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Avoiding the Appearance of Evil

August 17, 2014

When I was growing up, my parents taught me never to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Although this is advice that seems innocuous enough to be applicable to anyone, I sometimes get the sense (as I alluded to in my previous post) that this advice is laden with special meaning for black and other minority youth. Still, this was neither a lesson that any parents would give nor just a lesson with subtle racial nuances. It was also a lesson born of goodly parents, a lesson reinforced by my Mormonism.

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

-1 Thessalonians 5:22

Or, as filtered more recently through a Mormon context:

…The best counsel I ever received about staying away from the edge came when, as a young married man, President Harold B. Lee called me to be a member of a bishopric. He said, “From now on, you must not only avoid evil, but also the appearance of evil.” He did not interpret that counsel. That was left to my conscience…

-“On the Edge” (1997 New Era) and “Acting for Ourselves and Not Being Acted Upon” (October 1995 General Conference), President James E. Faust, Second Counselor of the First Presidency

I know that LDS intellectuals typically want to point out that the basis for this interpretation is faulty…our modern understanding is based on linguistic shift, where “appearance” should mean something more like “kinds” (or, to put in another way, the scripture should read something closer to “Avoid evil wherever it appears.”

But I think this is one case where what is true (the linguistic origins or the actual meaning) is not useful.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only folks to suffer misinterpretations from using the King James Version of the Bible, but since Mormons do typically explicitly teach out this scripture as, “Not only avoid evil, but also the appearance of evil,” I’ll put this as a second item in a list of things I’m grateful for Mormonism for.

There are lots of people who criticize this guidance (here’s just one example). The By Common Consent post linked earlier doesn’t necessarily criticize the cultural understanding, but it raises up examples that might seem trivial to some. But the latter post from Against the Greater Light has a more substantial critique:

Teaching people to focus on appearance over truth and opinion over substance is a recipe for discord and superficiality.  Although, I suppose it makes sense from the upper leadership’s perspective–“avoid the appearance of evil” is now a doctrinally mandated public relations campaign.  If your members seem more honest, virtuous, and incorruptible than the other churches’ members, maybe you can trick more people into joining your religion and paying you ten percent of their income.

But it seems like an intellectual approach to this scriptural misinterpretation (as taken by BCC), or a principled opposition to it (as taken by Against the Greater Light), needs to, to quote tumblr, check its privilege.

When I read that last line of the quote I selected from the Against the Greater Light blog, I think of something I often heard growing up — you have to be twice as good to get half the credit. AtGL critiques that appearing “more honest, virtuous, and incorruptible” might trick people in joining a religion. But what if it’s simply what is required to get the benefit of the doubt, rather than the doubt?

I’ve noticed a few things that get brought up regularly when a black person’s murder gets any sort of publicity (which seems to be happening more often these days). One is that someone, somewhere will find what appears to be a compromising photo of the black person that will then set the tone for discussion of said black person’s character. This is such a phenomenon that there now is a twitter hashtag “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown” (and a tumblr of the same concept) where people submit two pictures and ask which would be used in media or online discussions of the person. I’ll post the image from just one of these posts:

In the BCC post, Norbert alludes that one of the things he was taught to avoid as an appearance of evil is drinking ginger ale at a bar.

I want to say I think the above pictures are tame. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in bars or drinking ginger ale in bars or even drinking *actually alcoholic beverages* in bars.


One thing that I can say is that in a religion that taught me to never be in a bar, a religion that taught me to never be in a situation where I could even be construed as drinking an alcoholic beverage, a religion that taught me to avoid even the appearance of evil, that’s just one less ammo They could use #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Do you ever think about the ammo people could use against you?

When I was growing up, my parents didn’t allow for sagging pants. We had polo shirts. Even if we had hoodies, the hoods were down. To this day, if my hair gets too shaggy, my mom will comment asking when I’m getting a haircut. Cornrows would not have been an option. Dreadlocks would not have been an option. Brushcut, even all over, low. Quasi-military. Oh yeah, dad taught us how to shine our shoes too.

