This post has a special place in my heart as it is one of the first times Kristine graced me with her ability to find holes in my arguments in such a loving, older sister sort of way. Thus, it ranks as number four on my short list of favorite blog posts from Sons of Mosiah. After quite the discussion, I think we came to a good understanding. But I’m sure there are plenty of you out there just waiting for a chance to voice your opinion on this topic. I’ve included my discussion with Kristine at the end of the post. This is where you’ll find Kristine’s classic line: "Bob, I *am* sweet and nice, and about 90% traditional : ) You’re one of the lucky few who gets to know the other 10%."
I received an email request from a Stephen to explain more on a comment I made over at Times and Seasons. In Bulgaria, as missionaries we were continually instructed NOT to approach and/or teach gypsies the gospel. The word on the missionary street was that this was told to the mission president by one of the Apostles.
Decent reasons were given; but as many of you know, I always seem to have issues with hard-set rules. So, let me explain the reasons and then my issues:
The unnamed, mystical GA’s reasons (in no particular order, I should note that these reasons are actually a mesh of what I’ve heard others say this GA has said and also what I’ve concluded on my own):
1) Gypsies have their own language and can be very hard to understand when speaking Bulgarian, even by native Bulgarians.
2) Gypsies generally live outside the city or in a separate section of the city. In other words, you’d rarely come across one while tracting. You’d have to make a special effort to go to that part of town (which is almost always the nasty, run-down part).
3) Gypsies in Bulgaria are beggars by nature. They are rarely self-sufficient. And many of them give part of what they make in a day to the notorious gypsy king. I don’t want to pretend to know the history behind this, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to research further. It’s almost like a pseudo-tithing.
4) Many Bulgarians think of gypsies in a discriminatory fashion due to some of the reasons above. Meaning, if a bunch of gypsies show up at Church, you’re automatically setting yourself up for less white folk to come (I can say that after serving as branch president twice, this is very true).
5) Gypsies’ number one distinguishing characteristic is their darker skin; so even if you did have a gypsy truly interested in the gospel, it still just looks bad.
I think those are enough reasons for now.
Now for Bob’s issues:
1) There are some well-educated gypsies, which live in the city and are self-sufficient (but as I write this, I think: have education and/or self-sufficiency ever been a prerequisite for hearing the gospel?)
2) Whatever the excuse may be, the idea of withholding the gospel from a certain ethnic minority has never sat well with me.
For the record, this isn’t quite at the level of "blacks and the priesthood". From what I understand, that "rule" had no exceptions whereas the gypsy rule has had some. I’ve never officially taught and/or baptized a gypsy, but one of my branches had a few.
In all honesty, for my having issues with withholding the gospel from gypsies, my life would have been much easier in a particular branch had the exception not been made earlier. We actually had some weird branch feuding going on, from which I learned a few lessons.
In any event, I’m not sure of any other recent instances where we have been asked to refrain from teaching ethnic minorities. So I wonder if Bulgaria is some exception or if I’m just not very well informed.
As I finish writing this, I’m thinking there’s not a really good solution to the problem. I know of at least a couple of wonderful gypsy members (who aren’t really gypsies for the most part, but just have the darker skin. That poses an interesting question; can you denounce your original "gypsyness"?). But I also remember gypsies trying to get free Books of Mormon just to turn around and sell them. It’s hard not to be judgmental (meaning, it’s hard not to assume this is what they are going to do) when within a few weeks you see Books of Mormon for sale at the local pazar.
As I always like to ask, what is to be done?
Kristine: Um, "if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also"?
It seems to me that cheating, lying, stealing SINNERS are precisely whom the gospel is meant for. Not to mention for racist white people who might quit coming to church because gypsies were there–afflict the comfortable!! I can’t really imagine standing in front of Christ and saying "we didn’t teach him the gospel because we thought he was probably just trying to get free dental work." Heck, Christ would probably be pleased if you gave him free dental work knowing perfectly well that he hadn’t really accepted the gospel yet.
I get that in the real world we have to make compromises. What I don’t get is trying to find a reason for them and justify our inability to be really Christlike. We should just put on sackcloth and ashes and mourn the fact that we can’t yet approach Zion.
Logan: Wow, Kristine, ouch. Do you really feel like this discussion has been saying that it’s good not to teach gypsies? When we make those compromises that you talk about, how do know the difference between including some degree of prudence in our decisions and "justify[ing] our inability to be really Christlike"?
