Is excommunication a medieval solution to a modern problem?

A 15th century rendition of the Bileam story in the famous Nueremberg Chronicles

A 15th century rendition of the Bileam story in the famous Nueremberg Chronicles

I believe it was Joanna Brooks who first formulated the idea that “excommunication is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” It bears the marks of her elegant, intelligent phrase-making.

Since it was first uttered, this idea has fed a swelling criticism of the practice of excommunication, following from the high-profile disciplinary action against Kate Kelly and now John Dehlin. This particular criticism is separate from — though often prompted by — the specifics of the Dehlin and Kelly cases: it’s a denunciation of the practice in general, either for apostasy or for any transgression. To expel a dissident from a community is “medieval, punishing, barbaric,” as Dehlin put it in his recent Radio West interview, a throwback to the brutal religious ideology that motivated the Inquisition.

In turn, this criticism has prompted several defenses of the practice’s sociological utility and spiritual legitimacy. It’s a complicated question, and I respect voices on both sides. As with many issues, I hesitate somewhere in the middle.

Today I just want to make a narrow point about excommunication’s meaning in the 21st century, apart from the question of its legitimacy in general or its justification in the Dehlin case. Is it really the case that excommunication is an atavistic relic from a brutal past, one that has no place in the present?

It’s easy to see why the idea resonates. Excommunication from a religious community for apostasy strips an individual, at least temporarily, of her citizenship in the group. It demarcates limits to acceptable speech and action and underscores the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy over the individual. These effects challenge some of the central values of Enlightenment modernity, values like universal rights, individual self-determination, and tolerance. In this sense, excommunication — like many other religious practices — does indeed bear the imprint of religion’s pre-modern character.

But implicit in this argument is the sense that the Church is an institution of overweening power over the life of the individual.[1] This notion is indeed an atavistic throwback from a medieval past in which the Church wielded unrivaled structural, political, financial, and suasive power: the Church that could consign a Galileo to house arrest, or condemn a Michael Servetus to death at the stake.

While the present-day Church does indeed continue to control large financial resources, its structural, political and suasive power in society is massively, devastatingly depleted by the twin dynamos of state and science. Its structural power has been almost entirely given over to the state’s “monopoly on force,” its suasive power to rationality’s near-monopoly on knowledge. The most salient feature of the Church in modernity is its weakness, both in society at large and over the lives of individuals. [2]

We see this reality reflected, in fact, in the current debates over excommunication: many people grant the validity of excommunication only in cases when it functions merely to echo and reiterate the prior authority of the state, as in cases of criminal conduct. It is only when the Church attempts to censure conduct that is permitted by state or science, when the Church wants to discipline a member for perfectly legal ecclesiastical disobedience, say, or for promoting heretical but respectably rational ideas — that is, when the Church attempts to exercise authority independent of the prior authority of state and science — that excommunication is most vigorously contested.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I think this is a good thing. I am a grateful subject of modernity, and I think the Enlightenment has, overall though definitely not in every case, led to human flourishing on a marvelous scale. Nor is this a lament for religion: the category of weakness has great moral power, especially within Christianity, and the Church can continue to witness holiness and condemn sin from a position of weakness.

But the Church’s present-day weakness, compared to its vast power in the past, materially changes the character of excommunication in the 21st century, because the Church itself has materially changed. The only form of authority left to the Church is, precisely, ecclesiastical authority over its members. If the Church is to act structurally in the world in any way, ecclesiastical discipline is one of the few actions it may take.[3]  In this sense, excommunication can be seen as a quintessentially 21st century response, because it reflects the Church’s vastly narrowed scope of authority.

Now, many, many objections to excommunication as a practice remain: from the pragmatic observation that high-profile excommunications are a PR disaster for the Church, to the spiritual lament that excommunication wounds the body of Christ. I find some of these objections persuasive, and some of them un-. And, of course, all of these questions are separate from the particulars of Dehlin’s case, whether or not his conduct merited excommunication and what that means. I’d rather not hash these questions out again in the comments; these conversations are ongoing elsewhere, including in Rachel’s post below, and that’s how I’d prefer it to stay.

The narrow point of (what turned out to be) this long-ish post is simply to complicate the oft-repeated notion that excommunication is old-fashioned and obsolete. On the contrary, the Church’s contested use of excommunication reflects the contours of our ongoing 21st century  negotiation for social authority. The Church has lost much and is losing more. It may be that its exercise of ecclesiastical authority comes at the expense of its moral suasive power. But lets acknowledge that excommunication and related forms of ecclesiastical authority are pretty much all that remain in the 21st century.

