Blaming and Judging

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Preface

The other day I came across a website that quoted something I wrote in my post: For Anti-Mormons It’s All About Joseph Smith. My post was about how most anti-Mormon attacks on the Church boil down to ad hominem attacks on Joseph Smith, at least of the ones that I’ve read or seen over the years (there are also attacks that try to make Mormonism look ridiculous by taking doctrines or practices out of context and presenting them in flippant ways). Keep this in mind throughout the following post – my original post, from which a quote was taken, was about anti-Mormon tactics. I’m responding indirectly to a couple points people were trying to make but my response goes far beyond a response to what was said on that site. I only included the source for completeness sake – this post is not meant to be a specific response to what was said on that site, even if I do address it. [Sorry if that’s confusing.]

Start of post

A selection of my post (taken out of context) was used as an example of Mormon “blame projection”, which is, according to this individual, that the “‘blame’ for ‘failure’ [people leaving the church] has to be projected onto the individual that just isn’t ‘cutting it’, or just didn’t ‘cut it.'” (Source; note: the site has a lot of “ex-Mormons” and others not friendly to the Church; that’s not necessarily a problem, it just means that what’s posted will generally be biased against the Church, just like my posts are biased towards the Church).

What this person was meaning by “blame projection” is that practicing Mormons are not willing to blame the Church or its doctrines so Mormons blame those who leave the church (not just stop going to church but actually leave it by having their names removed from church records) as having “failed” the Church or its doctrines and not the other way around. There must have been something wrong with the person if they can’t handle the rules of the LDS Church. It also means that we want people to take responsibility for their actions.

Now, is this true? If so, is it even a problem? First, let me provide background and context before I return to those questions.

What did I write? “This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to His living prophets is Truth; it is sound and without contradiction. This does not mean that our understanding is perfect, nor have we been revealed everything yet (not even remotely) but the gospel is true. Any supposed imperfections are caused by our lack of understanding. (Source: For Anti-Mormons It’s All About Joseph Smith).”

That is what someone quoted from my post. From that quote, someone turned my commentary on our limited understanding of the gospel into how Mormons blame others [those who leave the church] for their “failures” [this person’s word, not mine] instead of blaming the Church. What happened is this individual interpreted what I wrote as “The gospel is perfect, I don’t understand the gospel, so I must not be perfect; that means I’m a bad person.” That’s a gross distortion of my words and an example of distorted thinking – the kind that I address with people in therapy (i.e., that’s not a healthy chain of thoughts). While I know that chain of thoughts occurs in the minds of some church members (and maybe most at some point in time, if only fleetingly), my quote was not meant to apply to the perfectionism that some individuals might feel (although, taken out of context, I can see how someone might derive that from what I wrote). That quote was addressing the anti-Mormon tactic of resorting to character attacks on Joseph Smith when people show the flaws in their attacks on LDS doctrines or teachings or scripture. Any “flaws” left can be chalked up to shortcomings of Joseph Smith (mistakes he made, not character flaws) or to our imperfect understanding of the fullness of the gospel and of all of God’s plans. We know Joseph Smith was a prophet and that He restored Christ’s Church so that means that we shouldn’t get too worked up about things we don’t understand. The gospel is true, we’re not perfect, so don’t sweat the small stuff; we need to just do the best we know how to do. If there was an implied message in that quote, it was that – we need to hold to our foundation of faith in Christ and our testimonies of the restoration and not worry too much about the tinkling of cymbals and the sounding of brass.

Anyway, back to the topic. The writer did a similar thing (use a quote to establish Mormon “blame projection”) with something Elder Russell M. Nelson said, so I guess I’m in good company. The distortion of my words becomes clear in the broader context of my post. Let me comment on a different comment on that website first before I tie everything together.

In that same thread on that website, someone used the quote from my article as an example of “the ‘attitude of superiority’ that is ingrained in the mormon [sic] membership from day one.”

