I enjoy listening to the Straight, White American Jesus podcast with Dan Miller and Bradley Onishi. On a podcast several months ago, one of them said something that I’ve thought about a lot since then; it perfectly encapsulates church experience to me. He said that church was a place people went to be made uncomfortable, but in a comfortable way. In 1902, Finley Peter Dunne, through his Irish cartoon character Mr. Dooley, famously said that the newspaper
“does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands, the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead, and roasts them afterward.”https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/02/01/comfort/
This phrase became a staple of discussion about the duty of newspapers in the ensuing decades. Good newspapers were there to unsettle or expose those who were comfortable and otherwise protected in their corruption, and to provide succor to those who were disenfranchized, to see and acknowledge the things society normally ignored. This idea has also been applied to churches generally, and even more since the internet has connected churchgoers who want to navel gaze about their experiences in (or out) of their churches. It’s a great turn of phrase. Is it an accurate depiction of church experience and the desired role the Church plays in our lives? As the SWJC podcasters put it, is the Church’s ability and willingness to challenge church members tempered by its unwillingness to cross the comfortable boundaries it has traditionally upheld? For example, is the Church as willing to address…
- the evils of patriarchy as it is modesty for women?
- problematic parenting as it is not having enough children?
- abusive local leaders as it is doubting congregants?
- judgmentalism as it is unorthopraxy?
- systemic racism as it is property damage?
What does it mean to be comfortable at Church as an individual? What things make a person uncomfortable vs. comfortable? There is a story told in Mormon circles about a temple session in which the temple worker stands up and says that the session cannot continue until the unworthy patrons leave. He waits until finally four individuals, two men and two women, all of whom were committing adultery apparently, stand and leave the session. This is a faith promoting story to illustrate that if you aren’t worthy, you won’t be comfortable in a place where only worthy people should be. There’s a contrasting story I read in an online forum in which a former Church member and some friends used forged temple recommends to attend the temple to see if they would be found out by the octogenarian gatekeepers; they were not. Rather than experiencing discomfort, they just went in, did a session, and left.
Both of these stories raise a lot of questions for me: 1) why would any of these individuals even want to go to the temple? It’s not like it’s some excellent form of entertainment, even for those who are “allowed” to go, much less for people who presumably have better options now that they aren’t living the commandments, 2) are all four of the temple patrons in the faith-affirming story in a polyamorous relationship or are both spouses in both marriages just coincidentally having an affair with the other spouse? How does that actually work?, 3) if you can deceive your spouse and presumably a good friend for however long this affair has been running, why can’t you brazen it out when some rando you don’t even know issues a challenge for you to leave the temple?, 4) is this an urban myth because it kind of sounds like B.S.
What are some of the things that make people uncomfortable at Church? That differs from person to person, and of course, there are things that make some comfortable that make others uncomfortable. Church can’t make everyone comfortable, and if it makes too many too uncomfortable, they will leave rather than conform or change. Here are a few reasons people might feel uncomfortable at Church:
- They feel like an outsider, or they are treated like an outsider.
- Their loved ones are maligned by the community.
- They have different values.
- They don’t have friends there or don’t want to be friends with the people who are there.
- They don’t believe in what’s being taught, whether that is accurate or not.
- They have experienced abuse by leaders or others in good standing in the organization.
- They expect the Church to be something different than it is.
- They aren’t living up to the standards or their best potential.
Here are some reasons people might feel comfortable at Church:
- It is familiar: the songs, the rituals, the talks, the people.
- It confirms their worldview.
- The community makes them feel welcome and valued.
- They share enemies with the other Church goers.
- They have had more positive interactions than negative ones in the ward. (A ratio of 1 negative to 5 positive is usually needed for someone to feel that a community is a good place to be.)
- They have social capital in the group.
