Response to Custodians of Doctrine and the Work of Empathy

JODIE PALMER is an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is an open lesbian and married to a man. She is a student coach and faculty member of the Midwives College of Utah teaching dialogue and conflict transformation.

Some people work out at the gym. Some people work out on the court or the field. I work out by having difficult conversations on social media. And I’ll tell you it’s as exhausting as any workout, and probably burns as many calories just in the effort of restraint alone! It’s one of the ways I hone my craft of dialogue and bridge building.   

I watch for threads that are particularly unkind, intolerant, or overtly anti-LGBTQ, AND pique my interest. My coin toss in the air for these conversations is almost always the same. It goes something like this, “Hello all! So and so is a dear friend of mine. I’m gay and a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Do any of you have a question for me?”

Last week there was a thread on how terrible it was that the city of St. George gave permits to hang PRIDE banners for PRIDE week. It digressed to supporting the straight pride parade in Boston to gay people being the impetuous for the downfall of our country. 

A man named Larry responded to my invitation with “Glad you’re striving to be a Latter-Day Saint.”

I responded with: “Larry, I’d be a latter-day saint regardless of if I chose a mixed orientation marriage or a same sex one. These are my people. This is my faith.” 

The compilation of responses I got essentially went like this, “Jodie, If you are saying one can intentionally violate Christ’s law of chastity and still profess to be striving to be a Christian saint, I’d have to disagree. That is the definition of hypocrisy: professing a belief and living differently, or at least not trying to live up to your belief.”

And, here, suddenly, the real chasm between us stood gaping; dripping with the invitation for our hearts to go to war. 

The chasms are many between Church doctrine, the commandment to love all of God’s children, and the many varied lived experiences of LGBTQ+ and same-sex attracted members. 

Here is what we know for sure. These chasms aren’t going anywhere. My friend Larry might even frame these growing chasms as the winnowing of the wheat from the tares, or the separation of the sheep from the goats. 

And even in this perspective there is something that we can agree on—that we find ourselves on opposite sides of a Grand Canyon. 

Conservative political analyst, Arthur Brooks gave a TED talk called, “A Conservatives Plea: Let’s Work Together.” He talks about a phenomenon called Political Motive Asymmetry. This is where you assume your ideology is based on love, but your opponent’s ideology is based on hate.  

I feel this in myself. There isn’t a single ideology or belief that I hold that doesn’t feel motivated by love. And when I think of those who hold opposing views from mine, I can’t help but consider some amount of nefarious motivation. 

The important point here isn’t who is actually motivated by love, and who isn’t. The important point is that we both feel we are, and that the other isn’t. 

There is a truth that arises from this phenomenon of political motive asymmetry. And this truth is my most important mantra of bridge building. 

“As I am, so art thou. As thou art, so am I.” 

What this means is others are people just like me. Others matter in the same way I do. Others’ lived experiences are as valid as mine are. And, I have the same shadows that I judge in others. 

But it gets hard. Here are just two mild posts I’ve come across in the last few weeks. 

“It is nice to see a ward welcome LGBTQ into their ward, but let’s not forget that homoexulaity is a temptation and gender dysphoria is a mental disorder. These are struggles these people will need to overcome like we have our own.

Facebook user Sean

“Its terrible that such beautiful rainbow colors are used to spread such an evil agenda to influence our children. Great response though.

Facebook user Bob

When I hear things like this I sometimes feel tempted to fill this damn chasm with some bodies!

But more often than not, I feel tempted to fill it with my own body. 

There is no joke here when we feel protective of the lives of others. We recognize the chasm as a problem. Sometimes a life and death problem. 

And it often feels that the only way to solve the problem is to aim our weapons of war across the gap and fill it with the metaphorical bodies of our opponents. 

And, because of political motive asymmetry, they certainly see and feel the same. 

But bridges teach us something as we look over the edge of this temptation and into the darkness below. 

  1. Bridges aren’t meant to fill in the chasm. 
  2. Bridges are meant to connect us over the divide. 

So, back to my friend Larry. Rather than devising a strategy of defense, or engaging him in debate, I asked Larry if there was any ground upon which we could begin building a bridge between each other. I said to Larry that if I were going to answer this question myself, I would say that building on the ground of seeking to better know the other was as good a place to start as any. 

I said there is a divine generosity in genuine questions that seek to understand. And, in understanding is our path to ministering. Not proselyting but ministering in the truest sense. Bridge building then, connecting through seeking to understand is ministering in beautiful and simple form. 

Were those the magic words? Did Larry suddenly have an amazing change of heart? 

No. He never responded to me again after that. 

Sometimes people won’t. But so many, many times they will. 

Even bridge building that seems to go unrequited, does unseen, transformative work. I see it happen over, and over, and over again in my own bridge building efforts.  

There is much work to be done in building a spiritual home for sexual and gender minorities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There are many gifts provided to do this work. Yours have been baked into your bones. 

Don’t be daunted or distracted by the chasms before us. Keep your eye on connecting across the divide. Because, in the end, chasms have a way of shrinking in the shadow of a bridge.