I’m not trying to suggest things were so bad, or even that things were particularly strict. We didn’t have to say “sir” and “ma’am” (although I have cousins who absolutely always said sir or ma’am to my uncle and aunt). We didn’t dress like preps all the time (in fact, through elementary and junior high school, I wore carpenter jeans, even though I definitely had no reason to have those extra pockets. In fact, let’s just say that elementary, junior and high school was a bad time for me fashion-wise. I didn’t learn how to get correctly sized casual clothing until I was in college […or maybe that was just because I wanted to show off my hot bod?]) Ultimately, I can definitely say that I knew people whose parents were stricter than mine.


Today we have #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

I’ll give another example.

Earlier this month, there was another black dude shot down by police. One difference between John Crawford III and Mike Brown is that Mike Brown was unarmed, while John Crawford III was holding a toy rifle.

I don’t know if I even need to spell this out for you. Avoiding the appearance of evil would tell me that it’s probably not a good idea to go into Wal-Mart as a black man with a realistic-looking air pump rifle, or even an unrealistic looking nerf gun. Because even if I’m not doing anything wrong (even if John wasn’t doing anything wrong), it’s all about the appearance.

Crawford and Brown raise two cases of police killing black folks. I could also raise Eric Garner, who was killed by the NYPD after being put in a chokehold. But if I brought up Garner, that would raise the final issue:

All You Need is Kill

I had a commenter, Seth R, who made a comment about the seemingly trivial prohibitions in Mormon morality:

I’ve made the point before that stuff like “no coffee” or “no steady dating in high school” or maybe even dress code issues – act as sort of a far-flung line of defense (to use an analogy from the old British Empire). You fight the battles way, waaaay…. out there – so you don’t have to fight them up close and personal.

A teen couple that is worried about stuff like not dating steady isn’t having to worry about more serious stuff – like the emotional ruin that comes from uncommitted sex, or whether the birth control measures worked or not. A woman who is fussing around about something trivial like coffee isn’t debating about alcohol abuse, or gateway drugs. It’s not even on her radar.

Even the dress code, debatabley – sets the bounds waaay out there so you don’t have to worry about other things. You can make a really strong case that it is PRECISELY the fact that Mormons’ worries are so superficial and trivial that is one of the culture’s biggest selling points.

Sure, it may make us look petty – but it’s light years better than having the sort of worries a lot of the rest of society has.

If ruining your life is the price of not looking petty – then by all means, may I remain an object of “contempt” the rest of my mortal life.

And I think there’s something to it. Avoiding the appearance of evil is ultimately meant as a bastion for actually avoiding evil.

But I suspect there is a difference. Seth’s focus is on things like avoiding emotional ruin from uncommitted sex, avoiding unwanted pregnancies. And to be fair, those are very real issues with which to be concerned. And to raise more context, the comment was in response to a thread that was primarily about sexual morality.

But the difference I want to talk about is the difference in the severity of the repercussions. Because the social reality for black folks is that if they are ever pegged as having actually committed evil, then all possible sympathy shrivels and dies.

See, Eric Garner doesn’t make a good figure to use in discussions because he was selling loosies — loose cigarettes that have not been taxed by New York, and that the NYPD are cracking down on. Garner doesn’t make a great figure because, if I bring him up, I know there will be someone who will say, “…but he is a criminal.” Hell, I was reading a discussion about a woman who intervened on behalf of a young black man who could very nearly have been arrested if it hadn’t been for the woman’s intervention, and one of the commenters said the following:

When you reference Trayvon Martin as a victim, you lose a lot of credibility. Despite lots of media circus and internet echo-chamber opinions, he was not simply a ‘victim’. At best, he overreacted to Zimmerman being a little close for his comfort; at worst, he attacked Zimmerman (obviously not knowing that Zimmerman had a gun) because that was his modus operandi as a known thug. In no reasonable reading of the actual facts of the case was he a victim. Including him in your list just pours fuel onto the fire that it IS all about “playing the race card”.

