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Ritual Violence

There is violence inherent in rituals which separate “us” from “them”. Mormonism is full of those rituals. They create artificial connections and distinctions. Baptism separates members from non-members. Priesthood ordination separates active male members from women and unqualified men. The Washings and Anointings and the Endowment separate the Lord’s Anointed from the the unwashed masses. Sealing sets a distinction between those who have fulfilled all ritual requirements to be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom from those who have not because they are unmarried or married outside of the ritual. Each step along the way confers to the individual an arbitrary reason to feel special and distinct and to feel superior to those who have not taken that step.

In Margaret Toscano’s interview for The Mormons, she tells the story of her excommunication. When asked if her excommunication had affected her relationship to her family, she said:

That’s probably the most painful part about the excommunication is the way in which, if you’re a part of a large Mormon family, it really does hurt your relationship with your family.… One of them, my sister Janice Allred, was also excommunicated. But the way that my family has dealt with this is by silence. We don’t talk about it. It’s this thing in the corner that you never talk about. That makes it really bad.

… This kind of situation for a Mormon family is very difficult, because it creates a contradiction that the family doesn’t want to admit is even there. The contradiction is that if you’re an active, believing Mormon family, you can’t say the church did something wrong. So on one level they’ve got to say the excommunication was right. On the other hand, there’s a part of them—they know me; they know my other sister, and they know Paul. They can’t say—at least most of them won’t say—that we’re bad people. So how do you deal with this contradiction? You know, did we deserve the excommunication? Didn’t we? They don’t even want to think about it.

… For me the really painful thing is that there’s this distance, where you’re no longer part of this assumed believing connection; that it creates a barrier. To me that’s the worst part of it. The other parts that are painful, of course, is that as with most religious communities, basic family rituals are centered around the church, so when you’re excommunicated, you no longer can participate in those family rituals, and that is very painful. Blessings of children, births, marriages, deaths—these vital things that bring us together as families and where even if you haven’t seen a family member for a long time, you connect again at these moments—you’re excluded. I have times now where my family members don’t even tell me about things that are happening, because I can’t participate. So you become an outcast in some ways that is really painful.

Probably the most painful is in death, I think.… My younger sister passed away a little over a year ago. She died of cancer. One Mormon ritual is that when a person dies, you dress them in their temple clothing before you bury them. My brother-in-law, who’s a very active Mormon, very patriarchal, if I can say that, he did not want my sister and myself to be part of that. He didn’t want us to help dress her body, and that—I mean, that cut me so deep, I haven’t gotten over it. I don’t know if I ever will, because this way of saying goodbye to somebody you love, and the idea that somehow I’m unclean, I’m somehow polluted—and he just wanted me to accept this. That was very painful. It’s very, very painful. That’s probably the worst part of being excommunicated.

Judging only from what was said by Margaret Toscano, the rituals of the church separated her from participating in communal grieving. I don’t blame her brother-in-law because he was only following the ritual ban on the participation of the uninitiated or excommunicated.

Mormon ritual got in the way of human compassion and the process of grief. It severed the family in one of its most vulnerable moments. Of course Margaret Toscano was given a path back to full fellowship with the Church and she chose on her own not to take it, but why should that have anything to do with her relationship to her family?

Other examples abound. Mormons probably all know someone who wasn’t able to attend a marriage ceremony because they hadn’t met ritual requirements. Many of my own family and friends couldn’t attend my wedding for that exact reason. Now that I no longer number myself among the faithful, I will not be ritually qualified to fully participate in the celebration of any new child born into my family by standing with the men in my family and blessing the newborn. The women in my family never were able to do so. The ritual has no meaning to me theologically, but it is meaningful in that it is a part of my family’s life. I am now excluded—certainly by my own choice, but also by others who choose to give Mormon ritual rules priority over family relationships—from being a full participant in the life of the family. The church is interjecting itself into the life of the family. What should be family moments have become church rituals. Full family membership has become contingent on church fellowship.

Mormon ritual creates artificial distinctions within the family and is therefore a kind of violence against it.

