The prophets say God’s love is conditional, but they can’t say ‘I’m sorry’
Kimberly Applewhite Teitter, a Black Latter-day Saint, says she doesn’t need anyone to apologize for policies that kept Black members from temple rituals or Black men from having authority to serve as leaders and baptize their own children. Her testimony is hers, and it doesn’t depend on anyone else, not even the prophets.
And yet, there was an afternoon in 2018 when she heard Church leaders had apologized for making Black members second-class Saints. “I remember sitting in my car…noticing a weight that I didn’t realize was even there being lifted off of my shoulders.” She found herself in tears. Within fifteen minutes, she learned it was a hoax. She went back to work and thought she was back to normal. Two days later, another LDS woman approached her offering to bring food to those hurt by the stunt and she realized she hadn’t had a real meal since.
Teitter’s account is part of Salt Lake Tribune article by Peggy Fletcher Stack this month that explores whether the Church should apologize to members hurt by its policies. Plenty of other religions have done so. That same week, the Pope apologized to Inuit, Metis and First Nations communities for abuse at Catholic-run boarding schools in Canada. In March, the Anglican Church of Canada apologized for sexual abuse and mistreatment of female members. In 2020, the Church of England apologized for racism toward people from Caribbean countries who immigrated to the UK. In 1995 and again in 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for racism and slavery.
Much of Stack’s article focuses on whether living prophets can be obliged to apologize on behalf of dead ones. Which raises the question: if members can baptize on behalf of the dead, why not this?
But there’s an even bigger question unexplored: not whether Church leaders should apologize but why they do not.
There’s more to it than the obvious, that prophets must project an aura of infallibility. No one in the article or its Twitter comments argues that the ban was actually God’s will up until President Spencer W. Kimball’s revelation until 1978. (Brad Wilcox’s speech minimizing the 126 years Blacks waited for temple and Priesthood blessings and
chiding members to have faith in God’s timeline goes unmentioned.)
To apologize well, someone must feel empathy for the harm and hurt they caused.
But the Church leaders I remember didn’t focus on whether members were happy or hurting or what might help. They focused on assessing and ensuring whether members were worthy and obedient. Here’s my hypothesis: The higher Church leaders rise, the further they get from empathy and compassion and the impulse to comfort.
It comes all the way from the top. In a 2003 Ensign article recently revived on Mormon Twitter, President Russel M. Nelson explicitly says that God’s love cannot be considered unconditional. He adds bracketed words and italics to convert scripture into if-then statements.
“If ye keep my commandments, [then] ye shall abide in my love” (John 15:10)
“If you keep not my commandments, [then] the love of the Father shall not continue with you.” (D&C 95:12)
This is fire and brimstone at its coldest. It blunts the instinct to comfort those who are suffering and even the ability to recognize suffering. That’s what other religious leaders do: the Pope referred to “unresolved traumas that have become inter-generational trauma.” Canada’s Council of the General Synod refers to “suffering undergone by so many victims of sexual misconduct within the church.”
Compare that to the now-definitive statement from President Oaks in 2015, when asked if the Church should apologize for past teachings that personal unrightousness or abuse cause homosexuality. “We sometimes look back on issues and say, ‘Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve. But we look forward and not backward.”
Well, President Oaks is certainly not looking at those hurt by Church policies. The people who were harmed have no place in his thinking. (Note this month’s General Conference speech.)
But here’s the irony: the organization within the Church is good at providing comfort and care. Consider the instinct that brought food to Kimberly Teitter. In my Mormon days, my visiting teachers and home teachers were there for me, people I could ask favors of without embarrassment.
When even God’s love is conditional, comfort wastes away; judgment rises in its place. Someone’s worthiness matters more than their pain. Don’t expect any apologies.
PS: After I’d written this essay, I asked some smart people on Twitter about the connection between empathy, lack of apology, and divine conditional love. Some of their thinking is here, but many other insights are on this thread.