Hasten to Prepare


At the “Be One” celebration in 2018, President Dallin H. Oaks discussed the frustration he experienced as a member of the Church before the ban on individuals of black African descent holding the priesthood or receiving saving temple ordinances was lifted.  He said that he “observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them.”  As he “witnessed the pain of black brothers and sisters,” he “longed for their relief.”  When that restriction was lifted in 1978, he wept for joy.  At the “Be One” celebration, he acknowledged that “the hearts and practices of individual members did not come suddenly and universally,” with some embracing the revelation and its implications of racial equality while others, to this day, have “continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world.”  He went on to state that, “as we look to the future, one of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is its divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. … As servants of God … we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions—institutionally and personally—to abandon all personal prejudices.”[1]  This was (and is) a weighty and important call to both members of the Church and to the Church itself.

I am grateful to live in a day where the pain President Oaks observed and was himself pained by is greatly lessened.  I am grateful that the Church no longer discriminates about participation in saving ordinances based on race and that “the Church disavows theories advanced in the past” that supported that policy.  I am grateful that the official stance has been articulated that “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”[2]  I am grateful to be part of a Church that has partnered with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to work towards bringing “hope, happiness, and good health to all of God’s children.”[3]  And I am grateful to have a church president who, in light of the recent circumstances of the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin and the subsequent protests, shared a personal message on Facebook to express deep sadness at “recent evidence of racism and a blatant disregard for human life” and to call on “any of us who has prejudice towards another race … to repent!”[4]  I am grateful for all of these things. Yet, I still feel like we have a ways to go to fully be in obedience to the “divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children” as an institution or as individuals in the Church.

One of my frustrations in this regard is that it feels like the leaders of the Church have a difficult time in addressing racism head-on.  Yes, we have had a few calls in recent years to abandon racism and prejudice, including general conference talks by President Gordon B. Hinckley and M. Russell Ballard and statements from members of the current First Presidency in other venues.[5]  It seems problematic to me, however, that since I was born in 1990, there have only been three or four general conference talks that address the issue, even in passing.[6]  There’s also the issue that it took 35 years for the Church as an institution to come out against the racist teachings that were used to support the priesthood and temple ban.[7]  That’s a painful amount of silence compared to the call Dallin H. Oaks makes when he said we need to “hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions—institutionally and personally—to abandon all personal prejudices.”  We also have the example from earlier this year, when a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith that contained outdated racial commentary on the Book of Mormon was included in the “Come, Follow Me” manual for 2020.  Not only did the quote pass all the review processes for the manual, but when it was finally noted that it might be a problem, Church leaders let it stand in the printed edition.  Only after the Salt Lake Tribune pointed out the problem in January of this year did they publicly acknowledge the error, apologizing and asking members to disregard the printed version.  Yet, even that response was only to the press—no statements were released on the Church’s website to tell members to disregard the quote, no letters or emails were sent out through official channels to inform Church members on the issue, and Church Newsroom coverage of an event where Elder Gary E. Stevenson addressed the problem removed any reference to his statement about the manual.[8]  Even President Nelson’s post this week, while important, seemed slightly delayed in coming and odd to only come as a personal statement on Facebook rather than an official statement made by the Church or the First Presidency.  It feels like an ongoing pattern of difficulty with addressing the issue of racism directly and in full view of the Church’s membership.

I suspect part of that struggle to address the issue is because previous Church leaders taught some racist ideas.  I’ve posted two times so far this year about the Book of Mormon and its discussion of race,[10] and I was struck in the commentary on both of those blog posts about how Latter-day Saints seem caught between a desire to uphold the integrity and teachings of past prophets and a desire to fight against prejudice and racism.  It is sad to me and frustrating that those two objectives feel at odds with each other in some difficult-to-navigate ways.  In a Church that teaches that we need to obey the prophets here and now because they speak God’s words, it is difficult to admit that what they teach as God’s words about prejudice and racism are directly opposed to some of what their predecessors taught on the subject of race.  It’s a difficult place to be—caught between supporting two good desires in what should be an ideal organization (God’s church on earth), making it difficult to navigate the issue while maintaining trust in our leaders for inspired direction.

Even with venting these frustrations, I do still acknowledge that the institution of the Church is improving, making changes, and speaking out on the subject of racism and prejudice.  During the time that I have been writing this post, President Nelson’s remarks have gone from a Facebook status update to a Church Newsroom article with the full text presented, to a headline on the Church’s main website under the label of “prophetic direction.”  There’s also the 2017 incident, where the Church issued a statement condemning racism after violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia protest.  When some of the alt-right individuals in the Church tried to co-opt the statement to make it a discussion about reverse racism (i.e., “you cannot be anti-white and follower of Christ”), the Church quickly came back swinging in a very non-ambiguous way. It was bluntly stated that: “White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them.  Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.”[11]  And, with the “Come, Follow Me” manual incident, they did react and make the change in the digital versions of the manual, stating that they did so with the belief that the majority of Church members would use the digital version rather than the print version.  Perhaps this last decade of statements and reactions against racism has been a time of laying a foundation from which the Church and its members can more readily push back against racism and prejudice.

