Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experienced what some are classifying civil disobedience when Ordain Women took public action at the past two Priesthood Sessions of General Conference, all with the intent to call attention to perceived gender injustice within the church structure. After going on record suggesting OW refrain from demonstrating at Conference, I was invited by a male supporter of OW to once again review Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (full letter found here and an abridgment, here). After having done so, I am more puzzled than before over why OW has chosen this particular secular model to agitate for change in the LDS Church.
Before I proceed, I feel obligated to point out the obvious, that any conversation about civil disobedience in the Kingdom of God will bifurcate according to the belief system of those involved in the conversation. Those who reject the idea that God is at the helm, or that there is such a thing as a Kingdom of God, are likely to argue that King’s tactics of civil disobedience are the tested way to bring positive change to the oppressed, including to those in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sometimes refers to itself as the Kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, those who believe that God is genuinely involved in the paradigm will struggle against what they see as man-directed approaches to evoking institutional, even doctrinal, change. Hence, discussions risk becoming nothing more than simultaneous monologues, filled with accusation and denunciation, which is the antithesis of what King fought for. I realize, as a believer, what I say will not resonate with all (including not all believers), but that is no reason to avoid participating in the conversation.
THE FOUR STEPS FOR REFORM: With that said, let me provide a brief review of Martin Luther King’s approach to civil disobedience. Dr. King asserts that there are four steps in a non-violent campaign for reform, each taken only after the previous step is attempted. They are: 1) Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist, 2) Negotiation, 3) Self-purification, and 4) Direct action. I will demonstrate that OW is abiding by these steps, but first a few words about Dr. King’s implementation of them in his quest for civil rights.
Certainly King had no difficulty collecting facts that demonstrated the great injustices the American society (particularly Southern society) was inflicting on black Americans in the mid-20th century. In his letter, he lamented the failure of negotiation, noting that any changes that had been brought about through negotiation had been temporary. For instance, “White Only” signs disappeared from storefronts after black leaders negotiated with white oppressors, but they quickly returned. To Dr. King, self-purification (step 3) not only implied humility, but required formal teaching of the practice of patient endurance in the face of abuse.
According to the civil disobedience model, once an injustice was demonstrated to exist and after negotiation and self-purification proved unsuccessful, the oppressed population should take direct action, also known as a non-violent demonstration. King writes, “The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” which would not be “bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than in dialogue.” In other words, direct action is intended to be so disruptive as to force a negotiation that will be binding.
Enter Ordain Women.
STEP ONE, COLLECT FACTS TO DETERMINE WHETHER INJUSTICES EXIST: Obviously the OW leadership has done this to their satisfaction, even though, at present, the majority of active LDS women do not share their view that items on the OW list (especially female ordination) are injustices. The disparity between the horrific injustices suffered by mid-20th century black Americans and the inequalities OW notes may be a chasm into which OW falls.
After all, male members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not hanging, drowning, or beating uppity LDS feminists who esteem themselves candidates for the same priesthood men hold. In other words, OW must convince LDS women that they are abused, a thing no one had to convince southern blacks was occurring to them. So the task of getting past Step 1 is a far different task than it was for civil rights leaders of the past century. And yet, OW continued to follow King’s model for civil disobedience, moving onto Step 2 when the criteria for Step 1 was met only in their minds and not in the minds of the bulk of the women over whom they elected themselves to represent. If they understood King’s model, they probably should’ve inserted a Step 1A: Demonstrate/Convince LDS women that they are oppressed without the priesthood. But they didn’t. They moved on to the next step without satisfying the spirit of first step.
STEP 2, NEGOTIATION: LDS feminists, in general, are using social media to catalog the ways in which the formal Church and informal church culture marginalize or objectify women. This is a form of negotiation between LDS feminists and the broader LDS population. Change is happening. For instance, while the official Church continues to tell women to cover their shoulders to maintain modesty, members with whom I interact are becoming less stringent in their obedience to what they understand is a false measure of morality and are, therefore, changing the messages they teach their children about dress. Many OW supporters are part of these negotiations, and that’s a positive thing.
