Marginalized People Do Not Exist for Your Exaltation
I am currently reading a book for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about better loving and understanding LGBTQ people. The book is thoughtfully written with a nice combination of the personal experiences of the author (who is the parent of a gay child), Scriptural references, quotes from Church leaders past and present, and speculative theology. I am generally enjoying the read, but there is a recurring theme that deeply bothers me. It especially disturbs me because I have encountered it not only in this book but in various Mormon spaces and conversations nominally dedicated to supporting marginalized people.
The theme goes something like this: “God gave us <insert group of marginalized people> so we can learn to love better/be more understanding/embrace those who are different from us/expand our conception of who can achieve eternal life.” In the case of this book, that group is queer people. But I’ve seen the same line of thinking used with minority races, people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses, and others. This view centers the majority experience and relegates marginalized groups to nothing more than sidekicks in the main plotline of the majority’s exaltation.
This is a well-known phenomenon in writing circles. Black characters are often characterized as “sacrifices, sidekicks, and scapegoats” in white stories, and many have noted the common trope of female characters being used for nothing more than advancing a man’s character development. There is even a term – “fridging” – for the specific use of physical or sexual violence against a woman to move a male story forward. In the case of a woman’s death as motivation for a man’s quest, it’s a trope known as the Disposable Woman.
As one author writes in response to fridging: “Women have just as diverse a range of stories to tell as men, and shouldn’t need to be raped or otherwise traumatized to prove that.” All marginalized people are the stars of their own stories, not sidekicks. Their stories are just as valuable as anyone else’s. And given systemic and historical neglect of marginalized narratives, those of us in the majority or positions of power should be making an extra effort to center them instead of ourselves.
I think it’s a wonderful thing that Church members are learning to love others, especially those who are different from them, more fully. We must make space for a more inclusive attitude towards those who are marginalized historically and today. But we should never assume that our own personal spiritual growth is the reason they are here. To believe such a thing is to deny the divine nature and eternal destiny of those we claim to love. What about their exaltation? What about their experience as the people around them (often too slowly and many times not at all) learn to love them?
One way to test if you’re falling into this trap is to reverse the statement and see if it still makes sense. Would anyone say that straight people exist so queer people can learn how to be more loving? I’ve never heard it. We shouldn’t say something like that about LGBTQ people, either. It’s not only unkind, but it’s also bad theology.
We are instructed to “work out our own salvation” in Philippians 2:12 and Mormon 9:27, but it is human nature to see ourselves and people like us as the audience in those verses. As followers of Christ, we need to see beyond ourselves and recognize that the Gospel message is for everyone and not just us. We must see marginalized people first as equals on their own journeys of spiritual progression, siblings working out their own salvation. Their influence and impact on others is important, but not as important as they themselves are.
Jesus Christ taught that people come first. He left the 99 sheep to look for the one not because the one had anything especially important or useful for the others. In other words, he did not do it for the sake of the 99. The one was worth it all on its own.
The Lord knows each of us by name. He understands what we’re going through, which means he sees us the way we see ourselves: as main characters in our own stories, full of complexities and desires and struggles and hopes and dreams. Nobody is a sidekick to someone else’s exaltation. So let’s stop acting like they are and instead start learning to love more like the Savior did.