Why is there no Justice in Mormon Discourse?

Recently, Gina Colvin shared a video of a choral song that I found deeply moving. “For Everyone Born” completely resonated with me spiritually, and to me, it represented everything good about religion. It represented what I wanted my church to be.

Here’s a sample of some of the lyrics:

For everyone born, a place at the table,

for everyone born, clean water and bread,

a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,

for everyone born, a star overhead,

and God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy,

compassion and peace:

yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice,

justice and joy!

I loved this for so many reasons. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about families from other countries coming to the U.S. to ask for asylum because they face death, mutilation, abuse, hunger, etc. from gangs, abusive spouses, or governmental/structural forces in their home countries. This verse made me think of them and how, indeed, working towards godly justice does mean helping people have that safe place, shelter, and bread.

I was also moved by the second verse that talks about gender equality. I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life as a Mormon feminist working for and hoping for more opportunities for women in the LDS church. It nearly caused me to tear up to hear the men of the choir sing this verse:

For woman and man, a place at the table,

revising the roles, deciding the share,

with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,

for woman and man, a system that’s fair,

I listened to this song about ten times. I felt my whole soul craving and yearning for this kind of discourse in my church, the church I attend every week and where I virtually never hear discussion or prayers for all to have places at the table, bread, clean water, safety, and fair systems. As I listened to it, I was utterly compelled by its message, and I could feel my chest get heavy with joy at the knowledge that churches exist that embrace and love this message. At the same time I was sad to know that I would never hear such a song in my LDS congregation.

In the spirit of being more open with my devout intellectual Mormon husband, I shared this video with him. We don’t often talk about spirituality since we experience our spiritual lives so differently. He finds the LDS church satisfies his spiritual needs, whereas I don’t. Often, we have found, it’s easiest to not discuss this gulf in experience. Yet because this song was so powerful to me, I thought I’d take a chance and show it to him.

He politely listened to it. When I asked him what he thought, he diplomatically mentioned that he wasn’t used to “modern” sounding hymns. He said that a lot of the messages were nice. But in the end, it didn’t really resonate with him — perhaps the main reason being the focus on the concept of justice. As a born and bred Mormon, this just wasn’t the way he used the term. For him, the only time justice discourse arises is in discussions of “mercy vs. justice” — a very different sense than the social justice concepts invoked in the song.  So the emphasis on justice just didn’t work for him.

I was disappointed he didn’t have anywhere close to the same reaction I did to the song, but I also found it really interesting that justice discourse was an impediment for him, especially because I know him and his huge heart. I know he’d be the first to give his shirt off his back to someone in need. I know he’d go out of his way to help someone fleeing from domestic or gang violence. I know he’d be the first to feed a hungry person.  So why would working towards systems that ensure safety and food (justice) feel foreign and uncomfortable to him?

We talked about this gulf in our reactions, with me asking what word would better represent this vision of helping those facing intense structural discrimination, violence, etc. In the end, he put his finger on the word that would work for him: Zion. Working towards a Zion community, with no inequity, no poor — that resonated with his Mormon worldview and language.

Zion. Yes, that’s a word that connotes for Mormons much of what “justice” connotes for me. I may not hear many (any) talks or lessons about social justice in my Mormon future, but it seemed to me that “Zion” discourse could accomplish much of what justice discourse does in other churches. I’m going to remember this — Zion may be a bridging discourse that will work for both me and my fellow ward members.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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6 Responses

  1. Autumn says:

    I love this. Zion is a topic that can easily be brought up every year in Gospel Doctrine because we have examples of it in every book of scripture. The same for the older Primary kids. It’s not so easy with the youth, but I’m sure a resourceful teacher could figure out a way to discuss it. And it’s not like it’s a fringe doctrine. I really believe that it is one of the most important things that Joseph Smith emphasized as a prophet.

  2. Shawn Beus says:

    What a beautiful hymn. Oh that it could be in our new hymnal. Dreams.

  3. JNB says:

    Caroline, your piece here resonates so much with me. What a perfect song. My own husband was raised so much like yours and we have to keep our spiritual and intellectual closeted and just focus on our parenting and love life in order to preserve the marriage. I like that you’ve found common ground in this way and I plan to try to do the same, though I am leery of LDS concepts of Zion, because I know their utopian ideal would still involve males presiding. I am raising my children to be social justice warriors like their mom, however. The hand that rocks the cradle [quietly] rules the world/ward, so even if I never manage to enjoy true communion with the saints in this life because I care so much for the poor and downtrodden, I believe that my children will enjoy it one day, because of mothers like us!

  4. ReTx says:

    You might really enjoy Jonathan Haidt’s book ‘The Righteous Mind.’ What you’ve described here with the understanding of the world Justice (according to Haidt) is one of the defining lines between a moral liberal value system and a more conservative value system (not talking politics, although that topic is related).

  5. Anon says:

    The youth Come Follow Me lessons for YW and YM do have a lesson about Zion in December every year.

    Thank you for sharing this song. It was beautiful and inspiring.

  6. Tim says:

    I agree with reading ‘The Righteous Mind’ – it is a great book. Words not only have technical meanings but carry biased connotations. For many people when we speak of justice, or social justice, they start thinking about political positions and policies. Rather than the end goal of a utopian, ideal, celestial, or zion community, they see laws, regulations, and political debates. And just like JNB noted when she hears Zion she thinks of males presiding. Words can carry different meaning and emotions for each of us. The same can happen when we talk about equality, equity, or power. To get to a deeper understanding we must first work through our definitions and biases with the words we use. This is not easy.

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