This is why I just can’t with any given situation. I do not have the time or patience to try to reason with people on the characters of any individual when to them, they are already disposed to look at whatever photos (ala #IfTheyGunnedMeDown) and whatever situations from the person’s history (however distorted or isolated) to conclude that the person in question is “a known thug”.

Did you think Ferguson was going to spark a conversation about police militarization, the adverse racial treatment by police, and all of that stuff? For a second, I thought that. But then something happened. The narrative changed. Footage came out that Mike Brown was stealing cigarillos. All of a sudden, the police response is now a reaction to assault and strong-arm robbery. (The original inspiration was this post was me making a black humor [pun kinda sorta intended] joke when I first found this out: “Well, thanks to the Word of Wisdom, I would never get a cigarillo, much less steal one.”)

Even sympathetic people are now on the defensive. The defense I’ve seen most often in this situation is this: unarmed robbery does not justify execution.

Yet, that’s why avoiding the appearance of evil is so crucial for minorities. Because the social reality is this: for people confronting ne’er-do-well black folks, All You Need Is Kill. (Yeah, and like that manga/visual novel [which you probably encountered, like me, through the movie Edge of Tomorrow], the police also revive after every such encounter to repeat it in different cities, with different people, in different particular situations. The same day over and over. And with each restart, they get a little better at it too, it seems.)

This is especially crucial for minority youth who are under the mistaken impression that life is fair or that they will be treated equally. Because if they think — because they have white friends who might be doing the same thing — that they can get away with it, then they will eventually be sadly mistaken.

When I was growing up, my parents would say, “If all of your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you do it too?”

…Yet, as from my last post, however, avoiding the appearance of evil is not enough. There is still a precariousness in my life and a precariousness in minority lives. With this post, I am not actually supposing that one could just live one’s life in a perfect way and avoid any altercations. There is no one without sin, but to presume that one could just follow rules and strictures and be OK would be to fall into the mistaken impression that life is fair and that people are treated equally.

So, what is this precariousness? The precariousness is that, as long as we are not white and delightsome, we cannot fully avoid the appearance of evil.

Because here’s the problem: it was never the actions that were the evil or the appearance of evil. We cannot help but be seen as a dark, and loathsome, and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.

Was John Crawford III shot for bringing a realistic-looking toy rifle to Walmart?

Let’s ask Open Carry Texas.

Open Carry Texas

One of these people is not like the other…one of these people does not belong…

Does police response to potentially* dangerous situations look the same in all situations?

(*where “potentially” refers to appearances)

Well, let’s compare the Ferguson confrontation with the showdown at the Bundy ranch.


This is Ferguson



Earlier, at Bundy Ranch…

Between this post and the last, I have invoked the racializations of certain Book of Mormon scriptures for a point. I have likened the scriptures to myself. But even if one does not believe the racial divides of the scriptures are legitimate or divine — even if one believes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female — perhaps the true tragedy is how easily we can nevertheless liken these scriptures to our social reality. And how much suffering we — or at least some of us — may experience for failing to do so.

  1. I truly wish I could say you were wrong. It would not be true. We only have to look at the world to know that racism is real. For me, the real question is what we choose to do about it.

    I have concluded that the most important thing that I can do is learn and share the stories of others. Thank you for sharing yours, and making your experience more real, for those of us born with privileged skin.

  2. gr8rgood permalink

    | “Because here’s the problem: it was never the actions that were the evil or the appearance of evil. We cannot help but be seen as a dark, and loathsome, and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.” |

    Wow, the quote above really says it like it is. I never really thought about it this way. I hate that I live in a world where this is the reality.

  3. Eric Garner — have you seen the video. It is hard to believe loosies had any thing to do with that.

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