Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A dumb euphemism

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.


The Shark said...

I don't mean this to sound critical at all, but found part of your post ironic in a delightful sort of way. You speak of the necessity to use our words carefully so as to be understood clearly, yet in the same post I developed a brain tumor just trying to get what you meant by "committing non-sexual sin does not make one 'morally [un]unclean'"! :)

I do agree with you, though. I never really thought about how we use "immorality" too often as a specific reference to sexual impurity. Being dishonest is every bit as immoral as fornication.

I understand the desire to avoid using the word "sex" too much, as I think it culturally is a very blunt word, but it's better than being too vague or misleading. I prefer saying "fornicate," actually, because I feel like it's one word that delivers an action as well as the implied negativity of said action in one sha-bang.

Along a somewhat-related line with your post, the need to choose our words carefully is one reason why I'm so big about slowing down when we close "in the name of Jesus Christ." There is a lot of depth, beauty and significance to be found when we learn how to properly use the phrase and don't just use it as a way to quickly say, "Okay, I'm done and am sitting down now," which to me is a very common way in which Mormons FREQUENTLY take the Lord's name in vain.

JKC said...

I may choose my words carefully, but that doesn't mean that I can get them on the screen without typos. :) It's been edited so as to hopefully be more plain.

Fornicate is a good word for the reasons you lay out. "Break the law of chastity" might be kind of euphemistic, but it's at least accurate.

And Amen about your last point. I'm always a bit amused when someone ends a talk "in the name of THY son..." I makes me wonder if they've seen the virgin Mary in the congregation.

Bjorn said...

Ah, if only pride and greed received as much condemnation in America as sexual immorality. Wall Street would be forces to operate in a shady neighborhood and only after dark.

Cabeza said...

Good post. I concur with body and comments.

I also have a request. Since you so obligingly accommodated my request to describe your method of mulling cider, I thought I might ask you to make a post about using a ham hock. We have the bone and quite a bit of meat left over from our Easter ham, and I was thinking of going the soup/stew route since it's such a lovely hock. I have a white bean and ham soup recipe that my mom used to make, but that really was my least favorite of her traditional soups. Perhaps a split pea? I don't know.

I figured you might have some ideas or sources for good suggestions of how to not let that hock go to waste.

JKC said...

Nice, Bjorn.

Cabeza, I once made a split pea with a ham hock, but don't remember it real well. I remember boiling the hock with salt, carrots, onions, and some parsley. Maybe dome celery also? Then I just bought a pre-made split pea soup mix at the store and dumped it in the broth.

You could also do Senate Bean soup. That's good stuff.

Bjorn said...

Pre-made soup mix! That's almost blasphemous. It tastes much better if you lovingly cut the peas by hand before boiling them. Pre-made soup mix, honestly!

amanda said...

You make some good points, there, JKC. I think you're dealing with a principle that is applicable inside and outside of the Church, this idea that a lot of miscommunication can be traced back to a definitional dissonance. The phrase "immorality" still signifies, so it's not entirely faulty, but it goes to show that even a benign euphemism can perpetuate a lax value system.

Bjorn said...

On a more serious note then soup... There is always this trick of attempting to assign seriousness to offenses. Is murder as bad as taking the lord's name in vain? Are pride and greed as bad as sexual immorality? The answers to these questions have separated sects of religions throughout history. We have extraordinary freedoms under our country's laws, simply because it is difficult to litigate everything. "You lied about eating the rest of the ice cream!? That's it, we're going to court!"

If all offenses are on the same level, sure pride and greed would be as bad as murder or sexual immorality, but could the reverse be true? Not to say that every sneaky business owner after negotiating a contract would then pop off and murder someone, but it may lessen the focus on more serious offenses. But, I guess there is limited time in the world to tell people what not to do, and there will be disagreement on which is more important, sexual immorality, or greed.

Greed isn't the same as being wealthy, of course, but the lines can be blurred when telling people not to be greedy. "Does that mean I can't shop at Whole Foods anymore?"

No one earns wealth on their own, and maybe how you treat your community matters in determining how greedy you are. Maybe it has to do in how to treat others. Is earning a profit greedy? No, you're providing a service, or adding value, and as long as you re fair, and treat others equally, I'd say that's not greed. Do you give back to your community? If you do, I'd say that may keep you out of the greed camp.

I'm, of course, putting in my own bias into the issue. As a humanist, I try to imagine harm caused by actions. Sexual immorality has a broad scope, from masturbation to fornication, to adultery and rape. Greed also has a spectrum, from rounding up a penny, to hording wealth, to cheating employees, to mergers and mass layoffs, to raiding pension accounts. I can see the amount of potential harm increase, and the amount of people involve increase, which increases suffering. Rape is a serious offense in this country, and sexual offenders, for lesser offenses then rape, are reported in neighborhoods. While that may be overkill, and may not prevent further crime, and can result in harassment for an extended time, and an unusual strong focus for the criminal on their crime to the point that they now identify as a sexual offender, like some people may refer to their jobs. "I'm Bob, and I'm a plumber. I'm Steve, and I'm a sexual offender." Anyway, our treatment of white collar criminals is much less serious, and the harm, I feel, can be much greater. The threat of economic uncertainty for employees at a company which has been poorly run by management with too high of a profit motive is huge. A victim, a family, a neighborhood, can be affected by acts of a sexual offender. Both should be given serious attention. If you cheat your employees out of money, I'd say that's as bad someone who gropes an uninterested person.

JKC said...


I guess it boils down to the fact that there are several ways to measure the seriousness of an offense.

You can look at the fact that sin is an offense against others.

For religious people, there's also the notion that breaking a divine law is an offense against God.

For Mormons, in particular, with our emphasis on eternal progression, the harm of a sin can be measured by how much it prevents us from developing our full potential. In this sense, then, it is an offense against the self.

So we have three players here, God, others, and self. And sin is sin because it offends or harms one or more of these three players. Taking God's name in vain or blasphemy are high on the offense against God scale. Greed is high on the offense against against others scale. Addiction is high on the harm to self scale. I think this provides a way to measure the seriousness of a sin.

But on the other hand, creating a hierarchy of sins is usually futile and almost always pointless anyway. What does it matter that one sin is worse than another? All it does is allow us to justify ourselves with the false comfort that there's something worse than what we're doing. I've heard it said that the worst sin is the one that I'm doing at the moment. I think this is the most practical measure.

Bjorn said...

"But on the other hand, creating a hierarchy of sins is usually futile and almost always pointless anyway."

That is true.