Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Randy Bott, Racism, and Reconciliation


It was near the end of my mission. I was fairly new to my area, and my companion and I were dutifully compiling our nightly numbers (designed, as far as I can tell, to make teaching the gospel as cold and impersonal as possible). Out of the blue, the phone rang. My companion answered; it was one of the zone leaders. He wanted to speak with me.

This was a surprise, because I barely knew this elder. We'd crossed paths at a zone meeting or two, but had hardly spoken. So, while I had nothing against him, I couldn't imagine what he wanted to talk about. Being a lousy journal keeper means I have to reconstruct our conversation from memory, but as I recall his first words were something like, "So I just want to know why you don't believe in prophets and apostles."

I responded succinctly: "Huh?"

"You told Elder So-and-So that that you don't believe in Mormon Doctrine."

Ah yes. Sometime not long before, I had spoken with another elder about my feelings on the venerable MoDo, particularly as it related to black people and the priesthood. Not as a debate, just an amiable exchange of ideas. My position, naturally, was that MoDo wasn't authoritative, and that the "seed of Cain/Abrahamic curse" interpretations of the priesthood ban were perhaps unfounded. Back then I wouldn't have said (as I do now) that such views stem solely from racism and have no part in my brand of Mormonism, but I still knew I was uncomfortable with MoDo and with interpretations of priesthood and race that seemed arbitrary and hateful.



So when my ZL brought that up with such fighting words, I knew I had a choice. Perhaps lacking the humility of a true servant of Christ, I chose to bash. Being a missionary in the South, I knew perfectly well that bashing accomplishes nothing and leads only to rancor. As a seasoned elder I knew how to avoid arguments and diffuse tension.But not this night.

I charged right in, and sure enough, the zone leader took issue not only with my appraisal of McConkie but also my rejection (in his view) of Abraham and Genesis. Scriptures were quoted, blood pressure rose, time was wasted, and nobody's mind was changed. I believe that the elder was transferred a few weeks later, and I never heard from him again (though I did learn that my final companion, on being called for his transfer to me, was told by this elder, "Oh, you get Elder Walrath...sorry, man.")

I bring this up because that missionary touched on a tender spot. How that came to be I'm not sure - spending time with a lot of black people definitely got me thinking, as did the racialized discourse that still prevails in the South, both in and out of the Church. Either way, the issue of priesthood limitations based on race became became something I could hardly fathom, let alone defend or celebrate. When I hear interpretations of the doctrine that are rooted in racism, bad history, and shoddy exegesis,* it brings up strong feelings.

Which brings me to the catalyst for this post: remarks made by BYU Professor Randy Bott to the Washington Post about Mormonism and race, originally brought to my attention by the Exponent. Randy Bott, if you don't know, teaches Missionary Prep, and is beloved for being very entertaining, very spiritual, and a very easy grader (it is no coincidence that he also dominates RateMyProfessor). I took Mish Prep** from a different professor long before I knew about Bott, but I have read some of his books, which seemed harmless enough. But in WaPo, Bott rehashed the old canards about Ham, Egyptus, and Cain as a defense of the priesthood ban. I find that distasteful, but okay, whatever. Brigham Young certainly thought that, and it's his damned university. Thankfully that kind of talk is disappearing. I'd have preferred it had been presented as, "This is what some Mormons believe, but the Church has backed away from this," but oh well. Then comes this:
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood. 
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”

What do you say to that? Really? REALLY? @#&$! Having calmed down slightly since first reading the article, I can at least say that BYU should be ashamed that such a man has influenced so many students. Especially any black students, though they probably lacked the spirituality to truly understand him, the poor, benighted souls.

But leaving behind Bott's paternalistic racism (and that's exactly what it was), the larger question is, how does one deal with situations like this? As my mission experience taught me, these kinds of views are out there, and there are a small minority of members willing to be very vocal about them. My responses, respectively, have been to argue and to publicly call a professor racist. Cathartic but probably not too productive. So I pose that as a question: What do you do about...this? No doubt it's healthy to set it aside and be charitable, but shouldn't it be dealt with...somehow? How does that apply to other areas where you may disagree with other church members on critical points? For that matter, how should conservative members deal when some loudmouth goes off on Mormon Doctrine in a blog?

In short, what do you do if someone ostensibly on your side argues for something that is really, really awful? And how do you know that the person isn't you?

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*The worst offense is when people compare biblical Aaronic priesthood limitations to modern LDS racial bans. Without going into too much detail, the two are simply not analogous. To me that's just a lazy argument. Far more compelling is, "That's just the way it is and we don't understand." While I don't find that sufficient, at least it's a humble response that shows considerations of the many complications involved.

