Shame: Why Brad Wilcox Can't Apologize on Behalf of the LDS Church

Submission by Mags Edvalson



Brad Wilcox is best known as a beloved author and EFY speaker in the LDS community. I have some of his books and I've heard him speak. Admittedly, it's been a long time and I haven't read his books yet (also there's a good chance I never will at this point, both because we aren't theologically aligned and I have a lot of books to read) and I don't remember much about what he spoke about when I was a teen. But I was listening this weekend. There's a lot that people have gotten angry about. There's a lot to be angry about, considering he's been giving this talk, full of blatant inaccuracies and bigotry, for a long time according to new video evidence. But there's at least one thing that should be concerning at least for faithful Latter Day Saints that I want to address.


Wilcox is clearly not one to entertain the "women and priesthood" issue. Honestly, I'm not either. It might be surprising to hear, but even as "out" of the church as I am, as much as I think women are institutionally marginalized, I believe the perception of gender and sex needs to be questioned before we even get into it with priesthood, what it is, what it means, and what it could be.


At one point in his talk Wilcox introduces the concept of "playing church" and tells his audience that his kids would often play church when they were little. Immediately I was interested because it would be interesting to survey religious people to see how common this game is and what sorts of folkloric variations happen as it crosses into different religious communities. I'm not going to do that work, but it would be interesting. Anyway, as part of his story telling he says (and I'm paraphrasing) that he sometimes found his daughter pretending to bless and pass sacrament and that he found such behavior disturbing.


Imagine, children play acting behaviors that are normally considered good as DISTURBING. It's almost like... looking on children in bathrobes and feeling the spirit of the Devil. It just shouldn't be possible to see a child as innocent as sunshine doing anything and consider it a crime when you can remember being young and innocent, when you know what it is to love a child unconditionally as God loves.


See, this aside he makes doesn't sit well with me and I don't think it should sit well with anyone, because what Brad is implying is that he expects children to inherently understand nuance and that they should be shamed for innocence. I don't know how he parented in that immediate situation. I would hope that he didn't draw attention to his daughter's pretense and instead found an opportunity later to talk about priesthood and sacrament in an FHE lesson, allowed her to ask questions, and leave her to correct herself the next time she played church. Instead, I imagine he probably did what I've seen a lot of parents do. He probably stopped her immediately and told her she was WRONG to do the GOOD thing that she'd seen done hundreds of times, and then for probably one of the first (or at least earliest) times in her life, she was told it was for the seemingly arbitrary reason that SHE was a GIRL that made it WRONG. What a way to learn SHAME.


Wilcox does a lot of pedestalizing of women in his talk. Women are too good, too righteous to need priesthood. Sure, but apparently they're not too good to be shamed for ignorantly engaging with it as children. This here is the crux of my dilemma and what I'm trying to understand about the support people show for patriarchal authority. I've been shamed for crossing lines I didn't know existed. When I was seven years old and playing house with the neighborhood boys, I was molested. I didn't understand what was happening. I was vaguely aware of sex as any kid probably is. I could sense that the boy trying to molest me was grooming me to do something that wasn't right ("Oh I love you, we're the mom and dad, this is what moms and dads do"). In the end, I gave in. It happened several times. I didn't want it to, but to a seven year old, his logic was flawless and I was scared.


My parents found out and responded with several intense discussions of the Law of Chastity and the Plan of Salvation and how I was lucky to be almost eight so I could be baptized and wash away my sin. I remember sitting on the floor as they pulled out my Barbies to show me the differences between their smooth plastic (and anatomically incorrect) bodies and told me that God created them to be different, and those differences were for a purpose. Men would have priesthood. Women would be impregnated and become mothers. I would be impregnated and become a mother one day, which was GOOD, but what I'd done was WRONG and SHAMEFUL. I'd "played house" a little too far, and now that I knew that it was wrong I never wanted to do it again. Ever.


When baptism came I was thrilled to be over this harrowing nightmare, but the fact is that you can't just wash away trauma. You can't wash away the trauma of being abused at such a young age brimming with innocence. Baptism can't prevent your parents from bringing up your assault on occasion to make you the butt of a joke or shame you even while telling you that you've been forgiven by God. It wasn't until I was in college that I realized I had been used and not complicent or consenting. It wasn't until recently that I realized that my struggle with gender identity and even sexual orientation are probably linked back to what happened. It wasn't until I let myself take a chance on someone I knew and trusted for years that I realized I needed to cry and wail out the emotions I'd been holding for decades because I still saw myself as a shameful piece of garbage for allowing myself to be assaulted. No bishop was there to help me through that. No priesthood leader. Just my best friend, without any kind of faith in God or a respect of "priesthood authority," to hold me tight and let me grieve day after day.


That is the culture of shame that is still so pervasive in Mormondom and needed to be nipped in the bud yesterday, last week, last century. Obviously molestation is a more serious issue that an innocent girl playing priesthood, but I recognized that resentment in Wilcox's remarks. Shame has no scale to be measured by. Shame feels as heavy as sin because the act of shaming IS sin. It's the sin we commit when we point fingers at those who have been forgiven or comforted by Atonement. I have no doubt Brad Wilcox loves his daughter, like I know my parents love me, and perhaps his daughter doesn't mind that he was making a joke, but it wasn't funny. It never is. We are not perfect and we are not always the best at showing love, and too often we don't apologize where it counts. I saw Wilcox apologize for his racist remarks. They were due and appropriate, but they were not the only apology needed. Really it's not even up to him alone to apologize, nor could this be fixed by any official declaration from on high, but this should be a moment to consider that it is well beyond time to address the hurt we deal out of a sense of righteous duty.


So I ask faithful members, because Brad Wilcox is never going to read this and I doubt it would change anything for him, what are you doing to dismantle the culture of shame within your families and congregations? Where is the outrage against comments made over the pulpit that dredge up old wounds and send mixed signals to your children about their value to you? I know that parents will share stories about their kids, I get it, but are you contextualizing those stories within an appropriate emotional framework? Are you doing what you can to help protect your neighbors' children from shame or abuse? Are your congregations facilitating a space to raise those children with kindness, mercy, and love? How is it that you watch your loved ones leave the church and it never occurs to you that it's not the doctrine or the history or even a lack of Spirit that drives them away? It's exhaustion.


All I ask is that people see the broken system for what it is and speak up. Speak up in church. Speak up at firesides. Speak up around the dinner table. You don't have to change doctrines or apologize for dead men to reach out to your friends who have left, but you should reach out without guile, animosity, or agenda. They won't come back to church, but they miss you so much. They forgive you and want to be forgiven. Together we all need to be aware of and dismantle shame.