Death before Dishonor: States of Grace review Part III

February 29, 2008 | 74 comments
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A Spartan mother would reputedly tell her son to come back from battle with his shield or on it. If he came back with it, the shield meant he hadn’t fled from the enemy. Shields were too heavy to scamper with. If he came back on it, the shield was his stretcher or his hearse.

SPOILERS

In States of Grace, after Elder Farrell has slept with the girl he was ministering to, he talks to Elder Lozano about when he left for his mission. His father told him then he would do better to return dead than to return dishonored. “Your father’s a jerk,” Elder Lozano says. Elder Farrell then tries to kill himself.

Is Farrell Sr. a jerk? Is he denying the atonement? The film pretty clearly wants us to think so. Earlier in the movie we are exposed to a parallell set of parents who refuse to even answer their daughter’s phone calls because of her sin though she’s long repented. Elder Lozano, who calls him a jerk, is in many ways the character we most identify with. And Elder Farrell tries to kill himself apparently because of what his father said. (Though the film does introduce a complicating factor–Elder Farrell’s mother comes to bring him home and says his father wanted to come to but couldn’t. The implication is that Farrell Sr. still wants his son but is too distraught at the moment).

In my opinion, though, it doesn’t hold up. Holding that death is preferable to dishonor does not deny the atonement. The atonement is what happens after we’ve dishonored ourselves. Saying that some sins are such a thing that death would be better makes the atonement that can overcome those sin even mightier. In some ways the atoning acts themselves send the message that death (Christ’s) is better than our dishonor.

Now, you don’t have to deny the atonement to be a jerk and Farrell Sr. might well be one. But I don’t think we have the evidence in the film to say so. We have no reason to think that Farrell Sr. wanted his son to add dishonor to dishonor by killing himself. We have no reason to think that Farrell Sr. is going to be brutal or unforgiving to the boy, since Elder’s Farrell’s mom says he wants to see him. And the statement itself isn’t intrinsically wrong. If my dad had said it (he didn’t, he’s not dramatic), it would have been awesome. It would have been fierce. I would have been on Cloud 9 for weeks and relishing it today.

For a different take, see, e.g., here:

It seems to me fairly transparent that Dutcher wanted to bring out the evil in the attitude of “I’d rather have you return in a box than in having fornicated.” That is indeed a pernicious view that also fails to recognize the possibility of repentance and change.

Update: see also East Coast’s take–

Disclaimer: I haven’t seen this movie. I’m not going to see it.

That said, I want to take issue with the point about better dead than dishonored.

1. Do people really say that? I grew up in a ward that had 15-20 missionaries serving at any given time. I attended seminary and heard all sorts of weird Mormon stuff there. I served a mission, spending time in the missionary training center and almost 18 months in Europe associating with many missionaries and a couple of mission presidents. I knew a lot of people at BYU who were either going on missions or recently returned. I never heard that sentiment until I saw it here.

2. The use of that statement is bad parenting. It’s like the story of the mom who upon leaving the house tells her kids, whatever you do, don’t put beans up your nose. You can imagine the results. Since missionary-age kids don’t have mature brains yet and often lack the concept of their own mortality, feeding them that statement seems to be introducing “dishonor” as a real option for their missionary service since “dead” has limited meaning.

3. If I actually heard someone telling a kid that, I would probably dissolve in helpless laughter. But that’s just me. I’m not a dad, nor will I ever be. (My kids call me “Mom.”)

P.S. Part I, Part II

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74 Responses to Death before Dishonor: States of Grace review Part III

  1. East Coast on February 29, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    I guess I should have waited to post my comment. I won’t repeat it from the first thread, but I still think that telling a kid “death before dishonor” is neither doctrinally legitimate nor developmentally appropriate nor common in our culture.

    When I started thinking about the idea I was racking my brains to figure out if “death before dishonor” was scriptural. Thanks for posting the source of the idea, although I imagine it was probably the Spartan dads spreading this cute little saying rather than the mothers. But who knows; in an entirely militarized culture such things may have happened.

    Before reading this post, I thought about the recommendation that if your eye offend you, pluck it out; if your hand offends, cut it off. The only problem with that one is the rather minor point [sarcasm alert] that we don’t take that advice literally.

    Then I went and read Alma’s discussion with his son Corianton. Nowhere does Alma advise death over dishonor. Thinking about it in terms of this movie, Alma’s comments are a very beautiful read. I would link to his discourse in the online scriptures if I knew how to do links.

    By the way, if this turns into a thread on [shudder; run screaming] blood atonement, I’ll do just that. (Run screaming, I mean.) I don’t imagine that’s your purpose, however.

  2. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    I added your comment, sir ma’am. Thanks.

  3. Gilgamesh on February 29, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Isn’t this what the whole Donatist controversy was about in the late 200′s? It is better to be dead than to bow down to Caesar, except a number of bishops, priests and others did bow down to Caesar. The church fought over this concept of death before sin for a century until grace entered the picture.

