I write this as I read and think more about the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. It seemed like the tide of evidence that racism is alive and well -- and deadly -- in America had to reach this point in order for white people to start paying attention. Was it enough to see a twelve year-old boy holding a play gun shot dead? No. Was it enough to see an unarmed black man choked to death on video by a white police officer? No. Was it enough to see an unarmed black man shot in the back by a white police officer? No. Maybe it will finally be enough to see the bodies of our black brothers and sisters taken out of a church where they were gathering to do the very "suspicious" and "dangerous" black activity of reading scriptures together and honoring Christ.
Is it enough, white America? Is it enough to make us look at ourselves and wonder -- am I part of this problem? Am I doing anything to change racism? Will my children be part of a new problem or part of a solution? Will my vote demand the politicians focus efforts on the problems of continuing racism in America today? Am I happy enough to have my white privilege and scared of what might happen if I lose it? Am I speaking loudly enough about race equality that I become a target of shooters, too? Because to me, it seems that these are the choices. Yes, they are stark. They are, dare I say, very black and white.
There is a particularly Mormon bent to this problem of racism. Mormons didn't create racism, no. We were persecuted and left the United States before the Civil War erupted. Some Mormons think that Joseph Smith was anti-slavery. There's not really enough evidence one way or the other for my tastes. But Brigham Young, when faced with the choice of pacifying white slavers who entered the Deseret territory, reassured them that black slaves would not be proselytized or baptized. And then he went further, making sure that any blacks who were currently members of the church were excluded from temple ceremonies. And what has been called the "black priesthood ban," though it was far more than that, continued until 1978.
There were plenty of justifications for what in retrospect can really not be called any other name than "racism." Some Mormons claimed that black people were cursed by God (not by us--oh, no, we mortals had nothing to do with it) and so they had to live with the consequences of their heritage. This from a religion that was so loud in saying in our second Article of faith that "men are punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression." And yet, we shrugged our shoulders collectively and said that it wasn't our fault that blacks couldn't hold the priesthood. They were cursed by God through a long-dead ancestor.
Other Mormons claimed that black people had been "less valiant" in the pre-mortal life in the war between Satan and Christ about the free will of man and the "Plan of Salvation." Without any particular revelation, white Mormons congratulated themselves on the evidence of being born white, that they had been on Christ's side, the right side, and that they hadn't stood silent. Interesting, since as an overwhelmingly white church, we stood silent through the effects of racism in the 60s. Do we congratulate ourselves on standing silent while that war raged on?
Recently, Mormons commemorated the 37th year of the end of the ban on priesthood to blacks within the Mormon church in 1978. I was relieved when the church officially released this essay several years ago, admitting that the ban was never based on a revelation from God, that it was only church policy. And yet I still hear a lot of (white) Mormons justifying the policy by saying that white America wasn't "ready" for blacks to have the priesthood and that's why the policy remained in place by God's chosen prophets, seers, and revelators. I don't hear Mormons admitting that Brigham Young was a racist or that anyone in the long history of presidents who upheld the ban was racist (including this long list of quotes by Mormon prophets). Nor do (white) Mormons admit that there may be anything remaining that smacks of racism within the Mormon church.
But it is deeply troubling for me to read passages in The Book of Mormon and wonder how the term "white" is meant to be understood if it is not about skin color. In 1981, a certain passage in The Book of Mormon was changed back to the original 1840 version, where "pure and delightsome" was used instead of "white and delightsome" to describe righteous people. But this begs the question: why are we using "white" and "pure" as synonyms? Why do we have a scriptural book that is all about skin color? And if it isn't about skin color, what is it about? If white is a symbol for righteousness, why do we choose that word when it is fraught with overtones of white supremacy? Yes, this was a book written in a different age, but it was an age of slavery, and just as white supremacist.
The Book of Mormon purports to be a true history of a group of Israelites who left Jerusalem in about 600 A.D. and were guided by God to the new world, where they lived in groups until the time that Christ visited them shortly after his death, and then their civilization was destroyed by wickedness and wars. In this new scripture, the young prophet Nephi sees the future, including Christ's birth and the virgin Mary, who is described as being "exceedingly fair and white" (1 Nephi 11:13). Does this mean that she was literally white? Was her skin different from the color of those around her? Does it refer to something else? I don't know, but I worry that such language others our black members and makes them wonder if they truly belong in our church.
