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Apostasy from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has become increasingly common in recent years. I wish to say a few words about how the apostasy of a close family member has impacted my life. Although this article will be about my specific experience, I will argue that those who apostatize from the Church often fail to make a distinction between the obligations they have to other members of the Church as members, and the obligations they have to them as human beings. The failure to recognize this distinction can open the door to a certain kind of religious abuse, whose resulting heartbreak can be almost unbearable at times.

I will argue, too, that the failure to recognize this distinction between Church members as members and Church members as human beings may be a reflection of the larger social and cultural landscape of our time, characterized by polarization and intolerance. These are the times into which we have been born, and as members of the Lord’s Church, we cannot escape the burden of the religious angst and agitations which are all around us. I will argue that we have a responsibility to navigate this polarization in a way that allows us to remain true to our commitment to Jesus Christ, no matter what others may be demanding of us in the name of “kindness,” “justice,” “inclusion,” or “love,”

The first thing I want to say is that it is extremely difficult for me to write about this experience. Indeed, I have wanted to write an article about the effects that the apostasy of an individual has upon other individuals for a long time, but it has been almost impossible for me to even think about this experience with a suitable amount of coherence, let alone write about it. Every previous attempt to write about this experience has ended in a flood of tears rather than an illuminating set of reflections. However, I do feel there is not enough written about the experience of watching a loved one go down the path of apostasy, and I also know that I am far from alone in having this experience. Thus, I hope that what I have to say here will be of some help to someone, somewhere, who has felt the pain of not only watching a loved one apostatize, but also the pain of being persecuted, tormented, and abused by them in the process. Perhaps the next thing to acknowledge is that, indeed, we do not talk much about those who apostatize from the Church. In using the term ‘apostatize’, I am very aware that there are different ways to leave the Church, and not all of them are necessarily apostasy. Some people just decide that the Church is not for them and quietly leave; other people might try to raise their voices for a while against some of the teachings of the Church, hoping that they can make change from within, but eventually decide that perhaps the Church cannot accommodate the changes for which they are agitating, and then quietly leave. But other people stay on until the bitter end, fighting Church leadership with everything they have in a very public way. They get as many people as possible to join them in their fight against Church leadership, ignoring or even pushing back against every plea to change course — until they are eventually called into a Church court for excommunication.

I do not pretend that this is an exhaustive list of all the ways a person can leave the Church, or that by giving a few examples of categories, I have given an adequate definition of apostasy. Also, for purposes of time, space, and my mental health, I will not give a survey here of recent excommunications or highly publicized Church courts. All I want to say at this point is that I do not believe that everyone who leaves the Church is an “apostate.” But for the purposes of this article, I will assume that the third category listed above is a fairly good representation of at least one sense of what we mean when we use the term “apostasy,” and that this, indeed, was the situation of my beloved family member, who — after several years of fighting tool and nail against the prophet and apostles — was finally excommunicated in July 2021.

Back to the assertion posed above: We do not talk very much about those who apostatize from the Church. Even this assertion causes me a certain amount of pain to articulate, because it brings to mind all the discussions over the years that I tried to have with people about what was happening with my beloved family member, but often could not actually have. For good or for ill, we have a Church culture of not saying “certain things.” Sometimes when I would try to talk about what this family was saying or doing, one impression I got from others was that this didn’t really matter because this was the Lord’s Church and nothing would prevail against it — so why was I worried about what this family member was doing? Another impression I got was that I shouldn’t be saying these negative things about my family member, because that signaled that I was being judgmental, and if there is one thing that members of the Church of Jesus Christ cannot resist doing, it is criticizing other members of the Church of Jesus Christ for failing in their sainthood. A third impression I got was that everyone has their agency, and although this family member clearly was choosing to use his agency to tear down the Church, and it really had nothing to do with me.

So, I was left mostly on my own to deal with what ended up being a situation of religious persecution and abuse.

What was once a wonderful, fulfilling, and cherished relationship deteriorated into something broken beyond repair. Our personal interactions went from nearly 20 years of edifying spiritual conversations, stimulating political and cultural discussion, and hilarity over everything from the sublime to the mundane, to — almost overnight — downright emotional and spiritual assault every time we came face to face. I cannot recount here exactly how we started down this path, but essentially — around 2014 — this family member decided that he was going to “reform the Church.” He decided that the prophet and apostles were hypocrites, and that therefore, they were not “true” Christians. As a result, Church leadership became his target … and anyone in the Church who dared to support them.

