The Compassionate Ones

Nick LiterskiMormon 30 Comments

Don’t run away!!  Bear with me for just a moment, because this isn’t going to be another of “THOSE” discussions on the topic of Proposition 8.  In the course of the past few months, I’ve had some unexpected insights in connection with the initiative, and I flatter myself enough to think they just might be useful.

No matter how much frustration I may sometimes be feeling in the Proposition 8 dispute, I need to be aware of what I’ll call “the compassionate ones.”  I recently read Carol Lynn Pearson’s book, No More Goodbyes:  Circling the Wagons Around Our Gay Loved Ones.  Among the stories Ms. Pearson shared was the short account of an LDS woman who found herself calling 911 to intervene in her closeted gay husband’s suicide attempt. This woman went through a horrible experience, but I’m thankful she took action, because that man went on to become my closest, dearest friend.  Ms. Pearson told many stories in this book.  I was thankful, because it reminded me of something that was easy to forget:  that the LDS church is filled with good people, who truly want to reach out with compassion and understanding.

One of these compassionate ones was the first bishop to whom I revealed my attraction toward men.  By all appearances, that bishop was a standard “cookie-cutter” BYU product, and I was anxious about his response as I tearfully shared my difficulty.  We spoke for quite a while, and then he did something that was very important to me.  Instead of shrinking back from the confessed “deviant,” or offering me a hesitant handshake at the end of our interview, he stood up, walked over, and embraced me.

Another of these compassionate ones was my last stake president.  I served for two and a half years as his executive secretary.  I knew him to be a good man.  It was difficult for me to approach him, when after years of struggle and pain, I told him that I was going to be making some very big changes in my life.  The time was long past for doctrinal lectures or calls to repentance.  I asked that he not recite to me the doctrines that I had spent many years teaching in various congregations, though I expected he would try to do so.  I remember his response as if it was yesterday:  “Nick, I know you well enough to know that you would never make a decision like this, without having given it a great deal of thought and consideration.”  He respected me enough not to try to magically change my mind.  He acknowledged that the LDS church is struggling on this topic, assured me of his continued friendship, and gave me heartfelt counsel in the context of my choice.  It was the single best experience I’d had with an LDS leader in my 26 years of membership in that church.  We still keep in touch from time to time.

This idea of compassion came to me again this week, in a very different context.  Somewhat to my surprise, my post-Mormon spirituality has begun to find a comfortable home in Buddhism.  I attended a sangha (the closest thing to a “congregation” in Buddhism) while some of you were holding your family home evening.  That particular sangha follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a rather remarkable Vietnamese Bodhisattva.  The following passage was discussed, from his writings:

“Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever–such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination–to adopt our views.  We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide.  We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing (i.e. meditation)  deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.”

You might expect me to point these words toward supporters of Proposition 8, and demand that they allow me my right to differ.  Think again.  Rather, the message to me was the importance of me, no matter how strongly I feel, allowing supporters of Proposition 8 their right to differ.  I can’t bully anyone into seeing the initiative the way I see it, nor should I ever desire to.  Such efforts only cause suffering for both sides.

To be honest, I worry about what happens on November 5th, after the election is over.  Whether Proposition 8 passes or fails, will the victors consider themselves vindicated to the point of lording it over others?  Will individuals or institutions heap vengeance upon those who they considered their “enemies” throughout the campaign?  Are the parties on each side compassionate enough to forgive their “opponents,” even if they feel unjustly persecuted?  Where this dispute has caused pain and suffering on each side, how will we step forward to heal each other?

Comments 30

  1. I deeply hope that the negative ways to behave that you described won’t happen but I don’t live in California to be able to have in idea of the atmosphere and therefore of what could happen.
    If prop 8 passes I sincerely hope that members of the church will go back to their daily duties without giving it a second thought since they will have gotten what they will have been fighting for. I can’t do much from here, I don’t even have friends in California anymore. I just hope that the members of the church will be up the love stabdards they are claiming to have.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Nick. I also hope for what you express here – an end to the vitriol and polarization. I have no confidence in that, but I really do hope for it.

    I admire your bishop and stake president. That is an example of charity I wish could be held up to all members, everywhere. If all of us were like that (in all ways, not just concerning this issue), we would be far along the path toward creating Heaven on Earth.

  3. I agree also, NIck…I know I made a pretty vigorous debate in favor of the Proposition a few months ago, but this post fits well as to how we LDS need to treat EVERYONE who disagrees with us.

    It’s difficult to show this kind of love during the heat of a political battle, even when one wants to, it would be feared as an obstacle to the goal. But I do hope that LDS can take some of this kind of sentiment to heart and refuse to make practicing homosexual men/women into the “other.”

    If not, it will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

  4. “that the LDS church is filled with good people, who truly want to reach out with compassion and understanding.”

