As I state in the poem quoted in Part I of this series, I do believe that what we call “race” is a gift, but certainly not one which must include extra pain for those with extra melanin. Because humans will always find excuses for division, race offers a ready pretext and also a challenge. One of the most profound lessons of the Book of Mormon is that we as a community of Saints, with Christ as our center, can become one; that there need be no “ites” among us; that (as in IV Nephi) we can care so deeply about one another that we will not suffer any to go hungry or unsheltered.
The priesthood restriction was so solidly founded in the idea of a lineage-based curse that I personally cannot separate the policy itself from the philosophies which supported it. For me, it is an impossible paradox to have a God who is no respecter of persons, who told Peter “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 11:9) but who—in what we call “the fullness of times”—would withhold the richest blessings of His Church from one group. (It is completely different to exclude one group from full gospel blessings than it is to assign one group—such as the Levites—to function as priests to the others.) We claim to have the “same organization as existed in the primitive church.” We claim to be the restored Church of Jesus Christ, as His Church was described in the New Testament. Thus, though missionaries in New Testament times did not initially preach to the Gentiles, that was changed as Christianity spread beyond its first center and the mandate was given: “Go ye into all the world” (Mark 16:15). There is, in fact, a rich history of early Christianity in Africa.
But why should the origin of the ban matter at all, given that the LDS Church was part of a racist nation and that most religions in the 19th Century had some racialist policies? Isn’t all that history merely a sad footnote in the LDS story which was resolved in 1978?
I would say that it is a mere footnote. The central tenet of our faith is the atonement, and nothing else compares in significance. But that footnote does matter because it still affects us, our missionary efforts, and the retention of converts. The folklore which undergirded the philosophy has lingered. As recently as 2009, an African missionary in the Congo had his Anglo companion ask Elder Holland, who was dedicating the country of Cameroon, if it was true that blacks had been “less valiant” than others in the pre-existence. Elder Holland denounced the idea with characteristic boldness, and said that everyone on Earth was valiant in the pre-mortal world—or they wouldn’t be here. Other families of African lineage, or parents of adopted black children, have also felt the sting of the folklore, and continue to deal with a view which casts them as cursed. There are still Mormons who believe such things, which leads them to unthinkingly denigrate people of color (many colors), and to behave in a way which President Hinckley called antithetical to being “a true disciple of Christ” (April Conference 2006). That’s why it matters.
As to the idea that the priesthood restriction was part of God’s way of following a particular schedule for spreading the gospel—I can’t see it. Not the God whose gospel is founded on charity. It is hard for me to imagine that “Go ye into all the world” included a proviso of exclusivity or restriction. Was the gospel restored in its fullness and then divvied out to the various nations, giving some only slivers and others the whole, glorious shebang? That is a mind-boggling concept. If indeed God has a timetable for when certain of His children will hear His word, we mortals are very capable of conducting wars and erecting bamboo or iron curtains to assist in the schedule. There is no need to deny gospel blessings to righteous people in order to accommodate an agenda of who comes first and who finishes last. (Apparently, the Chinese will run the last leg of the race anyway.) I believe that the repercussions of such a denial—the possibility for false doctrine to flourish and for generations to not only be denied but defamed—is inconsistent with godliness, especially when we consider that Joseph Smith restored not the Church of Moses, but of Jesus Christ. In fact, such a scenario sounds like the divisions described in IV Nephi, when the people who had been of one mind and one heart returned to their old traditions, polished their pride, and began to be divided once again into classes. These are the symptoms of forgetting Christ. As I interpret the scriptures, this is not the kind of program God would implement to prevent the gospel from reaching Africa until the perfect time in the latter days—and such a thought becomes ironic when we realize that Africa was first proselytized in the 1st Century A.D., the missionary effort led by Mark the Evangelist (author of the Book of Mark in the New Testament).
Perhaps even more instructive and relevant to this theme is the Book of Moses, which has provided some stumbling blocks to many concerned with race issues in the Church.
In Moses 7:8, God curses the LAND of Canaan with much heat, and consequently “a blackness” comes upon the people there—which makes perfect sense. We have tanning booths which accomplish the same thing as the “curse” of heat. In verse twelve, the prophet Enoch excludes the Canaanites from his missionary labors. Why would he not preach to them? Because of their blackness? Their pigment seems only incidental. However, they have just wiped out an entire people (vs. 7). Is it possible that Enoch, aware of their bloodlust, is simply being cautious? There is no verse suggesting that God forbade him from going there. It seems to have been Enoch’s choice. In fact, the Book of Mormon (Nephi 26:28) suggests that God likely would not have forbidden it:
“Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.”
Next, we get an account of Enoch’s preaching, and the miraculous conversion of multitudes, who ultimately live in such harmony that they become a Zion society and are lifted up to Heaven. Others remain on earth—though one group is excluded because they are black (vs. 22). Again, this is phrased simply as a statement. God does not command their exclusion—which is what makes the next verses so important.
In verse 28, we encounter what Gene England called “the weeping God of Mormonism.” God weeps. Why? Because the residue of the people are “without affection, and they hate their own blood” (33). But only one group has been mentioned as being cast aside and excluded: the black group. Could it be that their treatment is the reason for Heaven’s tears?
This is just one interpretation of the scriptures, and again Darius Gray introduced me to it. I find it compelling.
If God weeps when some of His children exclude others for whatever reason, what do we learn about His expectations for us? If the sign of a Zion society is that there are “no poor among them” (vs. 18), how strongly are we being invited to help the poorest among us, many of whom live in sweltering heat and poverty, and happen to be black?
If we feel justified in diminishing our affection for anyone, in labeling them as less valiant than we; if we feel that God said it was okay to leave one group out while we enjoy our particular blessings, we are cursing ourselves. We are refusing the gifts we all gain as we nurture and care for one another and worship together in the holiest of places. We saying no to Zion, and Heaven weeps.