  4. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    I’m no expert on Donatists, Gilgamesh. But I think both sides agreed that the priests who’d accepted martyrdom were awesome. I think the controversy was about whether the priests who’d renounced Christ and turned over the sacred objects in their charge could be reinstated if they repented.

  5. East Coast on February 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    Hey, Adam, you mean “ma’am,” right? :-0

    [Ed.- gosh!]

  6. Benjamin on February 29, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    Actually, I have a very clear memory of a mission companion saying something very similar to what Elder Farrell’s father said. I have no idea where he got that idea (I do have some guesses, actually.), but I found it disturbing enough that it stuck in my head and is still there years later. . .

  7. Bookslinger on February 29, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    In regards to whether “death before dishonor” is scriptural, one might look at scriptural examples of those who were threatened with death if they didn’t deny Christ, and chose to not deny Christ. Such choices by individuals are documented in the scriptures, but I don’t remember reading any actual counsel or specific encouragement of which way to choose* when presented with that situation. However, if one were to explore the ramifications of following those scriptural examples, should the situation arise, then perhaps one would want to rank the relative import of various things like (verbally) denying Christ, denying the Holy Ghost (which is only nebulously defined in the scriptures anyway), murder, sexual sin, etc. IE, if it is worth suffering death so as to not to deny Christ, is sexual sin a greater or lesser offense than denying Christ? Another point is that the scriptures do seem to place a relative ranking of seriousness between blasphemy against Christ and blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.

    —-

    * In the accounts of those who refused to deny Christ, I would not say that the believers chose to die, but rather that the killers chose to kill them. The acts of murder were on the part of the killers, not the victims. Therefore, “willing to suffer death, rather than …” doesn’t quite equate to “choosing death”. The victims were not in control of who lived or died, the killers were.

  8. Sam B. on February 29, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Adam,
    For me, that was actually the part of the movie that worked least, mostly because it rang untrue. That is, it sounded like stories I heard, vaguely attributed to long-past general authorities (kind of a punch line to a bad joke), but that I can’t imagine coming out of the mouth of anyone in my church. I realize that Dutcher was a convert, so maybe he heard the same bad joke, but it became an important enough plot point that it got in my way for the rest of the movie. (Denying the Atonement? I honestly couldn’t get past the falsely-ringing bells in my head to really evaluate that sort of question.)

  9. veritas on February 29, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Parents do actually say that. My FIL said that to my husband as recently as a year ago when he (my FIL) heard a rumor that my husband had not been attending church. He said “I would rather hear that you died than hear you weren’t attending church”. Ouch.

  10. john f. on February 29, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    My opinion is that Sparta is not a good example — for just about anything. Athens is the way to go, methinks.

  11. Bookslinger on February 29, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Sam,
    If you read Dutcher’s biography, it seems like many elements of his movies are autobiographical. Not entirely, but at least a noticeable degree.

    Dutcher had an “interesting” mission, and was even thrown in a Mexican jail for a while.

    I think both God’s Army and States of Grace deserve a place on everyone’s movie shelf. You can buy them from Dutcher’s company. His store seems to be out of Brigham City, but that one’s available at http://www.holymovies.com

  12. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    East Coast, commenting on your original comment:
    –1, yeah, I bet no one actually says this
    –2, I bet that for most kids, being told ‘death before dishonor’ doesn’t actually make dishonor attractive

    On your new comment:
    “Before reading this post, I thought about the recommendation that if your eye offend you, pluck it out; if your hand offends, cut it off. The only problem with that one is the rather minor point [sarcasm alert] that we don’t take that advice literally.”

    By the same token, no one should literally kill themselves as an alternative to sin. If you dismiss these scriptures as rhetoric, then you have to explain why you aren’t willing to give the ‘death before dishonor’ statement the same treatment. Me, I agree that we shouldn’t literally kill or disfigure ourselves. But if the only way you can pay for the medical treatment to save your eye is by robbing a bank, you had darn well better let it die.

  13. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    I’m not sure I see your point in relation to the subject of this thread. What does the Donatism controvery tell us about Farrell Sr.? Seems to me like the controversy was about what happens after you sin, not whether dieing would be better than sinning.

  14. Last Lemming on February 29, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Do people really say that? I grew up in a ward that had 15-20 missionaries serving at any given time. I attended seminary and heard all sorts of weird Mormon stuff there. I served a mission, spending time in the missionary training center and almost 18 months in Europe associating with many missionaries and a couple of mission presidents. I knew a lot of people at BYU who were either going on missions or recently returned. I never heard that sentiment until I saw it here.

    Has nobody here read The Miracle of Forgiveness? This is what we were taught in Seminary in the 70s. I’m not that old.

  15. East Coast on February 29, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Wow. What a difference ten years makes.

