"But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Pet 3: 15)
Pornography is one of the serious challenges facing contemporary societies: due to recent changes in technology, it's widely accessible, and due to age-old factors in biology, it's highly addictive. More liberal societies typically do little to regulate it, and more conservative societies often don't acknowledge it enough to cope with it: the perfect recipe for a worldwide epidemic. How is a worldwide church supposed to cope?
The first phase in our collective awareness was to repeatedly affirm that pornography is bad. In a world where good is often called evil (Isa. 5: 20), this was--and is--an important step. As I learned doing research for a play involving a character struggling with pornography, however, it's not nearly enough. Many religious people's pornography problems are actually compounded by feelings of depression, low self-worth, and disconnection: that is, men and women who believe pornography is bad are more likely to view it anyway when they also feel bad about themselves. A culture in which we only talk about pornography as evil and shameful makes it difficult for people to reach out of a loop in which feeling guilty actually leads to more sin, and more sin in turn to greater guilt and disconnection.
That's why I was so impressed with my bishop's approach at our combined meeting on Sunday. He opened the lesson by asking us, a la Christ's parable in Matt 20: 1-16, who will be redeemed: people who keep the commandments all their lives, or people who don't and then repent. We answered, of course, that both will be redeemed. The bishop then asked us what the difference between the two is. We answered that keeping the commandments early means a better quality of life. That's when he told us his subject was pornography. By having framed it in terms of an optimistic question about redemption, he'd taken away some of the aura of shame and guilt and set a tone of hope instead.
He kept that tone throughout the lesson. A few particularly good moves stick in my mind:
1) The bishop said that he doesn't ask people in interviews whether they view pornography. He asks them what they did last time they ran across something pornographic. This was brilliant because rather than singling out people with a problem and making them feel separately addressed and indicted, he made having plans and coping strategies a part of our shared conversation. I'd also imagine that using that question makes it easier for people who are struggling to talk openly with him about their struggles and seek help. Being able to talk is a step toward being able to change and heal.
2) The bishop spoke not only of the problems of pornography, but also of the increased opportunities that come to those who can change their lives. He talked about things as simple as having more attention for children. He talked about the blessings of feeling more connected to those around us. This was brilliant because instead of only indicting the bad behavior, it provided a clear alternative more in line with people's deeply-held celestial goals.
3) The bishop invited a ward member who serves as a part-time missionary in church pornography counseling programs to talk about how the meetings are and how they work. The brother then talked about his love of his calling because he's able to see people turn from shame to hope. The bishop then spoke about how to gauge the seriousness of a pornography problem in terms of intensity, duration, and some other things I can't remember, thus helping people consider when it's important to seek counseling help.
I am glad that our church culture is very clear about the unacceptability of pornography and the dangers of pornography. I think that approaches like my Bishop's (and of church resources like the "Let Virtue Garnish Thy Thoughts" booklet) are important in creating an environment in which people can also talk about pornography, develop strategies for living better in a world full of pornography, and overcome problems with pornography.
In general, I hope that we can all pass on hope and encouragement about things with which people struggle as well as passing on a clear sense of good and evil in our own conversations and reactions.