Is Zion a place where people never feel judged?

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In a previous article (Therapeutic Deism vs. Divine Love), we have argued that love is not the same thing as indifference to the choices of others. In fact, the opposite is true:  the more we love someone, the more we care deeply about the choices they make and desire that their choices bring them eternal happiness. In other words, the more we love someone, the more we are saddened when they alienate themselves from God through sin. Compassion for those mired in sin does not overlook sin or minimize its seriousness.  Rather, it recognizes sin for precisely what it is and for what it does. Recognizing this requires discernment. It requires that we clear from our minds and hearts the temptation and tendency to rationalize, excuse, or downplay sin when we see it.

The flipside of taking sin seriously is that we must be patient with others, refrain from needless criticism, so that we can help those who wander feel wanted and valued within our congregations. God is patient with us, and so we should be patient with others. In His infinite mercy, He graciously forgives us a host of failings — and so too should we be willing to forgive the failings of others. We should create a community where God’s abiding love is unmistakable — a bonfire of redeeming love that warms those who have felt alienated from God. We should see the Church as a hospital for sinners, not as a playground or mutual admiration society only for the righteous. Those who sin should feel welcomed, loved, and wanted.

Any time we falter in both these regards, we should take immediate corrective action. Some might suggest we should talk in terms of balancing the demands of truth and compassion, but doing so runs the risk of unnecessarily depicting truth and compassion as opposed in the first place. Nonetheless, we can rightly say that “strait is the gate and narrow is the way” — and few there are who walk that path without succumbing either to the pitfall of permissiveness and rationalization, on the one hand, or the pitfall of self-righteous judgmentalism, on the other. True love, God’s love, manifests neither self-righteous pride nor the slightest inclination to excuse sin. Traveling the path set before us is perilous indeed, but to become like Christ we must find and walk it nonetheless.

In this article, we are going to explore one (of many) potential hazard along that path. When building a community of robust norms, there are always going to be those who feel the pressure of those norms. It is not uncommon for people to feel judged by members of the Church when they do things that violate the norms of the community (such as drinking coffee, going grocery shopping on Sunday, etc.). This is often used as a example of a strand of “Pharisee-ism” at work in the Church. The stereotype of the Pharisees in the New Testament is that they were extremely judgmental and self-righteous, and often harshly penalized those who violated the traditions of their community. Today, the implicit accusation is often made that we in the Church often penalize those who violate our traditions by ostracizing or marginalizing them, or making them feel badly for choosing different priorities than our own.

The Sociology of Community Norms

To whatever extent we ostracize or marginalize those who disappoint us or fail to live up to our expectations, we are clearly falling short of God’s expectations of us. This is a simple, sad truth that we feel is unarguable.  However, we also think that those who accuse the Church and its members of Phariseeism sometimes do so by overlooking the basic sociology of communities and norms. Our argument has four parts:

(1) It is impossible to have a community without distinctive norms.

Norms are shared expectations that a community has of its participants. In fact, norms are what define a community and separate a given community from other communities, or from the general populace. “Norms constitute the shared rules or expectations specifying appropriate behaviors in various situations”((Stolley, K. S. (2005).  The basics of sociology.  Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, p. 46)).  A community without norms is not a community at all. A community of Latter-day Saints, for example, is defined by the shared expectations it has of its members, and the way those expectations differ from those of other communities (such as a school community, a civic community, a hockey team, or a book club).

When we participate in a community, we embed ourselves within a system of norms unique to that community, and place ourselves in a context where we might disappoint others when we violate those norms. This does not mean that the norms of our Church community are perfect or beyond questioning. Some of our community norms might include expectations who inspiration manifests a mortal source rather than a divine one. It does not mean that we shouldn’t try to improve upon existing norms, fine-tuning them to better reflect their spirit and intent. Our point is that the important question is not whether to have shared norms — we will have them, if we want to be a community at all — but rather, which distinctive features of the community should be normative.

Even a community that strives to be open and inclusive to everyone inevitably fosters normative expectations of its members. One example is the norm of openness and inclusiveness itself. A community that prides itself on being tolerant might find itself quite intolerant of those it deems to be intolerant, or who are seen as a threat to the continued openness and inclusivity of the community. Being concerned about such threats to one’s community isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it just demonstrates that it is impossible to have a community without some rules and shared expectations that serve to distinguish a given community from others.

