Elder Wirthlin’s talk in General Conference hit me hard for multiple reasons, but one is not obvious to those who don’t know my family well.
My family is Wonder Bread in the bakery section of life. My wife, our six children and I are not just white; we have been called transparent. However, our family housed a black “son” for two years and a black family for four months. For almost three years, we were a mixed-race family in practical terms. Our black son is a baptized member of the Church (through the influence of his grandmother), but he is completely inactive (through the influence of his upbringing and culture prior to and during his time with his grandmother). Another factor in his inactivity is that he simply doesn’t “fit in” at Church.
Bruce R. McConkie speculated more than any other apostle about the racial issues of his day. After the revelation lifting the priesthood ban in 1978, (emphasis added) he said:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don ?t matter any more.
(“All Are Alike unto God” – BYU devotional – August 18, 1978)
I interpret this to mean that without direct revelation on the subject, individual leaders relied on what they had been taught throughout their upbringing in the general Christian world of America, Canada and Europe subconsciously using the deeply entrenched racism of their time to form “reasons” for keeping Black members from “full fellowship” with the saints. This was not originally from holding the Priesthood (since Joesph Smith had ordained Black men to the Priesthood), but I believe it was from entering into mixed-race marriages in the temple. It is instructive to note that the hardcore opposition to Black men holding the Priesthood appears to have solidified with Brigham Young only when the ultimate taboo of 19th Century racial philosophy (mixed-race marriage) was threatened. Elder McConkie said we need to “forget about them” the reasons that had been constructed to justify the ban.
I write about this now, because a few months ago I heard skin color called a curse referring to Australian aborigines. Also, since I began blogging regularly on other Mormon-focused blogs, I have read some members’ comments explaining the former ban using many of the same justifications Elder McConkie repudiated in his statement. My heart sank each time. Using the Book of Mormon issue of skin color, I would like to address the continuing issue of racism in our day.
In the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were called a “loathsome” people by the Nephites. The word loathsome ? is a culturally defined word. It means disgusting; revolting; repulsive. ? Therefore, loathsomeness ? is defined by the person or people calling someone else loathsome. That is critical to understanding racism. Based on everything I read in all of our scriptures, God does not view anyone as loathsome based on skin color. People ?s philosophies, creeds and actions can be labeled as loathsome to God, but not the people themselves. He might say, “That is loathsome,” but He would not say, “This entire people are loathsome” particularly when “this entire people” once included many good and righteous people who were baptized even though they could not enjoy the full blessings of the Gospel, as was the case prior to 1978. Their dedication and humility puts me to shame, and I can’t fathom God calling them loathsome. If they were worthy to be baptized, they simply could not be loathsome.
This leads me to look at the Nephites in the exact same way that I look at the early saints good people who needed a way to teach their children why they couldn’t mingle fully with those who were “different.” In the Book of Mormon, there were Nephites and Lamanites. They hated each other; their “nations” were political enemies; they also were family.
How do you distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys within the same family? How does a father justify the division to his children? If one group dressed more conservatively and stayed relatively light-skinned, and the other grew darker as they shed the clothing of “civilization,” skin pigmentation (“color”) could divide then relatively quickly.
(We also know nothing about Sariah’s lineage or if Lehi was married previously. Given Lehi’s fluency with Egyptian and his apparent ability to travel at a moment’s notice with his entire family, he easily could have been a traveling merchant (as Hugh Nibley believed) who married an Egyptian woman in his travels. We have no clue whatsoever, but it is easy to believe that there might have been real pigmentation differences within Lehi’s family prior to leaving Jerusalem. What sounds far-fetched initially might be quite simple when we see the big picture.)
I picture the following fictional conversation:
Father: Son, stay away from those wicked Lamanites.
Son: Why, Daddy?
Father: They don ?t believe in God.
Son: How do I know that and how do I tell who is whom?
Father (with disgust and revulsion): Just look at them. They are loathsome. The Lord cursed them with a darker skin than us.
Son: OK, Daddy.
I am a former history teacher. This same basic conversation has occurred throughout history I believe among perhaps all people. I heard it that clearly from devout, white Protestants when I was a teacher in Alabama less than 20 years ago. Why do we have to believe it is the way God sees us?
All of us, including our prophets, are human and subject to mortal limitations. We are not infallible. God won ?t force us to accept things we just can’t accept. He has wept over the mistakes of His children for thousands of years. Racism is a part of our heritage (the “incorrect traditions of our fathers”) as humans, as Americans and as Mormons. My plea is that we truly accept Elder McConkie’s assertion that everything that was said in the past to justify racist attitudes and practices was wrong stated in ignorance and a lack of full understanding. President Hinckley has condemned racism in the strongest terms possible, even saying that a man who holds to racist attitudes cannot exercise fully the power of the Priesthood he holds. In very real terms, someone who is racist in this day and age when prophets have condemned and continue to condemn it in the strongest terms possible cannot become fully righteous and Christ-like.
The most powerful visual experience I have had in my entire life was in the Atlanta temple years ago. Without getting explicit, when you see the hand of God extended to you – and it is black . . .
I will never forget that image, and I wish with all my heart every member of the Church could have that same experience. That’s good enough for me, and I pray that some day my black son will “fit in” among our congregation in every way including racially. If, one day, it is his hand reaching out to a fellow saint, I will die knowing all our efforts were not in vain.