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.