Cutting Holes in Roofs: Making Paths for the Marginalized
By Brittney Lowe Hartley
Leaders are those who create paths for the marginalized to find the love of God.
It is not controversial to say that coercive leadership is unhealthy. Any obedience obtained through shame, guilt, or authority is shallow at best. It can even be said that humans have a natural proclivity for turning love into power when given the opportunity. But it is not as easy to agree on how to prevent love from becoming power. How do we better protect ourselves from ourselves?
As a Mormon, I especially witness the tension between communal love and hierarchical power. While Mormon doctrine claims Priesthood to be maintained “only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness, and meekness, by love unfeigned, and by kindness,” the reality is the Priesthood often feels like authority, required submission, coldness, judgment, misogyny, or dismissal. This is especially true for the marginalized including women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, intellectuals, single people, doubters, and those with mental or physical illness.
Joseph Smith himself sensed this tendency in human nature when he said, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). Unrighteous dominion to some degree happens so frequently as soon as any human comes into authority; it almost becomes the norm rather than the rare.
When coercion happens, the actor is no longer using Priesthood power at all. Like with the powers of God, Priesthood power cannot be “controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36). Joseph Smith even went so far as to say when we use Priesthood to “cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the heavens withdraw themselves” (37). Not only do the heavens withdraw themselves, but “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” and “he is left unto himself” (37-38).
Herein lies the current predicament of the Mormon Church. There is tension between the doctrine of what Priesthood leadership is, which is described as non-coercive service that brings a people together in relationship, and the practice of how Priesthood leadership is done. There is currently no system in place by which a member may claim unrighteous dominion. While there may be doctrinal precedent, it is difficult practically speaking to say “Amen” to the Priesthood of the leader over him or her. What we are left with is Priesthood power acting as a vehicle for abuse.
One parable that highlights a solution lies in Mark 2. In it, a sick man cannot enter the house through the front door to reach Jesus. But there were four who did not take no for an answer. When there was no way in, they cut a hole in the roof to lower the man into the room to be healed. The parable reminds us that true leadership is not a seat of honor in the house, but on the roof, making paths for those who are unable to enter. Without those leaders, those who are the most sick will never be reached. All that will remain inside the house are the Pharisees jockeying for position. The most important question for a leader is not “how will I be seen?” but instead “where can I cut a hole in this roof for another?” Leaders are path makers.
Today, the prophets in Mormonism are not those who preside over the business affairs of the Church. They are those who break open our theology, Church culture, or power structures in order to make room for the marginalized. One modern example is Sam Young, a former Bishop who began gathering accounts of abuse by Mormon leadership. He brought forth hundreds of accounts of children being abused by Priesthood leaders. Mormonism is the only organization in America that currently allows a man in power to talk to a minor about sex behind closed doors, due to the Priesthood claim that they are judges in Israel. When a child was being abused, or reported abuse, the Bishop’s hotline did not go to counselors, police officers, or experts in pastoral care. The abuse helpline goes to Church lawyers, who do what lawyers do: minimize the damage, protect the good name of the Church, and close the case with as little attention as possible. The idea of tithed money from members going to support non-disclosure agreements of abused, silenced children while the perpetrators are not reported to the police or even removed from positions of power seems just about as un-Christlike as one can get.
Sam Young, as with many of the prophetic voices in scripture, was eventually rejected by the power structure through excommunication. Rather than notice that this man was cutting a hole in our procedural roof in order to give voice to the abused children, the top leaders saw him as a rabble-rouser, and chose to protect Priesthood power and their claim that change only comes from the top down. Mormon men still have the power and authority to ask girls even under the age of 12 about sex, masturbation, and their bodies with no background check, no parent in the room, and no window on the door.
What we need from leadership today is the ability to inspire the angel within us while also providing measures to protect us from the devils that are so easily tempted by power. In each congregation there is a fair chance that there is a woman being beaten by her husband, a child being sexually abused, a family at risk of homelessness, a gay teenager who is being bullied, an immigrant who is not accessing available resources, a mentally ill adult, an addict on the brink of relapse, a widow forgotten by the world, and other modern lepers who live on the fringes. True leadership is the ability to create pathways to reach these most suffering of God’s children. It is on the fringe of Jesus’ clothing, where a woman was healed of her illness. A leader provides paths to allow her passage to Jesus while also preventing the worst of human nature from being able to stop her easily.
In the case of Sam Young, he presented ways in which our most vulnerable children among us could find the love of God and community. This included measures that requested an end to one-on-one interaction between adults and children, no one-on-one communication via technology between adult leadership and children, no private discussions relating to sex, criminal background checks for leaders, professional training on youth protection for leaders, establishing a complaint process for reporting leaders acting in ways not consistent with child protection, required reporting of child abuse, and an independent verifier to evaluate how well we are doing. What this did is create a path for children, when dismissed by men of power, to be able to reach a loving person who can help him or her in the way that Jesus would. Jesus called the children to him and chastised his followers from diminishing them. Sam Young made a path to prevent our community from being able to push away the child.
All acts of leadership require the question, “can I make a hole in the roof here in order for someone to experience God more fully?” It is the character of men to create clubhouses out of religion. The Church keeps out the marginalized in many ways. Leaders are the ones who break open the roofs and make room for more expansive love. The leaders in Mormonism today are the ones cutting open our theology in order to fit LGBTQ individuals into our heaven. They make paths by giving talks in our widely public General Conferences normalizing depression and mental illness. Such an act is as simple as telling a young woman she is welcome in class rather than condemning her for her immodest clothing. Or it can be as big as challenging the Church at large when it invades the separation of Church and State.
The true leaders in my community are the hell raisers, both in and out of the official ranks. Some may complain that they are damaging the roof of unorthodoxy. The community may exile some. But so were the leaders in the scriptures who came before them. Jesus warned that the path of leadership may well lead to persecution from the very Church that you serve. To lead, raise some hell so that more people can experience heaven.
Brittney Hartley is a history teacher in Boise, Idaho. She is the author of the book Mormon Philosophy Simplified: An Easy, LDS Approach to Classic Philosophical Questions. She is a feminist voice in the Mormon community and writes often in various journals in Mormon thought highlighting the complex history, philosophical strengths, and blaring weaknesses of the Mormon tradition. When not writing she enjoys eating ice cream with her husband and four children.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.