  16. Snow White on February 29, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I was also going to mention that there is a passage about that in The Miracle of Forgiveness, Lemming, which is often misconstrued to mean that it’s better to fight back and die in a rape situation than to *allow your chastity to be lost* or some such nonsense. I think Spencer W was just trying to illustrate that the spiritual death that accompanies serious sin is a greater cause for mourning than physical death. Some people just seem to miss the rest of the book, in which he talks about how to gain redemption after the fact. Based on LDS doctrine, it would be pretty idiotic to kill yourself with that kind of sin on your head (or, of course, at all, but that’s beside the point :) )

  17. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    If my dad had said it (he didn’t, he’s not dramatic), it would have been awesome. It would have been fierce. I would have been on Cloud 9 for weeks and relishing it today.

    I disagree; that statement is, I think, incredibly destructive.

    If you think I’m your mission companion blogging under a pseudonym, you err. If you think you know me and my dad better than I do, you err. If you think I’m lying, you err.

  18. Gilgamesh on February 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    “But I think both sides agreed that the priests who’d accepted martyrdom were awesome”

    My point exactly – death instead of sin was seen as “awesome” – repentence after sin instead of death – not so awesome. Those opposed to the reinstatement had the view that death would have been better and there was no forgiveness for the sin of rejecting the holy offices. The Donatists didn’t agree with the cheap grace being offered to those who denied the faith – rejecting Christ had consequences. It is similar to the critique of Farrell – fornication has consequences – I think cheap grace is the universal theme of both issues.

  19. Latter-day Guy on February 29, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    You mistook my meaning (you erred?). Whatever your father’s hypothetical comment might have meant for you, Adam, I simply think that for many the effect would be totally different. It was so for my comp. I wasn’t calling you a liar.

  20. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I was talking about me and my dad and you said you disagreed. If I mistook your meaning its because I thought you meant to say what you said.

    But I have to agree–if your kid is a suicidal depressive, maybe he shouldn’t be going on a mission, but if he does, be careful what you say to him.

  21. Jeremiah J. on February 29, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    “Isn’t this what the whole Donatist controversy was about in the late 200′s? It is better to be dead than to bow down to Caesar, except a number of bishops, priests and others did bow down to Caesar. The church fought over this concept of death before sin for a century until grace entered the picture.”

    The Donatists refused to accept the fellowship of and sacraments from even those fallen priests who had gone through the repentance process. The church was not simply excusing apostasy, the denial of Christ and the betrayal of the members of the church because, well, death was on the line. They accepted that you could repent for such sins, after a process, whereas the Donatists were tearing apart the church by denying such repentance was possible,

    The idea that death is preferable to sin is clearly the Christian view. God does not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. If this were not the case then grace would make less sense than it does. So I can endorse this view without offering my missionary son the formula in question.

  22. Latter-day Guy on February 29, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    If my dad had said it (he didn’t, he’s not dramatic), it would have been awesome. It would have been fierce. I would have relished it to this day.

    I disagree; that statement is, I think, incredibly destructive. A companion on my mission was undergoing severe depression, but was able to finish. Later, I found out that he had been told “If you come home early, do it in a bag.” As a result he spent a quarter of his mission planning how to carry off a successful suicide. Luckily, he eventually spoke to our (incredible) MP, who helped him get the help he needed. He (the elder, not the MP) told me recently that that single comment did more to get in the way of his recovery than anything else. Neither “fierce” nor “awesome.” Especially not Christ-like.

  23. Kyle Mathews on February 29, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    The idea is scriptural:
    Matthews 18:6
    But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

    But I completely agree with the others. While logically true that it’s better to come home in a body bag then dishonored — it’s a terrible motivational tactic.

  24. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    “While logically true that it’s better to come home in a body bag then dishonored — it’s a terrible motivational tactic.”

    Many 19-year old men thrown out into the mission field are uptight and fearful, but that’s by no means the rule. Some of us uptight and fearful ones respond to a challenge.

  25. Doc on February 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Adam,
    The Mom is clearly covering for the Dad, hence the nonverbal language and the burst into tears. I do understand how one might identify with the Dad for not coming, as yes, he would and should be distraught. I still think the bottom line message from Dutcher is the idea that death would be better than having a son sin is pernicious. He is trying to get us to fully think through the ramifications of that statement. I think those that state that view are acting rashly, out of hubris.

  26. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I still think the bottom line message from Dutcher is the idea that death would be better than having a son sin is pernicious.

    If that’s Dutcher’s message, his message is pernicious. “Fear not them that slay the body but them that slay the soul.” In any case, you aren’t being asked to die. You are being asked to avoid sin like you’d avoid death, but more so.

    You could well be right about the mother and the father.

