Spiritual Security Theater

false security

Invasive security procedures at airports have incensed citizens of every political party, and have ignited a firestorm of controversy. Many analysts have argued that these procedures don’t actually make American citizens safer, and instead simply create an additional threat for Americans to consider as they make travel decisions. However, despite the ineffectiveness of the security measures, travelers often report feeling more safe as a result. The term security theater refers to “security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security” (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, although the term security theater has been popularized by our aggravating experiences at the airport, security theater is actually a integral part of our daily lives. Many commercial establishments will place fake security cameras in their stores so that criminals will believe that their actions are being monitored (when they really aren’t). Many homeowners place signs warning potential intruders that the property is protected by an advanced security system (when it really isn’t). These fake security measures deter criminals and help customers feel safer. However, the security measures are really a pretense, and don’t actually prevent crime, except through a psychological sleight of hand.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on things I do to help myself feel like a more righteous person without actually making myself better. To my surprise, this has happened a lot more often than I expected. Often, it takes the form of a rule or guideline that I’ve set for myself. Let me share a couple of examples.

I’ve always had a strict no homework on Sunday policy. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever done homework on Sunday. In addition, I’ve also had a no shopping on Sunday policy. I’ve kept this rule with only a few exceptions. Following these rules has allowed me to pat myself on the back for keeping the Sabbath day holy. However, upon reflection, I now wonder if I’ve ever kept the Sabbath day holy. Sure, I never do homework and I never go shopping, but I habitually spend the Sabbath socializing with friends from my singles ward, watching TV, and in other ways distracting myself in ways that I normally don’t have time to during the week. Rarely do I ever take time to make the Sabbath a genuinely holy day. Rarely do I deliberately set the Sabbath apart as a day to renew my relationship with Christ.

Why have I never come to this realization before? I think it is at least partly because the two major guidelines I set for myself (no homework and no commerce) became a form of spiritual security theater. Through a psychological sleight of hand, I was able trick myself into believing that I was keeping the Sabbath day holy. I could tell myself, “As long as I follow these rules, I’m doing just fine.” What I did within the boundaries of those rules became unimportant. In fact, I would sometimes be critical of those who would do homework on the Sabbath, and congratulate myself for being better at keeping the Sabbath than they did. It didn’t matter that they spent 3 hours in personal meditation and scripture study as well, or spent the day in private worship of the Savior. The rules I set for myself allowed me to fool myself into thinking that I was both safely following the commandment and superior to those with different personal guidelines.

Here’s another example. We’ve been counseled time and again to avoid spiritually destructive, sensual, or excessively violent entertainment. For this reason, I’ve always strictly avoided R-rated movies. As long as I kept this rule, I could pat myself on the back for evading garbage entertainment and keeping myself unspotted from the follies of Hollywood. Upon reflection, it’s utterly ridiculous how wrong I was. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent indulging in media that is far more spiritually destructive than a number of R-rated films. Once again, through a psychological sleight of hand, I was able to fool myself into believing I was spiritually safe, so long as I kept the rule. This is security theater at its worst. The rule became a way of easing my conscience while at the same time playing with fire. As long as it wasn’t rated R, I was fine, right? In addition, it became another excuse for me to feel superior to those with different personal guidelines.

The examples keep multiplying. I’ll throw out a couple more. How often have I read a couple of pages in the Book of Mormon in 2 minutes, with little pondering or reflection, in order to feel as though I was engaging in daily scripture study? How often have I skipped breakfast and delayed lunch for an hour or two in order to feel like I am keeping the law of the fast? How often have I avoided pornography, but committed adultery in my heart? Useless security measures at the airport are problematic not just because they help us feel safer without actually making us safer. They are problematic because when we feel safe, we can potentially ignore many real and dangerous threats. In the same way, our token efforts to keep the commandments can help us ease our conscience, fool ourselves into thinking we’re spiritually safe, and can therefore lead us to ignore real and dangerous threats to our spiritual welfare. I wonder if this is the reason why the hundreds upon hundreds of superfluous rules that the ancient Jews created for themselves were spiritually destructive.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I believe that personal guidelines and rules are crucially important. I’d rather fast a little than not at all. I’d rather read the Book of Mormon hastily and sloppily than not at all. I’d rather avoid homework and commerce on the Sabbath than ignore the Sabbath altogether. I’d rather avoid R-rated films than indulge in them. We need to set personal boundaries and strictly adhere to them. However, it is also important to ensure that our personal rules, boundaries, and guidelines don’t lead us into a false sense of security. It is important that we make sure that these rules are more than just fake cameras and pretend security signs. It is crucial that we don’t congratulate ourselves for our strict obedience, while at the same disengaging from our relationship with the Savior (either by playing with fire within the boundaries of the rules, or by using our rules as a tool to judge others).

The Savior once warned against those whom he called “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead [men's] bones, and of all uncleanness.” During my recent reflections, I’ve been nearly terrified to discover how often this has referred to me. I’m been almost terrified to discover how my personal standards have led me into a “carnal sense of security,” and therefore into spiritual danger. However, the experience has only been “nearly” and “almost” terrifying, because it has been coupled with faith that with the Savior’s help, I can change. I’m going to commit to making my efforts to keep the commandments more than just a token or a pretense.

In what other ways do we engage in spiritual security theater without realizing it?

11 thoughts on “Spiritual Security Theater

  1. I don’t care how much of a white sepulchre I am, the TSA is a thousand times worse. You could not pay me $10 million a year to sexually assault other men all day long, which is what TSA goons do.

    I feel much better saying that.