**Remind me to do a post one day on how BYU gives college credit for a class like Missionary Preparation. Yeesh.

25 comments:

  1. (Had typos on the first one--oops!) Alma 40:5 "for God knoweth all these things; and it sufficeth me to know that this is the case." That's how I feel about these issues. If we split hairs over them, then we're probably not focusing on core doctrines the way we should be. The Gospel is inexhaustible, but we should be exploring the elements necessary to salvation and not be upset if we don't understand everything immediately. It's when we try to explain beyond our understanding that we get into trouble--line upon line, and we'll understand it someday.

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    1. Donna, just as a matter of clarification, what is the "it" at the end of your comment referring to? Is it specifically the priesthood ban or how to cooperate with one another when we disagree on points of doctrine? Or did you mean "it" in a more a general all-encompassing way . . . you know, like the royal "we". Just wondering. Thanks.

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    2. It was general--referring to anything that we don't get. Priesthood bans, the location of Kolob--you name it. :D

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  2. I have not read the article by Prof. Bott, but your comments bring up an important issue that I think should really be recognized and addressed by more people. I don't think that most church members beliefs about the Priesthood Ban are as inherently racist as you seem to believe, I feel they are more the product of being uninformed (which it could be argued that racism is). I think that really most comments similar to Professor Bott's come from really having no explanation and trying to create one. The truth of the matter is that church members do not know why that priesthood limitation was practiced, but because it is questioned so many times people try to come up with a reason. I think as church members we should be able to accept the fact that that was just the was it was and we don't understand yet. I don't understand polygamy, I don't understand no facial hair in church leadership positions, and I don't understand the previous priesthood ban that has existed. Just because I don't understand these things does not lessen my testimony, but I think to many people feel that if they don't understand they have to come up with some sort of explanation and that is where ridiculous comments like Prof. Bott's stem from. I have several more comments on this subject, but trying to explain what we don't know is the root of it. When we don't know something we should feel free to research about it as much as possible, but we should not make statements of opinion and far-fetched theory as though they were fact. I very much agree that such comments should be addressed somehow.

    As a side note I think comparing biblical priesthood limitations to more modern ones is fair for the simple reason that you alluded to: we don't know why only Levites received the priesthood in the Old Testament or why the gospel was not a first taught to the gentiles and we don't know why blacks could not hold the priesthood until 1978.

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    1. My view on the priesthood ban is definitely a bit more radical than the average believing member - I attribute it to human agency and institutional inertia rather than the will of God, though I tried to minimize that since my point was more about how to deal with unpleasant things rather than the priesthood issue itself :)

      I definitely agree that a lot of the worst things you hear is people grasping for post-hoc explanations for difficult issues, especially among those who believe that revelation alone must have underpinned the whole thing. Unfortunately there's a lot to support such views in statements by previous church leaders up to the last few decades, which complicates the "we're not sure" argument. We may not be sure today, but seventy years ago they sure were! Having said that, I respect the direction the church has taken recently, especially with Hinckley's denouncement of racism a few years back and Holland's comments in the PBS documentary about folk doctrines. Even McConkie's retraction of his racialist arguments was nice.

      And as a response to your side note on my aside - My argument on the ancient/modern priesthood incompatibility basically stems from my belief that the two priesthoods are fundamentally different in nature and purpose - the Levitical order was from the beginning exclusive, lineal, and centered around temple worship for a relatively small nationalist religion. The modern priesthood was from the beginning inclusive, extended to all males (until restrictions were added later), not intrinsically tied to temple worship, and applicable to a church with global aspirations. So, yeah, maybe fair in the sense that God has done things we don't understand in the past, but not in the narrower sense that God has restricted priesthood before. At least that's how I see it.

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  3. Amen, my brother Casey, amen.

    I'm going to think out loud here: I don't know if I really believe what I'm about to say - but I probably wont' know that until I say it.

    The whole 'I Am a Mormon' campaign demonstrates the current priority of the church to normalize its image. This can be used, I think, to ameliorate the frequency of quotes like those of Mr. Bott by demonstrating the way that such quotes damage the image of the church.
    Essentially, we just have to get people to recognize that non-Mormons find these kinds of explanations to be offensive. (It is important that we keep it about non-Mormons: the language has to be "I understand that you're a good person and that you simply want to understand why God would do these things. I'm not against you, but we need to think about the way our words are perceived by those who don't have the capacity to empathize with you).

