Catholic dissident Sylvester L. Steffen has written:
Excommunication is an arcane and violent tool of dominion theology and imperial ecclesiology. It intends to control by instilling emotions of guilt and fear in the minds of the people and to stifle dissent. In so doing it truncates personal conscience and cuts off communication.
These words seem strikingly applicable to the pending excommunication trials of Mormons Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. The news has called forth not only expressions of distress and concern from a sympathetic internet audience, but voices of gloating, vilification and shame from those who have actually been called by their faith community uphold the principle of love and tolerance.
The word being thrown around in frenzied ‘net discussions to justify the imminent action against Kate and John is apostasy. However, apostasy is “the explicit renunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause,” and I’m not at all certain that this accurately or properly describes their public behavior. Kelly, at least, has strongly indicated her conviction of the truth claims of the Mormon Church. Dehlin, while possessing a more nuanced connection to Mormonism, nonetheless strongly values his membership.
The term that is wanted here is heresy—that is, any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic, Wikipedia tells us, is a proponent of such claims or beliefs. Heresy is distinct from both apostasy and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
Any church which does not protect itself against heresy is in danger of drifting from core beliefs. The Mormon Church has a system of checks and balances in place to guard against unintended theological drift. But not to worry! The hierarchical system found in the Church today protects its doctrinal teachings. Each congregation has a Bishop, an “overseer,” who presides not only over Sunday meetings, but all of the activities which take place in the ward. Bishops are accountable to Stake Presidents, and they to Area Authorities. At any one of these points, heretical ideas may be corrected and refuted by authorized Priesthood direction. All educational materials to be used by the church as a whole are approved by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve. The Church as an institution, is structured so that there are numerous opportunities “to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled.” Additionally, general, church-wide conferences are held twice yearly to instruct and admonish members.
In order to protect from top-down heresy, the principle of common consent was instituted (D&C 26:2). This vigorous failsafe has been diluted over time to the rubber-stamping that we see today, therefore grass-roots heresy is more likely to be promptly addressed than administrative impropriety.
Both hierarchical oversight and common consent can be overplayed to the point of abuse and violence. Arbitrary and autocratic enforcement of rules from the top down has led to people being excommunicated because they homeschooled and had too much food storage. Grass-roots resistance has resulted in congregations voting out their entire council of local leaders. On the whole, the system is meant to check excesses on both sides. Optimally, it should be possible to address the concerns of all members in a safe and non-violent manner.
The codependence of violence and non-violence in civil rights has been termed the “Malcolm and Martin” conundrum after the different approaches taken by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm’s approach was defiant and aggressive, calling for social change by any means possible; while Martin was resistant but firmly committed to non-violence. Common wisdom is that a “Malcolm” is needed to pave the way for acceptance of the “Martin.”
Many Mormons would place Kate Kelly with the “Malcolm” approach. A good hard look at the evidence would show that this is unsupportable. All of the Ordain Women actions have been peaceful and respectful. Even when their conference action included a “rally” of sorts on Temple Square, the women and their supporters lined up peacefully at the doors to respectfully request admission. This was without doubt a non-violent demonstration. It was primarily a symbolic action, much like Ghandi’s first act of peaceful resistance was to pick up a handful of salt from the beach. Gentler than Ghandi’s movement, the OW women violated no law and were working within the church system by asking leaders to pray about women’s ordination. John Dehlin’s program of podcasts and personal outreach is even more non-violent.
On the other hand, though the institutional Church is structurally equipped to deal with faithful dissent, it appears that certain leaders have chosen to use a more violent means of reprisal. According to the Church Handbook of Instructions, the purposes of church discipline are (1) to save the souls of transgressors, (2) to protect the innocent, and (3) to safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the church. But with such a system as we have, is excommunication necessary in cases such as Dehlin’s and Kelly’s?
Excommunication is a violent action, imbued with eternal consequences for believing members. In most faith traditions, it shuts the door to the kingdom of heaven by declaring that the expelled person is not a Christian. Further, as BCC’s Ronan recently reminded readers, “excommunication in a Mormon setting is the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments.” For Latter-day Saints, who hold sacred the concept of eternal family connections, the brutal destruction of these spiritual links is particularly devastating.
Cyprian of Carthage was a third-century North African bishop known for his leadership and devotion to Christ’s church. Though he is obscure to many non-Catholics, he said these famous words: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” With these words Cyprian implies that the church has the God-given authority to determine the identity of the true members of God’s family. In Mormon terms, that which is bound on earth and thus in heaven, can be loosed by the same power. The pathos of the quotation lies in its assumption that cutting members away from mother Church and the fellowship of believers also removes their access to God. To the extent that this occurs in excommunication, it is harsh and violent.
The LDS Church has chosen to downplay the violence of the act of excommunication by using the term “Courts of Love.” A quick search traces this term to an April 1972 Conference talk by Robert L. Simpson, Courts of Love.
I have no doubt that there are many kind and good local leaders in the Church who attempt to conduct these proceedings with love. But this does not change the fact that intrinsically they are courts of punishment and separation. Describing her excommunication trial, Margaret Toscano has said: “There’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this — that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.” I daresay that any humility or determination to repent or return to the Church can be attributed to the character of the excommunicant, and not to the effect of the proceeding itself.
I’ll end this post as I began, with the words of Sylvester Steffen. Especially in these times, he says,
more communication is needed, not less; more sensitivity to personal conscience is needed, not less. Excommunication is counter-productive. With today’s means of communication, attempts at stifling it only diminishes the credibility of those who would shut it down with utter disregard for honest dissent and the integrity of personal conscience. Excommunication doesn’t work and is universally seen as wrong-headed…
Does excommunication work? You may have read the words of Robert Kirby in the Salt Lake Tribune, asking himself and his readers whether being excommunicated would have the desired effect:
Would it make me more compliant or less compliant?
Probably less. I’d still attend church and participate to the extent I was allowed. I’d still be myself though, only now there would be even fewer consequences for doing so.