I should note here that this family member is, by nature, extremely verbal and loves a good argument. Previously, whatever arguments we had were good-natured and usually even fun. But once he decided on his crusade against Church leadership, every interaction we had was dominated by aiming a stockpile of hostile argumentative weaponry at me. I wasn’t “afraid” of his arguments against the Church; I didn’t find them in the least bit convincing. But whenever I interacted with him, the arguments made against the Church were also made against me, personally, as a member of the Church. Thus, there was no longer any kind of barrier, any kind of buffer, between the relationship he and I had as family members and his relationship with the Church. Once he decided to untether himself from whatever personal commitment he may have had to me as a family member, he became — in his interactions with me — so adamant in his views, so unyielding and uncompromising in his criticisms of the Church, so convinced of his own intellectual and moral superiority to other Church members, and so harsh in his rhetoric, that he simply left no room for respectful disagreement. It was all or nothing — you could not support Church leaders and honor your covenants and also be in a loving, respectful relationship with him characterized by equality and reciprocity. And he could not see any problem with forcing me to make this choice. He saw himself as an “activist,” and was convinced that the only way to “make change” in the Church was to push and push and push his own views on everyone else.

All of this said, I still have not articulated the heart of the matter, which is perhaps something like this: How do you have a close and loving relationship with someone for almost 20 years, and then suddenly start accusing them of having no knowledge of Christ, and of being seriously hypocritical, seriously immoral, and even of being seriously wicked? And repeat these claims over and over again — at every family event, every holiday, every social gathering, in every email that you send and indeed in every interaction that you have, each time adding more hyperbolic accusations? This, I think, was one aspect of the abusive part. There was simply no grace left in the relationship, and no way this family member could see any good in me anymore. How do you stop seeing the good in someone you truly love?

And yet, it may have been even more than this. The problem, according to this family member, went something like this: If you support what he saw as these bastardized Church leaders, then you are the hypocrite and you are not the Christian. The only way to be a true Christian is to turn against Church leaders and the Church members who support them and “fight” against them. He argued all this while refusing to take his own name off the records of the Church. I simply did not see how one could keep their covenants by following this course of action. (If by keeping our covenants we mean something like actually believing in Jesus Christ, and letting that belief guide our notions of love, forgiveness, repentance, keeping the commandments, living in tolerance with others, following the Holy Spirit, and so forth.) I was left to conclude that in his view I had to break my covenants with Christ in order to follow Christ — that is, in order to be a Christian.

This, of course, is not a convincing argument. However, it is incredibly manipulative and abusive, particularly when made to a loving family member. His arguments were founded on contradictions, which not only made them illogical, but immoral. Again, it was more than this — the arguments were immoral because they were illogical, because they were contradictory. For me to fulfill his adamant insistence that I accept his arguments, I would have had to deny every other good thing that I had in my life. Indeed, over these past eight years, the thing that has broken my heart and darkened my mind the most has been that I felt I was being forced by this family member to deny the truths that I have learned through my experiences in the gospel. And that, I would argue, is a form of religious abuse: when people are forced to deny the truths and the goods that the gospel of Jesus Christ brings into their lives.

Because of this situation, I wept for days, months, and years on end. My heart was broken and the wound kept hurting. Something of fundamental importance was breaking down between me and someone I loved very much, and for some reason, there was nothing I could do to stop it. On reflection, I think this was because I knew deep down that the only way he would accept any attempt at reconciliation would have been for me to deny things that I knew were true — things etched upon my heart that defined who I was. And I couldn’t do that.

At the same time this was going on, there was also a broader social breakdown happening, driven by the political polarization which was especially acute due to events such as Brexit and the Trump presidency, among other things. I have no intention of discussing political issues here, but what I will say was that I noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult for many people to maintain friendships and family relationships due to differences of opinion on political and social issues. Demonization of the “other side” — no matter who was on the other side — became typical, and even routine. Political dialogue broke down and “activism” took its place. It was as if the intense dysfunction of the microcosm of my life — the intense denial of the importance of relationships — was reflected in the macrocosm of the world. I was losing so many good things — both personally and politically.

So, what did God want me to learn? Indeed, what does God what us to learn, as children of the covenant, tasked with living in a world where activism in the name of some goal has become more important than any relationship we might have?

I won’t say that God made it easy for me to go through this experience with my beloved family member. But He did give me very clear signs — indications that He knew exactly what was going on — and He sent people on both sides of the veil to comfort me at crucial moments of profound sadness. Indeed, because of this experience I witnessed the powers of Heaven in ways I had not previously known, and I can only express my profound gratitude to my Heavenly Father and my Savior, who I know were by my side every step of the way. Having said all that, this was definitely a journey, and I received the knowledge that I needed to get through it in stages — little by little.

Indeed, the understanding that I was in an abusive situation with this family member came to me slowly over a period of years through prayer, reflection, and a lot of weeping Like much spiritual knowledge, I cannot articulate all of it, or precisely how it came to me. One particular moment, however, stands out in my memory. One Sunday afternoon I was laying on my bed, pondering and weeping (did I mention the weeping?) over this situation. As I wallowed in my despair, I felt a received a distinct spiritual impression that I had been raised well, in a family where I had been dearly loved. Because of this, I had the necessary emotional and spiritual tools to recognize that the treatment I was experiencing from this person was not love. And I also had the necessary emotional and spiritual resilience to somehow get through this. Actually, it was more than this: it was my responsibility as a child of the covenant to get through this.