Someone once said that you can’t have a group with both white supremacists and black people in it because ultimately, most of the black people will leave. One group’s comfort makes the group intolerable for the other group. The same could likely be said for sexists and women, for homophobes and LGBT allies, for those advocating violence and pacifists, for anti-intellectuals and academics. You can have a fairly big tent, but you can’t have a civil war inside of that tent in which one group’s comfort depends on the other group’s discomfort. Eventually, you have to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate antagonism or you will lose those individuals who are antagonized and their allies. The Church is wise to try to keep the script on the gospel only, but when it strays into politics or is ineffective at controlling those impulses in Mormon culture, it loses not only many people, but its moral superiority, its entire reason to exist, its ability to afflict those whose comfort relies on harming others.
I recently went to Church for the first time in many months (due to the pandemic), and my experience was neutral at the best moments, but there were a few things that really did make me uncomfortable. The biggest one was that nearly every talk seem to be about obeying leaders. Obeying leaders is not only something I think is questionable advice at the best of times; it’s something I think is an actual evil in most cases, outsourcing one’s morality to someone else rather than attempting to be a good person with a well-developed conscience. Leaders’ instructions are always about things that aren’t just the broader moral good; they are also about things like maintaining the leader’s power, authority and influence; aside from that, like all humans, leaders have blind spots. Follow the leader is never a good substitute for a moral compass.
A friend of mine suggested that a good way to think about building a good Church community is the mental practice of being an avid sports fan and going to lunch with the fan of an opposing sports team, forcing yourself to listen and develop a relationship with someone whose ideas have evolved in good faith in a different direction than your own. This would be a great skill to develop indeed. It can happen on its own, or it can be an outcome sought in our congregations. When our Church discussions are all built around the same questions with only one acceptable answer, we fail to build these skills. The more open and honest we allow people to be at Church, the more we build these skills. And without these skills, we are just comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.
While it’s a great thought experiment, I feel as though I’ve spent a lot of time listening to less reasoned arguments that are made from a position of unquestioned comfort, and “comfort” is seen as rightness through the lens of confirmation bias. Perhaps this is a way to help others to rethink their own comfort zones, but I suspect not. Perhaps empathy for the follies of others is the best outcome, and yet, like Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, I’d like a little more variety in the follies that surround me; it’s hard to find blind obedience and poor reasoning perpetually hilarious.
I read a story about an interaction between two Church members in an online forum. A woman approached another woman who was wearing a rainbow shirt that said “Love Wins.” As the woman had two gay sons, she was excited to find another LGBT ally, and she thanked her for wearing the shirt. The woman in the rainbow shirt was confused. She thought the shirt said “Jesus Loves Wins,” and she was appalled that she was tricked into showing support for what she saw as a “disgusting gay agenda.” Can both of these individuals be comfortable in today’s Church? I don’t see how. One of them is antagonistic and self-centered in a way that harms the other’s loved ones. She can forgive. She can humor her. But this isn’t even a productive discomfort that leads to personal growth.
Last Sunday there was a lengthy discussion in Gospel Doctrine class that was amusing, but so so familiar. The question was “What’s the difference between obedience and blind obedience?” Class members then listed off things that leaders had done or said that they deemed prophetic, even if others, those bad outsiders, initially didn’t understand or like them. Here’s the thing. Unless you can list (and be allowed to list) the things leaders got wrong, you haven’t really proved any point about blind obedience. All roads lead to Rome; no matter what, the leaders’ “rightness” is the only acceptable outcome. That’s still blind obedience, just with pauses. If blind obedience is required for people to feel comfortable, no thanks, and why is spending two hours a week reinforcing this dunderheaded thinking worth our time? What are we even learning? As every personal trainer says, no pain (or discomfort), no gain.
- When have you felt comfortable at Church? When have you felt uncomfortable?
- In what ways is the Church as an organization too comfortable, needing to be challenged?
- What can you do to make yourself more comfortable at Church? To make others more comfortable?
- How can you make others and yourself uncomfortable in the right ways, the ways that lead to growth and self-improvement?