John Dehlin, creator of the popular podcast and blog, Mormon Stories, attended his disciplinary council last night to discuss possible excommunication for apostasy. This is an unprecedented situation in the Mormon faith, with Dehlin choosing to take his situation to the media, specifically the New York Times, who ran with the headline: “Mormon Church Threatens Critic With Excommunication.”
There are a lot of problems with this whole story. One being that the New York Times reported that, “the church is charging him with apostasy for his support of same-sex marriage and the ordination of women to the priesthood,” hinting at the idea that personal support of those issues is considered apostasy and cause for discipline. This is not the case. If it were so, prominent members of the church, such as Steve Young and Harry Reid, would also be candidates for disciplinary action.
The situation is a complicated one, full of nuance. There is much to discuss and clarify, but after a lot of soul searching, I have decided that it is not my place to judge Dehlin and his motives. Between his tactics with the media and the recent venomous post from Kate Kelly, the natural man in me would love to respond in like manner, but this past weekend I have felt that instead, I will follow my favorite mantra, and light the dark.
When I used to hear the term excommunication a shiver would go down my spine. It was almost like The-Word-That-Must-Not-Be-Named a la Lord Voldemort. With it came the idea of darkness and hopelessness. My argument now is that excommunication, if gone about in the right way, can be a step toward progression and change, rather than the proverbial casting out to an outer darkness that my mind used to conjure up at the mere mention of the term.
Now, don’t get me wrong, excommunication isn’t a process we should be lining up to go through, but if approached by both the council and the person facing discipline, with charity and sincerity, I believe it can be a life changing experience for the good of everyone involved.
So often we focus on the “justice” side of excommunication. The church’s official website defines excommunication as, “the process of excluding a person from the Church and taking away all rights and privileges of membership.” This certainly sounds harsh, if we read it without any context or deep thought about the circumstance.
From experience with a close loved one, who has gone through this process, “excluding a person from the church,” does not mean shunning them forever. It’s not like we have photos of the excommunicated on the walls of the church and if spotted, they are escorted out by church security. Those who have been excommunicated, as long as they aren’t disrupting the congregation, can still attend church meetings.
It is true that all of the rights and privileges of membership are taken away, but when looked at in the light of mercy, excommunication takes on a whole new meaning. The covenants that you have made at baptism and in the temple are taken away. Is this painful and heartbreaking to go through? Absolutely, but it is also a way of removing accountability for the disciplined.
Removing these sacred commitments from someone in order for them to possibly learn and understand them better, and go through the process again is the essence of the good news. These loved ones are not out of the reach of the infinite Atonement.
Seeing someone I love go through this was not easy. I still remember the night he confided in me. We cried bitterly together in my car for what seemed like hours, from the heartache that his actions had caused. But then I observed, over time, as he determined to make those covenants again, with a renewed faith in the enabling power of the Savior’s atonement, he could not be stopped. Awkward conversations arose at his name not showing up on home teaching routes. Yet he pressed on. “Amen” became his only vocal prayer in church meetings for a time. Yet he pressed on.
The grace of Christ was, and is, sufficient. My friend was healed, and changed. I had the honor of helping him make a covenant once again. To always remember and keep the commandments of the one who had lifted him, and patiently walked with him back to this point. As I stood in lukewarm water, one arm holding his, the other raised, the words necessary were uttered through salty tears and a swollen chest. I lifted him out of the water. He was new. He was reborn.
I looked at my friend and saw someone who had not only, once more, taken Christ’s name upon them, but His countenance as well. His eyes shone with a newfound appreciation and understanding of the covenant he had just made. Excommunication was a necessary step in his life’s journey that brought him to this beautiful moment.