Monday, January 21, 2013

Three questions from the 1964 Freedom Summer

A few days ago, my brother made the observation that Americans often remember the parts of the 1960s civil rights movement that focused on greater integration of black people into the larger culture, but pay less attention to what people worked on to build up the black community internally at the same time.

For example, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi in the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 are often cited as an important part of our history. But we might also learn something by remembering the Freedom Schools set up that same summer, which served both to give segregated students access to college-prep curriculum and to encourage conversations about the future of the black community in America.

The Freedom Schools' citizenship curriculum, for example, was organized around three important questions:

1. What does the majority culture have that we want?
2. What does majority culture have that we don't want?
3. What do we have that we want to keep?

I think those discussion questions are brilliant, because they give participants the chance to sort through the complicated feelings that come with belonging to a minority culture in a reflective way. The questions give you permission to borrow without assimilating, to critique without wholesale rejecting, and to discuss your own traditions on their terms without having to justify them by majority mindsets and values.

I also think that we as Latter-day Saints today, in any society, would benefit from discussing the same three questions. We are a separate culture within our various majority host cultures, and I think we ought to remember that as we sort out which majority culture values we want to integrate into our culture and which would disrupt something we don't want to lose.

What does the majority culture have that we want?
What does majority culture have that we don't want?
What do we have that we want to keep?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Which fruit carried the knowledge of good and evil? --Song of Solomon 2:13

"The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." (Song of Solomon 2:13)

It happened once that Simeon and Anna were worshiping at the Temple when a young girl asked each of them which sort of fruit carried the knowledge of good and evil in Adam and Eve's days.

And Simeon said: it was a fig, a fig so light green it was almost white--but only just beginning to become ripe. The snake, said Simeon, had been watching the fruit. He knew that if he offered it too early, the man and woman wouldn't be tempted by the fruit, but he feared that if he waited until the fig was fully ripe, God himself would offer it to them.

So after he offered it to the man and the man refused, he waited. And when he offered it to the woman it looked so sweet and was so tender, she took it and shared. But as God himself had intended them to eat one day, the leaves of the tree had already been prepared to make their first clothes. And having filled themselves with knowledge, they also covered themselves in it.

But Anna said: it was a pomegranate. That's why God gave the pomegranate such a thick skin: in the beginning, it had to be protected even from the insects and the beasts. And when Satan showed it to Adam, he saw the hard skin and remembered the strictness of God. So when Satan showed it to Eve, he broke it open and she was startled by its beauty: and for this reason it is written: "and when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes." And when she ate, she could taste that it was good, and she savored it.

As for the knowledge of good and evil, it did not come all at once. No: with each seed of the pomegranate, Eve learned another difference between wrong and right. And even down to the present day there are as many seeds in the pomegranate as commandments in the Torah.

Then Anna went out in the court of the nations and bought a pomegranate and pressed it into the girl's hands and said to her: now go, sweet daughter of Eve, and study.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Gender Follow-Up: Some Concrete Suggestions for Local Change

Before my trip to India, I wrote a post on gender-based differences in experience in the church. The point I wanted to make is that talking about "gender inequality" in the church often ends up counter-productive as it a) polarizes people and b) often implies that men in the church have perfectly comfortable experiences while women are marginalized or oppressed.  Instead, I recommended we talk about gender differences in experience, aiming for higher quality experiences rather than hard-to-define equality.

As examples, I chose four differences we don't often discuss that I hoped would encourage more open conversations than ones dominated by indignation and defensiveness. And I'm quite pleased to report that the wide-ranging conversations on the blog and Facebook about the post have been far more enlightening than the post itself. 

As a follow-up to that discussion, I've chosen to make a second list of gender-related differences, this time focusing on three where concrete actions could be taken on the individual and ward level at any time.

The List

1) Men tend to get more recognition and affirmation for their achievements and contributions than women do.

In a capitalist culture, we make strong distinctions between the value of different kinds of work. People are paid differently based on their jobs. Different levels of respect come with different jobs. And so on.

The gospel vision is very different. Our ideal is that all honest work in the community should be valued and respected absolutely, with no discussion of prestige. In the gospels, Jesus treats the low-status act of washing feet as sacred. In his letters, Paul compares the church to a body where all parts are interdependent and therefore have no grounds for bragging about their individual contributions.

