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3/2/12

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar

This is another response to the Professor Bott/LDS Newsroom debacle. You've been warned:

Every once in a while, the cosmos blesses teacher with a wonderful student. These students make your day better simply by existing. They say “thank you” at the end of each day. Your heart leaps every time he or she raises their hand, because their comments consistently validate your belief that you are accomplishing something of worth. You remember that student for years.

For me, Sam is my student. I unabashedly love him in a way only English teachers can love a 17 year old boy. (That means I love him in a completely appropriate way with clear boundaries rooted in a desire for him to succeed academically.) I like that he thinks before raising his hand. I appreciate the way he incorporates his beliefs and thoughts into his reactions to the text. Sometimes he speaks in a way that makes me realize the characters in the novels are real to him. I suspect he genuinely cared about Huck Finn.

He cared about Huck Finn, and I've only seen the mild-mannered Sam remotely angry once: during our discussions on  racism and culture in Huck Finn. He was horrified by Tom’s unnecessarily cruel treatment of Jim. He couldn’t understand how Tom could treat Jim like a plaything, prolonging his slavery for the sake of “adventure.” Later, without any guidance from me, Sam pointed out the callousness of Huck’s answer when Huck makes up a story about a steamboat accident.  Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt, to which Huck remarks “No, just a n_______r.”

Maybe the racism in Huck Finn horrified Sam because, according to Brigham Young, he "wears the mark of Cain." But I think Sam’s horror stemmed at least in equal part from Sam’s sense of personal integrity. Sam is a good and kind person, and the truly good and kind tend to be horrified by little things like injustice.

I don’t even mind when Sam reads his scriptures during SSR (at the beginning of class, students are allowed to read a book of their choice for ten minutes,) even when he is behind on the assigned reading. I don’t mind, and despite some major cynicism towards the LDS church, I do wonder if that all that scripture reading helped create my kind a thoughtful student. My heart breaks a little thinking that, because it forces me to ask myself why it didn’t work for me? If Mormonism helped make Sam the kind of person who cares about the well-being of others, even fictional characters, why can’t it work for me?

I don’t know when Sam’s family joined the church. I wonder when his father received the priesthood, and if his grandfather died waiting. I wonder if my student who reads Preach My Gospel despite being two years away from serving a mission is familiar with our history of racism and discrimination. Does he know that the school he dreams of attending is named after a man who supported slavery because he believed Blacks were cursed? Is he aware that he may take a religion class from a teacher (Professor Bott) who promotes a “discriminatory” God, a God who withholds blessings because Blacks were “fence-sitters” in the pre-existence? I look at Sam’s heavily annotated triple combination and recoil at the idea of anyone telling this bright and thoughtful student that his testimony just isn’t enough, or wouldn’t have been enough 34 years ago. I think of Huck telling Aunt Sally that no one got hurt.

Of course, in light of the  Professor Bott’s comments, the LDS church is quick to remind us (via statement from the vague and mysterious newsroom,) that “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.” Great. We don’t know why Sam’s testimony didn’t matter 34 for years ago, but it does now.

Of course I am pleased that the LDS church made a clear statement against Professor Bott’s statements: “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” But I don’t know if a 196 word statement claiming only partial responsibility for generations of discrimination is enough. When Sam meets his first Mormon Bigot (because he will,) how will a “statement issued by the LDS Newsroom” fare against the words of a prophet like Brigham Young, or McConkie, or Kimball?

Like many LDS bloggers and writers, (Joanna Brooks, Jana Reiss,) I want more than a Newsroom statement. I want an apology, I want a sincere asking for forgiveness for the pain our practices caused, and will continue to cause if we allow racism to die a slowly anesthetized death from The Newsroom. I want a death blow issued by President Monson, over the pulpit, in Conference. I want something that Sam can hold onto when he serves his inevitable mission and someone incredulously asks him why he serves a church that barely recognizes their racist heritage.

I want it for Sam, but I’ll confess, I want it for me too. Someday my great-great grand-daughter may question why her ancestor stayed connected to a church that told her that her worth lies solely in being “the wife and mother of the children of a worthy holder of the priesthood,” (note that this implies that I am mother to his children, not ours,) while her husband receives not only the opportunity to be a parent, but the power to “speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world.” When that day comes, I’m sincerely hoping that there is more than a Newsroom quote to calm her heart. I’m hoping that there will be more than benevolently sexist language about women being “worshipped” instead of being equal. I’m hoping that someday my grand-children, whatever their race or their gender, will be seen as truly equal to their white male counterparts.  

