Ye simple souls who stray.

The Shawshank Redemption. One of my very favorite movies. Because he is at the wrong place at the wrong time, Andy Dufresne receives two consecutive life sentences at the Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.  The story follows Andy over nearly two decades as he tries to adjust to his new life but struggles to maintain his integrity in a place that has precious little.

After spending time in solitary confinement and seeing a young man he had tried to help murdered by a corrupt warden, Andy makes a break for it.  Unknown to the warden and unknown to his friends, Andy has been chipping away at the wall of his cell for the last 19 years, carrying out the rubble little by little.  He escapes by crawling through the tunnel to a space between the walls, then during a thunder-storm he smashes open a sewage pipe. He crawls through the foulest matter imaginable, retching as he goes, until he reaches the stream it empties into. Exultant, he stands in the rain with his arms outstretched.

In the words of the narrator, “Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.”

Leaving the church can feel like crawling through a river of excrement.  People not infrequently lose the most important relationships in their lives.  Sometimes they lose their job.  At a minimum they experience a loss of respect from many of their still faithful friends and family who begin projecting the worst sorts of stereotypes on them.  One minute a person is on the inside of the group.  Valued, trusted and good.  The next they are an enemy in many ways, one who has no integrity and who must now be watched closely. Their actions and motives viewed with skepticism.

But why do the faithful treat people they care about this way? What is it that causes otherwise good people to forget everything they know about someone they love and value? To become unkind and judgmental? What lays at the root of this radical shift in view and feeling toward a former intimate?  The short answer: a deeply ingrained system of beliefs that does not allow that there is any good reason to leave the church.  So when someone leaves, even a loved one, what is known is that this person has made a very, very bad choice and is in someway morally defective. The ugly speculation then begins as to what the defect might be.

As I thought over possible reasons for why this might be so, my mind went immediately to the idea that perhaps there is something cultural at work.  The church is populated by imperfect people, so perhaps the right message is being shared and human frailty accounts for this phenomenon.   But in researching General Conference talks for this blog, it appears that in this case the membership is internalizing the intended message.  Here is a sampling of what members are taught about the simple souls who stray:

People who leave the church have been breaking the commandments and then trying to cover it up by offering “intellectual” excuses:

“I saw a few leave the Church who could then never leave it alone. They used often their intellectual reservations to cover their behavioral lapses (internal citation omitted). You will see some of that.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell, April General Conference, 2004.

People who leave the church have taken offense for no good reason:

“Around us we see members of the Church who have become offended. Some take offense at incidents in the history of the Church or its leaders and suffer their whole lives, unable to get past the mistakes of others. They do not leave it alone. They fall into inactivity.
That attitude is somewhat like a man being hit by a club. Offended, he takes up a club and beats himself over the head with it all the days of his life. How foolish! How sad!” Elder Boyd K. Packer, April General Conference, 2011.

“Thomas B. Marsh, the first President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation, elected to take offense over an issue as inconsequential as milk strippings…Thomas B. Marsh allowed himself to be acted upon, and the eventual results were apostasy and misery.” Elder David A. Bednar, October General Conference, 2006.

Sometimes in addition to the desire to sin, people leave the church because they are rebellious or lazy:

“Deviating to the right or the left of the safe track ahead of us, whether because of laziness or rebelliousness, can prove fatal to our spiritual lives. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Elder Patrick Kearon, First Quorum of the Seventy, Priesthood Session, October 2010.

“We need everyone. The tired or worn out or lazy and even those who are bound down with guilt must be restored through repentance and forgiveness.” Elder Boyd K. Packer, April General Conference, 2010.

Does that make sense?

In general, those who leave the church have base motivations: the desire to sin, laziness, rebelliousness, pettiness over minor offenses or minor doctrinal disagreements. “Intellectual” concerns are merely cover for what we all really know is going on here. You can’t leave without being weak or bad.  But it simply isn’t true.

As an advocate I frequently like to remind myself that if I am hearing an argument from an otherwise reasonable and rational person that makes no sense or leaves me feeling the speaker is foolish, it is a very good sign that I have not yet understood the force of their argument. Caricaturing those who lose their faith is exactly this kind of failure.

Most people who leave the church do it at a very high price.  They have built their lives, their marriages and their families around it.  They have dedicated countless hours and dollars to it.  And before they have finally, and painfully, let go of it, they have in most cases spent years and is some cases decades trying to find a way to reconcile themselves to it. At the end of that process the wall has been chipped fully away and the climb out, Andy Dufresne style, awaits.

