Unlike many, I don’t believe that a patriarchal priesthood creates a power imbalance that leads to gendered injustices, such as domestic violence. I don’t think it is necessary to give women the priesthood or adopt identical family roles. Yet, though I don’t believe they are cause-and-effect, these things do play into a power dynamic that exists independently. I believe this power dynamic can be changed if we are willing. I realize that in a few short sentences, I have managed to alienate both sides of the divide. But I think my perspective, as a woman faithful in the Church and a survivor of domestic violence, has something to add to the conversation.
My husband was not a member of the Church when I met him. I was a freshly-returned missionary, he was separated from his wife. We both worked at the same retail store. At some point, I invited him to hear the discussions in my parents’ home. During the course of his investigation, he confessed to me many problems in his past and present. Still stuck somewhat in the role of missionary, it was easy to forgive things that I would not have, had I been looking at him as a potential future mate. I think that’s why he was able to get to me.
He was intelligent. He remembered almost everything I said. As he went through divorce and investigation, I was preparing to move back to my original home state before my mission. He was flatteringly interested in me, and many of my parents’ friends pointed out how great we were together. He was eager about his hobbies, playing games and working on cars. Over time, he told me what his marriage was like, that his brother-in-law was violent, his ex-wife struggled with mental illness. He told me how she forbade him from investigating the Church before, how she wanted him to serve in the military so she could have prestige with her friends and not have him around. I pitied him. And, after praying about it, I learned to love him. We were engaged before I left, and he moved here once I was able to find him a job.
It’s very difficult to explain what the early part of our marriage was like. I was eager to make him happy, to be a good and supportive wife, to start a family. I had watched my mother and father support each other through their weaknesses, come to decisions together, give way to let the other utilize their strengths. They were a team. I wanted that for my marriage. Without going into detail, there were ways I disappointed my husband from the very beginning. I learned to swallow my pain, shove it down in order to make him happy. I was devastated that some of what I had envisioned being able to give him was so difficult for me.
Of course, now that I can look back, educated in great detail about the dynamics of domestic violence, I can see things more clearly. My difficulties were normal for my situation in life, but they were subjected to his needs. He would often clam up, withdraw until I was able to coax out what was wrong. Then I’d scramble to make it up to him. This gradually became a relationship where I constantly tried to be responsive to his needs. It wasn’t until later that I realized he didn’t need his needs to be met as much as he needed me to be responsive. If I succeeded in meeting his stated need, there was always another to drop into place. I was never able to give him contentment.
I’ve heard people wonder how intelligent women could get involved with men who abuse. Well, this is how. It is gradual. They idolize you, love you, worship you, romance you. Then they withdraw that, and you wonder what you did wrong. You do what they want you to do, and you get the love back. Of course, you don’t notice it happening at the time. It’s far too subtle to see unless you have had experience with it before. It isn’t until later that this matures into the honeymoon period/violence cycle typical to abusive relationships.
Though I have survived many of the same injustices that many who are upset with the patriarchal priesthood have (only one of which I outline here,) I am not typical in that I don’t blame any of this on “what I was taught.” I believe firmly in my agency. My relationship with the Savior is such that I am able to take full responsibility for what I believe to be my role in life. I have been taught to question as long as I remember, and if I didn’t question the fault was mine.
But some of the good things we are taught end up becoming the very tools used to control us when we love someone who needs to control. We teach that spouses should love and support each other. We are taught to take responsibility for our own actions, and not try to force other people. We are taught that love is sacrifice, that it should be unconditional. I still believe these things. But I have learned that unconditional love does not always mean loving the way they want us to love them. Sometimes, we have to set boundaries. And while I was taught that setting boundaries of temptation are vital to my agency, I never realized that setting boundaries on others’ behavior towards me was just as vital. People aren’t evil. But it isn’t just evil that must be kept within boundaries.
The core tools of domestic violence are fear and control. That’s why it’s so hard for people who haven’t experienced it to label it. We all scare people sometimes, we all try to control other people’s behavior. The difference between our own actions and abuse is one of degree, not of type. In the end, when our friend refuses to go with us to Taco Bell, and we have cajoled, manipulated, begged, and promised, we are able to let it go and say, “well, that’s your choice.” But an abuser feels entitled to that control. They will feel personally hurt or angry that you refused to go with them, and they are willing to exert MORE control over you by any means they have in order to change your mind or punish you for not conforming to their expectations.
In short, abuse is a pattern of behavior born from a paradigm that gives the abuser a RIGHT to the behavior of others.
To those who do not understand the true Priesthood, to those who believe it is only “the power to act in God’s name,” wielding the power of the Priesthood gives them a right to be obeyed. They don’t understand that such power can only be wielded through non-compulsory means. In order to wield the power of God, you must understand that you are OWED nothing. The Atonement of Christ doesn’t give Him a RIGHT to your obedience. It doesn’t create a debt, like we so often explain. It creates an invitation.
The Lord is bound when we do what He says, because He CHOOSES to be bound. This is how he can reject the sacrifice of Cain, but accept Abel’s because of intent. God is not a vending machine for blessings. We can’t pray our way to anything. Rather, prayer and fasting are invitations, a process to humble ourselves and invite God to bless us or, at least, to comfort or enlighten us.
This is why I don’t get angry about the misuse of power in the Church. (Though, to be honest, I do get hurt and angry, I just don’t expect the Church to conform to me because of it.) This is why I don’t lobby for change. The very nature of lobbying implies that if I get enough support, I can FORCE Church leadership to see things my way. Rather, I have found much divine change happening in the Church because of Spirit-inspired letters of entreaty, because of calm, reasoned, and Spiritual declaration. Change never happens as quickly as I would like, but it does happen.
When I left the singles’ ward lately, I wrote a letter to the bishop telling him why. He called me in to listen to my concerns, and to get to know me better. Because of our interview, he is beginning to work on something I feel will bless many singles who are isolated in the Church. When I applied for a cancellation of sealing, I prayed mightily over the letter I sent, knowing such cancellations are rarely granted to someone in my circumstances. Yet, based on the result, I believe the Spirit was able to communicate the truth to these humble leaders of the Church. They granted my request.
Don’t get me wrong, as I said before there are no guarantees that the result will be as I wished. Other times, I have found myself confused and in pain for some time before the Spirit was able to communicate with ME, give me the strength or understanding I needed. Because of this, the Spirit has prepared me for declarations I would have otherwise found difficult to handle, and I have received insight on the eternal nature of the Plan of Happiness.
Whether it is the leadership whose hearts have been softened, or my heart that has opened to new light and new understanding, divorcing myself from the expectation of control has allowed me to divorce myself from the cycle of abuse. While I still sometimes catch myself cajoling, entreating, or trying to manipulate an outcome I want, I am better able to recognize these nascent abusive behaviors in myself and let go of the need to control. I still feel pain at my circumstances, sometimes excruciating pain. But I know that pain is not the end or the sum total of who I am. I can reach beyond my pain to serve and bless others, to deepen my relationship with deity.
That is the key to change in the Church. It is the key to becoming Zion. This is how I wield the power to act in God’s name that He has given me. I may not have a formal ordination to the Priesthood, but by the power of His Spirit and through faith and by my choice to be bound as a living tool in His hands, I have the power to effect His divinely sanctioned change. Until we as Christ’s disciples agitate for THAT—for the personal change that allows us to access God’s power—we will never find peace nor the power of the Priesthood and faith within ourselves.