So my new calling is to teach Sunday school to the 12-18 year olds. Yes, that's right, all the youth are in one class. One of the many joys (I'm saying this seriously, not ironically) of a small ward. It can be a challenge to teach in a way that is both interesting to the older kids and not boring to the younger ones, but sometimes I do it.
Anyway, this past week went really well. We studied Jacob 1-4 in the Book of Mormon. We talked about how Nephi got old and decided that separation of church and state seemed like a good idea, anointed some nameless dude to be king, and consecrated Jacob (and Joseph, as a footnote) to be preachers. We talked about how Jacob took his calling as a preacher very seriously and we talked about the three main sins he preached against: (1) love of riches/pride, (2) sexual sin, and (3) racism.
As I prepared the lesson, though, I noticed how the manual only once uses the word "sexual" and only once uses the word "unchastity". Instead, it refers repeatedly to "immorality." First, I just thought this was strange. It seemed like some kind of weird, harmless, victorian squeamishness. Then I started to think about the (probably unintended) implications of this particular euphemism. The manual says
"After warning the people about pride and the love of riches, Jacob called them to repentance for their immoral behavior. How were the Nephites rationalizing their immoral behavior?"
It then asks
"Why is it important to be morally clean?"
And then this:
"What must a person do to be forgiven of immorality?"
My problem with this particular wording is that it implies that "pride and the love of riches" are not "immoral behavior," that avoiding sexual sin is equivalent to being "morally clean" and that there is some kind of different, harder kind of repentance to be forgiven for sexual sin than for other kinds of sin.
The danger of this euphemism, I think, is that using "immorality" as code for sexual sin allows us to let ourselves off the hook too easily. And it reflects, I think, a larger problem. We are so obsessed with sex in our culture, that at times (especially for the youth) it begins to eclipse every other sin. The danger is that we may begin to think that if we're not fornicating, we're doing just fine. I'm all for being more optimistic and I believe strongly that discouragement and guilt are almost always diabolically inspired. One of Satan's most effective lies is that forgiveness is too hard. But his other lie is that it is too easy.
If a prophet says "don't do anything immoral" and I think, "well, I may be a hypocrite and grind on the faces of the poor, but at least I'm not a fornicator, so I'm alright," then I'm not in a good position. Of course if I listen to everything the prophets say, then I'll probably get the message that there's more to it. But in our sound-byte world, that may be asking a lot. For example: how many times did we hear the phrase "tender mercies" in 2005? Now we even have a song about it. Now, how many times did we actually read or discuss the talk Elder Bednar gave where he quoted Nephi talking about the tender mercies of the Lord? I even heard people talk as though Elder Bednar had authored the phrase rather than Nephi. I don't fault Elder Bednar for the fact that people listened to only one phrase of his talk, I just think it reflects the fact that our society does not do well remembering anything longer than a sound-byte.
Now I'm sure that the CES committee that wrote the manual didn't use the "immorality" euphemism with some ill-intent to make it easy to justify ourselves. I'm sure they really were only motivated by an odd, perhaps subconscious, victorian aversion to speaking of sex. But the point is that words matter. See, e.g., Elder Holland. We can't afford to be careless with our words. We should be precise and accurate, we should speak in a way that we cannot easily be taken out of context and twisted, confused, or misremembered. All sexual sin==immorality, but all immorality=/=sexual sin. I bristle at this euphemism. Let's just call it what it is. As Nephi said, I glory in plainness.