The recent news of the threatened excommunication of Kate Kelly, John Dehlin and Rock Waterman has caused a stir in the Mormon online community. Some see the impending disciplinary action as a long needed action which will identify apostates so that unsuspecting members will know that they are outside the accepted realm of discourse in Mormon circles. Others see the threatened excommunication as an overreach of authority meant to squash dissent.
This whole affair has brought to mind the question of what role dissent can play in a society – religious or otherwise. When an individual feels a conviction in their heart so strongly that they are willing to risk their standing in the community, their careers or even their lives in order to boldly proclaim it, what are we to make of it?
When viewed in the context of history, can you think of any major advancement in social progress that did not start with an individual or small group of people who were willing to risk everything to stand up against the flow of conventional wisdom and ask questions that others would not dare utter? There have certainly been people whose convictions would be a step backwards for society, but for the most part views such as these do not grain traction and diminish over time. Social pioneers who stand for greater equality and point out inconsistencies which allow society to abandon errant preconceptions may not be accepted kindly or broadly at first, but the truth of their ideas generally elevate their standing and their impact over time.
Our worlds history is full of such figures, but there are a few which have caught my attention over the years. These are not the most impressive or impactful – just ones that have stuck with me.
This irish born singer-songwriter was on a fast track to stardom in the early 1990s. Her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a number-one billboard international hit and went platinum. (still one of the best tracks of the 1990’s). Like many popular artists, she was invited to perform live on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live on 3 October 1992. America was eager to see a live performance by this remarkable and beautiful young artist who had captured their hearts.
Her rehearsals prior to the performance were uneventful – she was to perform an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” aimed at protesting child abuse. At the end of the rehearsal performance she held up a picture of a refugee child. During her live performance, however, she surprised everyone by holding up a picture of Pope John Paul II while singing the word “evil”. Next she tore the photo into pieces, said “Fight the real enemy”, and threw the pieces towards the camera. Audible gasps are heard in the audience and no applause was given – the crowd was too stunned to respond.
Her protest was intended to bring attention to sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and how the church leadership was covering up this abuse. See the performance for yourself here:
In the aftermath of this protest Sinead received the ridicule and scorn of both the public and other artists and celebrities. She was almost booed off stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in Madison Square Garden a few weeks later, to which she responded by reprising her performance of “War”. If you want to see the face of bravery, watch this young woman stand at the microphone being rebuked by thousands of people in the audience, only to boldly improvise and repeat the very performance that turned them against her in the first place:
Sinead’s career was abruptly taken off of the trajectory that it had held and dealt a near death blow. She paid a high personal and professional price for her stand.
It would be over a decade later that the world would be hit with the full knowledge and impact of the extent of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church and the degree to which the leadership of the church covered it up. It would be revealed that the policy of the church kept exposing children to harm by shielding abusers from legal accountability and moving them around to unsuspecting new areas where the abuse would happen all over again. Once the public was ready to listen – change would come. Sinead had tried to the get the world to pay attention 20 year earlier. How many children would have been saved tragic abuse if the world had listened?
She ultimately disclosed that she herself had been a victim of abuse and saw firsthand how religious and legal authority perpetuated the problem in Ireland. She wrote an opinion piece published in The Washington Post in March 2010:
“Almost 18 years ago, I tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Many people did not understand the protest — the next week, the show’s guest host, actor Joe Pesci, commented that, had he been there, “I would have gave her such a smack.” I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.”
(Sinead O’Conner, Washington Post 28 March 2010)
I cannot help but be reminded of the plight of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. Each of them are speaking out against things which are contrary to the spirit of love and acceptance which they understand make up the heart of the religion and culture that they were raised in. Each of them still hold a desire to remain a part of the religion and culture which formed them. Their views are not orthodox – but church leaders have been recently reminding members that absolute orthodoxy is not the expectation of the church. By boldly and honestly speaking their hearts on matters on conscience – they are forcing a conversation. It is a conversation which will continue – regardless of whether or not they are ultimately ousted from the church.
It was a surprise to me to learn a few years ago that there were indeed Mormon wards and branches in Nazi Germany. I was even more shocked to learn that Mormon church leaders in Germany could be members of the Nazi party and in good standing with the church. I assumed that it was just my outsiders perspective after the fact that would have such a problem with this and that members at that time were probably kept hidden from the evils that the Nazi party was actually committing. (As I learned more about the Mormon focus on genealogy, pure blood lines and racial purity, I have accepted that there was actually some common themes between the groups). Indeed there was an attempt to maintain good relations between the church and the Nazis with the goals of avoid confrontations, maintain the Church and its “gains” in Germany and to continue spreading the spiritual message of Mormonism through missionary activity. (see “The Rise of the Nazi Dictatorship and its Relationship with the Mormon Church in Germany, 1933–1939” IJMS Journal Edition 3:2010 56-89).
