was Mother’s Day). It sounded like she veered the lesson towards a discussion of ways one might feel offended at church and what to do about it. Judging by the discussion of the women at the party, it was not well received, at least not by them anyway. One woman said that she made the comment that if you feel offended at church, then it’s the influence of Satan. Several congratulated her on her comment and said she was spot on and they all (or least those who were vocal about it) seemed pretty dismissive of the teacher and the lesson she chose to give.
It was around about this point in the conversation that I tried to keep my head from spinning around in 360 degree circles on my neck with steam pouring out of my ears. A couple of caveats before I continue though. I realize that I was hearing this all second hand and that you are hearing it from me third hand (unless of course you were at the party and present for the lesson, which is entirely possible because I know some who were present might read this), so it’s entirely possible that I am completely misinterpreting what happened. However, there were some ideas expressed, that taken alone made my head spin.
Here’s the thing about Satan. If you say that someone feels or behaves a certain way because of Satan, it’s really hard not to take that as personally offensive. Also, Satan makes for a really great scape goat sometimes that prevents us from digging into ourselves in an effort to more fully understand our own emotions and behavior, or the emotions and behavior of others. Feeling offended at church or like you don’t belong? It’s Satan’s fault! Having a hard time breaking your porn habit? Blame Satan! Having a hard time forgiving the person who sexually assaulted you? Satan has a hold on you! Can you see how using Satan as a scapegoat is maybe simplifying things a little too much? Or how it might not be helpful or empowering to tell someone Satan has a hold on them when they are already feeling down or depressed or hurt?
Having grown up in the church and being gay, I can say that there are some pretty legitimate reasons to feel offended at church. Sure, we have some say in how long we carry that with us, but some hurt doesn’t just wash away overnight. It hasn’t been uncommon to hear the homosexuals blamed at church for the deterioration of the family and therefore society. It’s hard not to take that personally. Ernest Wilkinson said the following in an address to the entire student body of BYU in 1965:
Nor do we intend to admit to our campus any homosexuals. If any of you has this tendency and have not completely abandoned it, may I suggest that you leave the University immediately after this assembly…we do not want others on this campus to be contaminated by your presence.*
Again, it’s hard not to take that kind of stuff personally. Sure, you could say that was almost 50 years ago, get over it, but that attitude permeated Mormon culture and arguably still exists in some pockets. I don’t mean to make this post all about me and the issue that I care about and that affects me directly. I guess my point is, we all have our own issues that we’re sensitized to for whatever reasons and we all too often dismiss the issues that concern others.
I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the past few years is that just because I don’t have the same concerns as someone else, doesn’t make their concerns invalid or not worthy of my attention or consideration. Just because something doesn’t offend me, doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. Part of learning to mourn with those that mourn is having the patience and the curiosity to seek to understand another person’s pain, even (or especially) if it doesn’t immediately resonate with me.
*This address by Ernest Wilkinson is referenced in this keynote address given by Taylor Petrey at the 2012 Compassionate Cause Symposium at the University of Washington.