Do such people leave something so important behind and suffer the very difficult consequences of that choice over trifles?  Does that make sense?  What is the rest of the story? Thomas Marsh didn’t leave the church over milk strippings.  A quick Google search quickly replaces seemingly silly and petty behavior with an explanation that actually makes sense for this former President of the Twelve.

If you want to understand your friend or loved one, the facile explanations offered by these well-intentioned leaders are simply inadequate.  If a friend or family member has left the church, do better by them than ascribing to them the equivalent of thinking they left over milk strippings.  Unkindness and judgment are not the fruits of a good tree, nor is treating someone important in your life as though they are irrational or morally defective. Love them enough to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Though you may never agree with them, you may find that in their own eyes they are simply trying to wash themselves clean after a long difficult path out.

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8 Responses to Ye simple souls who stray.

  1. Lettibug says:

    This was a wonderful post. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies, too, and the comparisons between it and leaving the church are spot-on. (I broke down crying for a serious minute there.) I’m fairly new on my journey, and the way you expressed yourself was exactly what I would want to share with my friends and family. I wonder if I could get them to read this…anyway, thank you.

  2. Lettiburg, I’m new in this journey too. Nice to have you along!

  3. Phil says:

    I personally don’t find the argument strong. First of all, using a completely non-related metaphor from a fictional movie to try and base you point is really weak. I prefer to work in truth. If you believe its true, go and don’t let anyone stop you for any reason. IF you don’t believe its true, then don’t go! all the crap about feelings and guilt is a side effect not a cause. If you believe God wants you to be studying scripture and going to church will never be able to justify it away with any argument because he knows it and so do you. Sure you’ve been offended…maybe you don’t even enjoy the church, but at no point is it written that following god should be a walk in the park. MAKE UP YOUR MIND WHAT YOU BELIEVE AND FOLLOW THROUGH NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE ELSE AROUND YOU SAYS!

  4. Jason says:

    I find your attempt to find resolution with the fact you have left the church interesting. Your actions are exactly in line with the way you say members treat those who leave the church. The truth is you cannot leave the church alone, otherwise you never would have put this message out. If you no longer want to be a member then quietly remove yourself. Why do you need to send out the message? My experience with those that leave for whatever reason is that they spend much of their time justifying their actions, trying to come to some resolution of why they have taken the steps they have taken. The truth is that one day we will all cross the finish line and there we will find the truth. In life there are really only two choices; either you can believe or not believe. I served a mission in the bible belt and was bombarded for two years with anti. For the first 6 months I did not have any spiritual experiences and must admit my faith began to waiver. During this bombardment of anti and spiritual void I came to one conclusion: if there is a God I am going to do everything I can to do what he wants me to do. I also realized that the LDS church teachings will get me closer to God than any other teachings. Forget about the constant question of is the church true. Even if the church is not true it’s precepts and teachings will get you closer to God than any other church on the face of this earth. And of course there is the question, what if it is true? You are going to spend the rest of your life justifying to yourself your actions and accusing members of treating you differently even though it is you that has changed. You will experience considerable misery as you associate with those who like you spend the rest of their lives in a pac of voided members who are trying to find some peace. As far as the anti friend that have helped you find holes in the doctrine, believe me they are not friends, they simply want you to join their ranks so they can justify their non beliefs.

  5. Jason says:

    A simple challenge. If you are truly sincere and intellectually honest apply the same doctrine and truth standards to the bible as you did the LDS church. If you do then there is only one outcome because the bible is full of contradictions and errors. These are very easy to find and have been documented by numerous non LDS scholars. If you do this how will you be able to believe in God and Jesus? If you apply the same logic that you applied to the church. The outcome has to be that because of the errors and contradictions there is no way you could believe. I guess that is why faith is so important. Are you intellectually honest?

  6. Jim, I love to see someone coming correct with all caps sentences. I feel your passion brother! Sorry you don’t like my metaphor, but metaphors can convey truth. Parables are metaphors. But I will follow your advice to try and do what feels best to me. That is good advice for anyone.

  7. Jason, if you go read the “about” tab I think you will find that I am right up front about being an agnostic atheist. I still love the teachings of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept that there is a God. As I say, I don’t have a belief as respects God.

    Also, leaving the church is a hard thing to do. For many people it helps to talk about it, particularly when those around you don’t understand it. I don’t need to talk myself into it at this point, the decision has been made, so that is not what this is about. But I’m interested that you say I’m guilty of what I am describing in others. What is that basis for that statement?

  8. Pingback: Let’s still be friends, okay? | Second Gospel of Matthew

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