Sunday, August 24, 2014

Historical Racial Teachings in LDS Doctrine

Let’s talk about the LDS church’s ban on those of African descent holding the priesthood. I have always been confused about this. It never made moral sense to me that God would purposely exclude a group of people from full participation in his church. But before discussing it, let’s go into a bit of background so that we can understand what the problem really is.

First, the priesthood ban was really more than a priesthood ban. Men of African descent were denied the priesthood but another consequence of the ban was that entire families were denied entry to the temple, so until 1978 black families could not be sealed in the Mormon church. Black men and women couldn't get their endowments. There were no temple weddings for black couples.

If you haven’t, please read the church’s recent essay "Race and the Priesthood". It does a fairly good job of laying out some important historical context. It avoids some of the more racist quotes by LDS church leaders, but I’ll share and discuss some of them and why they trouble me in this post.

Of note is the following quote from the essay:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
Here are some of the quotes through history that concern me. I apologize in advance for the length, but context is important and I try to give the quotes as much context as is reasonably possible.

Bruce R. McConkie states that those of African descent were less valiant in the pre-existence:
Of the two-thirds who followed Christ, however, some were more valiant than others ....Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin (Moses 5:16-41; 12:22). Noah's son Ham married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain, thus preserving the negro lineage through the flood (Abraham 1:20-27). Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. (Abra. 1:20-27.) The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them (Moses 7:8, 12, 22), although sometimes negroes search out the truth, join the Church, and become by righteous living heirs of the celestial kingdom of heaven. President Brigham Young and others have taught that in the future eternity worthy and qualified negroes will receive the priesthood and every gospel blessing available to any man. 
The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence. Along with all races and peoples he is receiving here what he merits as a result of the long pre-mortal probation in the presence of the Lord....The negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom, but this inequality is not of man's origin. It is the Lord's doing. (Mormon Doctrine, 1966 Edition)
First Presidency under George Albert Smith also states that those of African descent were less valiant in the pre-existence:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.” 
President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.” 
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes. (First Presidency Statement, August 17, 1949)
Apostle Mark E. Petersen also states that being born of African descent is a result of actions in the pre-existence, interracial marriage is forbidden, and makes some other statements that might seem unenlightened:
Think of the Negro, cursed as to the priesthood. This Negro, who, in the pre‑existence lived the type of life which justified the Lord in sending him to the earth in their lineage of Cain with a black skin, and possibly being born in darkest Africa‑‑if that Negro is willing when he hears the gospel to accept it, he may have many of the blessings of the gospel. In spite of all he did in the pre‑existent life, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory. (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)
Now what is our policy in regard to intermarriage? As to the Negro, of course, there is only one possible answer. We must not intermarry with the Negro... (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)
I think I have read enough to give you an idea of what the Negro is after. He is not just seeking the opportunity of sitting down in a cafe where white people eat. He isn't just trying to ride on the same streetcar or the same Pullman car with white people. It isn't that he just desires to go to the same theater as the white people. From this, and other interviews I have read, it appears that the Negro seeks absorption with the white race. He will not be satisfied until he achieves it by intermarriage. That is his objective and we must face it. We must not allow our feelings to carry us away, nor must we feel so sorry for Negroes that we will open our arms and embrace them with everything we have. Remember the little statement that we used to say about sin, 'First we pity, then endure, then embrace'. (Mark E. Petersen, Race Problems ‑ As They Affect The Church, Convention of Teachers of Religion on the College Level, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954)
Brigham Young saying that the penalty for interracial marriage will always be death:
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. (Brigham Young, JoD Vol. 10 page 110)
John Taylor stating that those of African descent are the devil's representatives on earth:
And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham's wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? Because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God. (John Taylor, JoD Vol. 22 page 304 (1881))
As you can see, these quotes directly contradict the recently released essay linked to above and have been disavowed by the essay. I could give dozens more examples where church leaders (and by leaders I mean apostles and prophets) have said similar things. These were the beliefs of the church for over 100 years and at the highest levels of leadership.

