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.