A few weeks ago I posted about the purity and compassion paradigms that existed during Jesus’s ministry and the ways that Jesus frequently rejected the purity paradigm in favor of compassion. As discussed in that post and its comments, this is a paradigm that we often see in contemporary religion and even in secular culture. In the LDS Church, I see it most commonly framed as a conflict between “love” and “laws.” Oaks in particular is known for preaching repeatedly that we cannot let the second great commandment (“that shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”) conflict with the first (“that shalt love the Lord thy God”). The second commandment seems to me to be rooted in the love and compassion paradigm. Although the first could also be rooted in a compassion paradigm, I think it is generally co-opted by conservative religions to support purity rules. The most salient example, of course, being that we can love our LGBTQ friends and family but we should not love them too as that would make us impure and violate the injunction that we are to love God.
I don’t believe that the first and second commandments ever need to come into conflict. I don’t believe in a God that would ask their children to hurt one another in order to prove our fidelity, and I agree with the interpretation of these two commandments that posits that the second commandment is not lesser but in fact describes the way that we keep the first: we show our love to God by loving our neighbor. Not by obeying arbitrary rules as loyalty tests. Jesus taught pretty clearly that how we treat others is proxy for how we treat him.
Many Mormons I know feel threatened by a compassion paradigm, thinking that it would mean there are no rules, only love, and people would start misbehaving. I disagree. I do believe in commandments, but I believe any true commandment should be aimed either at helping us lead a healthier life or at helping us care for one another. A commandment that doesn’t meet one of those aims isn’t a true commandment in my view. It’s a man-made rule that is either aimed at benefiting the people who proclaimed the rule or at enforcing purity codes that come from humans, not God.
So, with that out of the way, I’m going to give some examples of rules in the LDS Church. And what I want to consider is: Is this rule rooted in compassion or purity? If there’s some purity aspect of it, could it be reframed in a way that it serves compassion aims?
- Word of Wisdom: I think this often framed as a purity rule (we must keep our bodies pure and holy so that we can have the Holy Ghost, and we must obey 100%), but is also commonly discussed as a rule intended to help us live better lives here. That said, to fully abandon purity components, the rules would need to reframed or relaxed. For example, responsible alcohol use may not really hurt people, but irresponsible use (like drunk driving or drunken misbehavior) or addiction does. Coffee and tea don’t really hurt anyone, although excessive caffeine can increase anxiety and interfere with sleep (hurting one’s own welfare and potentially family members). Meat consumption could be reframed in terms of environmental stewardship, and we could think generally about eating local, sustainably-sourced food from companies that do not employ exploitative environmental or labor practices. Of course, none of this will work unless the Word of Wisdom is relaxed to be a “guideline” and we have real conversations about the values that underlie its elements and how we can best meet them.
- Chastity: This one is pretty obviously framed as a purity rule, but I think can be reframed as a compassion rule if we focus on sexual ethics, consent, and healthy intimacy (both emotional and physical). That rule might look less like “no sex before marriage” and more like “no sex unless and until you are in an emotionally intimate, healthy, committed relationship, after which sex needs to be safe and consensual.” (I’m just making this up on the fly, I’m sure there are better ways to frame this). Chastity rules would also apply equally to same-sex couples; rules against gay marriage seem entirely rooted in purity codes (preserving the “purity” of traditional marriage) and not rooted in compassion. (I get the Church’s “compassion” argument–about same-sex marriages not being eternal, so it’s actually cruel to support them here–but I don’t buy it.) Bright-line rules about dating (like the 16-year age minimum) would give way to a flexible standard based on emotional readiness and maturity.
- Modesty: Another purity rule. This one, insofar as it relates to women’s clothing, needs serious overhaul to meet compassion aims. I believe we can reframe it to correspond with what the actual definition of the word is – i.e., not boastful – and ask whether we are behaving or presenting ourselves in a way that is appropriate for the circumstances we are in and whether we are drawing undue attention to ourselves at the expense of others. It should have little to do with our clothing; if anything, I would ask myself whether my clothing is appropriate for the occasion, comfortable, and self-expressive as opposed to intended to make myself seem superior to other people. We will not judge other people based on the number of earrings they wear–such judgment would make us the immodest ones.
- Media: No “Rated R” movies seems also to be a purity rule. I do believe we can think about whether our consumption of media is ethical and uplifting, whether we are seeking media that provides diverse perspectives and representations, and whether we are learning critical thinking skills to apply to the media we consume.
- Sabbath Observance: This one can also at times be framed as purity (keep us “unsullied” from the world on Sundays), but can be expanded to be about personal physical, mental, and emotional health, and time with family. I actually think the Church has done a good job at getting rid of checklists here and focusing on the real purpose of the Sabbath.
Now, it’s your turn.
- How else would you reframe the rules I’ve listed in this post to focus on care for self and others?
- Do you have other examples of rules we have at Church that should be eliminated or reframed in service of compassion?
- Can you think of rules (guidelines, really, as “rules” seems sort of purity-centric to begin with) that we do not currently have in Church that we should if we want to keep the commandment to love others as ourselves?