In any case, it should not be ignored that President Oaks’s call to “abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children” was directed not only at the institution, but also at the individual.  As President Nelson recently wrote, “it behooves each of us to do whatever we can in our spheres of influence to preserve the dignity and respect every son and daughter of God deserves. … We need to work tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than creating walls of segregation.”[12]  The death of George Floyd as a result of police brutality and the anger and demonstrations that have followed are a call to listen to the voices of those suffering from the effects of racism and to understand why they are angry and afraid, then to act on that understanding.  I intend to take it as such, anyway, and to study more deeply about racism and reflect on what I can do better personally, beginning with Darius Gray’s “Healing the Wounds of Racism” and the resources Carolyn recently shared at By Common Consent.  By taking the time to do so, I hope to better understand how I can personally hasten to prepare my attitudes and my actions to abandon all personal prejudices, as President Oaks has called upon us to do as servants of God.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “President Oaks Remarks at Worldwide Priesthood Celebration,” 1 July 2018, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-oaks-remarks-worldwide-priesthood-celebration.

[2] “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng.

[3] Sarah Jane Weaver, “NAACP and the Church: How a Unique Partnership Is Blessing God’s Children,” 22 July 2019, Church Newsroom,  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/naacp-and-the-church-how-a-unique-partnership-is-blessing-gods-children?lang=eng.

[4] “President Nelson Shares Social Post about Racism and Calls for Respect for Human Dignity,” 1 June 2020, Church Newsroom, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-nelson-shares-social-post-encouraging-understanding-and-civility.

[5] See Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness”, CR April 2006; M. Russell Ballard, “The Trek Continues!”, CR October 2017; Dallin H. Oaks, “President Oaks Remarks at Worldwide Priesthood Celebration,” 1 July 2018; Russell M. Nelson, NAACP Convention Remarks, 21 July 2019, Detroit, Michigan, Newsroom Church of Jesus Christ.org; “President Nelson Shares Social Post about Racism and Calls for Respect for Human Dignity,” 1 June 2020, Church Newsroom.

[6] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/search?lang=eng&query=racism&facet=general-conference&highlight=true&page=1.

[7] While Church members like to point to Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s statement that we should “forget everything” that has been said by previous Church leaders “that is contrary to the present revelation” as a prompt and public disavowal of the racist teachings used to support the priesthood and temple ban, it should be noted that he seems to have only been speaking in relationship to the direct effects of the ban.  In the very same speech, he continued to promote the racist teachings that had been used to support the ban, stating that “we can only suppose and reason that it is on the basis of our premortal devotion and faith” that the ban existed and adding in a later published version a reference to the idea that people with black African heritage are “the seed of Cain and Ham and Egyptus and Pharaoh.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” 18 August 1978, BYU Speeches and See Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981], 126-37, especially p. 128.)  Between the time the ban was lifted and the 2012-2013, when the Church released statements disavowing those teachings, I have only found three statements by Church leaders specifically rejecting the ideas, none of which were made in a forum that would provide wide exposure to Church membership (See Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball [SLC: Deseret Book Co., 2005], 238 for a quote by Spencer W. Kimball; Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah [5 June 1988]: 21 [Associated Press]; reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011], 68-69; and Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006).  Instead, the attitude, in general, seemed to be that of Gordon B. Hinckley–that the 1978 Revelation “continues to speak for itself” and that he didn’t “see anything further that we need to do” (cited in Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999], 104).

[8] Compare https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/elder-stevenson-naacp-martin-luther-king-memorial-luncheon with Sean Walker, “We are all part of the same divine familiy,” KSL.com 20 January 2020.

[10] See https://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2020/04/race-and-lineage-among-early-latter-day-saints/ and https://www.timesandseasons.org/index.php/2020/02/reconsidering-the-lamanites/.

[11] “Church Issues Statements on Situation in Charlottesville, Virginia,” 15 August 2017, Church Newsroom, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/church-statement-charlottesville-virginia?__prclt=tNTTIVsb.  See also Jana Riess, “LDS Church rebukes Mormon white supremacists, who rebuke the Church right back,” Religious News Service, 15 August 2017, https://religionnews.com/2017/08/15/lds-church-rebukes-mormon-white-supremacists-who-rebuke-the-church-right-back/.

[12] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-nelson-shares-social-post-encouraging-understanding-and-civility.

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