Thursday, February 09, 2017

Truth Week: Alma 39:5

Yesterday I wrote that today's post would be about a scriptural verse that is not troublesome in and of itself, but in the widespread interpretation. That verse is Alma 39:5:

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?
This has been widely interpreted among church members and church leaders as referring to the enormity of sexual sin. This, also, is not a stand-alone problem, but when we categorize the entire catalog of sexual sin as being nearly as terrible as murder, it becomes a giant problem.

Awkward paragraph commencing; consider yourself warned. I spent a good deal of my teenage years pretty sure I was going to hell. Here's the logical progression. 1) Murderers go to hell (D&C 132:27). 2) Sexual sinners are next to murderers (Alma 39:5). 3) I was a sexual sinner because I occasionally masturbated (my personal experience). Ergo: I was probably going to hell. I know there's a Doctor Faustus quality to this scriptural reasoning, but that was what I thought. I wasn't helped by the fact that I couldn't talk to anyone about this ("Hey, I'm nearly a murderer, but I have a question and I was wondering if you could answer it...."), and the one time I did tangentially ask in Sunday School class about it (I said something like, "What happens to someone who knows what he's supposed to do but repeatedly doesn't do it?"), the teacher supported my theory by telling me that such people will not be saved from their sins. Awkward paragraph concluding.

(Actually, now that I've written the rest of the post, I realize the awkwardness doesn't end there. Oh, well. Deal with it.)

Before you say, "Well, you're the only person who ever reached that conclusion," I would tell you that I have recently learned of many instances to counter this claim. Natasha Helfer Parker, an LDS marriage and family therapist, writes

within the last 6 months I’ve known of two LDS adolescent boys referred to the addictions program offered by the church because they masturbate 1-3 times a week and three LDS adolescent clients tell me they believe their masturbatory behavior to be a sin next to murder!!!
In an article entitled "Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Conterrevolution, and Emerging Reform," Mark Kim Malan and Vern Bullough recount the tale of Kip Eliason's suicide, which was fueled by his masturbation shame. His LDS psychiatrist paid a malpractice settlement when sued for endorsing Eliason's bishop's abstinence attitude (pp. 98, 101, 107-8). Clearly, I was not some lone wacko jumping to conclusions no one else would even consider.

In the past two years I've come across more material presenting a saner view of such matters. It began when a friend shared this thought-provoking article from LDS therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife about whether single LDS members can have a complete mortal experience if complete abstinence from all sexual activity of any kind is the watchword. I was interested to learn from Parker's blog post that For the Strength of Youth and the Bishop's handbook no longer contain the word "masturbation." Malan and Bullough also write about changes in teachings. Just a few months ago, this was highlighted by the church's decision to stop producing a pamphlet of a General Conference talk by Boyd K. Packer on the subject.

Some might say, "Well, A Random Stranger, the fact that you felt so terrible about it is the reason they told you to not do it," but that's getting the causation backwards. I'm not going to detail here why (any interested personal friends can ask and hear the story offline), but I am personally convinced that the truth is a lot closer to what Parker and Finlayson-Fife are suggesting than to what I was told when I was growing up.

And what's more, in this Sunstone article by Michael R. Ash (oh no, my six-month countdown has begun!), he makes a strong case that Alma isn't even talking about sexual sin when he is discussing the sin next to murder. This article was shared on Meridian Magazine, but indicative of the widespread member acceptance of the prevailing interpretation of Alma 39:5 is the reader's comment at the bottom, where he doubles down on the murder/sex nexus. We're more interested in making sure that the story we've told ourselves for years continues than in properly understanding truth, and in reaching that proper understanding saving unsuspecting youth a lifetime of problems. Because I can pretty much say that at least 90% of the trouble in my life has come from Alma 39:5 and the way it's read and applied by most Mormons. Regarding this cultural use of the scripture, Parker writes

If this is what we are teaching our youth – then we are emotionally abusing them. And it needs to stop. I will no longer be a compliant witness to this type of psychological assault. I know my language is strong and I intend it to be. The numerous stories I could share about masturbatory shame run in the thousands and I find it unnecessary, harmful and life altering.
While my depression problems started around 10 years old or so, before this became an issue in my life, and have continued after this stopped being an issue in my life, there's no doubt in my mind that the severity of my depression is tied to the cultural interpretation of this scripture and how it has impacted my life. Like I said, 90% of my problems are tied to it. It would be the top thing I would like to see changed in our church culture. But as the reader comment at Meridian Magazine shows, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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