Guest Post: Luke Skywalkers

Guest Post by Anonymous. 

Many of society’s complex problems can be simplified with math. Criminal justice, for example, is essentially a problem of false positives and false negatives. In an ideal world, the criminal justice system would label each defendant’s guilt correctly: always imprison the guilty and never imprison the innocent.

But in the real world, two types of errors will inevitably occur: false negatives, in which one fails to identify someone as a legitimate risk, and false positives, in which one incorrectly labels someone as a risk.

Richard Berk, a professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania, has helpful language for these two types of errors. False negatives are when you liberate the Darth Vaders of the world while false positives are when you imprison the Luke Skywalkers. Either error can cause pain if you or a loved one are affected.

Temple recommends are also concerned with this same problem of false positives and false negatives. In order to determine if someone is “worthy” or at least striving to live a life in Christ, temple recommend interviews ideally allow us to open temple doors to anyone seeking to live a life in Christ and close them to anyone who is not. But in the real world, we make errors—letting Darth Vaders in while keeping Luke Skywalkers out.

My brother is being kept out. He went through a painful divorce complete with court battles and alimony disputes. When the judge initially ruled on his alimony payments, the amount was based on his salary. But since then, a move and new job came with a significant pay cut. And try as he might, he could not get the courts to decrease his alimony obligations and was legally required to pay two-thirds of his salary to his ex-wife.

Faced with some serious budget constraints, my brother had to decide how to allocate his funds. In doing so, he had to choose whether to be a full tithe payer, whether to act on his obligations to his ex-wife and whether to provide living necessities for his new wife and family. Under these constraints, he was literally unable to meet all his obligations.

In being interviewed for his temple recommend, and with the desire to be sealed in the temple to his new wife, my brother could not give affirmative answers to questions about tithing and financial obligations to former spouses. His characteristic honesty would not allow it. And so he was denied a recommend. To make matters even more difficult, though his ex-wife had unmet financial obligations to my brother, she retained her temple recommend. It seemed immensely unfair.

My brother believes in the doctrines of the temple and wants to be there. As one who values Christ’s teachings, he more frequently invokes the table-flipping Jesus than the gentle, chick-gathering Jesus. In the temple, Jesus was not okay with sacred spaces being corrupted by unreachable monetary barriers which excluded the poor. My brother’s entreaties for both justice and mercy in his case were his own form of table-flipping.

The relationship between me and my brother has not often been easy. He can behave aggressively and offensively when he believes he’s in the right. Tact is not his forte. From what I can tell, his interactions with his local church leadership regarding his temple recommend have been similarly confrontational and I have sympathy for his leaders who are not getting paid nearly enough for their service. And while I likely don’t understand the full picture, at least on the basis of his financial situation and the relevant temple recommend interview questions, I think my brother is a Luke Skywalker.

Temple recommend interviews, like criminal justice, are a form of judgment. Darth Vaders will squeak through. Though they might abuse family members, be unfaithful to their spouses, steal money from their employers or elderly neighbors, they may simply lie their way through all the questions. With suspect intentions and motivations, they may seek a temple recommend just for show. And they will often get it.

Luke Skywalkers will also sit for interviews. I imagine some scrupulous candidates confess to eating grapes from their shopping carts before paying or to accidentally eating a coffee-flavored jelly bean. Others probably confess to all the myriad ways they fall short of perfection, or like my brother, articulate the ways they are unable to meet all that is expected of them—in some cases at no fault of their own. Some of these Luke Skywalkers will leave without a temple recommend.

To minimize these two types of errors, there are some potential solutions. For the Darth Vader errors, we could do some investigative work. We could interview family members and friends to corroborate answers about relationships and Christ-like living. We could give tests. We could analyze bank statements and tax forms to check on tithing status, or perform blood tests and health screenings to confirm Word of Wisdom adherence. But not only could this approach increase Luke Skywalker errors, this obsession with law could quickly become a bureaucratic nightmare and lead us down a completely pharisaical path.

On the other hand, we could work to eliminate all the Luke Skywalker errors if we acknowledged that we’re all imperfect and simply gave everyone temple recommends who wanted them. Like Oprah giving out cars, we could say, “You get a temple recommend! You get a temple recommend!” As with our churches, we could welcome all. We could rightly recognize that people will have right or wrong motivations for attending the temple, and be resolved that letting in the Darth Vaders is a price we are willing to pay. We’ll leave judgment to God. It would not be a horrible option.

But lowering the bar so drastically might also come with a cost. Laws have the potential to point people to a life in Christ. Teaching my children to pay one of their ten dimes in tithing is a practical way to help them practice living generously and unselfishly. The law of chastity can likewise point people to a life of faithful, dedicated commitment. Having laws constraining temple participation encouraged my grandpa to finally kick his nicotine habit which had plagued him since he was six years old selling newspapers on the streets of small-town Idaho. Without law to point the way, I doubt my grandpa would have arrived at the healthier place he did—unencumbered by addiction.

