When it comes to my efforts — my decidedly “off and on” efforts — to live a morally upright life, my goal is not purity. Said another way, I no longer “try to be good.” When my target is purity, the best outcome I get is some combination of insufferable pride and anxiety. “White knuckle righteousness” is not, in the end, all that righteous.
My goal is not purity. In fact, I don’t so much have a goal as I have a hope. My hope is not purity, it’s to be purified. The word for this in my religious tradition is “sanctification.” I hope to be sanctified. Sanctification requires my participation, yes, but it is a work that involves more than my mere efforts. That’s a good thing, because my efforts have real human limits, and are therefore doomed to failure. Human beings cannot will their own goodness. In the end, sanctification is a grace. A gift. It’s something that happens to us.
I think of these things as I think about Brandon Davies, he being a 19-year-old basketball player recently suspended from the NCAA men’s basketball team at Brigham Young University. Davies allegedly violated the university’s honor code, which includes the students’ promise not to engage in sexual relations outside of marriage. Davies had consensual sex with his girlfriend. You can read the code for yourself:
“Students must abstain from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal substances and from the intentional misuse or abuse of any substance. Sexual misconduct; obscene or indecent conduct or expressions; disorderly or disruptive conduct; participation in gambling activities; involvement with pornographic, erotic, indecent, or offensive material; and any other conduct or action inconsistent with the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Honor Code is not permitted.”
Let me be clear: This column is not about Mormons. What I’m observing is common to all tribes. Tribes have codes of purity. Universally do tribes surround significant human experiences — birth, death, sex, marriage, rites of passage, spirituality, grief, etc. — with laws, codes, symbols, rituals and taboos.
What I’m pondering is the way a code of purity is used within the tribe. Sometimes codes are used to edify, protect and provide. Other times to punish and ostracize. I’m saying that, like all things human, codes of purity have a light side and a dark side.
I’m all over the map about Davies’ suspension. On the one hand, he said “yes” to the Honor Code at BYU. And he violated it. All righty, then. He’s suspended from the basketball team and might well be suspended from the university when the deliberations are complete.
On the other hand, a voice in my head won’t stop reminding me that the church is the only army that routinely shoots its own wounded.
If your code of purity serves to raise the bar of human expectation, to teach and edify, to sanctify, to provide for and protect individuals and the life of the tribe, then I would say your code is a good thing. However, if the code serves chiefly to identify and drive sinners from your midst so you can feel good about yourself, then I would say you have gone and joined the enemy. You’re on the wrong team.
The work of healthy religion is to 1) provide a sanctuary of safety within which pilgrims can tell the truth, including and especially the truth of their own limits (aka sins), and 2) to surround said pilgrims with a path of redemption. Which is why the BYU basketball coach is my hero. When BYU clinched a share of the Mountain West title, Davies, in street clothes, was allowed to join the team on the court and even clip a piece of the net from the rim in celebration.
I participate in a Christian-based men’s retreat called New Adam. Dave, one of the leaders, always gives his talk titled “Training Your Penis.” Laugh if you want, but Dave’s not joking. Men need to “own” their penis, as opposed to being “owned” by it. This is a crucial part of masculine development into manhood. And when a man is led astray by rogue body parts, he doesn’t need to be driven from our midst. Rather, he needs to be pulled even tighter into the community.
I’m not disappointed in Brandon Davies. I don’t possess a shred of judgment for or about him. Brandon Davies is me.
I would say to him only what someone once said to me: “Where are those who would condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal. com.