Evil Speaking

August 21, 2008 | 59 comments
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In the Old Testament God likens his relationship to the House of Israel as that of a bridegroom to his wife. In the New Testament, the Church is described as the bride of Christ. The choice of the image of marriage, it seems to me, is hardly accidental. It provides, I think, the background for the commandments against speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed and by extension — I believe — the Lord’s Church.

Belief and membership — the two ideas that we use most commonly when thinking about our relationship to the Church — are, it strikes me, far too thin to capture what is really at work in it. Belief implies that what is primarily at stake is assent to a set of propositions. Membership is a bit better in that it nods toward the social dimension of the relationship, but membership tells us nothing about the level of reciprocity or commitment involved. I am a member of the Oman family, a member of the Virginia Bar, a member of my HOA. These are very different sorts of membership.

Marriage is a much richer concept. To be a member of a marriage is to have a very thick set of obligations, affections, and relationships. It is also to have a fierce commitment to the maintenance of the relationship with its obligations and affections. We go on dates with our spouses, but not our HOA. We entwine our lives and souls and (no twittering please) bodies with our spouses.

We also hold our tongues.

A marriage in which a wife or husband yammers on continually about the faults of her or his partner is not a healthy marriage. To be sure, there may be deep reserves or affection that allow outbursts of frustration or pique. But constant and consistent fault finding — even if honestly done and accurately documented — is corrosive for a marriage. Indeed, often it is precisely the accuracy of a spouses intimately acquired knowledge that makes his criticisms and attacks particularly biting and corrosive. Anyone who has been married learns enough about his wife or her husband to be able to make the most devastating barbs.

Nor does the fact that one’s beloved does not hear one’s criticisms make them harmless. The man who continually berates his wife in the sanctity of the locker-room or the woman who digs at her husband with her friends is, also undermining their marriage. Affection requires both the recognition and the self-deception that one’s beloved is unique and uniquely desirable. Desire, however, can be immolate itself on our mental and verbal habits.

Faithful Latter-day Saints, it seems to me, are in some sense married to the Church and the Restoration. We have a relationship with it and with one another, a thick satisfying relationship filled with the complexity of affection, commitment, and knowledge. A healthy marriage, however, requires a healthy dose of self-censorship. We do not want to alienate our affections and our commitments to the Gospel, the Church, and the community of the Saints. The Romantics were wrong about love. It is not simply a passion or a mania that assaults one. Affection is also a virtue, that like other virtues requires cultivation, self-discipline, and habit.

The trick, of course, is that healthy marriages can also thrive on an affectionate understanding of our beloveds foibales and deepest flaws. And these things can be profitably discussed, but it is a difficult and dangerous enterprise. Even so, a man who habitually engages in evil speaking of his wife, cannot raise truth as a defense. His marriage will suffer regardless.

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59 Responses to Evil Speaking

  1. ed42 on August 21, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Married to the Church and the Restoration? Are you kidding? We include God in our marriage via prayer and worship and trying to become one with. I can’t have a relationship (nor be ‘entwined’) with the Church, nor the Restoration – these are inanimate objects, they don’t accept love nor return it. Sorry, don’t buy it.

  2. E on August 21, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Very insightful and thought-provoking post. Thanks.

  3. adcama on August 21, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Nate, it seems that you’ve described only one half of an equitible, healthy marriage relationship. While it may be true that wife or husband shouldn’t yammer on continually about the faults of her or his partner, her or his partner should also recognize and honestly deal with (try to work through/address/not ignore/man up to/cowboy up to) honest and legitimate criticisms directed toward him/her. Criticisms and issues that are relevant….issues that are or may become harmful to or drive a wedge in the relationship need to be addressed directly and openly WITHIN that special relationship of trust.

    Finding out something about a spouse that is relevant and potentially harmful from an ex-girlfriend, for example, isn’t exactly nice.

    Being able to talk about (bring up, work through) difficult things (critical things, not useful truths, mistakes and imperfections) is the the beauty of marriage. But the beauty goes both ways.

  4. Steve Evans on August 21, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Nate, I think adcama rightly points out the limits of the analogy, although your sentiment is great.. It’s true that healthy marriages can require biting one’s tongue (and changing one’s behavior), but not always, and not always by one spouse. Modern relationships just don’t work that way. Perhaps if we are talking about a marriage at the time of Christ?

  5. Eric Russell on August 21, 2008 at 11:45 pm

    Though there are obviously limits to the analogy, I think the key point, “A marriage in which a wife or husband yammers on continually about the faults of her or his partner is not a healthy marriage.” is well spoken. Good post.

  6. sister blah 2 on August 22, 2008 at 12:11 am

    What Steve and Eric said.

  7. blaine on August 22, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Excellent.

  8. Sara Greenwood on August 22, 2008 at 7:15 am

    Thank you, Nate. Once again, I don’t think you could have put it better.

  9. Velska on August 22, 2008 at 7:22 am

    I think it’s not at all coincidental that Christ chose to allude to himself as a groom and the saints as virgins for his ten virgins parable. Our faithfulness to our spouses is as important as our faithfulness to the Lord.

    The full-time missionaries are taught an important principle that can help in a marriage, too: companionship inventory. You have an opportunity to bring up your concerns in a loving and supportive atmosphere. It requires courage and humility, though.

