Avoiding Contention Is Not the Higher Law

Due to pre-existing medical conditions, I am at a higher risk of serious complications or hospitalization from COVID-19. Thankfully I live in a country with mandatory public masking and an extremely high vaccination rate (over 90%). My branch is currently meeting in person with an online Sacrament broadcast for those who cannot attend at the chapel. Given that we live in a country where vaccine passes are standard and required for everything from restaurants to workplaces, I asked local leaders if they would consider a monthly service with stricter COVID-19 mitigation protocols including a vaccination requirement to make it safer for vulnerable members like me to return.

These leaders ultimately decided my suggestion was too politically controversial and that unvaccinated members might find it offensive, even though they agreed with me that it shouldn’t be. Later, they announced over the pulpit during Sacrament that we should wear masks but not confront other members by asking them to put on their masks. Several district and branch leaders have also expressed a desire to remove broadcast options as much as possible to encourage people to attend in person. These leaders’ approach is anything but neutral: by prioritizing the comfort of those who reject basic public health precautions, they have excluded people like me.

This decision has real consequences: I do not have a Priesthood holder in the home and have to arrange for administration of the Sacrament separately. (The leaders withdrew blanket authorization for administration of the Sacrament at home during the pandemic despite rising cases, of course, but made an exception for me.) I have a key Relief Society calling but cannot attend Relief Society. As a result, other sisters have to assist me with some of my responsibilities that cannot be done remotely, such as taking attendance. I have resigned myself to the fact that for my whole two-year stay in South Korea I probably won’t be able to attend church even once because I cannot do so safely.

This is not my first encounter with the specter of potential contention to be avoided in this branch. Our branch includes many singles and mixed-member families without opportunities for Family Home Evening or Come, Follow Me discussions outside of Sunday meetings. I had informal conversations with many of those members who yearned for deeper discussions beyond the sanitized provided materials that were devoid of reliable information about theological debates and historical controversy. As a result, I offered to co-lead a monthly virtual one-hour Family Home Evening for adults in my branch. We would discuss the Come, Follow Me lesson but focus on critical analysis and deep, philosophical conversations including on challenging topics. Anyone would be welcome to bring thoughts, questions, and concerns.

However, I was told our local authority “was a bit hesitant as it would need to be conducted in a way that is conducive for healthy conversations and topics that would not cause controversy” and suggested the supervision of a Branch Presidency member. I responded that I would rather scrap the whole idea than “not cause controversy.” The experience reminded me of the words of Amy Isaksen Cartwright in the 40th anniversary issue of the Exponent II magazine:

“Questions beget questions and I soon found myself longing to discuss the more complicated issues surrounding faith in the journeys that it takes us on. Church meetings and associations were for sharing uplifting, faith-promoting stories and for restating words that had come before through sanctioned sources, almost exclusively the voices of men. There did not seem to be room for asking the questions that have no answers, the questions that are such a part of our being that they need space to dwell or they will overcome us….And so, I needed to find other sources and places to have these conversations and continue to taste of the forbidden fruit of vulnerability.”

I am convinced that avoiding contention is almost never the higher law. The Savior never chose to avoid contention when there was an opportunity to minister to the most vulnerable, testify of God, or stand up for righteousness. We have countless examples in our Scriptures of courageous children of God facing difficult choices between conflicting commandments and making the necessary sacrifices to follow the higher law – starting from the beginning with Eve’s decision in the Garden of Eden. We should follow her example.

TopHat hit the nail on the head in her recent post, “Contention”: “We need to discuss the hard stuff in life. We have to challenge things. Putting in that energy and effort demonstrates our commitment to the relationship. This pertains to personal relationships as well as our relationship with our ward, our community, our world at large. Have the hard conversations; contention can be a sign of commitment.”

I yearn for the day I can rely on local and global church leaders to challenge things. Until then, I’ll take spiritual solace in those institutions and relationships that are committed enough to have the hard conversations.

Nicole

Nicole is an adult convert, a mixed-race woman, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com and writes microfiction @nsbitani on Twitter. The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.

