Response to Alison – part II

August 29, 2011 | 27 comments
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Family after Ewa Nuhr's birthHere’s a second post, responding to issues raised in Alison’s Serving on the Sidelines.

Moses 6:59-60:

That by reasons of transgression cometh the fall,

which fall bringeth death,

and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and by blood, and by the spirit, which I have made,

and so became of dust a living soul,

even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven,

of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood,

even the blood of mine Only Begotten;

that ye might be sanctified from all sin,

and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world,

and eternal life in the world to come,

even immortal glory;

for by the water ye keep the commandment;

by the spirit ye are justified,

and by the blood ye are sanctified.

I love these verses. I love the visceral, embodied symbolism. I’ve been personally moved and affected by the connection they make between the atonement and the two births that we undergo in this life – our physical, mortal birth and our rebirth into the kingdom of heaven. These verses are, I think, among the most theologically rich passages in all of our restoration scripture. I’m even conservative and traditional enough to believe that these verses can help us understand the men-hold-the-priesthood dichotomy we’ve maintained in this dispensation. I’m convinced, however, that just as there is an edifying way to invoke them, there is also a pernicious way. Most often I see the latter. As was brought out in comments on Alison’s post, there are those who feel that these verses articulate a divine ordering of women having babies while men hold and exercise the priesthood and lead the church. In addition to it’s various odious implications, I think this interpretation goes clearly and perniciously beyond the content of the passage.

Briefly: these verses apply to the two births – our mortal entrance into the world and our spiritual entrance into the Kingdom of God. That is, I think they can be insightfully read as shedding insight on how both women and men are involved in and carry out the work of atonement and sanctification as they participate in these two births. Note, however, that there is nowhere in these verses a gendering division of duties – no hard and fast declaration that women and only women are involved in the first birth, while men and only men are involved in the second. We read gender roles into these verses for the obvious reason that women physically deliver babies. I’ll discuss below, however, why even this thin interpolation is problematic, and why I think the lack of gender here ought to keep us from inserting such gender ordering, either in our interpretation of the scriptures or in how we carry these things out in our practical lives. When we go beyond what’s actually in the text, we often go very quickly from a beautiful, proportionate interdependence between men and women and the opportunities they have to concretely administer the grace of salvation, to a very disproportionate and even incoherent (or at least very problematic) set of metaphors with very little grounding in what actually happens in our lives. They do not explain why in addition to performing baptisms, men’s priesthood performs all other ordinances, presides over all church councils, functions and activities, and justifies sovereign councils that in principle require no input from women. That’s the pernicious part – when we read these verses as if they do explain this lack of practical and spiritual balance.

One thing that has made these verses so moving in my life has been, of course, the way reality and the symbols articulated in these verses have mutually informed one another and led to spiritual enlightenment. This is where my very vague and abstract sentences demand a bit of illustration. But that’s the difficult part, especially since I don’t know how to articulate the sacredness of my experiences or my understanding, and am particularly conscious of the way that trying to do so might well alienate or otherwise cause hard feelings for those whose experiences have (perhaps necessarily, perhaps because of choice) been very different than my own. Let me preface what follows, then, by emphasizing that I’m attempting to articulate my own experiences and the insights they’ve brought, not dictate or judge others’ experiences.

My wife and I have (mostly) home birthed, with midwives. Beyond that, I have been the one to deliver three of our four children (and helped deliver the fourth). All of the preparation that goes into a home birth, together with the physical training and preparation that my wife does, leads to a very connected and aware sort of delivery. The natural pain and euphoria of birth has been extremely meaningful to her and yielded an instant bond between her and the infant – one that I’m not really competent to describe.

In what I’ve now said I probably already risk alienating others or giving the misperception of a superiority complex that’s often associated with natural birthing. I don’t want to do that. With that repetitive caveat, however, I’ll move on to my own experience.

My hands literally shake as I remember with vivid clarity the birth of my children. I believe it’s true that my wife presides over and administers the first birth – the mortal birth. But in wonderful, celestial unity I helped conceive the children. Additionally, I read all the parenting and birthing books with her, I attended all the classes with her, and throughout labor we labored together. Note: I don’t mean to attribute any equivalency to our joint labors here, I only want to emphasize that they were just that: joint. Finally, my hands were soaked in water and blood as they caught the new spirit and life that passed from my wife’s body and into my arms. This act – more than any other act I’ve participated in – united my soul with my earthly and heavenly family. These births have been the most cherished and sacred of my mortal experiences.