As so often happens with spiritual impressions, one revelation can result in many other realizations. Once I was able to articulate to myself that first, this family member’s religious agitations were not a sign of love for me; and that second, no matter how much he tried to gaslight me, I did have a good sense of what love was, I realized that it was not acceptable for me to be treated in this way for my religious beliefs. I then felt more confident in exploring what was unacceptable about this treatment and eventually came to the realization that I was in an abusive situation with this apostate family member.

Now, articulating to myself that I was being abused by this family member was rather groundbreaking for me. And as one would expect, no one really wanted to hear me to say this. The key realization, though, was this: In understanding that I was being abused for my religious beliefs, I also came to understand that I had a moral right not to be abused for my religious beliefs. And although this understanding did not take away the pain of the experience, it did give me clarity of thought and the courage to stand up for myself and the truths of the gospel that were written on my heart.

But why, might you ask, was there so much difficulty in this? Indeed, as my husband pointed out to me when I read him this article, it is absolutely obvious that I have the moral right not to be abused. Does the Lord need to tell us the obvious? Sometimes, perhaps. But I think this points to a deeper conflict which is sometimes hard to articulate. In an effort to be inclusive, kind, and loving, perhaps at times we feel unsure about how to stand up for our strong belief in Jesus Christ. We feel an impulse to be open-minded and conciliatory, and often end up falling silent in the face of false and tremendously unjust accusations. And this is often compounded by the influence of others. In my case, standing up for my strong belief in Jesus Christ was often done against the wishes of those who wanted me to shut up and submit to the abuse in the name of “honoring questions,” “being thoughtful,” “being kind,” “being non-judgmental,” and ‘free speech.’

Still, I knew I was on to something. Understanding that I had a moral right not to be abused for my religious beliefs also led me to make an extensive study of what this might mean, philosophically speaking. If there is such a thing as a moral right not to be abused, this implies some sort of deeper notion of the human person — namely, that human persons are the kind of thing that should not be abused. This line of thinking might lead us to the idea that human beings have an intrinsic worth and dignity, and thus, there are limits to what we can do to each other, even when we see ourselves as acting in the name of some kind of all-important progressive crusade.

This is an understanding that my apostate family member had lost. When he declared war on the Church, he saw himself as entering into a Hobbesian state of nature where he had no moral obligations to anyone who dared to disagree with him. But the truth is, as rational human beings, we do not lose our obligation to be moral, ever. As rational beings we are moral beings, and so rational human existence is a moral existence. Even if someone wants to leave the Church of Jesus Christ and so leave their gospel covenants, there are still moral truths that bind them as human beings. And I submit here that the moral right not to be abused is one of those binding truths.

We live in perilous times. It is a time of not only increasing disagreement, but also increasing intolerance toward disagreement. Along with this intolerance comes an increasing willingness to accept that a seemingly worthy end goal justifies whatever means we employ to achieve it. Eventually, this willingness will lead to the view that if it is necessary to abuse and persecute certain people in order to achieve a goal, then so be it — even if those people happen to be our fellow Church members or beloved family members.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, when we encounter this view, we need to understand that this is wrong. It is wrong firstly because, of course, we should never employ the methods of abuse or persecution in situations of disagreement. But it is also wrong because these attitudes of abuse and persecution explicitly deny the intrinsic worth of human beings, and as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we count among those human beings who have an intrinsic worth. We do not have to assent to some contradictory notion that in order to be loving, inclusive and so forth, we must submit to being abused for our belief in Christ. Or, that in order to install the paramount virtue of kindness, we must jettison our belief in Christ altogether. Tragically, that is the conclusion at which many apostate arguments eventually arrive. But the contradiction cannot hold because when we cease to believe in God, or cease to see the image of God in every human being, we have lost the very thing that allows us to understand how to love in the first place. And so, we must stand up for our belief in Christ and for who we are because of this belief, in answer to those apostates who would abuse us. Frankly, everything depends on this.

I would love to say that due to these spiritual experiences, my relationship with this beloved family member has miraculously recovered. Sadly, that is not the case. At present, I have no direct contact with this family member. Although he will always be beloved to me, the experiences of the religious abuse were relentless and protracted. Frankly, the only way I could get them to stop was by cutting off contact.

I am saddened by this, of course, but I no longer weep. Spiritually, I now understand that I am not required to sacrifice my deepest religious convictions in order to be in a loving relationship, for this is an unjust demand — and nor is it love. While I wish things were different, I also know this state of affairs is not a failure on my part, for I am not required to put myself in harm’s way.

I still believe in eternal families and that the next life is full of healing and happiness in a way that we cannot understand now. I keep a space open in my heart for this beloved family member and look forward to better days ahead. Given all that has happened, I cannot imagine how these better days will come about. However, I know that all things work together for those who love the Lord.



Full Citation for this Article: Hamilton-Bleakley, Holly (2022) "Apostasy and Abuse," SquareTwo, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Fall 2022), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleBleakleyApostasyAbuse.html, accessed <give access date>.

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