Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Appearance of Evil

LDS leaders have preached that members should "avoid the appearance of evil."  Even when I was a faithful true-believing Mormon, I always thought that was silly.  Here's why.

When I was in middle school, my dad was the bishop of our ward.  He took his calling very seriously...or maybe too seriously.  Once when we were travelling somewhere (I don't remember where, maybe it was for Christmas shopping or something), he realized that he'd missed the turn to our destination.  I pointed to the next place along the road to turn around and suggested he pull a U-turn in a little parking lot next to the street.  The parking lot was for an adult bookstore.

"No, we'll just go down to the next light and turn around there," my dad said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Just in case someone sees my car in the parking lot," he explained.

"So what?" I said.  "There's no cars in the parking lot.  The place is obviously closed.  You'll only be there for a few seconds and anybody will be able to tell that you're just turning around."

And he responded by telling me that we need to avoid the appearance of evil.  Apparently this was a teaching moment.  Apparently driving another quarter mile to the next light, waiting for it to turn green, doing a three-point turn in a driveway, coming back to the light, waiting for it again, and then driving the same quarter mile back is better than pulling a quick U-turn in the parking lot of an abandoned sex toy shop.  Because if you do the U-turn, someone might think you did something bad even though you didn't.

Teaching someone to avoid the appearance of evil is, in my opinion, not a good idea.  Especially if the "someone" that's doing the teaching is a religious organization.  The whole point of Christianity is to get people to be better because they're going to be judged by God.  When Christianity works, its people are kind, loving, and make a positive impact on the lives of the people around them. But when you introduce the element of being judged by other people who are not so perfect as God is, the purpose is defeated.  When you give the appearance of piety a level of importance on the same plane as actual piety, you give people two masters to serve--the judgment of God and the opinions of their peers.  Isn't there some famous saying, maybe with Biblical origins, about how no man can serve two masters?

God is an unseen, elusive being that will judge you at the end of your life.  Your fellow church-goers, on the other hand, are visible, frequently around, and will judge you immediately.  It should come as no surprise that, for some people, what their ward members think of them begins to take priority over what their god thinks of them.  Which, of course, is contrary to what the religion is supposed to accomplish.  And this can lead to a culture of gossiping and constant jockeying for the social status of perceived obedience.  And a focus on perceived obedience can lead to a lack of true obedience.

Teaching people to focus on appearance over truth and opinion over substance is a recipe for discord and superficiality.  Although, I suppose it makes sense from the upper leadership's perspective--"avoid the appearance of evil" is now a doctrinally mandated public relations campaign.  If your members seem more honest, virtuous, and incorruptible than the other churches' members, maybe you can trick more people into joining your religion and paying you ten percent of their income.

That doesn't seem right to me.


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    1. You spent less than sixty seconds on the page and posted a generic comment consisting mostly of links to your own blogs. You get no free advertising from me!

  2. Wow - thanks for sharing this memory. I hadn't really thought about the matter much - I don't remember too many people talking about the appearance of evil - but I do remember feeling like my actions were constantly being watched by fellow members.

    1. Really? Man, I remember hearing "avoid the appearance of evil" a lot growing up, although not as often as "lengthen your stride" and "every member a missionary." Maybe it was just a regional thing, or maybe it was just my parents that stressed it so much.

      Of course, whether or not anybody said it, yeah...they were judging how evil you appeared.

  3. It was a really big deal where I lived, a small, Utah, Mormon town. I remember my Seminary teacher saying how he was confronted by a woman outside the post office. He had a sucker in his mouth, and she thought he was smoking a cigarette. I mean, how stupid is that? You can't even enjoy a sucker without being judged and wonder what other people might be thinking.

    1. Everybody knows that lollipops are the real gateway drug anyway, right?