Often lessons stress the importance of avoiding even the appearance of evil. While I won’t disagree with the importance of this, I do wonder if the way people interpret the application of this idea isn’t somewhat removed from some of the intents of this admonition?
Many people bring up the point that the worst thing we can do for non-members around us is to set a bad example by not living up to our beliefs. After some recent comments from my non-LDS friends, I started to think more about what non-members really understand about our beliefs and subsequent examples.
Most of my friends have been non-members. This is still true. To be honest, I think we fool ourselves when we think that non-members understand many of the rules we follow. Most don’t even know what they are. Of course things like drinking, smoking, swearing, etc, are easy monikers to identify. However, I wonder if they really know why we are following these laws. I think most people interpret these rules as just weird things that mormons choose not to do. Of course we like to think that there are grand reasons why we follow these rules. We also like to think that people outside of the church are so inspired by our examples on these points that they eventually come to recognize their fundamental importance. While lots of people have come to investigate the church because of this, personally, I think this reasoning comes off a bit too egotistical.
I think a lot of the behaviours that make us unique get filed away under “one of those crazy things mormons do”. Due to our social nature, people have a need to be able to understand why the people around them act the way they do. For instance, as a social creature I need to be aware of signs for “don’t touch that or I will hurt you”. One of the most frustrating things for people is not being able to understand the rules by which other people are playing. I strongly suspect this is one of the reasons why play is so important for children. When non-members look at some of the different things we do, I think they interpret our actions based on some arbitrarily strange requirements of our religion. I think it takes a long time and some rather profound experiences for others to see that many of the things we do have a rational rather than dogmatic basis. Something is required that lets people shift they way they interpret our example. They have to grasp that there is a world view in which these examples make sense as something more than dogma.
In this light, example has an effect only if people are able to grasp our frame of reference. To me, this shoots down the standard motivator of “don’t do anything that could be considered a sin, because it may cause others to do wrong”. This is a non-sequitr. Unless people have significant interaction with us, there is no possible way they can understand the context behind non-stereotypical actions. Our actions will always get interpreted according to what others seem as plausible. For some this means no-drinking is really just a way for us not to be too jovial. For others, no activity on Sunday may be interpreted as making sure you are somber one day of the week. etc. In my experience, many of the things non-members see lds people refraining from relate to social interaction. They often see us as rather strange because many of the things we avoid, significantly affect the way we socialize. This is ironic because often the more we try to set a good example, the more we can alienate those around us.
So what is the answer for how to set a good example? I wonder if the best example we can set involves making it easy for others to see the world view by which we live. In other words, the best example may not be one that avoids even the appearance of evil, but one that fosters understanding. Well so long as we actually have a good reason for living some of the relatively strange ways we do.