Are Mormons too trusting? Should youth leaders be teaching them to be more vigilant? Are Church activities safe in the current cultural environment?

There was a story recently shared in a private online forum about a group of young men playing basketball at the Church who were humiliated and chased off by a Church leader who didn’t know that the young men were less active members of the ward. He saw people of color playing basketball and immediately assumed “danger” and “intruder.” In that locale, apparently visitors (of different races) are not welcome, unlike the sign we post outside our churches. The Church leader cited “safety” as his concern, but what he meant was that people who aren’t white are dangerous. He saw his job to protect the space from danger, a protective instinct that turned against kids he didn’t personally recognize as worthy of his protection.

There was an incident that occurred on November 9 in Blackfoot, Idaho that also illustrates the dangers of living in our increasingly distrustful society. A group of Young Women, under the supervision of their leader, were posting “thankful turkeys” with notes of gratitude on doors in their neighborhood. They tacked a turkey cutout with handwritten encouragement on it on the door, rang the bell, then ran off, leaving the home owner to find the anonymous act of kindness. This went horribly awry when one home owner (also a sheriff) told his wife to get his gun, then threatened the frightened girls and their leader at gunpoint, pulling the leader from her vehicle by her hair while she repeatedly identified herself as someone he had known for three decades as a neighbor and family friend. This story can be found here, here, and here.

As it happens, there was a racist component to this story as well, but not one that easily explains threatening a carful of quaking young girls at gunpoint. In Sheriff Rowland’s words:

“I have been doing this job for 36 years,” Rowland said. “I have had drunk Indians drive down my cul-de-sac. I’ve had drunk Indians come to my door. I live just off the reservation, we have a lot of reservation people around us that are not good people.”

https://www.eastidahonews.com/2021/12/sheriff-charged-with-felony-aggravated-assault-after-allegedly-threatening-youth-group-with-gun/?fbclid=IwAR0Aj0FPb4Gg9Z5HPgfRbdkJVTmqkfVxouwOui_jkZ_Yy_6rzb-Xr1onu7I

The Sheriff also explained that he had one alcoholic drink that evening[1], and he is described as exiting the house wearing long johns (*wink*), a tee shirt and socks, to chase the girls down. The Church downplayed the incident to the dismay of parents:

The parent expressed disappointment in statements given to media from local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint communication officials Dan Cravens and Ray Matsuura, who said this situation was “most likely a misunderstanding.”

ibid

In the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, there have been a lot of questions about whether it is acceptable and legal to allow citizens to behave as vigilantes, policing the actions of other citizens, even using violence if necessary. The Ahmaud Arbery trial showed that this approach has limits and doesn’t work in all situations, or at least is not universally embraced by all juries. One commenter suggested that the difference between these two verdicts is that people in Georgia know they have a racism problem, and they want to distance themselves from racist acts. People in Wisconsin and the north are less likely to admit they have a problem with racism. Racism is a sin of the Southeastern US, the former slave states, or so they think. They can convince themselves that racist motives are not a problem in either vigilantism or policing.

Racism aside, another problematic element in both these cases (all four, really) is that individuals, including the police, don’t always accurately assess danger, and their actions increase rather than defuse the danger of a situation, adding conflict, aggression and violence where they don’t need to exist. Sometimes it’s assuming threat where none exists (the two Mormon stories above and the Ahmaud Arbery case), sometimes it’s an accident (the officer who thought she was using a taser, but fired a round pointblank into a suspect’s chest instead), sometimes it’s just throwing gasoline on a fire (Rittenhouse’s choice to insert himself, and his illegally obtained assault rifle, into an already tense and potentially violent protest).

There’s a trend toward police brutality, brutality by citizens, gun violence and hyper-vigilance. These aren’t the ingredients for peace on earth, goodwill toward men. All this violence is liable to awaken the slumbering baby Jesus.

As to how we got here, I wonder if it was inevitable or if we could have made other choices as a society, creating different norms for behavior. There was an interesting story about “secret” recordings of an NRA meeting in the wake of Columbine that showed leadership of the NRA grappling with how to respond to that tragedy. Different options were considered: putting together a fund for victims, apologizing, canceling their upcoming gun show that was near Columbine where (as they said) “kids would be fondling firearms,” or doubling down on their rhetoric, showing strength against critics by refusing to give any air to gun control advocates. Some NRA leadership denigrated members of their organization during this secret meeting, referring to them as wackos, hillbillies, fruitcakes and idiots. They knew that controlling these individuals was unlikely, so their strategy had to include the actions of these folks.

Behind the scenes, Republican lawmakers reached out to the NRA to get “talking points” so that they would stay on message with the pro-gun constituents. Ultimately, the response they chose was to distract the public from any narratives that put the NRA or its members in a negative light, instead proactively point to “culture” as the cause, not gun owners. Red herrings they threw out included the newly released Matrix movie, Marilyn Manson, and (ta-da) “violent video games.” Those of us who were adults at the time may recall the role of violent video games in mass shooting events as a question being debated at the time.

The release of these recordings opens up almost as many questions as it opens. Even though it was a deliberate strategy to use “culture” and “society” as a screen for gun owners to avoid blame, culture has certainly followed, and as they rightly identified, some gun owners are ungovernable and off script. If the NRA can’t rein them in, do we actually think government can? If so, how? (I’m already on record with my own opinion that if your gun is used in a violent crime, the owner should always be charged with negligence at minimum, possibly up to manslaughter. We are finally seeing this approach with the incredibly problematic parents in the Michigan school shooting earlier this month).

Conservative Christians in particular are often big on gun rights and things like Stand Your Ground laws that protect those who kill others for trespassing and other offenses. Some Mormons take this stance as well, although not all. When students at the high school did a walk out protest after the Parkland shootings, one girl from the ward wore an NRA hat to school to protest the protest. I don’t think she was the norm at Church, but maybe she actually is more the norm than my daughter who walked out with her fellow students, protesting gun violence.

  • When fellow citizens are posing danger due to their own increasing violence toward others, what is the right approach to keeping the peace?
  • How should we be teaching our youth to trust others, but also to avoid getting shot or assaulted?
  • What’s the right balance between a distrustful society and not letting fear take over? How do we take the temperature down?
  • Have you ever felt physically unsafe at a Church activity? Do measures taken by the Church to ensure safety improve or worsen the situation?

Discuss.

[1] If you can’t recognize a neighbor of three decades after one measly drink, that makes you a lightweight, sir.