What Would Jesus Do

Posted by on June 2, 2014 in Gender, Gospel, Jesus, Mormon women | 39 comments

We prioritize the feelings of men over the actual lived experience of women

This is a problem throughout society but since this is a Mormon feminist blog I want to discuss how this problem exhibits in the Mormon church and its culture. I will provide two examples that illustrate the problem and then show how we may, consciously or not, perpetuate the problem:

I

On a warm day in October 2005 I found myself under a desk picking up garbage in a building on the campus of Brigham Young University. This wouldn’t necessarily be a memorable moment except that it wasn’t my desk, it wasn’t my garbage and I wasn’t alone. While I was performing this mundane task I felt a set of eyes firmly planted on my behind watching me with inappropriate intent. That set of eyes belonged to my boss, a well-respected professor and chair of a large department. Except the larger BYU community didn’t know that he was also a raging misogynist, that he had been bullying me from the moment I had accepted the job and that he often made me do tasks that were demeaning and humiliating. I had put up with the verbal abuse and sexual harassment for three months because I needed the job but this was my final straw. On my lunch break I marched myself over to human resources to report my experience. My boss’ supervisor was immediately called and upon hearing my story acknowledged that he knew this man was problematic. Over the past year six young women had been hired as this man’s secretary and had all quit in a short period of time, all making similar complaints of bullying and sexual harassment. The supervisor I spoke with was kind and understanding but since I had no proof of what had occurred he would not take action. This was especially frustrating because my boss was at the end of his term as chair, it would have been fairly easy to get rid of him, but past precedent had always been that each chair serve two terms. Not wanting to humiliate my boss, the decision was made to renew his contract and quietly deal with the collateral damage. The female secretaries and their dignity were expendable, my boss’ feelings were not. I quit on the spot.

II

It is confusing and traumatic to be in a ward with a spiritually abusive bishop. We believe that each leader is called by inspiration from on high but how do we rectify this when that leader turns out to be destructive? My first experience with an abusive bishop came shortly after moving into a ward and being asked to give a talk on what it meant to be a Mormon wife and mother. I gave a fairly measured but honest description of my experience. After I was done the bishop got up and corrected my experience, saying if I was truly following the spirit I would never find mothering difficult. It was shocking and embarrassing, I realized that if I was going to survive I would have to keep my head down. There were other women in the ward who were not so lucky. He would publicly humiliate them over the pulpit or in Relief Society, tell men not to let their wives associate with them, verbally assault these sisters in private meetings. Then there were the reports of inappropriate and voyeuristic questioning of young girls during worthiness interviews. Every possible way this man could wield unrighteous dominion, he did. Over this bishop’s tenure many people went to the stake president and reported their experience but nothing was ever done. Because it would have been too humiliating for this man to be released early from the calling. Meanwhile, woman after woman left the ward and sometimes the church. When this man was finally released the ward was broken but at least the bishop got to go out in a blaze of honor and glory.

These are obviously examples from my own life but I have heard countless stories from women that have also experienced this pattern. They range from small stories about a stake president not wanting to train his high councilors to stop addressing only men in their talks to women who are threatened with church discipline if they expose the bad behavior of a man in their life. The common theme is always fear of embarrassing or hurting the feelings of the men involved. It is a pernicious pattern and contributes to a culture where women are silenced, undervalued and sometimes unsafe.

It is easy to dismiss these as a few cases by a couple of bad actors. And while it’s probably true that the more extreme stories are rare, they also don’t happen in a vacuum. We are living in a time when women are told in general conference, CES firesides and devotionals, Young Women’s lessons, church magazines that they are the guardian of men’s virtue. That if they let their shoulders feel the warm air they are in danger of becoming walking pornography. When you break this rhetoric down, the basis of it is we don’t want men to feel uncomfortable so we will insist that women inconvenience themselves and take the blame for the sins of men.