Despite the policy of the church that members support their government, there is at least one instance where this was not followed. Helmuth Hubener was a young man who kept an illegal radio and listened to the BBC broadcasts which contradicted the Nazi propaganda regarding the progress of the war. He and a few other Mormon young men resisted the regime by published flyers denouncing Hitler and Nazi policies. The president of the LDS branch Helmuth attended was himself a Nazi party member and even went so far as to post a sign on the branch door indicating “Jews not welcome”. Unfortunately, Helmuth was discovered and tried by the Nazis. ten days after his capture, his branch president excommunicated him – canceling the effect of his baptism, confirmation and priesthood. He was ultimately sentenced to death and beheaded as an excommunicated Mormon. Watch this clip from a BYU documentary about his life (I encourage you to watch the whole documentary):
As you can see, the rationalization by faithful church commentators is that this excommunication was actually a great thing which served the purpose of preserving the church in the hostile environment of Nazi Germany. That is the standard of righteousness to which we should aspire? Helmuth declared his faith in God and his desire to be joined with his fellow saints in his last letter. Clearly he still considered himself a Mormon – even if the church had left him on his own:
“I am very grateful to my Heavenly Father that my miserable life will come to an end tonight–I could not bear it any longer anyway. My Father in Heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong. I am just sorry that I had to break the Word of Wisdom at my last hour. I know that God lives and He will be the Just Judge in this matter. I look forward to seeing you in a better world!
Your friend and brother in the Gospel,
(See account here)
Helmuth’s excommunication was later called a mistake, however there was apparently still a need for re-baptism (meaning that even if the excommunication was a mistake – its effects on removing saving ordinances was real). He was re-baptised, his priesthood restored and his temple work done 4 years later.
The story of Helmuth Hubener is one of the most blatant examples of the fact that church discipline and excommunication can be grossly and terribly erroneous in its execution. Helmuth knew that they were wrong to excommunicate him. He trusted that God would not so abandon him. He still stood for his Mormon Faith, even when his Mormon faith cut him off.
John, Kate and Rock will likely still hold themselves to be Mormon – even after excommunication. Being Mormon is not just a statement of whether or not your name resides in a database that is the copyright property of Intellectual Reserve (a subsidiary of the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Just as being Jewish is not simply a statement of religion, but a declaration of culture, family and upbringing, being Mormon carries all of those characteristics so long as the individual wants to claim them. I am still culturally Mormon and it is among Mormons that I still feel that I belong. (My outspoken nature makes that a difficulty just now, however)
I previously reported about 2 men who were excommunicated for supporting priesthood ordination and equality for Blacks just a year before the ban was lifted. Lowry Nelson was advocating equality of race in the church over 25 years before the change happened. He was reproved and dismissed. This speech before congress by Texas Congressman Ron Paul in Oct 2001 accurately predicted all of the terrible outcomes, cost and inefficacy of our wars in the middle east with greater accuracy than may be expected of any prophet – he was marginalized and considered a crackpot. Like the prior examples, each of these men have paid a price for daring to speak up against the tide of conventional wisdom.
Progress in the realm of civil liberties and social progress will always come in the form of dissent at it’s germinal stage. It is precisely because it represents a step away from the status quo and a contradiction of conventional wisdom that it is seen as dissent. To be sure, there will be dissent that would drive us farther away from the ideals that we strive for – but only by allowing the discussion to take place can we sift and discern the next step in our journey towards that elevated state to which we aspire. Before we cut off those who have different views and push us out of our comfort zone – should we not carefully examine what message they are bringing? We cannot close our ears to that message simply because it differs from the familiar tune which has lulled us into comfortable complacency. If we are committed to truth, then we should not be afraid to examine the message of the dissenter. If it makes us feel uncomfortable or unsure – we should explore the cause of that discomfort and see if it is founded in principle or if it is simply a reflex fear of the unknown.
When we confront the unknown we are given the opportunity to grow and become more than we were. It is a journey we do not easily undertake ourselves – we must frequently be pushed by these trailblazers of dissent out of our comfort zones and into new, previously unimagined horizons. That is the true beauty of dissent.