    I’ve found this to be the rule rather than the exception. Nice post, Nick, Thanks

  5. Nick,

    Great post. Thanks for sharing your positive experiences. I pray your experience with church leadership was not the exception in these circumstances but becomes the rule.

    I worry a bit about the aftermath of the election as well. Everything political is so polarized now that there seems to be little room for anything other than animosity in these situations.

  6. I think it’s good to give some thought to the “day after” situation. Whichever side “wins”, the important issue is to reach out across the divide and remember that our Heavenly Father does *not* want his children to consider each other enemies.

    The quote from Thich Nhat Hanh is how we should as individuals go about our life. We should never try to force anything on another’s conscience.

  7. Jeff, I hope I didn’t suggest that it was the exception. In disagreements like these, it’s easy to see the worst examples of each side as that group’s norm. It’s human nature to conclude that the most egregious, vicious statements as representative of that side’s views. The challenge is to find beauty in people, even when we strongly disagree with them.

  8. All I can say about the entire debate is this: it saddens me that we have to have it.

    I don’t want to have it. I want my brothers and sisters, no matter their feelings of attraction to feel welcome and accepted. I understand that the church has a particular standard of behavior. Fine. I agree with that standard, else I would have left the church. I won’t get into why I’ve come to those conclusions.

    BUT!!! Vitriol, hate, and argument over humanity, self worth, and the need for compassion is just silly. Christ, I rather suspect, would say to all: come unto me and work on this. We’ll figure something out. He rarely was angry, and when we was it was ONLY in the context of individuals attempting to use something sacred for their own gain. Frankly, the governments use of marriage to gain power smacks of that. Which is why I personally wonder if the citizens of this country shouldn’t reject ALL government regulation on marriage. But I’m still very worried about this. In the meantime, let’s not RUSH to make changes that we don’t understand–and we don’t understand them. Either way.

  9. Excellent point, Benjamin O. From the NT accounts, Jesus’ anger was never directed at those whom the establishment considered sinners. Instead, it was consistently directed at those he saw as hypocrites–those who loudly trumpeted their faith, but did so for their own personal aggrandizement, while ignoring the real message of that faith.

  10. Nick, I share your hope that one way or another, this issue will be NEVER again be magnified, advertised or politicized in the way that it has been by the church. Like I’ve said before, if I were a gay man it would be hard for me not to view the church’s “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach to Prop 8 any differently than I’d view a smile on the face of the person thrusting a dagger deep into my chest.

    God bless us all that we can do as Benjamin O. suggests on this matter (and so many other issues facing the church): come unto Him and let’s work on this.

  11. To be honest, I worry about what happens on November 5th, after the election is over. Whether Proposition 8 passes or fails, will the victors consider themselves vindicated to the point of lording it over others? Will individuals or institutions heap vengeance upon those who they considered their “enemies” throughout the campaign? Are the parties on each side compassionate enough to forgive their “opponents,” even if they feel unjustly persecuted? Where this dispute has caused pain and suffering on each side, how will we step forward to heal each other?

    I am cynical about the prospect of a loving, compassionate outcome, at least locally. I *personally* see lots of defensiveness from social conservatives, and a lot of triumphal unquestioned-majority mob mentality from social progressives.
    I live in the Bay Area, and I live in a neighborhood where non-Democrat political signs are destroyed, and cars are vandalized based on bumpersticker politics. Anecdotal data point: talking with local activists, Prop 8 is being spun as a partisan issue, meaning “vote no, cuz that’ll show those homophobe rethuglicans!”
    I work at a business where the people are (judging by the political conversations, bumperstickers in the parking lot, and signs on office doors and white boards) 75% Democrat partisan, 15% radical Leftist, 10% silent on politics. There are still “Commander and Thief” bumper stickers on display on office doors from Bush v. Gore in 2000, “F*** Republicans” signs, etc. They still feel that “they did rob them of their right to the government when it rightly belonged unto them.” “And thus they have taught their children that they should hate them.”
    I think that if social conservatives pass prop 8, they will feel glad to have ‘stuck it to the Man/Establishment’, since in this area, it looks very unlikely. They might *want* to have vengeance, but really are in no position to do so, at all. I think if the social progressives prevent prop 8 from happening, there will be much gloating and derision of knuckle-dragging, gay-bashing Jesus-freaks– kinda like there is already. :/

    Like I said, I’m cynical about this being a chance for people to grow, change, and learn to love. I wish I could believe differently. 🙁

  12. “Jeff, I hope I didn’t suggest that it was the exception.”

    Oh no, absolutely not, Nick. In fact, you’ve gone out of your way to mention your Stake President on a number of occasions as being just what you described in this post. I thought your post was a wonderful counter point in the midst of a rather divisive situation and in contrast to some of the criticism of Church leaders that is often part of many of the discussions in the Bloggernacle.

