There’s an interesting tendency right now in the public discourse. Rather than to engage and collaborate with those having differing point of views, we have a tendency to try to knock our ideological opponents out of the conversation altogether. “Cancel culture” has become an over-used term these days, but there are obvious attempts on both the right and the left to eliminate inconvenient ideas from acceptable discourse. The right has been trying to purge from public schools anything they feel belongs to the vaguely defined “Critical Race Theory”. By contrast, the left wants to purge our canon from anything racist, elitist, colonialist or too white. Much of this is political as both parties try to expand their foothold of power, scoring quick wins by trying to characterize your opponent as fundamentally unacceptable seems to be the way our politics is currently designed.
Interestingly, religions hold a different perspective and practice, holding an enduringly loyal devotion to their foundational scriptures they draw on for guidance and worship no matter how problematic certain passages within those texts might be. My experience is both Christian and Mormon so I’ll limit my focus to the relevant scriptures in these traditions – the Old and New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Early in America’s founding, within the burned-over district in New York, Joseph Smith started a new religion by adding additional scripture to the scriptural cannon, connecting this new land and its people to the Jewish religious tradition. The Book of Mormon is a record of ancient American people who came to this land as refugees in three separate waves, linking them in all three cases to people talked about in the Old Testament. The first expedition happened shortly after the confounding of the languages after the Tower of Babel. The following two migrations link to the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem, the first right before when Lehi escaped and second when the people of Mulek left right after the invasion.
These particular religions don’t edit their scriptural text, removing or replacing problematic passages. They find a way to deal with them. Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac is probably the most famous example of this, a story where God commands Abraham to kill his only son. Out of unfailing obedience to his God, Abraham proceeds with the sacrifice only to have an angelic intervention at the very last minute. Over the thousands of years since, religious people have wrestled with this extremely difficult passage when it would have been easier to cut it right out of the scriptural text. The Old Testament is filled with these type of stories, prophets being commanded to commit genocide, a flood killing everybody except Noah’s family, Jacob deceiving Esau out of his birthright. The New Testament has its own problems saying that women should be kept quiet, that slaves should behave, and that the gospel is designed to split families apart. Joseph Smith took a crack at Biblical retranslations with the hope of fixing and resolving contradictions and problematic passages, but his corrections are either merely footnotes to the original texts or stand as separate scripture, supplements rather than replacements.
As a religious people, we honor the religious heritage given to us not by eliminating our history but by grappling with it. We have a long tradition of treating scriptures as inspired but not perfect, as worthy of our critique and wrestle, certainly but not just accepting their most straight forward and superficial interpretations as unerring God’s word.
Racism Must Not be a Cancellable Offense
With this as preface, I want to add one more additional point inspired by Ibram Kendi and his call for anti-racism. America has had racism stamped from the beginning. Of course, racism isn’t the only way to look at American history, but racism seems to be an ever-present part of humanity. We’re tribal, there are strong genetic reasons to prefer our tribe over another’s. Racial differences have also been a way to mark tribal boundaries. Chattel slavery and the profits extorted off the backs of black people was a core part of the American founding story. Additionally, European immigrants to America stole land, killing and displacing the indigenous population already weakened by the disease that swept through a population not as embedded with the animal populations as the Europeans had been.
Kendi calls all of us into the work of anti-racism and a key part of his message is to remind us how deeply woven racism is in our systems, our culture, our ideology and our literature.
Unfortunately, given the highly charged nature racism has taken within American culture, conversations about race have been amplified upon the already polarized conversations embedded in society in unhelpful ways. The left uses charges of racism as reasons to push the accused out of the public sphere, directing these charges nearly universally toward conservative individuals, leaders and institutions, hoping they can score enough political victories to occupy positions of power for themselves. The right, feeling the heat of these attacks, react defensively, and then work in an equal but opposite direction, trying not only to deflect, but to engage in a counter-cancelling campaign against anyone promoting equity or pointing out racism in our history or literature as woke, dishonest, and ideologically driven.
This is not a helpful dynamic and is leading to some unfortunate outcomes.
In some ways, racism should be a cancellable offense, but not in the way Kendi defines it. There are explicit racists still living among us who actually believe in a race based caste system. However, most of the racism left in our society is not being propagated purposely, they are leftover vestiges of racist policies, ideas, cultures and heritages still lingering from our past. The racism we are still dealing with and the racism Kendi calls us to reverse is systemic.
The only way to move forward in an anti-racist way is to confront these ideas head-on, with care and compassion, in ways that move society forward. Anyone caught within a systemically racially society will inevitably and unknowably act in racist ways. The systems are the problem not the people. We must deal with the ideas, institutions, culture and systems while being compassionate to the people caught up within it. Pushing on people will not be just counter-productive, inspiring a defensive backlash, it’s fundamentally unjust.
But this sort of anti-racism work requires honesty and courage. We must be able to point out racism when we see it.