Another big thing for me that the essay doesn't cover is the fact that in 1852, Utah was allowed to decide if slavery would be legal there. Brigham Young said the following to the territorial legislature in 1852:
“I have this section in my hand, headed "An Act in Relation to African Slavery." I have read it over and made a few alterations. I will remark with regard to slavery, inasmuch as we believe in the Bible, inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses, which they have in their families and their classes and in their various capacities brought upon themselves. And until the curse is removed by Him who placed it upon them, they must suffer under its consequences; I am not authorized to remove it. I am a firm believer in slavery.
Following Young's speech, the territorial legislature, which was made up mostly of LDS general authorities at that time voted and legalized slavery in Utah. In fact, for a time, the LDS church under Young actually owned a man. His name was Green Flake.  Look him up. Learn about him. He has an interesting life story.

So what is the problem for me? The problem is not that these teachings were disavowed. That is a good thing. The problem is that for more than 100 years prophets and apostles taught that black skin was a sign of divine disfavor or curse, that it was a result of alleged misdeeds committed in a previous life, and that mixed race marriage was a sin, many times while explicitly declaring it unambiguously as God's will. A prophet also endorsed slavery and allowed the church to participate in it directly. I feel that if prophets can teach things that are incorrect and morally wrong as God's will, I am forced to redefine the word 'prophet' so that it means something significantly different and less extraordinary than what I thought earlier in my life. I am left to wonder if I am not better off just figuring things out on my own.

Anyway, it is nice that the essay states that these earlier teachings were not correct, but I would really like to see an apology on behalf of the institution, similar to the apologies the Catholic church has made for some of its mistakes in the past. I can’t feel good about how we just refer to nebulous mistakes of the past made by unnamed individuals. It gives the impression that they were just opinions of rogue underlings. A problem like this should be confronted directly. I think that in order to truly put this issue behind them, the LDS church needs to directly acknowledge that racist beliefs were held at the highest levels and offer a candid apology for that.

In addition, it is hard for me not to draw parallels with this and current church rhetoric. How do we know that God disapproves of gay marriage and women receiving the priesthood? Do we know the same way that we knew that blacks were born with dark skin because of mistakes they made in a life before this life, the same way we knew that slavery should be legalized in Utah?

Edit 9/1/14: It seems like the most common response from a believer's standpoint to these issues is that I need to not expect prophets of the past to be perfect. My response would be that I don't. I do expect them to provide good moral guidance and be honest and candid when they don't know something, but I certainly don't expect perfection. The problem is that nearly everybody today can agree that Brigham Young's endorsement of slavery was wrong, yet he attributed it to God. There are things that current LDS church leaders are attributing to God like we should oppose gay marriage and the ordination of women. The question is, what changed between then and now that makes it so that prophets cannot be wrong anymore? At what moment did LDS prophets cease to be vulnerable to making huge errors of judgement like Brigham Young did? If I genuinely feel that they are wrong, can I exercise my right of conscience and publicly state that? Would it have been wrong for me to publicly state that Brigham Young was wrong abut slavery had I lived during that time?

I think that wrong is wrong and nobody should feel like they have to hide what they really think when it comes to moral issues. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

God as a Moral Exemplar in LDS Theology

A year or two ago, I read “The God Who Weeps” by Terryl and Fiona Givens, which I enjoyed. Near the beginning of the book, the Givens’ talk a bit about the possible natures of God or Gods. One point that they made that stuck with me (you will have to forgive me for paraphrasing rather than quoting here; I can’t find my wife’s copy of the book) was that there are several possibilities for God(s). They could exist or not, and they could be just beings or not. They gave a quick example of an Aztec God who required periodic bloody human sacrifices as an unjust God and state that we would be morally justified in not worshiping such a being. Then they move on to other topics.