But there is more--and worse. When Nephi's brothers rebel against him and their visionary father, Nephi describes the skin of these descendants as turning black. There are frequent references to a promise that if the Lamanites become righteous, their skin will be "white" (Jacob 3:8) and this apparently happens when Christ appears in America and it is the now white-skinned Lamanites who see him. If this is all metaphorical, as I would like to claim, then why does it sound so racist? Yet few Mormons would claim that they believe today that someone's skin actually changes color upon conversion to the church. I wish sometimes that what I believed was that what would happen was that if people were righteous, they stopped talking about skin color as a way of determining the worth of a person's soul--or their righteousness. Is this anything other than racism talking?
Furthermore, what do Mormons do about the idea that God and Christ, His son, are also not just metaphorically white? Christ in the Book of Mormon is described as white in countenance and clothing (3 Ne 19:25). Even in Joseph's Smith vision of Christ and God the Father, he describes them as having a "brightness and glory defy all description". Not the word white, but the impression of it. And if you look at official images of the First Vision offered by the Mormon church, the whiteness of these two members of the trinity is very apparent.
What does it mean for black Mormons to only see a white version of God? In Mormon temple films, all of the characters -- not just God and Christ -- are white, as well. Do black Mormons feel that they are still being included in the message? Do they feel they are meant to be part of the saving ordinances there? If so, how much do they have to stretch? And why should they?
Recently, the new Payson Temple in Utah had an open house and revealed an image of the black Mormon pioneer Jane Elizabeth Manning James in a place where she had been denied entrance for so many years, despite her loyalty to and devotion to the church and its leaders. Why do not we not have more images of people of color in our temples and churches? Is it important for the Mormon images of God to be so very white/caucasian? There are traditions in many branches of Christianity for God to be depicted as having the same physical features as the community in which He is worshipped. It seems to me this is important because we need to see the divine in ourselves, particular as Mormons who believe in eternal progression.
Or does any of this matter? I think it does, particularly in the framework of Mormon doctrine about God. Unlike many Christian religions that believe that God is a "spirit," Mormons are very clear in their belief that God has a resurrected body of flesh and bones, that he was once mortal as we are, and that we are potentially on the same path that He trod. If God literally created man in His own image (and woman, according to the Pearl of Great Price where "the gods" do the work of creation, presumably including Heavenly Mother), what does it mean if that God is a white man? I honestly don't know, but I think it is troubling. Yes, I'm sure that it will all work out in the end. I'm sure that God will take care of it. But how does it change living on the world today if we Mormons believe that God is a white man, that we white Mormons believe he is white like us and not like black Mormons? Does it truly not matter at all?
I think we could certainly do a better job at this and that's without changing a single word of The Book of Mormon, though perhaps if a prophet went to God to ask about specific changes, we might have some revelation on the issue. I'm in favor of that happening sooner rather than later, considering the current state of American race relations. But I am not the prophet, of course.
Perhaps the reality is that blacks in American Mormonism are such a tiny fraction of our population, that we don't spend a lot of time trying to see the world as they do. About three percent of Mormons in America are black. Few Mormon General Authorities are black, which makes me further wonder how it feels to see a black man who has been identified as righteous by God standing and preaching to the worldwide Mormon church. I cheered the last time it happened, but it has historically not been often, and obviously never before 1978.
Interestingly, I've always identified as white, though as I was growing up, I was told that I had an ancestor on my father's side who was "Native American," specifically Cherokee. Recently, it has come out as we have done more genealogy that a big missing link in my father's ancestry was a black ancestor who left home and family to "pass" as white. This is a small part of my racial genetics, but if it had been known in earlier years, I wonder how it would have affected my family's relationship to the Mormon church?
Mormonism has great promise as a religion. It has spread to many countries and as we undergo global change, talking differently about race and being more sensitive to depictions of the divine as belonging to one racial identity are things that I believe will have to change. We must mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and for today, for me, that means talking about race while knowing that this will make many (white) Mormons angry with me. We don't like to dig up dirt as a culture, but this is dirt that is making us all less than we should be.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more