Another black man in America was shot and killed by police yesterday. I involuntarily witnessed the slaying just before turning off the bedside lamp last night because it showed up in my Twitter feed, a video already playing, and I knew how it would end but couldn’t stop watching and couldn’t sleep and felt sick and felt angry. I personally know too few people of color intimately enough to reach out to them directly for solace. And really, it would be pretty unfair of me to do that anyway. So I go to James Baldwin, an African American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic who was an incredible and thoughtful writer, and who died in the eighties.
So I chose his 1965 piece, “The White Man’s Guilt.”
There is a very clear and very established history of racism in the United States and it made serious inroads into our own religion. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by white Americans. The race-based restrictions initiated by Brigham Young in the 1850s were fostered by the nation’s racism even as they fostered racism within a church whose founding scripture declared “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26.33). The Gospel Topics essay makes that case for the racially grounded origins of the ban and I agree with the essay.
Baldwin’s essay on “The White Man’s Guilt” contains a stark warning about the positive and negative potential powers of history. Honestly reckoning with racism in America’s past is a crucial part of helping the country overcome present racism. What struck me while reading it today is how pertinent his warning is for us Latter-day Saints in particular regarding the way we risk using our own history in ways that obstruct our living the gospel of Christ.
“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.
“But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it in order to bring myself out of it. My point of view certainly is formed by my history, and it is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter. On the other hand, people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
Although Baldwin’s observations must first and foremost be applied to contemporary discussions about race in America, I hope I can be forgiven for also pointing out that Baldwin helps us understand why Mormon history has so often been such a flash point for church leaders, scholars, lay members, and critics. Baldwin knew how deeply we are shaped by histories, and he knew we can also shape histories that shape ourselves and others. When we imagine that our history only flatters us (as it often does especially when we write it), we can become impaled on our history like a butterfly on a pin. We can’t progress. We can’t repent. We “become incapable of seeing or changing ourselves, or the world.” We cut ourselves off from Christ’s grace.
History is not the path to our salvation. It is, instead, one means whereby we can be pointed back to the needs and demands of the present moment with clearer vision.
To paraphrase Mormon 9, if there be faults in our history, they be the mistakes of men. Condemn them not for their imperfections, but do not deny their imperfections! Moroni says we should rather give thanks to God that he makes manifest unto us their imperfections because, more often than not, they are our imperfections, too, smuggled into us through the course of history. And once we realize that fact we might, collectively, begin to learn to be more wise than they were. But we cannot learn from imperfections of the past if we refuse to admit they even exist or if we avoid being more specific about what they are.