When a beloved general authority dies, as happened last month with Apostle L. Tom Perry, the internet is flooded with an outpouring of love and fond recollections. But what to expect when a general authority passes away who was not so beloved? What then?
That's when we get the kind of reactions we saw following the death of Boyd K. Packer last week. As I write this, there are a mere 43 comments following Packer's obituary at the Deseret News. From the ones I've read, they tend to follow a certain pattern. "I got to shake Elder Packer's hand once" or "he came and spoke to us when I was on my mission." Not much there in the way of fond anecdotes that would tell us anything about the deceased man's character.
In contrast, over at the Salt Lake Tribune, a paper whose readership tends to be less deferential to Church leaders than those at the Church-owned news organ, I found well over two thousand comments, most of them arguing over just how much harm Boyd Packer caused individuals within the church while he was in office. Social media was even less forgiving, as the news of Packer's passing was met with a flurry of giddy celebrations. Many duplicated each other by sending around a video clip from The Wizard of Oz where the happy munchkins are joyfully dancing and singing "Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead."
One of the more reserved comments I read on Facebook following the announcement of Packer's passing was this one:
Another commenter summed up the feelings of many with this simple assessment:"Apparently it's rude to speak ill of the dead; maybe because they're not around to defend themselves. If we speak lovingly of them even if they were awful and caused great harm, then are we contributing to the delusion that they were above reproach or that their ideas weren't harmful and wrongheaded? Now that Boyd K. Packer is gone I can say that I'm just mostly relieved....I sure hope for my kids and their kids that the archaic, barbaric, and cruel ideals of this man will go to the grave with him. If I can say anything nice about Boyd K. Packer it's that he gave his greatest gift to the world when he died."
"If he wanted to be remembered kindly after his death, he should have been kinder while he was alive."Not A Packer Fan
For my part, I'm not known to be overly fond of Boyd K. Packer. It has been my shared opinion he may have done as much harm to the church in the 1980s and 90s as any single anti-Mormon activist in that period. Certainly he had a greater facility for offending and driving liberal-minded members out of the church than he had for keeping them in. He famously condemned and alienated an entire class of Mormons -three categories of Mormons, actually- when he declared that the three greatest threats to the church were homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals."
 Boyd K. Packer, To the All-Church Coordinating Council. I actually agreed with Packer's assessment at the time. Today I don't see any of these people as a threat to the church I love. I now recognize that homosexuals are human beings; the term "feminist" is a loaded label often misconstrued to mean anything its detractors want it to mean; and as for intellectuals...well believe it or not, some people are calling me an intellectual these days, so I'm no longer as prejudiced against that label as I used to be.
Paul Toscano, a passionate member who twenty years ago was expelled from the church for criticizing its leaders, was asked by an interviewer if he felt anyone had left the church because of something he wrote. He replied, "I'll stack my body count up against Boyd K. Packer's any day."
Though a prominent leader in the church for some 45 years, Packer somehow never seemed to engender the kind of accolades often showered upon his peers, and at times that seemed to bother him. He was the type of person of whom people might say "you either love him or you hate him."
But he was also the type of person of whom other people said, "you either hate him or...you don't really hate him too much." Although most of the five million active members in the church probably held him in high regard, a significant number were either extremely passionate in their opinions against Boyd Packer, or they felt nothing for him. In the community of disaffected believers I was acquainted with, that was pretty much the length of the entire Packer Likeability Spectrum.
As for myself, I did not shed a tear at the news of Packer's passing. At one point I even joined in with the online criticism. Then later that day I read this comment from my friend Brian Bowler, which made me realize I was in need of an attitude adjustment:
"Boyd K Packer, in my feeling, began to change the last 7 years. He gave a talk in his ward in 2008 that was a change from what came before. Though some of his thoughts focused on the church, he spoke from the heart and I believe he was right about many things. I believe all of us, Including a Priest (Alma) can change. I will not be an accuser of a man. I believe President Packer was confused in many ways, but he also seemed to change at the last, and had moments when he did appear to see past the curtain.Brian's words brought to mind something I had once heard from Maxine Hanks. Maxine had been among the so-called "September Six," a half dozen believing members who had been questioned and cast out of the church, it was alleged by some, at the request of Boyd K. Packer. At least one or two cases were linked to Packer.
"I believe the Church today will waver more and more. Packer at least had a moral compass, even if it was off at times."