Church culture today tends to fall in various places between the surrounding culture and the gospel vision. While all work in the church is equal, we have a tendency to publicly honor some work more than other work.

The first contributor to the last discussion mentioned YM/Scouting programs vs. Young Women's programs as one specific area where men are often given much more recognition and affirmation for their achievements and contributions than women are. Alana points out that the predominance of male scripture heroes can compound the feeling that women's achievements aren't as valued. Others mention that even the order of talks can make men's contributions seem more valued.

When the culture is out of balance with the gospel vision, I think it's our duty to work within our sphere of influence to make changes, however subtle, to help even things out. So what can we do?

Myrna, who grew up in Canada, points out that the tradition of elaborate Eagle courts of honor is specific to the United States. My memory of courts of honor in Ohio was that they were also much simpler than the last one I saw in Utah. I can remember when Pres. Hinckley counseled strongly against elaborate missionary farewells on the grounds that they can be distracting and elevate one type of service over another. If you serve in scouting in an area where Eagle Scout courts of honor have become a eulogy for the living, it may be wise to take the prophet's cue and raise the issue in council. Rites of passage are good; self-celebration is not.

As for Young Women's recognition: my understanding is that in most units, only families are invited to attend the annual Acheivement Night. What if local Young Women's leaders started a ward or branch tradition of having the Young Men attend Achievment Night? This is outside my sphere of authority, of course, but it seems like such a tradition might help train young men to be the sort of husbands Pres. Hinckley urged them to be, men who encourage and support wives as they "give expression to the talents and impulses that lie within them." Isn't it wonderful whenever young women in a ward feel like the young men recognize and support their talents and efforts? Isn't it wonderful when young men learn to recognize and value the talents and commitments of the young women around them? We can do more at the ward level to foster a culture of mutual appreciation.

Another tactic for this Lee Ann mentions is increasing the number of opportunities for young women to serve in the ward. She points out that there are many church-wide opportunities/obligations for young men to serve: they serve the sacrament at church but also help take it to the sick in their homes, in many units they still collect fast offerings in some forms, they are supposed to be incorporated into the home teaching program while still in their teens.

Young women have fewer locked-in service obligations, which leaves the responsibility on local leaders to innovate and seek inspiration. What can different leaders do to make sure that young women have opportunities to learn through service? I recently found out that my seventeen-year-old cousin has a calling as the teacher of her 16-18 year old Sunday school class. This sort of thing may not occur to many bishops as a possibility, but was one bishop's inspiration for how to bless her life and serve the youth in an unusual way. Some years ago in my ward, young women were assigned partnerships with elderly sisters as extra "grandmothers" for the summer and did what they could to both serve and learn from those women. 

We are definitely falling short of the gospel vision if Young Women feel, as Lee Ann says, that all that's expected of them is to show up to church. But do we need to wait for new programs from church headquarters to change that? I suspect that gender disparities in service opportunities grow wherever wards and branches fall into the natural human tendency to sort of coast and fulfull minimum church programs rather than trying to evaluate local needs and work much righteousness through local programs of their own.

2) Men are less likely to learn by seeing female leadership in action than vice versa. 

Leadership is highly valued in the larger culture. In a gospel vision, leading and following are both important roles that develop divine attributes. In keeping with that gospel principle, Emily pointed out that the high visibility of male leaders relative to female leaders in the church can not only be negative if women don't feel like they're respected as leaders, it can also be detrimental to men if it means they miss opportunities learn from following women.

Emily's comment reminded me of the moving experience I had cleaning our chapel thoroughly with much of the ward to prepare for the Brigham City Temple dedication. In that instance, the bishopric played the role of servants, feeding us breakfast, while the Relief Society President was the leader who presided over the actual work of the day. It was wonderful, and I see no reason why we shouldn't all be blessed more often with ward service events presided over by the Relief Society.

Now, to the outside world, my example may seem trivial. After all, it involved cleaning, which is widely considered to be a low-prestige and traditional female task. But if you think about it, most of the key work of the church is traditionally associated with femininity. At its most basic level, the sacrament is food preparation and serving. One of the things we most associate with the Melchizedek Prieshood is the ministering to the sick--essentially a religious branch of the nursing tradition.

