A few days ago (depending on when I get to publishing this), we had a rather lively discussion about Elder M. Russell Ballard’s Engaging Without Being Defensive. Batman highlighted one line in particular from Ballard and then the discussion went from there. Later on, he (that is, Batman, not “the church” or anyone like that) decided (and everyone’s been commenting about this decision) that he wasn’t satisfied with the tone and direction of the conversation, so he took down the discussion, as well as its comments.
Look at my name under the title. I am not Batman and don’t speak for Batman. His reasons are his own, and I’m sure plenty of people may still respectfully disagree with his decision. Rather, I would like to use this opportunity (if my fellow bloggers will let me) to take a look at a different message that, interestingly enough, also came from Ballard’s discussion, and which I find to be quite relevant to past events.
For while we were focusing on polygamy, whether it has been dealt with sufficiently, why it happened, why it’s still in our scriptures, etc., one commenter, Rach, said something that intrigued me. Unfortunately, since the comments are gone and I can’t find them, I have to paraphrase, but Rach pointed out that when we focus on the context of Elder Ballard’s message, he was talking about taking control of the Mormon conversation, especially with nonmember friends. So, positive and constructive quotes to focus on, I think, are:
It is easy in your conversations to think you are still knocking on doors. You’re not. If you are in a position to share what you believe, there’s no need to tread so carefully that you look like you are being evasive or anticipating criticism. The apostle Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Romans 1:16). Neither should any of us be.
and (right after the part Batman had focused on):
If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge it was once a practice but not now, and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our Church. In ordinary conversations, don’t waste time trying to justify the practice of polygamy during the Old Testament times or speculating as to why it was practiced for a time in the 19th century. Those may be legitimate topics for historians and scholars, but I think we simply reinforce the stereotypes when we make it a primary topic of conversations about the Church.
So, it doesn’t seem to be a memo of internal silencing. Rather, it seems to be putting things in their place. We can certainly become historians and scholars (and this is actually a progressive comment, contrasted with past attitudes about historical scholarship), but in ordinary conversations, we should, and I quote Ballard again, “emphasize that Latter-day Saints follow Jesus Christ and what Jesus Christ teaches.”
So, let’s try to have a constructive conversation. Maybe it won’t work as planned. Maybe even this conversation will have to be curbed. While I think that a discussion of what Mormons should say about the whys and wherefores of polygamy or other issues could be a good topic at another time, at this time, I think we just do not have enough information to do much other than speculation.
What if we talked about how to take control about the conversation on Mormonism? If I may quote from an older article of John Dehlin’s, I’d point out that we should find it very reasonable to find empathy with this option.
You might feel as though the church has a responsibility to be completely open with all of its major flaws and weaknesses, but in the real world, this is probably not very realistic. For example, do you live up to this standard in your own life? Do you tell everyone you meet, or even everyone close to you, all of your deepest, darkest secrets? While it’s true that the LDS Church claims to be God’s one and only true church, we also acknowledge that in reality, it is run by imperfect men, in less-than-perfect circumstances. Given that realization, why would we expect the church to be any different? It is unreasonable to expect complete transparency from human beings and human organizations — even ones that claim divine authority. Humans simply don’t work that way.
We are not saying it is right for anyone to withhold information about their own wrongdoing from those who depend on them. Ideally, we should all be willing to confess the things we have done wrong and try to make amends. That is the ideal for individuals and for institutions. But we all fall short of that ideal sometimes, in some areas.
If we believe that, regardless of the warts, the LDS church is a force for good in the world, then wouldn’t it behoove us to show that good? I mean, if you don’t believe that, then ignore this paragraph accordingly, but I think Elder Ballard’s statement is good marketing and good conversation.
So, how should we steer the conversation in a productive way? How can we take control of the Mormon conversation instead of just being as “windtossed waves,” subject to whatever the controversy du jour (Big Love, Prop 8, a movie about some historical event, etc.,) is?