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Don’t Shoot Until You See the Whites of Their Eyes

March 18, 2013

J. Max Wilson has written a couple of posts critiquing liberal believing Mormons. (Well, he has written more than a couple of posts, actually, but these are the latest few). This time, he addresses it from the vantage point of Mormons rejecting present leadership by hoping for future revelation (hat tip to chanson for cluing me in to JMW’s criticism of Latter-day Saints who live in the future.

He has written a follow-up addressing prophetic fallibility.

Just to quote a bit from his latest post:

The whole point of having a prophet in the first place is that a prophet is a metaphorical “watchman on the tower”. While his eyesight may be just as fallible as anyone else, the tower upon which he stands provides him with a view superior to those with equally good eyes but who are not situated upon the tower. His view is better not because his eyes are superior but because his location on the tower allows him to see farther and more; not because of something inherent or different in his person, but because of something inherent in the position in which he has been placed for the protection and benefit of all.

This analogy is fun, because I notice a pretty big issue here.

In church lingo, it is the problem of addressing the needs of the 99 vs. addressing the needs of the 1. In non-church lingo, it is a matter of whether or not leadership ought to prioritized generalized cases or whether they can risk reaching out individually.

It may be true that the watchman on the tower may be able to see farther and more (even if his eyesight is the same as everyone else [hopefully, he’s not myopic]), but this doesn’t necessarily mean that his view will be superior. If you need to see further out, then perhaps we could say being higher up is an advantage.

…but suppose that the problem was never on grand strategy but on tactics and operations? Suppose the problem was with supposed “edge cases”.

I think that Mormonism works pretty well for a privileged set of folks. It is taking more and more steps to move past its positions of racial privilege. so I won’t count that here, but there are still very much privileges associated with gender, sexual orientation, belief status, and so on. The leaders cannot address these issues by continuing to address the most privileged members (who are “safe” because of their privilege.)

…at the same time, I understand that the leaders are actually not well primed to address the less privileged members either. Being on top of a watchtower means that one must think strategically and not operationally. It wouldn’t do for a watchman performing recon to instead try to discern minute details on the ground.

It would help if we had a robust system for discerning the differences. If the watchmen gave generalized counsel (suitable with their big-picture perspective), but people “on the ground” fleshed out with more specific details.

Let’s put it another way. Say we are fighting a war. You have one guy in recon balloons/helicopters/planes. You have another guy on the field with fine tools — surgical magnifying glasses, scalpels, etc., It may be true that in some cases, you will defer to the guy in the plane…but who do you want to treat your wound? Do you want the guy in the plane to scope out the wounded and decide what is best to  be done for them from the sky? Is it a rejection of the value of the tower to recognize the value of the ground? The value of the magnifying glass?

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  1. Not sure if this is relevant (it is to me since I study both Mormonism and Eastern Orthodoxy) but in Orthodoxy the man with surgical tools is ideally the priest or spiritual father. They have a concept called “oikonomia” where priests have a little leeway to bend and flex the requirements of the rules for individuals for the sake of charity. The word basically means “management” or “housekeeping.” This would be in contrast to, say, the Roman Catholic model that has pretty rigid idealistic rules that nobody can follow and cannot in principle yield (though that might not be entirely fair).

    And actually I think that Mormon bishops do basically have a de facto oikonomia – at least, I have experienced it and bishops I’ve talked to have expressed similar sentiments.

    But I agree with your point that prophets (and other top leaders in any organization) generally make rules to benefit the 99% in attempt to maximize participation/involvement/care of the privileged majority. What I don’t get is whether you think that’s a bad thing? It seems to me that if we see prophets as big picture strategists and Bishops/instructors/RS presidents as field medics (or whatever), isn’t that in theory a model that provides decent push/pull between the two polar ends?

  2. When it comes to things like same-sex intimacy or the dearth of non-white administrators, it’s pretty difficult to ~not~ think it’s all about maintaining a space of privilege among white, straight men. But then, when President Obama was elected in 2008, that was the best way to keep the status quo in place and make it seem like things had “changed.” (The “new” Argentinian pope is another good example.) I’m beginning to think that the problem is not so much who the watchman is, but the existence of such a high tower.

  3. I think most people would want a perspective from the tower and from the ground. I don’t see the problem being the tower or that there is a ‘prophet/leader’ in the tower. The problem is that the radio used for communicating is a one-way radio. All communication comes from the top of the tower; I don’t think the leaders on the ground (stake leader/ward leaders) have a good, clear or reliable way of communicating back to the tower. If the ‘white man’ in the tower has cataracts or blurred vision what good is he?

