Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Racism and the Book of Mormon

It's that time of year again, when I present the unit on Mormonism in my course on American Religious Histories.

This year I've gone back to using Terryl Givens' By the Hand of Mormon as a course text (as opposed to Armand Mauss's Angel and the Beehive, which I've used in previous years). I like Mauss because his study provides a snapshot of modern Mormonism, that helps to dispel a lot of the stereotypes non-Mormons have about Mormons. Among other things, Mauss also addresses questions related to racism and the Mormon Church, which makes my job as a teacher a little bit easier. (Among other things, Mauss provides statistical data to show that Mormons were not more racist than the general population prior to 1978, and that Mormon attitudes toward race have become more progressive than attitudes in the general population since 1978.)

The problem with using The Angel and the Beehive is that it doesn't really discuss Mormon belief, and when you're trying to teach non-Mormons about Mormonism, that's a problem. I like Givens' monograph on the Book of Mormon because it offers students an account of Mormon origins focusing on Mormonism's most important book of scripture, which gets right to the heart of Mormon belief. Furthermore, it presents in fairly unflinching fashion all the various challenges related to the Book of Mormon, but from a faithful perspective. It allows non-Mormons to see how and why faithful Mormons accept and believe in the Book of Mormon, despite some of these challenges.

Of course digging into the Book of Mormon means dealing up close and personal with what I consider one of the more troubling problems, the whole dark skin "curse" thing.

At the very least, as a believing Mormon, I have to confess that this aspect of the Book of Mormon is extremely awkward, because I simply don't believe that God "curses" people with dark skin. There is actually solid doctrinal basis from within Mormonism to reject the whole idea of an inherited "dark skin curse": "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins..." (2nd Article of Faith). The idea of dark skin "curses" sort of militates against the whole idea of personal accountability and faith that is implied by the second article of faith.

The Book of Mormon itself presents the history of the Nephites and the Lamanites as if darkness or lightness of skin has nothing to do with either individual or collective righteousness. When Lamanites are described as "wicked," if hereditary causes are offered, "the traditions of their fathers" are invariably blamed, certainly not race or skin color. Anyone familiar with the Book of Mormon narrative knows that at significant points in the story, the dark-skinned Lamanites are described as more righteous than the light-skinned Nephites. In fact, it is only the Nephites who become ultimately so wicked that they are completely wiped off the face of the land. The dark-skinned Lamanites never descend to that level of wickedness.

If anything, the "curse" functions in the Book of Mormon more as a "just-so story," explaining how two groups of people from the same racial stock could end up becoming racially different. (And potentially, for modern readers, explaining how Native Americans could come from Hebrew racial stock.) After all, if God consistently cursed the wicked with dark skin, then Nephites should have lost their light skin color somewhere in the Book of Alma, and for that matter, the human population of the entire world should be dark skinned. So if dark skin is a "curse" in the Book of Mormon, it is a very peculiar curse. It just doesn't really make a lot of sense.

So, as a thoughtful believing Mormon who also abhors racism of any kind -- who regards racism as a blight and a sin and offensive in the eyes of a just and loving God who is "no respecter of persons" (D&C 38:16) -- I just don't know what to do with this aspect of the Book of Mormon. I ultimately do nothing with it. And it's easy to do nothing with it, since, bottom line, it's really not that important a part of the overall Book of Mormon narrative. (Perhaps I simply choose not to see it as important.) Some faithful Mormons who have wrestled with this issue choose to see references to the dark skin curse as the product of bias in the Book of Mormon authors themselves, one of those "faults of a man" (Mormon 8:17) that Mormon asked his readers to overlook in the text.

In class on Tuesday, I did get grilled by a couple of students about this issue. What really broke my heart was when one of my students confessed that when she read about this issue in the Givens' text, it upset her so much that she quit reading Givens and could go no further. I'm not trying to cause my students this kind of distress; I want this class to be an intellectually and spiritually engaging and positive experience, not a "got-so-mad-I-couldn't-read-any-further" kind of experience.

I have no desire to gloss over this issue. I am not much inclined to be an apologist for Mormon racism. Our sins in this arena are many, and frankly confessing and forsaking them is a requirement for us if we are to have any hope of growing into the fullness of righteousness and love God intends for us.

I will also insist it's not entirely fair for folks to suggest that I must be racist for adhering to a faith that believes in a book of scripture that contains racist ideas. That puts me in a particular kind of bind I must reject as unproductive. It insists in essence I must be racist in order to be a Mormon, and I simply refuse to accept that. If I were to reject any faith for having scripture containing offensive ideas or for having offensive traditions, then I'm not sure I could find a religion it would be possible for me to adhere to. If there were any sort of contest of which book of scripture contains the most offensive ideas, I think the Bible wins, and I haven't thrown away any of my bibles yet. In fact, I keep buying new ones. I just recently bought The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and have been using it as a guide in my current study of the four Gospels.

As I've elaborated here in blog posts too numerous to count, I see faith as a process of growth, which implies acceptance of the notion that we are not perfect. Throwing faith away doesn't help us out of this bind, and in fact may do the opposite. My faith offers me powerful tools for understanding the problem of human sinfulness, coming to full terms with it, and finding ways to learn and grow beyond it with a sense of hope. I refuse to abandon those tools because the kit contains a few that seem rusty or unuseful.

My faith also offers me perspectives and understandings that give me a basis for rejecting racism or any kind of "ism" that denigrates anybody. Those aspects of my faith are so much more meaningful to me and powerful to me than the other stuff. And I'm not sure there's any way to make this work that doesn't involve engaging and committing to faith, even when there are ambiguous aspects or offensive aspects that pop up in the warp and woof of our faith. In some sense, I'm not a wise enough judge to completely disentangle the good from the bad, so I have to accept it and trust that the purpose of religion is to create a me that is better and more loving. I think it is doing that, so I remain committed to the process.