  10. Nathan Bunker on August 22, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Great post! Thank you!

  11. Kristine on August 22, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Nate, I know this was just supposed to be the semi-annual What’s-Wrong-With-Sunstone post, but I think you might have accidentally gotten at something important. When the 12 have spoken of their marriages publicly, they’ve usually described something like the model you hint at–they say things like “we’ve never had an argument,” “we never raise our voices to each other,” “she has never spoken an unkind word…” It’s an older model of marriage, but I think that it can work very well, especially for people who grew up with that particular model as an ideal. The ideal of marriage has changed, though, both in the broader (Western?) culture and, to a lesser degree, within the church–people my age and younger grew up with a different model of marriage. The expectation of conflict has increased along with expectations for intense emotional intimacy; we no longer think it’s necessarily a virtue not to express anger or criticism within the relationship.

    I suspect that we’re wrestling in part with this shift in the church–younger people expect to have a relationship with the Church–a marriage, if you will–with a great deal more intimacy, more give-and-take than those of previous generations expected. The Church’s model hasn’t changed, though; it’s still the benevolent and somewhat distant patriarch. Part of the reason people’s criticism spills over into the public sphere is simply that they can’t find a space for that give-and-take within the relationship itself. (I’m not arguing that public venting is a good thing, just suggesting a reason for the overflow of frustration).

  12. Neal Davis on August 22, 2008 at 9:09 am

    So when SSM is legal, what does that do for the analogy? Does the Church have to play very nicely with the Southern Baptist Convention?

  13. Timer on August 22, 2008 at 9:15 am

    I agree with general idea that holding our tongues and/or communicating respectfully and discretely is in most cases better than openly complaining and whining.

    But the analogy just doesn’t work.

    First of all, the Biblical analogy is between Christ and the church, NOT between the church and its members. And I vaguely recall that Christ/Jehovah has, at times, had some pretty harsh words for his church and for the House of Israel. I also don’t think anyone reading the OT would say, “Gee, I’d like to model my marriage on the relationship between Jehovah and the House of Israel.”

    Second, one should caution that similar metaphors have been used by communist parties in China and the Soviet Union (essentially, “The party is your family, and it’s inappropriate to criticize your family”) as well as innumerable corporations, universities, etc. to try to enourage loyalty. I’m generally skeptical of attempts to shelter organizations (of any kind) from criticism by comparing them to families.

    Third, your analogy would also suggest that the Lord (which you take by extension to include the “Lord’s annointed,” which I guess means the higher leadership) should refrain from criticizing the general church membership. It suggests that the lay membership and heirarchy are sort of on equal footing in their rights to instruct and criticize one another, which is probably not what you want to say.

    Of course, all church members with callings are “the Lord’s annointed” in one way or another, and of course “evil speaking” of them is by definition, well, evil… but… I think a better metaphor for relations betwen various members of the church is the whole body of Christ idea. Using this metaphor, it would seem strange for the hand to say, “I’m aware of the mote, but I’m going to refrain from removing it to avoid undermining the eye’s emotional sense of being loved and valued.”

    If you really want a metaphor to express a “Would you all stop endlessly griping about the church’s flaws?” sentiment, you could consider using the army metaphor: at times you have to march silently in lockstep between your captain, but you do so because you are focused on effciently completing a task in a unified way, not because your relationship with your captain is anything like your relationship with your spouse.

  14. Paul on August 22, 2008 at 9:56 am

    To extend Nate’s analogy of marriage, at times a marriage can use some therapy. Perhaps because one or both spouses talk past each other, keep making the same complaints to each other, don’t carefully consider the thoughts and feelings of each other. Whatever. Divorce/withdrawal/excommunication isn’t always the only answer to conflicts.

  15. ECS on August 22, 2008 at 9:58 am

    Kristine said it best, but I’d also add that it’s important to create space for dissent and constructive criticism in any relationship. By your analogy, the only option for those who disagree with a particular policy or administrative decision of the Church is silence (i.e., biting your tongue), or, I assume, exit.

    Instead of faithful dissenters being “difficult and dangerous”, why can’t they instead be “members of the loyal opposition”?

  16. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Kristine: This isn’t a post about Sunstone. It is a post in which I am trying to make sense of covenants and counsel not to speak evil of the Lord’s church. The philosophically liberal model of speech tends to assume that all speech is good because it (1) leads to truth and (2) serve as a check on collective abuse. These, for example, are the premises on which modern free speech jurisprudence in the United States are based, and on the whole I think that it works quite well. On the other hand, it seems to me that within Mormonism we have different notions of speech. The most obviously example is the possiblity of blasephmy, that is speech that is inherently sinful. Injunctions against evil speaking are another. When we use an analogy to the state to understand our relationship to the church the liberal assumptions become natural and the church’s position starts looking sinister and vaguely totalitarian. Given that I don’t think that the church is sinister or totalitarian, this suggests to me that the metaphor and assumptions that we are using don’t quite work. The marriage metaphor is pretty common in the scriptures. I thought I would play around with it.

