Can we disagree about ‘who we are’…without becoming enemies?

I was invited by the editor of an international opendemocracy.net forum to write some reflections about the Mormon conversation in the wake of the recent LDS policy clarification. That abbreviated article published November 30, 2015 omitted some important details, motivating me to release the full version here – which has been elaborated upon as well.  Although the original title, “How Caitlyn Jenner Became a Hero and the Mormon Prophets, Villains” accurately captures, for me, a fascinating shift in the larger discourse, some helpful feedback helped me realize that this title unnecessarily distracted from the overriding invitation towards greater space for curiosity and understanding which drives my work.

A profound cultural sea change is happening right now – that much we can agree on. What exactly to make of that change is where the sparks start to fly.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the very-much-a-battleground state of Utah (and the associated Mormon diaspora), illustrated most recently by sharply disparate responses to a clarified policy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding congregants living in gay marriages and their resident children.

Members that used to unite with brothers and sisters in love for latter-day prophets now openly feud about whether hatred or cruelty is motivating what one person called “those despicable bigots who run the Mormon church.”

What changed? How do people move from one place to another so remarkably different? And what’s behind the larger conflict anyway?

I’m convinced that any one of these questions could invoke striking curiosity – pressing us (all) towards a potentially fascinating conversation…if only people (on both sides) weren’t so darn certain of everything!

“Something is broken,” one Mormon commentator writes, “so terribly, terribly broken and I think it’s time that we named that brokenness…My hope is that We as the church will find the strength, the voice, the power and the fearlessness to claim the church back from the Upper Rooms [of the Temple – i.e., where the prophets meet].” Or as another said less poetically about the recent decision, “This comes [not from God, but] from the raggedy old men that want to control everybody’s life.”

For many, this essential perspective is held without question – passed along as so patently true that it’s hardly treated like ‘a point of view’ anymore.

Something similar happens on the other side too (that’s my side, by the way) – where religious conservatives are prone to attribute this conflict almost entirely to ‘those angry gay activists’ hell bent on destroying religion out of hatred for ‘anything or anyone that opposes them.’

I don’t believe that. Neither do I believe Mormon prophets are finally showing their true colors as villains despicable enough to ‘take this out on the children!’[1]

And yet, aren’t we living in a day when we Americans (on all sides of the political spectrum) just love these kinds of simple, black-and-white explanations – especially those that identify a recognizable enemy, while reaffirming our own moral superiority?

From ‘those troublemaker Muslims’ to ‘those dangerous immigrants’ to ‘those hateful Mormons’ to ‘those godless gay activists,’ it’s become so much easier to simply place the blame on a deficient sub-class of human beings, rather than doing the hard work of exploring and growing in our understanding together of what really divides otherwise good-hearted people (doing their best with what they most deeply believe and see to be true).[2]

When it comes to the LGBT/religious conservative divide, in particular, our portrayals of ‘those other people’ have become increasingly stark and dramatic. On one hand, we insist the source of the conflict is people with not enough faith in their hearts. On the other hand, it’s people with not enough love in their hearts. On one side, people lament a stubborn refusal to accept dissent from a particular sexual orthodoxy; on the other, they lament a blind refusal to allow adjustments to a particular religious orthodoxy.

For me, at least, the problem with this dramatic dichotomy is that it just doesn’t add up – not on the most basic of empirical tests.  Over the last two decades, I’ve come to know (many) faithful, vibrant, loving people on all sides of this conversation.  If not boiling down to a fundamental contrast in innate goodness and badness, then what’s going on?

Welcome to Story Wars.  In a galaxy not far away – and pretty much front and center in all our lives – an endlessly fascinating, increasingly intense clash continues to unfold between profoundly conflicted narratives that shape life (for all of us).

For instance, central to both Mormonism and the gay rights movement are defining and formative pronouncements of core identity. For those in the LGBTQI community, for instance, sexual orientation is held to be a centrally defining feature of one’s identity.[3]

From this vantage point, it’s totally understandable why any sort of disagreement may be experienced as somehow a rejection of people themselves (rather than simply a rejection of how people see themselves).

And admittedly, if I believed Mormon leaders were actively seeking to encourage its membership to reject who people really were…heck, I would be angry too!

But I’m not.  Because that’s not what I personally see as happening at all.

There’s another identity story at play here…

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ relish what they call the “restored gospel” precisely for the new narrative it introduces about who we are and where we come from – a “re-storying” of life that we embrace as a true reflection of things as they are.

This includes a conception of God as not a vapor, or an essence or an immensity filling all space – but as a literal Father coupled with our glorious Mother – by whom we inherit a “divine potential” at the very deepest level of our own DNA.

