Shelf Abuse: The Agony and the Ecstasy

A common idiom amongst former or “ex” mormons who have been disaffected or driven away by capricious policies, chattel-like treatment, and deceits-come-to-light is that of their “shelf” breaking. The long, painful process of denial to acceptance typically involves the individual placing all their unanswered or poorly answered questions regarding the sordid history and practices of the church on an imaginary shelf to be answered later. What matters most is their faith and that is the soft wood of which their shelf is made. They trust that the answers will come either in this life with some meaningful sermon at the semi-annual general conference or, perhaps, not until after they have died. 

With enough time and enough unsatisfactory mingling of philosophy with scripture by their leaders, their shelves, weighed down by the decay of faith and the growing tomes of irreconcilable offenses to reason and common decency, their shelves creak and bow. Some, like myself, didn’t realize we had a shelf until it was already lying in splinters beside our tear-soaked feet.

There always seems to be a final straw. As for me, I was nearly an avowed atheist before I could let go of my faith in Mormonism and its anointed leadership. But in the throws of my doubt vs. faith prize-fight, the Mormon church put out a series of essays. Now, you have to understand, that I was a dutiful, repentant, letter-and-spirit-of-the-law, returned missionary, BYU graduate, temple-endowed and-sealed, life-long member. I defended the church against what I was told were “anti-mormon lies to defame and discredit Joseph Smith and the church.” I wasn’t the only one. The essays covered a range of topics from the proscription of blacks from holding the priesthood to polygamy to the authorship of a text known as The Book of Abraham which Mormon’s hold as sacred canon. 

The first one I read was Race and the Priesthood. A friend from high school, whom I had not spoken to in years shared it on Facebook. I didn’t know at that time that he was a disaffected, ex-member. But I was having more frequent and profound doubts of my own about the existence of God. The primary portion I recall is the careful prose-dance around the idea that Mormon church leaders, despite being declared by deity and sustained by fawning members as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, they were simply the products of their time. Of course, they won’t directly and concisely say it. Rather, they say:

“The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”

I would have basked in this lame excuse at one point in my life. Having read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, I begin to see what he meant when he said about political prose that “quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

In that moment, I remember feeling uneasy with the explanation. Primarily because I had long been taught that Mormon leaders could not lead the church or, indeed, the World astray. Consider the words of the the fourth president of the church, Wilford Woodruff on the heels of “officially” banning the practice of polygamy: 

“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

Taken with the many scriptural injunctions such as that in the Old Testament book of Amos, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” I agree with the first seven words of that scripture, but for one who swallows the final ten words with the first seven, and you have a recipe for theocratic tyranny to take hold. Particularly amongst a people who continue to believe that their leaders cannot lead them astray. Couple that with the convenient revelation of Joseph Smith in the canonical Doctrine and Covenants, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (emphasis added)

“Hey, you have to do everything I tell you because I’m the prophet.”

“Sure, but how do I know that is really God’s word?”

“Because I’m the prophet and I said so.”

To finish the Race and the Priesthood apologetics, they declare, “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

This entire essay is not an apology nor an explanation. If we were speaking about a secular organization that did not claim to speak for God, we could understand the excuse that these men were products of their time. When you have racism codified in the Bible and The Book of Mormon and exemplified in the lives and teachings of Mormon leaders for a century you start to think that God must be a respecter of persons. He must have cursed blacks with dark skin because they were meant to be separated from whites.  This essay is an  exercise in subtly changing the dominant narrative of the church. It is a refutation of the scriptural injunction that God has spoken through his prophets. He makes no excuses. That his words will not pass away.

What it subtly points out with inadvertent irony is what the church really believes: Only prophets of the past are products of their time, not prophets of the present. Give them twenty years and present prophets are past prophets who were products of their time. The unfalsifiable nature of prophetic leadership is the problem.

Dallin Oaks, then a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in 2015 that the church does not seek apologies nor does it give them. In a follow up interview to clarify, he backed up his demagogic statement by seeking refuge in holy writ when he asserted that the word apology does not appear in the scriptures. I wonder if he’s ever seen the word repent in there? Look it up. In the Old Testament, even God is said, on multiple occasions, to have repented.

This is the same man who said it’s wrong to criticize church leaders, even if the criticism is true. I don’t know if he realizes in his posturing to seem big and important just how small these kinds of statements make him appear. All he is trying to do is silence dissenters to protect himself. Another small man–fictitious though not as fake as Mr. Oaks–Tyrion Lannister talked about apes like Oaks. He famously said, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

To vilify those who would criticize you with truth is to attempt to transfer accountability to the credulous. To say that a living, sustained and anointed leader is above criticism by those he leads is to create a culture where victims are blamed. Many of these acolytes have already covenanted to avoid “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed,” a covenant which, until 1990, contained a penalty for breaking. Since I went to the temple post 1990, I have to parse this together with what I can find, but I believe the penalty is to have one’s chest opened and their heart torn out. Understand, this is not just a penalty to be imposed by God, but a wish for it to be imposed.

And then, we are required to forgive all men of every trespass. Even leaders who abuse and marginalize. The skilled leader uses the tired excuse: “I only declare God’s will. It is His will, not mine. By the way, we pretend to grieve for the hurt our words may cause but we don’t apologize. Remember, ‘by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.'”

They feel justified in their self-delusion. Examples from their scriptures such as that of Elisha, the prophet, indifferently making his way to Mount Carmel after watching two she-bears tear apart 42 children, why wouldn’t the modern prophets demonstrate the same? After all, it was the boys own fault for teasing Elisha for being bald that made him curse them with the penalty. Only, it wasn’t Elisha’s penalty. He cursed them, sure, but it was God that sent the bears. (2 Kings 2:23-25) 

If I were a deist, I might not care. But the god theists have created is a petty, jealous, capricious image of themselves. Should I not blame the anointed leaders, I have to blame deity. One I am told is loving, forgiving, and infallible despite his petty and capricious methods demonstrated clearly in the Canon and in the lives and teachings of the modern prophets. 

Reflecting on the collapse of my own shelf, I am reminded of the words of Christopher Hitchens, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law. Tyranny can be petty.” You, Mr. Oaks and those who’ve come before, are petty and capricious. Tyrants sailing under the banner of divine anointing. To you and your God I deliver a hearty, non serviam.

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