Of Prophets and Men

LeRoy Walter Flint (American, Ashtabula, Ohio 1909–1991 Akron, Ohio) Sad Man, 1935–43 American, Carborundum Etching; plate: 4 1/2 x 4 in. (11.5 x 10 cm) sheet: 6 1/4 x 5 3/4 in. (16 x 14.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the Work Projects Administration, Board of Education, Cleveland, Ohio, 1943 (43.29.3) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/374686

Sad Man by LeRoy Walter Flint. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/374686

I was eleven or twelve when I heard some piece of Joseph Smith’s history that I had never heard before.  I grew up in a home that was pretty open about church history so I knew about polygamy, the seer stone in a hat, and the early gold digging.  I don’t actually remember what this new information was, but I was upset by it.  I went to my mother and asked her how she could believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet when he had done so many problematic things.  Her response was one I have thought about again and again through my life.  She said, “Joseph Smith was a human being and he made serious mistakes.  But those mistakes only serve to increase my testimony of God.  Because if God can use a flawed person like Joseph Smith to work miracles, then I have hope that He can do something with me.”

Let me be clear: I’m deeply troubled by the videos released this weekend that show private meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other church leaders learning about and discussing current events.  I sincerely hope that these meetings occasionally include people who provide divergent views from those shown and that the meetings don’t serve solely as an echo chamber.  I also hope that the meetings typically have more discussion and informed debate than the simple nodding of heads.  I’m confused about why there are no women in the room—auxiliary presidencies need to be informed about world events and I believe the presence of women would change the dynamic shown here.  The Machiavellian-level discussion of baptisms following the Iraq War is disgusting.  The antagonism repeatedly displayed toward the LGBTQ community makes me heartsick and angry. And personally, as a liberal Democrat, I’m deeply hurt by church leaders I’ve admired all my life referring to Democrats as “various miscreants.”  That one is a punch in the gut, like overhearing my favorite uncle call me a bad name in the other room.

But I’ve known my whole life that people can be both deeply flawed and divinely inspired. Yesterday I heard many people say that these videos prove that these men are simply human, not seers and revelators.  I don’t believe that those two categories are mutually exclusive.  And if I had to wait until I had a perfect, sinless day before I received answers to prayers and divine direction, then the heavens would be silent.  While I routinely disagree with church leadership, I have many times heard their words and felt God’s confirmation.  The fact that God works miracles through broken, flawed humans is not surprising to me.  As Elder Holland has said, these are the tools God has.  What has surprised me in the last day is that while I am hurt and disappointed by these videos, I also feel a rush of love for these men.  Maybe that’s because I’ve never been inclined to love Master of the Universe Patriarchs.  On the other hand, I am willing to take up the challenge of loving my fellow brothers and sisters.

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29 Responses

  1. Linda says:

    I’m with ya, Margaret.

  2. spunky says:

    I haven’t seen the videos, but am comfortable to think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  3. La Yen says:

    I feel the same–deeply disappointed that I was called a miscreant, concerned that now the people who feel free to share ETB memes will add miscreant to the list, and mostly just sad–sad that these (mostly) old, rich, white grandpas act like old, rich, white grandpas when the podium is not in the way. But is the church still true for me? Yeah.

    • MargaretOH says:

      I think it’s always hard to admit that people we love and admire are so very human. Thanks so much for sharing your response here. The messiness is beautiful and exhausting.

  4. Em says:

    Thank you for this. We don’t have to be perfect to receive revelation. I hadn’t even heard about leaked videos. I’m glad I read this first.

  5. m says:

    “The Machiavellian-level discussion of baptisms following the Iraq War is disgusting.”

    I completely understand why you feel that way. What are your thoughts are on the scriptures showing God using war as a tool for bringing consequences, justice and even humility to an unrighteous people, such as in the Book of Mormon? I’ve only begun thinking about this and wonder where others are at.

    • Moss says:

      We need to be careful going to war and assuming that God is on our side. Furthermore, in scripture, when God appears to be behaving as a tribal warlord, it is becuase a warlike and tribal people are describing God in their image. I don’t know how familiar you are with Higher Criticism, but it helps make sense of some troubling aspects of scripture. It is a rabbit hole, however.

    • MargaretOH says:

      I agree with Moss–I tend to read scripture as an exploration of what the writer experienced and his/her thoughts about the nature of God, not as the word of God straight from the heavens to paper. To me, the only foundation on which to rely for the thoughts of God on violence is to go straight to the words of Christ in the New Testament, where we repeatedly find counsel to never return evil for evil and to turn the other cheek.

