By Michael Austin
Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost? —Alma 39:5
Growing up, I heard all the standard LDS metaphors for extra-marital sex—the chewed gum, the cupcake, the nails in the board. But I also heard church leaders disavow these comparisons and talk about how they were inconsistent with the Atonement of Christ. By college, I was fairly sure that these were nonsense, even though I was at BYU. But I never heard anyone disavow the most dangerous and damaging Mormon sex trope of them all: that consensual sex outside of marriage constitutes “the sin next to murder.”
This one comes right from the Book of Mormon—or, at least, from the standard interpretation of Alma’s discussion with his son, Corianton, who was apparently a bad boy in an affair involving a bunch of apostate Zoramites and a prostitute. If the conventional interpretation is correct, Alma ranks the top three sins in order of severity as: 1) denying the Holy Ghost (whatever that means); 2) murder (assuming that the shed blood is innocent, whatever that means); and sex of any kind with anyone other than a legal spouse.
There are a number of problems with this formulation. For one, it doesn’t leave any room for seriously violent crimes that stop short of murder--things like aggravated battery, malicious wounding, and attempted murder. But the reason that I describe the “sin-next-to-murder” trope as dangerous and damaging is that it completely erases sexual abuse as a category of wrongdoing. And, in doing so, it erases the trauma that survivors of abuse experience. It does this by eliminating the possibility of “abuse” as a distinctive kind of evil.
Think about it. If someone has not murdered someone else or denied the Holy Ghost, then the worst possible thing they can do in Mormon theology is have sex outside of marriage. That means that consensual sex and sexual abuse are at exactly the same level, which is very close to saying that they are exactly the same thing. Rape and abuse cannot be worse than consensual sex because nothing (other than murder and Holy Ghost Denialism) can be worse than sex outside of marriage.
This means that the betrayal, violence, and utter disregard for another person’s life and wellbeing that an abuser displays cannot factor into the way that Mormons understand the wrongness of abuse. Nor can the lifetime pain and trauma that abuse inflicts be weighed in the balance. Once you hit “the sin next to murder,” there is nowhere else to go. Theologically, the worse thing about sexual abuse is that it occurs outside of marriage. And if the abuse happens to occur within a marriage, then it can never be considered as bad as extramarital sexual activity.
It is tempting to call this kind of thinking “medieval,” but that would be inaccurate and unfair. Medieval Christians had a much more nuanced view of both sin and sexuality. We can read all about it in the Inferno section of Dante’s masterpiece Commedia, or The Divine Comedy. There are nine levels of sinners in Dante’s Inferno, categorized by three levels of severity, each corresponding to one of the three beasts who accost Dante in the first Canto:
The Sins of the Wolf (levels 1-6) are sins brought about by the weaknesses of the flesh—things like anger, lust, gluttony, and greed. These sinners are not really punished at all. They are just left alone and punished by the excesses of their own natures.
The Sins of the Lion (Level 7) are sins of violence. These are “cold-blooded” rather than “hot-blooded” sins in which people use their reason to plan and organize violent affronts on other people. Their punishments are more severe.
The Sins of the Leopard (Levels 8-9) are sins of betrayal—sins in which people took advantage of someone else’s trust, friendship, or family connection. These sins receive some of the most gruesome and spectacular punishments in any kind of literature.
I’m not endorsing Dante or anything. There are plenty of important things that his medieval worldview—no matter how enlightened—does not and cannot capture. But at the fundamental level, his system recognizes that violence, fraud, betrayal, and pre-meditation all aggravate the wrongness of an act. Such a worldview offers a vocabulary in which the physical and sexual abuse of children and other humans can be condemned forcibly and directly as unique kinds of evil.
There is simply no way to reach this point from the assertion that consensual sex outside of marriage is “the sin next to murder.”
Written by Michael Austin
Submitted to Latter Day Survivors Blog.