  27. Johnna on February 29, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Some people who aren’t recognizing “death before dishonor” might recognize “Return with Honor” as something people really do say to their LDS children. There are even “Return with Honor” rings sold alongside CTR rings in LDS Book/Kitschstores. I have a couple friends who have “return with honor” on the inside of their front doors, at child eye-level. It’s not as stark as “with your shield or on it” but there is an implication–”return with honor, *or don’t return.*”

    You said: Elder Farrell’s mother comes to bring him home and says his father wanted to come to but couldn’t. The implication is that Farrell Sr. still wants his son but is too distraught at the moment). I disagree with your interpretation. I think we’re to understand that the mother is stop-gapping for her husband, she’s speaking in hope and faith that her husband will want his son in a couple weeks, when he’s done mourning the loss of the unsinning son. She knows her husband well enough to promise this, though it has not happened yet.

  28. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    The movie quote is a paraphrase of that, so I’m betting that’s the source.

  29. Another John on February 29, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    So what about the people of Ammon who submitted to death before dishonoring their promise to the Lord? Or is that relevant?

  30. Snow White on February 29, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    Rape doesn’t bestow uncleanliness, however, gej, so if that’s what BRM was implying, he was wrong. I do understand the sentiment that it would be better for the child to suffer physical death while innocent than to suffer spiritual death IF they are going to remain unrepentant. As long as they repent it doesn’t matter. That was what it seemed to me that SWK was saying.

  31. East Coast on February 29, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Well it’s probably a good thing no one’s ever asked me to support Mormon Doctrine as scripture.

  32. gej on February 29, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    “Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of ones life – better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is faithful the Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.’”Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (all editions), page 124.

    If BRM said it certainly there are parents out there that have parroted this remark which I think is unfortunate. He may have been encouraging missionaries to defend themselves at all costs against sexual violation but how many people have under stress or depression acted out like Elder Farrell?

  33. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I do understand the sentiment that it would be better for the child to suffer physical death while innocent than to suffer spiritual death IF they are going to remain unrepentant. As long as they repent it doesn’t matter.

    Repentance should never enter into our moral calculus about sin. Repentance is what you need after you sin. Its not part of your decision about whether to sin or not.

  34. Sonny on February 29, 2008 at 8:05 pm

    Repentance should never enter into our moral calculus about sin. Repentance is what you need after you sin. Its not part of your decision about whether to sin or not.

    No, but it should enter the moral calculus of the decision about whether to say \”I would rather you return home dead than with dishonor\”, imo.

  35. Adam Greenwood on February 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    How is it possible to do both?

  36. Sonny on February 29, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Adam, I apologize but I don’t know what you mean by “How is it possible to do both?”, if it refers to my comment.

  37. DavidH on February 29, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    The sayings (by President Heber J. Grant, Spencer W. Kimball, and Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and others) about its being better to die than to violate the law of chastity were still kicking around when I was growing up (in the 60s and 70s), but they were not particularly emphasized. My father told me, when I was an adolescent, that he thought that the saying was flatly wrong and harmful, particularly to those who had already transgressed or whose loved ones had transgressed.

    I suspect that the Brethren, in general, have come to a similar conclusion. It has been many years since I have heard anyone quote those sayings in chruch in anything like an approving way. The passages that still appear in Mormon Doctrine and the Miracle of Forgiveness are another reason to be glad that those books are not officially approved (although at one point, I believe that the Miracle of Forgiveness was semi-approved as part of recommended readings for full-time missionaries).

    I think Dutcher’s use of the saying was simply an illustration of how a misguided saying like that could be misconstrued in a very damaging way by an unhealthy or misguided person. Again, I am glad the saying is largely gone from normal LDS discourse.

  38. Bookslinger on February 29, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Miracle of Forgiveness is still sold at http://www.ldscatalog.com, in English, Spanish, French, and audio tape.

  39. Sonny on February 29, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    I guess what I was trying to say, somewhat awkwardly, is that I agreed with Adam that a person should not consider later repentance when faced with sin. However, I feel that, in my opinion, perhaps parents making statements such as “it is better to be dead than for you to return with dishonor” do not fully consider that a dishonored child, however disappointing and painful it may be, has the chance to fully repent and be counted worthy in the sight of the Lord again. Maybe I am just too much of a softy, but bringing death into a discussion on “come home with honor” is so final, and easily understood by the child to mean what the parent wishes if the child does indeed become dishonored. It just seems to me there are so many other/better ways to express it.

  40. Latter-day Guy on February 29, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Does it make a difference that the person saying “I would rather you return home dead than with dishonor” is a different person than the sinner in question? Is there a difference between approaching one’s own sin and repentance and approaching a loved one’s? I think this might be what Sonny is getting at.

  41. Bob on February 29, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    I watched “Letters from Iwo Jami”. Lots of scenes about death before dishonor. Ugly. I believe more in repentance and self-redemption.

  42. manaen on February 29, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    42.
    self-redemption?

  43. Bob on February 29, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    # 43: Yes. I was not as caring for my elderly mother as a son should have been. I now try to self-redeem myself as well as I can by helping care for other elderly people, as it is to longer possible do this for my mother.