    I agree with you about different models of marriage, but I would make a couple of observations. First, even under the modern model, we don’t treat our spouse like the state or a liberal citizen. We are careful about how we talk, and we realize that we can say things that undermine our relationship. Second, it is not clear to me that the modern view of marriage is an entire success. You identify it with (1) an expectation of constant and intense intimate connection; and, (2) an expectation of greater conflict and openess about faults. I suspect that both expectations are off. Intense and intimate connection is a central part of marriage, I think, but I suspect that the modern emphasis on it as you identify it down plays the importance of marriage as a social, economic, duty-driven institution. I also think that the emphasis on openness and discussion tends to value discourse at the expense of emotional habit. I think that habits are a tremendously important and undervalued glue in marriages and other relationships. I also think that it is niave to assume that what we say doesn’t impact how we habitually feel.

    This is not a brief for white washed silence, etc. etc. My point, however, is that in thinking about how we conduct such discussions we need to pay attention to a set of concerns that outstrip the liberal conception of speech. In particular, we need to find ways of carrying on discussions in ways that do not undermine affection, and that there are times when self-censorship may be an important way of maintaining one’s affective habits.

  17. Kristine on August 22, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Nate, I actually don’t disagree with you very much. I also think that contemporary, psychotherapy-informed models of relationships often leave a great deal to be desired, and, like you (I think?) I lament the loss of certain customs of self-restraint and courtesy. I don’t think that one model of marriage is better than the other, only that the (often unspoken) ideals one carries around about how relationships should look can really wreak havoc in situations where not everyone is working with the same model.

    And you know me well enough to know I’m actually more conservative elitist snob than liberal free speech advocate ;)

  18. Kristine on August 22, 2008 at 10:29 am

    ECS–I actually hate the notion of a “loyal opposition” in the Church. It creates division and an adversarial relationship between members where none should exist. We’re all both loyal and opposite the church–we just sin in different ways (unrighteous dominion vs. rebellion and pride). It’s unfortunate that the current administrative structure tends to punish one much more than the other, but the ideal is still that of a body, where it makes no sense for the elbows to be “loyally opposed” to the eyes. (Thumbs, maybe??)

  19. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 10:32 am

    ECS: Congratulations! You have misunderstood what I said. My point is that we never say anything critical. My point is that we be sensitive to the fact that how we talk breeds habits about how we feel, and that we weigh the affective costs of our speech. In that weighing, sometimes — often perhaps — self-censorship will be the better choice.

  20. Mark IV on August 22, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Thanks, Nate. This is a good post.

    I have two observations. First, if we think that there are some unlovely things about the church about which we ought to hold our tongues (I think that assumption is implicit in your post), we are already several giant steps beyond the point many of us are comfortable with. To even acknowledge the possibility of fault is seen as an act of disloyalty.

    Second, the church can be thought of as an institution, but it can also be thought of as the people who belong to the institution. The following things about the ward members of my are all true:
    1. They should be more reverent.
    2. They should be more faithful.
    3. They all need to repent.
    4. The should read the scriptures more.
    If I choose to say these truthful things, I might imagine to myself that I am being loyal to the institution by attempting to strengthen it. But I am being disloyal to the people in the institution.

  21. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 10:35 am

    Ooops, Typo in my last, which should read “My point is NOT that we never say anything critical.”

  22. ECS on August 22, 2008 at 10:39 am

    LOL. Guess I’ll let you two finish your conversation then.

  23. Julie M. Smith on August 22, 2008 at 10:39 am

    “First, if we think that there are some unlovely things about the church about which we ought to hold our tongues (I think that assumption is implicit in your post), we are already several giant steps beyond the point many of us are comfortable with. To even acknowledge the possibility of fault is seen as an act of disloyalty.”

    OK, but in the real world even the truest of the bluest Mormons are going to sometimes come upon people, policies, implementations of policies, etc., that are looney. And I think what Nate was trying to do here was to give them a narrative that they could use for working through those thoughts, since the only narrative our culture gives is to pull out the soapbox and the bull horn.

  24. Ray on August 22, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Good post, Nate.

    I have some deeply held opinions on this general topic, but I have a hard time expressing them properly, so I will stick with a simple thanks for the post.

  25. Rory on August 22, 2008 at 10:41 am

    “The most obviously example is the possiblity of blasephmy, that is speech that is inherently sinful. Injunctions against evil speaking are another. When we use an analogy to the state to understand our relationship to the church the liberal assumptions become natural and the church’s position starts looking sinister and vaguely totalitarian.”

    But when the blasphemy or evil speaking is defined by only one of the parties involved, wouldn’t you say that is does begin to look vaguely totalitarian?

    I do think you are correct in pointing out that repetitive criticism and venting undermines the relationship, and the disloyalty corrodes not only the trust between the parties but the feelings of affection within the complaining party. Over time it is incredibly damaging, and can certainly become beyond repair. However, as other comments have pointed out, there is a need to address the issues, there is a need for a space to speak the problems.

    If this is not a brief for a white-wash, then I think you actually raise some important questions, so I would ask: How might we carry on such discussions in ways that do not undermine affection? Do you have something definitive, either proscriptive or prescriptive, in mind?

  26. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 10:45 am

    “But when the blasphemy or evil speaking is defined by only one of the parties involved, wouldn’t you say that is does begin to look vaguely totalitarian?”

    No.

  27. BruceC on August 22, 2008 at 10:52 am

    Doesn’t the kind of relationship in which one partner ignores the other’s faults require that the faults be seen? If the husband is sneaking out to go bowling, and hides it, this dishonesty is more damaging to the relationship than the complaining about leaving the toilet seat up. In my marriage, when an issue comes up we ask the question “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Usually the answer is “No!” but unless I know what I am picking from how is it a choice? But in the absence of more troubling issues, we do exactly what you describe. We pretend the issues are small even when we feel they are not. The result is a better relationship. Not because the issues go away, but because we feel the issues go away. In the end the relationship is more important than whether the kitchen cabinets were left open. But the relationship is worthless if I spend the rent money on a new truck. Some things should not be ignored.

