Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Race and the Book of Mormon

me and my best friend since childhood

First off, let me say that I know this verse is not talking about African Americans. How do I know this? Because this verse is talking about he descendants of Laman and Lemuel (i.e. Native Americans). So this isn't a post about blacks and the Priesthood or anything like that. This is just one woman's struggle with words in the scriptures and how to understand them. After all, my soul delights in the scriptures, and I would like to be able to delight in all the scriptures, not just the "comfortable" ones.

The part that bothered me was not the fact that the people had been cursed with a "skin of blackness" (and who really knows what that means anyway? If you know any Native Americans you know that they are not really "black", but this post is not about discussing varying shades of skin color, either). Rather, the part that bothered me (bothered - that is, made me stop uncomfortably and think) was the Lord's reasoning, "that they might not be enticing unto my people."

Was God just using human weakness (racism, specifically) to curse Laman and Lemuel and their descendants? Perhaps in the same way the Lord allowed the Lamanites to subject the Nephites to slavery when they (the Nephites) were being wicked. I am sure that God is not racist, but I am sure that He knew that human beings would be racist.

I had to think, also, of those Lamanites who converted and joined themselves with the Nephites (I am sure there were some, even before the mass conversions due to the efforts of Ammon and his brethren). Surely those Nephites who married and had children with converted Lamanites were not sinning or going against what God wanted to happen. But can't you see those interracial couples being judged by other Nephites? I imagine it was a lot like the racism prevalent in the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - oh, we love you because you are a child of God, but we shouldn't marry you because you are cursed. Sorry. This is not the racism of the world "You aren't worth as much as me." but I think in some ways it was even more convoluted thinking than that of the world.

But, I digress. This is not really a post about the racial climate of the Church today, but rather about a more basic, fundamental question.

This question - are human beings "naturally" racist?

That is - does racism stem from nurture (being taught to be racist) or from nature (perhaps some part of our biological makeup causes us to seek out a mate that resembles us?)? Obviously racism is wrong - but is it wrong because it is part of the "natural man" - like anger? Or is it wrong because it is a "false tradition" that is handed down from our fathers? Or perhaps a combination of the two?

What do you think?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. Hi Becca
    Insightful post. I read this verse and the verses before and after. I looked at the record of Cain, who had a similar “curse”. So I am learning that if we can determine the meaning of the “language” spoken, then we may be able to determine the definition of the words spoken. Cain killed his brother because he refused to obey the laws and statutes of God. They were the same then, as with the Nephites and with us. Cain and Abel were Melchizedek priesthood holders, commanded to offer sacrifices, daily, weekly, monthly etc. The sacrifice required was probably a sin offering, being a lamb. Cain offered something different, it was not accepted, but his brother’s was. So Cain killed his brother. When confronted with this matter by God, he was unrepentant. But the Lord in his goodness and mercy did not blot him off the face of the earth, he allowed that his (Cain) sin's would forever "condemn him", unless he repentented.
    In 2Nephi 5:20-21;The Lamintes chose the way of Cain. They would murder their "brethren" at any opportunity.As with Cain, they were "cut off" from God's presence. The symbolism of cutting of, is literally that, to cut off the offending part,so that it would not be nourished and thrive. If you cut off your finger, it would eventually die, turn black, smell bad, look bad.

    The curse or token or condemnation of their sin was to become a nomadic people,no family structure, no priesthood,and like Cain,living without the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The "blackness" or "darkness" references their minds being "darkened in unbelief, hatred, etc. The Lord cautioned the Nepites that this darkness of spirit and mindset and demeanor would not be attractive to them or anyone who lived in God's presence. In God there is light and purity; no darkness shall abide there. He forbade intermarrying in the sense of not being unequaly yoked with unbelievers.
    The Lord said:
    For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

    So, I am African American, or black or whatever the title of the day. But I grew up in the south, and there were opportunities for becoming a victem or others racism. But what saved me and probably others was what we were taught by our parents to treat everyone like we wanted to be treated. I believe hatred is taught, racism is hatred and intolerance, it is taught. If we teach our childern to love one another, then we probably won't erradicate racism, but we can put a dent in it. My husband is white and when I met him, I didn't "see" a white person, I saw a person, a good person who I wanted to know better.
    Becca, you are wise and wonderful, thank you for this post.