I was struck by many aspects of Michael Otterson’s open letter that was published on the blogs last week. But one part in particular provides a striking example of exactly the problem I am referring to:

We might wonder what the Savior’s reaction would have been had the many prominent women in his life taken such a course. If Mary Magdalene, or Mary, his mother, or Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, had demanded ordination to the Twelve, had spoken publicly about their insistence and made demands such as we hear today, how would Jesus have felt… (emphasis mine)

Otterson is drawing a direct comparison here between Jesus Christ and our general authorities today. The unasked question he wants us to consider is “how are the prophet and the apostles feeling now that these ‘strident’ women are asking uncomfortable questions and demanding action?” We are not supposed to be concerned about the pain that many of our sisters are feeling, this line is supposed to make us feel guilty that we might have offended the powerful men in charge of our church.

We prioritize the feelings of men over the actual lived experience of women.

The ironic thing is, we know how Jesus would have felt had the women in his life asked him questions or exposed him to their pain. This is the man who proclaimed his mission and divinity to the Samaritan woman at the well, who answered her questions and conversed with her despite her marginalized status and his disciples’ disapproval (John 4:30). This is the man who changed his mind and healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, even after his disciples told her to go away, because she asked repeatedly and with great faith (Matthew 15:22-28). This is the man who praised Mary for ignoring the gender expectations of her day to converse with him instead (Luke 10: 38-42). This is the man who was met with anger but instead of rebuking them, wept with and for the pain of Mary and Martha at the loss of their brother Lazarus (John 11:20-35). This is the man who, while enduring the agony of the cross, saw his mother weeping and made sure to provide for her needs in the future (John 19: 25-27). This is the resurrected Christ who appeared first to a woman and asked why she was weeping (John 20:14-18).

We may not know why Jesus did not ordain women but we do know how he treated them and how he felt about them. If we are supposed to be like Christ, and Jesus himself cared about the feelings, questions and experiences of women, why don’t we? We are perpetuating a pattern of the fallen world that is not of God, that is not of our Savior. We must do better.

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39 Comments

  1. This is brilliant, MRaynes! It is such a source of manipulation for us to be commissioned to not speak evil of the “Lord’s anointed”– but the longer I am in church, the more I see that the “Lord’s anointed” are sometimes really the “Lord’s full-tithe payers who are available, and might learn and grow at others’ expense if we gave them this challenge so we’ll ignore the obvious spirit and stick with the handbook.”

    In the days of such a powerfully growing church, conversations like this are needed so as the avoid the church destroying itself.

    Thank you for this post.

    • I think most Mormon men are good and truly do care about the feelings and experiences of women. However, they are victims to culture, both in and out of the church, and both cultures prioritize male feelings and concerns. I understand why it happens but I expect more. I don’t think we do anybody any favors by not holding them accountable for their mistakes. We have been commanded to cast off the natural man and follow Jesus. The scriptures make very clear what Jesus’ thoughts are on this subject and so we have to do better. Thanks for your thoughts, Spunky!

      • I agree, MRaynes. We do a disservice when we brand the actions of a few men as systematic of the entire church. My current bishop is kind, loving, and real. He has the mind of a servant, and seeks to serve. this humility and love is obvious in his manner and words. Thank you for writing this, and allowing me to clarify my comment… sometimes, men in leadership positions are awful. Most times, they are celestial.

      • I think you are perfect, Spunky!

    • The Lord’s true church being The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, cannot and God will not allow it to happen. although members can go apostate and speak ill of leaders.

  2. Good point, and I love all of the examples from Christ’s life.

    • Thanks! It’s stunning when you stack up all the information about Christ’s treatment of women and compare it to our own in any number of examples.

  3. Thanks for this article. The Saviour must weep.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of 4 bishops and 2 stake president’s “unrighteous dominion” to the point that I will never trust them nor confide in them again. And it doesn’t do any good to complain all the way to the top otherwise you’re blacklisted. I keep my head down and do all I can to remain faithful to the Lord and gospel teachings. In speaking to many women over the years, this problem is rampant and it doesn’t appear to be going away no matter how often “the brethren” talk that men need to be kind, etc., to women.

    • Oh EJM, I am so sorry. We all know that power has the ability to corrupt and it is a shame that you have been a victim of this so often. I hope you have found peace in serving the Lord. Your attitude it truly inspiring.

