Don’t Like Something? Just Leave! Progress and the Institutions We Love

For some reason, we have this idea that if you love something, if you really love something, you’ll never, ever try to change it.

To a certain extent, I agree with this assessment. After all, you probably love your significant other even though s/he has attributes you don’t like. And, in fact, there is a good chance that you probably aren’t trying to change everything about that person.

However, the reality is that we, as people, do change. The hope in a long-term relationship is that you will change together, moving forward toward a similar goal. Or at least that both of you change enough that you can accept what is unchangeable in the other person and enjoy your companionship.

At any rate, the idea that you love people for who they are, not what they should be, is a deeply ingrained part of our culture. That idea often transfers to institutions.

It shouldn’t.

When it comes to institutions — particularly imperfect institutions run by imperfect people — we should want to change what we love. We shouldn’t just up and leave. Unfortunately, we’ve reached an interesting point in which there are those who are very vocal about the idea that if you don’t think that America is the most perfect place ever, you should just leave. I see something similar as Mormonism goes through a rather interesting period of growing pains. There are members of the LDS Church who feel that if you disagree with something, or you don’t like something, you should just leave (or maybe be forced to leave).

However, rather than just taking things as they are with institutions, I think it behooves us to work for change in the institutions that we love, whether we are talking about a country or a church.

Image Source: Bernie Sanders Facebook page
Image Source: Bernie Sanders Facebook page

 

One of the basic tenets of progressivism is that we should be trying to move forward. We take what we have learned to this point, and make an effort to improve ourselves and our society. I like the idea of at least trying to help others, and moving forward in society, even though I know that there is no such thing as true fairness in life.

It also means that I don’t try to say that everything is fine as-is. I think that there is plenty of room for improvement in our country, especially in terms of our national priorities and the growing income inequality. And I surely don’t think that the LDS Church is perfect. It’s not designed to be right now. We expect to see changes in doctrine and practice, and everything we do now is in preparation to do something different later.

So it’s difficult when someone says that if you don’t agree with what the leaders say now, you should leave. And it’s really grating to hear people question why women who want ordination to the Priesthood would want to continue pushing for change while in the Church. Either shut up and accept that “this is the way things are,” or leave.

The reality, though, is that things are much more nuanced. We like to think that the government of heaven isn’t a democracy. And, technically speaking, it isn’t. However, those who say that we just have to wait for the top-down pronouncements tend to ignore that these types of prophetic revelations tend to coincide with a great deal of agitation and calls for the Brethren to consider certain matters.

While there are myriad reasons that people don’t “just leave” when they wish things were different, there are two main reasons that, anecdotally, I find most common:

  1. Deep-seated cultural expectations: You don’t just walk away from years — or even decades — of cultural conditioning without social and psychological consequences. Whether it’s the fear of disappointing your family and being cut off from them, or whether it’s simply the fact that you have no idea how to function socially outside your ward boundaries, “just leaving” isn’t really an option.
  2. They love the Church and a desire to be a part of the progression: There are also a number of people who think that the Church could do better. And, frankly, it could. Even you think that the Church is led by inspired men, the reality is that they are still humans who can make mistakes. And, as we’ve seen in the past, sometimes those mistakes have long-standing doctrinal and cultural implications in the way we practice our religion. Those who love the Church but see room for improvement stick it out because, after everything, they believe and they see the potential.

Some of our leaders aren’t ready to kick the rest of us out, either. In spite of some of the weird beliefs we might have, or the fact that sometimes we go hang with the Unitarian Universalists because we just need to be with people who are ideologically similar. But we also want to maintain our connections and work toward a more open, more equitable, more inclusive Church.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the late Chieko Okazaki, a former First Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency:

If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.

And President Uchtdorf recently talked in General Conference about how much room there is in the LDS Church for many different people. The idea that someone should “just leave” when they disagree, or hope for better things, isn’t one that is compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, in fact, leaders of the modern Church have been leaving the door open for changes to various doctrines and practices for years. And, even if you think that all women should be perfectly happy with the current state of things in the gospel, and that they are cray-cray for wanting ordination, remember that less than a year ago, a Church spokesperson went on record as saying that there is nothing in the scriptures prohibiting a woman from being ordained.

Right now, women’s ordination is one of the biggest issues of agitation and change, along with greater LGBTQ acceptance. And while it may all come to nothing in the end, the reality is that telling women who want ordination and full equity in the hierarchy of the Church that they should feel differently, shut up, or “just leave” isn’t very Christlike — and it doesn’t allow for the fact that these are usually very faithful women with complex feelings and motivations who see the potential in themselves, the men around them, the daughters and other young women who in some cases feel very real pain, their leaders, and the Church they love.

It’s similar to the way that many progressives think that, great as America is, there is room for improvement. We aren’t always the best at things. Sometimes our priorities aren’t focused on creating a more perfect union or promoting the general welfare of our citizens. Sometimes our national priorities focus on lining billionaire pockets. One has only to look at the way we can almost always find money for another war (or other “defense” spending), even as we wring our hands about how there isn’t enough money to fix our crumbling infrastructure or educate and feed our children.

While differences make things more challenging, and while we have to look for new paradigms and new ways of doing things, sticking around when you don’t like something, and working to change it, is a good thing. It’s a sign of love. And, as Robert Kirby recently pointed out, inflexibly hanging onto whatever thing you are hanging onto isn’t real faith. Whether it’s faith in your church or faith in your country, I think it’s a good thing to have a desire to grow and change for the better, and work for progress in the institutions you love.

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