No matter whatever else is faced or felt in life, the future possibilities of ‘growing up to be like Mom and Dad’ touch every aspect of life for the Mormon community.  That’s a large part of why we get married, enjoy children and family, and have an interest in sharing our convictions with the rest of the world. As one of our apostles has said, “Our theology begins with heavenly parents. Our highest aspiration is to be like them.”

Rather than mere abstractions, these competing identity narratives lead to very practical and real-life consequences – especially for Mormons:  Should I leave my marriage?  Should I step away from the Church? Where will I find my fullest, deepest happiness?

Depending on the narrative adopted as ‘reality,’ very different things follow.

Some Examples.  Over the last year, the individual formerly known as Bruce Jenner received major attention for transitioning from a gender identity of male to female.  Within the prevailing narrative of sexuality and identity, the decision to now identify as Caitlyn was widely celebrated, with those raising questions mostly seen as simply being unaccepting or unloving.

Needless to say, space for an open conversation has been scarce – including for people intimately involved in similar situations, and especially if they hold a different view of identity. For instance, one Mormon mother described watching her married daughter with children experience confusion about her gender, to the point where her daughter now believed that she was, in fact, male or transgender.

From one narrative, this daughter is responding naturally to the simple reality of her experience – and in the only way she could.  From the perspective of this mother who spent years raising this beloved child, however, she described a heavy heart in seeing her daughter “planning to cut off her body parts and take hormones which will forever change her features as well as her personality.”  From this vantage point, a mother describes her grief at “watching my daughter prepare to ‘disappear herself’ forever and I have been told that I must accept her choice.”

She adds, “I also never realized how devastating it is to have a child turn themselves into someone so completely unrecognizable inside and out, to the point that they cease to exist as the person the parent always knew and loved.”

The purpose here, by the way, is not to establish or try to confirm who ‘we really are.’[4] I’m satisfied living in a world where we disagree on that point – especially if we could make space for different conclusions and get curious about how these play out in our diverse experiences of sexuality, family and life itself.

In the case of this mother’s story, for instance, what might be seen by many as a disappointing lack of acceptance of ‘who her daughter really is,’ becomes from another perspective an understandable desire to hold on to ‘who her daughter really is.’

Without necessarily expecting to resolve this kind of a question, it seems to me that fairly acknowledging different ways such a situation might be framed could be an enormous step forward.  In wartime, of course, both side of a conflict are highly incentivized to do the opposite – characterizing the other side in terms largely unrecognizable to the ‘enemy.’[5]

Even if we cannot escape such philosophical conflicts, perhaps we can at least agree to describe the contrast of positions in a way different people find ‘fair enough’ and understandable?

As a final example, take this vignette from a Mormon-identifying parent who also now identifies as gay: “Today I finally sat down with my two active, Mormon children to explain the new policy to them.”  Both teens are active in the Church – and were unsettled at what the policy would mean for them – now or in the future.  She continued, “My daughter just cried and cried. I feel lost and unequipped to help them.”

So here’s the question, once more:  Is the sorrow expressed in this account (and the other one too), a result of: (a) the larger story encouraging people to identify as children of Divine Parents as fundamental to who they are (b) the larger story encouraging people to identify as LGBTQI as fundamental to who they are or (c) the clash between both?

As satisfying as it might temporarily feel to portray the other side as nothing more than heathens or haters, I think we can do far better than that.

Looking Forward. What if we got curious about the clash of stories – leaving ourselves open to the possibility that (1) no one has this all figured out (2) any one of us – myself included – could be totally wrong about something and (3) what we’re facing, most fundamentally, is not a contest between superior and deficient human beings – but instead, between otherwise good-hearted, thoughtful people with some pretty big philosophical differences?

To me, at least, this represents a more plausible explanation of the conflict than the relentless (and wearisome) attempts (on both sides of the political spectrum) to portray ‘those people’ as mean-spirited and malicious. As I’ve already said, rather than questioning or resisting or challenging people themselves (which is painfully and inescapably personal and divisive), this becomes squarely about questioning or resisting or challenging competing stories about people (which is still personal and challenging, but without provoking the same division).

And out of this very pivot point, I’m convinced another conversation could emerge entirely – focused not on simply who is loving (or not), faithful (or not) or hateful (or not) – but also what exactly it means to be hateful or faithful or loving, alongside meaningful differences in consider where happiness and suffering originate [6], different perspectives on the African-American civil rights analogy, and other fascinating distinctions in our definitions of choice and change.

And what is that conversation like?

It’s transformative  – and it’s intense.  Yes, it’s (sometimes) hard.  But it’s also (many times) crazy fun. And it’s (almost always) enriching, clarifying and complexity-expanding.

That doesn’t mean the stories just go away. But they can certainly evolve and mature in surprising ways, [7] as we find greater nuance and insight, as well as some new life-long friends.

