I just completed a Social Justice/Social Change graduate seminar where we were required to go through the arduous and sometimes painful process of examining our privilege. It turns out that I have an awful lot of privilege to examine: I am a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, thin, highly educated, bearer of children, voting citizen of a Western nation, manager of people type of person. By the time the semester was over I was thoroughly sick of myself and would have loved to give all that privilege back. But that’s not the way it works.
A couple of weeks ago the priesthood lesson was taught in my Relief Society. The teacher framed the lesson through the oft-recited phrase that having the priesthood is a privilege. She even went as far as to tack the definition of privilege up on the board. “A privilege is a right or a blessing that one possesses to the exclusion of others.” I was bemused that this was the definition used to teach about a male-only priesthood to a room full of women but unsurprisingly, that statement was never examined for its full implications. The teacher never once acknowledged the problematic reality that it is women who are excluded from this privilege.
I’ve never been one to beat the drum that women need the priesthood in order to be fully equal to men. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it is. Personally, I’m not convinced that opening the priesthood to women would solve the underlying issue of inequality inherent in our doctrine and culture. And if I’m being honest, I think there is something beautiful in men using the power of God in the service of their families and those in need in a way that’s unique to them. Of course they could still do this if women were granted the priesthood but there is something special and sacred in the heavy mantel of a sole responsibility. So yes, describing priesthood as a privilege is accurate. But I think in order for the church to continue to frame priesthood in this manner a much more honest and self-aware discussion needs to be had as to what the privilege of a male-only priesthood means to both men and women and whether we are best served by this policy.
Privilege is a tricky thing because it can so easily slide into pride and then into abuse. For example, I have red hair. I consider it a privilege to be blessed in this manner and am quite vain about my hair. It delights me to no end that two out of my three children also have red hair. Where this privilege of mine can get dangerous is when I start to assign more value to being a redhead than there actually is. So maybe it starts as a slight preference for my two redheaded children over my one blond son. And then maybe I start to only hire redheads because I believe that they are the most passionate about their work. And then I decide that obviously God is a redhead because red hair denotes power. In biasing my own privilege I have failed to acknowledge and validate the feelings and existence of anybody who was not fortunate enough to be born with this particular genetic trait.
The same goes for the priesthood. While it most definitely is a privilege to be endowed with the power of God, too often men assign more value in having the priesthood than there actually is and then use this privilege to justify or remain blind to their dominance. We talk all the time about D&C 121 and unrighteous dominion but I think obvious examples of this are hard to come by and there is very little recourse for the victim when unrighteous dominion has been perpetrated.
Most concerning to me is the fact that we entirely fail to deal with the subtle examples of men using their priesthood privilege in ways that harm those without priesthood privileges. And often priesthood holders fail to see these examples because they have always had the privilege of the priesthood and so any other reality is not in their experience. Pulling from my own life, my bishop may not know what it’s like to get three children under the age of four ready for church alone because he has never had to do it. It is a privilege to miss out on this experience especially if you’re missing out in the service of ward and God. When my bishop schedules early Sunday morning meetings I am harmed by his use of privilege. I think it’s important for mr. mraynes to be at his meetings so I put up with this situation but let’s be honest, it’s a privilege to not have to fight three strong-willed children to comb their hair and put their shoes on. (Of course, having three children is also a privilege in itself.)
This can be expanded to a whole bunch of experiences that are pretty universal for Mormon women: Do those with the priesthood know what it feels like for a woman to watch as her children are blessed and baptized without her involvement? Do they know what it feels like to have twelve year old boys granted more authority than grown women just because they have been ordained? Have they experienced what it feels like to wait to sustain a prophet of God until after their pre-teen son? Do men realize what it feels like to read the scriptures and not be fully able to liken them unto one’s self? Or sing primary song after primary song that forgets that humanity, not to mention God, is made up of two genders? Can male priesthood holders understand what it feels like to be told to hearken not unto God, but unto their marriage partner? And, most damaging of all, do they know what it is to read, and learn, and sing, and pray and look to God only to find that half of God, the half that represents you, isn’t there?
I’m not necessarily advocating that women be granted the priesthood; I’m advocating that priesthood-holding men take a serious look at what their privilege means for them and what being excluded means for women. There will be women who do not feel harmed by their exclusion, but there will be women who are harmed and their experiences are just as valid. If an examination of privilege is done honestly these men should have a similar experience to my own when I had to examine all of my privilege. I was left with an overwhelming desire to do all within my power to promote equality and live in a way that keeps my privilege from harming others whenever possible. If this is all that comes out of that examination of priesthood as privilege then we will be one step closer to Zion.