 

[1] I’m using Church generically here, to refer to all Christian ecclesiastical bodies, from Catholic to Mormon. I think the point I’m making can be applied to all collectively, or to any individual case.

[2] This is not a claim, of course, that churches are entirely powerless: they continue to have a measure of cultural influence, and to guide the lives of their parishioners to some degree. But it’s honestly a pretty small degree. Just look at the home teaching numbers!

[3] It has many available rhetorical avenues of action, of course, but part of what I’m arguing is that the Church’s rhetorical power is vastly diminished and likely to have a relatively small effect.

 

 

53 comments for “Is excommunication a medieval solution to a modern problem?

  1. I have to agree. Shunning, imprisonment, execution, torture: these would, indeed, be “medieval, punishing, barbaric” “19th-century solution[s] to a 21st-century problem.” The rescinding of church-authorized ordinances and the retraction of one’s right to speak publicly at church meetings, pay alms, and wear sacred clothing all seem to be proportional and appropriate responses from a modern church. Especially when those who receive such discipline are still encouraged to attend meetings, allowed to maintain relationships to family and friends, and permitted to seek reinstatement.

    Whether such a response was warranted in Kelly’s or Dehlin’s particular cases is a separate issue, as you say.

  2. Great article and good points. But Id like to add two things:
    1) The Church as you describe it, is not what you describe in the State of Utah. In the state of Utah they still represent the power and structure of the medieval age churches you describe.
    2) The Church isn’t trying to be in a position of weakness, or apart from science and state. They are trying to be everything. Real estate mogul, Lobbyist, Landlord, Adoption Agency, You name it. Their fingers are in everything. In fact, find me an industry or area of life that the LDS church is not involved in or does not profit from. The LDS church has high rise condos, hotels, hunting reserves, universities, you name it. Let alone a bigger institution like the Catholic Church.

  3. Romi, as paid teachers of the Church, I find it entirely reasonable to hold BYU professors (as well as S&I instructors) to a different standard. President McKay, who stood up for someone as unorthodox as Sterling McMurrin, was clear on that distinction. (If that’s new, see this article. )

  4. Although your wonderful post does not distinguish excommunication at various churches, they are not all the same. I often wish that certain history-encumbered terms were not used in the LDS church, when they have such different meanings. “Excommunication” from what I’ve seen is not an irrevocable expulsion, but an invitation to repent and begin again…

  5. As elegant as the phrase is, we still have a 21st-century problem: defining who is in or out of a given religious community. Yes, churches (and other private associations) have the right and power to define membership. Courts have consistently confirmed this right — US courts can’t adjudicate internal religious disputes and US legislatures cannot pass statutes to decide religious questions. Membership — who can join and who has their membership terminated — is a central question for any religious institution.

    So what is the 21st-century solution to this 21st-century problem? However you slice it, a church that includes a doctrine of membership in the Church as an institution in its theology must exercise its power of defining who is within that circle (who is in communion) and who is out (who is in ex-communion, so to speak). That’s a 21st-century function, regardless of what you label it.

    I will hasten to add that the LDS excommunication process, particularly when heresy is alleged, is poorly designed and generally poorly executed. That’s what the problem is.

  6. The PangWitch,
    1) While the church certainly has influence in Utah, it does not have the power that churches did in the middle ages or even what it did 120 years ago, it just isn’t a good comparison
    2) I would also say that the church isn’t trying to be the things you list there… For example, It owns real estate because 1) it needs it for churches, temples, farms, etc and because real estate is a wise investment. But the goal isn’t be a “mogul” for the sake of power or relevance.

  7. Great post Rosalynde. I’ve long noticed the same thing – that people seem to give the church far more influence than it actually has. A lot of this is determining your life in terms of the Church which I just don’t think is healthy. That medieval image. Don’t get me wrong I think the Church has to be important and religion in every aspect of our lives. But the way some treat the formalism doesn’t seem like what the Church teaches nor is it healthy. (IMO)

  8. Rosalynde, please, it’s “Nuremberg Chronicle.” The German city is Nürnberg, but the city name does not appear in the German title of the work in question. I didn’t write that dissertation for nothing!