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10 Responses

  1. Cassandra Sansesperance says:

    I had a similar conversation about masking and COVID three months ago with a stake leader in my stake in Arizona. The result was the same as yours. I now attend a church where masking and social distancing are taken seriously—and where the minister regularly reminds the congregation (which meet online or in person) why by stating the local COVID stats. I had suggested to the stake leader if the bishops would announce the area COVID stats over the pulpit it might help to emphasize the seriousness. “Oh that’s too private,” said he. “Why?” I asked. “Other local churches are doing that. The stats are on the government website so no one could sue (although someone would probably think of trying.” I told him the stake was showing favoritism to the people who flout reason and common sense. He admitted that was probably true but it was what the Area President would do. And what would YOU do, I asked? He declined to answer.

  2. Beth Young says:

    Start your own Zoom group that is independent of them, invite people in and out of the church, and discuss whatever you want to. The leaders aren’t leading, they are obfuscating. Ignore them as best you can, but don’t let them shut you down. Podcasts: The Faithful Feminist and Beyond the Block go very deep dive into the CFM every week. Listen and share! Your story reminds me of the choices made by Brigham Young et al and how Utah was set up as a slave state. They had white Southerners joining and coming to Utah, and bringing their slaves. Leaders appeased the White people, and so did nothing to welcome the Black people. But they did soften the term slave to “servant.” Same thought process as your leaders of appease and avoid controversy

  3. Elisa says:

    Our misguided focus on avoiding contention and discomfort has spiritually and emotionally stunted our development. Improving and changing at anything – isn’t that what we are all about? – demands discomfort. Jesus made people uncomfortable all the time; some thought he was insane and many wanted to kill him. Many left him over it. In reality, we create a superficial veneer of “nice” over a reality of cruelty. There is very little kindness and compassion because we never have the difficult conversations that would lead to real understanding and empathy because those conversations can feel “contentious.” We really needs to deprogram ourselves on this one and get comfortable with discomfort.

    And yes, I totally agree that the side that gets sacrificed on the altar of niceness always happens to be the political left. When we say “politically neutral” what we actually mean is “cater to the right.” Somehow the controversial side is always one side that isn’t actually controversial outside of certain circles.

    I had many similar experiences re masking enforcement during Covid as I tried to protect high-risk girls and leaders under my stewardship in YW but was constantly shut down because we can’t “make girls who don’t want to wear masks uncomfortable” (ok, so we can just tell the ones who aren’t safe coming to stay home then). It was incredibly frustrating.

  4. Kim says:

    Just curious why you don’t start a FHE with adults because you want to? You don’t need permission to have a family home evening. Each one of us can take initiative to live the gospel as we choose.

  5. Whitney says:

    Please start your own discussion group with interested people and don’t make it “official”! This is what my husband did (before we were even dating) and they were so interesting and thoughtful. (His willingness to host them and be open to discussion was one of the things that attracted me to him)

    I will bug him to set one up again and we will invite you (Hi Nicole! — Whitney and Austin)

  6. Nicole says:

    I see a lot of comments about how I should start my own unofficial, virtual Come, Follow Me discussion group. I actually already have one and am very happy with it. I was hoping to get local leadership support for a Family Home Evening one we could advertise through official church channels for a few reasons. First, I know there are folks who would only feel comfortable attending if it was sanctioned in that way. Second, I have found in previous wards that local leadership support is very helpful when other members try to shut down controversial conversations. Third, I think we’d get a more diverse set of perspectives than the one in my own selected social circle.

    If anyone wants to start up another one virtually (and if we can make it work across our time zones), I would be happy to join! I love meeting new people and hearing new perspectives. (I was also extra excited to see @Whitney posting above – I hope you and Austin are well! It’s been too long!)

  7. Em says:

    “Avoiding contention” is really just cover for “not offending the people whose participation we ultimately value more than yours.” Don’t even get me started on trying to bully people into attending by shutting down the virtual option. So frustrating, and it isn’t going to get me to make unsafe choices for my family. Sorry you are dealing witht his seriously frustrating situation

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