Things To Act
Monday, May 10, 2004
 
Our Responsibility for Others' Impressions
Kaimi at T&S posted on a pet peeve of his, when others claim:
that any statement which could be interpreted in a way potentially critical or embarrassing to the church is a violation of the member's Duty to Present the Church in a Favorable Light at All Times, Just in Case a Non-Member Happens to be Listening.

Interestingly enough, this parallels a pet peeve of mine, namely, many members' Obliviousness to the Impressions They Send Off About My Religion. Which is not to say that I don't get annoyed by overly uptight members either--but I think there's something of a tension here, and Kaimi's otherwise excellent post only addresses one side of the equation.

Kaimi's three broad points (which really should be read over at T&S before continuing, if you haven't yet):
First, it seems like a sneaky, backhanded way to foreclose any critical discussion.
...Second, this idea is incredibly condescending towards non-members (as well as members).
...My final complaint is that showing things in a favorable light only tells part of the story.


I think all of these are valid in many circumstances. However, I also think they may not apply in other situations. Foreclosing others' critical discussion simply because one doesn't oneself like critical thinking is silly, of course, But engaging in critical discussion just for the sake of being critical (negative) instead of being critical (analytical) is also silly, and potentially as destructive. For the second point, I think there's a difference between condescension and empathy. It's one thing to think "I can't possibly tell him about X, because he'd never understand." It's something else to think, "he's probably not ready for X yet, at least not without understanding V and W first." As to the final point, sometimes we only should tell part of the story, in keeping with seeking after the virtuous, lovely, &tc.

The example Kaimi uses, of discussing why sacrament meetings can be boring, is enlightening. On the one hand, it's quite liberating the first time one realizes that not every sacrament meeting is necessarily going to be a Wonderfully Uplifting Spiritual Experience, or perhaps that others don't always feel that way [perhaps I'm mistaken on this point, but if Being Bored in SM is a sin, it doesn't outrank on my Repentance List several others that I've been committing left and right lately]. On the other hand, my personality is such that I often allow others' perceptions to influence me, to a degree. If every testimony bearer talks about what a wonderful spirit has hit everyone except me over the head, it doesn't affect me much. But if someone later mentions something specific that he got out of the meeting, it helps me see things in a new light. Thus, I think I function best when those around me focus on the positive, without overdoing it. Which perhaps is the answer to the dilemma. Which is not where this post was originally going, which, I suppose, shows the value of writing this stuff down. Not that it will stop me from continuing with the rest of my scattered thoughts.

There's two other areas in which I think we need to exercise caution in the way we portray the Church, both to members and nonmembers. One deals with our actions, and one deals with the way we handle others' shortcomings.

I look back on some of my mission experiences with horror, looking at how some missionaries behaved. I'm not talking about God's Army level pranks and irreverence. Rather, there were several incidents of missionaries not respecting nonmembers--doing things like browbeating people while tracting, trying to catch people in lies, ignoring investigators' requests for no further contact, ignoring investigators' genuine questions in misguided attempts to stick to the discussion dialog, looking for opportunities to bash, etc. None of those actions seemed particularly Christlike, and all seemed likely to leave people with a negative impression of the Church and its missionaries [not that I was free from my own shortcomings, of course]. These sorts of actions--when we act in obviously unChristlike ways when representing the Church--do violate a member's duty to present the Church in a good way, I think. Other nonmission parallels that come to mind revolve around false doctrine--members saying things that are either wrong or simply misleading about important doctrinal issues. Among the times I've been most horrified at how a member portrays the Church have been when someone has said something particularly misguided or wrong about sensitive topics such as the Temple, polygamy, priesthood and race, same-sex attraction, [insert favorite hot-button topic here]. For every sensible, nuanced answer to a question about those topics is an equally unsensible, wrong, and libelous answer which will likely leave the uninformed with a very wrong impression of what the Church actually teaches. So while I don't think that the Church needs to cultivate an image of its members as being perfect (quite the opposite), I think members do have a duty to present the Church and its teachings faithfully, or, if unable, to make it clear that their words and actions do not represent the Church.

The other point of concern I have deals with the difficulties of discussing those who have wronged us. Two examples: 1) Member A says or does something thoughtless which hurts/offends me. 2) Priesthood Leader B, while exercising authority over me, does something which I feel is very wrong, and which seems to have been done deliberately.

Here, I think, our doctrine imposes barriers to being too free with our discussion. In the first place, we are commanded, when we have a problem with another, to try to resolve it in private with the person. In the second place, we are commanded to forgive regardless of the outcome (and shouting the other person's sins from the housetops has never seemed terribly compatible with the whole forgiveness notion to me, in most cases). And in the third place, we believe (or at least GAs have said that they believe) that certain categories of experiences are sacred enough that they should not be shared casually.

Given these doctrinal constraints, I think there are certain categories of public discussions which are largely off limits (regardless of any duties about presenting the Church in any sort of light). Talking about Member A's shortcomings with others rarely solves the problem, though it often turns into backbiting and gossip. Talking with one or two people in confidence may help one move to a more forgiving mindset, but it seems unlikely if one makes it a practice to discuss the incident with everyone. And finally, while the first two reasons also can apply to the case of Priesthood Leader B, it seems to me (for now, anyway), that this sort of experience may frequently fall into the third category. If God chooses to allow some to experience the sore trials of faith that may come when flawed priesthood leaders make tragically wrong decisions (either through sin or through human frailty, which in many cases we are unequipped to judge), I suspect it is because he wants the individuals involved to have the experiences necessary in working through it themselves--and very few of those experiences are fit for public discussion, just as some of life's most sacred experiences are unfit for public discussion. The experience itself is powerful enough that sharing it too casually diminishes it.

In addition to all of that reasons, I think it's possible to make a compelling case for a Duty To Not Try To Teach Calculus To Those Who Haven't Mastered Addition Yet, and a Duty To Not Have Every Mission Story Involve Some Missionary's Stupidity And/Or Apostasy, Even If It Does Make For Stories More Exciting Than Most of the Work Itself, and perhaps a Duty To Not Spread Lots of Stories For Antis To Collect and Use To Tear Down Others, but those are probably less important duties, and I'll refrain from developing them further at the moment.

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