  44. Benjamin on February 29, 2008 at 11:37 pm

    That quote from Mormon Doctrine notwithstanding, can someone explain to me how it’s better to be clean and dead than unclean and alive with a chance to repent and come to know the Savior better through the process? Perhaps BRM never engaged in moral transgression, but you know that there are hundreds (if not thousands) of wonderful, powerful leaders who have at one time or another been stained with the blight of sexual sin and it’s a darn good thing they stayed alive because the Lord proceeded to use them to bring others to Christ. Corianton, anyone?

    We must be taking BRM out of context or something. . .

  45. Bob on February 29, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    #43: “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Shawshank Redemption”, were about self-redemption.

  46. manaen on February 29, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    In my opinion, though, it doesn’t hold up. Holding that death is preferable to dishonor does not deny the atonement. The atonement is what happens after we’ve dishonored ourselves. Saying that some sins are such a thing that death would be better makes the atonement that can overcome those sin even mightier. In some ways the atoning acts themselves send the message that death (Christ’s) is better than our dishonor.
    .
    I agree with this: there was a time when my sins led me to choose suicide but the healing of the atonement saved me from it. To me, that does make the atonement even mightier.
    .
    This paragraph of Adam’s and some of the readers’ comments about death before dishonor lead me to share an insight I’ve been pondering for the last few years about something that hasn’t been around since 1990. Many folks have been upset by what they thought it meant. My insight was important to me, but I couldn’t find a satisfactory way to share it while maintaining the respect I wanted to preserve. The answer came while re-reading the BoM in heedance to Pres. Hinckley’s challenge.
    .
    This verse:
    And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than [do so] they would give up their own lives (Alma 24:18)
    is a better tool than anything I was trying to write. It says that they would allow *evil* people to kill them *before* they would break their covenant.
    .
    Consider an Ammonite father who, in a moment of weakness, had slain a Lamanite who was about to kill the father’s child. We would not expect Ammon to come around the next day to say, “You broke your promise not to do that, so now we churchman will kill you” because that was not the covenant — they did not say that they would forfeit their lives after breaking this covenant and nowhere was such a thing required.
    .
    Death before dishonor, the atonement afterwards. Don’t get it twisted.

  47. Ray on March 1, 2008 at 12:41 am

    #45 – I support BRM as a prophet and apostle completely, but that doesn’t mean I agree with everything he said and wrote. Context isn’t the issue; the statement is.

    My only contribution: “Return with honor” is radically different than “Death before dishonor.” “Death before dishonor” is a fine slogan for war, when death is a natural possibility of one’s chosen actions; in about any other context, it’s rubbish. The Anti-Nephi-Lehis are not a good example, as their specific prior actions were administering death. They had a very specific covenant that was caused by their very specific situation, so “Death before dishonor” was appropriate for them. More relevant was the statement that they “buried the weapons of their rebellion”. Our weapons of rebellion generally don’t include the sword, as theirs did.

  48. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 1, 2008 at 2:54 am

    My recollection is that statements like “I would rather my daughter returned to me in a casket than dishonored” were made by Joseph F. Smith. I think it was a general social attitude of the time, the late Victorian era, which was reacting to the licentiousness of earlier generations. I don’t recall it ever being tied to scripture in the Bible or Book of Mormon. It was how people of that day, a century ago, construed “virtue” in a person, especially a woman. Basically, the assumption of the day seems to have been that letting yourself be raped ruined your own virginity and therefore your “virtue”. They seem to have missed the idea that, if someone else attacks you against your will, your own virtue is intact, regardless of what was done to you.

    When I was a deacon, a young woman in our ward, about 18, was attacked by a guy with a knife, who held it at her throat while he ordered her to lie down. As he was getting himself ready to complete his assault, she grabbed the knife from him and stabbed him a couple of times. He grabbed the knife back and stabbed her once in the chest, but apparently it was a shallow wound and he was hurting so he broke off the attack. (His wounds were evidence that convicted him on his arrest.) My recollection is that she was thinking of this idea–”better you die than be dishonored”–when she attacked her assailant.

    Now, there are some who will say that the best thing to do is to physically resist a sexual assault, that you have a better chance of not being killed (as a witness to the crime) if you fight back first instead of passively letting the guy finish you off afterward. But I don’t think that was in her mind at the time. She said a prayer, and fought back vigorously, because she honestly believed what she had heard in church, that it was better to take a chance at being dead than to be dishonored by rape. It had a happy ending, but I would not have wanted her to feel guilt, for goodness sake, about someone attacking her against her will.

    We hear stories regularly of how women in Muslim communities (even in Europe) are killed by their families for allowing themselves to dishonor their families by being raped! I think, unfortunately, that the attitude is related to treating women as a kind of chattel, who could be traded into marriage to cement business ties between families. Being raped destroys her value as a virgin, so she won’t get a decent husband, and might as well be “mercifully” killed rather than allowed to suffer being an old maid who has no value to the family.