    Now, back to your main point. Yes, we all fall short. Yes, all of us, including everybody reading this, probably does not keep the Sabbath day holy. We could all do better. Let’s try to be better, but let’s also not spend our time beating ourselves up for falling short. The Lord wants us to try harder and recognize areas where we can improve, but he does not want people who spend all their times beating themselves up. We had a talk at stake conference today by a GA who said his wife wanted to cancel the “Church News” because all the women in the Church News were perfect and she wasn’t perfect. That is exactly the WRONG response. The Lord is aware of your imperfections. He wants you to try harder within your abilities. If you spend all your time telling yourself you are a whited sepulchre you’re not responding the right way, imho. (btw, Jeff T, I know this is not your point, but I wanted to just throw that thought in there).

    The only people who are perpetually falling short are TSA goons. Now I really feel good.

  2. Geoff, I agree 100% on the TSA. Anyone guilty of voluntarily sexually assaulting others in the name of national security had better be prepared for the wrath of God. I don’t care if they’re just “following orders.” So were the Nazis who burnt men, women, and children alive. And yes, I did just compare them to the Nazis. It is the exact same psychological malady that leads to both: the idea that people are cattle, and that anything is justified as long as it comes as an order from above and pretends to be in the interests of the nation.

    Now, back to my main point. We do have a problem of people who live their lives in self-deprecation. This does not, however, mean that we should stop being fully aware of our weaknesses. This does not mean that we should stop pointing out our weaknesses in an effort to improve. This does not mean we should pat ourselves on the back and say that we’re all doing just dandy, because quite frankly, we aren’t. All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need to improve. But just because we all do it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge it, or that we shouldn’t preach the gospel of repentance.

    No, the solution to rampant self-deprecation is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his grace. It is faith in His cleansing and transforming power. Christ can and will heal us, if we but call to Him in faith. And one of the maladies that He heals us of is our blindness to our own weaknesses. But the result won’t be self-deprecation. It will be trust, faith, hope, and charity, because those are the virtues that Christ works into our hearts when He grants us sight. My realization, for example, that my rule against R-rated movies has led me into a false sense of security has made me realize that I’m not better than those who do watch R-rated movies. I have a newfound sense of charity and non-judgment, and a greater sense of the near-equality of humanity’s mire-ment in sin. I’m not better than them. They are my brothers and sisters in the Gospel, and I am in need of the Atonement just as much as they are. We’re all in this together. And we can all work to transform our lives together too.

    Sometimes, what I write may sound like self-deprecation, but it isn’t. It is simply an acknowledge of once-hidden weaknesses. And with this newfound sight comes power, because now I can address these weaknesses (when before I couldn’t, because I did not realize them). I see a problem in my own life and in the lives of others, and I want to change and invite others to change too. However, I don’t want to point a finger and preach. So I describe my own experiences, and hope that others will relate.

    Yes, we must stop comparing ourselves to others and we must stop this cycle of self-deprecation, because all this thinking about ourselves is selfish. But we mustn’t stop preaching repentance, improvement, progression, and change. It slightly irks me when, nearly every time a Sunday School teacher invites the class to live better, someone raises their hand and says, “But don’t beat yourself up too much over this. God loves us whether we live better or not.” I kid you not, this happens nearly every time. Our society worships self-esteem so much that we cringe when anyone teaches that we could live better and do better. And quite frankly, that isn’t Christian. (Neither is self-deprecation, but again, the solution is not to tell people that they’re ok. The solution is to teach them to exercise faith on Jesus Christ.)

    Yes, God loves us whether we live better or not. But let’s stop teaching people that they don’t need to improve. Sure, it will ease their conscience and make them feel better. But it won’t bring them to Christ. Instead, let’s teach them that through Christ, they can be cleansed, forgiven, and transformed. There’s a difference.

  3. I like “spiritual security theater” because the real thing is too hard. ;)

    Great post, Jeff. This seems like one of the great paradoxes of the Gospel. We are to never accept anything less than perfection without giving up because it’s impossible. Faith in God’s Grace (i.e. God’s Graciousness) is the only way.

  4. I love how you so beautifully illustrated the real cancer which is exposed by Pharisaical thinking. We so often hear a New Testament lesson, and point our fingers at the Pharisees to say, “well, at least we’re safe because we don’t do what those horrible people did,” not realizing the perfect irony of it.

    Like with so many things in the Gospel, there is a balance. Satan doesn’t really care which way you fall off the line, so long as you fall. He is equally pleased with self-righteousness and self-abuse. Neither one is God’s path.

    I have spent so much time in my life gyrating between the two extremes, pleased with myself when I keep a rule properly and nasty to myself when I fail. Hitting (what I hope is) rock bottom in my life taught me to let go. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, nor about a lack of pain. Forgiveness is gathering up the pain and handing responsibility for it over to God. The same things is true of perfection. Perfection is not something we attain, it is something we trust Christ to attain for us. We take all our sin and put it in His hands. We focus on trying to serve Him EVERY MOMENT of our lives as best we can, watching out for His children, inviting the Spirit into this world just a little more.

    When we gain the true, burning desire to serve Him, the rules become NOT unnecessary, but engraven in our hearts as Paul said. We gain the ability to follow the highest law possible at the moment. We don’t ignore the rules to justify breaking them, we actively choose which rule to follow.

    For example, right now in this moment I may need to spend time with my daughters, or do genealogy, or take a plate of cookies to my neighbor. The only way I’ll know which to do is by cultivating the Spirit. The rules help us by giving us options of how to serve, not by constricting us to a small and safe paddock.

    Thank you for this post.

  5. My Sunday experience would probably be more like Mystery Science Theater 3000, with a robot and an alien mocking every Pharisaic attempt I try to do to keep it holy.

    That said, it is better than telling some 95 year old person they have to remove their Depends in order to be searched and groped properly before climbing on board the plane!

    How can you justify de-humanizing people like that? How many planes have been brought down in the past 10 years to justify humiliating a nonagenarian?

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