A Response to Elder Callister
The Church has evidently decided to publish anything that someone with the title “Elder” chooses to write, regardless of how inaccurate, offensive or damaging it may be. Thus we are again treated to an essay by Elder Tad R. Callister which is a Tad Un Christlike. Elder Callister begins with a false dichotomy – whether one should address the symptoms or the source of a problem. As he put it, should one put a fence at the top of a cliff or an ambulance at the bottom. Ideally, I imagine, one could do both – warn folk away from a dangerous ledge while also mercifully providing assistance to anyone unfortunate enough to become hurt. Mercy, however, does not seem to be on the program.
To Elder Callister, the fence would be “a return to family and moral values.” As a historian specializing in the history of the family, I always find this sort of phrase a mixture of amusing and horrifying. Which period exactly will we be returning to? Perhaps to the 1950s, when it was legal to rape your wife and harass your secretary and when women were forced into domesticity by routine discrimination? Maybe he meant a bit further back – perhaps Jim Crow and Reconstruction, when white societies routinely lynched and persecuted Black people with the goal of actively destroying the family? It is very difficult to pinpoint an exact year for an imaginary historical construction that never was. Luckily, Elder Callister does not shy away from a task just because it relies on historical ignorance and ideological bias. Indeed, he thrives on such.
The year, it turns out, is 1833. In this year Joseph Smith received the revelation which we call Doctrine and Covenants 93, in which each of the first Presidency at the time were instructed to “set in order [his] own house.” He takes this as evidence that traditional family values are at the heart of the Gospel. Of course 1833 is also the year that Joseph Smith married Fanny Alger, a sixteen year old girl, and then proceeded to lie about it to everyone, including his legal wife Emma. I really think Elder Callister should define more clearly what he means by a “traditional family” since his example obscures more than it clarifies about what the golden age of family life looked like.
Elder Callister then quotes Bill Barr, an extremely controversial and polarizing figure, not known for his honesty or integrity. Since Elder Callister follows the quote with the reflection “how right he is” it seems that Elder Callister is entirely in agreement with and endorses Barr’s views. Let’s take a look.
“The reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility, but abortion.” “Illegitimate” is an offensive way to describe an innocent child, but let us assume he is referring to children who are conceived and/or born out of wedlock. It is not correct to state that the rising number of children born outside of marriage is correlated to rising abortion rates. Abortion rates have consistently been falling since 1980. Neither Elder Callister nor Barr make the slightest attempt to understand or address the reasons why women seek abortions which would be the logical place to start if you wish further reduce the number of abortions. Marriage rates are also falling, with more children born out of wedlock. However, that does not automatically indicate sexual irresponsibility. While long-term unmarried sexual partnerships are not in harmony with Church teachings, they aren’t by nature sexually irresponsible any more than marital relationships are sexually irresponsible. The commitment to the child indicates responsibility, not the piece of paper. I believe in the law of chastity and teach it in my home. But that does not mean my unmarried neighbors with two children are somehow reckless.
Unsurprisingly, Barr and Callister are firmly against compassion and a helping hand. Offering help to people who are in trouble is no good – you have to punish people who fall off of cliffs, otherwise everyone will want to do it. Drug addicts should use in public places where their hypodermic needles can be a danger to everyone who might step on it, and they certainly deserve the illnesses that can be transmitted by used needles. Women abandoned by husbands and partners should suffer. Children born to struggling mothers should not receive any aid. If you alleviate suffering in any degree everyone will want to jump into poverty and addiction.
It seems that caring for the poor, the fatherless, the sick and afflicted is definitely not what Christ commanded us to do. I tried to find scriptural support for Callister’s understanding of Satan’s plan and came across the following:
“One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”Mark 10:21
“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”Psalm 68:5
I have definitely been misinterpreting these passages as being commandments from God and not the alluring plan of Satan, so I appreciate Elder Callister’s clarification of what Ol’ Scratch is up to.
Elder Callister is particularly upset by how nice Satan’s operatives on earth make compassion and empathy seem. Satan uses alluring terms like “love” and “compassion” about fellow human beings wanting to be treated as human beings with the same rights and privileges as everyone else. You can tell that on some level Elder Callister is tempted. He describes empathy as being “cosmetically appealing” a “decorated” package wrapped with “glitter and a glamorous bow.” To Elder Callister I say – why not unwrap the package? When has Satan ever been the one trying to tempt us to be more compassionate, more empathetic, more merciful, more understanding? Does that even sound like Satan to you? Because it sure doesn’t sound like it to me.