Consequently, I’m reticent to share it here. But I think it illustrates the way in which Moses 6:59-60 ought to be interpreted. It’s simply not the case that a woman’s presiding over and administering the first birth means that her husband doesn’t participate. Dramatically highlighting this point is the fact that in the country where we now live, not only am I forbidden to participate in this way, I wouldn’t even be allowed into the room during this sacred event. I assure you – THIS IS AN INJUSTICE. So much so, that it has a direct impact on our discussions concerning whether to have children in the immediate future. And it’s not just me that feels robbed. My wife doesn’t appreciate the idea of birthing without me any better.

It’s analogous to someone interpreting the Proclamation on the Family to mean that I had no business being involved in the nurturing of my children. Thankfully, I’ve never heard anyone so misinterpret this prophetic counsel. (I have, on the other hand, quite often heard the reverse: that the Proclamation tells me why my wife has no business being involved in providing for our family’s temporal needs – but that’s another post altogether).

I think all of this helps to illuminate the way in which ideally, fathers and mothers ought to jointly midwife the second birth of their children, and to the possibility of ways in which men and women generally can be involved in carrying out this holy ordinance. I have no desire to preside over and administer our children’s baptisms in the absence of my wife. To me, it’s an injustice. I’m not proposing a specific agenda or outline of how the joint (if asymmetrical) participation ought to take place. But my entire soul believes that the union I underwent with my wife in marriage, while it didn’t abolish separate things that we each do or have primary responsibility over, did abolish our individual independence – and I feel the “fire pent up in my bones,” and a desire to shout hallelujah every time I reflect on and experience this fact. What’s more, I don’t believe that my wife’s participation in the ordinances I administer ought to be limited to symbolic or before/after sorts of participation – any more than my participation in conception and physical birth is merely symbolic or limited to a before/after participation. What has enriched and ennobled our experiences and our souls more than anything else has been the ways in which we’ve been able to unite in order to bear the fruits of divinity.

27 Responses to Response to Alison – part II

  1. Alison Moore Smith on August 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    So many things to think about here, James. Again, I’m not going to respond yet, but so appreciate that you have shared these experiences and thoughts with us. :)

  2. Mommie Dearest on August 29, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    There are lots of interesting new pieces to the puzzle to play with here. And, if you’ll forgive me for mixing metaphors, I feel like you’ve shown me how to adjust the focus on my binoculars. So to speak.
    Thank you.

  3. Zack on August 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    What kind of a deranged, obsessive-misogynist could possibly read those verses and think for a second that they have anything to do with gender roles?

  4. Zack on August 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    I went back and read the comments on Alison’s original post and to my (complete lack of) surprise, it was the same guy who gave this talk:

    http://lds.org/general-conference/2006/10/let-us-be-men?lang=eng

    Which includes nuggets like these:

    Elder Christofferson admiring his father for only watching his wife cry in pain while ironing his shirts for a year before he bought her a tool that would take it away. (Heaven forbid the guy iron his own shirts.)

    “We must arise from the dust of self-indulgence and be men! It is a wonderful aspiration for a boy to become a man—strong and capable; someone who can build and create things, run things; someone who makes a difference in the world.” An odd definition of “men” if ever I’ve heard one.

    “Over the years, I have visited members of the Church in many countries, and despite differences in circumstances and cultures, everywhere I have been impressed with the faith and capacity of our women, including some of the very young. So many of them possess a remarkable faith and goodness. They know the scriptures. They are poised and confident. I ask myself, Do we have men to match these women? Are our young men developing into worthy companions that such women can look up to and respect?” I had no idea that women were supposed to “look up to” their husbands. I know that my wife doesn’t look up to me. We prefer to look *at* each other.

    Elder Christofferson: Please no more speaking on gender roles.

  5. Chris on August 30, 2011 at 12:20 am

    I respect the thought and effort that went into writing this blog post but agree with Zack that the verses quoted have nothing to do with gender roles and everything to do with the atonement and our relationship with the Savior.

    I must admit that I also agree with Zack’s interpretation of Elder Christofferson’s talk, which reveals why so many women in the Church feel demoralized, demeaned, and disenchanted. Church leaders have a long way to go in valuing women, and the story about the dear mother who ironed for a year with serious injuries when her husband and sons could have been helping her make me feel more sad that words can adequately express.