    In Japan, a Japanese wife of an American high school teacher at Yokota High School was found to have ascended to the roof of a 9 story apartment building on base and used wire cutters to open the safety fence, so she could jump to her death. She had left her little son in her car, killed by asphyxiation because, in Japanese fashion, it was better he die that “suffer” without a mother. My Japanese mother did not do a good job of inculcating me with these strange Japanese views on honor and duty and debt that have so much to do with teenagers throwing themselves under trains when they fail a college entrance exam, and with Japanese soldiers fighting to the death in the caves of Iwo Jima, or Japanese civilians throwing their children off a cliff when the American soldiers appeared victorious.

    Certainly that was an attitude not uncommon in feudal societies in Europe and Asia. I think that this attitude of commodification of daughters shaded into the Victorian attitudes on sexual virtue as the first waned and the other waxed. I think the phrase lived on without a lot of thought about how it could adversely affect someone whose “virtue” in that old sense was taken against her will. A child is just as virtuous if he is beaten by a stepmother, and a girl is just as virtuous if she is sexually assaulted by a stepfather. It is true that suffering a severe trauma like rape can lead to terrible guilt by the victim, and a feeling of loss of worth, a feeling that one has no virtue or value and so might as well abandon any pretense of virtue or chastity. Indeed, that psychology is used by pimps to recruit girls for their businesses. One would, at least partially, bear real guilt for the acts done after such abandonment of virtue, and avoiding that kind of outcome, which I imagine was a real one for many rape victims, could have been in the minds of many of those who recited the epithet about it being better to return from the big city in a coffin than as one who has “lost virtue”, because so many of the latter had abandoned virtue voluntarily after being coerced initially.

    The problem, as many have noted, is that it is a false dichotomy. The whole point of the gospel is that there is another alternative: to have virtue restored through repentance and the application of the Atonement. The epithet was so popular in its day, its value assumed, that the fact it was hyperbolic rather than realistic was ignored. Perhaps people like Joseph F. Smith did not intend to say that it was the final word to someone who had actually had the experience, and they would be ready to offer forgiveness to anyone who suffered in that fashion. My understanding of Joseph F. Smith’s actual belief in forgiveness for those who defamed him in the national newspapers after his Senate testimony in the Reed Smoot case encourages me to think he would be just as forgiving of a beloved child who had been raped or even one who had been seduced. I think the phrase was part of our Euro-American cultural baggage that was simply not examined carefully for the effect it would have on a child who was facing the dilemma of death or submission to rape.

    There may well be similar things we say routinely that carry similar negative cultural baggage at odds with the gospel. I think that may be true of a lot of the political phrases we spout at each other, such as in the realm of illegal immigration. I think that may well be what Elder Marlin K. Jensen was getting at when he asked for more compassion in dealing with illegal immigrants. We think these ideas are virtuous because our society says so (at least our personal society), without examining whether they are consistent with the gospel. There are clearly things that Japanese society applauds that are not “virtuous, lovely or praiseworthy.” There are also things in American society that may also not qualify to be sought for. (There are certainly aspects of the profession of law that have at most a tentative connection to Christlike virtue. My standard answer to the question asked by the bishop about association with any organizations of ill repute is “The bar association.”)

    The 13th Article of Faith does not invite us to be cultural vacuum cleaners, making off with the Christmas tree that the community has built, decorated and gathered around, ala Mister Bean. We are enjoined to be seeking selectively those things that we have weighed against the criteria, just as we are enjoined to seek politicians who are both wise and good.

  49. Bob on March 1, 2008 at 11:07 am

    #48: Nice post. I agree “death before dishonor”, needs to now be put to rest in context of today’s world. Maybe ‘dishonor’ itself needs to be reconsidered. ‘Sin’ seems personal. ‘Dishonor’ seems to carry with it an idea of sin against your family, nation, etc.(?)

  50. Z. Madden on March 1, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    I’m loooking to start a petition to end the discussion of States of Grace.

    Every one in favor, say “aye.”

  51. Liz on March 1, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I think Mr. Swenson hit the nail on the head by laying out the historical context. Nicely done, sir.

    I was scratching my head and growing a mite disturbed over the conversation on whether or not rape is worse than death.

    As a woman, I would not hesitate to defend myself if I, or another (particulary a child) were being assaulted, even if it meant killing the assailant. My thoughts would not be rational (i.e. well at least I won\’t be dead, assuming he means to let me live when he\’s done having his way with me). I am perfectly at ease that God would NOT condemn ME…very far from it…

    If someone rapes me, I am without guilt. What I have become is spiritually damaged to the extreme…it is a vicious attack, and I would rate it above a physical beating, which ANYONE would feel justified in defending themselves against rather than \”just taking it\”…and this is a situation where the atonement is so desperately needed. It\’s for the victim as well as the attacker. But I would NOT need it for cleansing of sin, I would need it for cleansing of hurt…for healing.

    The woman who stabbed her assailant seems perfectly reasonable to me. I applaude her for \”not taking it lying down\”.