The Book of Mormon is Inspired But It’s Racist
The Book of Mormon is racist. It just is. Any faithful person who holds this book as sacred and inspired has to grapple with this reality. For far too long, we have tried to defend and explain the racism in this book and we should not do it anymore.
There are two ways to think about the Book of Mormon, but really only one way to read it. By most non-faithful people, the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith born and raised in the very beginning of the United States founding, when western expansion was only just beginning. Before him was a vast, largely still to be explored land, filled with an indigenous population we still did not fully understand. Joseph saw in this land a way to view it through a Biblical lens and through perhaps a revelatory experience, produced a sacred text that connected America to the Bible. Through this lens, the Book of Mormon reflects the core racist attitudes of a Joseph Smith who embodied the racism of 1820’s white America. An empathetic and in my view accurate reading of this interpretation is that Joseph Smith had a rather progressive, for his time, view of America and its indigenous population, instilling in them a special, God ordained status, residing in a special, God-ordained land. Their heritage was rooted in Jerusalem and like the New Testament believers, they had their own interactions with the resurrected Christ who visited them, calling their own twelve disciples and establishing a Christian church. Even in this reading of the text, assuming that Joseph Smith made all of this up, it’s extremely possible to hold this book as sacred, inspired.
The second interpretation of the Book of Mormon is to view it in the precise way that Joseph Smith himself viewed it. Some believe Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a fraud. In my readings of his life, it’s hard to fathom it. Joseph Smith’s life and dedication to his cause indicates someone fully vested in his founding story. To accept Joseph Smith’s witness is to accept the reality of the Book of Mormon as an inspired, ancient historical text, delivered to him through angelic visitors by the person who was the last author of the book – Moroni. And that rather than being an inspired writing, the Book of Mormon is an inspired translation of a book written largely by Nephi, Mormon and Moroni.
Personally, I don’t believe holding one belief or the other has anything to do with one’s faithful testimony in the church. When a person investigates the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, they are asked to read the Book of Mormon, prayerfully. If they accept the book as inspired, if they believe in the restoration mission of the church and if they feel called to partake of the baptismal covenants, then they join the church. Historicity is completely beside the point. It’s possible to believe in either alternatives and also believe the book is inspired.
But We Must Deal With The Racism
To accept the book is inspired doesn’t mean we have to accept the book as perfect. The book, over and over again, elevates white skin over dark skin. It simply does. It’s wrong. Now, while there are two ways to think of the Book of Mormon, there is only one way to read it. When I dive into the Lord of the Rings, I enter the world JR Tolkien created. It becomes real and I talk about it as if it were. In this sense, Nephi wrote his books decades after they occurred. His brothers never wanted to leave Jerusalem. They did not agree with Lehi’s visionary experiences. They tried to murder Nephi multiple times. There was real trauma. Nephi was not an unbiased recounter. If Laman and Lamuel had their own versions of these stories, it would read incredibly differently. Nephi describes Laman and Lamuel’s savage nature and as a result, racializies them. Their skins becomes darker as they separate and create their own separate societies. The Lamanites become a rival civilization to the Nephites, not just non-Christian but savage, more primitive, darker skin, less religious and more wicked. The Nephites continue to view the Lamanites in this way through the entirety of the Book of Mormon.
The temptation is to take the author’s side of this story and to believe in their racism, but they are not trustworthy narrators. They have a bias, and that is true whether the bias is Nephi, Mormon and Moroni or Joseph Smith.
Christianity is an Anti-Racist Religion
We need to treat the Book of Mormon as inspired by also as a cautionary tale. The civilization completely collapses at the end of it, caused as a first order consequence of racism. Christianity calls us into something better. We have to see the inherent worth of all people, recognize how facile and meaningless racial markers are. Differences of skin color are about as interesting as differences in hair color. We are more than what we look like and we share a common humanity. And in this case, all Christianity’s sacred texts, both the Old and New Testament and the Book of Mormon have within them a critique of their authors.
Right after Christ’s visit to America, the people in the Book of Mormon create a society where they eliminate poverty. To do this, they also eliminate, for a time, its racism:
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in aone, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.4 Nephi 1:17
Similarly, Paul in his effort to carry the gospel message outside the Jewish community, wrote:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28
The book of Job is a masterpiece of the wrestle in which Job spends 40 chapters wrestling with the justice of God only to, when an answer comes, God can only point to the vastness and complexity of God, but in the end between Job who actually express honest anger and wrestle and his friends who try to find simple answers to difficult answers, God chooses Job’s response:
And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.Job 42:7
As a society, we have a choice. We can be like Job’s friends and try to flatten the world, eliminating what is inconvenient or defending what should never be defended, or we can deal with the world as it is, a world filled with inspired by flawed systems, institutions, religions, and prophets. Racism is systemic. It’s a fundamental part of who we are. We need to strive to do our best to make this a better world. We know we’re making progress as our congregations are filled with a population that demographically represents the makeup of our communities where nobody feels excluded and all are welcome who are committed to the call of Jesus who continually calls us to care for the sick and strengthen the feeble knees.