But what I’ve learned, not only from Sam, but from Professor Bott and The Newsroom, is to recognize that the tiny part of me that wants to make Mormonism work. I want it to work for me.  I want it to work for me on some level that I don’t understand.

 I’m just not sure it can. I’m not sure I can have a testimony of The Newsroom when my testimony of the gospel itself seems questionable. I don’t want to live like my ancestors, or Sam’s ancestors, waiting for the change and apology that may never arrive.  It is good that we are condemning racism, it is good that we see men and women as equal partners. But we need to apologize for racism, and we need to recognize that it is impossible to be equal when one person “presides” over the other.

 It is good. We are on the right track. But it is enough?




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33 comments:

lifeofdi said...

I read this blog before I read yours and I think it's basically the consensus. http://www.telestialstate.com/2012/03/02/the-racist-lds-church-accuses-randy-bott-of-being-racist

"The LDS Church also stated in their press release that “We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.” So does that mean the LDS Church condemns many of its own prophets and apostles?

The reality is, the LDS Church has a racist history. And so does the United States! Our country used to own slaves, we forced black people to ride in the back of the bus, and we assume all black presidents are Kenyan Marxists. Racism is a horrible part of American history, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Only by admitting — and accepting — our racist past, can we move forward.

For the LDS Church to claim that nobody knows “precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church” is not only disingenuous, but blatantly dishonest."

Also I saw your about me in the sidebar while leaving this comment and I think posting a kitty update would not count as excessive pet blogging.

Hillary said...

Such interesting thoughts you have on these subjects, and I share them. It is such a struggle to figure out what you believe admidst all the conflicting messages church leaders give. I think it's best to start from the ground up and tune out all that other (sorry) crap. Because I believe, at the very end, when you're standing before God at the judgment seat, there will be no Boyd K. Packer and no Professor Bott there to explain to God why you made the choices you did. It's just you.

At times when I'm particularly struggling, I've held tightly to the idea that it's ok to not believe. There are certain things preached by leaders that I don't. Whether that means the entire church is wrong, I don't know. But that's ok. I might not be able to say that I believe the church is true right now, but I have the desire to believe. And that, for now, is (and has to be) enough.

Christina Bishop said...

I couldn't help but mention two things that I've been pondering after reading through the New Testament recently. My thoughts stemmed from reading your blog in the first place, so I thought it would be appropriate to share.

I was pondering the issues you mention frequently, like the ones in this post, when I came across two sets of interesting New Testament scriptures. The first was when the law of circumcision was no longer required, and the second was when Peter had the vision indicating he could, and should, take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. Both created super controversial reactions among the disciples of Christ. (I'd give reference but I'm really not a scholar!)

These scriptures may not have perfect answers for any of the thoughts you have presented (and thoughts that I now ponder), but they made me realize that even in early Christianity, there were controversial, exclusive commandments. And when God commanded them to change, they did. He didn't go into His reasons for asking Abraham to circumcise in the first place, He just told them not to do it anymore. Same thing with teaching the Gentiles.

And that's it. I am still pondering, so I have no insightful conclusions about what we all need to take from this. I just found meaning in those verses thanks to you. Thanks!

Tammy said...

When it comes to these hard to explain topics I have to remind myself that the LDS church is run by imperfect men and always has been. It would be great if the Church could own that they were very, very wrong. And I agree with lifeofdi we have to accept it, face it and move forward and not shy or hide from our past.
Currently I am a member of the LDS Church because it is the only religion I will ever be apart of but I don't believe every single thing. I am a picker and a chooser and I am very happy. I am very close to God and I am very blessed.

I know lots of people who are very black and white and if they don't believe every single thing then they can't be apart of something. I think that attitude will make you miss out on some amazing things in life.
We live in a very imperfect world and the Church is included in that. For me the good of the church has far out weighed the bad and I will continue to participate at the level I am comfortable with.

I really loved this post by the way.
Sam is on his own journey and will figure out what is best for him if he hasn't already. I lived in Africa for a while. I never ran into any black person that had issues with the racism in the church. It was interesting for sure.

Karina Marie said...

While I think it is necessary and appropriate to stand up for injustice and discrimination of every kind, and question anything that does not feel right, regardless of the source, and by this I mean, just because you are LDS doesn't mean you blindly follow everything every leader says.

I also find it somewhat frustrating how there is so much outrage about how "blacks" are treated in the church, from everyone but those who are black.