      One other point for why I struggle with the idea of war as a tool for justice: It does not answer the question of what these actions to do the souls of those “righteous” warriors engaging in the war. It is hard for me to imagine a God who requires His/Her followers to engage in murder/rape/genocide (if we want to take the Old Testament literally) just to bring consequences to a fallen people. We know that engaging in violence strongly affects people. I cannot see God viewing those effects as mere collateral damage for His/Her purposes.

      • m says:

        I certainly don’t think God takes decisions lightly where we are concerned. But that doesn’t mean that war is always the wrong answer.

        The Savior Himself said:

        “34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

        35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

        36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

        37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

        38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”

        I certainly don’t think war is always good and, specifically, don’t support the war in Iraq. However, if the Lord can take that atrocity and use it to spread the Gospel, at least some eternal lives will be gained while thousands of temporal lives are (needlessly) lost.

      • MargaretOH says:

        This isn’t the subject of the post, so I’m going to move on, although this subject is one of my favorites and your comments are inspiring me to do a series of posts about war and peace.

        I don’t believe for a second that the verses you cited mean that Jesus came to literally start violence within families. And while the idea of a righteous war seems possible in theory, I’m very, very wary of every invoking it because it very easily could be (and has been) used to justify pretty much every war for every cause.

    • Melissa says:

      In the Book of Mormon at least, we see a pattern of the only people “successful” at war are only defending themselves, on their own land. Whenever people prophylactically attack their enemies before their enemies can attack them, we see that God does not endorse their war, and they fail. The Nephites never successfully attack the Lamanites on Lamanite land.

  6. Kimberly Burnett says:

    I love your take on this. At the same time, it seems to me that church culture too often idolizes these men and overly encourages deference. They can be flawed and vessels for revelation at the same time, but that makes it all the more important that we get our own spiritual confirmations. I’ve heard church members acknowledge this, but make it a check-the-box exercise, as in, if you don’t get confirmation, you’re doing something wrong, so follow the prophet/general authority anyway.

    • MargaretOH says:

      Absolutely agree 100%. And I think they play a role in creating that culture of deference, which I suspect will backfire as the internet reorders our society. To me there are a lot of parallels between this situation and the scrubbed-up version of church history that was the public narrative put forward for a long time. Then the internet came along and people who believed that narrative felt/feel lied to. I totally agree that we have to get our own spiritual confirmations and be seekers of knowledge.

  7. Patty says:

    Long ago I learned about a sorting algorithm where things “bubbled up”. I haven’t seen, don’t want to watch the videos described. Not that I don’t believe that they are accurate or exist. Just the way some GA’s express themselves when we are all watching makes them credible to me. Back to “bubble up”. I feel that I need to be patient. I appreciated M. Russell Ballard’s remarks and took them to heart. We are not done growing and changing as a church. I believe that there are leaders bubbling up from below who have broader experiences and better attitudes.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Some lovely points made here that I agree with…I just hope that this leak will help our leaders see how much of a bubble they are leading from and make some changes.

  9. Rob Osborn says:

    Not sure what the big deal is with the leaks other than someone did something very bad leaking them. The videos show what would be typical at a meeting/briefing of high ranking church leaders. Not sure what the big deal is.

  10. Andy T says:

    I’m not surprised that you would take such a positive stance on this topic and I’m happy that you do. How do you feel about the counter argument that probably the inspired mouthpieces of God should be better people than the average person? I feel that these men are not better than the average person, and I could make an argument that they are worse. This for me makes it very difficult to believe in any sort of ‘mantle of authority’.

    • MargaretOH says:

      I have answers that work for me, personally, but I can’t claim anything for anybody else. I am naturally a pretty judgmental and critical person. I’ve worked hard to counter that over the years because I’m also aware that I’m less happy when I give in to that tendency to nitpick everyone around me. It takes me down a road towards someone I don’t want to be. One of the red flags for me that indicate that I’m going down that path is whenever I start to hold someone else accountable to a standard that I don’t follow. So I don’t ever want to be in a place where I’m saying that someone else–anyone else–should behave better than myself. That’s answer 1.

      Answer 2 is that I don’t know these men, not really. The biggest thing I know about them is that they are giving up their retirement–rest, time with their families, personal comfort etc.–to serve. That’s a bigger sacrifice than I’ve ever made, so I’m starting in a place of respect for that choice. I don’t know if I could be that selfless.