(2) When compliance with a rule becomes common, and is considered a matter of moral importance, it becomes a community norm.

Any behavior that becomes common — any behavior that becomes normal — can easily become normative. It may help to discuss a distinction made by a sociologist named Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann distinguished between what he called cognitive and normative expectations. Cognitive expectations are those individual predictions and expectations about the world that are revised when disappointed. We form cognitive expectations about the rising and setting of the sun, the weather, and the kinds of ads we will receive in the mail. In contrast, normative expectations are not revised in the face of disappointment. We continue to hold these expectations even when they are violated by others. Normative expectations are essentially expectations about how things ought to be, and we can continue to maintain and endorse them even when things don’t happen in the way we believe they ought.

An expectation cannot become normative without first becoming cognitive. Behavior that is rare and unusual is (by definition) not normative — even if it has a moral significance. Behavior must first be normal — i.e., common enough that we form cognitive expectations that others will behave accordingly. For example, imagine a community where shopping on the Sabbath is discouraged, but in which members widely and regularly do so nonetheless. Even though shopping on the Sabbath would have a moral valence (it is discouraged), Sabbath-keeping would not be considered normative, and few people will feel they have disappointed others for shopping on the Sabbath.

But once a behavior is taken up by most of the community, it can become normative even if it does not have a moral valence. (Think of wearing a blue shirt to a BYU football game as a BYU student for an example of a behavior that is normative without really having any moral valence.  Also, imagine being a BYU student to a game against the University of Utah for an example of how such a normative behavior can result in the disappointment of one’s community.) However, if a behavior does have a moral valence, it will almost certainly become normative. In other words, once compliance with a general rule is both common and it is considered to be a matter of moral importance, it becomes a community norm. Imagine a community where shopping on the Sabbath is both discouraged and in which most people actively avoid doing it. This is the very definition of a norm.

(3) When we feel kinship with a community, we tend to feel self-conscious when we violate its distinctive norms.

Once, many years ago, one of us (we won’t say which) inadvertently wore a red shirt to a BYU football game. Nobody said anything to me about it and nobody “shamed” me. In fact, nobody even pointed it out. Nonetheless, I had a very strong sense of “sticking out” and being noticed in all of that sea of blue. Indeed, I would have felt noticed no matter how many reassurances I got from others that it was okay or that the color of my shirt didn’t matter. This a clear example of violating a norm that has no “moral valence” — there is nothing good or bad about signalling our team loyalties in the colors we wear (or not doing so). Yet it illustrates how norms can make us feel self-conscious when we deviate from them, no matter how trivial they may be. And the effect is compounded multiple times over when the norm does have a “moral valence,” where deviations are seen as not merely outside-of-normal, but morally problematic.

When we develop a kinship with a community, we begin to internalize the norms of that community. Imagine, if you will, that I were an interloper — perhaps a UVU fan just along with some friends. I wouldn’t have felt nearly so self-conscious, because I wouldn’t have felt the same kinship with the group whose norms I was violating. Kinship and belonging brings with it the normative expectations of the group. To belong means to internalize those norms to some degree. People who do not feel self-conscious when they violate the distinctive norms of a community have usually othered the community by distancing or exempting themselves from it in some way.

For example, someone who is caught embezzling money from a wealthy corporation might feel shame if they feel a part of the community they have robbed; they might feel pride instead of shame if they see themselves as “apart” from the culture and community of those they have robbed (as if, perhaps, they are “sticking it to the man” and have scored a victory for the impoverished and downtrodden). A Latter-day Saint, for example, who takes pride in the fact that he curses and watches sexually explicit movies will more than likely tell you that he is not like those other “goody-goody” Mormons. In this way, he sets himself up as separate and distinct from the community whose norms he is violating; he is different from them, not of a kin with them. Notice how — in order to not feel self-conscious about violating the norm — we almost have to “other” the community.

(4) This self-consciousness is not necessarily inflicted or enforced by the community.

This self-consciousness is, shall we say, self-inflicted by the very psychology / sociology of norms themselves.  Those who feel kinship with a community will feel self-conscious for violating its norms even if the community does nothing to “enforce” those norms. In other words, this self-consciousness may have nothing whatsoever to do with the response of others in the community. They could be welcoming, generous, forgiving, and reassuring, and we might still feel self-conscious for violating their norms. Once established, norms do not require explicit (or even implicit) enforcement to have this effect.