  4. MRaynes, exactly. That’s one of the things that bothered me the most about the letter. Speculation that the Saviour would be hurt for any other reason than that these women are hurting.

    The atonement covers our pain and sorrows as well as sin. He knows how we feel, and how each member of OW feels. He has felt it too.

    Minimising the power of the atonement offends me just as much as the unkindness, if not more.

    • Yes, absolutely! I found the portion that I quoted breathtakingly insulting for so many reasons. I hope that all of us can move forward with a better understanding of the atonement and a greater resolve to be more like Christ.

  5. Wow! Stellar–and painful–post, MRaynes! Thanks for articulating this so clearly!

    • Thank you!

  6. Do you feel that it is men’s feelings and opinions that are valid as opposed to authority vs subordinate. If a female boss harassed a male staffer, do you feel the staffer would be the one validated? Although, in regards to the church, it makes no difference since power always lies in the hands of the men. Also loved your examples of Christ.

    • I think things are too variable in society for me to be able to answer that question with any sort of accuracy–it probably goes both ways. In the church, I think you are much more likely to see the phenomenon I describe since women are institutionally powerless and so easier to ignore.

  7. Thank you, THANK YOU for articulating this subject so well. I am so sick of serving with men who should NOT be in leadership positions for reasons of laziness or unrighteous dominion. However they’re not released because of all the reasons you stated so well. I would add to it–it would make the stake pres or bishop look like he made a mistake in extending the call in the first place.

    • That’s an interesting thought that I hadn’t considered. Yes, I’m sure that does contribute to the problem since nobody likes to admit that they made a mistake. Thanks for the comment and compliment!

      • Well making personal mistakes is ok to admit, but making mistakes involving revelation goes against everything we are taught about our leaders and how callings are extended

  8. Beautiful, MRaynes.

    I add my, “Amen.”

    • Thank you, Rachel!

  9. May I add my compliments to you on your brilliant article MRaynes. So shocking yet so truthful.

    • Thank you for the compliment, I’m glad you saw some truth in my post.

  10. Thank you. A million times, thank you.

    • You’re welcome, thank you for commenting! It always means so much.

  11. The idea that Christ would be embarrassed or uncomfortable or saddened or annoyed by bold women approaching him with requests to join His ministry projects a smallness onto Christ that does not ring true to me. I think you have pinpointed the root of this idea. That is the way modern male leaders react to women, and so we assume that even Christ was thus.

    Another scripture that may answer the question, “How would Jesus feel?” is this one:

    His bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Alma 7:12

    I think that is true of many aspects of our culture and policy. We assume that the way things are now is how they have always been. Even the assumption that these prominent women of Jesus’ day did not hold the priesthood is based more on projecting the present to the past than on any scriptural or historical information. There is no scripture that bans women from the priesthood, and other historical documents suggest that the ancient women Otterson assumes did not hold the priesthood actually did. I don’t know whether they did or not, but I would like for our conversations to be based on accurate assessments of what we do and don’t know, not the assumption that the status quo is constant and divinely approved.

    • Thank you for sharing that verse, April, it fits perfectly with what I was trying to get across. I agree that Christ is so much larger than we can comprehend. To try and make him smaller to match our preconceived notions of what is godly seems profoundly hubristic. I hope that even in my weakness I can look beyond my comfort and try to find God. Thanks for the comment!

    • “The idea that Christ would be embarrassed or uncomfortable or saddened or annoyed by bold women approaching him with requests to join His ministry projects a smallness onto Christ that does not ring true to me.”

      Amen, April.

      Mraynes, fabulous, fabulous post.

  12. I know this is only tangentially related to the topic, but when I see the term “unrighteous dominion” I think of a branch president we had. It got to the point where, when my wife had surgery, he forbad branch members to visit her. I begged the Relief Society President to visit, if not as the RS President, then as a friend or neighbor. She was too scared of what would happen to her if she disobeyed. Shortly after that, we got permission to transfer our records to another branch, and eventually left the state to get away from his poison. A few months after we left, I heard that the EQ President got into a fight with the branch president in the chapel, and punched him. I only regret that I couldn’t be there to witness it.

