This is not one of my normal posts, which are usually pretty detached and scholarly. Rather, I’m going to share a personal experience about bringing in academic history to the ward setting. Sunday before last I gave a talk in sacrament meeting, with the assigned topic being scriptures and their value in my life. Initially, the second counselor in my bishopric asked me to address the FLDS situation and continuing revelation, a topic that I was initially excited about but with further reflection I realized that it would be altogether too difficult to do justice in a 10 minute presentation that is supposed to be faith promoting. So I backed off, opting instead to tackle a slightly less controversial topic, but one that I felt needed to be addressed. I decided to talk about what the scriptures teach me concerning my relationship with the “other,” and how racism should not be tolerated in the church.
I realize that, for most people, racism is not the first thing that they think of, given the assignment to discuss the value of the scriptures. But after Obama’s race speech, where he challenged the country to begin a discussion on race, I began to wonder how such a conversation could ever be started in my own BYU ward. The wide open nature of the scriptures provided me with that opportunity, and I took it.
I began my comments by preparing my audience a bit, since racism is not a topic that is frequently addressed from the pulpit. I told them that I would not be reading verses about the importance of record keeping or personal stories about reading scriptures with my family as a child (things that the two previous speakers had already ably addressed), but I would instead be taking on a difficult topic, one that would perhaps make some uncomfortable, but one that was crucially important. I told them I would be speaking on racism.
I first read from Deuteronomy 24:17-18, which addresses the importance of remembering God’s deliverance from Egypt in interactions with strangers, orphans, and widows:
Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge: 18 But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.
The King James language is a bit tricky here, so I also read from an alternate translation:
Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak from the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. This is why I give you this command.
I normally try to avoid quoting directly from non-Mormon sources in church settings, not because I personally have any qualms with doing so, but out of respect for my co-religionists who are uncomfortable with such sources. But in this case I couldn’t resist and read from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World:
Their model was the redeeming God, not the oppressing Egyptians. Emulating the Egyptians was to return to Egypt even while dwelling in the Land of Promise. Emulating God was to enact the deliverance God had accomplished for them…But the significance of emulating God went deeper than a relationship simply defined by example and imitation, for the Exodus was the founding story of Israel as a people. Acting toward slaves and aliens as God did toward Israel expressed what lay at the origin of Israel’s national existence and the very heart of Israel’s identity: their deliverance from slavery as an act of God’s grace. For the nation to fail to imitate God would not simply be to disregard wise counsel or disobey a moral command but, in a sense, to betray themselves, no less than the redeeming God, by living in contradiction to their true identity…It is not the memory of past suffering by the memory of God’s deliverance from past suffering that underwrites the command to be just and generous toward the weak and needy. (105-106)
At this point I read Nephi’s wonderful description of God’s love toward all his children, that “he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:33). Although I know that the Book of Mormon is not always consistent on racial matters, I love this verse for what it teaches us about God’s love.
Sensing that some in my audience were by this point beginning to wonder what relevance these verses had on them in today’s church, I then read from Pres. Hinckley’s April 2006 Priesthood talk, where he strongly condemned racism within the church.
Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord. Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
Aside from decrying racism in our midst, Pres. Hinckley’s quote also provided a good segue for me to briefly address the history of priesthood ban. I believe that the majority of church members do not know this history, and our hesitancy in the church to discuss problems in our past perpetuates ignorance, in my opinion. I told the ward members that Joseph Smith was fairly progressive on race, having said on one occasion that if blacks had the same opportunities as whites they would achieve a similar status. I also told my ward members that at least two black men received the Melchizedek Priesthood during JS’s lifetime, something I knew most had not heard before. It’s still not clear why, but after JS’s death Brigham Young began denying the priesthood to those of African descent, a policy that remained in place (for the most part) until 1978.
I then read from Elder Holland’s wonderful denunciation of the folklore surrounding the ban from his PBS interview:
One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. … It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. … At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, … we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place…o [when asked to specify the folklore] Well, some of the folklore that you must be referring to are suggestions that there were decisions made in the pre-mortal councils where someone had not been as decisive in their loyalty to a Gospel plan or the procedures on earth or what was to unfold in mortality, and that therefore that opportunity and mortality was compromised. I really don’t know a lot of the details of those, because fortunately I’ve been able to live in the period where we’re not expressing or teaching them, but I think that’s the one I grew up hearing the most, was that it was something to do with the pre-mortal councils. … But I think that’s the part that must never be taught until anybody knows a lot more than I know. … We just don’t know, in the historical context of the time, why it was practiced. … That’s my principal [concern], is that we don’t perpetuate explanations about things we don’t know. …We don’t pretend that something wasn’t taught or practice wasn’t pursued for whatever reason. But I think we can be unequivocal and we can be declarative in our current literature, in books that we reproduce, in teachings that go forward, whatever, that from this time forward, from 1978 forward, we can make sure that nothing of that is declared. That may be where we still need to make sure that we’re absolutely dutiful, that we put [a] careful eye of scrutiny on anything from earlier writings and teachings, just [to] make sure that that’s not perpetuated in the present. That’s the least, I think, of our current responsibilities on that topic. …
I was a missionary in Los Angeles from 1998 to 2000, and at least in my mission, this folklore was alive and well. An old Alvin R. Dyer talk was passed around (in a Spanish version, strangely), and described in hushed tones as “deep doctrine.” I wish now that I had had Elder Holland’s words then, so I could have done some small part to stop the perpetuation of that heinous teaching.
I concluded by reading Margaret Young’s most recent post in toto. I said in the comments of that post that one thing we can do to right past wrongs was to repeat such stories, own them, and never allow ourselves to forget. I’m normally not an emotional person, but I had to stop half way through reading Margaret’s words to compose myself. I think it was a touching way to conclude my remarks, and I hope that those in my ward felt so as well.
My talk was rendered especially meaningful because the same day that I gave it a new convert in our ward was given the Aaronic Priesthood. He is from Haiti. I honestly did not know how he would respond to my comments, but I spoke with the girl sitting next to him in sacrament meeting and she told me he enjoyed my remarks. When I spoke about two black men receiving the priesthood during JS’s life, he turned to her with a surprised and exciting look and said, “Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to two black men? I didn’t know that. I thought that no one had it until 1978. That’s really cool.” That alone made my time in preparation and the anxiety leading up to my talk worth it.
I think most people responded well to my talk. To my knowledge no one has gone to my bishop to complain about my remarks or to express doubts about the priesthood ban. I know at least one ward member got lost as I read from the long block quotes, something that I would go back and change if I had the chance. I know I could have presented things differently, more concisely, and more clearly. But I feel grateful that I was able do a small thing to start a conversation on race in my congregation, even if I’m not the most perfect of presenters.