If I understand correctly, the OW leadership has participated in face-to-face negotiation with the upper echelon of the Church’s male hierarchy. This has brought about positive shifts that pull women out of the margin. For instance, women are now offering prayers in General Conference. While the grandmother of all requests (the request for female ordination) has been denied for the present, other requests for reform have been agreed upon. We have no reason to believe these negotiated changes will be revoked in the way “White Only” signs returned to storefront windows. [CORRECTION made 5.23.14: Since the original publication date of this post, I have learned that the only face-to-face “meetings” that have happened between OW and any branch of the institutional church have occurred with lone female representatives from the PR department, not in an office, but on temple square prior to direct actions. I thank OW supporters for that clarification.]
Perhaps here I should call attention to Dr. King’s assertion that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” In this discussion, the “privileged group” is the priesthood (or men within the Church). However, please note King’s use of the qualifying word “seldom.” “Seldom give up their privilege voluntarily” is what he says, which is a far different thing from claiming they never do. Dr. King understood that good people will, indeed, voluntarily abandon their privilege if they come to understand that it harms another; or good people will voluntarily share their privilege if and when it is possible.
In a general way, I believe the majority of the men of the Church, including the male hierarchy, are this kind of good people, and that they will surrender privilege voluntarily the moment it is clear that God wills female ordination. A statement like this, of course, will drive non-believers bonkers, and yet I make it with boldness–the same boldness the leaders of OW will use if and when a revelation opens ordination to worthy women. Our shared view of revelation should yoke OW and the mainstream membership, but it doesn’t.
It doesn’t because, in the civil disobedience model, the oppressed negotiate with the privileged class. They do not supplicate; they demand. I have defended OW when others have accused them of demanding ordination. Yet, as I examine the model they follow, I see that they have chosen to replicate an example that is designed to demand. To expect to be perceived in any other way seems naive, at best.
STEPS 3, SELF-PURIFICATION: By self-purification, I understand King to mean that his followers were to maintain humility and steadfast resolve in the face of abuse. They were not to fire back. These things he preached to them as a preface to their demonstrations.
OW has followed King’s model by formally teaching participants in their cause to patiently endure any opposition they face. Prior to both the October and April Priesthood Sessions, OW leaders met with the direct action participants, reminding them to maintain a calm, pleasant and loving attitude, even when rejected, a thing they did well as video (from October) proves.
But that video also proves that those who sent them away maintained a calm, pleasant, and loving attitude. When King’s followers approached a white-only counter for service, they were spat upon and frequently body-slammed before being “escorted” out the door. I bring this up not to disparage the self-purification OW engages in. We all need this kind of self-purification. I bring it up to demonstrate, again, the disparity between who they are fighting and who civil rights leaders fought. Is it necessary to follow a reform program that was devised to combat hatred when the changes reformers seek are within an institution that prioritizes love?
Don’t get me wrong. I have witnessed the vitriol that gets slung at OW supporters. But that vitriol is being slung online by individual members and not by the “privileged group” of men who lead the Church and establish it’s policies. Certainly, the judgmental trash-talk OW supporters have endured while engaging their opposition online has often been extremely harsh, misinformed, and way out of line. Due to efforts at self-purification, OW supporters have, from what I’ve seen, handled it pretty well.
Interestingly, much of the worst vitriol is coming from practicing Mormon women. These women seem to feel offended that OW views them as victims. The parallel would be black men in the Alabama of 1963 lashing out at civil rights activists for calling them victims of racism and abuse. Some will dismiss this trend of rigorous female opposition to ordination as foolishness on the part of unthinking religious women, but I don’t think that’s what it is. I think its another signal that the parallels between the civil rights movement and the movement for female ordination end with the fact one group of people wants something it does not have. If so, the fight for change is hardly the same fight. Why OW would choose to implement a battle plan devised to combat hatred is lost on me.
STEP 4, DIRECT ACTION: Regardless, OW carried out their direct action as per MLK’s model. This communicates to me that they are, indeed, purposefully engaging in civil disobedience against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in spite of vast differences between the level, intent, and purpose of the inequalities faced by 20th century American blacks and 21st century LDS women. Martin Luther King intended his non-violent demonstrations to raise the dust and dander of the unjust, precisely so it could clearly be seen by the good people across the continent and effect change. Since the dust and dander being raised by OW’s direct action is trending from the general membership (particularly women), the ideological parallel would mean the “unjust” are the rank and file LDS, not those who make the policy or establish the doctrine OW objects to. So again, OW is fighting those they want to help. This is hardly what Dr. King was doing.