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  1. Lessie said,

    May 3, 2007 @ 6:39 pm

    Hi Jonathan, over from fMh again. I don’t know where my change in perception happened, what point made me decide it, but somewhere along the way, I decided that religion in general is hurting humanity more than it’s helping for the very reasons you’ve stated here and at fMh (which are largely quotes–though which came first, the comments or the post, I don’t know). I went to a museum exhibit about the history of the bible–dead sea scroll fragments to the modern bible and rather than have my testimony strengthened, I was saddened that humanity, capable of such commitment, was so focused on something other than humanity. For the first time, I found the perserverance of the bible both hopeful for what it shows humanity is capable of in the way of commitmen, and yet disheartening that they wasted so much effort burning each other at stakes for differences of opinion. Anyway, enjoying your comments as usual. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 3, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

    Hey Lessie,

    Exactly. All this concern about ritual and heaven and priesthood and we lose focus on what’s really important to us: humanity. Of course since I don’t believe in God humanity is all I care about anymore. But even with a traditional belief in God, isn’t God’s first motivation concern for humanity?

    By the way, comments came first, this post came second. (We’re talking about this thread at Feminist Mormon Housewives)

  3. Lessie said,

    May 3, 2007 @ 9:45 pm

    Yeah, that’s kind of what I think as well. If God is there, then I would think his first motivation would be concern for humanity. I think I left because I got tired of making excuses for God. That, and religion is an all boys’ game, but that’s another discussion entirely. So in the meantime, while I’m not ready to completely let go of God (the fear factor), I’m tired of worrying about him and so I’m not really framing my motivations by what God wants me to do so much as how I can better benefit humanity and teach my children to do likewise. If God is there, and he wants me to know that, he’ll let me know. In the mean time, he hasn’t–so I’m goin’ it alone. And feeling much more peace for it in general as well.

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 4, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

    You and I think a lot alike. I admit that I don’t know everything. There may be a God despite my grave doubt to the contrary. If he’s there, I am at peace because I know that I’m doing my best to follow my conscience. A good, loving God must recognize that. If my best isn’t good enough, well I guess I was doomed from the start. No point in worrying about it now. If God isn’t good and loving, again, I might as well enjoy life as much as possible because I don’t expect to be treated fairly after death. If there is no God, then I’m on the right path at the moment.

  5. Green Oasis » Secret Ceremonies said,

    May 13, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

    [...] Now I see her with much more understanding and nuance. Terry Greene Sterling wrote a piece for Salon depicting Deborah Laake, her colleague from the Phoenix News Times, as a haunted woman who battled with a depression which eventually took her life. Perhaps the Mormon church doesn’t deserve the full blame for her painful life, but I don’t doubt that it exacerbated her problems. That the leadership of the church wouldn’t allow her to eulogize her mother or sit with her family in the front of the church during her funeral (and that her family didn’t insist therefore on holding the funeral elsewhere) is a familiar refrain. [...]

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 2:56 pm

    Here’s an anecdote to prove my point (with more anecdotes in the comments). Just in case you thought I was making this up. ;)

  7. Lessie said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 7:58 pm

    So, what’s your point? Do you really think they care? As far as they’re concerned, as far as I was concerned when I left my dad outside the temple, I was making a sacrifice for my God. There was a massive change in perception before I saw the inconsistencies in families as supreme yet exclude all “unworthy” family to temple marriage. Problems like the woman’s in your anecdote are translated as a lack of faith in God because as far as they’re concerned, God said be temple worthy, she wasn’t and so it was her own fault she was depressed.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 10, 2007 @ 8:26 pm

    I must try. :)

    A good step forward would be a change in attitude and policy that allowed people in the United States to have a civil ceremony with all of the family there. People in some countries aside from the U.S. can already do this. After the civil ceremony, the couple would be married. The next day, or whenever, the couple could go do that Mormon thing and get their marriage sealed in the temple.

    This simple formula could avoid much of the hurt feelings. All that stops the members of the church from doing this is the juvenile attitude among some that a civil marriage somehow degrades a sealing ceremony or shows a lack of commitment to Mormonism.

