It’s General Conference time, which I always like; I enjoy going to Church in my pajamas. And while the stentorian Voice at the beginning of the broadcast always uses the adjective ‘historic’ before each session, this one really did feel historic. For the first time in the history of the Church, a woman was going to give one of the prayers at the beginning or conclusion of the session. And when Sister Jean Stephens, first counselor in the general Primary Presidency gave the closing prayer at the end of this morning’s session, well, it managed to be both quotidian and awesome. It’s not like we’ve never heard a woman pray in Church, after all. And she gave a lovely, most appropriate prayer.
A number of friends on Facebook responded more negatively, however, to an earlier talk in the session, also by a woman. Sister Elaine S. Dalton, general Young Women president, gave a talk entitled ‘We are daughters of our Heavenly Father.’ It was a lovely talk, for the most part. She talked about her mother, who was widowed as a young woman, who raised her family while working as a school teacher. It reminded me of my grandmother, who was likewise widowed much too young, and who also had to struggle to raise her family alone.
But then, Sister Dalton began to talk about virtue. And she quoted Moroni 9: 9, about how the Nephites had deprived the daughters of the Lamanites “of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.” The point she was making was that virtue–chastity–is dear and precious.
But as a number of my friends on Facebook pointed out, that’s not what Mormon is talking about in that scripture. Moroni 9 is a letter Moroni has gotten from his father, probably the saddest chapter in the Book of Mormon, a recitation of war atrocities, including rape and cannibalism. The phrase, ‘deprived them of . . . their chastity’ is a 19th century way of talking about rape. What Mormon is saying in those verses is that his own people, the Nephites, a people he has served as a political leader, a prophet and a commanding general, have become so depraved, they have raped and tortured and abused and even cannibalized captured Lamanite women. He’s horrified by what he’s seen. He is overcome by it. And this is his lament
O my beloved son, how can a people like this, that are without civilization— (And only a few years have passed away, and they were a civil and a delightsome people) But O my son, how can a people like this, whose delight is in so much abomination—How can we expect that God will stay his hand in judgment against us? Behold, my heart cries: Wo unto this people. Come out in judgment, O God, and hide their sins, and wickedness, and abominations from before thy face! (Moroni 9:11-15)
Without civilization. That’s how Mormon has come to see his people, his friends and countrymen, as people without civilization. It’s a stunning condemnation of blood lust and violence.
The phrase ‘deprived of their virtue,’ however, poorly describes the values of our civilization about rape. In the 19th century, women who were raped were described that way, as ‘having been deprived of their virtue.’ They were no longer virgins, they were no longer, therefore, pure. This was also the Biblical standard. In the Old Testament, women are encouraged to give their own lives rather than allow themselves to be raped. Young unmarried women were commanded to marry their rapists. Check out Deuteronomy 22–all sorts of crazy stuff in there about virginity and stoning people, stuff we don’t worry about anymore. It’s there, in the scripture, as a reminder of how far culture has advanced. But we don’t see it that way anymore, nor should we.
Civilization has changed, and very much for the better. We see ‘virtue’ as something no one can take from you; something that can only be surrendered voluntarily. A woman who has been raped is, in our eyes, a victim of violence, and completely virtuous in every sense. Our counsel to a young woman who has been the victim of sexual assault would be that she has been attacked by a violent criminal, and that there is no sense whatever in which she is at fault.
I don’t doubt for one second that Sister Dalton would be horrified if someone were to say to her that her talk suggested that rape victims are in any way morally culpable. Her use of Moroni 9: 9 was surely intended only to suggest the value of chastity, not to, in any way, minimize the horrors attached to acts of sexual violence. May I gently suggest, however, that the use of Moroni 9: 9 in the context in which it appeared could only be described as unfortunate.
And yet, it would appear that that scripture is generally intended to be used precisely as Sister Dalton used it. On LDS.org, the Young Women’s Personal Progress program urges our girls to have ‘value experiences’ in each of the eight Young Women’s values. One of those values is Virtue, and one of the scriptures recommended to the girls is Moroni 9: 9.
Seriously? Do we genuinely want our young women, age 12-18, to think that a woman who has been forcibly and violently raped has been ‘deprived of her virtue?’ That a scripture about war crimes will encourage young women to think about how important virtue is?
It gets worse. 82 percent of rapes involve an acquaintance, a friend or family member. Let’s suppose that a young woman is on a date, and he rapes her, or in a study session with a guy who attacks her. According to Moroni 9: 9, she’s been deprived of her virtue. She has been rendered non-virtuous. Wouldn’t that tend to make her less likely to tell someone, less likely to report it to her parents or a teacher or a Church leader, or the cops? Wouldn’t that compound whatever feelings of wrong she may be experiencing?
I honestly don’t think any of this is intentional. I don’t think the Young Women’s program is insensitive to rape. I think most likely someone did a scripture search for the word ‘virtue,’ and when Moroni 9: 9 popped up, went ‘hey, there’s a strong scripture about how important virtue is, let’s use that,’ without thinking it through. I think it’s also possible that this usage may reflect the unconscious values of an older generation taught to think of a rape victim as being deprived of her virtue. And I’m not knocking Moroni. It’s a terrific scripture, about the kinds of horrors that can take place when a culture loses its moral bearings. It just doesn’t make sense as a scripture intended to persuade young woman to live chastely. And may I suggest that it’s time for that usage to go away.