Over the last couple days, the interwebs have been abuzz over Joni Hilton’s caricature of liberal Mormonism published through Meridian Magazine. When I first read the article, I was angry. I still am, actually. It hurts deeply to feel dismissed and unwanted. It hurts to feel like all the effort I put into claiming my Mormonism–my faith, my identity, my culture, my life–can be so easily brushed off and dismissed, simply because my lived Mormon experience is different from another’s.
After anger, my next inclination was to proclaim, “I don’t care!” But the reality is that I do care. I care deeply. I care not only for myself, but for the thousands, if not millions, of Mormons just like me: Mormons who are trying with their might to hang on. Mormons who simply don’t find value in living or believing x, y, z but treasure a, b, c. Mormons who embrace their faith tradition with all their heart, who take their religion so seriously that they expect better things of it, and who study deeply and come to some un- or heterodox conclusions. Mormons who see two sides to every coin and who after confronting the paradoxes and legitimate challenges to Mormonism’s truth claims, can never go back to a simple black-and-white faith. They see two (or more) pictures where they used to only see one.
This last month, I have been privileged to attend a parenting class focused on a series of lectures by Gordon Neufeld called The Vital Connection. The overall theme of the course is simple: the relationship between the parent and the child is paramount. It is more important than behaviour, it is more important than external success, it is more important than “socialization” or education. Our children need to know that we are there for them–that we will support them, that we will put our arms around them, and that we will be their rock and their stay in this world that is often hard to navigate. Interestingly enough, studies have found that children who love their parents, who feel they can rely upon them and trust them, are the easiest to parent. Taking care of the relationship first is the most effective way to guide them and have them seek our will.
Crazy how that sounds a lot like Jesus’s teachings.
Jesus was known for rejecting the “checklists” of righteousness put forth by the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day in exchange for a message of peace and love. When the woman found in adultery was brought before him, he did not ask her detailed questions of her sexual encounters. He did not require her to prove herself to him. He did not ask her to take care of x, y, and z. He saved her. He was there for her. He became the person she could rely upon. After establishing himself as her literal saviour in that moment, only then came the command to “go and sin no more.” While the first commandment to “love the Lord thy God” certainly applied, the call to obedience was made more effective (and even possible, considering the tragic alternative), when the woman knew she was loved first. Interestingly, we don’t know the rest of the story. We don’t know if the woman ever committed adultery again. We don’t know if she truly did “go and sin no more” because frankly, that wasn’t the point. The point was that Jesus loved her and provided protection that was not contingent upon her commitment to future changes in behaviour.
Love. Protection. Relationship.
The reality is that we too often get this backwards in our mainstream Mormon culture. Once accepted into the fold through baptism, one must prove their worthiness according to a set of signifiers that they are one of us. Then, and only then, we will tell them of their worth and our love for them. But this is driving people away. We are losing some of the best, brightest, and most wonderful people because we have not held out our arms in love and acceptance first.
One of my favourite of Jesus’s parables is that of the prodigal son. In the parable, the father never asks the son to leave. He never tells him that he is unwelcome in his home. He never tells him “it’s black or white. You either stay or go, you see.” Instead, he honours the son’s choice to leave, to experiment, to live his life the way he would see fit. He even provides him the means to do so. After living out a raucous life, while the son is destitute and alone, he remembers his father. He remembers the safety he provided. He remembers the love he felt. And when he returns, it is to arms open and needs met.
I wonder how that story would have ended had the father forced the son out or had he told him there would never be any room for him should he squander away his inheritance. I wonder if he told his son, “why don’t you just leave?” if he ever would have returned.
To you, my fellow liberal Mormon, I want you to know that there are arms here to hold you. Whether you enjoy an occasional cappuccino or have an extra hole in your ear, whether you read Harry Potter with more regularity than Galatians or simply hold an unpopular political opinion in Utah County, remember these words:
There is room for you here.