Kristine: I don’t think most of the missionary program is "prudent." We send these cute but stupid 19-year-old boys out into the world with minimal training and marginal supervision and ask them to bear witness of a gospel they barely understand. It’s frankly crazy.
We baptize people ALL THE TIME who have little promise of making it as long-term members of the church, as the retention stats abundantly prove. My conclusion is that there must be some factor other than "prudence" that leads to policies like this, that prejudge entire groups of people based on the stereotypical characteristics of that group. At least where I live, "prudence" would exclude about 75% of the people who get baptized, and yet we don’t have policies that say "don’t baptize people who are on the margins economically; don’t baptize people whose mental stability is questionable; don’t baptize people who "quit" smoking 2 days before their baptism, etc." All of those would be prudent policies, and yet they don’t exist. I think excluding groups based on their ethnicity is racist on the face of it, and whatever "explanations" we come up with are justifications of our own serious failure to take Christ at his word and sow the seed without trying to prejudge the ground it falls on.
A disclaimer: I’m no more virtuous than anybody else on this; I had a good long rant the other day about the missionaries baptizing people who would further tax the resources of our already struggling ward–even my husband (who has reason to be aware of my capacity for meanness) was completely horrified at my lack of charity.
Logan: Kristine, I’m sorry if my use of the word ‘prudence’ got in the way of my real questions:
On what basis can we make the compromises that you have said must be made? On what basis are they made? (All the examples of non-prudence you cited couldn’t be based on racism, could they?)
Kristine: No, they couldn’t, which was my point. If we’re just trying to baptize people who are likely to remain active or be "good" members, our missionary program would have to look substantially different. The fact that suitability for membership is not a criterion more generally suggests to me that there is bigotry of one sort or another in a policy that says we won’t teach Muslim Near Easterners or Gypsies or people with black ancestry in Brazil (to cite a historically problematic policy). There’s something deeply wrong with a policy that is "explained" with sentences that start "Gypsies are …" In any other context that kind of thinking would be immediately and rightly condemned, but because some GA sanctioned this policy here we are spouting racist crap to make sure that we don’t impugn a GAs motives.
I’m not sure there is a righteous basis for such compromises. The only possibility is if we said something like "we as a church are too weak to make the kinds of sacrifices required to teach, accept, and fellowship our brothers and sisters who are gypsies right now. We are trying to repent."
Bob: "I had a good long rant the other day about the missionaries baptizing people who would further tax the resources of our already struggling ward"
"If we’re just trying to baptize people who are likely to remain active or be "good" members, our missionary program would have to look substantially different."
Kristine, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. Do you have a possible solution where you wouldn’t have issues in the end? Or better yet, do me a favor, and pick your poison:
A) You’d rather see gypsies baptized and tax the resources of the Church unnecessarily for that one out of hundred that isn’t playing us.
B) You’d rather gypsies aren’t baptized so that wards/branches won’t struggle (because they have and they would, big time – ask me if you want more examples. I’m not sure you quite understand "struggle" in this sense. Was your ward ever close to being shut down due to this problem? My branch was).
Please correct me because it seems like you disagree with both sides and agree with… well, I have no idea.
Kristine: Bob, saying "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk. It defines people by their membership in a group, not by their individual characteristics. It is wrong.
Also, it might be useful to consider why gypsies are reduced to begging in Bulgaria. It might have something to do with a few centuries of prejudice, being discriminated against in housing, hiring, etc. Yes, people sometimes adopt maladaptive strategies for dealing with such things; I’m sure we’d all be much more comfortable if they had developed their own thriving economy. But the fact that they haven’t doesn’t make them more or less worthy than any other ethnic group, and it does suggest that the majority population has been particularly hostile to their assimilation. There’s no good reason for the church to adopt the prevailing racist policy of segregation and discrimination.
Yes, I think anyone who wants to be baptized and has demonstrated some reasonable commitment to the church (I personally would set the bar a little higher than it usually is–say, a couple months worth of Sacrament Mtg. attendance) should be allowed to be baptized. And whatever the baptismal readiness standard is, it should be applied without regard to a person’s ethnicity or the potential drain on church resources.
My earlier reference to my being upset about baptisms in our ward was just a public confession of my own hypocrisy. As much as I believe that we ought to welcome the tough cases with open arms, I find my own reserves of charity frequently unequal to the task. I think that’s MY problem, not the fault of the people being baptized.
Bob: "Bob, saying "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk."
Kristine, help me on this. I personally think racism is overrated. You’re right; we need to be careful. Racism can be and is a real issue. I just feel like you take it to the extreme. So, is it racism if we’re talking positively? Consider the following examples:
The French are romantic.