  13. On a related note, I think it is easy to see hatred coming from the other side. It’s easy to see people as hypocritical or self-righteous when they say “we love you as people, but we don’t want to endorse your behavior.” It’s a difficult thing to understand, and requires a mature outlook on life, but it is possible to love someone and to be compassionate and kind without condoning their behavior or agreeing with them.\

    It also takes a mature outlook to recognize that some situations can never be fully triumphant. Sometimes you can only win with heavy losses. I see the cost of victory (and defeat) in this battle, and don’t like it much, but still believe the battle worth fighting.

  14. To add to SilverRain’s last comment, it also is easy to see hatred coming from the other side and miss the hatred returned (or even initiated) by one’s own side. The “we love you as people, but we don’t want to endorse your behavior” is commonly ridiculed by those who oppose the Church’s stance, but those same people who ridicule generally fail to realize their ridicule is saying the exact same thing to those they are ridiculing – “we have nothing against you as people, but we don’t want to endorse your beliefs and behavior (you bigots).”

    Nick’s concern is real and difficult to address in practice. Nevertheless, it is a noble desire, and all of us should do everything we can, as Nick says, to see it happen in our own interactions. Perhaps we can’t change the world; perhaps we can. At the very least, we can influence our own growth and our own circle of influence.

  15. Nick, Thanks for your thoughtful post. I really liked your quote from Thich Nhat Hanh. I will have to add it to my favorites.

  16. Sorry to get off topic….but I just wanted to address this point. SilverRain said “it is possible to love someone and to be compassionate and kind without condoning their behavior or agreeing with them.”

    If this were simply a case of not condoning behavior or agreeing with them, I think that’s one thing. But the church has gone way beyond simply not condoning behavior. Thousands of church members in CA would have millions of dollars still in their pockets if the issue was simply not condoning behavior. My point is actions speak louder than words. The church’s stance would seem, I guess, insincere to me….if I were gay. The church feigns an arms wide open approach, while literally invoking the name of diety to encourage members to give all they can (millions) to destroy equality of gay men and women. And don’t tell me the church is not against equal rights, because even a position of existing California civil unions is a “seperate but equal” solution.

    As the Supreme Court said in 1950 in Sweatt v. Painter (and Martin Luther King later quoted) “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”

  17. Adcama (#19):

    Actually, I am against language that supports the legalization of SSM, despite any impressions I may have given earlier. As I said, this whole conversation is unfortunate. I strongly feel that it is destructive to have it at all. No one benefits.

    The church would not be having this conversation, I think, were it not forced upon them. Instead I think the church is in a position where they have to take a position because of the doctrines that are taught. Compassion is the ruling guide in my book: welcome as many as possible, but did Christ’s compassion EVER excuse those things he saw as sin? He was never violent or degrading towards those that he viewed as sinners, but welcomed them, brought them in with love and compassion and asked them to repent–gently and kindly. The one’s that Christ was angry with were, as I said previously, those who invoked his sacred grounds for power and profit–the money changers in the temple! His ire was equally raised against the hypocrites who professed righteousness loudly but whose lives were full of sin–who claimed to be teachers but sinned daily.

    The church is not, from what I can tell, in this position. Instead I think it is a sincere effort. I believe that the Twelve and FP is guided and sincere. Are they infallible? No. Are they inspired. Yes. There is a huge difference.

  18. Benjamin O., I never suggested you did, or should support SSM. I do, but that doesn’t mean you should or you’re a bigot if you don’t. What I liked in your comment is the idea of the church and people like me who support SSM getting together, in a way that seeks Christ’s will – and talking/working this thing through. I think both sides would act differently if they realized how the rhetoric (that even I’m guilty of in this very post) deeply hurts members on both sides of the issue. As Nick’s post points out (and I’ve confirmed here), both sides are guilty. My point is that dollar by dollar in California, the church has been the wedge driving catalyst that is not close to being overcome by “love the sinner hate the sin” rhetoric.

    I don’t know how the church was “forced” into this issue. Are they sincere, I believe they are. But sincerity isn’t the point or question at hand.

  19. One thing that might help if Prop 8 fails:

    If those who voted against it would sponsor — and work their hardest to pass — legislation that would address the concerns of those who favor the proposition, addressing those things that the opponents say “won’t ever happen.” There would need to be legislation that children won’t be indoctrinated in schools, that churches won’t lose their tax-exempt status over not performing gay marriages at any of their venues, that churches will not face prosecution over teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful, etc…

    And what will those who favor Proposition 8 need to do to mend fences if it passes?

  20. This probably sounds stupid, but whether or not it passes, but especially if it passes, it might go a long way to open our homes to them, rake their lawn, shovel their snow, show our love rather than just speak it.

    But maybe that would just come across as condescending, I don’t know.