  28. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 10:54 am

    “How might we carry on such discussions in ways that do not undermine affection? Do you have something definitive, either proscriptive or prescriptive, in mind?”

    Not really. Forced to hazard a couple of ideas, here’s what I’ve got. First, reject the notion that your speaking of faults is always virtuous because it contributes to the cause of truth or guards against the abuse of power. Acknowledge deep down in your soul that sometimes for your own good it is best if you just shut up. Second, realize that criticism constitutes a kind of withdrawal from one’s reserves of affection. If the reserves are low, perhaps it is better to hold your tongue. Trying to have a reasonable and productive discussion of your husband’s faults when you are angry is probably not a good idea.

    Note, my view necessarily downplays the value of catharsis and looks askance at the Freud-inspired notion that pyschosis is the inevitable result of repressed sentiment. It places emphasis on the necessity of cultivating habits and affections.

    I prefer the garden to the pyschologist’s couch as therapy.

  29. gst on August 22, 2008 at 11:04 am

    “Acknowledge deep down in your soul that sometimes for your own good it is best if you just shut up.”

    Just how far into the future has T&S paid its server hosting fees, and what is the refund policy?

  30. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 11:07 am

    gst: touche…

  31. Mark IV on August 22, 2008 at 11:22 am

    Julie (23),

    Exactly right. That is what I meant to say, and that is why I think this post is valuable.

  32. Steve Evans on August 22, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Nate, you don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.

    Seriously, why the disdain for Romanticism, catharsis, and therapists? These are recurring themes of yours. I suspect it all stems from poor grades in Lit Crit.

  33. BrianJ on August 22, 2008 at 12:27 pm

    Nate: “In particular, we need to find ways of carrying on discussions in ways that do not undermine affection, and that there are times when self-censorship may be an important way of maintaining one’s affective habits.”

    I completely agree with that statement, but like others find the marriage analogy far too troubling to be useful. For starters, the LDS Church is not eternal, whereas my marriage is. Perhaps a better analogy is to equate the Church with the house in which I live with my wife: we will not live here forever, and there are some flaws (things that need fixing-up), but for now it is my home—a place my wife and I clean, mend, maintain, etc., and complaining about how much I dislike the pantry doesn’t help anyone.

  34. Nate Oman on August 22, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    “I suspect it all stems from poor grades in Lit Crit.”

    No. In grade school I was beaten up by big beefy kids wielding heavy tomes of Freud and Stanley Fish ;->

  35. MattG on August 22, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Not to start a threadjack, but I think the military analogy in #13, it seems more applicable from my own experience.There is no shortage of griping in the military (in fact I think they have mastered the art), but for the sake of cohesiveness and unity of purpose, it is usually griping amongst themselves, and rarely open rebellion against their leadership. That’s why mutiny and rebellion is such a serious crime in the military. If there is no unity, the purposes will fail every time. The officers in charge of the lower ranks usually have access to more information and know the “bigger picture” of what’s going on. They don’t always explain why they’re choosing to make the decisions they do — often this is by necessity, but sometimes its just oversight, and sometimes there’s simply not enough time to explain every thing they’re asking their troops to do. However, good leaders will solicit input and opinion from their troops and colleagues, and taking that into consideration with the knowledge they’re getting from those above them, will do what they think is best. In order for it to work, the troops need to trust that the officers know what they’re doing, and understand that there’s some knowledge that they don’t have access to. I know this is not a complete metaphor for the Church, but I think it hits pretty close. We should trust that our leaders are doing their best to receive revelation with regard to their decisions, and, when appropriate, we should give them our own perceptions and input, but then shut up and let them use their agency to make the decision they think is best, for good or bad. I think both the marriage and military analogies have the common thread that when you are part of something that you have pledged devotion to, you must remain loyal to the overall purpose of it and yet provide critique and improvement where it’s appropriate, as I think Julie has pointed out very well.

  36. CS Eric on August 22, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    Another, probably unintended, way that this analogy works is that it helps explain a lot of the bitterness after the breakup. Sure, some marriages end amicably, but the bitter divorce is so common that it is beyond cliche.

  37. mike on August 22, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I reject the analogy of being married to the church on two grounds:

    1. Although Joseph Smith described a religion: that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power to save; the current church doesn’t want my whole heart and soul in the same way that a wife wants it. What they want is really not much; essentially to just keep quiet, complete a few simple assignments and sit in the corner. (Pay and obey.)

    2.If a wife had been as mean to my kids as “the church” (certain members of my ward) has been to them, it would be grounds for a divorce.

    I have observed that many of the problems in the ward are related to unclear boundaries. The ward family; Bishop as father of the ward; etc. My family is better and worse and all around different than my ward. To compare our relationship to the church (which for me is the ward) to a marriage and then to continue further and draw inferences about whether to voice criticisms or not, this is just too many long leaps that make no sense to me. Sorry Nate, thumbs down from me this time.

    I try to find good things going on at church and support them. I try to ignore and avoid that which is irritating. Easy to do to at church, impossible to do in a marriage.