  6. James Olsen on August 30, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Zack – I’m convinced that the issues we’re dealing with are systemic, that they affect us all, whatever our level. I’m rather surprised that you seem not to have heard gendered interpretations of these verses. I’m sorry if my own reading hasn’t been enlightening either.

    That said, please refrain from sneering condescendingly at others on my blog – particularly if the person you want to sneer at is an apostle. It’s no secret that I struggle with some of the specifics of what gets said over the pulpit or how it gets said (I agree, the ironing example makes me cringe); I think most of us struggle to one degree or another. But your manner of response isn’t constructively helpful for anyone. And yes, I believe Elder Christofferson deserves much better treatment.

    Even if we think it ultimately a good thing, the emasculation of men in contemporary society is a significant issue and has left a cultural void that’s resulting in social dysfunction. I’m quite happy for our apostles to recognize this and do what they can to inspire a better way – even if they too are conspicuously mortal in their efforts.

  7. Bob on August 30, 2011 at 9:12 am

    James: “The emasculation of men in contemporary society is a significant issue and has left a cultural void that’s resulting in social dysfunction”. I agree with this.
    But Cultures, like people, come in packages. You can not change one part without the whole being affected. When you demand “Men to be men”, a hundred different things will change in you society__some good, some bad. But you can not control it. It’s just like if you can say “Women_stand up for yourselves!”. If they do, you risk social dysfunctions.

  8. chris on August 30, 2011 at 9:28 am

    4,maybe 5, re: ironing example

    I don’t really think it should be necessary to offer up an apology for Elder Christensen, but to the extent that some would make uncharitable accusations, I’ll just ask a few questions.

    Is there not the slightest possibility that a woman wanted to perform what she considered her own “contribution” in the midst of a painful disability? Have you never known someone who suffered and persevered through something that “seemed” needless, because they wanted to either prove something to themselves or demonstrate they could “do it” or “simply” because they loved another? Do we scoff at the widows mite or second guess at the one who accepted it? Can we show no charity in listening and understanding that perhaps there more to the story than was told and that perhaps spending extra time on tangents would be distracting. Instead could we rely on the spirit to accept the good, and answer some of the personal questions we have?

    It’s odd to me to cringe at the ironing example, painful, hard work given willfully in love and service, and yet accept the widow’s mite which came at great cost to the giver and a donation which by accounting standards probably made no difference.

  9. Ray on August 30, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Excellent thoughts, James. I definitely will be linking to this on my own blog at some point in the future.

    I think there is much that can be done to teach the central point you make here without having to overhaul the system completely – but I also think it will require continued, conscious effort by the global leadership and continued extensive, fundatmental change (like happened by placing Ward Council above PEC within the organization chart). I actually think the Proclamation took a huge step forward in some ways (even as it entrenched in others), but it will require emphasizing the “equal partners” phrasing explicitly and continuing to talk of “presiding” as a shared responsibility of a united couple.

  10. ji on August 30, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Ray (no. 9), I hope we don’t get more explicit emphasizing of the “equal partners” phrasing and so forth — I prefer the “teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves” approach. Sometimes, less is better than more — but there are those who always want more.

    One couple’s way may differ from another couple’s way — I want to allow for these differences — I want to allow each man and woman to chart their own course, with the help of some general guidelines. The more explicit we get in our emphasizing and examples and teachings, then the less diversity we have, and many couples follow the model that worked for the example couple.

    Personally, and even though I agree there is truth in the principle, I tend to think the “equal partners” phrasing has been over-emphasized. I prefer the not-incompatible teaching from Ephesians encouraging husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands. I suppose I feel more comfortable with this teaching.

  11. James Olsen on August 30, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Bob: agreed.

    chris: great point.

    Ray: thank you. Hopefully we all find creative and more effective ways of doing just that, whether within our current or within a changed future structure.

  12. Zack on August 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Yeah, my comments came across as more combative and hostile than I intended them. I think Elder Christofferson is one of the more compelling speakers that we can expect to hear every six months at General Conference, but the talk to which I linked bothered me. If he gave a talk in which he gendered baptism — or any other ordinance — I find that offensive.

