Personhood

Being with family over the holidays always makes me feel happy and a little sad. It is fun to get together and laugh and reminisce, but it breaks my heart to hear the people I love say things like, “S/He is a nice person but it is too bad they are not _________ (married, thin, pregnant, working, a SAHM, worthy, etc.)”, or “S/He is such a great person for _________ (a homosexual, a non-member, an African-American, a liberal, a feminist, a democrat, an immigrant, etc.)”, worse still is the occasional phrase “__________ (any tragedy) wouldn’t have happened if s/he were living the gospel”, and finally, “There was probably something else going on (with a wink wink nod nod in reference to someone leaving the church because of doubt or disbelief).”

These lines makes me want to scream. I’ve read the New Testament. I study the words of Christ. Repeatedly Christ tells us not to judge, to love our neighbor, our enemy, even our selves, etc. Sadly, I feel more judgment and conditional love surrounded by LDS members and Mormon culture than anywhere else in my life. What is it about our doctrine or culture that prevents us from seeing other people as full people unless they meet very specific sometimes arbitrary requirements?

Every culture has taken-for-granted assumptions about personhood. Personhood is based on the value that people hold in a society as judged by one another. These are not usually ideas that people discuss openly or even recognize. They are implicit and covert. They are ubiquitous and pervade most conversations, talks, and lessons. For example, I could explicate almost any church talk and show how people do not have full personhood in our culture unless they are married or have children, etc. Full LDS personhood is even more difficult to achieve because the boundaries are so specific. Even active temple-worthy married child-rearing members of the church have to fulfill specific gender roles in order to gain full personhood, i.e. stay-at-home Dads and working moms are often in liminal states of personhood. Interestingly, liminal states are often seen as dangerous for the rest of the culture. Maybe that is the problem with LDS personhood, people who are bearded, unmarried, childless, or gay, young women who have sexual desires, young men who don’t want to serve a mission, and those who don’t follow the specified path are seen as dangerous.

To be clear, most people assigning liminal statuses or communicating a lack of personhood are completely unaware of what they are doing. Most are just repeating what they’ve heard or what they assume to be true. However well-intentioned, these notions can be damaging, hurtful, harmful, and antithetical to the teachings of Christ and LDS doctrine.

Even though every week we preach of Christ, we sing of everyone being a “Child of God”, and we talk of equality, I don’t feel like that is how we treat each other. I feel like people who aren’t LDS or are “different” in any way are treated as though they are less of a person. Why do I feel that way? Is it just me?

Every culture has standards by which they add to or take way personhood based on their cultural preconditions. I guess I am just saddened that it is such a pervasive part of our culture. Ultimately, it is impossible to see someone as an equal while denying them full personhood.

Have you ever been considered dangerous? Do you feel like you have full personhood? Why or why not? Have you ever taken away someone’s personhood?

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