    • I tend to agree with Jill. Although the situation Syphax describes would be ideal, I don’t think that is how the Church operates today. Most bishops and stake presidents see themselves not so much as shepherds of the flock as agents of the larger corporation. Our wards have become like franchises of the larger corporation, and local leaders don’t have the option of using their best judgment -or even of administering by the spirit or the scriptures. They are instructed to rely on the Church Handbook of Instruction, which has become the SOP manual of the churches. There is no real leadership.

      • Seth R. permalink

        Have you been in LDS leadership?

        If so, was this the kind of leader you were?

        And if so, do you have a particular reason for projecting your experience onto the rest of the church?

  4. Seth R. permalink

    I guess this is really a question of whether your prophets should be involved in administrative organizational work or not. Does being a part of the bureaucracy compromise the “watchman’s” ability to do his job?

  5. Syphax,

    I had heard a little about that concept in Eastern Orthodoxy…it just seems like one of many ways that that religion seems really fascinating.

    However, to the extent that it seems comparable to what Bishops have, I wonder how much it turns out like “priesthood roulette” does in Mormonism.

    But I agree with your point that prophets (and other top leaders in any organization) generally make rules to benefit the 99% in attempt to maximize participation/involvement/care of the privileged majority. What I don’t get is whether you think that’s a bad thing?

    I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. I just think that many members of the church do not recognize this as a different function that the top leaders uniquely serve — so anything a leader says is deemed to be definitive for everyone down the chain. We don’t effectively have ways to maximize participation/involvement/care of the underprivileged minority as a result.

    (I also think that if you’re going to try to reach broadly, then you should be trying to create “principles” instead of “rules” — the distinction may seem trivial, but at least from an accounting policy, the data show that the latter leads to less diversity/leeway than the former. In accounting, this is desirable, because we generally want comparable financial data — we don’t want people to do whatever they want when reporting.)

    In other words, I don’t think that when J Max writes that he gives much leeway to minorities. I would suspect that he would say the minorities need to conform with the statements of the watchmen.

    [As another side note, I think this is why the leadership makes increasingly vague and plausibly deniable statements. It’s a way to force people to do more personal interpretation, but it also mitigates the possibility that someone will say something that will be taken too far as a universal “rule” when instead it was only meant as an example, “principle,” etc.,)

    It seems to me that if we see prophets as big picture strategists and Bishops/instructors/RS presidents as field medics (or whatever), isn’t that in theory a model that provides decent push/pull between the two polar ends?

    That would be great, if we actually saw prophets, Bishops, instructors, RS presidents, etc., that way. I don’t think that that is how things are universally seen.

    Like take another example of how there could *theoretically* be “decent push/pull between two polar ends”. In the tug of war between, say, institutional and personal revelation, I think that there is generally a sense that if your personal revelation contradicts institutional revelation, then you’re expected to step in line/stifle your own revelation.

  6. ninelegyak,

    This strikes more centrally at J Max’s claim (questioning the value of the watch tower). Certainly a good point, but also a nonstarter for someone like J Max who is fully convinced of the value of the watch tower (and probably thinks that anyone who is not is already in a different class of “hostile” people)


    Another good point. Although, I definitely wonder what would be the best way to communicate back to the tower? We’ve recently heard “news” (I guess we’ll find out how accurate the news is when General Conference comes around) about women praying in church. We probably will never hear the ultimate reasons for this (although a lot of people are already saying it’s because of the online efforts of the past few months relating to a variety of different women’s issues)…but that raises the question…is that the way to communicate upward?


    I have read a very very very tiny bit into the differing roles of “priest” vs. “prophet” — where one has a more ministerial/clerical role and the other does not. I should probably read more into it, but certain, people have definitely taken time to think about the issues when the roles are combined.

  7. You are right. I was thinking the same thing last night after I wrote that. The institutional/local dichotomy definitely leans to the side of institution when there is conflict. A great example would be the Hiram Page seer stone incident in the early LDS church.

  8. Daniel permalink

    The “tower” and “ground” analogy makes no sense. It’s subject to any interpretation anyone wants to make of it. Analogies are not proof of anything. All they are is is a way to help others understand what you are trying to say.

  9. If the tower and ground analogy makes no sense, but analogies are supposed to help others understand what someone is trying to say, then it’s a terrible analogy indeed.

    Someone inform JMax. Quickly!

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