Helpful Toxicity

“Toxic” is thrown around a lot lately. Bloggers and podcasters on the fringes of Mormon culture often try to demonstrate the superiority of their approach by calling the church’s current or past position “TOXIC.”

When we hear this word, we recall images of thugs from some evil corporation dumping barrels of green chemicals into a mountain stream. (I think I saw that episode on McGyver once, or twice. Or, was that A-team? Or, CHiPs? Maybe B.J. and the Bear.)

Those describing some issue as toxic typically imply malicious intent, which is rare, or malicious ignorance, which is quite common. (The problem with malicious ignorance is that it is usually ignorant or naïve, which isn’t much better. I would also classify narrow-mindedness and idealism as ignorance, but with insufficient education to be classified as malicious ignorance. “And now back to the regularly scheduled program.”) “Toxic” implies that the church’s position is evident to everyone else but church’s leaders (their ignorant) or  that they are negligent in publicly renouncing and condemning said behavior and immediately changing all of the blind followers (who are ignorant).

Several toxic subjects seem come up repeatedly.

Toxic History

While the intent to present an idealistic narrative of church history and events to its members may have been intentional, calling it toxic is not helpful in understanding the motives, the social culture at the time, or the actual history. Would anyone call the Laura Ingles Wilder books toxic when she similarly presents ideals of behavior that are unlikely. Statements like “The children always sat quietly at the dinner table” is a nice lesson and ideal, but was probably rare.

Since the mission of a church is to provide life lessons, the density of such idealistic precepts is much higher than in the Wilder stories and similar books from the 19th and 20th century.

So, learn the history, culture, and context and recognize that people both past and present are trying to do their best to live and apply the word of God as they understand it. Christian scriptures should be read with the same perspective. Presentism doesn’t buy you anything worthwhile, it only flaunts your ignorance.

Toxic Culture

Is there too much shame in the church? Yes. Are outsiders sometimes not welcome? Yes. Can lessons sometimes be offensive? Yes. Are some church materials of instruction out dated? Yes. Are some ideals of behavior misguided? Yes.

I could go on, selectively picking among a panoply of social sins found generally among the church. But, where would that leave us? Just about where we started, only with different things to complain about, because people will always be stupid or ignorant (except for me). Sometimes we just have to grit our teeth and smile. Hopefully, we aren’t surprised when others smile back at us with their jaw clenched.

Toxic Patriarchy

Current LDS leadership is restricted to male priesthood holders. Will this change? Maybe. Can women play a more significant role in local, regional, and general leadership? Sure. While change is certain, it may be painfully slow to some.

Societal impatience may chafe at the lethargic rate of religious reforms, but maybe someday we will see the value in organizations that retain wisdom that is not obvious to us at this time. The analogy of Chesterson’s fence seems to apply.

Am I saying that women should stay in the kitchen and care for the kids? No, but I am saying that reorganizing social structures should only be done from a point with a very broad and long view.

Fault is Easy, Change is Slow

A podcaster can knock out a new episode in a matter of minutes, but institutional change is slow. Worse still is history, it doesn’t seem to change at all. Once an event occurs or a record is made, it is fixed, but its influence grows like a ripple in a pond.

Even when church leadership makes a correction or applies force against cultural practices, their efforts are likely to take years to approach the level at which meaningful change is evidenced. Meanwhile, the “bad ripples” continue to be picked up and amplified.

So, to the negative podcasters and bloggers, I would say: A boy throwing rocks at the side of the barn may relish the sound that he makes, but shouldn’t be quite so proud that he hit something.

To those affected by negative remarks, those inside of the barn: The sound isn’t quite so loud or significant when you step outside and see the context.


(From the Audience) “Yes, but people are being hurt by _______.”

May we all have sufficient understanding, love, and concern for others so that no one is hurt intentionally. And may we all be sufficiently educated that we are not hurt because of our own ignorance or another’s ignorance.

One thought on “Helpful Toxicity”

  1. I appreciate the distinction between malicious intent and malicious ignorance. I’d like to believe that very few of the people who’ve damaged me were exercising malicious intent. But I have no doubt that many of them were displaying and exercising malicious ignorance. The distinction makes it easier to forgive…

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