    As you have said, Casey - bashing does nothing but generate hostility, which is why we can't make our response doctrinal. In my experience it just doesn't work to say, 'you're wrong.' What people hear is 'the prophet's are wrong,' and then you have a war on your hands. Instead we say, 'these are issues that many find hard to understand. Even within the church, multiple interpretations have been given by senior authorities regarding why blacks could not hold the priesthood at that time. It is important to understand, however, that even if these issues had sincere doctrinal origins, they nonetheless took place during a time that was fraught with civil conflict over similar issues - and it is inevitable that people not of our faith will see our actions during this time through the lens of the civil rights movement. Whatever the source of our beliefs, it is undeniable that blacks have been oppressed in the history of our country, and those oppressions have often been justified through racially-charged beliefs regarding the inferiority of black men and women. Thus, when LDS people make (well-intentioned) statements that suggest that black people have ever been anything but spiritually identical to white people, it is very understandable that such comments could be taken in an offensive manner. This is one reason why we need to restrain ourselves from making such statements - to do so is not to deny our beliefs, or to reject the teachings of our prophets. We are instructed, for example, to forgo baptisms for the dead for holocaust victims, largely as a sign of respect to Jews. This is a similar situation, in which sensitivity to the sufferings and history of fellow human beings can go a long way to build respect and understanding.'

    To be honest, that line of thinking feels a little sinister to me, since I do believe that these policies were racially motivated and have to divine basis - but I do not think any level of success will be achieved without diplomacy. That said, while such a tactic might work with a brother or a friend, I do not know if it would work with people like Brother Bott, who's job it is to educate people regarding the teachings and history of the church. In short, I'm not convinced by my own idea: while it might do something to keep unfortunate statements from being made in public forums, it wouldn't necessarily do anything to prevent the private instruction of such teachings, thus propagating beliefs which I believe to be erroneous.

    To be honest, I really don't see how these beliefs could be stamped out, short of a direct statement from the first Presidency in general conference - and I just don't see that happening.

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    1. Yeah I'd like to hear the church come out and publicly repudiate the Cain/Ham stuff. As long as it doesn't there's room for its proponents to believe they have tacit support. Still... after our hypothetical denunciation we'd have to account for the racialist language in our own scriptures, not to mention a long tradition of church leaders speaking on the matter, which opens a huge can of worms on the nature of prophetic authority. Were the church to make such a statement it could be seen as a repudiation of itself, which I imagine wouldn't go over well with a lot of people whose testimony's rest on some ideal of the Church's divine calling, that it's somehow above the fray of flawed human/institutional behavior. I think that's why the Church prefers to let controversial issues wither on the vine instead of confronting them directly. It's a useful strategy, but a little frustrating when it allows space for stuff I really, really don't like!

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    2. Jeff, I see your point about recognizing the limitations to what we can do differently when the institutional authority and position of individuals like Bott simply makes dynamics of disagreeing with his voice different. That said, I am of the opinion (and I think faith) that if we want the revelation or institutional statement from on high we have to be a people who wants that statement. I think this is how I deal with the church following cultural trends in 20 year lags rather than leading the way. I don't think it's outside of appropriate bounds that the Lord has set to voice dissatisfaction with tropes and trends that are problematic. But I also think that part of desiring this voice and claiming responsibility for moving the church into a position where such disavowing statements can be made is a stalwart determination to the long haul. I've had multiple frustrating conversations with parents who still do not understand how Disneys "Song of the South" is a racist movie. I like to think one day theyll recognize why I find it so troubling, but I understand that might take a while ... Or longer

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    3. Well said. I am completely on board when if comes to being direct with other members of the faith. If we, the members of the church, are not willing to stand up and change our own beliefs/culture, then no one else is going to do it for us.

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  4. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/racial-remarks-in-washington-post-article

    did you already see this? what do you think?

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    1. That is an excellent response. Fully approve!

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    2. Well I can say that I appreciate the disavowal of the comment which perpetuate paternalistic racism. Also am a fan of a statement against racism . . . but I kinda wish the statement was more clear or definitive about what that meant, like how does it condemn racism? But it's a PR release so I realize that it's not going to have the specificity that I think is more present in President Hinckley's remarks of the Priesthood session of the April 2006 conference.

      You know what I'm not a fan of though? The following statement: "It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine."

      Reasons why I'm not particularly thrilled about this. (1) The "it ended decades ago" statement just seems like it doesn't really address the implications of the practice and how it impacted people in the past. It's the same thing with polygamy, the stance is simply: "it's in the past, we don't do that any more. We're not polygamists and racists anymore." Please excuse my flippant paraphrasing, but it's just not a satisfying response. At least, it's not satisfying to me. We're a church that stresses eternity and the past and the importance of our cultural history so much; it's just odd that the Church does not engage in the conversation about this part of our history in an official capacity. I get why it doesn't, but it's still something that disappoints me.

      (2) And here's the bigger thing (again just for me). "We don't know why the reason for the ban; any speculation is speculation, not doctrine." How about entertaining the notion that there is nor never was a doctrinal reason for it. Perhaps this answer is itself a nondoctrinal speculation, but I'm selfish, I just want someone to say this to validate me and my opinion. :)

      I think what's hard for the church is really dealing with this past and all the previous conjecture/speculation where it has really built up a cult-like dedication to Wilford Woodruff notion that the Church will not be led away by the ordained servants of God. How do you say "maybe the servants of God led us astray on this one"? Furthermore, how do you say that while still maintaining current discourses of obedience to institutional leaders to the degree that that has become? How do you comfort and assure people who have an invested faith in an (almost) infallibility of living prophets? I don't know. I feel comfortable with prophets being wrong about stuff like this but I understand a lot of people are not. I saw this posted as an example of one way a church could approach something like this.

