Thursday, May 24, 2007

Racist Ban to Save a Racist World

I, like most other LDS members, have been asked on many occasions to explain why the LDS church denied blacks the priesthood until 1978. During a recent debate between Rev. Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens, Hitchens used this issue as one of many examples where man has acted unjustly in the name of religion. Both this and the recent PBS Documentary entitled "The Moromons" by Helen Whitney which focused a chapter of her documentary on this issue, got me to examine how best to answer this concern when it arises.

As I have come to understand it, the official church doctrine on this issue is something akin to Adam's response in the Book of Moses when an angel asks him why he offers sacrifice unto the Lord. Adam responds, "I know not save the Lord commanded me." I believe that Joseph Smith and later president's of the church are prophets of God and that God revealed his will concerning this issue. But, the reason God chose to deny blacks the priesthood for a time, hasn't been revealed. "Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good;" (D&C 56: 4-6).

Now, some people consider this response a non-answer or an attempt to avoid the question. Others feel the idea that God would command that a certain group would be blessed and another not, based on race, as blasphemy. The Bible clearly teaches that, "God is no respecter of persons:" (Acts 10: 34). However, the denying of certain blessings to a certain group by Christ is not unprecedented. The Woman of Canaan asked Christ to cast a devil out of her daughter to which Christ responded, "It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs" (Matt. 15: 26). Christ did cast out the devil according the woman's faith, but the verse does seem to suggest a preferential attitude towards the Jews. Only after Christ's resurrection, were his Apostles commanded to "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations," (Matt. 28: 19).

So, If this kind of thing is not unprecedented. So, we are left to speculate on why Christ would institute a temporary policy of racism. Or maybe I am interpreting the "dog" comment inaccurately. In addition, if God is an unchangeable God, why didn't he preach to the gentiles and other nations from the beginning? Or, if you accept that God had his reasons during his ministry to focus on the Jews but that Christ's church was charged to "teach all nations" and therefore the true church of Christ should carry on that commission; how do you explain that? Paul, who had embraced Christ's commission, taught, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3: 28).

Well, first off, we know that Christ and his church were not racist. Evidence for this is his interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. She was dumbfounded that a Jewish male would speak to her at all (John 4: 7, 9). In addition to portraying Christ's lack of prejudice, this verse illustrates just how racist the Jews were as a whole. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that certain doctrines existed to make allowance for this.

The policy to exclude blacks from the church was a racist policy by definition. It is an undeniable fact. But, that leads us to then ask, was it necessary? And did God command it? Well, first off, the term "all nations" does not mean the whole world. In this context, "all nations," is meant to refer to the Gentile nations only. The Apostles are recorded to have gone to countries with long-established Jewish populations where they taught in the synagogues and focused on the Jews and Gentiles in those communities.

But what of the Ethiopian man who was taught and baptized by Philip (Acts 8: 27)? Ethiopia is Africa. Well, according to documented ancient Ethiopian history, Jews had been living there since at least 800 BC. The Ethiopian eunuch was not a proselyte, but was a natural born Jew who, according to the verse, came to Jerusalem "to worship" in the Temple. And Gentiles were not allowed to worship in the temple (Acts 21: 26-30).

Now, how does this relate at all the early LDS church? How could the church defend a clearly racist and bigoted policy? The Mormon Church was itself the focus of great injustice, and bigotry that still exists today. The Mormons were against slavery from the beginning and abolitionist beliefs were a major reason the Church was persecuted which ultimately let to Governor Boggs of Missouri signed an extermination order , which was not rescinded until 1976. Hard to believe, but it was technically legal to kill a Mormon in the state of Missouri from 1836 to 1976. Mormon's were greatly persecuted for their views against slavery, which they sacrificed their property, and lives to defend. Mormons never compromised on their abolishionist beliefs.

The Book of Mormon itself teaches equality, "For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and 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 Ne. 26: 33). So, it the Book of Mormon clearly teaches equality, then why would the LDS Church have a racist policy? While many Evangelical Christian churches are segregated by race, Mormon churches, due to geographical delineation, are some of the most diverse and integrated Christian congregations in the world.

But, all that still doesn't get us to a satisfactory answer. God is not racist and the LDS church had a racist policy for a 150 years; why? Well, I think the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is the key. God gave the LDS church a racist policy because we were and are racist. The whole nation was. Because of man's overwelming natural tendancy toward bigotry, Christ's restored church just narrowly escaped annihilation. Had God's church started preaching to blacks from the start, preaching equality, and having integrated church meetings; the church would have never survived.

Is there a Biblical precedent for God asking someone to lie for God's purposes? Yes! Abraham was commanded to not tell pharoah that Sarah was his wife, but instead say that she was his sister. And, Peter was specifically told that he should deny that he knew Christ 3 times so that he would be able to continue to lead Christ's newly-established church. Peter wept bitterly not because of unfaithfulness, but rather, because he knew he could not prevent the death of the Savior. Had Peter, who had just prior, lifted a sword in defense of Jesus died with Jesus, the keys of the priesthood would have died with him.