I was surprised that they didn't stop and attempt any discussion of the morality of the God of Abraham at that point. That is where my number one concern with the religion I grew up with is centered. But before I get started, let me just say that when I imagine a just and loving God, I imagine a God who is comfortable with me examining his morality, or really the morality that is being attributed to him by living men or dead ones in scripture. I want to examine some issues that I have with the morality of God as recorded in scripture. I have many other concerns with the morality of God, but I will limit this post to scripture today:

Old Testament:

1. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. I can’t imagine that a just God would want his followers to be ready and willing to kill others arbitrarily with no explanation as to why.
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
 2. Lot, the only righteous man in Sodom, offers his daughters up to a mob to be raped.
Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please… (Genesis 19:8)
3. Scriptural permission to stone rebellious children.
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son…then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city…then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones… (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
4. God sends bears to kill children who tease a prophet for being bald.
…some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24)
5. A man attempts to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling on the ground and is struck dead by God.
…Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam 6:6-7)
6. The killing of firstborns, which presumably would have included many innocent children, as one of the plagues of Egypt.
At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Exodus 12:29)
7. Slavery is endorsed numerous times in the book, but never is it prohibited. If God is superior to humans morally and is capable of communicating effectively with humans, then I can't understand his failure to articulate the simple fact that slavery is morally wrong in some place in scripture. More disappointing is the fact that he does the opposite and specifically endorses it many times in the Old Testament and even a couple of times in the New Testament. I agree with Robert Ingersoll who said, “If you find slavery upheld in a book said to have been written by God, what would you expect to find in a book inspired by the devil?” Here are just a couple of the many examples of the endorsement of slavery in the Old Testament:
As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money. (Exodus 21:20-21)
 8. God commands the genocide of the Canaanite people, which includes the cold-blooded killing of infants and toddlers. Here are just a few examples:
And we captured all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed every city, men, women, and children; we left none remaining; (Deuteronomy 2:34)
And we utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, destroying every city, men, women, and children. (Deuteronomy 3:6) 
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per′izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb′usites, as the Lord your God has commanded; (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) 
9. In one battle, virgin females are spared to be wedded to Israelites. It is hard to imagine that these women would be eager to wed a people who just murdered their families, so I have to imagine that this was also an endorsement of forced marriages and probably forced sexual encounters. I do admit that the text doesn't explicitly say this but I find it extremely hard to imagine that these women would be eager to wed a people who just killed everyone they know. 
...and commanded them, “Go and smite the inhabitants of Ja′besh-gil′ead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones. This is what you shall do; every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall utterly destroy.” And they found among the inhabitants of Ja′besh-gil′ead four hundred young virgins who had not known man by lying with him; and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan...and they gave them the women whom they had saved alive of the women of Ja′besh-gil′ead; but they did not suffice for them. (Judges 21:10-14)
 New Testament:

1. Paul states that women should not speak in church.
the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate.... (1 Corinthians 14:34)
 2. Paul endorses slavery. Slavery isn't just in the Old Testament as part of an older law that was fulfilled and is now gone, not that that would make it okay.  This is why abolitionist Christians had such a hard time making a Biblical case against slavery in the 19th century.
Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; (Ephesians 6:5) 
Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. (1 Timothy 6:1-2) 
3. Jesus forbids divorce except in cases of sexual infidelity. This doesn't feel right to me. For example, I don't think that someone who divorces to escape an abusive spouse has committed any sin.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
 4. Jesus endorses killing those who oppose him in the parable of the talents.
But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me. (Luke 19:27)
Book of Mormon:

1. Decapitation of Laban. The issue I have with this is complex. Before I get into it, let me just state my opinion that if God is all-powerful and just and omniscient, I have to assume that everything he does is the best possible thing that he could have done. Okay, on to the issue: The prophet Nephi beheads a man at the command of God. God could have stopped the man’s heart or given him a brain tumor that would kill him at that exact moment, but he didn't. Think about that for a second, this implies that God wanted Nephi to have the experience of hacking a man’s head of with a sword. God thought that would be a good experience for Nephi, and that Nephi would be made a better person by doing that. I find that extremely difficult to imagine.
Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Nephi 4:18)
2. God makes a people black so that they won’t be appealing to the white people.
And he had caused the cursing to come upon them…that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them. (2 Nephi 5:21)
3. Chastity/virtue is forcibly taken. I don’t believe that chastity or virtue can be forcibly taken. I think that is a harmful message to send to a rape victim.
…many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue— (Moroni 9:9)
4. Divorce again. This is almost a verbatim quote from a verse in the KJV New Testament. I have seen LDS theologians deal with the Bible verse by saying that the word ‘divorce’ doesn't mean someone who was legally divorced but someone who set their wife aside without granting them a legal divorce. This works within the LDS paradigm because Mormons believe in the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, or in other words they don’t consider it to be word-for-word perfect. If something from the Bible doesn't fit into LDS theology it can be ignored, because it may not be translated correctly. This cannot be done with the Book of Mormon as it was written for our day and was translated directly through the power of God and is “…the most correct of any book on earth…” as described by Joseph Smith. So one cannot simply state that ‘divorce’ means anything other than what it says without explaining why. I personally believe that morally all a man and woman need to do to get divorced is to recognize that they have a bad relationship and that there is little or no chance of repairing it. No other moral justification is needed.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whoso shall marry her who is divorced committeth adultery. (3 Nephi 12:32)
5. Lack of clear condemnation of slavery.

Doctrine and Covenants:

1. Lack of clear condemnation of slavery.

You may notice that I added something that both the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants lack. That is because we are told that the Book of Mormon was written for our day, and so obviously was the Doctrine and Covenants. In the day that they first appeared, slavery was a big issue. In fact, in 1852 slavery was a big issue in Utah as the territory was allowed by the federal government to decide if they would legalize it there (the compromise of 1850). Brigham Young addressed the territorial legislature on January 23, 1852 and stated “…we must believe in slavery” and “I am a firm believer in slavery.” On February 4, 1852 the legislature, which was mostly made up of LDS church leaders, legalized slavery in Utah.

In my mind, this was a monumental moral failure that the God of Abraham didn't prevent, as was all slavery throughout human history. Since God is supposed to be perfect and presumably he is also capable of communicating effectively with humans, he must have had some reason that he wanted this to happen. I mean all he had to do to prevent slavery in Utah was replace one of the “And it came to pass[es]…”in the Book of Mormon (a meaningless phrase) with “BTW folks, slavery is immoral.” I can’t fathom what the reason for him not doing this could be. It makes no moral sense to me.

Thomas Paine sums up my feelings concerning the troubling parts of the Bible perfectly: 
The origin of every nation is buried in fabulous tradition, and that of the Jews is as much to be suspected as any other. To charge the commission of acts upon the Almighty, which, in their own nature, and by every rule of moral justice, are crimes, as all assassination is, and more especially the assassination of infants, is matter of serious concern. The Bible tells us, that those assassinations were done by the express command of God. To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; for wherein could crying or smiling infants offend? And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice. –The Age of Reason
In closing, I just want to state here that I’m not judging those who believe in the God of Abraham. There are lots of wonderful people who do; I just think it should be understandable to others that I would have difficulty believing this myself. I don’t understand the morality of the God of Abraham and I don’t know that I ever will. I’m pretty comfortable saying that a lot of these things God did or commanded are wrong. If I somehow find myself facing the God of Abraham in the next life, I will feel comfortable expressing my moral confusion to him. If he is just, he will understand.

Note: All quotes are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Note on Wikipedia

You may note that I link to Wikipedia in my blog when referring to various facts. I am anticipating that many will criticize my use of Wikipedia since it is frowned upon to use it as an academic source.

Let me be clear that I realize this. I know the limitations of Wikipedia. The problem is that I could cite a source somewhere in some library that you would have to go check out, if you could even find it, but we both know you aren't going to do that for a blog post. Wikipedia is the best source I can cite that is freely available and only a click away. Please let me know if you know of another encyclopedia that is free and available online that is put together by professionals.

The reason that I don't have a problem citing Wikipedia as a source is that Wikipedia is a starting point for research. Don't take my word for anything. Don't take Wikipedia's word either. Follow the articles sources and see if they are good.  If you see something that doesn't look right, try to disprove it. Take this and apply it everywhere in life.

That said, Wikipedia is actually a pretty decent source of information. Not perfect but pretty good. You definitely won't see me citing it at work, though.