    Footnotes:
    1. I agree in general with Nate’s underlying point, that generally we could be more discrete and polite in the way that we communicate with each other.
    2.I tend to shoot off my big mouth when I shouldn’t. Especially on this site. (I’m a hypocrite).
    3. Most marriages end in divorce in modern society. Do we want a similar number of church relationships to end in excommunication?

  38. Randy B. on August 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    No analogy is perfect, but I think BrianJ’s equating of the Church to a house (as opposed to a spouse) in #33 has a lot too it. Even with Kristine’s eloquent attempt at rehabilitation in #11, the thought that my most intimate and close relationship is with the institutional Church and not God just leaves me cold.

  39. TrevorM on August 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Nate, great points, great post.

  40. Chino Blanco on August 22, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    I appreciate that it’s still August, but already can’t help wondering: when does this all stop being about everyone except the folks most affected by our keeping our lips sealed?

  41. Velska on August 22, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Negativity and open discourse are two different things. Fault-finding is too easy to be considered constructive. It’s always easier to tear down than build up.

    The leaders of our church are not perfect. But calling the media hounds to get their attention goes a long way to alienate them from your cause.

    We need to be discreet and courteous in all our relationships. Belligerence is never productive, and someone needs to take the first step in the right direction.

  42. S.L. on August 22, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    “Second, realize that criticism constitutes a kind of withdrawal from one’s reserves of affection. If the reserves are low, perhaps it is better to hold your tongue. Trying to have a reasonable and productive discussion of your husband’s faults when you are angry is probably not a good idea.”

    Am enjoying the overall discussion, but especially wanted to thank Nate for the above line, from comment 28. I think I needed to see it that way, as a withdrawal from reserves of affection. I’d rather be making deposits. Thank you.

  43. Jonovitch on August 22, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    Nate, your post and the subsequent comments have some good insights.

    Criticism is only constructive when both parties have agreed to discuss it at a specific time and when both parties are aware that the purpose is to improve the situation/relationship and to increase understanding and appreciation of the other’s perspective/mindset/opinion. Criticism is always destructive when one party decides it’s his/her job to force the other party to listen to a whole list of faults right now!

    In the first case, both parties are listening and actively trying to understand what the other is saying. In the second case, neither party is listening and both usually end up actively defending themselves by throwing up walls and lobbing grenades at the other.

    I think this model is valid in interpersonal (marital) relationships as well as relationships between a member and Church leadership (bishop, stake president, disciplinary council, private meetings with general authorities to discuss SSM, etc.). I think it’s also valid in international diplomatic relationships.

    You just can’t yell and gripe and complain and correct and chastise all day long at someone and expect that they’re listening to you (they’ve long since tuned you out and have instead begun to actively avoid you). Such behavior does nothing to develop in them a desire to change; rather it creates the opposite effect. Real change is only possible through real concern, that is, love, that is, self-sacrifice for the sake of the other person.

    When you care enough to set aside your own motives and instead do everything you can to truly understand the other person, that is when love and concern is felt, and that is when the other person will begin to want to change. Sometimes, as Nate put it, the best thing is to get over yourself, just shut up, and start listening to what the other person actually said. Then after they said it, restate it, asking if that’s what they meant. Then let them explain it again, and you restate it again, always looking for more clarification.

    It sounds patronizing but it’s not. It’s actually a very effective method to dramatically reduce the heat of an argument — sometimes the effect is quite magical. All it takes is for one side to stop plugging their ears and yelling “La la la! I’m not listening” and then to sincerely inquire about what the other person actually means (which might include internal images and preconceived notions spanning back to childhood — really). When one person engages in active listening with the intent to understand, the outcome is surprising. When both people actively pursue understanding of the other…well, let me know what happens then. I’ve never gotten that far. :)

    Jon

  44. DavidH on August 22, 2008 at 6:24 pm

    “your analogy would also suggest that the Lord (which you take by extension to include the ‘Lord’s annointed,’ which I guess means the higher leadership) should refrain from criticizing the general church membership.”

    I personally believe that the injunction to avoid “speaking evil” of the Lord’s annointed applies as much when I serve as a leader as when I serve as a follower. For example, harsh words from a leader to a congregation can violate the principle against “speaking evil” as much as can harsh words from a member to a leader. In other words, one of my favorite hymns, “Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words” applies to leaders and to nonleaders.

  45. greenfrog on August 22, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    When it comes to evaluating whether my words comprise “evil speaking,” I like to consider how Gandhi interacted with the governments of South Africa and India.

    Perhaps marriage in Jesus’ era provided the right metaphor then, but I’m skeptical that a modern marriage model would really fulfill my obligations to the Church members whom I support and sustain.

    My marriage is so terrifically important to my own craven selfishness that I act, sometimes, in ways that are more colored by my desire to preserve to myself the relationship with my wife than by my desire for my wife’s welfare. I don’t think I’m alone in deriving selfish value from my marriage.

    But as a practical matter, both my wife and the Church might be benefitted by my dealing with them less on the basis of my selfish attachment to value I derive from them and more on the basis of how I can best serve the interests of all involved.

    In many cases, I’m sure that means keeping silent when I might otherwise speak.

    But in some cases, I’m equally sure that it means speaking when every self-serving instinct I have tells me to keep silent.