    Also, I think the chronology of excommunication is off. Mormonism does not inherit its notion of excommunication from medieval Catholicism, where it may have had some of the functions you describe above, but from Reformation sectarianism, where a congregation disciplined by use of the ban was seen as an essential feature of the gathered church. Excommunication is thus a sixteenth-century solution, and had the function you describe (exerting church authority in the context of separate church and state authority in a religiously diverse culture). So: a sixteenth-century solution to a sixteenth-century problem that continues to be relevant today.

    I realize it’s not your formulation, but it’s been bugging me.

  9. Thank you, Rosalynde, thank you for looking beyond the soundbite attractiveness of the statement you examine. You remind me of D&C 134, dating to 1835:

    10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.

    and of the 1889 “Manifesto of the Presidency and Apostles”:

    Church government and civil government are distinct and separate in our theory and practice, and we regard it as part of our destiny to aid in the maintenance and perpetuity of the institutions of our country.

    We claim no religious liberty that we are unwilling to accord others.

    We ask for no civil or political rights which are not granted and guaranteed to citizens in general.

    We desire to be in harmony with the government and people of the United States as an integral part of the nation.

    We regard all attempts to exclude aliens from naturalization and citizens from the exercise of the elective franchise, solely because they are members of the Mormon Church, as impolitic, unrepublican and dangerous encroachments upon civil and religious liberty.

    Notwithstanding the wrongs we consider we have suffered through the improper execution of national laws, we regard those wrongs as the acts of men and not of the government; and we intend by the help of Omnipotence, to remain firm in our fealty and steadfast in the maintenance of constitutional principles and the integrity of this republic.

    Participation by the Church in Utah’s (or the world’s) economic or civic life is not at all the same as controlling another’s right to participate in the same activities. Silly trolls.

  10. It’s also worth noting that the historical throwback to the nineteenth century tends to ignore just how different excommunication was as a practice among Mormons in the first fifty years or so of its existence. Joseph Smith would “cut off” or excommunicate members and they would quite literally be back in the fold two weeks later. Even Brigham Young, known for his hard-nosed approach, could easily forgive and reinstate members who showed contrition and a deference to his will.

    The irony then is that, at least in some ways, excommunication in the twenty-first century is more painful and more permanent than it was in the nineteenth.

  11. Ben, do you think that Michael Quinn was treated in an entirely reasonable way? Rosalynde makes the point that excommunication (for apostasy or otherwise) is not medieval because the Church no longer holds “overweening power over the life of the individual”. Faculty at Church universities, department secretaries, DMBA accountants, janitors, all in the employ of the church may find themselves too far on the wrong side of orthodoxy or orthopraxy for their current local leader’s tastes and find themselves unemployed. Is this reasonable? What about those who aren’t in the employ of the Church but do business with the Church? Or do business in Utah, period?

  12. Ardis, being a silly troll, I have in my mind a hypothetical scenario wherein a citizen of Orem, perhaps in a government position, is excommunicated because they don’t believe in a anthropomorphic God, or some other fundamental truth claim of the LDS Church. Let’s assume that their excommunication is not a carefully kept secret, because we live in the real world. How will they fare in the next election? Yes, they have the right to participate, but well…

  13. Romni (12), I’m not quite sure what your argument is. Faculty at Church universities have a job not just to teach classes but to be mentors. It seems perfectly within the job description that mentoring include a degree of orthodoxy. This doesn’t always happen and I could tell some things that I perceive to be quite bad about professors “mentoring” students with beliefs quite out of the mainstream of the Church. With regards to secretaries again it depends upon the job, but in this day and age secretaries tend to do a lot of practical management work. If they are thus acting and representing a particular perspective it seems fair to expect them to share that perspective. Don’t know about janitors so I can’t speak there.

    I don’t know enough of the details about Quinn to have an opinion there. As for the rest, I confess I don’t see a conspiracy within Utah for all businesses to have to be orthodox Mormons. For one I don’t see how people could know unless you were a very public figure. Second if people are judging you as a public figure on your religious views they’re probably also judging you on other views such as your political. Reality is that happens. Try being conservative in Berkeley for instance. Heck, try being conservative in most academic departments in your typical university anywhere in the country.

  14. Romni,
    The hypothetical you describe is not the same as church wielding power outside of its ecclesiastical authority. What you are describing is more an informal social power that members might (wrongly in my opinion) choose to exercise.