This misperception of my motives is a good example of the necessity of not taking quotes out of context. Here are two paragraphs from my post (from which the quote was taken). Take particular note of the second paragraph:

“I am not stating that all negative questions and concerns about the church stem from some conscious or subconscious antipathy towards Joseph Smith but almost all anti-Mormon materials essentially boil down to impugning Joseph Smith’s character, at least in the attacks to which I’ve been exposed. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to His living prophets is Truth; it is sound and without contradiction. This does not mean that our understanding is perfect, nor have we been revealed everything yet (not even remotely) but the gospel is true. Any supposed imperfections are caused by our lack of understanding. I am also not implying that Joseph Smith was perfect, he would be the first to recognize his faults, but none of the anti-Mormon attacks on his character are warranted. I know some disagree with that statement but it’s easy to defame the character of people who are dead.

People can have honest disagreements. Those of us who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can have enriching discussions with all people, should they and we do so with an attitude of honesty and respect. We in the LDS Church do not have a monopoly on truth or inspiration. We do not have a monopoly on goodness or virtue. What we do have is membership in Christ’s church, which is a blessing and a responsibility. We are responsible to never be arrogant or exclusive. We have a responsibility to share what we have with others. Membership in Christ’s true church is never an excuse to look down on others, it is a calling to raise others up. We must never let the symptoms of antipathy dwell within us. We can never find happiness in tearing down others. Antipathy is part of a disease that will spread and consume us with its cancerous cells.”

One commenter looks at a portion of what I wrote and labels me as having an “attitude of superiority”. Now, what constitutes superiority can be a matter of opinion. It’s likely this individual was begging the question about Mormon superiority. That means that the conclusion (that Mormons might think they are superior to everyone else) is implicit in the premise. In other words, the person needs to show evidence that Mormons believe they are superior but instead of producing evidence, makes the assumption that Mormons do believe they are superior. It’s like saying, “I’m going to show why cats are better than dogs. First, cats are better than dogs. Second, cats are smarter. Etc.” There are a lot of assumptions in there that might or might not be true and simply stating them does not make them true.

Another problem is what constitutes superiority. Superiority is a feeling; it is motivation. Making assumptions about motivations and feelings is risky at best. I’ve received years of professional training in uncovering motivations for behavior and I’ve found that it is always unwise to make assumptions about motivations (I do it and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong). If we want to know motives, we should ask directly. If we think that the answer we receive is either untrue or lacking insight, then we can make hypotheses about motives and then try to refute them by a series of tests. When we are trying to establish motives for a group of people, we have to sample randomly from a significant portion of that group. What this individual did was pass judgment (particularly final judgment – more on that later) on Mormons without weighing the evidence. My point is that assuming Mormon superiority is a shaky proposition that needs to be tested. How can it be tested? By investigating what Church leaders say and do and what church members do. However, even then, leeway must be given for human imperfections. I bring that up not to give Mormons an “out”, I bring it up because it is doctrine – we are not perfect and Mormons do not claim perfection from anyone within the Church, even the Prophet. That’s another post though.

Maybe the assumption that Mormons believe they are superior was an easy assumption to make without the full context of what I wrote (he or she likely did not read my full post). Contrary to what this individual stated about “Mormon superiority”, I wrote exactly the opposite – that the gospel of Christ requires that Mormons never have an attitude of superiority. I know some Mormons do have that attitude and sometimes what Mormons say can come across as superior but superiority – in the prideful, condescending sense – is not part of LDS doctrine.

So not only was what I wrote incompatible with the conclusion that Mormons believe they are superior, it had nothing to do with providing rationale for blaming others. Personal responsibility is a major part of the gospel so there is plenty of room for blame. “We believe that we will be punished for our own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” is not just a statement about our beliefs about the Fall, it is a statement about who we believe should be blamed for sin – namely, ourselves. Just as I cannot take responsibility for what my neighbor does, I cannot eschew responsibility for what I do. The Lord can do that for us – take others’ blame and absolve us of responsibility, but we cannot save ourselves. Thus, when people leave the church (again, by leave I don’t just mean stop coming to church and/or stop following the tenets of the LDS Church, I mean have their name officially removed from church records), we do have a tendency to blame them and not the Church. This is because we blame ourselves for our own actions as well.

