I’m feeling it, every day, in my small corner of the internet. We’re hurting. We’re troubled. We’ve lost something we fear we may never get back. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” With Kate Kelly’s excommunication, some of us feel as though the Body of Christ just suffered an amputation. And pain lingers.
Imagine a young woman in the Church, happily LDS, bright and ambitious. I knew many such women in my twenty-plus years teaching at a university. Let’s suppose she goes to college, graduates, finds a job in her field. At work, she’s treated professionally, as an equal to others in her group or team or company. Occasionally, she may experience casual sexism, but there are places to lodge complaints, and complaints are taken seriously. Perhaps she marries, and with some dexterity performs that delicate balancing act between work and family. But then there’s Church, where empowerment seems more distant, even unattainable. Why do men, only men, make the key decisions? Is a biological imperative, reproduction, really equivalent to institutional governance, as the rhetoric suggests? Why cannot mothers hold their babies when they’re blessed? Why doesn’t the Relief Society President sit on the stand, with the other ward leaders? And boy, does modesty rhetoric grate on the ear. Petty complaints, perhaps, but suggestive. And so this: Is this what God wants for her? This can’t be right, can it? And in that cognitive dissonance, there’s great discomfort, shading in time to pain, shading further into outrage.
But this hypothetical young woman is from the internet generation. She’s used to social media; she’s used to organizing on-line, she’s used to chat rooms and Twitter and websites and Facebook, and Facebook groups. And she discovers other people who share her discomfort and pain and outrage. There’s a forum for her. There’s Segullah and Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives. And there’s OW. And she makes friends (“I’m not alone!), and meets new heroines. And the institutional church has no equivalent space for the kinds of conversations she longs for. And those on-line communities are empowering. And one heroine, for many, is Kate Kelly.
1 Corinthians 12 has been a scripture oft-cited over the last ten days, those wonderful words about the body of Christ, and our interdependence and when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.” And Kate Kelly’s excommunication feels like the unnecessary excision of a crucial body part, feels like a misguided institutional effort to silence a voice that may be heterodox, but that has provided great comfort to many.
And it hurts. Oh, my gosh, it hurts.
But Paul also wrote this, in the same epistle, to the same Corinthians, right there in the previous chapter to the one I just cited:
Paul, for all his wisdom and insight and inclusive vision for a Church open to all, was also kind of a sexist jerk. I mean, of course he was. He lived in the first century CE. He was a Roman citizen. People from the past pretty much always look like sexist jerks to us. Unrighteous dominion is a universal temptation, especially, as Joseph Smith pointed out, for Priesthood holders (D&C 121: 33-39). Sexism, institutionalized sexism, is our heritage and our burden. We’re making some progress. We have a long way to go. That’s one way to see it. But look at this another way. Another hypothetical woman, another perspective. This second woman is every bit as smart, every bit as tough-minded, every bit as thoughtful as my first hypothetical woman. But she’s not troubled by LDS sexism. She doesn’t even see it; she’s not convinced it exists. She’s been active in the Church her whole life, and it brings meaning and peace and fulfillment to her. Her husband treats her as an equal, and from her point of view, so have all the men in the Church with whom she’s interacted. She’s had leadership positions in the Church, and remembers those experiences with great fondness and affection. She feels at home in the fellowship of the saints, and in the sisterhood of the Relief Society. To her, Ordain Women is home to malcontents, to troublemakers. Doubt is something to be overcome, not voiced. Stop complaining, and do your visiting teaching. And to her, the very existence of OW, or of other manifestations of Mormon feminism are laden with disrespect, not just to LDS men, but also to women like her. When you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you’re calling her entire worldview into question. You’re essentially saying she’s stupid. Or weak. Or unperceptive. It’s an insult, finally. God has spoken; we’re a church built on revelation, so follow the prophet, and you’ll be happy. Again. We’ve heard those voices too, haven’t we? And if we’re Christians, if we’re genuinely trying to be disciples of Christ, can’t we see that second perspective is not just subjectively legitimate, but that it also comes from a place of pain? That women who oppose OW feel disrespected, belittled, that they are as legitimized by the pain they’ve endured as the women who support it? We all need to forgive. We all need to repent. The way out of pain is Christ’s atonement, freely offered and freely accepted. This is tricky, because we’re talking about two different perspectives, two different world-views even, and one seems supported by the institutional Church, and one seems to have just been categorically rejected by it. If you’re a liberal Mormon (and I am), and you live in Utah (and I do), you know how much of a minority you are. I love my ward, but I can’t pretend that they regard me as anything but an amiable eccentric. It’s a role I’m happy enough to embrace. But without the internet, I don’t know how many real friends I would have locally. So it’s easy to feel like a persecuted minority. And there’s unrighteous pride in embracing that label too enthusiastically. But Jesus knew rejection. Nazareth was a poor village, a couple of miles from one of the richest cities in the world, at the time, Sepphoris. As a carpenter, he probably got work in the big city–the poorest of the poor, working for the richest of the rich. He knew rejection, he knew inequality, he knew disrespect. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was not just a put-down, it was a deliberate, contemptuous insult. He was Jesus. Of Nazareth. A nobody, from nowhere. And he called for us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile. To forgive. Unconditionally. My grandmother was a BYU faculty member back in the 60s, and one day, she discovered, completely by accident, that her assistant was making more money than she was. She went to her Dean with this news, and he told her that it was because he was a man, supporting a family. My grandmother was a widow, with five children at home. She protested, and then he smiled at her condescendingly and said ‘women’s libber.’ She suffered that insult, and I know she found it devastating. And she had four daughters, and all of them earned advanced college degrees, and worked professionally. But she never considered herself a feminist, and would have found OW troubling. Nobody fits perfectly any template, and life’s always more complicated than we can suppose.
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is as if she were shaven. . . .
For a man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11: 3-9)
History is a battlefield, as is the term ‘feminist’ itself. For some of us, Nauvoo means ‘The Beautiful’, cradle of revelation, home to the first sealing ordinances and a great vision of eternal progression. For others, Nauvoo means a place of secretive, immensely creepy polygamy. And for still others of us, Nauvoo means. . . both. Both/and.
We’re trying to find our way, as a Church, as a worship community, as participants in an immensely rewarding and frustrating trans-cultural conversation. Can we still find a way to press forward? To forgive, to admit we don’t know all the answers, and to confess to ourselves that we’re in pain, and that pain is perhaps the one thing our Savior knew most intimately. Let’s embrace Jesus. Of Nazareth. A nobody from nowhere, and Savior of the world. Both/and. And move, perhaps, a little ways towards healing.