  15. I think part of the modern situation of modern life that you are excluding is that there is a trend to see religion as only offering positive advice not sanctions of any kind.

    It is that questionable status of punishment for churches that makes it “old-fashioned”.

    Kind of like spanking children.

  16. “In this sense, excommunication can be seen as a quintessentially 21st century response, because it reflects the Church’s vastly narrowed scope of authority.”

    Rosalynde, I would pose a question, of sorts. What if we change our perspective? It seems to me, this narrowing of the scope, is actually more like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. What if, instead of saying “this is the only authority the church has left” we turn the telescope around and instead of clenching tighter, we expand what it means to be a Mormon. I am not thinking of either of the current-events excommunications, but rather, the example the Catholic church has given us in building bathrooms, laundry, showers and barbers for the homeless in the Vatican. Perhaps, instead of policing our boundaries with barbed wire, we could instead turn the lens around, and make our space more inviting to the least of us.

  17. What I’ve been thinking about is the irony of people wanting to remain in the church only because they identify culturally with Mormonism while they are undoubtedly the same sort of people who criticize the ills of “jello-belt Mormon culture” and the odd chintz of Deseret Book. Of course that wouldn’t be everyone, but it feels like there would be an awful lot of overlap. It’s just a reflection of my own mentality, but I wouldn’t stick around for a second if I didn’t believe it was true. I’d go find someplace that runs scout troops properly.

  18. Yup. While it’s not exactly in the job description for a janitor to need a temple recommend I’m sure it makes things easier from a HR standpoint and more equitable. While this may annoy people it’s also true that janitor isn’t a limited job opportunity position unlike say CES teacher.

    While it’s fair to imagine a utopia where university positions are only tied to teaching the reality is probably unavoidable. Different university departments have different emphasis. Figuring out who they want to hire is tied to those emphasis and what they like academically. That means politics is at play. If you’re looking for tenure at a college that wants you to be a committed marxist for teaching political philosophy and you’ve become disenchanted and decided to be a libertarian guess what? You’re probably not getting tenure. Likewise if you’re a physicist who was a big string theorist but now decided you hate string theory but your department chair wants a string proponent, guess what? You’re not getting tenure. That’s the reality in universities.

  19. Great post, Rosalynde. The latest lament is that church discipline is “an act of violence.” I can kind of, sort of get behind this imagery when the person involved believes and excommunication robs them of their eternal family ties. But from someone who thinks the church’s authority claims are false, not so much.

  20. Good stuff, Rosalynde.

    I’m a bit baffled at all the pearl-clutching that has gone on over a couple of excommunications. It seems to be rooted in some misguided notion of entitlement when it comes to church membership. Consider — when someone wants to become a member of the church we make them go through hours of lessons with missionaries, ask them to repent and make several serious covenants, and then have them go through multiple of worthiness interviews before they can be baptized. There is never a guarantee of lifetime membership in the church. If one apostatizes, membership can be revoked.

  21. I should have mentioned, that this line of yours is money:

    In this sense, excommunication can be seen as a quintessentially 21st century response, because it reflects the Church’s vastly narrowed scope of authority.

    There is not much the church, as an institution, can do to folks who attack it other than excommunicate them. That’s probably not such a bad thing.

  22. When a person joins the church, he or she joins a local church. When a person is excommunicated, it is an action of that person’s local church.

    In the early days, all membership record were local. A member moving from one place to another took a certificate from his former bishop and brought it to his new bishop, and was welcomed into fellowship in that church.

    We err when we think of all of us belonging to a monolithic church organization. We would better understand if we could see a difference between the general church and the local churches. A local church must have the ability of the extreme sanction of withdrawing its fellowship from someone who it sees as dangerous.

  23. I agree with Geoff. The great apostasy, wherein the church was made into a state, and totalitarianism, wherein the state was made into a church, have caused incredible amounts of wickedness and suffering in this world. Classical liberalism, for all it’s moral shortcomings, seems to be the surest way to prevent the Gulag, the Holocaust and the Apostasy. Within the broader liberal context, however, the only way that we can have demanding and righteous communities like Zion would be where Zion is allowed to excommunicate those who do not voluntarily “fall in line” with the community. This might seem harsh, but the alternatives are sooooo much worse.

