Commentary: Undoing the culture of Mormon judgmentalism — Or, I am not a ‘tare’

| Courtesy Jana Riess Jana Riess, Mormon writer and editor.

It came up in church a few weeks ago — that dreaded “wheat and tares” analogy. I’ve been hearing it a fair amount lately.

“It’s the wheat and the tares,” the righteous will sigh, sadly shaking their heads.

Sometimes they are talking about the unfortunate way Tares aren’t getting on board with something top-ranking church leaders have emphasized. Maybe the Tares aren’t doubling down on using the full name of the institution, or they disagree with the church’s teachings on sexuality and gender roles.

Or sometimes the righteous are lamenting the loss of more of our young people, who are leaving the fold at a higher rate than their parents and grandparents did.

Whatever the tares’ particular failings in the eyes of the wheaties, one refrain feels constant:

Those people are expendable.

Those people are weeds.

The church will be better off without those people.

I wonder how many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who fall back on wheat-and-tares thinking remember much about the tares in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13.

Three things stand out to me.

First, the tares, or weeds, are sown by an “enemy” after the good sower (presumably — spoiler alert — God) has already planted the wheat in the fields. So right from the beginning, the tares are quisling plants, traitors so embedded with the wheat that they are indistinguishable from it until the day of harvest.

Second, when the harvest comes, the tares are destroyed without a second thought. Burned to a crisp while the wheat is safely gathered into the barn.

Third, it’s the Master who decides when that happens, and no one else. Some “helpful” individuals earlier in the story volunteer to go out into the fields right after the Great Tare Infiltration and uproot the unwanted elements, but the Master instructs them to cool their jets. Only time will tell which plants are really weeds; some may be wheat yet.

Latter-day Saints who fall back on the “wheat and tares” analogy seem to me to do so reflexively, trying to find a theological narrative that will comfort and reassure them. That’s a natural human reaction to stress or change. I don’t fault them for it, but I would ask them to think twice about how they throw that language around.

They think we are already living at the end of the story, so that it’s safe to sort other people into camps: wheat and tares, sheep and goats, saved and damned.

I don’t think we’re anywhere close to the end of the story. What’s more, the story itself is pretty darn clear that even if we were, it’s the Master’s job to do the sorting, not ours.

To that point, it might be better if members adopted modern language for this parable, like the NRSV uses. In that translation, it’s “the wheat and the weeds,” which I like because the terminology itself keeps us guessing right up until the final consonants. We don’t know, upon hearing the “weee” opening sound of either word, whether we’re going to land on wheat or weed.

It could go either way. Which is as it should be.

I’ve been encouraged that, even as I hear the “wheat and tares” analogy coming up in unsettling ways among Latter-day Saints, the church’s own official messaging has lately been emphasizing the importance of not judging.

Check out this new video from the Mormon Channel about what happened to one family when the father lost his testimony of the gospel.

And then there’s the decreasing stigma faced by “early return missionaries,” as discussed in the Deseret News article “Called to serve, not called to suffer.” The article interviews a number of missionaries who, mostly for reasons of mental health, terminated their service before they originally intended.

The story includes a helpful infographic about the kinds of things ward members could say (“Welcome home,” “I’m here if you want to talk about it”) — and another one about the remarks that are not going to help (“What did you do?” and “When are you going back out” to the mission field?).

(To read a Salt Lake Tribune story on early return missionaries, click here.)

The official messaging’s changes in emphasis give me hope. How members talk to — or about — people whose spiritual journey has taken them in another direction isn’t just an academic question. It has real-world consequences. I’m mindful of the fact that in the Next Mormons Survey, “I felt judged or misunderstood” tied for first place among millennials’ reasons for leaving the LDS Church.

So let’s leave the judging to the Master. We may yet be surprised just who turns out to be wheat.

The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.