Yes, some southern blacks resisted Dr. King’s methods: that is the raison d’être for the Birmingham letter. However, even the black clerical leaders who complained about Dr. King’s demonstrations shared his over-arching goal for their people. While the rank and file LDS desire that women be well-honored and their minds, skills, and gifts well-used for the benefit of both the individual, the family, and the collective, they, by a large majority, do not share the over-arching goal of female ordination. I repeat, Dr. King’s public action brought rancor from the unjust, not from the victims of inequality as is happening as a result of OW’s direct action.
I have a difficult time believing that the OW leadership desires to stir up hateful speech from the general membership—which, again, does not make policy, much less doctrine, but only follows it—in order to prove to the powers-that-be that Mormon women are down-trodden and that change is needed. I keep trying to come at this from some other vantage, some way that won’t wind my thinking back around to this conclusion, an idea that feels wholly wrong to me. I’ve decided to make the conscious choice to trust my feeling and reject the idea that the OW leadership is calculating in this way, or is intentionally playing people of faith against one another for their own benefit. But if I reject that idea, I must embrace the notion that OW chose the wrong model to effect change within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
SIX DISCUSSIONS AS A NEW APPROACH: This week (on Thursday, May 15, 2014) Ordain Women is launching a new initiative. They have developed six discussions which they ask church members to read, study, pray about, and discuss in small, local groups. These discussions are titled: 1) See the Symptoms, 2) Know the History, 3) Study the Scriptures, 4) Revel in Revelation, 5) Visualize our Potential, and 6) Be the Change. You may listen to a short video that features Kate Kelly explaining the Six Discussions Launch here.
My first thought on hearing of these six discussions was that it might signal that OW understands Step 1A is missing. Maybe this program is their attempt to convince the LDS mainstream that the lack of female ordination is an unjust inequality. Even if the program failed in that goal, the discussions could have the potential to increase understanding. That’s always a good thing. Plus, the new program seemed inclined to follow the model Joseph Smith provided, that of study and prayer as a method to receive revelation that leads to change.
I’ve reviewed OW’s Getting Started package, which gives instruction on how to organize a group, and I look forward to participating in one, should I be able to arrange it. I anticipate reticence among my active LDS friends so, as I reviewed the packet, I looked for things that would encourage them to participate. I thought I’d hit pay dirt when I arrived at the stated objectives for these six discussions. The first three are: “1) To foster conversations that help people reflect on their own thoughts and experiences, 2) To reaffirm our faith in God and testimony of continuing revelation, and 3) To encourage continued membership and full fellowship in the LDS Church as we explore the topic of women’s ordination.”
But then I hit the fourth objective, which is “To effect change through faithful agitation as a united group of LDS women.” And I heard doors slam.
This fourth objective sounds like Dr. King’s fourth step–a call for more direct action, for more agitation. Again, by using MLK’s model for civil disobedience, OW is adopting a reform program that worked great for oppressed blacks in the American South. But the model, when applied to the Kingdom of God on earth, does three counter-productive things: 1) It reduces study, prayer and pondering to the level of a negotiation tactic, 2) It casts the male priesthood leaders–whom OW sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators–as privileged men, limited by their own self-interest, and 3) It turns the alleged victims they purport to defend into the enemy. The model doesn’t fit.
Initially, I admired OW leaders for developing this discussion program because I thought it showed the trust they have in their sisters. But trust doesn’t filter out people who have a low probability for conversion. The fourth objective will do precisely that. It is as if OW has announced before the discussions are even published that their end will justify their preferred mean.
Please understand that, although I’ve become convinced OW has chosen an ill-fitting model to affect change in the Kingdom of God on earth, I do not disparage them the effort of seeking reform within the Church. Perhaps female ordination is in the cards. Perhaps it’s not. I’m not opposed to anything that God puts His stamp of approval on. So I’ll form a group, if possible, because I think it’s wise for all LDS to be involved in these discussions with the goal of improving communication and avoiding monologues whenever possible. If I’m unable to form a group, I’ll follow along with the six discussions and the conversations of others as best I can. Either way, I’ll be watching what happens, and I hope you will, too.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong… (D&C 9: 8,9)