Germans are punctual.
Bulgarians are thrifty.
Is my problem that I need to put a "generally speaking" or "in my opinion" in front of such sentences? I’m an International Business major, and we talk freely about characteristics of various ethnic groups. In my marketing class, it’s a function of demographics. We have to talk about it.
So the question of the day is, if "Members of X ethnic group are ______" is, by definition, a racist way to talk" then how do we talk about ethnic groups? Because really, Kristine, we can’t just assume ethnic groups have no characteristics just because it’s racist to talk in such a manner.
Help me out. What am I missing?
Kristine: Bob, in the case of national groups, or especially demographic groups, one is clearly (though one ought to be explicit about it) speaking in generalities which are not based on biological characteristics, but on cultural ones. But it doesn’t really matter much to the definition of racism whether the characteristics in question are positive or negative–it is equally damaging to say "Japanese children are hard-working and obedient" or "Black children are not as smart as white children." In either case, you have denied the distinct personhood of a huge group of people, and prejudged them based on a characteristic over which they have no control. I think it makes a huge difference whether you say, instead, "Japanese culture strongly reinforces hard work and obedient behavior by children," or "black children in the United States frequently score lower on standardized tests than their white counterparts." Those are specific, testable statements that hint at cultural and sociological factors and allow individual exceptionalism. You can say that’s just PC word-polishing, but I think the way we talk dramatically shapes the way we think. If we’re sloppy in our discussions of racial minorities, we will likely be sloppy in our thinking about them. And sad experience shows that the human default mode seems to be quite racist; we should work hard not to think or speak in unconsidered generalities about these things. [And, btw, even in the case of national or demographic rather than racial or ethnic groups, it's sloppy and ultimately meaningless to say things like "the French are romantic;" if you're trying to talk about marketing, it's both far more accurate and far more useful to say "the French spend twice as much money per capita on flowers than other Europeans..." or whatever. I'd argue for as much specificity as possible in all such discussions]
In any case, I can’t think of any characteristics any ethnic group could have that would be a good excuse for not teaching them the gospel.
Bob: Kristine, thanks for your input. I’m with you on your "as much specificity as possible". If you can bear with me, I still have a couple questions/concerns:
If I say, "in general, gypsies are beggars" does that make you feel better? Also, if I understand your problems with racism… Do I have to believe that the fact that 99 percent of Bulgarian gypsies are beggars is just coincidence? Am I racist for drawing the conclusion that perhaps, heaven forbid, the two are related (gypsies and beggars) and that it’s not just some mystery of the universe? Or to avoid racism, I should assume there is no correlation?
"In any case, I can’t think of any characteristics any ethnic group could have that would be a good excuse for not teaching them the gospel."
When I told this to my wife, she laughed. All she could say was, "I hope someday Kristine gets to work with gypsies in Bulgaria". Another thing my wife pointed out, which helps her with the whole situation… the whole idea throughout the scriptures that the gospel will go to the Jews and then to the Gentiles and then back to the Jews… Why? Was God racist? I don’t think so. Sometimes there is an order as to how the gospel should be preached. As my wife and I discussed the issue further, we both feel that if missionary work were open to Bulgarian gypsies, it would literally destroy the Church in Bulgaria. I can explain the reasoning, if you like. But for now, just pretend to trust our judgment call and ask yourself the question, if baptizing gypsies meant the downfall of the Church in Bulgaria, would it be better to close down the mission rather than "be racist" by your definition?
BTW- I saw your bio and picture over at T&S. You look so sweet and nice… If I didn’t know you better through writing, I might have thought of you as more of a traditional Mormon, whatever that means. Don’t read too much into what I’m saying; I may just be thinking out loud when I shouldn’t be.
Kristine: Bob, I *am* sweet and nice, and about 90% traditional : ) You’re one of the lucky few who gets to know the other 10%.
I’m perfectly willing to accept that there are enormous practical difficulties in preaching to a group as culturally marginalized as gypsies in Bulgaria. I’m even somewhat willing to accept that there might be a need to build up the church to a certain point before actively seeking to proselyte within such a group. But we should be very clear that those policies are made for practical reasons that have to do with the weakness of the church, NOT that it is the gypsies’ fault they can’t learn the gospel because of some inherent weakness in them.
And, yeah, I hope I get to work with gypsies in Bulgaria someday, too.
Bob: Kristine, you sweet heart, thanks for your comments here. I think I agree with everything you said in your last one.