  24. Wouldn’t you expect the NRA to revoke membership to someone advocating a gun-free society? Or a golf club to oust someone advertising in the community to avoid the club? Why wouldn’t you expect a church to excommunicate someone saying that the church is false and/or working in direct contradiction to its teachings?

  25. In the case of Kate Kelley and John Dehlin, these excommunications were in reality signs of weakness. If the Church’s claims to the divine were as they claim, why would they worry so much with “blind” or “misguided” usurpers? The truth should easily conquer? Shouldn’t we see the apostles take front stage against these miscreants and set us strait with their wisdom? Don’t they have God’s blessing and don’t they have communion with Jesus? Can’t they simply ask and receive the wisdom necessary to correct these apostates without excommunication or shunning? Wouldn’t that be more merciful to the so called sinners?

  26. Lucy F. (27), isn’t the whole idea of great apostasy a century after Christ tied up with the belief that the truth is not enough? I’d add that as we see with the vaccine controversy, truth and reason are rarely sufficient to convince. (Not saying religious knowledge is like scientific knowledge – just that if even overwhelming scientific doesn’t cut it, how on earth would our religious situation be stronger?)

  27. Lucy F. #22,
    The church neither practices nor advocates shunning.
    I don’t think that the apostles should have to take front and center stage every time a member of the church thinks that the church should behave differently.
    What if the apostate doesn’t want to be corrected.
    For all we know the apostates were given the wisdom necessary to be corrected, but didn’t want to be corrected. Or, it is more merciful to excommunicate them, than to hold them to the standards of church membership when they really don’t want to live it.

  28. Lucy F, it’s not exactly like there’s no scriptural precedent. Alma 6:3 records a comparable situation where setting the affairs of the church included rejecting unrepentant churchmembers. This was after significant preaching of the truth. For people who respect the Book of Mormon as scripture, this would justify excommunication of churchmembers who very clearly rejected calls of repentance and humility by their leaders.

  29. Would anyone have a problem with excommunicating a missionary who got a bunch of women pregnant or a youth leader who molested a youth or a Bishop who shot the YW Pres. to death or a stake president who stole money from tithing, my guess is probably not. Should we keep them in good standing?

  30. Acting from a position of weakness is a useful analysis. For the case of excommunication for apostacy, the analysis would work better applied to excommunication as described in D&C 134, as “excommunicate from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.” I would expect such an excommunication to be public–announced by the church to the church–and to work as a shunning, as an exclusion from meetings and association. If that were what excommunicating an apostate meant, I think the argument you make would follow quite well.

    Instead, the current form of excommunication is mostly private (publicity in the case of John Dehlin and Kate Kelly is almost entirely their doing), cancels blessings/sacraments/ordinances, and prohibits participation in formal ways (tithing, sacrament), but has virtually no effect on society and fellowship. This is a punishment, not a withdrawal of association. I think it is the punishment form of excommunication that is criticized as a “medieval solution to a modern problem”, and I do not think “acting from weakness” rescues it.

  31. It is entirely unclear to me that society worked particularly well when the LDS church did hold virtual theocratic sway – whether it was the Kirkland Bank Society, the Nauvoo charter or Utah’s theocracy. It seems that the heady mix of economic, political and ecclesiastical power quickly headed us toward the warnings in D&C 121.

    I would suggest that what people like Joanna meant when referring to excommunication in the 16th century was not so much the integrated political and economic power of the Catholic church (though I think you make a compelling case for challenging the use of that phrase to refer to this dynamic) but rather using excommunication to address discomfort with control over information and discourse. Of course, it turns out that history has shown that excommunication for those purposes wasn’t all that effective even in the 15th century as the entire, incredibly successful and diverse protestant reformation demonstrates.

  32. I view excommunication – and all group boundary maintenance – as a function of the reality that for a group to have any real sense of what it is, it has to know what it is most definitely not. I don’t think this is more or less applicable in any particular century.

    Perhaps I’m just very pessimistic, but I think all communities that achieve some kind of cohesion have to have processes by which they brand people as unacceptable. This doesn’t always look like excommunication, but I think it exists in every strong community. I think it’s often, in history, looked like war, prejudice, and shunning.

    If you really want people to come together, give them a common enemy. It’s not coincidental that patriotism is often at it’s highest levels during wartime. In fact, sociologists often attribute cohesion as one of the primary purposes of war. For all of human history, in-groups have made themselves more cohesive by defining out-groups. Whether people are different because of nationality, religion, race, educational attainment, social status, etc., doesn’t really matter, what matters is that they are different SOMEHOW.