I'm half American and half Arabic. I have a Kenyan boyfriend, and countless friends who are African, Brazilian African, African America, etc. A friend and mentor grew up LDS in Brazil and was denied the priesthood because he was Black. Because he was denied the priesthood, he was also denied participation in any "quorum" activities, such as young men outings, etc, because he didn't have the priesthood. When the revelation came and he made the decision to postpone his wedding to his sweetheart to serve a mission, as previously he could not, his own bishop was still against ordaining him. He had to go to the Stake President. In their family, they celebrate the date of the revelation every year, it made a profound impact and difference in their lives.
However, despite all of this, he is one of the strongest faithful members of the church I know. He is meticulous and obedient in anything that is official doctrine. Anything else, way open to interpretation (he questions as much as the rest of us).
My point is, that he understands that in and out of the church you encounter humans with weaknesses and sometimes ignorance. And, no one is perfect. And, he doesn't spend a lot of time being angry and pointing fingers because it has nothing to do with his own personal testimony. To me, if he, who has been impacted the most by the racial discrimination in past policies is not angry or bitter, what right do I have? It's never even personally affected me.
Like I said, I think its important and necessary to stand up for anything that is inappropriate, horrible, and wrong. But, if we are not Black, we don't truly know what others feel or experience, no matter how close we are to them, and I just think its inappropriate to use something that we truly cannot understand as an excuse to be upset with the church or condemn it.
Condemn those who have not yet learned the true meaning of Christ's love, and the imperfect choices or mistakes they have made. But realize that leaders, no matter if they are prophets, apostles, or whatever, are human, and just striving to become perfected in Christ, like anyone else.

Stephanie said...

@ Karina Marie

Yours is an interesting perspective. But, I find it a little strange that you are telling me what my reaction should be, and how other people should respond, based in part on your experiences, and your friend's experiences. You said that everyone except Black people are outraged. Have you talked to EVERY SINGLE BLACK MORMON ever? How do you know that there are not Black people who are outraged?

I am glad your friend/mentor has a positive relationship with the church. But the rest of us can have a different reaction.

I also mentioned gender in the post, as a woman I see similarities between how Blacks were treated, and sometimes are still treated, and how women are treated. Does that mean my husband can't be upset at church policies because he is neither a woman OR black?

I guess I'm saying that the argument that you can't condemn something unless it hurts you personally is deeply flawed. I wasn't personally impacted by the Holocaust, but I condemn it, and criticize Neo-Nazis anyways. Why? Because I'm a member of the human race. I agree with what Martin Luther King said (even though, again, I'm not black or a man,) "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Racism, sexism, and general inequality does impact me, and does influence my behavior, no matter who it is directed towards.

Sorry if that frustrates you.

Breanne said...

To your post: Amen.

Jess said...

Obviously, you know why this topic is close to my heart. Gabe already knows that he is black in a white family, and there are good and bad consequences to that. A few weekends ago I was discussing this very topic with my well meaning and slightly racist mother in law. She made the comment that people who are not white, born in the church, in Utah, were not as valiant as people who are. I asked her if she thought it would ever be appropriate to say that to someone who is black, and she said that she believed that they would feel bad but perhaps realize the truth of the idea. Needless to say, this got me emotional on all levels. I told her that I would never accept the idea that Gabe was somehow less worthy of the priesthood because of his skin color, and that it would break my heart if he ever had someone tell him that. The reality is, someday, Gabe will hear that. Someday, somewhere, he will realize the history of the church in his relation to his skin color, and he will have to find a way to make that work, either in the church or out.

I do believe that the church is taking steps in the right direction, but I also believe that, as you said, simply apologizing, over the pulpit in conference, could go a long way to heal these wounds.

Very good post, Steph.

Fig said...

I have a black Mormon friend who feels anger and hurt over this mess. They're out there - probably many of them.

If the best answer we can give is "We were wrong, and we're so sorry, and anyone who continues to preach any kind of racial inequality doctrine is wrong", then that's what we need to say. Loudly. Over and over.

I hope this is addressed in the next conference.

TheOneTrueSue said...

I agree Stephanie. I don't believe the church has soft-pedaled this issue for a long time because they have been afraid of coming out and saying that Brigham Young was wrong, and that it was never anything ut a racist teaching taught because the church's leaders (like most people back then) were racist. They are afraid of saying it because then they'd have to admit that prophets and leaders ARE and always have been incredibly influenced by their own cultural prejudices and that they CAN steer the whole church wrong. Because they can't admit that without admitting that it's possible for them to be wrong NOW too - about gay marriage. It's funny how we, as a people, are incredibly willing to excuse past prophets for the things they've said on the grounds that prophets are just people, they aren't perfect (TRUE), and yet if anyone questions CURRENT teachings that seem more cultural than spiritual, they are heretics because the prophet speaks for God always, always, no mistakes, no exceptions (until 50 years later when we have the benefit of hindsight and shame).

