Thursday, May 9, 2013

"I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means"

I hate it when people take statements out of context.  This happens all the time with political speeches and soundbites on the local news, so frequently that we pretty much expect it.  But it happens with scripture, too, and it can be incredibly counter-productive when beliefs and testimony are based on an incomplete and out-of-context understanding of scripture.  Not only does the context usually yield incredibly valuable insights that deepen and flesh out the meaning of the words, but it can sometimes completely change the meaning of the words that have been excised.

For example, John 5:39 is a popular verse to use when talking about the importance of studying the scriptures - I've heard it in countless lessons and talks, even in General Conference (recent examples are here and here).  After all, Jesus Himself is saying "Search the scriptures" because "they...testify of me", right?  But if you step back and look at what's happening, at what prompted Jesus to say that, you get a much different perspective.

At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover and, at the pool of Bethesda, heals a man who "had an infirmity thirty and eight years."  The leaders of the Jews confronted him with the assertion that he had broken the Sabbath by healing the man, and then were enraged by his response that "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work."  To them, Jesus equating Himself with God the Father was blasphemy.

Jesus goes on to testify of His identity as well as the other witnesses they have that testify of who He is, including John the Baptist and the miracles that Jesus has performed.  Finally, he throws their vaunted knowledge of the scriptures, their smug self-assured self-righteousness, back in their faces, saying that their faith is misplaced.  If they really understood the scriptures, they would recognize Him as the Savior and Son of God.  "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.  And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life."  In other words, He's saying, "The scriptures that you set so much store by, that you know so well, will not save you.  Only I can do that.  And that's what the scriptures say, but you won't see it, you won't come to me, because you're viewing the scriptures as an end in themselves instead of as a tool to point you to me."

This verse was Jesus giving the smack-down to the Jewish elders for focusing too much on the written scriptures to the detriment of the living Savior in front of them.

See what I mean?

For another example, let's talk about Moroni 9:9.  This scripture is used in the Young Women Personal Progress program, lessons and General Conference talks about virtue because it defines "chastity and virtue" as "most dear and precious above all things."  Yes, absolutely, chastity and virtue are great.  No argument from me there.  But let's pull back a little and look at the context to see what else might be gleaned from this verse.

The prophet Mormon is writing a letter to his son Moroni and describing the unspeakably evil actions of his people, the Nephites.  They have been at war with the Lamanites for years, resulting in many deaths, and will no longer listen to Mormon's attempts to preach the gospel.  They have "harden[ed] their hearts," "lost their love one towards another and they thirst after blood and revenge continually."  Both sides in the war have taken men, women and children as prisoners and treated them inhumanely.  Specifically, Mormon states that the Nephites in the city of Moriantum have taken "the daughters of the Lamanites" as prisoners and "after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue--" they tortured and murdered them, afterwards eating the bodies.  He continues listing the depravities and perversions of the Nephites, illustrating how far they have fallen, until closing the letter by urging his son to "be faithful in Christ".

This passage describes, in graphic and gruesome detail, sexual violence and murder.  When Mormon says the Lamanite women were "depriv[ed]" of their "chastity and virtue," it's obvious from the context that the phrase is a euphemism for rape.  This verse has nothing to do with youth choosing to live a morally upright life and save intimacy for marriage.  It's about rape.  It's a commentary on the depths of the depravity of the Nephites who committed these crimes, not on the righteousness of abstinence.

We are using a scriptural passage that explicitly describes and condemns rape, torture, murder and cannibalism to teach our youth, specifically our young women, about the importance of sexual morality.

I take issue with the idea that anyone can deprive another person of virtue or chastity.  Chastity and virtue are personal decisions, internalized values for which the individual alone is accountable and responsible.  No one else's actions can deprive me of my chastity and virtue; only my own actions can do that.  When a victim is violated, s/he may lose innocence and trust.  Her/his physiological virginity may be taken from her/him, but there is no accompanying loss of chastity or virtue involved for the victim, only the perpetrator.  (See my recent post on Elizabeth Smart's talk at the Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum for more on this topic.)

There's another type of context to consider, too: historical context.  We have to make allowances for cultural bias, whether it was from the original writer, Mormon, or the translator, Joseph Smith, both of whom lived in times and societies that placed a high value - perhaps even "above all things" - on a woman's virginity.  We are all products of the time and society in which we live, no matter how hard we may try not to be or how blind we are to our own biases.  We need to be aware that the words on the page may not mean what we think they mean at first glance.  The meaning of words can change over time.  When this scriptural passage mentions "chastity and virtue", it's not talking about maintaining one's personal purity and high moral standards, which is almost always the way it's used when quoted or referenced today.

Reading this verse while using the modern definitions of "chastity and virtue," can lead to a faulty interpretation that implies that the actions of other people affect your personal righteousness and value and there's nothing you can do about it.  And that's an incredibly hurtful and inaccurate message to send, particularly to those one in six women who have been victims of sexual assault or abuse at some point in their lives.

Of course, I don't believe that those who quote this scripture in support of abstinence until marriage and fidelity after are deliberately equating being raped with a loss of virtue; I'm sure they would be horrified at the thought. They have simply fallen into the common trap of selectively using out-of-context scriptures, unfortunately sometimes to damaging effect.

In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya:  "You keep using [those] word[s].  I do not think it means what you think it means."

Context is important.


  1. You know that quote about how any two righteous people can be happily married (Pres. Kimball)? Everyone who's ever been single and Mormon knows the quote because it comes up at every single adult meeting and YSA conference. I think this one quote is partially to blame for the fact that young Mormons date each other for two weeks before getting engaged.

    And it drives me up the wall, because Pres. Kimball wasn't speaking to single adults when he said this; he was speaking specifically to married students at BYU. And the actual quote says, "'Soul mates' are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price." (Not exactly the same thing as the common interpretation: "All single people should get married right now, because as long as they're marrying another Mormon they're guaranteed to have a happy marriage.")

    So...yeah. I share your annoyance.

  2. That's another perfect example, Heidi! The first time I heard that quote (out of context, of course) I thought to myself, "That just can't be right..." So I looked up the rest of the talk and discovered, like you said, that that's not what he was saying at all.

    Context, context, context!!!