    I think that much about the way the Church treats women is far from justified. I can find no justification for defining women based on their husbands’ callings. I can find no justification for the disparity between the covenants that I make in the temple and the covenants that my wife makes. I find no justification for the practice of every ward in which I’ve ever lived refusing to let women speak after their husbands. I find no justification for the disparity in male and female voices we hear in General Conference or read in Church publications. I find no justification for certain callings from which women are barred and even less for the number of actions for which women need a male leaders’ permission or approval.

    It’s pretty upsetting that anyone would read gender into a saving ordinance. I think that’s an extremely weak scriptural justification for the place of women in the Mormon Church and its doctrine — at best. At worst, it’s a downright nefarious misinterpretation. Those verses are some of the most theologically-rich writings in the LDS canon and it’s sad to see them used in this way. They have been the impetus for hours of the most rewarding scripture study I’ve ever done — and some of the most profoundly spiritual experiences in my life. And none of the things I learned about sanctification, justification, forgiveness, charity, love, grace, and Christ’s atonement from the scriptures have anything to do with gender roles.

    Moreover, it is completely contrary to Church teachings to afford a priesthood holder any kind of distinction, honor, reputation, or reward for performing a priesthood ordinance, so patting priesthood holders on the back for performing the ordinance of baptism seems inappropriate, especially when we’re talking more about the covenant than the ordinance. If anyone is to thank for the individual’s spiritual rebirth and sanctification, it’s certainly not the priesthood holder who performed the baptism. It’s God.

    I hope the irony of using a scripture about justification and sanctification in an attempt to justify Church teachings and practices isn’t lost on anyone. True doctrine is sacred. It is justified as well as sanctified. If we can’t even effective justify certain Church practices and teachings, how can we ever sanctify them? How can they ever have the power to sanctify Church members?

    =====================================================================
    I thoroughly enjoyed Alison’s initial post. I also found both response posts just as enjoyable. I hope that I have not too thoroughly derailed the conversation.

  13. Kristine on August 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Zack–I found that talk troubling, too. If it’s any comfort, I grew up in the Christoffersons’ ward, and I can assure you there is no chance in hell that the ironing episode (or anything like unto it) could have happened in his home. I’d be willing to bet that he has ironed his own shirts.

  14. Ray on August 30, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    #10 – ji, by “emphasizing the “equal partners” phrasing explicitly” I do not at all mean giving explicit instructions as to what that means at the practical level. I don’t want that type of “clarification”. All I want is for it to be emphasized explicitly that marriage partners are equals, no matter how they choose to approach the practical application of that principle – letting them work out the practical application on their own without judgment or condemnation of other members. So, I think we agree in that regard.

    However, I MUCH prefer the equal partners phrasing than the “love each other” phrasing alone – even though I also love that phrasing. I want them both taugher. I just think, given the ways people have said they love equally but don’t translate that into true equal partnership (again, defined individually as couples), it’s important nowadays to emphasize the wording in the Proclamation explicitly.

  15. Ray on August 30, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    “I can assure you there is no chance in hell that the ironing episode (or anything like unto it) could have happened in his home. I’d be willing to bet that he has ironed his own shirts.”

    I don’t know him, but that is exactly the impression I have gotten of him since he was called as an apostle.

  16. nat kelly on August 30, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    James – I think your description of the births of your children was just beautiful. And it’s a beautiful opening for our own thoughts and practices within the church.

    I also really enjoyed Zack’s comments, particularly his breakdown of Elder C’s talks. Elder C is a good speaker, and his words are sooooo cloaked in attempts to be complimentary to women. I think it is very important to break them down and look at them honestly the way Zack has. It really increases our understanding and sensitivity.

    I don’t at all challenge Kristine’s assertion that he is himself loving and fair-minded. Still, it is useful to understand where his words are coming from and what they mean. If even our nicest and most egalitarian-seeming leaders can say things that are so damaging, we know we’ve got some serious work to do.

  17. Mary B. on August 30, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    @ Zack,

    “Elder Christoffersen admiring his father for only watching his wife cry in pain while ironing his shirts for a year before he bought her a tool that would take it away.”

    In the day when Elder Christoffersen’s mother did ironing, women not only ironed husbands shirts, but dresses, all the children’s blouses and shirts, the bed linens, the table clothes, the kitchen towels, the curtains, and handkerchiefs. It was an all day process, while the husband worked. The only kind of clothing was 100 percent cotton. The ironrite or mangle iron (if you don’t know what one is, google it) was the response to this challenge and for a women to own one was a huge help. Why am I telling you this? Because I think your criticism of Elder Christofferson’s father is a result of the gap between generations, not genders. The gift of an ironrite (which was expensive, and a luxury for most) to a woman who has chronic pain was, I am sure, very welcome relief to her. It is a story that reflects the times and demonstrates love between a husband and wife, and should not be used to illustrate the insensitivity between genders that is discussed in the posts.

