Virtue, Scripture, and Imperfection
Posted by Robert C. on May 9, 2013
There’s been a lot of discussion about virtue recently (e.g., here). And for good reason.
If you haven’t been following, here’s the skinny. In a letter to his son (Moroni), Mormon describes horrible acts being committed against the daughters of the Lamanites (Moroni 9:9). Recent events, esp. pertaining to Elizabeth Smart, bring to light the sense in which Mormon’s words are apt to perpetuate wrongheaded attitudes about chastity, rape, and “that which [is] most dear and precious” regarding (young) women.
Because this issue pertains to scripture, and because scripture is the explicit focus of this blog, and because this is such an important and serious issue, I feel compelled to say something. Actually, I want to say two things—the first without elaboration, the second with. (I’ve also included a longish footnote with some of my own thoughts about how we might think about Mormon 9:9 itself.)
#1. Any attitudes that contribute to rape culture, should be repudiated. Full stop.
#2. Inasmuch as Mormon’s words contribute to a rape culture, they should be repudiated.
There’s a lot to consider and unpack regarding #2. I’ll confine myself to just two sub-questions.
#2a. Do Mormon’s words contribute to a rape culture?
I think the short answer is, “yes, probably.” Even if Mormon meant something different, current readers (esp. young women working on Personal Progress) are apt to read Mormon’s words and think that if a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage, no matter the reason, she has become less “dear and precious.”
Now, notice that I did not ask whether Mormon’s words necessarily contribute to a rape culture. That’s a can of worms[*]. Rather, I asked do they. In actual practice, in today’s culture, I am afraid they do. (Again, we can thank the outspokenness of Elizabeth Smart and others for this.) I also did not ask the extent of the contribution. That is an interesting and important question, but I want to focus on something different here.
#2b. Doesn’t this mean we should repudiate scripture?
Consider the well-known Mormon object lesson that plays on disgust when a small piece of dung is put into a big batch of brownies. Applying the logic of this lesson to scripture, in the same way it has been applied in chastity lessons (surely with good intentions but in ways Smart reveals as obviously misguided), it would seem we should repudiate all of scripture.
I want to be clear that my quick jump to this conclusion goes further than I’ve seen others go—I don’t want to implicate them with my (hyperbolic) question. I’m interested in the logic of the argument here, and I’ve struggled to come up with an answer I feel satisfied with. (I welcome suggestions.)
Scripture, means a lot to me and I don’t want to repudiate all of scripture. But where’s the flaw in my reasoning?
Probably the most obvious problem in this reasoning is that the dung example is . . . well, dung. We are all nothing— scripture is emphatic about that (just as it’s emphatic that we are all of great worth). So, according to dung logic, we should all repudiate each other. Christ is the only exception. And Christ doesn’t repudiate us. He seems, in fact, to repudiate this logic of wholesale repudiation. He loves us even though we are imperfect. And yet he still repudiates sin. This is the mystery. (And this mysteriousness is importantly related to my dissatisfaction with my answer to #2b, even though I’m proposing it here.)
Mormon’s not my favorite person in scripture. Every time I read the war chapters, I have a virtual argument with Mormon about why he included these chapters. However, I’ve learned a lot from Mormon, and I think that for those who have ears to hear, he’s got a lot of great wisdom to teach.
So, I think I can love Mormon, even if I don’t agree with everything he says. And, because of this love, I try to read him considerately, thoughtfully, carefully, charitably, etc.[*]
In this way, Mormon is kind of like my parents. Over the years, they’ve thought and said some things that I’ve disagreed with. In many (OK, most) cases, I’ve repented of my disagreement, learning to see my parents’ wisdom. But in a few cases, I still disagree.
I think I’ve gotten better at disagreeing with my parents, over the years. Of course, it could just be that I’m becoming more recalcitrant in my misguided ways, and that’s what underlies my unwillingness to repent of my disagreements. I don’t have a good argument against this accusation. But my disagreements feel different now, compared to when I was younger.
The most obvious difference is that I don’t feel a need to argue about these disagreements. I’m generally happy to revisit these points of disagreement, and if further discussion helps me learn something that would cause me to repent of my disagreement, I’d welcome this new insight. At least that’s how I feel. I just don’t feel the same kind of defensiveness or resistance about these matters, like I did when I was younger.
Again, I don’t pretend that this is really an argument justifying my disagreements. It’s weakly rooted only in my own witness and experience of this difference, a difference about how these issues feel.
Well, I’ve digressed.
But not really. This is the best way I can think of to describe my relationship with scripture (and with many other ideas, people, books, etc.). Over the years, I’ve disagreed with various passages, ideas, and teachings—in my engagements with imperfect scripture, an imperfect Church, and imperfect people. The disagreements have been the most intense, honestly, with those that are closest to me. But these are also the engagements I’ve learned the most from.
I can only hope your own experience is as rewarding as mine.
* I think there are several possible ways to read Mormon’s words that don’t have the troubling overtones or connotations that appear on a first-blush reading. But I don’t know how likely any of these possibilities are. In this post, I wanted to focus mostly on the troubling connotations of a first-blush reading. However, because of my relationship with scripture, which I elaborate on in the latter part of this post, I feel compelled to at least consider and explore alternate readings, no matter how unlikely or implausible—after all, my most rewarding engagements with texts and people have been when my initial understanding of something is turned upside down.
In that vein, one thought is that perhaps Mormon means by “virtue” something like “innocence,” but with robust connotations that link this notion of innocence to, say, the child-like traits we have been admonished to emulate. This idea seems to have some resonance with Jacob’s words about the “tender and chaste and delicate” feelings of the women and children listening to his sermon railing against sexual sins in Jacob 2 (though parts of this sermon also sound rather sexist, at least to our modern ears). This is a connection I’d like to explore (or see explored) further.
The virtue (…) of this reading is that it suggests what is “most dear and precious” about the young women Mormon is describing is not virginity per se, but something else—something that perhaps lies at the root of our strong feelings against rape. This is complicated, however, because we are told that the atonement heals all wounds. But it’s hard to believe that, or fathom how, the atonement can fully make right the consequences of rape. These are hard and complex issues that I’m struggling to make sense of.
But setting these issues aside, it’s still troubling to think that what is “most dear and precious” about (young) women is something that can be taken away by someone else. This seems to create problems for thinking about issues such as agency, accountability, self-worth, etc.
So, I currently can’t think of a way to read Mormon 9:9 that doesn’t spark some disagreement deep within me. However, I plan to keep pondering these issues of chastity, purity, sexuality, gender, fidelity, cruelty, agency, accountability, etc. And I fully expect to learn a lot in the process, even if I don’t really expect to ever come to full “agreement” with Mormon’s words on this particular matter….
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