    I think part of why the LDS faith is such a strong community is because it maintains it’s boundaries very rigidly. There are a lot of things that are not okay. There is a strong focus on not being part of “the world”. Without these strong definition of what the church is not, I don’t think it would be even remotely the same community. And although some things would certainly be better, I can’t help but feel like something very important would also get lost.

    When the church excommunicates people, it labels them as something that Mormons are not. In a way, I do think this is an act of violence. It’s an act of violence, however, that seems to be (regrettably) a sociological necessity in order to have a strong community. I don’t yet know how to reconcile this with a belief in a God who loves everyone equally, and it is something I think about a lot.

    To be honest, I don’t really like where the church draws it’s boundaries. I think they should be in different places. That said, I think what happened with Kate Kelly and John Dehlin is that they vocally advocated for a change in group boundaries, which is a threat to group stability.

    So while my ideal institution may not have expelled either Kate or John (and would certainly expel other people *cough* Glenn Beck *cough*), I can’t look at excommunication as anything other than totally rational for the protection of the community that the church is.

  33. Sorry, but as one who spent some of his prime years in futile efforts to patrol Iraqi towns, guard convoys, and cleanup after jihadis, this ‘excommunication as violence’ rhetoric is something that could only have been thought up by pampered, self-indulgent academics sitting in first world comfort. It’s an obscene comparison. You know nothing of violence.

  34. Why in the world would anyone advocate for excommunication of Glenn Beck? Can you present the charges? Has he said anything against the Church to advocate leaving it or changing it’s theology? Has he committed adultery, stolen property, murdered someone? If he can be excommunicated for political reasons, then why not Harry Reid? For that matter, John would fit the bill equally (although Kate might be a different case under that criteria).

  35. Rosalynde,
    So good. Thank you.

    Roman #35,
    This. Such a poignant point. As long as they use the hashtag, #firstworldproblems, I think it’s OK ;)

  36. Excommunication seems to be a timeless solution…

    Matthew 18:15-17

    15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

    16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

    17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

  37. I just don’t see it. In the case of apostasy, we have a responsibility as a community to let the world know that this person cannot represent the church. To claim to be LDS and deny God, Christ, the leaders, the books…excommunication in such a case is a necessarily formality. It is a public statement that the person cannot truly claim to represent the group. The world may have changed a lot in two centuries, but I don’t see anything that makes this unnecessary.

    Consider this parallel in science: if a layperson was claiming to be a scientist and making idiotic and unscientific claims from that position, it might be easy for the scientific community to point out that the person has no training in the field they are commenting on. But if the person was a member of, say, the Royal Society of Science, and was using that as part of their credentials, then the Royal Society might have to publicly disassociate the person from them to prevent the appearance of endorsement.

    In fact, they have done so. And no one batted an eye, except the person who was removed from the order, who ran to the press screaming that they were being persecuted for their contrary views. But everyone knew what was really going on. Why this is considered barbaric in a religion is a mystery to me.

  38. Lucy #72:

    In the case of Kate Kelley and John Dehlin, these excommunications were in reality signs of weakness. If the Church’s claims to the divine were as they claim, why would they worry so much with “blind” or “misguided” usurpers? The truth should easily conquer? Shouldn’t we see the apostles take front stage against these miscreants and set us strait with their wisdom? Don’t they have God’s blessing and don’t they have communion with Jesus? Can’t they simply ask and receive the wisdom necessary to correct these apostates without excommunication or shunning? Wouldn’t that be more merciful to the so called sinners?

    Keep hearing this and wonder where are all the progressives calling out “victim blaming”? A group or person is WEAK and their claims UNTRUE if they feel the need to remove some people from their groups/lives? Let’s just take that down a few paths.

    I was ready to cheer for Megan in #34, but then she decided to label Beck as someone who should be excommunicated. Where, again, are the progressives calling out such “violence” over political differences? Let’s at least be consistent.

    Roman #35, spot on.

  39. My problem is how arbitrary it can be.

    In the case of Kate Kelly, she was excommunicated while her husband who held all of the same beliefs and attended all the same rallies was not. Same bishop. Same offenses. Entirely different outcome.