We may never reach agreement or some final resolution (or even ‘respect’ for each others’ views, by the way, which has never been an expectation for these conversations).  But holding everything else constant, what if agreed to simply respect each other as people – as someone whose feelings and views were worth really hearing out and considering (if not necessarily being accepted as ‘valid’).

There’s plenty you can do, starting TODAY, to experience this for yourself.  But as long as you see this as exclusively a contest between the Dark Side and YOUR side…well, then all this stuff will feel either uninteresting or misguided or ‘dangerous.’

My message to those who insist on an emerging consensus where we can all agree to ‘accept people,’ is to not overlook the deeper Story War going on as well.  This narrative contrast, which nicely gives birth to our various ‘heroes’ and villains,’ is also something that I’ve argued revolves not simply around different levels of love, but very pointedly around different narratives of identity.

And that’s why I would say with confidence that my people can respect Caitlyn.  We can embrace her in every way a good neighbor might. [4]

But don’t be baffled or shocked if we resist fully accepting how Caitlyn sees herself – not as reflective of who she really, ‘fundamentally is.’[8]

That many of us simply cannot do…not without walking away from our own core Story about identity as well.

 

 

Notes:  Whether you loved or hated this, I would be curious and benefit from your candid responses. In the end, I’m just one person sharing my ideas for a more productive conversation – not pretending to have things ‘all figured out.’ All comments – unless you are selling testosterone-boosting supplements – will be posted…!

[1] In order to reach that conclusion about children and the prophets, someone has to ignore at least twenty profoundly important questions – reflecting meaningful disagreement on both the LDS handbook changes and gay rights overall. To be clear, I don’t believe this level of oversight is happening maliciously, but instead as a predictable outgrowth of our profound inattention to the many interpretive dimensions of this (potentially rich) conversation.

[2] David Blankenhorn calls this “achieving disagreement.” To speak of “good-hearted people,” by the way, is not to claim that everyone is somehow always good-hearted – since we all have our tendency to drift from that.  But one feature of generous dialogue is seeking to give disagreeing conversation partners the benefit of the doubt – assuming that they believe what they do, not out of a malicious heart – but instead out of sincerely held convictions that differ from our own.

[3] As detailed below, orthodox Mormons are equally insistent about their own fundamental identity. In both cases, this is one of the most sensitive and personal questions of all – impinging on our deepest views of ourselves.  This clash between identity narratives is both complex and extensive – spanning biological, sexual, emotional, interpretative and religious levels.  It is this nuance and complexity that pushed me to wonder – “well, maybe we should at least try having an open conversation about these differences?” For a more thorough review of the contrasts at these various levels, see this separate inquiry here:  The Disagreement at the Heart of the LGBT/Conservative Religion Conflict.

[4] If you believe that being transgender is reflective of who you or your spouse or son or daughter or brother or friend is, you will find me and millions of Mormons ready to welcome you as our beloved neighbor. One of my dearest neighbors identifies as transgender and consistently tells people how loved and welcomed he has been by our local community of Mormons – including in his occasional attendance at worship service. The central point in this essay is not to impugn any particular choice – but instead, to highlight the degree to which larger narratives shape and influence the experiences we all have and the conclusions we all reach.

The central aim here is not to convince people to see identity like I do – but instead, to persuade others to see the value of making space for an open exploration of different views of identity (and many other things).

[5] That’s certainly how many of us experience the conversation right now – replete with stark mischaracterizations, misrepresentations and selective emphases designed to bolster one’s position and raze the other.  It’s possible to disagree sharply and pointedly about lots of stuff, while exploring language that fairly characterizes these differences.  On the conservative side, as my friends know, I’m more than willing to hold people accountable when our rhetoric moves into demonizing territory.  In the other direction, I’m curious to ask progressive-leaning people the following. Based on your experience of Mormons you know, which of the following explanations of the recent policy decision to draw a line with gay marriage feels most ‘truthful’ to you:

  • Mormons acting in a way that violates their own scriptures versus simply violating a particular liberal interpretation of scripture?
  • Mormons becoming aggressive and hostile to gay families versus acting in line with another view of family in recent decisions?

[6] Some might wonder, why would we waste time talking when people are suffering? If these Mormon policies are harming people today, shouldn’t we just keep the focus on advocacy? Similar resistance and concern has arisen with climate change dialogue – the planet is burning up, and you want to talk?!  In both cases, my liberal dialogue colleagues and I are on the same page:  (1) Adversarial problem solving will only go so far in this conversation (2) These questions are significant and crucial enough to at least call for a two-sided, two-way exchange with competing interpretations on the table (for instance, these contrasting views on the Mormon policy) and (3) Suffering itself can be framed, interpreted in and narrated in profoundly different ways.