  2. In Hugh Nibley's lectures about the BoM (and I wish I could find the exact cite now, but I don't have the time to go digging), he talks about the etymology of the word "white" and that it has nothing to do with color, but with purity and light (as RGG beautifully described) and that similarly "black" doesn't refer to a color, but to the darkness of life without the Spirit, without (again, beautifully put by RGG) the nurture and admonition of the Lord. It is what I have always understood the scriptures to mean; it just helps me immensely to know that what I have always "known" has linguistically sound reasoning behind it.

    I do think that humans are naturally somewhat divisive. Not necessarily racist, but quick to separate into us v. them, to define an "other." It is part of the natural (wo)man we all need so desperately to fight against--the difference between (in the BoM) when the people had the fullness of the gospel and when they began to divide up into -ites again. And I believe that many of the false traditions of our fathers are exactly natural (wo)manhood being handed down from parent to child so that it is believed without questioning.

  3. Great post. And great comments.

    In my completely uneducated, humble opinion, I wonder if it is a combination : nature, nurture; natural man, false tradition.

    I've been reading a book: The Power of Habit. It is fascinating - especially to see how we are such habit-driven creatures. It seems like our brains naturally prefer habits, routines, and familiarity. Habits are good - they free our minds up to think about other things. However, bad habits can be destructive, and if we're not training ourselves to actively have good habits, then usually we end up creating bad ones...So - that seems a little off - topic here, but I'm sure that Heavenly Father knew our natural penchant for categorization and our natural dislike of things unfamiliar...In this way, we may have some natural tendencies towards racism. Of course, habits can change, so I don't think that we're bound by nature.

    Beyond that, I think that we have natural tendencies toward any "ism"...or any manner of "ite." Whether we're bigoted against race, class, culture, or religion, it seems like it is the "natural man" who harbors feelings like this toward others. Elder Uchtdorf's talk, and his plea to stop it! was directed to our affinity towards judging others. Any kind of judgment of others (in the way that Elder Uchtdorf taught) is wrong. It isn't Christ-like. It isn't charitable.

    Add to that, the false traditions of our fathers. Habits not only are engrained individually, but societies can have habits (tradition!). Sometimes they are good. Other times, not so much (racism).

  4. What a tough subject. I am glad that you brought it up though as it is so relevant right now. I think that for the most part racism is learned. I always think about that picture that circulates often on face book. It's a picture of a nursery at a hospital and all of the babies are in their basinets all bundled up. It says something about the fact that they don't care what color their neighbor is, everyone is equal. I am not as knowledgeable about the scriptures, not enough to have an intelligent discussion. I get what you mean though about the "other" and that some natural resistance might come up, I still think at the end of the day its learned. Maybe the point is that since we are all different and all of us regardless of race will experience feeling of being a little different it is even more important for us to teach tolerance and acceptance. Now that I am sitting here typing my mind is wandering in so many directions. We should just stick to what would the savior do? If we always ask ourselves that question then the answer will always be the correct one being don't judge, love one another. And yes back to President Uchtdorf's talk from conference "stop it"! So far all of my comments seem to revolve around his talk, it was so profound.

  5. When I visit my daughter's ward in Atlanta, all I see are people of light. Yes, her ward is at least 50% "black" and so is their very young bishop. Her former "black" stake president was called at Conference to be an Area Authority. I just can't see the members as black or white or brown. All I see when I visit is the pure light in their eyes. All I feel is love.
    Yes racism is taught. But if we look into the eyes of anyone; no matter their skin color; we can tell by listening to the Holy Ghost if their spirit is bright or dark. We are all children of our Heavenly Father. We can all have the light.


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