    I have no idea why this man was allowed to continue as branch president, especially as activity levels dropped the longer he was in office. Over ten years later, and I stll haven’t forgiven him.

    • I am so sorry, Eric, that must have been so painful for you and your family. I hope that you have arrived in a place where you feel peace and love.

  13. Well written article, and sympathy on the horrible experiences.

    But do we have any reason at all to think that if a woman were in that same calling, it would be automatically better?

    It is not having a penis that makes someone a jerk. They are just jerks for whatever reason.

    I have had some female supervisors in the workplace and presidents in community organizations that were every bit like that, so I don’t see how it is limited to men, or that women would do any better if/when they serve in leadership.

    • “…every bit like that…”

      You had a female supervisor ask you to get down on your hands and knees and pick up trash so she could check out your backside? Really?

      Mraynes is calling out a real problem. The problem is not that women make perfect leaders but are prevented from replacing male leaders. The problem is the pervasive protection of those in power, and the pervasive failure to protect the powerless. Gender is not irrelevant here, and it’s disingenuous to try to shift the focus by saying women aren’t perfect, either.

      • When I said “every bit like that,” I was referring to the bullying by the bishop described in her “II.” It was horrifying to me to think of the abused trust and damage to self-esteem that this man inflicted on those around him. To get up and “correct” one’s honest experiences over the pulpit is to deny the reality of their life. The behavior described by that individual made my stomach churn.

        And I could relate to it, because I had a female boss who treated me like that. If I opened my mouth in a team meeting, she would speak over me. She ridiculed me behind my back and to my face. She was particularly free to tell me how I was mothering wrong, and that my family didn’t need me as much as I stupidly thought they did. I totally understand about “keeping one’s head down.” When I finally developed a strategy for quitting that would contravene her blacklisting me within the university research community, she lied to people about why I was leaving.

        So while I totally acknowledge Mraynes is calling out a real problem, and appreciate her sharing her personal observations, I do not have any expectation that such issues would magically disappear if bishops were not men. I’m not being “disingenuous,” I am speaking from my scars.

        The only real answer is to have humble servant leaders of whatever gender, who are truly interested in listening and serving and seeking to follow in the savior’s footsteps.

    • I don’t think having a penis makes somebody a jerk, I think that having unchecked power can contribute towards a person being a jerk. Which I think is a big problem in a patriarchal church/society. With both genders having equal access to the power, this problem is likely to start shrinking… and while it may not ever go away, it will at least stop favoring one gender over the other.

    • I don’t think jerks are limited to men, I do not believe for one second that women are morally superior. I do think we are more likely to see this gendered phenomenon in the church because men are generally the leaders and have the final say. I know many women who have struggled with RS presidents and I hope my post doesn’t invalidate their experience. I do think we need to be more conscious of the way women are treated because of the patriarchal structure of the church and luckily, this is right in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Thanks for the input, Naismith.

  14. Beautiful essay!

    • Thank you, Jenny! It was so fun to meet you this weekend!

  15. Great thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  16. How many women suffered under the brutal occupation of the Romans while Jesus gave his sermon on the mount?

  17. I am a French woman of Afro-Caribbean origin.

    I have been deeply interested in the many discussions that can be read on LDS blogs.

    After reading Mraynes rather painful experiences, I think she is pretty right to ask “What would Jesus do?”

    At the end of her post she wrote:
    “We may not know why Jesus did not ordain women but we do know how he treated them and how he felt about them.”

    If we do not want us or our leaders to repeat the same errors over and over again, we should not forget that “the absence of proof is not the proof of absence.”

    Our recorded scriptures do not attest that Jesus ordained any woman. However, how can we be sure or even assume that he did not ordain any.

    I know that we are not aware of every single thing pertaining to the Kingdom of God. In this respect we can draw an analogy with the “other sheep” Jesus talked about.

    An entire group of Gospel believers with a complete Priesthood organisation, not even mentionned in our Bibles.
    And as we can read in the book of Mormon the Lord has many unknown truths in store for us to get to get to know some day.

    Maybe we should consider this question of priesthood for women with the open-mind that should be “normal” for Latter-Day-Saints.

    Lucienne Jeanne

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