      Point 3 is that I don’t think of them as mouthpieces of God. I think of them as good men who are constricted, like all of us, by their own cultures, personal experiences, and assumptions about the world. I believe that they’re doing the best they can within those boundaries, which is the most I could ever ask of anyone.

      Does that leave me feeling compelled to follow them absolutely or agree with everything they say? Not in the slightest. But I am inclined to give what they say the benefit of the doubt, assume the best in their intentions, and try to glean the wisdom that they have to share. This approach lets me judge each of their statements individually without feeling compelled/qualified to judge them as human beings.

      • Andy T says:

        I love your response. You’ve stated eloquently what I feel is about the best and fairest way to view the actions of general authorities, and especially the top leadership, that I’ve ever heard.

        I think that I view them and their actions similarly to what you’ve described and if they realized that this is what they are (men sacrificing and doing their very best with the limited knowledge that they have) I would be in full support of them. I can’t support them, however, because they mistakenly claim to have authority and guidance that I feel they do not have. This is dangerous and we are seeing the damage it can cause (specifically in the Mormon LGBT community). For this reason I cannot support them.

        I will forever love my local Mormon family and I will always try to open minds and be as accepting and patient as I can. The local organization, however, is where my support ends.

      • MargaretOH says:

        I completely understand and respect your feelings about it. I hope your new ward family is treating you well. We miss you in these parts.

  11. Sandra says:

    Amen. I’m feeling the same. This belief in people who make mistakes and misjudgment and still work with God and work for good has been my holding place for a long time now. It’s complicated and difficult and beautiful gelled in one.

  12. EFH says:

    I have not seen the videos. But I am not surprised that such meetings happened. Of course the church authorities meet often to strategize politically. They will continue to do so. And I am not surprised at the positions that they take. They are not only the inspiration behind the current culture of the church but also products of it.

    My hope is that they employ people who truly inform them of the complexity of the issues. The only thing that makes me sad about these meetings is that the authorities seem to strategize base on fear and not in the spirit of uplifting people and leading them to a higher moral ground of ethics. The problem with conservative institutions and people is not that they are conservative but that they act based on fear and misinformation rather then a well developed conservative framework of ideas.

  13. Melissa says:

    Thanks for this. Once I realized the fallibility of our Prophets, and GA’s, the morr secure I found my testimony. I no longer felt like anything I might hear that I disagreed with or found repulsive could destroy my faith. That is when I found a real spiritual confidence. This concept is so important. I love the way your mom put it.

  14. Rosalyn says:

    Thank you for this post. I haven’t watched the videos (and don’t plan to–I’m not in the most secure spot faith wise right now). But the reminder that God works in spite of our weaknesses (maybe even because of them?) and what you said in the comments about finding “God in the mess” has been profoundly moving to me and has given me a more productive way of viewing recent events.

  15. JNR says:

    For the sake of accuracy, it was politician Smith who called Democrats miscreants and even he did it in a joking way (he is a Republican after all). I am not happy with some of what I saw from the Brethren on those videos. Smith was appalling, but I am seeing a disturbing amount of mislabeling on who said what across the web and that bothers me, too. I don’t know that it is reasonable to expect a small group to jump down the throat of an invited speaker even if they wanted to. Julie Beck did give an extended comment at the tail end of one of the videos, forget which one, but only after being invited. She offered a different perspective, moving the discussion to an international outlook. But when she finished, the meeting was abruptly adjourned without acknowledging a thing she said, giving the impression that she had only been asked to comment as an afterthought.

    • MargaretOH says:

      Thanks for these comments and additional clarification. I agree with we all have a responsibility to speak accurately and fairly. I have mixed feelings about what I could reasonably expect as a reaction to the comment about the Iraq War, given the typical standards of etiquette for a public speaker. I guess my hope would be that there would be something similar to what I’ve seen in Sacrament Meeting when someone has stated something offensive and/or doctrinally false: the person presiding in the meeting gets up and gives a short, polite statement correcting what was said. Maybe there’s an entirely different set of standards/cultural expectations in these meetings, but the fact that those awful words sit there unmolested disturbs me.

  16. Violadiva says:

    Thank you for this generous response. You know, it sometimes takes an eye-opening experience to believe that our prophets are fallible in the first place. Once we believe they are fallible, it follows that we shouldn’t be too surprised when they do something wrong, deny doing it, or not apologize for doing it — because that is what fallible people do.
    I’m really glad for our church’s teachings about prophetic fallibility, and I need to remind myself to be patient when I see or hear something alarming from them.

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