There is a story I heard from a past mission president in New Zealand which illustrates another side of this point. One of the early LDS missionaries to New Zealand was a man named Matthew Cowley. He did not have very much success with the Europeans so he started teaching the humble Maori Natives. Well, he was incredibly successful. But now when the missionaries go to teach the Europeans and other non-Maori, they get the reply, "we think the work you are doing with the Maori is great, but we have our church." It's as if the Pakeha (non-Maori) see the LDS church simply as a Maori church and their learned bigotry prevents them from considering the LDS church at all.

So, what does this have to do with the LDS church? Well, had the missionaries gone to Africa, or to convert slaves here in the US, instead of going to Europe for converts, they would have been astonishingly successful. The faithful, spiritual, and humble US slaves, or people of Africa and other 3rd-world nations would have readily considered and received the true church. However, had that been the case, my ancestors, who were racists because they were taught to be racist, may never have considered the LDS church at all.

So, there seems to be a higher wisdom and order in the way the gospel goes forth to all nations first, and then to every kindred, nation, tongue and people later, "And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last" (Luke 13: 30, 1 Ne. 13: 42). The reason for this racist commandment that the gospel should be preached to certain groups first and other groups later is not because God is racist or God's kingdom is racist. Rather, it is because the people God is trying to save are racist.

So, it was a racist policy for a very imperfect and racist world which was prophesied by Isaiah who said, "Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me" (Isa. 49: 22-23).

It turns out that both the Bible and Book of Mormon present a very prejudiced, yet humbling picture of how the God's kingdom would be established in the Last Days. The descendants of Abraham and the house of Israel, namely the 12 tribes, are described as God's chosen people who are entitled to eternal blessings in the afterlife through Christ. Unfortunately, because of disobedience, the nation and people of Israel were scattered among all nations of the Earth. Much of the blood of Israel is among the humble people who live in 3rd-world counties. The Bible teaches that before the restoration and gathering of the 12 tribes, that God's kingdom would go to the Gentiles and then after a fullness of the Gentiles is achieved, the Kingdom would go from the Gentiles to the remnant of the Tribes of Israel (the rightful heirs).

And what about those people who fall through the cracks. Well, that’s why the LDS church focuses on genealogy and does vicarious proxy baptism, marriages, and priesthood ordination on behalf of the dead (1 Cor. 15: 29). Therefore, in the end, there will be no crack for anyone to fall through. Death isn't a crack (1 Cor. 15: 55-56), Christ overcame death. Work for the dead is a large part of that. And in the end, through this marvelous work and and wonder, Isaiah promises that there will finally be an end to prejudice, bigotry, racism. Isaiah promises, "The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, . . . Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim" (Isa. 11: 13).

But, all of that explanation still isn't enough because all these evidences are circumstancial at best. Therefore, a better way would be to actually talk to some of the thousands of blacks of have joined the LDS church since 1978. They're the one's who have personally delt with this question first-hand. I'm sure it seems the existence of any black LDS members defies logic. If this policy was so clearly racist, then why would blacks ever consider joining the church at all? According to those LDS blacks I know, they are LDS because they have received the same answers to prayer, and spiritual witness that I have that Joseph Smith was God's prophet and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Chruch member learn that once you have received your own answers to these big questions, then you can feel confident to go on in the Mormon direction even if all the minor details haven't been worked out yet on every issue. No, Mormon's do not just blindly follow. We follow in faith because of what we already know to be true.

12 comments:

John Governale said...

My thoughts and feelings parallel yours on this topic. I, however, lack the skill to articulate them so plainly and well, so this post is most helpful.

Thank you.

Jeff G said...

There are two major problems which I see with your approach.

1. Precedence can be found in the Bible for pretty much any and every morally repugnant act imaginable to man, including slavery, incest and genocide.

2. The "I don't know, but God does" line can work to justify anything at all.

In other words, while I don't want to speak too harshly on accepting things by faith, the "explanations" which you provide make for great target practice for the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Some of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed with these exact explanations in mind. What sets the Mormon version apart from, say, that extremist cult who all commit suicide for these exact same reasons?

Rickety said...

This post is excellent. In a sentence: "A racist policy for a racist world."

BRoz said...

jeff,

The Mormon church expects all its members to first seek a revelatory experience with God to answer a couple of key questions: did Joseph Smith see God and was he choosen as a prophet, is the Book of Mormon God's word, and is the LDS Church Christ's restored church.

After you get your own answers to these big questions, then you can feel confident to go on in faith in the Mormon direction even if all the minor details haven't been worked out yet on every issue.

That's why Mormonism isn't a cult. It's members aren't expected to blindly follow. We are expected to act according to what we already know. All new members of the LDS faith, in fact, are expected to have received revelatory answers to these questions before they are baptized.

But, when outsiders hear LDS leadership saying, we expect everyone to obey such-an-such out of faith, outsiders cry "cult." But what thees outside critics don't realize is that every member has already experimented on the word, and received both ample 5-senses confirmatory evidence as well as undenyable spirtual proof that the foundation tenents of the LDS faith are true.