President Uchtdorf said “Love is the healing balm that repairs rifts in personal and family relationships. It is the bond that unites families, communities and nations. Love is the power that initiates friendship, tolerance, civility and respect. It is the source that overcomes divisiveness and hate. Love is the fire that warms our lives with unparalleled joy and divine hope. Love should be our walk and our talk.”President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Love of God” October General Conference 2009
Given current Church policy and leadership, I wouldn’t expect Church leaders to express pride or support during Pride month. But as members we could do a better job of expressing love. We can lead from below. If you feel tempted to be loving towards LGBTQ members, if it seems quite appealing to have empathy, then give in! Satan never tempts you to be kinder, more generous of heart, more compassionate, more loving. That isn’t an insidious voice of the Devil, that is the still, small voice calling you to love thy neighbor as thyself. To want for your neighbor what you want for yourself.
Elder Uchtdorf’s vision of what will heal the nation seems much more aligned with Christ’s teachings than Elder Callister’s offensively ahistorical colonial analogy. Elder Callister shares a quote celebrating the remarkable unity of Northern Europeans overcoming their differences to celebrate the sanctity of the white family. Understanding how crucially important family units are, they actively weaponized that information to destroy, oppress and eliminate other peoples. Chattel slavery depended on familial destruction. Selling family members apart was an intentional decision to undermine resistance and more effectively oppress the enslaved. White masters and overseers raped enslaved women, intending to destroy any father or husband’s identity as such – sexual assault drove home an enslaved man’s inability to protect his wife or children, or to have a monogamous relationship. Indeed slaves were forbidden to have legal marriage, and enslaved women could not bring charges of rape against anyone.
These same colonists actively tried to destroy Indigenous families. It was particularly tone-deaf of the Church to publish this drivel in the same week that the graves 215 Indigenous children were found in Canada. This discovery has thrust into public conversation something that has been no secret to Native communities. Beginning with the colonists, but continuing to this day, white-run governments have pursued active policies of familial destruction with the goal of domination. These governments, supported by their citizens, wrested children from their parents. Destroying family was the point. The schools existed to try to eradicate cultural ties between generations and stamp out any sense of tribal (read: family) identity. That these schools were also institutions of cruelty and death is not a coincidence. The cruelty was the point. Holding up white colonists as a source of wisdom on the sanctity of family is a disgusting racist misrepresentation of reality.
Elder Callister solemnly affirms: “No government program or policy can compensate for lack of strong families and moral values.” However, government polices absolutely can constitute frontal attacks on families. For example, having a stable living situation, a home, is hugely helpful to a family. Redlining was designed to make sure that didn’t happen. Disproportionate arrests of Black and other non-white men carries forward the role of slavery in ensuring that generations of fathers and husbands are not present to raise their children, while white men who commit the same offenses are at liberty. Systemic racism perpetuates poverty, a consistent predictor of drug usage, lower education, fractured families.
Elder Callister understandably finds it very alluring to imagine that all it would take to heal the world is to make heterosexual monogamous middle class life universal. However, the idea that a father who can provide for children so the wife can be home full time and there is no need for child care is a fantasy that never was. To the extent anyone ever lived it (i.e. middle class white women) it was always predicated on the labor of poor women and women of color. In the 19th century homemakers wore cotton that was picked by Black slaves whose families had been ripped apart. The cloth was woven by women working under terrible conditions in factories. Their homes were cleaned by poorer women who by definition were not full time homemakers. The middleclass housewife dream continues to be built on the labor of poor women whose poverty means they cannot be full time homemakers. The cute centerpiece from Hobby Lobby was made in a sweatshop in China. The cookies you baked this afternoon were made with chocolate from cacao beans harvested by trafficked workers, many of them children. The idea that we can solve all social problems by just being married and having a single-earner family ignores the harsh realities of how the world works.
If we want to heal families, we should start where we are wounding them. Elder Callister provides no clear directives on what “promoting family values” might mean, other than denying social services and lecturing people. Instead of taking away ambulances, why don’t we ask why people are falling off of cliffs? Why is the fence not enough? And when the fence breaks let us strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back those who stray, and seek those we have lost. Let us feed the hungry, give drink to those who thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and minister to those in prison.
Ezekiel 34:3-4 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.Ezekiel 34:3-4
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”Matthew 25:41-46