    In John Dehlin’s case, he conducted his podcasts for 10 years. Over that time he covered all kinds of issues including his problems with historicity and ebbing belief in the church’s leadership before a public audience. One stake president seems not to have had a serious problem with it but a new one was appointed and, Bob’s your uncle, a warning interview was held leading to an eventual excommunication.

    If this is all in a spirit of discernment why such different outcomes? And if the intent is to put people back on a right path why wasn’t John Dehlin called in before he had committed to a dangerous path. Nothing I’ve seen in the last year or so speaks to me of a loving Heavenly Father.

  40. Roman #35:

    Amen.

    Martha #41: Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t remember Bro. Kelly being much of a voice for anything. Can you find a single picture of him at the protests? How many posts on the Internet? Any speeches? Did he actually do anything except say “Yeah, me too” to the Bishop after the fact? Sorry bud, you have to work as hard as your wife if you want that response.

    Dehlin is an adult. And his drama has been going on for several years. The scriptures are full of warnings and he denied those. Friends and family have worked with him. He had plenty of chances to do an about face. He still does.

  41. Neurophile – “In the case of apostasy, we have a responsibility as a community to let the world know that this person cannot represent the church…It is a public statement that the person cannot truly claim to represent the group.”

    I see this idea a lot, not just from you. But it’s a red herring for several reasons.

    First, in many cases excommunications are private affairs, so there’s no public warning function. Some excommunicated individuals continue to go to church, and plenty of ordinary church members are none the wiser.

    Second, LDS members in good standing often do bad things that reflect poorly on them and the church, which nevertheless don’t usually lead to excommunication (e.g., cheating, lying, stealing, swearing, implementing torture programs for the U.S., etc. etc.) even though it makes people think our church is bad.

    Third, does the public think that a single individual “represents the church?” I sure don’t believe that any old Catholic represents the Catholic faith – I know the pope does. How many people in the public really think that someone not a leader of the church represents the church? Further, when the person is explicitly criticizing the church, as John Dehlin did, there is no possibility people think he’s speaking on behalf of the very church he’s criticizing.

    Fourth, even if people are excommunicated, they can still call themselves “Mormon” without lying, or still lie and call themselves a Latter-Day Saint. The church would then have to correct this misinformation (“No – he’s not a member of our church.”). But if the church is going to take the trouble to correct this misinformation, why not just say that the person is not teaching doctrines of the Church (while allowing the person to stay in fellowship)?

  42. Roman (#35),

    If they know nothing of violence, you know nothing of excommunication.

    I appreciate your military service, and totally agree that these Iraqi villages know violence better than we do. But surely you don’t have to go to Iraq to find violence. It’s found in every city in America. When people talk about excommunication as “spiritual violence,” they’re obviously making an analogy to represent the spiritual hurt they feel the “Court of Love” inflicting upon them.

    Finally, who are you to say that people who are excommunicated know nothing of violence? Maybe they’re veterans like yourself. Maybe they were abused as kids, or abused by their husbands. Let’s withhold judgment, ok?

  43. Rosalynde,

    “But implicit in this argument is the sense that the Church is an institution of overweening power over the life of the individual.”

    This is actually true, at least mentally, spiritually, emotionally–and often socially and financially as well. Speaking for myself, and believing that there are others like me, I can say that the Church absolutely dominates my worldview – my entire sense of purpose, destiny, and even self-worth. “I am a child of God,” – until the church damns me through excommunication, leaving me as an outcast spiritually, emotionally, and socially (given the tight social networks that exist).

    Perhaps you have to experience excommunication to know what it’s like. I haven’t (whew!), and neither have you. Perhaps we should take at face value the feelings and emotions people express when they’ve been excommunicated, rather than baselessly second-guessing them.

  44. FGH, I’m saying that those who use the rhetoric of ‘excommunication = violence’ know nothing of the latter, not that those who are excommunicated cannot understand violence. The two are not equivalent except in the minds of those who want to escalate victimhood by conflating them.

    Don’t condescendingly pat me on the back for my service and tell me of what I know or don’t know. You have no idea who I am or experiences I’m drawing upon to condemn the comparison. Don’t twist my words into casting judgment where it is not aimed.

  45. FGH:
    How do you know that Roman and Rosalynde know nothing of excommunication? Perhaps you should withhold judgement. FYI, he was criticizing the silly hyperbole and extreme analogies which do little to inform and construct meaningful dialogue. Also, the church does not damn anyone, nor have the individuals I know who have walked the path through excommunication and baptism ever described themselves as outcasts, nor have they referred to the process as “violent.” Every letter of excommunication I have read has included an invitation to return, a plea to begin the process of return immediately. Every person in my stake who has received such a letter is assigned a high councilor to watch over them. “Violence” is a gross mischaracterization of the councils I have been involved with.