Jeff G said...

I don't see how your response addresses my concern at all. I never called mormonism a cult. I also think that you are not being near charitable enough to those cultists who are willing to commit suicide in the name of their religion. Do you really think that they don't experiment upon the word before they do such things?

My point was that (1) and (2) have absolutely nothing to do with the racist policy. If they justify the racist policy at all, then they also justify many policies which are clearly not justifiable.

What makes all nonbelievers so uncomfortable is that the religionist who offers (2) is not only unable to give a reason for their actions which effect the rest of us, but that they don't even think that they need to provide a reason at all. In other words, there is no debate to be had at all.

This is the very antithesis of democracy.

Anonymous said...

I think the article was excellent.
Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me on many points of truth.
Men evolve ,plain and simple.
The book of mormon is true and Joseph Smith is Gods Prophet.
When someone approaches God in a humble manner after listening to a couple of Gods missionarys.
I know he will hear and answer that prayer.
But if one listens to anti mormon, family,Friends or clergy.
There's not any humility in a person who already thinks their right.
Thus,No answer.
Ive seen many converted and blessed when they learn that this truly is a modern day version of Christs original Church.

BRoz said...

jeff,

Are you trying to say that my argument that because something is in the Bible that's not good enough to justify it. Isn't that the only justification that any Christian church has to do anything. Especially if they don't believe in modern revelation. Christian churches supposedly do everything according to the Bible. So, to point out that something has Biblical precedence is not at all irrelevant.

Also, I dont think its fair to equate what constitutes a private "white-people-only" organization with a group that asks its members to commit suicide. Mormon's never harmed black people or anyone else.

Let us remember that whether we think its nice or not a private organizations have the right to say who can be a member or not (e.g. Augusta National Golf Club, Boy Scouts of America etc.). However, I am glad that LDS church now includes everyone.

To answer both 1 and 2. That is exactly why modern revelation and personal revelation is so important. The great weakness of the Bible is that it has become so ambiguous. It can be interpreted to justify just about anything. That is exactly why the Bible (in its current form), has been responsible for so many denominations and non-denominations.

Do not criticize me for criticizing the Bible. It is ambiguous. Every serious Christian I have met says the same thing when it comes to how their beliefs compare to the beliefs of others. They invariably say, "I believe the Bible 100% while others pick and choose what parts of the Bible they want to believe."

The ambiguity of the Bible is examply why the Book of Mormon is so important. It was considered "the most correct book" not because of its historicity, but because its so doctrinally unambiguous. The Book of Mormon is very difficult to misunderstand and misinterpret.

The saying goes, "To be great is to be misunderstood." I disagree. I think to be great is to understand and to seek to be understood.

Jeff G said...

Okay, I think I misinterpreted the intended context a bit, but I don't think it changes my point all that much.

It is true that you can throw Biblical references in the face of the Christian, but this is just a way of saying that neither of you has much of a justification.

As for my comparison between Mormonism and a suicidal cult, the point is that it doesn't matter what is being justified, but what is doing the justifying. In both cases it is the same, and that is my point. You justifications can be used to justify pretty much anything, including suicide.

To repeat, my point is that your justifications do not work because they can be used to justify almost anything. Its precisely because the justifications can be applied to anything that they are weak.

BRoz said...

Jeff,

I also think your point is valid. The Bible is ambiguous and that is precisely the reason we need the Book of Mormon and modern revelation. However, I don't think the weakness of the Bible means we should give up on scripture entirely in our discussion.

My blog is religious and spiritually focused where I feel free to use scripture and spiritual feelings as they apply to the issues and problems of life.

H-Bomb said...

BRoz,

I salute your valiant efforts at trying to make sense of an otherwie difficult topic. I think it is worth pointing out a few facts:

1. The priesthood ban was instituted by Brigham Young. A few blacks (e.g. Elijah Abel held the priesthood during Joseph Smith's stewardship).

2. Neither Brigham Young, nor any other prophet subsequent to him, has ever claimed that there was a specific revelation from God instituting the ban.

3. Racism was rampant both inside and outside the Church during the time of the ban. It is easier to see the ban as an extension of human racism than divine racism.

Given the "racist commandment to save a racist world" model you have just developed, would you be comfortable with a "sexist commandment to save a sexist world" model to explain why women don't hold the priesthood? This is not a rhetorical question. I am genuinely curious as to how you would extend your thought process (if at all) to tackle this question.

BRoz said...

I was aware of the relationship of Joseph Smith and Elijah Abel in your Point 1. However, I would not characterize Point 2 as fact. I do agree with Point 3 that the policy was an extension of human racism. God is not racist. However, it my opinion that the policy may have been necessary for my salvation and the salvation of my racist ancestors and the preservation of the church in such a racist, bigoted environment.

kuri said...

So... if the church had allowed black people full membership, that would have been bad because it would have kept white people out? But keeping black people out was a good thing, because it brought white people in?