I fully believe that someday the church will look back on the things we currently say about gay people and gay marriage with the same horror and disgust with which we now look back on what BY and others had to say about race.

Gretta Whalen said...

I like your blog. And I like your bravery. I can't be that honest on my blog, or with my students, or even with many of my friends at church. Yet.

I like that you've linked Huck Finn with the Bro. Bott disaster, because it got me thinking about the way I feel about the church and the way I feel about Mark Twain. I love Mark Twain. I love so much of what he wrote. His stories are all at once delightful and thought-provoking. Huck Finn is terribly problematic. At some point, we have to realize that those characters aren't real, and then we have to ask ourselves how Twain might have felt about slavery, about Jim, about black people in general. It probably wasn't as progressive as we might hope.

This doesn't align perfectly with my feelings about the church since Twain is dead and the church is still living. I like to think that if Twain were still alive, he would have evolved and become better like the rest of us.

Mrs. Clark said...

Hey, I think Twain was very progressive on racial equality--read Puddin'head Wilson! And I sincerely doubt he put that line in the book as a passing remark. Authors, especially those like Twain, just don't do that. I think he constantly called subtle attention to racism in his works.

Stephanie, I listened to your podcast a couple of days ago and I was impressed with your candor and honesty. Thanks for provoking our thoughts!

Gretta Whalen said...

@Mrs. Clark I studied Puddn'head last spring in a "Tragic Mulatto" seminar. Twain may have been more progressive than some, but he still wasn't as highly evolved as I think we would all like him to be.

Stephanie said...

Okay, so feeling a bit rantish. I'd also like to add that I resent the implication that people who are upset at the racist history of the church are "looking for excuses" to condemn the church.

I don't need an excuse for finding inexcusable behavior wrong. Just common sense.

The point of my post was that I was looking for reasons to make it work, despite difficulties.

Lauren Donna said...

This is a really difficult topic, especially when you expect the Church to be held to a more celestial standard regardless of what the rest of the world is doing. I feel uncomfortable with how practices in the Church, as they exist today, conflict with Church practices as they were 25, 50, 100 years ago. I also feel uncomfortable about some of the similarities. I do think we're heading in the right direction, however slowly... The Church evolves. The Gospel remains, but the Church evolves. I've been thinking a lot about the social and political climates throughout the history of the Church and how they may have factored into how things were approached/handled. Not by God, but by those He called. Imperfect as they were.

I think (and hope) these are generational prejudices that are slowly disappearing. That is, as long as statements made by the Professor Botts of the world are challenged - as they recently have been. Your student is part of a generation whose opinions about a person, a Child of God, will not be so tainted by issues regarding race. Hopefully as he learns more about the Gospel and the Church's history (and all the gaps in between) his testimony will endure and he will be able to reconcile the two. Maybe in his lifetime there will be more of an acknowledgment made by the Church regarding its unfortunate past.

I know I have certainly had my doubts and struggles and not just regarding this topic. I have a limited knowledge of things and it is so frustrating not see the entire picture or to understand it, especially when the picture seems to change. But again, I think we are moving in a better, if not completely perfect, direction. In reference to Karina Marie, I am so impressed by the faith exhibited by members of the Church who waited and waited for the blessing of the priesthood. And those who are able to continue in faith.

Adam said...

Just want to make a quick comment to someone who put something about the Church in the future looking back on our stance on gays and regretting it. I don't think that is the case. Blacks and the Priesthood was a POLICY and not DOCTRINE. There is nothing scriptural saying blacks can't have the Priesthood. Gays and marriage is DOCTRINE and that cannot and will not change.

Stephanie said...

@Adam: That would be really nice and simple if it were true. However, there are lots of things that were "doctrine," like a little thing called polygamy, that did change.


Likewise, the old testament is full of "doctrine," like the doctrine against divorce, that obviously we don't accept. We also don't stone people who cheat on their spouses, or have sex outside marriage. Or how about the Law of Moses?

Everything and anything is subject to change in the church. Especially doctrine.

Mary said...

So many of the issues you talk about have always been uncomfortable for me in that they didn't sit right with me. I am your average white, middle-class woman, so some may wonder why racial issues bother me. They just do. It is wrong to discriminate based on race, gender, or anything, really.