This is not to say that there are instances when the actions of other church members, even church leaders, do not result in other people leaving the church; that happens. I know people who left the church because of what other church members did to them; in at least one of the cases I know, I think leaving the Church was almost justified. I say almost because my faith in Christ and in Christ’s church transcends church members and leadership. In other words, I do not equate the Church with the actions of any individual church member (although the Prophet comes pretty close). But I do not blame this particular individual for leaving the Church under the circumstances he did. Even so, with time, he eventually came back to church. That’s one of the miracles of the gospel – the miracle of forgiveness. This man was able to forgive the church member (not in person, just in general) who had seriously wronged him (this wasn’t a case of a flippant remark, this was a case of adultery between another church member and this man’s wife). Cases like this (people leaving the Church because of other people’s serious sins) happen more often than they should (which is not at all) but thankfully are quite rare overall.

When Mormons blame others, or seem to blame others, for leaving the church, this blame is not what has been referred to as a final judgment. Only the Savior can pass final judgment on people. We do not know everyone’s circumstances. That is why we are encouraged by church leaders to not pass these final judgments on others (e.g., Elder Oaks’ CES address on judging). We do sometimes have to make judgments about others. As Elder Oaks said in that address,

“In contrast to forbidding mortals to make final judgments, the scriptures require mortals to make what I will call ‘intermediate judgments.’ These judgments are essential to the exercise of personal moral agency. Our scriptural accounts of the Savior’s mortal life provide the pattern. He declared, ‘I have many things to say and to judge of you’ (John 8:26) and ‘For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see’ (John 9:39)…. The Savior also commanded individuals to be judges, both of circumstances and of other people. Through the prophet Moses the Lord commanded Israel, ‘Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:15)…. We must, of course, make judgments every day in the exercise of our moral agency, but we must be careful that our judgments of people are intermediate and not final. Thus, our Savior’s teachings contain many commandments we cannot keep without making intermediate judgments of people: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6); ‘Beware of false prophets. . . . Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15­16); and ‘Go ye out from among the wicked’ (D&C 38:42). We all make judgments in choosing our friends, in choosing how we will spend our time and our money, and, of course, in choosing an eternal companion. Some of these intermediate judgments are surely among those the Savior referred to when he taught that ‘the weightier matters of the law’ include judgment (Matthew 23:23)….

First of all, a righteous judgment must, by definition, be intermediate. It will refrain from declaring that a person has been assured of exaltation or from dismissing a person as being irrevocably bound for hellfire. It will refrain from declaring that a person has forfeited all opportunity for exaltation or even all opportunity for a useful role in the work of the Lord. The gospel is a gospel of hope, and none of us is authorized to deny the power of the Atonement to bring about a cleansing of individual sins, forgiveness, and a reformation of life on appropriate conditions. Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest.”

In this way do we sometimes “project blame” onto others but only in an “intermediate judging” capacity. Yes, there are Mormons who do not follow this counsel but I’ve yet to meet any who openly try to pass lasting judgment on others. As I said, none of us is perfect. When we seem to “blame” others, is that a problem? No, if our “blame” is intermediate and if we understand the context of people’s choices. Blaming, or judging, others is a problem when we try to make it final; only the Savior can do that.

Now the original context of the someone quoting me was about Mormon youths who supposedly (I say supposedly because I have not personally reviewed the research in question) feel pressured to be perfect and when they fall short, have existential anxiety. There is the doctrine of perfection taught but thankfully, in recent years, we’ve had much clearer teachings that we cannot expect perfection in this lifetime (that’s not a change in doctrine, it’s a case of emphasizing a point enough so that it finally gets through our far-too-often-thick-skulls). I know there is still anxiety about perfection but striving for excellence almost always results in anxiety (if you want to see anxiety, look around at a university – I don’t mean the students, I mean the faculty). High standards can result in anxiety. Anxiety is not bad though. Too much is bad, just as too little is. We get optimum performance with the right level of anxiety. If it’s too low, we don’t try hard enough, if it’s too high, we give up. That level is different for every person though. This is why the gospel is an individual gospel and why Christ will judge us; He knows us. He knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He knows the desires of our hearts. If we are facing Christ and striving to have His Spirit with us, we are doing all we can do. His grace is sufficient for our needs.