 The late Malcolm Jeppsen, a member of the Seventy and best friend of Boyd Packer since childhood, admitted in his unpublished memoirs to the role he played as agent for his friend Boyd Packer in engineering one of these disciplines, that of Avraham Gileadi. (Gileadi's expulsion was later ruled a mistake; he was reinstated, and all references to his excommunication expunged.)
According to Joseph Smith, it was a violation of Church law for any apostle to interfere with matters regarding members of a stake:
"The Twelve will have no right to go into Zion or any of its stakes and there undertake to regulate the affairs thereof where there is a standing High Council. But it is their duty to go abroad and regulate all matters relative to the different branches of the church." (quoted in William Shepard and H. Michael Marquardt, Lost Apostles: Forgotten Members of Mormonism's Original Quorum of the Twelve, pg 85-86)
Maxine Hanks tells how, many years after her excommunication, she encountered the aging Boyd Packer on temple square, sitting in a wheelchair looking frail and weak. She said hello to him, and he smiled at her with a welcoming gesture. Yet Packer did not recognize the woman whose life he had affected nearly twenty years earlier. "I found myself feeling nothing but compassion and love for a man who had once seemed like an enemy," Maxine later recalled.
I sense that is the way Christ would have me react. Last week upon hearing of the passing of Brother Packer, Maxine wrote this on her Facebook page:
"His death is still hard to grasp; it feels monumental. When I saw myself at odds with him in the 1990s, our views seemed mutually exclusive; yet I thought I understood him. Later, over the years, I read him more closely, understood him better, saw things we actually agreed on, things I'd never noticed before. Ultimately, I'm grateful for a grace that enabled me to find some healing with him before he died. Whatever we all have learned from our relationship with him, I pray that our experiences will help us focus on healing wounds, no matter how deep, and moving forward in the Church."There is an unexpected benefit to discovering common ground with someone we may have once thought of as our enemy, and I admire Maxine's grace in this instance. I have to admit that in spite of some of the major differences I've had with Boyd Packer over the years, I too have discovered positions of his, particularly in recent years, that I completely agree with. Last week I even quoted a statement by him in the appeal I submitted in response to my own excommunication. If you think it surprising that I would find something Boyd K. Packer said as a useful argument to bolster my own position...well, you're no more surprised than I am.
 I will be posting that twelve page appeal in its entirety on this blog once the recipients have had sufficient opportunity to review and decide upon it.
Forgive and Forget?
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things our Lord asks of us. It may be our privilege to fester in our anger and frustration over the iniquity of others, but it sure isn't healthy. It only serves to poison our souls. Thank goodness administering justice is above our pay grade. It is the Lord's to administer, not ours. So, no matter the harm we have received at the hands of another, we get to leave it in His hands to deal with. Jesus reminds us, "of you it is required to forgive all men."
Learning to forgive prevents us from remaining bitter about the actions of others that we can't control anyway. Forgiveness enables us to move on. But does forgiveness require us to ignore the harm someone has done us? Does it mean we condone the sins of another, particularly when those sins have detrimentally affected so many? Does it require us to act as though nothing ever happened?
I submit it does not.
My wife and I were close friends with another couple in our California ward. Some years ago the husband died. Fortunately for his widow, he left behind a sizable amount of life insurance, enough to support her and her young son for the rest of their lives.
This widow knew a trusted member of her stake who was a successful real estate developer, and he offered to help her invest that money. The money went into a local sure thing, a can't miss commercial development. Because of the man's status as an informed financial expert, and especially because he was also a respected member of the stake high council, our friend had complete confidence that her insurance money was safe with him, and trusted the man with nearly all of it. This was in 2007.
Well, you know what came next: 2008. The bottom completely fell out of the commercial real estate market, and our friend's money was gone. All of it. In spite of this, the widow continued to have every confidence that the man would find a way to repay her "because he's a good member of the church."
But the man couldn't possibly pay back her money. He didn't have it. He had lost his own money as well as hers because he had turned it all over to someone else, and that someone else lost it, too. The money was gone, plain and simple.
So here's the question: Is our friend required to forgive the man who lost her money? Of course she is. God requires it. And to her credit, she did forgive him.
But in so forgiving, is she required to pretend the loss never happened? Or to condone the damage done to her? No she is not.
Our friend suffered mightily because of that loss. She was thrown into poverty and forced to depend upon the government and church welfare systems just so she and her child could survive. So although she has forgiven the man and learned to move on, it doesn't change the harm he did to her life. How responsible to her future well-being and the well-being of her son would she be if she did not learn from the experience and resolve to be just a little bit more careful in the future? Shouldn't she do what she can to make certain such harm is never repeated, either to herself or to any other? Is there a lesson in there somewhere she could benefit from?
