On December 12, 2015, I sat in Relief Society and heard something that has produced considerable anxiety in me over the last seven months. A counselor in the Stake Presidency was giving the lesson. I don’t remember the topic, but the sisters were asking him questions and he was answering them. I mostly remember that the meeting felt neutral and the discussion had managed to skirt the homophobic expressions that seemed to be a part of every meeting during those weeks. Church left me feeling anxious much of the time, but I was relieved that this class was not headed that way.
I’m not sure how we got to that awful place, but I remember what the counselor in the Stake Presidency said. He told the class that if the brethren asked him to kill someone, he would do it without question. It seemed to me that the women in the room were in awe of his expression of devotion to the LDS Church.
To be clear, this is not a second-hand story I am telling. I heard this with my own ears and witnessed it with my own eyes. I also want to tell you that I’ve heard statements like this before in LDS services and classes. By the time the incident occurred, I’d been living in my ward for eight years, which was located in a small rural community just north of St. George, Utah. I had heard members of the ward make similar comments on occasion. Typically, these comments were made by male class participants during Gospel Doctrine, but I had never before heard a local church leader make that kind of statement.
I would like to tell you that I stood up, and declared something to the effect of “Jesus asked us to love our neighbors, not murder them” and stormed out of the room, followed by the other women. Instead, I froze. I had been hoping to avoid the emotional violence of homophobic speech, but got something worse instead.
The rational part of me knew that this man did not have a reputation for physical violence, nor did I suspect it of him. In the following weeks, the sociologist in me knew that he was expressing his allegiance to the LDS Church in that dreadful statement. However, it is both academically interesting and emotionally terrifying that he chose to articulate his faithfulness and loyalty in terms of his willingness to commit murder on behalf of the church leaders that he loved and trusted.
For months, I tried to excuse his behavior in my mind. He was just repeating what he had heard others say and liked the way it felt when he said it. He was showing solidarity with church leaders. He was trying to be obedient like Nephi. Those may all have been true, but I have come to realize that that is also what religious fundamentalism-on-the-borders-of-extremism looked like. That is what nascent religious violence looked like. If it had been a statement by a ward member, I would have dismissed it more easily, but it came from the mouth of a local leader. I’m sure that many in that room didn’t think much of what was said, but I worry about those who will repeat this pronouncement or adopt this line of thinking. I fear that statements like this are a precursor to actual violence. Thinking about the potential horror and headline makes me feel dread.
I worry and I pray that as a religious group we will lay down our words of violence, our aggressive mentalities, our imagined holy wars between the forces of in-groups and out-groups. I pray that we will someday express our devotion to Jesus and his message by proclaiming that we will love and welcome and serve people on the margins of our communities. I pray that we, as a people, will long for peace. We are not there yet.