In other words, it is a feature that is built into the our very psyche as human beings, a sort of psychological calculus of mutual expectations: we are constantly evaluating our own actions in light of what we think others expect of us, and norms are very powerful indicators of what others expect of us. This is even the case for bad behavior:  when others expect bad conduct from us, we often avoid disappointing them — whether we actually want to or not. Many of us have had occasion to build better habits and lifestyles while away from home, only to revert to our former ways (or, at least, feel self-conscious about our new habits) once we return. Indeed, this is something that addiction therapists working in rehabilitation clinics have understood for a very long time. It is why the strongly urge recovering addicts to develop new friendships and avoid hanging out in the old, familiar haunts.

[One implication of this is that it is not always necessary for us as individuals to explicitly enforce the norms of a community. Indeed, there is often no need to take it upon ourselves to rebuke violators, as though the community depends on us for the enforcement of its norms. From a ministerial point of view, such things are not always helpful. Human psychology itself is good at making violators feel self-conscious, without any help from us.]

(5) There are four primary responses to this experience of self-consciousness:  behavior change, leave the community, divide the community, or simply press forward.

When individuals violate community norms and feel self-conscious for it, they tend to reliably respond in one of four ways:

  1. Behavior Change. In the BYU football example above, I could have changed shirts, and brought myself into compliance with the norm, and thereby alleviated the feeling of self-consciousness. Those who feel noticed for violating norms such as Sabbath-keeping, the Word of Wisdom, or the Law of Chastity might change those behaviors and adopt new habits instead.
  2. Leave the Community. In the BYU football example above, I might have opted to leave the game. Those who feel noticed for violating norms such as Sabbath-keeping, the Word of Wisdom, or the Law of Chastity might either leave the Church, or attend less often (or not at all). In this way, they seek to lessen their feelings of self-consciousness by lessening the kinship they feel with the community (by reducing their participation in it).
  3. Divide the Community. Rather than leaving the community, an individual might begin to see the community as consisting of various subgroups. They might see the norms they are violating as belonging to a subgroup within the larger community, a subgroup of which they are not a part. For example, a Church member who violates community norms by questioning central Church teachings might conclude that Church membership has multiple groups:  TBMs (“True Believing Mormons” who blindly follow) and more Thoughtful Dissidents (who use reason and think about their faith). They see the norms they are flouting as those of the former sub-community, but not the latter.
  4. Press Forward. It takes quite a bit of resilience to pursue this path. This is also a path for those who violate norms for legitimate reasons. For example, consider a couple who remains childless — despite norms regarding childbearing — because of infertility. They may still feel self-conscious, even though the norm has built in exceptions for them (nobody expects those physically unable to bear children to do so). This is because infertility is rarely a matter of public conversation, and so they may appear to be flouting the norm, even when they are not. They can either publicize that they are an exception (e.g., openly discuss their infertility), or “press forward” on a path of continued self-consciousness — a choice that is difficult and personal.

The Hidden Assumption and its Alternative

Finally, we are ready to address this article’s “hidden assumption” and its alternative:

The hidden assumption: Zion is a community that is so loving that people don’t ever feel that they have disappointed the expectations of others when they sin.

Some have come to believe that because community norms lead to people feeling judged for living differently, they should be dismantled. In this view, Zion is a community where nobody feels self-conscious. Belonging, in this view, means that our identity as members of the community is no longer tied to whether or not we live out its norms. We belong when we can violate norms and not feel as though we’ve disappointed others. When we feel self-conscious about our bad habits, for example, this is a sign that we are not fully a part of the community.

There is an additional distinction that helps clarify this perspective: guilt is a product of conscience, while self-consciousness is a product of norms. Our conscience is what leads us to feel bad when we have done wrong to others and God, while community norms are what lead us to feel that we have disappointed the expectations of others. The assumption outlined here, stripped to its bare essentials, is that when we feel bad at all for having done something wrong, it should only be a product of conscience. In other words, we should never feel self-conscious or embarrassed when we do wrong. To the extent that we do feel self-conscious, it means that the community’s norms should be relaxed. You might call this hidden worldview a belief in “normless community,” although (as we argue above) it is a contradiction in terms.