  46. Eric Russell on August 22, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    MattG, some good points there, but the church doesn’t issue a Page 11 for minor insubordination. The relationship’s a bit different.

  47. Rory on August 22, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Nate,

    I’d like to take off on your ideas in #28:

    “First, reject the notion that your speaking of faults is always virtuous because it contributes to the cause of truth or guards against the abuse of power. Acknowledge deep down in your soul that sometimes for your own good it is best if you just shut up.”

    Certainly – it would be folly to think that speaking of faults is _always_ virtuous. But sometimes it can be. And sometimes it’s best to shut up.

    “Second, realize that criticism constitutes a kind of withdrawal from one’s reserves of affection. If the reserves are low, perhaps it is better to hold your tongue.”

    This is an excellent observation. If we are truly interested in the institution, our finding of fault and speaking out should be in a spirit of healthy change. Sometimes we need to vent, but excessive venting depletes not only your own reserve of affection, it depletes the patience of those you are venting against. We need to ensure that our own bank has enough to afford the withdrawal, and those deposits include service, activity, involvement, and defending when appropriate. A full withdrawal, of fully disengaging, is a rather quick way to deplete the affection on both sides and permanently alter the relationship.

    I would add a third idea to effective and beneficial criticism – beneficial for both sides – and that is to provide venues that model effective and healthy modes of criticism for people to observe and follow. The absence of a good venue for criticism will not stop criticism. But the presence of a venue with mature criticism that effectively demonstrates how to follow ideas such as your first and second will ultimately cultivate a culture that knows how, when, and when not to criticize.

    I don’t see such a venue within the institution today. For that, we need to look elsewhere.

  48. Sterling on August 23, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Are we supposed to reprove with sharpness when moved upon by the Spirit? Are we supposed to follow the Lord’s example and chastise those we love? Where does righteous anger fit into this marriage metaphor?

  49. NOYDMB on August 23, 2008 at 12:15 am

    Nate, Incredible post.
    Thanks for these great ideas.

    Could it be that some who blare the loudest with their discontent with the church aren’t trying to be understood but are trying to change the Church? Could it be, that most leaders (and many members) consider trying to change the church to our personal viewpoints to be wrong (steadying the ark, etc.)?

    I feel sorry for those who don’t have a closer relationship to the church like Nate described, and instead feel alienated and feel like the church only wants your actions. Since I felt the spirit testify the Church is true, I try and give everything to the Church because I know this Church is lead by Christ. If you don’t feel that relationship, that brings me sadness.

    While we may be in the learning stage, I hope we can continue to explore the ideal, rather than claiming “the ideal is no longer possible.” While modern philosphies have changed, I hope everyone here would still agree that “with God, nothing shall be impossible.”

  50. quin on August 26, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Nate,

    Your post caught my mind and heart and caused me to read and study a bit because while I agreed with your analogy, something felt “off” in some of the responses and yet I wasn’t sure why…until this morning. (God occasionally allows His brilliant truth to shine through the smog in my brain and these precious glimmers give me hope that He is still working on me.) Here’s what came in that quiet shining moment-

    We (as members) are not the bride. We are members of the wedding party (ten virgins parable) that have been invited to the wedding ceremony and attending feast as guests of the groom. We have been invited only to prepare ourselves for the grand occasion and tell the world about the upcoming wedding so that others might prepare themselves and fill their lamps while they wait. Those foolish guests who show up with too little oil in their lamps end up without light when it is darkest and end up lost and looking for more at a time when all the shops are closed because those who had oil to give are busy making wedding preparations.

    Perhaps these guests spent too much time criticizing the bride, where she came from, her manner of speech, the way she acts in public, who her friends are…her every move…when they should have been silent and making adequate plans for their own attendance at her wedding.

    We might even be children of the marriage, but we are certainly not one of the spouses. We have no place telling the Groom/Father how to talk to His wife or what to tell her to do, nor do we have the right to demand that the Bride/Mother isn’t listening to the Groom/Father or to insinuate that she is unworthy of Him.

    I’m sure you can flesh it all out more, and I must run. But my mind is clear that part of the reason why evil speaking is indeed evil, is because we have been deluded into thinking that WE are more important to the wedding party than we are-as evidenced by how the Lord responds to the returning foolish virgins after the wedding party has entered the feast and they come knocking on His door…

  51. SusanS on August 26, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Nate,
    Still trying to work through this marriage image. Who is the woman? The church. Of course, I’m assuming, you’re assuming, there is a man and a woman here. All that talk about marriage being between a man and a woman.

    Of course this gets complicated very quickly. Can we flip the church as a man/ woman, depending on the place the person thinking about this stands. Or can we think about this as same sex? Can my church be a woman, as yours is a woman? What do I do?

    A person who is very serious about her metaphors and analogies. . . . . .

  52. Nate Oman on August 27, 2008 at 10:55 am

    I am not sure how to figure out the answer to these questions until I can see what the cash value is, so to speak, of nailing down the details. In my thinking marriage is an analogy rather than an allegory, so at some point I am perfectly content to say that the comparison breaks down and simple be grateful for what insight was provided while it worked.

  53. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 27, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I would chime in with MattG’s comment (#35) comparing the Church to a military organization. I spent 20 years in the Air Force, and as a JAG officer was often involved in enforcing the rules, and occasionally kicking out those who broke the rules.