I feel like, no matter how I say this, I may sound like one of those "blind" followers. I'm really not, although the experiences that led me to this are deeply personal, so I won't go into detail, but despite all of these things I just don't get, and some things I flat out disagree with, I know the gospel and doctrine that Christ taught is true.

For whatever reason, imperfect men have led this church both before and after Christ himself did. When I read about the life of Christ, I read about unconditional love, unapologetic defense of truth and goodness, and strength.

Despite all of the things that make my stomach squirm, there are things I just can't turn away from such as how this church was restored. I believe it. I know it happened. So, the question remains, how do I deal with the squirmy stuff?

I don't know. I just know that the questioning, and even the indignation, have got to be a part of our development, and hopefully a part of the development of people who seemingly close their minds to questioning anything.

This is kind of ramble-y, but those are my thoughts.

Brittany said...

is it sad that i feel i learn more about the church reading this blog, than when i actually attend church?
thank you stephanie for your thought provoking posts. this is the kind of stuff i am genuinely interested in, regarding the church. because i know there are many flaws and inconsistent teachings. this just helps me validate that to those (my family) who say otherwise. because there is nothing i hate more than ignorance.
you are my favorite. keep it up!

Stephanie said...

@Mary

That was beautifully said. I feel that way too, sometimes. Thank you.

@Brittany

I blush.

LovelyLauren said...

I would like to see something formal from the church as well, but the word "apology" always bugs me. I want a disavowal of the ban. The church was racist just like any other institution and an apology just seems like admitting what everyone already knows. I want a disavowal, an admittance of racism, and I want it to be from a general authority, not a slick blurb from LDS press.

Perhaps it's a pipe dream, but it's my ideal.

It is difficult when this comes up, but I keep telling myself that my religion is about me, not the institution. It's a mantra that only works intermittently, but sometimes it's the best I can do. What's even more frustrating is on Sundays like this one where half the rhetoric in church was about how evil the world is. Really? Because we're not always the model of Christ-like behavior.....

LC said...

You've picked a difficult subject, and it's one I can't always understand, either. I've found that the phrase "here a little and there a little" from the scriptures very much applies to me. I understand things in increments, and there are topics I'm sure will take years for me to comprehend the way I want to (if I do at all). I admire that you still want the church to "work for you." Keep at it.

Why aren't we all treated the same across the board? Some people face different treatment because of skin color, some are born to fifth-world countries where they might not survive childhood, others are born to wealth, and some have a lifetime of health trouble. The only conclusion I've come to so far is that maybe the differences help all of us cultivate better characteristics in ourselves, or to serve as a light and example and help to others. I'm also learning to be grateful for the appreciation and knowledge that come from difficulty and upsetting history. On a simpler level, it's sometimes just saying, "Man, that flu was awful and I need to be more thankful for the times I feel great." Other times, I can say, "That period of history (whatever it may be) was so ugly. I'm glad we have learned what's better since then and can educate others about making wiser choices."

Amy said...

I agree with @Brittany. Every time I'm at church and I hear things that make me feel uneasy, I think, "What would Mormon Child Bride say about this?" You're a leader! Look at that.

Thank you for this post. Recently this has been an issue I have been having anxiety about for the past few months. And this post summed it all up.

Sometimes I feel like I am just "Looking for things to pick apart" pertaining to the church. I do not think I am. I am asking questions. If I didn't ask questions, I would never get answers (although I never really do get answers). And I do not think you are "looking for things to be mad about."

Thanks Stephanie!

Jessica said...

What about forgiveness?

Stephanie said...

I'm not sure what you are asking, but I think it is entirely possible to fogive those who hurt us, while hoping they are held accountable for their actions.

Lisa Louise said...

love this post!

Christina Bishop said...

Stephanie, add circumcision and teaching to the Gentiles to your "changed doctrines" list (see previous convoluted comment). I suppose that's why those scriptures made me think of you.

Things can and do change.

hiphipporay said...

Thank you fou for being my voice. This post and the words of many commenters resonates with me.

fevre198.5 said...

@TheOneTrueSue

I really hope you are right with your comment about the Church looking back years from now on its treatment of gays in the same way it does today on its treatment of African-Americans. Sadly though, I think that time is a long way off

FLINT said...

Sadly, it took a Mormon running for the presidency of the United States before an official statement from the LDS Church about racism was released. Still, I am hopeful I no longer have to endure sunday school and priesthood lessons about Cain's mark, Ham's children, etc.

Tina said...

Please remember the gospel is perfect, the people in the church are not perfect!

101 Writing Books said...

I love this post! Thanks for sharing...

The Bloomin' Budds said...

You put my thoughts into words. Thank You.