Postscript

The purpose of this post was to point out the necessity of quoting in context (the context of my original quote negated the point someone was trying to make with and had nothing to do with the other use someone made for it). Secondly, there are many people – non-Mormon and Mormon – who do judge others too harshly or with too little information. This might include ascribing motives to others without providing sufficient evidence to support those motives. One poster on that site stated that Mormons like to blame others for their “failures” but that the Mormon standard is perfection, so no wonder there are so many confused and suicidal Mormon teens (I’m not making that up, that’s the point someone was trying to make when quoting me {and others, including Elder Nelson}). If you want the truth about suicides in Utah (which some critics try to equate with Mormon suicides), read this post. But that’s getting off-topic.

There are some complex issues in LDS theology and LDS history. There are honest people who have honest questions. None of us is perfect; we all need the Savior’s Atonement.

I know I didn’t address the issue of where the idea of “Mormon superiority” came from as well as I could have done. That might be interesting to explore some more at some point but this post is long enough for now.

There is no man more beloved than Joseph Bitner Wirthlin

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Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin passed away late last night (December 1, 2008). Although I did not know him personally, he always came across as one of the most soft-spoken and gentle people. I never really appreciated his talks until Pres. Merrill Bateman (it could have been Pres. Samuelson, I’m not positive), president of Brigham Young University, stated that once the conference issue of the Ensign was released, he and his wife always read Elder Wirthlin’s talk first. After this I started paying more attention to his talks. They are always amazing and full of charity. His talks are also powerful, which his soft manner and voice belie.

Here are a few recent quotes of his that brought strength and comfort to me.
On adversity:

“But whenever my steps led through seasons of sadness and sorrow, my mother’s words often came back to me: ‘Come what may, and love it.’ How can we love days that are filled with sorrow? We can’t—at least not in the moment. I don’t think my mother was suggesting that we suppress discouragement or deny the reality of pain. I don’t think she was suggesting that we smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness. But I do believe that the way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life. If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness.” (Source).

On sorrow and trials:

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With all the pressures and demands on our time and the stress we face each day, it’s little wonder we get tired. Many feel discouraged because they have not measured up to their potential. Others simply feel too weak to contribute. And so, as the flock moves on, gradually, almost imperceptibly, some fall behind. Everyone has felt tired and weary at one time or another. I seem to feel more so now than I did when I was younger. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, even Jesus Christ knew what it meant to be tired. I do not wish to underestimate the weight that members of the Church bear upon their shoulders, nor do I minimize the emotional and spiritual trials they face. These can be heavy and often difficult to bear. I do, however, have a testimony of the renewing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the Lord ‘giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.'” (Source).

On debt:

“This is simple counsel but a powerful secret for financial happiness. All too often a family’s spending is governed more by their yearning than by their earning. They somehow believe that their life will be better if they surround themselves with an abundance of things. All too often all they are left with is avoidable anxiety and distress. Those who live safely within their means know how much money comes in each month, and even though it is difficult, they discipline themselves to spend less than that amount. Credit is so easy to obtain. In fact, it is almost thrust upon us. Those who use credit cards to overspend unwisely should consider eliminating them. It is much better that a plastic credit card should perish than a family dwindle and perish in debt.” (Source).

On kindness:

“Kindness is the essence of greatness and the fundamental characteristic of the noblest men and women I have known. Kindness is a passport that opens doors and fashions friends. It softens hearts and molds relationships that can last lifetimes.” (Source).

On judging others:

“Each one of us will travel a different road during this life. Each progresses at a different rate. Temptations that trouble your brother may not challenge you at all. Strengths that you possess may seem impossible to another. Never look down on those who are less perfect than you. Don’t be upset because someone can’t sew as well as you, can’t throw as well as you, can’t row or hoe as well as you. We are all children of our Heavenly Father. And we are here with the same purpose: to learn to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Source).

I hope that we will all take the time to reread some of Elder Wirthlin’s words and live by his teachings. He was a man who exuded kindness and charity. As Elder Holland stated at the October 2008 General Conference, “Within the ranks of the general authorities of the church, there is no man more beloved than Joseph Bitner Wirthlin. We praise him for living the sermons he preaches.” Elder Wirthlin’s words, stories, and love will be missed. I am happy though that he is now reunited with his dear wife.