    One enters the military through a very deliberate and public act that involves an oath and a covenant, specifically a promise to defend the United States, to uphold the Constitution, and to obey the orders of one’s superiors in rank. Defending the United States is the goal and standard to which all of the people and material means at their disposal are dedicated. Upholding the Constitution means that the means for defending the USA will be lawful, and will be subject to the authority of elected officials chosen by the sovereign people at large, not by some military junta. Obeying orders means putting your time, talents and tools at the disposal of the hierarchy of commanders over you, who will give you assignments that may range from simple (“Shoot at that”) to complex (“Win this war”).

    This oath is enforced by various laws and regulations and structures. One cannot quit or resign at will during a period of enlistment, or during a period of obligated service (for officers), without providing justification that is adjudged valid. To break the oath during any time that one is still under its obligations is to incur serious penalties. The military is about the only place where you can go to jail for not showing up to work. The effectiveness of the whole depends on the reliability of the individuals.

    One thing that is emphasized in military training, and in the education about armed conflict, is that a poor plan, that is well executed, is almost always going to produce better results than a brilliant plan that is poorly executed. All too often, because of the exigencies of time, and the need for preventing information from leaking to the enemy, or even the simple lack of complete information, those in the military must execute orders with far less than full understanding of the basis for the orders. To insist that we will not act until WE agree that the orders are a good idea would destroy the capacity to achieve any objective. Often, in the fog of battle, it is the minute-by-minute decisions of those executing the plan that determine how successful it is. Indeed, many people without military experience seem to think that soldiers are automatons, programmed with an order, who do no thinking on their own, but the opposite is true. Orders generally cannot be overly detailed, and a great deal is left to the discretion and judgment of those executing the general plan.

    I see a lot of points of analogy between how an effective military organization works, and how the Church works. That is especially true because we have no career clergy in the Church. Literally, we are ALL enlisted (or commissioned). While some are temporarily in a higher position in the chain of command, there is always the potential that anyone in a subordinate position today may be in a higher position tomorrow. We depend on each other to carry part of the burden for supporting each other in the Church.

    There are channels for raising concerns and complaints and even accusations in the military, just as there are in the Church. The military is NOT organized to assume that the organization relies on any individual being above criticism or even removal. All are accountable to the nation and its laws, and there is no obligation to obey an unlawful order. Contrary to the assumptions of many in the public, in my view the people who are most prepared to refuse an unlawful order are those who are professional military people. Those who are most likely to be willing to cede all thought on the question to a superior are the less experienced, members of reserve units or (in a past century) a militia. I think that it is similarly true that members who are less mature in their understanding of the gospel are the ones most inclined toward thinking that obedience must be unquestioning (maturity and length of time as a member are not the same thing).

    One mark of a mature member of the Church, in my view, is that he or she can place him or her self in the position of the leader making a decision, and understand that even the best leaders must make a decision with less than full information, and rely on those they lead to execute their decision in the most intelligent and righteous manner possible. The humility of leaders that is one of the great messages of Section 121 is also hallmark of the good military leaders I have known. Often our leaders might agree with many of our criticisms, but they may also believe that there is no perfect option.

    In the crunch, military leaders depend on informed guesses, while we in the Church hope that we will be inspired when we make decisions in the dark. Time and again we only appreciate the wisdom of a decision after it has been carried out. Both organizations ask those who execute decisions to have faith and trust in their leaders. Both organizations, frankly, are unapologetic about asking for God’s help in the outcome, no matter how fumbling we are as individuals or organizations.

  54. Sam on August 28, 2008 at 8:49 am

    Nate-

    You\’ve hit on some ideas I\’ve been thinking about for a while. I think the spouse analogy is sufficient but not necessary: the key point is to find an analogy letting us speak about the Church the same way we talk about anyone with \”thick\” relations, say, a close family member or friend.

    It\’s probably un-kosher to give a long quote in the comments, but this is F.A.Hayek on why our ethics – and thus, too, our manner of speech – must necessarily be schitzophrenic:

    \”We must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.\”

    I\’ve felt for a while that an integral part of building Zion is to expand the role of micro-cosmos ethics, where love, \”thick\” relations and reciprocity are viable, and diminish that of the macro-cosmos, where behavior is often decent but always driven by self-interest.

    Part of this is building institutions that apply micro-cosmos principles to the macro-cosmos: a private welfare system, the Elders Quorum Moving Service, the United Order. Part of it is encouraging micro-cosmos relations in the macro-cosmos (e.g. Henry B. Eyring, \”To Find And Keep A Mentor\”). Part of it is simply building communities so that an individual can spend more time in the micro-cosmos (home, church, with member friends) and less time in the macro-cosmos where individuals have far thinner ties (work, social settings like bars).

    Like you said, \”we don\’t treat our spouse like the state or a liberal citizen\” because (s)he is part of the microcosmos whereas the state and other institutions are in the macrocosmos. And you\’re trying to find an analogy that will let you place the Church within the micro-cosmos instead of the macro-cosmos – perhaps partly because of your lived experience that the church is not, \”vaguely totalitarian\”?

    Ultimately, the Church must seem plausible as a loved family member or good friend. The more it is, the more we\’ll restrain evil speaking, the same we would of our little sister. Maybe that\’s a cop-out, but that\’s all I\’ve got.

    Of course, the incomprehension is circular. Because you don\’t see the Church as \”vaguely totalitarian,\” you make this post about evil talking – which outsiders would likely take as further evidence that it is totalitarian.

