Among the many statements in Brigham Young’s stream-of-consciousness discourses, there is one statement in particular that carries profound implications for the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of Latter-day Saints in the information age.
Speaking of those who thought the Church would come apart under the stress of scandalous headlines, President Young said:
I will now say, not only to our delegate to Congress, but to the Elders who leave the body of the Church, that the thought that all the cats and kittens were let out of the bag when brother Pratt went back last fall, and published the Revelation concerning the plurality of wives: it was thought there was no other cat to let out. But allow me to tell you, Elders of Israel, and delegates to Congress, you may expect an eternity of cats that have not yet escaped from the bag. Bless your souls, there is no end to them, for if there is not one thing, there will always be another.
Even in 1853, President Young recognized a challenging phenomenon and how to transcend it. From its inception, the Church of Jesus Christ has been beset with a steady stream of opposition from outsider critics and insider detractors. As the Church has grown in recent years, the volume of accusations has increased, which is to be expected. People who are determined to sow disillusionment by announcing the sins and mistakes of church members and leaders will always find plenty of material to work with. There will never be an end to the cats of controversy that can be pulled out of the bag.
We recall the accuser-dragon of Revelation 12, who tries to overwhelm the Church by vomiting a flood of accusation. New Testament scholar NT Wright said of this passage:
Don’t be surprised that the dragon is out to get you, with more of his foul but powerful accusations, spat out like a flood … his basic nature of ‘accuser’ is now driving him, more and more frantically, to the attack, to accuse where it’s justified and where it isn’t, to drag down, to slander, to vilify, to deny the truth of what the creator God and his son, the lamb, have accomplished and are accomplishing.
In an online faith group, I once wrote from personal experience in my consulting career of a woman who was a top executive in a large organization of tens of thousands of people. When this woman came into her leadership position, she immediately canceled a major initiative that employed a lot of people. She clashed with others constantly and soon had more than ten complaints filed against her for creating a hostile work environment. In several important departments, people dreaded the idea of working with her because her inability to really listen to people or to speak with tact led to her reputation for being extremely difficult to work with. Good people on her team retired and/or requested to be transferred to other assignments where they would not have to work with her. There will never be an end to the cats of controversy.
There will never be an end to the cats of controversy.
At this point, some of you may have guessed that both of these narratives are about the same woman.
Previous to my work in that environment, I worked as a contractor in Baghdad, Iraq, from 2005-2006. At that point in the war, people in the West were still very suspicious of Muslims in general.
On a trip back to the U.S., I stopped in Jordan. As I exited my plane and passed through the gate, I became stuck in a line next to an Arab man who looked at me with utter contempt. I ended up sitting alone and nervous on the floor in an area of the Amman airport, and after a few hours, I was approached by an Arab man surrounded by his family.
He asked, “Are you American?”
I answered, “Yes.”
He responded, “This is my family, and I want you to know that you are welcome here.”
This man could have made a different choice. He could have taken in countless true stories of misbehavior by Westerners. Surrounded by conflict, amid all of the hostility that characterized interactions between Westerners and Arabs in that area, this man and his family simply refused to imbibe the poison. He chose a different narrative of humanity, and I’ll never forget the act of kindness that his better, more generous narrative allowed him to extend to me.
Brigham Young’s metaphor of “infinite cats” applies to countless areas of human interaction. It is a normal human delusion, the idea that we can associate only with people and institutions that are somehow “untainted” by real or perceived sins. In a recent painfully awkward television reveal, one of the great luminaries of Critical Race Theory, Angela Davis, found out that her ancestors arrived in America on the colonizing Mayflower. After Tesla founder Elon Musk took over Twitter and reactivated some controversial conservative accounts, leftist activist Alyssa Milano boasted that she had exchanged her Tesla for a Volkswagen, only to be informed that Volkswagen corporation had a Nazi past (and more recently, a massive air pollution scandal).
To remove the taint of real or perceived transgression from all of our loyalties and associations would require an obsessive scrupulosity that would destroy all of our relationships with people and institutions. It would require us to withdraw from human contact and group belonging. It would take all of our time and energy because the number of “cats,” the disappointing things in the people and institutions around us, stretches into infinity.
Nonetheless, this impulse toward retreat and avoidance is common. Some respond to accusations toward the Church by retreating to a sentimental notion of “Jesus,” who somehow frees them from the psychic distress that comes with belonging to institutions staffed by humans. Elder Kevin Hamilton of the Seventy caused a stir recently in a BYU devotional where he suggested treating Christ and the Church as inseparable:
I have heard some who would try to decouple or disconnect Jesus Christ from His Church and His apostles by saying things like “I follow Jesus, not the Church” or “I follow the Savior, not the apostles.”
To those who say this, I would simply say, “It’s just not possible. You cannot accept Jesus Christ and reject His Church or His authorized messengers. You cannot separate Jesus Christ from the Church of Jesus Christ.”
Many who object to Elder Hamilton’s remarks are people seeking to place their loyalty in someone—in this case, Jesus Christ—who is immune to criticism. But this is a naive position: in 2015, biblical scholar Hector Avalos published a book called “Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics,” where he leveled accusations of impropriety and unethical behavior against New Testament Jesus and His followers. These kinds of accusations are common in anti-Christian atheism, and their underlying logic is also the logic of most accusations against the Church, where they conflate necessary-and-difficult choices and innocent human experiences of trial and error with unethical behavior, or sin. It was the living Christ who said of the Church’s accusers:
Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes, and which I commanded them.
But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves.
And those who swear falsely against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death—
Wo unto them; because they have offended my little ones, they shall be severed from the ordinances of mine house.
Elder Hamilton’s remarks about the Church convey this larger principle, that the way we receive Christ’s ordained servants is the way we would receive Him. That soul-rotting spirit of accusation we carry toward Christ’s servants does not discriminate between them and Him. If we are looking for reasons to accuse, we will find them. Again paraphrasing Brigham Young, there are not ten or a thousand or a million of those reasons, but an infinite number of them. The game being played is to keep us on an emotional roller coaster of disappointment.
The game being played is to keep us on an emotional roller coaster of disappointment.
No longer alarmed by cats emerging from the bag, we can then ask better questions: is God’s influence observable in the Church? Are there Latter-day Saints who are growing in charity, coming to know Christ, and exercising the gifts of the Spirit? What are these spiritually-thriving people doing, and what can we do to bring knowledge of God into our spheres of influence?
… which are the real questions, the ones we should have been asking all along.