      Pope John XXIII had this to say regarding the treatment of the Jews by Catholics throughout history:

      "We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know what we did."

      I wouldn't mind hearing a little more admission of culpability, but that's me because I feel like the ban was never doctrinal or based in divine revelation.

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    3. Don't get me wrong though: much more a fan of the statement than had the Church not responded or if they had given any merit to the paternal racism argument. Reading it did cause a stirring of "Yay!"

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    4. Allan, I take your point - but from the perspective of turning a huge ship around with a tiny wheel, I think this is actually a rather excellent response from the church. To the point, the segment of the response you take issue with: "We don't know why the reason for the ban; any speculation is speculation, not doctrine," is the section I'm most excited by. Why? Because while they didn't come out say this wasn't a divine injunction, the also didn't say "we don't know the reason for the revelations barring the priesthood from blacks." The church left the door open for a non-doctrinal interpretation! I don't know about you, but to me that's a big deal! Baby steps, as our dear friend Bob would say.

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    5. Sorry, quoted the wrong part: "It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine."

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    6. I don't see the idea of the priesthood ban as a man-made edifice ever taking hold or becoming part of official discourse - the church has too much interest vested in the semi-infallible Woodruff doctrine. Then all of a sudden you'd start to wonder about, say, the ERA, gay marriage, women and the priesthood, and so on. At least official agnosticism on the issue is an acknowledgement that the church isn't comfortable with its racist past. So, not great, maybe not even good, but better.

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    7. Agreed. But they didn't slam the door in our faces either, so I'm going to feel free believe what I believe. Yay for ambiguity!

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    8. Really? Are we complaining that the Church's conciliatory and refreshingly honest statement wasn't conciliatory and honest enough? That feels more like we've made up our minds already that the Church won't handle this well, and now we're only looking at the ways we think they could have handled it better. Let's instead be happy with the fact that the Church quickly and firmly shot down a loudmouthed bigot, and opened the door for the possibility that previous racist policies weren't inspired by revelation.

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    9. Thank you Brett, well said.

      I ran into a guy while I was on my mission who yelled at my companion and I, simultaneously begging us for a reasonable explanation for the Priesthood thing. We tried to be calm and explain that we don't have all the answers, but the Gospel is what matters. He yelled at us until we cried. He watched like it was some kind of retribution. That was one of the hardest days I ever had.

      Long story short... Trying to pretend there is a good reason for things we don't get is pointless.

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    10. I like to think it's not complaining, but instead articulating my emotional response to the statement. An emotional response which was both elated and conflicted. I wanted to give voice to both responses I was experiencing and I admit failed to explore both equally.

      I like what Jeff said about the rudder and ship metaphor. Brett's comment combined with Jeff's metaphor reminded me that my manifesto about masturbatory rage is a work in progress for me. It is and will take time to turn the wheel and rudder for me, my personality, my response. And I think recognizing that in myself and my actions as an individual requires me to validate, recognize, and celebrate the adjustments made in a larger structural institution like the Church. A recognition I am still in the process of learning to foster. So yes, I have my criticisms and struggles; they are problematic and bear being criticized as well. I appreciate the push back against my reaction (it's good for me) but it's also how I feel right now and I don't necessarily feel bad for wanting more.

      There's a line from a TV show that I really liked as a kid: "We ain't what we should be. And we ain't what we're gonna be. But at least we ain't what we used to be." It's a personal little mantra I like to remind myself that I'd like to live by.

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    11. I like how the response condemned all racism, past and present, within and without the church. To me, that almost sounds like they are condemning the racist priesthood ban itself! Did anyone else notice that?

      And for the record, I feel no shame in openly admitting (in church or wherever) that the prophets are still fallible mortals who interpret things through the lens of their experience and are capable of making bad calls.

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  5. here is another official statement from the Church on the subject: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/race-church

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  6. Also--I commend the .gif. Nathan Fillion has such a way with...gestures.

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  7. So...is this a place for people to vent about beef they have with the church or members of it? Reading this post and the comments was quite disheartening and a negative experience. I'd hope for more constructive, positive, striving-for-common-ground approaches to "issues" like this.

    Thanks for the links to the news posts from the Church, they were very refreshing.

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    1. I find that racism tends to create negativity wherever it pops up. It's not a bridge-building sort of thing. But if you are looking for an uncritical haven where no controversy is discussed, I suggest you read other sites :)

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