  18. Kristine on August 30, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Yeah, Mary B., I think that’s really important context. It’s not like he just needed to go to Target and pick up a better iron for her–it was a major purchase, and that’s not easily conveyed in a necessarily-abbreviated telling of the story.

    It doesn’t change Zack’s major points, though, or the fact that his #12 made me want to jump up and shout “YES!”

  19. Tim J on August 30, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    “I can assure you there is no chance in hell that the ironing episode (or anything like unto it) could have happened in his home. I’d be willing to bet that he has ironed his own shirts.”

    Ha. This made me chuckle in agreement. He is married to my father’s sister.

  20. Ray on August 30, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    #17 – Thank you, Mary B. That really is an important aspect of the story – even as I also agree with Nat’s last sentence in #16.

  21. Bob on August 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    My mom had bad hands. So as a boy, started washing and ironing at about five. I wore dress shirts for about 40 years of my marriage. I don’t recall my wife ever washing or ironing one of them.
    The only time I worked under a church matriarch was in my Mission Home. The wife of the MP was clearly the Co-MP. She would often talk about her and the MP discussing who would be assigned where and who would be paired. Also, the male and female missionaries there were equals_period. Yes, the Elders were sent for tires etc. and the Sisters did most of the typing. But this was always about ability or comfort in doing a needed task, not about gender.

  22. Kristine on August 30, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Tim J–you are so lucky!!! Kathy would be the coolest aunt. I always wanted to be just like her when I grew up.

  23. SusanS on August 30, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Of the 3.5 (one on the way) children I’ve born, especially those where my husband was most involved in helping me, I can’t say I’ve had the same connection described here. Not to disparage the depth of James’s personal experience, but my deliveries were individual accomplishments, not joint. I will always want my husband present, but baby will come regardless of whether he is there or not. Birth is one of the most personal things a woman can experience, and as much as I love my husband and want the security of his emotional support, his experience will never have the depth of my own, just as the experience of my spiritual conversion is my own and cannot be shared. Creating life has certainly brought us closer as a couple, but in many ways it only emphasizes the disparity between the mortal experiences of a man and a woman.

  24. Lucy on August 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Regarding the scriptures that have been cited in Moses, who is speaking to whom? What is the context?

  25. Cameron N on August 30, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    When a Young Womens or Relief Society President or Counselor is called, it seems to me they usually mention their husband in a manner similar to when gender roles are reversed. I think it’s just a matter of focusing on the actual individual who is called.

    Allsion, if I were you, I would speak your mind to that church leader. It would probably help him try to be more sensitive in the future. In fact, I think it is your duty to do so.

    On a side note–can we fully appreciate how insanely hard it must be to write a conference talk that is edifying, tells it like it is, and yet is still sensitive and avoids offending anyone? I don’t know that that is possible. Those looking to be offended are guaranteed to find success.

    James, thanks for sharing. My second child was born today. Although it was at the hospital, I too feel that births are among the most spiritual experiences I have ever or will ever have in mortality. I appreciate your thoughts on the subject. It is true that men are reduced to humble pondering since we don’t have as much of a role (although in your case that is seemingly untrue), but I don’t think it takes away from the importance of the experience, however much some women resent it or feel objectified.

  26. RW on August 31, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    This scripture continues the Greko-Roman cult of Dionysus where the observant worshiper stood under a grate where the lamb was slaughtered and bathed in its blood gushing from its neck. In as much as Jesus is that offering we participate in this ritual.

    I vastly prefer the gentler vision of Jesus speaking who told Nicodemus that he must be born again. Baptism is the female symbol of the waters of new birth into a new life. Whatever the spirit is, male or female, baptism is the entrance into the kingdom and it is absolutely female.

    I was so pleased that the first step into the kingdom is represented by the archetype of womanhood, that only She can deliver.

  27. Al on September 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    The technology exists to put the masculine ego out of its misery. Raise a few Y chromosomes every generation and dispose of them swiftly and timely far beyond the Irish Sea when they have been adequately harvested. They are less functional than drones.

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