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Sanctimony Desecrates Excommunication

Lincoln Cannon

24 June 2014 (updated 3 June 2015)

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Sanctimony Desecrates Excommunication

This has been an emotional day for Mormonism. As reported in national headlines, Kate Kelly of Ordain Women has been excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church”. While I do not have a strong opinion for or against ordination of women to priesthood in the Church, I do strongly support open constructive discussion of the question. While I recognize the Church’s concern appears not to have been the question itself, but rather how Kate Kelly has approached the question, I am alarmed by the sanctimonious manner in which some members of the Church have responded to news of the excommunication.

Whether we agree with the excommunication or not, we should be sobered by this event. The Church, the aspiring Body of Christ, has cut off one of its members. Her temple sealings, representing the breadth and depth of her relational aspirations, have been nullified. She is no longer invited to speak or pray vocally in her congregation, ordinarily appointed as a source of consolation. She has been instructed no longer to wear the temple garments that would symbolize her commitments to God. For anyone who cares about the Church, these are hard things, and it seems abundantly clear that Kate really cares – and really suffers.

Yet in this moment of real pain, some have scolded others for expressing sympathy, and some have chosen to emphasize that Jesus doesn’t accept everyone and everything. Technically, judging from the New Testament, they’re right. Jesus offers us peace, but apparently it’s not just any kind of peace we might have in mind. Jesus offers us love, but apparently it’s not just any kind of love we might have in mind. So let’s explore their sanctimonious emphasis, and see where Jesus’ example leads us.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem and entered the temple courts. He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple courts, both those who were buying and selling and the sheep and cattle. He overturned the tables and scattered the coins of the money changers, overturned the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. He said to them, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market! It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’, but you have made it ‘a den of robbers’.”

This is a startling story that some Christians have used as an excuse for sanctimony. Instead of giving the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit, some prescribe hell to the sorrowful. Instead of comforting those who mourn, some protest at funerals. Rather than giving the earth to the meek, some rage against immigration. Rather than filling those who hunger for righteousness, some evoke fears of communism. Instead of being merciful, some bomb abortion clinics. Instead of inviting the pure in heart to see God, some demonize atheists. Rather than recognizing peacemakers as children of God, some ridicule pacifists as weaklings.

On the other hand, most Christians recognize that the Bible does not generally describe Jesus as sanctimonious. The Law of Moses says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” but Jesus observes that a pagan has greater faith than any of his own religion. It also says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” but Jesus is more concerned with his disciples’ hunger. “Honour thy father and thy mother,” says the Law of Moses, yet Jesus celebrates the prodigal son. “Thou shalt not kill,” and Jesus does not protest the release of Barabbas. “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” yet Jesus protects the adulterous woman. “Thou shalt not steal,” but Jesus comforts the robbers crucified with him. “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” yet Jesus counsels his disciples to deny knowing him. “Thou shalt not covet,” and Jesus loved the rich man while encouraging charity.

Ironically, the only times that the Bible describes Jesus in ways that might be considered sanctimonious are when he confronts the sanctimonious, who would misuse religion to raise themselves at others’ expense. In the temple courts, Jesus charges the money changers with robbery because they make it difficult for the poor to participate in religious ceremonies. Likewise, Jesus saves his sharpest criticisms for religious authorities that make burdens for others or do not share in others’ burdens, that like to call attention to their authority by how they dress or pray or the titles others use to address them, that impose dogmas to restrain others from spiritual progress and make them worse than they were before converting, that expect the poor to give all without adequately returning justice or mercy, and that generally make a big deal out of unimportant things while ignoring important things. Jesus calls such abusers of religious authority “hypocrites”, “children of hell”, “fools”, “blind guides”, “serpents” and “vipers”, and questions whether they can escape the damnation of hell.

The sanctimonious are right: Jesus doesn’t accept everyone and everything. Most particularly, Jesus doesn’t accept those who would misuse religion as an excuse for sanctimony. No other receives a greater condemnation from him, or even a passionate condemnation from him. It seems to me that this is because sanctimony desecrates religion itself, making the greatest evil of that which should be the greatest good, using the unparalleled social power of religion against each other instead of for each other. Today, sanctimony desecrated the ordinance of excommunication.

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