    If I have misconstrued the conversation, and all of this is already understood, then I apologize for missing it.

  52. D. Hatch on March 1, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    #50, Aye.

    It\’s embarassing that we, as members of the Church, would pay so much attention to such a bad movie solely because it treats, however inaccurately, Mormonism.

  53. Adam Greenwood on March 1, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks, Manaen. That was great.

    Swenson, you’re muddled. When applied to rape, ‘death before rape’ would have nothing to do with sin, because there’s no sin in being raped. The idea, rather, would be that the integrity of one’s person is so precious that it would be better to risk death rather than have that integrity violated. But this is a hyperbolic cost-benefit calculus that has nothing to do with sin. There would be no need for Joseph F. Smith to “forgive” anything because there would be nothing to forgive. Comparing Joseph F. Smith to Islamic “honor” killings is much more of a smear than it is a helpful comparison.

    Anyway, in the film “death before dishonor” isn’t about avoiding rape. Its about avoiding sin. “Death before being a rapist” sounds like good sense to me.

    Benjamin,
    its an old heresy, as old as Christianity, that we should sin because repentance brings us closer to Christ. But Christ’s purpose is to make you the kind of person who doesn’t sin, like himself. You get close to him by not sinning, not the other way around. Don’t worry that you won’t have any chances to be grateful to Christ. You’ll sin sooner or later, and in the meantime there’s always suffering.

  54. gst on March 1, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    This topic brings to mind an exchange from one of my favorite movies:

    Everett: Why are you telling our gals that I was hit by a train?
    Penny: Lots of respectable people been hit by trains. Judge Hobby over in Cookville was hit by a train. What was I supposed tell ‘em, that you were sent to the penal farm and I divorced you from shame?
    Everett: Uh, I take your point. But it does put me in a damned awkward position vis-a-vis my progeny.

  55. queuno on March 2, 2008 at 2:42 am

    My father repeatedly intoned that if any of his children were to get married outside of the temple, not to invite him.

    I have a grandmother who proudly tells people that *none* of her grandchildren have ever had problems with their faith.

    I think that sometimes statements like those cause their family members pressure to conform not because they want to, but because they *have* to. I frequently tell my IT clients that an engineer shouldn’t get credit for being right if he was right for the wrong reasons.

  56. East Coast on March 2, 2008 at 10:37 am

    “I have a grandmother who proudly tells people that *none* of her grandchildren have ever had problems with their faith.”

    That’s funny. I wonder what she would define as a “problem with … faith”? I wonder if she means that her grandchildrens’ behavior has been culturally appropriate or that their innermost beliefs have never wavered?

    I can hardly imagine that a grandmother would have comprehensive access to either of those areas of her grandchildrens’ lives.

    Maybe she is a magical thinker: if you say something is true enough times, it will be.

  57. Alison Moore Smith on March 3, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    We saw States on opening night due to a request from Dutcher’s wife who was in my homeschool group.

    With the exception of the contrast drawn between the priesthood circle in a confirmation and the circle of thugs in a gang murder, I found most of the movie preachy, agenda-driven, and full of misrepresentations–which pretty much describes my opinion of most of his movies. (Anyone else notice how the gang member with the implied murders under his belt was cleared for baptism by a senior companion?)

    Honestly, Dutcher is about the last thing I want to discuss anymore, so count me out. But if you want to talk about Bonneville, I might chime in.

  58. Darrell on March 3, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    #54 gst. That is one of my favorite movies as well. I am reminded of another line:
    “Damn, we’re in a tight spot.”

  59. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Threadjack continuation: That really is an amazing movie. The twisted visual imagery alone is priceless.

  60. Jonovitch on March 3, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    And thus we see that those who hear the sirens’ song and succumb to their enticings will be turned into toads.

    Jon

  61. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Sin does tend to expose our spiritual warts.

    There are certain movies that can be used to comment on any topic whatsoever. This one and The Princess Bride are perhaps the best examples.

  62. Darrell on March 3, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    And anyone who doesn’t believe that is dumber than a bag of hammers.

  63. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    or, when he talks, stammers

    Sorry; I’ll stop now.

  64. Homer on March 3, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Stop rhyming, I mean it!!

  65. Jonovitch on March 3, 2008 at 7:25 pm

    And thus we see that those who seek after treasures that do not exist are men of constant sorrow.

    Jon

  66. Ray on March 3, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    I think I might wait to comment further on this thread until tomorrow. (So much for that resolution.)

  67. Sonny on March 3, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    #64. We must conclude your remark with what you have been expecting…..

    Does anybody want a peanut!?

  68. Cicero on March 4, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    “Death before Dishonor” is not uniquely Mormon.

    While my father would never say such a thing (he’s more of the, “Just come back alive” encouragement, because he already knows that honor drives his children’s lives), I can tell you that the idea of “death before dishonor” is never the less a heavy presence in my childhood. Simply because of my family’s strong Germanic roots.