    I think this change is possible. Of course this doesn’t address all of the ways that Mormonism divides families, but its a start in the right direction.

  9. Lessie said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 6:26 am

    No, I agree with you about the marriage/sealing policy. I don’t think it degrades the sealing to be married civilly first. I agree that the attitude is somewhat juvenile. I guess I just feel very non-proselytizing right now. Live and let live. People convert to Mormonism, Islam, Atheism, Agnosticism, Judaism, Baha’i, Paganism, etc. everyday. They also leave said religions/beliefs everyday. So to me, there’s no point worrying myself about whether anyone agrees with me. If they do, they’ll eventually come this way, if they don’t, as long as they aren’t harming me or my children, let them do as they please (however, that doesn’t mean I want my children raised LDS). My sister–one of my best friends–doesn’t know I’ve left the church. It pains me to think that I won’t get to go to her wedding–more because she’ll feel like I’ve betrayed her than anything. So I’m just trying to figure out what I’m going to say when she finally finds out (same with my mom). Thank goodness my hubby has been supportive of my journey. In the mean time, I see the violence that my dad’s agnosticism has caused in our family–so I know you’re right. I also know that it will be directed at me once everyone finds out. I’m just trying to grow a thick skin so it won’t hurt as bad. The few people I have told blame my philosophy teacher (who is still a member with a firm testimony, so go figure), or philosophy itself, or feminism, etc. They can’t just let me be accountable for my own experiences and choices. That’s another aspect of the violence that scares me. They will pity my gullibility and talk amongst themselves about how deep down, I know it’s true, I’m just being prideful or selfish. Sigh. Anyway, this is getting off topic. I must admit though, I’m curious. Do you try to “convert” Lacie, so to speak? How does that work in your relationship? If that’s too personal, just ignore it. I’m just curious.

  10. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 6:48 am

    So to me, there’s no point worrying myself about whether anyone agrees with me. If they do, they’ll eventually come this way, if they don’t, as long as they aren’t harming me or my children, let them do as they please

    I feel the same way but with special emphasis on “as long as they aren’t harming me or my children”. People can put whatever label they like on themselves and assemble with people who use the same label and think similar things. The libertarian in my draws the line where they start intervening in my affairs (e.g. preventing me from attending my daughters’ possible future weddings) and doing me harm. I feel no urge to be silent when injustice like this happens.

    Do you try to “convert” Lacie, so to speak? How does that work in your relationship?

    I try to avoid saying “Look at this. Mormonism is so screwed up.” She’s aware of where she can learn the same things I’ve learned if she ever wants to. It’s not my job to force it on her. That would just poison our relationship. In line with what I’ve just said, I speak up if the church interferes inappropriately in our lives or the lives of our children.

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 6:54 am

    Another thing: I do feel some duty to speak up about what I see as false, harmful beliefs. I just pick the time and place (mostly here).

    I hope things go well with your family. I personally have found that being upfront with my family and asking for their understanding and help changes the tone of things. Personally, I wrote a letter which helped me organize my thoughts. You might want to read How Do I Tell My Wife That I Don’t Believe Anymore? again if you haven’t lately. I found everyone’s comments helpful.

  12. Lessie said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 7:08 am

    Yeah, I’ll probably read it again sometime. In the mean time, I have to admit to being a yellow bellied chicken. One other question, why’d you bring up your thread again now? That thread on FMH was pretty old.

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 11, 2007 @ 7:11 am

    I just decided to put a trackback to it (since I was here linking to the Cr@ig In The Middle post), so a comment popped up on the fMh thread.

  14. Green Oasis » Ritual Violence II said,

    November 2, 2007 @ 3:27 pm

    [...] hurts to hear these stories of ritual violence which I was deaf to back when I was married. To all those excluded by my decision to marry in an [...]

  15. Green Oasis » Ritual Violence III said,

    January 16, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

    [...] at SunstoneBlog added another facet to my story about what I’m calling ritual violence. For whatever reason, ritual is important to human beings. Excluding us from ceremony symbolically [...]

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