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Sunstone Day 3: …Unless You’re Black

August 6, 2012

We can now UNPUASE from the last post’s diversion and go back into my third day of Sunstone. Here are the links to my thoughts overall for days 1 and 2.

On Friday, there were actually some Sunstone sessions that I wanted to attend that I missed. I was sluggish in waking up in the morning, and although I wanted to go to the Why I Stay plenary session (soundbites from which can be found on Sunstone’s website), my event coordination informed me that John and Zilpha Larsen (of Mormon Expression) would be having a lunch event a the same time. Since I was the chair for their session Podcasting from the Edge: 3 Years With Mormon Expression, I supposed that I probably should go to their event rather than hear John Dehlin talk about why he stays.

(By the way, have you seen my latest post at Wheat & Tares on the new Mormon Expositor podcast? As John and Zilpha dial back their involvement with Mormon Expression, many of the Mormon Expression regulars are dialing up a spiritual successor to the podcast…and the first episode is already up.)

The one sessions that I wasn’t originally intending on seeing — but was really glad I did, was Rick Bennett’s Interracial Marriage and the Beginning of the Priesthood and Temple Ban on Black Africans session. Rick presented, and Marguerite Driessen, about whom Mormon Heretic has written a few articles transcribing Mormon Matters interviews featuring her, was the respondent. 

Rick’s position was poignant…contrary to the Mormon Newroom’s claims…with the available data, we pretty much knew when and why the ban occurred — it was the interracial marriages occurring between black men and white women. To this end, he gave a brief run-down of the history of black members in the church (and black members with the priesthood) — since it seems like there are even competing hypotheses on when the ban even originated.

The research that went into the issue was meticulous…I am not a historian, and I generally don’t even care that much about the priesthood ban, but I will say that it was great to hear all the early stories.

…but when Marguerite took the stand, she commanded the attention.

She began in a bit of a humorous way:

Other than being sealed to a white man for eighteen years, I have nothing that qualifies me to discuss this issue…but this is Sunstone, so I guess that doesn’t matter.

But her point was about as poignant as Rick’s was…even though she thought that the research was astounding, everything was well done, the source work excellent, and so on, she put it pretty bluntly: when discussing the ban, we cannot avoid the basics: it was racism.

There would be no opposition to interracial marriage unless people already had racist sentiments first.

…Unless You’re Black

The best thing about Marguerite’s response is that she filled much of her time illustrating how much of the ideas and practices about race don’t even make sense in a Mormon context. (Marguerite is a faithful Latter-day Saint, and the thing that impressed me most is that she is very comfortable in her faith.) As she said (and now, I feel I’m loosely paraphrasing…I have notes from her presentation, but they don’t read like direct quotations):

Most of the explanations for the race ban fall under something that I call the  “Unless you’re black” exception…so we have the 2nd article of faith…”We believe that men will be punished for their own sins”…unless you’re black! Then, just because of your ancestry, you will be deprived of these privileges.

In fact, even when the scriptures normally define things that could be called curses, they flow *upward*…unless you’re black. When the scriptures talk about Lamanites, what does it say? It talks about them following the traditions of their fathers.

After the session, Marguerite had a crowd of people swarming her with questions, compliments, and so on. I had a few questions of my own as well, but I waited until most of the other folks had already given their compliments, asked their questions, and whatnot.

One of my comments was basically that: in light of the recent Randy Bott controversy, the Mormon Newsroom had a couple of statements: the first distanced itself from Bott’s comments in the following way:

The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  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. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.

The second more broadly emphasized the church’s condemnation of racism.

…but here’s the thing. When the church says, “it is not knowing precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church…some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine” — that applies to Marguerite’s statements. To say the ban arose because of racism is also speculation

The slippery slope of speculation and doctrine

The problem is that defining doctrine away from speculation and opinion is a difficult thing to do…you can have things preached from the pulpit for years, but then, with the blink of an eye, they are rendered “speculation and opinion.” In 1978 with the end of the priesthood band, when Bruce R. McConkie publicly declared that everyone should “forget everything [he] had said” on racial matters, this represented a stark difference from how the church had in the past dealt with changes (and how the church continues to deal with such changes). Normally, when the church wants to change something, they just de-emphasize the old thing and emphasize the new thing as is appropriate…there is little fanfare, and most people might miss it unless they are comparing old and new manuals.

What this correlative process does is create different strata of Mormons. Marguerite mentioned that when she was investigating and joining the church (she joined the church in 1981, just three years after the revelation), no one had even mentioned to her that there was a ban. She told of white people discovering for the first time that there was a priesthood ban (and becoming upset for her sake, wanting to leave the church on her behalf), and her sentiment was, “Why would you leave? I’m still here.” And even when people know about the ban, they didn’t necessarily know that there hadn’t always been a ban in the church.

So, you have younger Mos who may not be aware of issues (but who also aren’t enculturated in old ways of thinking)…the issue they face is that they risk getting shocked when finding out about history…but then you have older Mormons who are “set in their ways”…because issues are rarely repudiated, they still believe what they always have, and they will go back to old prophets and general authorities to support those beliefs. (In this way, it is interesting to hear people speak on so many issues about just needing time for older generations to die off.)

…I think that these things are indicative of the issue. For people who didn’t live as members during the time of the ban, it is very easy to grow up in a church without any idea that there was a ban — until you hear about it from some other source, unprepared.

Marguerite approached the issue as saying that the lack of awareness gives us obligation to share information and spread the knowledge. She pointed out that that’s part of why she comes to things like Sunstone — to spread information and awareness.

Faith Unafraid

As I mentioned earlier, what impressed me about Marguerite is how comfortable she seems in her faith. I don’t mean to pit her against J. Max and others, but her idea of going out to various groups and sharing information — yes, information that may seem less-than-rosy — stands in stark contrast to J. Max’s ideal, at least in my mind. As I mentioned the “Unless You’re Black” section, what she does is she takes things that all Mormons would agree upon (e.g., the 2nd article of faith) and points out how a common-sense reading of these things don’t mesh with racist interpretations, and so racist interpretations are ad hoc exegeses into these things. She gave a great example of the very idea of the “curse of Cain”…again, this is loosely paraphrased:

When people talk about the curse of Cain…I wonder if they’ve even read the scriptures…have they even read Genesis 4? Because you know…I read it, and I even have it highlighted…in verses 11 and 12, it SAYS what the curse of Cain was…he was cursed from the earth, that when he would till, the ground would not yield her strength…and Cain was a FARMER…so that’s how he got his livelihood…so in the next verse, Cain says, “I cannot bear this!” And he’s having this conversation about how people will kill him, and God says, “Oh no no! I will set this mark upon you.”

God sets a mark of protection on Cain…so even if you wanted to say that the mark of the curse of Cain is black skin, that doesn’t make sense…one, because black skin has never protected black folks, and two, because nowhere does it state that this mark will carry on to his children.

She continued on to say that she could see how such a thing could have developed…because even if yes, the words are plain to read, most people couldn’t read, and so they would rely on what they heard in their church. She pointed out that she surely hadn’t read Genesis when she was young, even if she was aware of the gist of things from what was said at church.

The most interesting position that Marguerite took, however, was in thinking about the ban on the priesthood with respect to things like the Little Rock Nine, and the segregation of other churches. She pointed out that even if it seemed that the church was late on the race issue, there was never a time when people had to be forcibly integrated into the church. And to this day, the church does not have “segregated” wards as other churches have segregated communities. In that sense, perhaps 1978 represented when the members of the church were collectively ready for revelation, and the revelation would not be revealed a moment sooner?

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