    Many cultures have developed such feelings. The point is that Death is preferable to Dishonor- not that Suicide negates Dishonor, which is the error here.

    If you dishonor yourself suicide does not negate that dishonor (only the Japanese seem to have that cultural idea). First of all, most cultures identify Suicide itself as dishonorable. Secondly, dying after dishonoring yourself just means you now have no chance at redeeming your honor. So unless your death is actually some heroic attempt to redeem yourself it just doesn’t follow that dishonoring yourself demands you seek your death. Now if honor is properly important to you, you will most likely wish you were dead, but seeking death instead of redemption is just an act of cowardice.

    So the comment: ‘better you come home dead than dishonored’ rings true- it’s how that becomes a motivation for suicide that confuses me.

  69. Adam Greenwood on March 4, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Excellent points, Cicero, though your nom de plume’s people, the Romans, also had the cultural idea that suicide could redeem dishonor.

  70. Cicero on March 4, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Actually I don’t think the Roman suicides were about dishonor.

    It was about legal systems and protecting family inheritances.

    Most of the time Dictators/Emperors got rid of opponents by having them proscribed. This basically meant that any person killing the proscribed was absolved of murder and would receive as a reward the wealth of the proscribed Roman.

    So by committing suicide a Roman could protect his family from losing their inheritance.

  71. Bryan Stout on March 6, 2008 at 11:00 am

    When I was in grad school in the 80′s, my home teachers told me about a recent female student convert they also home taught, who was disturbed at having read President Kimball’s statement that women should defend their chastity to the death. They shared with her the idea that a prophet is not necessarily inspired in all of their statements, and that they personally would rather have their wives raped and alive than dead. I shared with them the story I had read in the Daily Universe in the late 70′s about a coed who was assaulted: the Spirit prompted her to submit to the rape, and she didn’t resist. The assailant was eventually caught, and the police discovered he had raped several women, and killed those who resisted; so they could tell the convert woman the Lord also shared their priorities. I hope she was able to internalize the concept that prophets are inspired but not infallible.

    It can be a tricky thing to separate false concepts from true. The gospel value of chastity resonates strongly with the cultural idea that rape is a fate worse than death, but that doesn’t make it true. I wonder what cultural baggage we believe today that future generations will have to discard.

    The truth behind the “death before dishonor” idea is that the length of one’s life is not nearly as important as the virtue lived during it — and I mean “virtue” to mean all good character traits, not just chastity. But the statement “I would rather see you return home in a casket than in dishonor” is a distortion of that truth. It goes too far, because returning home from a mission in dishonor is not the same as living one’s whole life in dishonor. There would still be much opportunity for repentance and a virtuous life afterward — just as for Corianton. And it is prone to misinterpretation, as Elder Farrell did in the film. It is illogical as well wrong, but I can completely understand how someone might act that way: faulty gospel understanding, dysfunctional relationships, the buffetings of Satan, and the self-destructive logic of depression could all play a part in suicidal behavior.

  72. Darrell on March 6, 2008 at 11:54 am

    I do not think that Pres. Kimball was uninspired in his statement. I believe that all people should defend their chastity. However, chastity resides in the heart not in other body parts.

    I don’t think that I say this strongly enough. When a person is raped they have NOT lost their chastity. They have NOT lost their virtue. They have NOT lost their honor. All accountability and responsibility lies with the rapist. Honor, chastity, virtue are all spiritual states and not physical. As I counsel with people who have suffered rape or abuse this is a point that I try to drive home. I do not have references before me now but I believe that Pres. Kimball taught the same thing. I contend that when the scriptures (BOM) refers to chastity being robbed they are only pointing out the depravity of the sinner not the physical status of the victim.

  73. Adam Greenwood on March 6, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    But the statement “I would rather see you return home in a casket than in dishonor” is a distortion of that truth. It goes too far, because returning home from a mission in dishonor is not the same as living one’s whole life in dishonor.

    What I hear you saying here, in effect, is that a sin that would otherwise would be unjustified can be justified if we think we might be able to repent of it. This is the real distortion of truth.

  74. Bryan Stout on March 6, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    I am definitely not saying that “a sin that would otherwise would be unjustified can be justified if we think we might be able to repent of it”. I agree that that is a real and gross distortion of truth. See here for a completely different context (BoardGameGeek) where I went out of my way to criticize the “I can repent later, so I’ll sin now” idea. (I’m “Barliman”.)

    When I called the statement “I would rather see you return home in a casket than in dishonor” a distortion, I did not mean a heresy, but a misstatement, that whose intent can be more easily misinterpreted. Please don’t misinterpret my own statement. :)

    I am not attacking President Kimball. Among all those whom I have never met, I have not loved and respected anyone more than Spencer W. Kimball. But I do disagree with the idea that rape is worse than death, and that rape should always be resisted to the death. (I am not saying women should always submit to rape, either. It’s a case-by-case issue.)

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