Note: I wrote this before the October 2020 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where so much was said in terms of building more peace, unity, inclusion, respect, and love. One of the talks that stands out to me is Sharon Eubank’s address, where she connects concepts taught at the beginnings of the Relief Society (the women’s organization) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to our current day.
Pleas from the prophet Joseph Smith to the women in 1842, for unity and mercy, are pleas being echoed by our leaders today.
I’m keeping most of the original text of this post as a personal record of my thoughts, with a few edits to connect back to Conference. I encourage readers to listen to and/or read Sister Eubank’s talk. And to listen to the many other talks from General Conference that pertain to things we can do to build more unity and peace at a time, as President Dallin H. Oaks noted, is more contentious than any time our leaders have seen. May we prayerfully seek ways to bring more mercy, grace, and unity to our public discourse.
As an American who has been wrestling for years with our political tensions and divides, I’ve been pondering a lot this year about what I personally want to do in the face of our particular political situation. I have long felt quite homeless in the face of two parties so often at war with each other; it feels like the purpose of the two main parties as I understand it (collective problem-solving through both robust wrestle and courageous compromise) has been lost in the face of pendulum politics and populism.
One quote that is helpful for me as I consider these challenges is from a researcher named Brené Brown, who has been referenced several times in articles and talks over the years because of her work on shame, vulnerability, and getting past common human barriers to connection.
I start with her quote and then work from there to share how leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints help guide us when it comes to political involvements. Or at least how I am feeling guided in my own personal desires to be civically engaged.
First, Brené Brown:
“Normally, we use forced choice and false dichotomies during times of significant emotional stress. Our intentions may not be to manipulate, but to force the point that we’re in a situation where neutrality is dangerous.
“[Brené says] I actually agree with this point. One of my live-by quotes is from Elie Wiesel. ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.'”Braving the Wilderness (I don’t have access to page numbers because I listened to it on audio book)
[Michelle here — my brain can get caught there in this quote here because isn’t the whole problem around false dichotomy found in the notion of sides? Consider carefully what she says next.]
[Brené again]: “The problem is that these emotional pleas are often not based in facts [although let’s be clear: facts can be hard to come by in a social and media driven, “fake news” world…a topic for another day, perhaps], and they prey on our fears of not belonging or being seen as wrong or part of the problem. We need to question how the sides are defined. Are these really the only options? Is this the accurate framing for this debate…?
“If alternatives exist outside of these forced choices (and they almost always do), then the [emotionally-driven] statements are factually wrong. [So here at least we have clear understanding, when it comes to social and political discourse, about what is not fact!] It’s turning an emotion-driven approach into weaponized belonging. And it always benefits the person throwing down the gauntlet and brandishing those forced, false choices….
“The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our ideological bunkers. It feels easier and safer to pick a side. The argument is set up in a way [on either ‘side’] that there’s only one real option. If we stay quiet we’re automatically demonized as “the other.”
“The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate.”Braving the Wilderness (I don’t have page numbers because I listened to it on audio book)
Even though on election day, those of us in the United States will have to choose a box (or a line) for the presidential election, Brené helps me remember that we don’t have to define our larger conversations and choices by that one moment, that one choice. As we continue forward, we can continually work to frame conversations around pressing societal issues in ways that don’t shut down discussion and that leave room for differences of opinion and experience and perspective.
For women and men who believe in Christ [as was said more than once in the October 2020 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], I think it’s also important to remember that no social or political solution can offer all the world needs. We are to be “anxiously engaged” in doing good as we feel impressed or pressed to do, but without the gospel of Jesus Christ, all efforts will eventually, essentially be incomplete. I think that is by design. “All things must fail,” we are told in scripture. All things except Christ. The struggles around us can constantly remind us of our individual and collective need for the Savior light, love, and healing.
This is why “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children [and our friends, and even the world] may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Nephi 25:26; see also Elder Neil L. Andersen’s talk.)
I like this simple quote from Dallin H. Oaks: “I find some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism—but I find no salvation in any of them.” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/…/1987/02/criticism…
I also return often in my mind to the First Presidency letter before the 2016 election: “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties….” https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/…/first…
Even God Himself — the only One who really has the lens on truth to declare something absolute — has offered grace in the face of what would otherwise be relentless justice of His divine laws, through “the merits of His Son” (Alma 24:10), because we as mortals are simply unable to meet every facet of His laws with perfection. Amazing grace, indeed. It’s breathtaking to consider!
And yet we often are so much less willing to hold space and offer grace to each other. (Or even ourselves.)
As Sister Eubank reminded us, Jesus Christ offers mercy and love to all. (See also talks such as those from Elder Renlund, Elder Jaggi, President Oaks, and more.) I was so grateful for the reminders during this recent General Conference to keep looking to Him first as I wrestle with what to do in my civic engagement efforts, in this election time and beyond. To try to be more like Him in all that I do. It’s a messy process (another shoutout to Sister Eubank who used one of my favorite words!), but I’m so grateful to have the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life, to help me to keep trying, to keep practicing, to keep striving to keep Him at the center of my life, my thoughts, my focus, even my very breath.