I'd say there is. And here it is: Just because a man is a member of the church with a high calling does not automatically mean he is incapable of making mistakes or doing harm. Even the most well-intentioned person may not always do right by you.
Repentance is a process that often requires we forgive ourselves as well as others. I have come to realize that sinning -falling short of the mark- is an essential part of what we were put on this earth to do, and most importantly to learn from. God is not surprised when we fall short; he fully expects it of us. He doesn't get angry or frustrated with us when it happens. (Unless we keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over that tend to bring harm to others. The scriptures show that does seem to irk him somewhat.)
I've found that when I have committed a mistake or a sin that I'm in need of repenting of, the Lord really has only one question for me: "Did you learn anything?"
If I can recognize the lesson and learn from it and apply what I learned, I'm usually able to move on and do better. If I can't -or won't- learn from the experience, I remain stuck in my sins.
How equally important is it then, when we are sinned against, as some trusting latter-day Saints undoubtedly were by the apostle Boyd K. Packer, to learn from his mistakes and ours, by resolving not to fall into the trap of trusting in the arm of flesh merely because the person attached to that arm holds high office and station in the Church, but to instead follow the light of Christ within ourselves? This protects us from gullibility and harm, but it also enables us to be healers instead of victims. Or enemies.
There are some faithful members reading this piece who may have never heard about any of the controversies surrounding Boyd K. Packer. All this will be news to them and they might wonder what great harm did Packer actually do? When I first set out to write this piece, I felt it important to list, document, and delineate the precise wrongs some church members suffered due to Boyd Packer's overbearing zealotry.
But I've changed my mind. I may lay it all out it in some future blog post, but not this week. Not today.
Boyd K. Packer has gone to his reward, whatever that reward is in God's Realm. But in our realm, we would do well to follow the tender example of Christ, who forgave those who sinned, and reminds us we are all sinners. Is it possible we can allow ourselves instead to feel compassion for Church leaders when they misjudge us or unjustly act against us? Could we use the truth of who we are in productive ways, rather than conflicted ways -to find common ground or solutions, rather than inflame mistrust?
This week, Brother Packer's family members are grieving his loss, while people they never knew about continue to grieve over the harm some of his words and actions once inflicted on them and their loved ones. There are plenty of reasons to grieve all around, so let's go ahead and grieve. And while we grieve, we might send sincere prayers to heaven on Brother Packer's behalf, recognizing that he was no more or less flawed than the rest of us are in our own ways. Maybe we can make a conscious effort to learn from the mistakes he made, by seeing the higher truth, about ourselves and him, rather than the lesser view we frequently buy into about each other.
The annual Sunstone Symposium takes place in Salt Lake City at the end of this month, and I will be one of the presenters there. I'll be speaking on Leaving the Church But Remaining a Mormon: The Rise of Uncorrelated Mormonism. Here's a description from the abstract:
Call them what you will: "Maverick Mormons," "Uncorrelated Mormons," "The Remnant," "Saints in the Wilderness," "Neo-Restorationists," or even "LDS Anarchists;" most Saints who find their spiritual nourishment outside the structure of the LDS Church have two common characteristics: 1.) A devotion to Christ and the principles of the Restoration, and 2.) A belief that contemporary Church leaders no longer receive revelation and are therefore spiritually irrelevant to the church. As their ranks swell, how might these unfaithful faithful affect the future of the church?I'll be attending all three days, and presenting on Saturday, August 1st at 3:45 in the afternoon. For those who are unable to attend the full conference, tickets to individual presentations are available for only $10.00 each. Directly following me in the same conference room will be a panel that includes Daymon Smith and Denver Snuffer, so I would encourage you buy a second ticket and stick around and help make these young newcomers feel welcome.
A hastily arranged panel of recently branded ex-Mormons will also be featured, among them myself, Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, Carson and Marisa Calderwood, and whoever else happens to get caught in the net between now and the end of July.
I will also be hanging around after the conference hoping for the chance meet some of my readers at the Linger picnic at the end of the conference on Saturday. Tickets for that are ten bucks as well. I hope readers of this blog will come up and introduce themselves to me.
All information for the symposium is available at Sunstone.org (a downloadable advance program is there also), or you can call 801-355-5926. I hope to see you there!