[7] My own understanding of identity has been challenged and even expanded somewhat in these conversations, without being fundamentally changed. On an institutional level, others have hopes of a more substantive expansion in the future. One friend I very much respect, Kendall Wilcox, who identifies as both gay and Mormon asked, “Why does the LDS plan of salvation have to be exclusively heteronormative? Yes, we believe in heavenly mother and father, but why could the narrative not be expanded to be more inclusive, without throwing out everything?  Could it not just be expanded?”  As I told him, yes, I’m open to that. We clearly don’t know everything about the next life – and like all Mormons, I am open to additional revelation. I’ve been touched by some efforts in the community to ask Mormon leaders to bring their heart’s questions to God. A fundamental shift in the Mormon identity story hasn’t happened yet – may never happen (depending on your point of view).  Perhaps we can work for a conversation that leaves it somewhat open – with a healthy space for both uncertainty and conviction on both sides?

My dialogue partner Jay Griffith articulated the space nicely in this way: “Some progressives would argue that the theology of divine parentage doesn’t need to preclude eternal mating of same sex individuals. And/or they will argue that the nuclear family was not central to Christ’s teachings. It is these very stories or narratives that I would also like us to be willing to be open to seeing with new eyes and ears. But that’s just where I am. I see revelation as organic and evolving, at least that is what the historical record and my own experience indicate. But our nature is to want things to be stable and certain, black and white. Clearly right and wrong. But if it were that easy, agency would be a moot point. As would our personal growth and exaltation.”

Again, I agree with Jay and Kendall in the point about making space for different narratives.  It’s primarily that space I’m advocating for (and seeing shrink by the day!)…If not at every level of the institutional church, can we at least leave open space for these possibilities and uncertainties – alongside equal space for contrasting convictions? I’ve experienced as much with Jay, Kendall, Tracy and many others, many times.

[8] That’s what has worked between Mormons and our Baptist friends (you know, the ones who think we’re going to hell because of what we believe about our identity as literal children of God with divine potential). Though I know my evangelical friends still harbor some fear for my soul, we’ve settled in this moment into a remarkably warm and mutually respecting space of love, sharing and affection…and open exploration of our core disagreements (lots of examples of this).  Although the differences are even greater, I believe this could work for religious conservative-identifying folks and their gay-identifying friends.

Perhaps, like Arthur often tells me, no such truce is possible – with inescapable Story War ahead of us. If so, then let’s at least agree to fight fair – acknowledging the irreconcilable interpretations at play, rather than yet more wearisome accusations of monstrosity.

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6 Comments

  • Reply Kim December 1, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for your articulate, thoughtful and insightful comments about challenging issues. I’m really loving reading your blog!

    • Reply jzhess@gmail.com December 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      thanks, Kim!

  • Reply Edon Z Harward December 11, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    Jacob! Brilliant! Well written. Deep. Insightful. Fair. Proposing a beautiful path of loving and caring. Understanding and valuing each other…and our own personal experiences and stories. I love you!

    • Reply Jacob December 11, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Thank you, Auntie!! (:

  • Reply Rob R December 12, 2015 at 2:20 am

    I have to say that this is a great perspective overall. I find myself very much in the middle and desiring dialogue and open conversation. The inherent problem with that conversation is that in many of our cases, we are LDS LGBT* folks. Many of us have served missions. We are more than familiar with the LDS narrative of gender identity and sexual orientation heteronormativity. So when the conversation happens, it’s only going to be productive if we investigate ideas that may not have been considered, which is almost guaranteed to exclude the current LDS version of things. .. other than as a starting place.

    I’m with Kendall in that I also see an incredible space for inclusion of all God’s children regardless of specious gender and sexual orientations. I think we presume to know more than we do about God and the after life. Could there be a reason God does not talk about “Heavenly Mother” that isn’t contained in the “too sacred to talk about” category? What if the details of the afterlife are either too confusing or less appealing than our current model. What if God uses language appropriate for his audience simply to give more meaning – through being presented in a way we *feel* connected to? So many questions need to be asked and looked into far more deeply than we’re used to.

    Thanks for the write up.

  • Reply Janel December 12, 2015 at 3:06 am

    I tend to be in the middle of most conversations like this. As in, I can understand and see why others might feel different than I. It’s frustrating when some people categorize myself, others, or my church leaders in a category that they most likely do not fit. I can not understand how anyone who does tons of good (this includes individuals from the gay community, etc) can become so evil in a single day. I know I’m not simply good or evil. I like to think I’m good, but I know I have faults and probably offend others sometimes. I know I get angry, upset, and revengeful sometimes because I’m human. Humans are complex, these issues are complex. When we try to understand others, we can at least gain a greater understanding of the issue even if we don’t change our overall view.

    So basically I agree with your post. 😉

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