  55. SPN on August 28, 2008 at 11:11 am

    The idea of a loyal opposition is consistent, or at least tolerable, with the vast majority of faiths. But not Mormonism. A fundamental premise of Mormonism is the ability, indeed the expectation, of receiving personal revelation. We should therefore feel entitled to certainty.

    Too often in the Church we speak of entitlement as being a bad thing–and this is true when referring to things such as material goods, jobs, callings etc. However, we should feel a healthy sense of entitlement to certainty through personal revelation, because that is how the Church claims to have begun.

    Joseph Smith’s foundational experiences in the grove and with Moroni were the result of this same sense of entitlement: He fully expected to receive a clear and certain answer. Now, if loyal oppositionists claim that such answers are not actually receivable, or at least not inherently distinguishable from those received in other faiths, it seems less an objection to the various flaws of Mormonism, and more a rejection of its fundamental premise.

    And yet, I submit that this premise is the same fundamental premise found in the Bible, and rejected by every other Christian faith. The central tension of the Old and New Testaments is the question of whether or not the prophet is actually who he says he is. This is the tension of Noah, of Moses, of Jeremiah, of so many others, and finally, of Christ. No other Christian religion so nearly approximates this same tension as Mormonism. Surely this struggle to reconcile the “prophetic calling” with the “humans called” is evidence itself of Mormonism’s claims.

    It reminds me of some faithful Jew hearing of David’s misdeeds with Bathsheba, and suffering a great trial of faith because of it. Surely God’s prophet could not have done so? Surely a true prophet would not have taken credit for drawing water from a Rock? Surely God’s prophet would not let his sons lie with harlots at the gate of the Temple?

    And yet how wrong it would have been for the contemporary rank and file of the day to throw themselves from the proverbial train for the dalliances of the ticketing agent.

    Furthermore, the socialism argument actually works in favor of the marriage analogy. The efficiencies of the Olympics show how effective a centralized organization can be, even when run corruptly. When Christ comes again, we shall see how a purely righteous dictatorship is run, and it will be a sight to behold. How merciful of the Lord to allow his Church to learn and grow by trying to emulate that model, even though we so often fall short.

    It is true that democracies and absolute freedom of speech would protect and prevent many of the flaws and abuses that are available for complaint in the Church. But we were not sent here to try to live the Terrestrial and succeed alone. We were sent here to try to live the Celestial and succeed with Christ.

    And we are, speaking collectively and not individually.

  56. Researcher on August 28, 2008 at 11:23 am

    “The idea of a loyal opposition is consistent, or at least tolerable, with the vast majority of faiths. But not Mormonism.”

    And that’s a major reason why so many Mormons cannot deal with Harry Reid.

  57. SPN on August 28, 2008 at 11:42 am

    Researcher, you post is a good example of wresting the words of the scriptures. My argument is that there can be no loyal opposition to Mormonism, indeed there should not be, because of the availability of personal revelation.

    And, the argument does not, in my mind, have application to Harry Ried. You have misconstrued the argument and then misapplied it.

    My point is that loyalists to the Church are not ignorant of the swirling winds and cacophony of lightning, but we have taken the invitation to make the laborious trip to the bow of the boat and discovered the Master asleep in the storm.

    Once assured that the boat is not going unde, it is not, therefore, blind or ignorant or daft to make our way back to our seats and try to enjoy the trip with a grin. It is also no longer our duty to point out the mounting waves or ragged sails, but only to do our best to keep our shipmates from throwing themselves overboard, and encourage them to make the trip to the bow themselves.

    The fundamental premise of Mormonism is that we can all make that trip, and like He who slept during the storm, disengage from the scholarly, talmudic dissection of the scriptures and instead “speak as one having authority.”

  58. Researcher on August 28, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Sorry. That was actually a throw-away line based on a post I’d just read elsewhere in the bloggernacle combined with watching Sen Reid speak at the Democratic Convention last night. I apologize for taking your point slightly out of context and introducing politics into a discussion about religion. I would like to clarify, however, that I was not discussing Reid’s relationship with the church, which is something that is his private business; rather his role as one of the heads of the branch of government that has a constitutional mandate to oversee and check the power of the other branches of government.

  59. Stephen Douglas on September 4, 2008 at 3:27 am

    I want to respond to entry #55 about entitlement. If we were entitled to revelation in our time as church history and ancient Biblical and Book of Mormon accounts lead us to believe, then Mark Hofmann would have been discovered by President Kimball just as Ananias and Sapphira were discovered by Peter. During my own years of personal apostasy, as a cop in San Diego, I investigated that case thoroughly, even locating the LDS BATF agent listed under a pseudonym in \”The Mormon Murders.\” When I came back to the Church in 1995, it was not because of a sense of entitlement to personal revelation that brought me back. In fact, it was a sense that even the slightest inspiration is a gift, not an entitlement. My sense of entitlement to revelation and that leadership should be so inspired all the time actually led me away from faith, discounting the GAs as uninspired. Now I know, they have to live by faith and personal growth as well. So, when I hear something with which I disagree, I cut them slack instead of getting offended. Yes, I have to admit two times I know I was inspired. And I thank the Lord for both those times. The first brought me to my sweetheart; the second brought me back to the Church through instantaneously received information that put a hole in secular science no geneticist has been able to refute.