Russell M. Nelson said this at the most recent General Conference: “Contention drives away the Spirit—every time. Contention reinforces the false notion that confrontation is the way to resolve differences; but it never is. Contention is a choice. Peacemaking is a choice. You have your agency to choose contention or reconciliation. I urge you to choose to be a peacemaker, now and always.”
This call for peace feels like a balm for the soul after so many years of contention that includes members of the LDS Church. When he said, “How we speak to and about others at home, at church, at work, and online really matters,” I absolutely agreed. In fact, one of my favorite literary quotes comes from Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook, where the main character’s mantra is, “I am practicing being kind over being right.” I love it so much that I recently had it painted on a canvas for my cubicle at work.
This call for compassion, civility, and humanity is so significant. How we view, treat, and speak to others is an essential component of following Jesus Christ. I too often lean on sarcasm, easy jokes, generalizations, and anger when it comes to public discourse. Nelson is inspiring when he advises, “Brothers and sisters, we can literally change the world—one person and one interaction at a time. How? By modeling how to manage honest differences of opinion with mutual respect and dignified dialogue.” This kind of dialogue is too often lost and makes it difficult to care for and love one another.
I do hope, however, that this call to civility and love does not encourage people to avoid all difficult topics or advocacy. It’s far too easy to say, “I am not political,” or “I don’t care about politics,” or “I only focus on the good” to achieve peace. This peace comes at a great cost, however. And the people who pay that cost are often those who experience the daily costs of systemic racism, sexism, bigotry, and classism.
Peace at any cost is what people dream of when they reminisce about “the good old days” or the civil days when we kept political opinions to ourselves. But when this “peace” means many suffer daily from injustice and inequality, is it really peace? In order to change continuing problems with systemic racism, sexism, and bigotry, we must advocate and disrupt comfortable, oppressive cultural norms.
Seeking peace and civility does not mean we ignore problems or tamper down important criticisms. We don’t need peace at any cost. Instead, we need to do the difficult work of listening, sitting with disagreement, feeling uncomfortable, looking for good while acknowledging bad, and changing. Otherwise, it’s just a surface, comfortable peace that often excludes, ignores, and hurts many.
For example, when I reviewed the speakers at the last General Conference, it hurt to see that only two were women. I don’t feel like this is something worth discussing with members of the LDS Church, however. If I mention it, I am often faced with people who dismiss it, talk over it, and tell me to stop being so negative. They do make an important point: It is difficult for me to make room for the good when I feel as though the peace of conformity comes at such a high cost. How can I be a peacemaker who creates space for this conversation AND the positive experiences others felt at conference?
One important way I recognize is by looking for other representations of diversity in speakers. I know there are members who rejoice at the number of speakers who come from countries outside of the United States and who are people of color. This representation is important, too. Can I see it if I am only looking for what impacts/concerns me the most? What if half of the speakers were women, but all were white and born in the United States? Would I be able to see and hear that there is still work to do? Would I feel frustrated by criticisms of one thing when it seemed to me that such a big accomplishment should be celebrated?
I’ve been angry, cynical, and heartbroken. I yearn for peace, compassion, and – yes – to earnestly advocate for what is good, loving, and right. When I’m seeking peace and healing, I often turn to the author and truth-teller Sarah Bessey, who wisely said,
“I won’t desecrate beauty with cynicism anymore. I won’t confuse critical thinking with a critical spirit, and I will practice, painfully, over and over, patience and peace until my gentle answers turn away even my own wrath. I will breathe fresh air while I learn, all over again, grace freely given and wisdom honored; and when my fingers fumble, when, I sound flat or sharp, I will simply try again.”― Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women
Can I do this anymore? I’m not certain. But I admit to feeling great cynicism around Russell M. Nelson and his words reached me. I try to remain emotionally disconnected from matters of faith to protect myself, but the Monday after conference, I let myself tell God about the hurt I felt over the lack of female speakers. I heard a voice tell me that it was okay to feel hurt and that things didn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it mattered. I shared this tiny experience with my husband and it opened a door to discuss my feelings about the lack of female representation and led to other meaningful discussions of faith. Perhaps this is how seeking peace can work in me, even if it’s small?