An alternative: Zion is a community of norms, a place where righteousness is both normal and normative.

We argue that we take a shared identity from the cultural norms that make us distinct. It may be helpful to think of Zion as a community where God’s laws have moved beyond aspirational ideals and have become shared expectations. This includes more than the generic ideals shared in common with the broader civic community (those of moralism, for example); it can also include unique, covenantal obligations that we have undertaken as Latter-day Saints (such as living the Law of Chastity, Sabbath-keeping, the Word of Wisdom, etc.). In fact, to the extent that broad adherence to those obligations becomes normal, it is inevitable that they will become community norms.

Let’s explore the issue of Chastity as example. If I live in a community where intimacy is reserved for marriage, I might feel that I have disappointed others (in addition to God) if I commit fornication. Now, there is nothing wrong with me feeling this way. However, it shouldn’t stop there — it should resolve into something deeper than mere self-consciousness and move me towards genuine repentance. But it is vital to acknowledge the inherent realities of living in a community defined by shared commitments to God:  violations will bring with them both remorse before God and a sense of having disappointed others. This is both inevitable and good. Further, this feeling of self-consciousness would grow as we feel greater kinship with the community. To belong in Zion means that we internalize its norms.

Some implications

People will often feel self-conscious in the Church, even if we are are fully welcoming and loving. Consider Sabbath-keeping as an example. Imagine that most people within the Latter-day Saint community treated the Sabbath as a truly sacred day, unlike any of the other days of the week. Because Sabbath-keeping is both normal (in this hypothetical) and a rule with moral valence, it becomes normative — that is, a shared expectation of members of the community. And so even if nobody ever says an unkind thing to someone who disregards the Sabbath, or even so much as hints their disapproval, members of the community who don’t keep the Sabbath are going to feel that they have disappointed the expectations of the community, even if they are not shamed in the slightest for having done so.

For this reason, we cannot conclude that a community is unkind or engages in self-righteous judgment merely because people feel judged or self-conscious for violating its norms! What this means, though, is that we should make extra efforts to help others continue to feel welcomed when they feel this way. We should remind them by example of other norms of a Zion community:  forgiveness, patience, compassion, and ministerial outreach. We should reach out in friendship and let them know that — no matter what — we will still love them and cherish them. And we can (and must) do that without weakening the norms that distinguish as a covenant community.

Finally, there’s no way around this without making the encouraged behaviors either no longer common, or no longer morally important — or perhaps even fracturing the community. Using the above example, the only way for those who feel kinship with the community to not feel self-conscious is to either remove the moral valence from Sabbath-keeping (e.g., “Everybody follows the commandment, but it’s not really that important”), or to make it common to violate it (e.g., “It’s important, but nobody actually follows it”), or both. In other words, when we wish or hope for a community where people don’t feel self-conscious for violating God’s laws, we are — whether we realize it or not — wishing for a community in which either (1) the laws are seen as unimportant (i.e., they have no moral valence), or (2) violations are normal and expected (i.e., compliance is not common or normal), OR (3) the norms in question are relegated to a subgroup of the community. However, once any one of these things happens, we are no longer talking about Zion anymore.

The “hidden assumption” discussed above is that Zion is a place where people don’t ever feel self-conscious when they do wrong, and that belonging means never feeling out of place when we violate community norms. While this assumption seems fairly benign, it can lead us to misunderstand the nature of community, and what it means to belong to one — much less what it means to be a Zion community — in ways that tilt us towards a “permissive” counterfeit of Christlike love (boundless tolerance). It can lead us to reject the idea of norms altogether.

One comment

  1. I’ve had many frank and direct discussions with members about how “non-judmentalism” is impossible. One person made the baffling statement that Christ never judged anyone. People often say, “don’t judge me”, when the reality of that statement implies that they have judged my statement or actions or very presence to be judgemental and not good. Their own statement is self-refuting. We cannot act as agents without judgement or one kind or another. The alternative to non-judgementalism is righteous judgement, as the JST of Matt. 7 teaches us. But even more than that, we are to judge, then be merciful instead of meting out justice. So when someone says do not judge, what they really should be saying is, “please be merciful and kind in your judgements of me and be patient with my weaknesses.”

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