So I don't think we should underestimate the value of the Relief Society presiding over a deep cleaning of the building or other service project the whole ward is invited to participate in. The YM/YW programs are actually quite good at sharing leadership, with each class taking two turns a year to plan and preside over a combined activity. While adults in most parts of the church aren't able to meet with the same regularity the youth do, could we take more small steps in our wards to live up to their example?

3) People say dismissive or demeaning things about the opposite gender.

Both men and women do this--often disguised as teasing, sometimes not so disguised. In the broader culture, we certainly have plenty of humor about how men are lazy, useless, impulsive, inarticulate. We have far more derogatory humor about women (when was the last time you heard a joke about a blonde man?). Women are often derided as stupid, shallow, hyper-emotional, unimportant.

Riding on a long history of cultural respect, men don't seem terribly bothered by derogatory comments or jokes, though they may also be internalizing the lesson that it's normal and OK for men to be slackers who don't speak up for themselves. But because demeaning comments about women are more common and because women's history of respect in most cultures is less secure, dismissive things men say about gender in the church seem to carry significantly more sting and harm for the women, especially the young women, they are directed at than dismissive comments about men.

So what can when do about men who deride women?

In our recent discussion, Alana points out that some form of accountability for disrespectful young men would have helped her and suggests corporeal punishment. Since corporeal punishment is not an approved tool for youth leaders, though, it may be better to focus on education.

There are plenty of talks that address the issue of derogatory speech--several of them specifically mentioned derogatory speech toward women. Pres. Hinckley's "Personal Worthiness to Exercise the Priesthood" is one that made a strong impression on my when it was given. I know that some bishops keep copies of various talks on hand to share when recurring issues come up. If you notice respect problems in your ward or branch, why not offer a copy of that or another talk as a resource to the Young Men's president or even to the deacons' or teachers' quorum presidents if you have a good relationship with them? In the church, we often look to a handful of elderly men in Salt Lake City for change and overlook the vast potential of the twelve to eighteen year old young men around us. A quorum president might be exactly the right person to invite his brothers to a better way of living. And while it's important to respect the young president's stewardship in his sphere, I don't see anything wrong with offering a president advice to consider.

Becca describes this as an invite-people-to-Zion approach, which I think is a powerful frame. When you feel that people around you are not living up to a gospel vision, you don't have to condemn them. You can simply invite them to come to Zion by helping show them the value and strength of our best traditions of respect and reverence for one another.
Merrijane brings up another concrete thing good men can do to help prevent and heal the wounds derogatory words can cause. She suggests that positive, affirming relationships with men can do a lot to build young women's confidence in both their individual abilities and the value of their gender:
Dad sat and talked with me. He believed in my talents and abilities. He encouraged me. As a result, I’ve never felt like I was inferior simply because I’m female. Perhaps I project that experience on my relationships with other men, because I don’t think any of them look down on me, whether they are Mormon or not.
A certain percentage of men are probably going to act like jerks on gender from time to time no matter how many warnings or invitations to Zion they are given. But one concrete action the rest of us can take is to be specific, encouraging, and affirming as we talk to the women around us. Good fathers can certainly do a great deal to help their daughters. The church also provides a structure for good men to take to heart the scriptures' repeated admonitions to remember the fatherless and the widows and to be positive, respectful, encouraging presences in their lives.

A final note on change in the church: 

These suggestions may seem simple and small, but I really believe that small and simple things happening on the local level can change the course of a culture for good. And one specific thing I learned from Elder Marlin K. Jensen is that often, change in the church comes because a general authority recognizes a succesful inspired innovation at a local level and feels inspired to spread it across a larger area or even the whole church.

This is a fairly different model for social change than we're used to from our political culture: in politics, change is typically created by organizing individuals into interest groups who try to magnify the voice of their position in a crowded public debate. But in church culture, we value the more intimate council setting rather than often clamorous public debate, and council members tend to look to the best practices they're aware of for guidance rather than turning to interest groups to educate them.

When we are interested in changing our broader society's culture, it may be best to adopt the broader society's preferred methods of interest-based organized and lobbying advocacy. But if we try to change the church using methods borrowed from our nations' politics, we run the risk of making minor gains at the expense of the beautiful difference of the church way of doing things.


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