    I, for one, would be open to suggestions.

  21. I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of Mormons. Maybe two kinds of people, more generally. There are those who value people more than doctrine and those who value doctrine more than people.

  22. Thanks so much, Nick. I’ve been getting so worked up about Prop 8, and really needed this. I love the Thich Nhat Hanh quote.

    I too worry about the aftermath of all this.

  23. Nick, thanks for this beautiful post and the beautiful thoughts and truths within it. Who knows, maybe we’ll run into each other at Brother Hanh’s Plum Village retreat one of these days. 🙂

  24. I just came back from my Ca poll. There is an early voting option to people who live in select areas. I have a gay son and am the gospel doctrine teacher in my ward. When the first letter came out calling church members to action, I worried about the anti-gay rhetoric in my ward. The second Sunday in my Gospel Doctrine class, one sister stood up and said, “We just need to remember who these people really are”. I know who my son is. He is clearly the most compassion of my five boys, always willing to go good for his neighbor. I recently lost my dad and this son has been really leading the family in contacting my mom on a regular basis.

    Anyway, after this sister’s comment, I decided I did not want to continue teaching in GD during the prop 8 campaign. Whatever Spirit was with me, left as weekly comments were made during the sign-up period for the precinct walking assignments in the class. I have gotten substitutes in my class for the last 6 weeks and I have the last two lined up. It was the chicken way out, but I was very worried that I would “lose it” in class one day.

    It seems as though Prop 8 is going to pass (without my vote) and I believe the discussions about gays will go into the background once again. I have no hope, however, for the feelings of Christians, in general, about gays.

    I found myself being more influenced by the online discussions at DesNews than anything. Callous is how I found many LDS postings. I don’t think gays necessarily want marriage. I believe they want respect and dignity and feel this is a way to get it.

  25. God will bless us in ways we cannot imagine as we are faithful. I know this. God will purify our hearts and cause us to feel more love than we thought we were ever capable of feeling. The Church tries its best to be an example of good Christian living and the people try so hard. They want to love everyone. They really do. And I know they do. Although each of us may walk differently, or talk differently, there are always the saints among us who will accept us and love us. I know I try so hard everyday to remember to love everyone. For me, the matter comes down to people’s hearts. I know they want to follow God and obey his commandments and still love others. I know I do. I try to everyday. I pray everyday that I may in some way bless the life of a friend or an acquaintance, if only by shedding a tear with them or by making them laugh when they are having a hard day.

    Christ knows us all individually and suffered for my heartache over this very issue. I still struggle. I still languish. Often times I wonder why. But through Jesus Christ I have found a spring of everlasting peace. He brings me comfort and joy. The Atonement is very real. The Doctrines of the Gospel are true. God gives us strength to press forward. God gives us these things that we may learn to love. Not just to love others, but to love ourselves. Through my struggles, I have learned to love myself more than I thought possible. As I have learned to love myself, my desire to spread my love has grown. And yet while I felt that God had hid his face from me in my trials, in reality He show his face to me, through his love and tender care for me. God’s face is not one of hatred, God’s face is one that is the ultimate source of love. I want to be that face of love upon the earth. I crave that kind of love that only God can show. Some part of me is learning how. I am growing from something I thought to be a curse; my trial with same-gender attraction.

    Now let us go forth doing good unto all men, loving everyone, having charity and kindness in our hearts. As we do, God will grant us strength.

    Blessings in Christ,


  26. Nick,

    I liked your post a lot. It was very well written and thought out. To your question at the end however, if asked directly to me, the answer would be no. I cannot muster the compassion required to forgive at this point in time. Perhaps over time, that view will change, but I don’t see it happening. This Proposition has put a road block between two groups of people. I know that there are friends I will no longer consider friends because of this proposition, because that friendship I know now came with a set of limitations or restrictions. There is even family that I have cut ties with. They don’t understand how I could cut them off, just as much as I can’t understand how they would see how passing this proposition would hurt me.

    The problem is, you can’t show a straight person what it feels like to be homosexual. You can’t put them in a room, turn on a switch and say “You’re gay for the next hour and twenty minutes.” and then have them understand. When I was an LDS member, I tried, good LORD I tried to not be this way. I wish I could feel what it’s like to have a physical and spiritual attraction and connection to someone of the opposite sex. But I don’t know what that feels like. I never have. Just like any straight person would never know what it’s like to have a strong physical and emotional attraction/connection to someone of the same sex. Experience defines perspective. If no one side can experience what the other can, how will we ever come to a common ground?

    Some people find our very existence intolerable, and I would have never gotten along with those types of people anyway and it’s no big loss to me. The people that hurt me the most however are those that profess to care deeply for us, and yet don’t think that we should be entitled to the same rights as they are. That hurts. That cuts. Deeply.


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