I’ve heard people talk about their personal journeys toward the temple in this way—the temple as being the sacred place which encouraged them to turn towards Christ and participate more fully in His gospel. Jesus’ assurance that He didn’t come to abolish the law has more relevance, I believe, than simply to the Law of Moses. Many forms of religious law, including those for temple attendance, can point people to Christ.

In weighing the two errors, my personal belief is that there is more harm in the Luke Skywalker errors than the Darth Vader errors—and that belief has likely been influenced by my brother’s situation. But I’m cognizant of the mathematical and ethical dilemma.

My brother’s attempts to plead his case have so far been unsuccessful, and his leaders have been unable to help him see a plausible path forward. The frustration has led him and his family away from the church during the last few months, though it has not been his preference to leave a church where he believes in the doctrines but not in the people.

The sad reality, for me, is that it doesn’t need to be this way. I believe the Church’s approach could incorporate more breathing room and flexibility in cases such as my brother’s. We could have laws that point people to Christ while also being willing to creatively minister to the one when unique situations arise. We could be a little less exacting and take care not to unnecessarily and perhaps unintentionally squeeze out the Luke Skywalkers from our midst.

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4 Responses

  1. Allison says:

    I’m definitely an adherent of the idea that anyone who wants to attend the temple should be allowed to, whether or not they “pass” an interview. Determining “worthiness” is God’s purview. Period. Yes, some who we think shouldn’t there will be, but that already happens, as you pointed out. As to whether setting temple “worthiness” (I hate that whole idea!) as the goal is the only way for someone to make life changes….I disagree. If the temple is truly to point us to Christ, keeping anyone out, for any reason, is wrong. Even if their being there hurts me. It can be complex, I know, but I think the temple is either for EACH of us, or NONE of us.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Allison, I’m the author of this post. I’m with you that temple “worthiness” should not be set as the ONLY way for someone to make life changes. People can come to Christ from many different angles, from inside and outside of the church. And I agree that the worthiness framing is problematic. 

      I believe temple recommend interviews, along with other laws and commandments, should serve as pointers to Christ. They sometimes succeed in that and sometimes fail. My belief is simply that if you get rid of the interviews or other guidelines completely you lose some ability to persuade and invite people to come to Christ, or to show them what that might look like. But that loss may be worth the benefits in this case.

  2. Anonymous says:

    My father was a Luke skywalker (albeit one devoid of tact, diplomacy, or nuance) He was denied a temple recommend on the grounds that the bishop (his brother in law with whom he had a decades long contentious relationship) felt that my father did not sustain him. My uncle decided to “pray about it” for a few weeks before giving him the recommend a few weeks later but after the temple wedding of his oldest son – me. To my everlasting shame as a young stupid believer I went ahead with my marriage without my father being able to attend.
    My uncle, the bishop was not merely a darth Vader – he was a palpatine. He presented such a great face in public that he became a mission president. He was able to charm visiting Americans – always in the front row in his national costume, oozing charm as he was first in line to obsequiously gush over how their words moved him. In the meantime his repeated abuse of spiritual power was only a small part of the list of things that should have disqualified him from temple attendance. His failings both legal, moral, ethical, and personal were well known locally but to salt lake he was a good native who had been properly colonized and should be held up as an example to others who had not so fully (publicly) embraced the rich white conservative american faith.
    Unfortunately solving this type of situation is not simply a question of lowering or raising the bar. Nor is it one of isolated bad actors. As some of the misdeeds became difficult to ignore, general authorities who had been taken in by my uncle and others did not wish to acknowledge their own culpability and, looking to cover up their part, perpetrated their own spiritual abuses. This escalated over years until one of the people who had been hurt sued the church and some individual general authorities for defamation. Many of the people hurt by systemic spiritual abuse were called to testify, including my father. He received a letter (which he still has in his possession) from a current member of the first presidency demanding that he perjure himself in court to protect the church and that if he did not he would have his membership in the church taken away.
    While individuals may be overly harsh on themselves or be able to justify their own guilt to become skywalkers or vaders – the problem is larger and more systemic where lay leaders appointed by other untrained leaders make judgements – sometimes well meant and sometimes not – with no accountability and no recourse for those wronged. When every decision and calling is a revelation from god, being wrong is both a personal and institutional embarrassment and cannot be acknowledged or corrected without damaging confidence in the whole house of cards. The system does not focus on helping the individual only on protecting and perpetuating itself and those in power at any cost.
    (Many of the people involved are still living and out of respect to them I have tried to remove identifying information including my name)

    • Anonymous says:

      Your concern, then, seems to be the tendency of the system to support Luke Skywalker errors for its own preservation, and that there are no adequate means of redress when these errors occur. That’s difficult and has been my brother’s concern as well.

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