  46. @41- I agree they can be arbitrary but the spirit of discernment isn’t something someone doesn’t have the day before they are called to be a Bishop, stake pres. etc. and the day after they are perfect with it. heck I’d be even surprised of some of them have even heard of it! Who knows if it’s an actual ‘spirit’ or what is going on. My Bishop now has very low social skills and he is a pharmacist, he doesn’t really deal well with people at all but we play with the cards we are dealt with.

  47. Roman – How do you know people who say ‘excommunication = violence’ know nothing of the latter? Just curious. You must know a lot of private details about a lot of peoples private lives. And, BTW, I was not being condescending about your military service. I appreciate every veteran who has served. That doesn’t mean I agree with them when they make bad arguments.

    Old Man – I know Rosalynde hasn’t been excommunicated because of the numerous cheery bios she’s put up on websites like FairMormon I’m sure Roman and Rosalynde will correct me if I err. The fact that excommunications express so much “love” (they are “Courts of Love” for a reason!) is all the more appalling… “Es tu, Brute?” as the spiritual knives are drawn…

  48. I don’t think excommunication is so much a medieval solution as it is a Catholic one, at least as its consequences are conceived of by many people. As I discuss elsewhere, I don’t think making covenants by itself has much gravity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ doctrine. When I have seen people talk about excommunication as a violent or barbaric process, it always seems to be tied to the notion that the church is saying that person will not be with his or her family in the next life, and will not be able to return to Heavenly Father. When you look at our doctrine, I just do not think that is the case.

    Once you take that part away, excommunication in its current form is just saying that a person cannot give talks, hold callings, participate in the temple, contribute money, or partake of the sacrament each week. Basically, it is just a bishop and stake president saying, “You cannot represent us on a local level,” which seems like a very normal and logical tool in bishops’ and stake presidents’ bag of ways to regulate their local congregations, even at times when I disagree with its application or utility.

    So it is not the practice of excommunication itself that resembles medieval Catholicism, but instead the errant interpretation of its everlasting significance, and the public reactions that can result from that.

  49. “I appreciate every veteran who has served. That doesn’t mean I agree with them when they make bad arguments.”

    Then I am very grateful that mine feel no threat from yours. Cheers.

  50. “On the contrary, the Church’s contested use of excommunication reflects the contours of our ongoing 21st century negotiation for social authority. The Church has lost much and is losing more. It may be that its exercise of ecclesiastical authority comes at the expense of its moral suasive power. But lets acknowledge that excommunication and related forms of ecclesiastical authority are pretty much all that remain in the 21st century.”

    This is an excellent point that is not really being addressed by many of the comments that find excommunication necessary and wholesome. The point is that for many people in the USA, the process of excommunication as performed by the LDS church is prima facie evidence of moral turpitude. To these people it is just wrong.

    Just as the LDS church has the right to perform excommunication, these people have the right to believe that the LDS church and LDS people are undeserving of inclusion in the group of people that are seen as morally upright. The LDS church itself is making the same case about religious beliefs and LGBT issues. They are making the case precisely because they know there is a significant and powerful group of people for whom the LDS church is morally suspect.

    It think those commenters conflate the issue of the right of a group to excommunicate and that the practice of exercising this right should be generally seen as morally acceptable.

    They seem to me a bit uncomfortable with the loss of respectability.

  51. Thank you for the original post, Rosalynde.

    “While the present-day Church does indeed continue to control large financial resources, its structural, political and suasive power in society is massively, devastatingly depleted by the twin dynamos of state and science.”

    You’re mistaken about the twin dynamos. The true dynamos that have depleted the power of religion are democratization of the arts and … youth athletics.

    Art is the power to create new myths. In the 21st century, anyone can participate in the arts. We also have an infinite selection of art to consume, infinite stories. Church is now obsolete in generating stories for the imagination.

    I coach youth athletics. Based on my first hand experience, adults are easily able to channel zeal otherwise reserved for religion into disputing an officiating call for a nine-year old. Church is now obsolete in generating religious energy.

    Surely the power of the state and science are powerful. Just not so powerful as art and youth athletics.

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