It’s not just a question of whether to stay or leave. It’s also a question of how you stay or how you leave.
When I left the Mormon church, 17 years ago, it felt like the only choice available. And for me, at the time, I think it was. Something had started to happen inside of me. The symbols of Mormonism had begun to loosen their hold on me and I was reacting violently to the restraints which the church places on me. At the time, I thought I was making a rational decision. Now, looking back, I think it was more of an existential one.
When I left the Mormon church, I wrote a letter to my ecclesiastical leaders, explaining my reasons. Ten pages single-spaced, consisting of objections to Mormon doctrine and church policies. Writing the letter was part of the standard, formal process for a person wanting to remove their name from the LDS church rolls. I had a couple of interviews with local church leaders, and then I got a letter from Salt Lake City informing me that my request had been granted. It was satisfying, if somewhat anticlimactic.
At the time, I took courage from a short story written by Ursula LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. In LeGuin’s story, Omelas is a paradise that is built on the suffering of an innocent child. People in Omelas are told that the happiness of their paradise depends on the suffering of this child. They are shown the child and told that no love can be shown to the child. Most eventually come to terms with it and return to their happy lives. But occasionally one does not. The story ends with the rare inhabitant walking away from Omelas toward an unknown future:
“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
As I left the Mormon church, I imagined myself to be like one of those walking away from Omelas. But I always wondered why those who left didn’t try to free the child. Why they didn’t try to tear Omelas to the ground.
As I contemplated leaving the Mormon church, I did consider an alternative to the quiet, dignified exit. I considered creating some kind of crisis that would force the church leaders to excommunicate me. Maybe I would take over the pulpit and boldly declare my deconversion to the congregation. Maybe I would start telling the truth to the adolescents I was supposed to be teaching in Sunday school. Maybe I would start criticizing the church on the Internet. In the end, a friend helped convince me that leaving on my own terms would be better. It was certainly better for my relationship with my wife, who chose to remain Mormon.
Today, I don’t regret my decision to leave in the way I did, but do I recognize it as a missed opportunity. It was an opportunity to make a public statement out of a private event. An opportunity to draw a line in the sand and dare the Church to cross it. An opportunity to send a message … to the church leaders, to the people I went to church with, to those who had left before me and those who would leave after me, and to the world in general.
Recently, I faced a decision whether to stay at Patheos. After writing at Patheos Pagan for four years, the new owners decided to consolidate their editorial control with a new contract. Soon after, Pat Mosley drew my attention to the fact that Patheos had recently become associated, through Beliefnet, to a number of far right-wing, homo- and trans-phobic organizations. These two facts combined to create a real dilemma for me.
I could have stayed. It’s unlikely that Patheos was going to censor anything I wrote unless it was directly critical of Patheos or Beliefnet. And, since I am heterosexual and cisgendered, I am not directly impacted by the right wing agenda of Patheos’ new associates.
I also could have just left quietly. I could have stood by silently while others signed the contract without reading it or understanding its implications. I could have decided not to make a public issue of Patheos’ homophobic and transphobic associations. Like protesters are supposed to just quietly accept Trump’s presidency, I suppose.
Instead, I chose to do something else.
I chose to create a crisis … or at least help create a crisis. I shouldn’t take too much credit. After all, Patheos had done its part. By associating with the right-wing organizations in the first place and then by trying to downplay the significance of those associations. And by sending a grossly one-sided contract to its writers and then by refusing to renegotiate the contract until a critical mass of its Pagan writers complained.
But, while I did not “manufacture” the crisis (as some people have suggested), I did protest. And I did so publicly. Specifically, I wrote a post which was critical of Patheos and its new partners. What I wrote might have been interpreted as “disparaging” — which the new contract (which I had not signed) prohibited — but it was not “defamatory” (as one Patheos writer has said). Nothing in the post was false. The fact that some people trusted Patheos not to censor their work does not negate the fact that the contract permitted censorship. And the fact that some people were not bothered by Patheos’ new associations does not mean that those associations were not problematic for me and for others.
The post was designed as a test. It was meant to test the intentions of the Patheos owners and editor. In my opinion, they failed the test. Patheos chose to delete the post and unilaterally blocked me from the site. To me, this was a clear signal that Patheos would, in fact, exercise the contractual powers that it was trying to claim in the new contract.
Since then, I have been criticized for how I handled the situation. Some people felt I should have been more diplomatic. Or that I should have expressed my concerns more privately. Or given more time for deliberation. But I stand by my decision. I wanted to drew people’s attention to the issue before they signed the contract, and the post did that. I wanted to reveal whether Patheos was willing to censor its writers, and the post did that. I wanted to publicize the connection of Patheos to organizations that are dedicated to destroying our LGBT friends, and the post did that.
However, I do regret that friendships and relationships have been damaged in the process. Some who have chosen to stay have felt the need to vilify those who left, and vice versa. The truth is, I think there are good reasons for staying, just as there are good reasons for leaving. Patheos the largest interfaith blogging platform, and I do think it is important to have a Pagan presence there. And I think there is a case to be made for working from inside the system to change it. Sometimes the master’s tools are the best ones for tearing down the master’s house. Which is why, when a friend and fellow Patheos blogger recently asked me to make the case to them for leaving Patheos, I really wasn’t comfortable doing so.
But my question for those who stay is this: How are you going to stay? What kind of writer are you going to be at Patheos?
Will you argue for LGBT rights? Will you be critical of those that associate with anti-LGBT groups? We you be critical of Patheos for its association with anti-LGBT groups?
Will you be critical of the increasing corporatism of the media? Will you be critical of the increasing corporatism of Patheos?
Will you hold Patheos’ owners to the same standards of journalistic integrity which they claim in the contract to be entitled to? Will you hold Patheos’ owners to the same ethical obligations that are expressed in all of the faiths that are represented on the site?
Will you defend the choice of those who left, even though you chose to stay?
Or will you write tame posts that are inoffensive to the new owners? Will you avoid writing about political issues? Or ignore the overlap of the spiritual and the political?
Will you downplay the significance of associating with groups that hate queer and trans folk and want to criminalize their existence? Will you refuse to acknowledge the significance of those associations unless money is flowing in the direction of those groups — as if money is the only measure of power?
Will you excuse conduct by a corporation that you would never excuse in an individual? Will you treat corporations like they are exempt from any ethical obligations except the profit motive? Will you justify bad conduct by corporations because it’s “standard” for corporations to behave badly?
Will you claim that Patheos has never censored anyone, ignoring the most obvious and recent example? Will you say that their censorship in that case was justified because the writer provoked it? Will you “wait and see” or stay only because it hasn’t happened to you personally?
Will you erect straw men, like an evangelical conspiracy to silence Pagan writers, to be easily knocked down by you?
Will you vilify those who chose to leave in order to justify your staying? Will you dismiss them as insignificant because of when or how frequently they wrote for Patheos?
I’ve thought about the story of those who walked away from Omelas many times since I first read it over 20 years ago. The intriguing thing about the story is that it isn’t clear what the author thought about those who left and those who stayed. It isn’t clear who she thought made the right decision.
Now I’m beginning to think, there was no right decision. Whether people left or stayed was not the real issue. The real question was how they left. And how they stayed.
When we find ourselves in oppressive or unjust systems, we can work to change them from within. Or we can work to change them from without. But if we are to be true to our values, we must work to change them.