September 26, 2008

All are alike? On Racism and the Book of Mormon

Likening With Care, Part 9
To understand how Brant Gardner's five common Book of Mormon myths can change ones approach to the text, consider the problem of racism in the Book of Mormon. This post is not intended to "solve the problem" of racism in the book, but to demonstrate how "likening with care" can change how one understands the text and open possibilities for better interpretation.

One author criticizing LDS scripture asserted:

"The Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price both teach that dark skin is God’s way of marking people who are spiritually inferior (see 1 Nephi 12:23; 2 Nephi 5:21; 3 Nephi 2:14-16; Mormon 5:15; Moses 7:8, 22)."1
This comment exhibits several Book of Mormon misconceptions as described by Gardner. In his view, the critic cannot properly understand the Book of Mormon in such small pieces, the text itself contradicts the notion of "Nephi/light=good, Lamanite/dark=bad," and suggesting that the Book of Mormon should follow current conceptions of race expects too much of an ancient text.2 The author's critical approach stems from her Evangelical perspective expecting infallibility of scripture, thus holding these verses to a different standard than what LDS approaches warrant. 

Brant Gardner:

"Racism is a modern abhorrence and an ancient norm. Humanity seems to want to create categories and create boundaries of 'us' and 'them.' We use any number of features to do it. Many years ago when the Earth Shoes brand first began, I had a pair and instantly paid attention and felt some connection to others who wore the same kind of shoes, even though I never met them. We create divisions based on our favorite sports teams. We seem to need to fit in to a group and to focus ourselves in the group against some outsider. 'Race' has been one of the ways this was done. Cities were anciently another method (remember the tension between Athens and Sparta)."3

The issue becomes one of hermeneutics, or how readers participate in interpreting the text. In calling racism an "ancient norm," Gardner clarifies by differentiating the meaning of "racism" in terms of our current understanding from what the ancient writers understood. How did Nephi or Mormon view race? Gardner believes the Book of Mormon notion of race corresponds better with the ancient understanding rather than how Joseph Smith might have viewed race in the 1800s:

"In the ancient world, it was much more complicated than our modern assumption that race only means a different color. For the ancients, other factors would define a different race; perhaps because they came from a different country even though biologically similar, for example. Differentiations and prejudices based on color are relatively recent and our modern issues can be traced at least in part to the justifications of the modern slave trade.4

The Book of Mormon has a more Biblical version of prejudice. It is against a people who aren't 'us.' It is characterized by stereotypes, just as the ancient world stereotyped people. As with the ancient world, the stereotypes were used to characterize those 'others' even when the actual evidence contradicted the stereotypes. Book of Mormon prejudicial stereotypes begin with Nephi and persist to Mormon." 

Gardner is not arguing that the racial perceptions in the Book of Mormon were "okay," but that they were different from what modern readers might perceive. This different concept of "race" is also seen in the Ancient Near East. One student referred to this ancient view as "colorist," but they didn’t apply that racially, though moderns tend to read it that way. In other words, light is good, dark is bad, white is good, black is bad." For support he cited a passage in the Qur'an, Surah 3.106-7:
On the day when (some) faces shall turn white and (some) faces shall turn black; then as to those whose faces turn black: Did you disbelieve after your believing? Taste therefore the chastisement because you disbelieved. And as to those whose faces turn white, they shall be in Allah’s mercy; in it they shall-abide.5
Compare this with the statement in Daniel, wherein the LORD describes the end of times when "Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand" (Daniel 12:10).

Clearly a deeper look at the concept of race as described in ancient scripture including the Book of Mormon warrants further discussion.6 Suffice it to say, it is argued that a simplistic or shallow reading of the text which results in thinking "white skin=good, dark skin=bad" is lacking. The question might then turn to "why did God provide this particular record 'for our day' to teach us about the gospel if it carries what typical modern sensibilities may interpret as racist?" In other words, did God risk perpetuating what we would now see as racism by allowing the authors of the Book of Mormon to include those sentiments? In a way, LDS views on revelation and scripture make such risk inevitable.7

To answer these questions, Gardner sees the text itself as a complex combination of God's revelation and man's understanding combined and communicated through the written word in an original ancient record of various authors, then transferred through an inspired translation process by Joseph Smith. This inevitably introduces limitations on the text.8 What can these limitations teach contemporary readers? Gardner:

"Looking at the long view of the history of God's dealings with mankind, the times of obvious overt intervention are dwarfed by the times that God nudges rather than shoves. What the modern world ends up with in the record of God's dealings with the ancient world is a picture filtered through the ancient world that is applicable but not designed for the modern world. Even in the Book of Mormon, for as much as Mormon and Moroni knew that the book was for the future, there is no indication that it was designed for the future.9 There is every indication that it was (as was the Bible) written according to their own historical and spiritual sensibilities.

A significant difference in the Book of Mormon is that it is filtered through Joseph Smith's translation which clearly placed much of it into a much more modern context (such as the times we see Jesus Christ the Messiah--a set of terms that is only possible in the modern translation since 'Christ' and 'Messiah' should be translating the same original word).

So God gives us the record of his actions and we have to learn to adapt and 'liken' it to us. When we might not be too sure and need some more help, we turn to prophets who tend to get right to the issue and tell us how to live. God didn't 'risk' perpetuating racism; we did that all on our own. I doubt that God could have done much about it without making such obvious interventions as to destroy agency. If God were going to deal with racism, the terrible history of the abuse of African slaves offered ample opportunity to make much more significant inroads than to alter either the worldview of the ancients or the mindset of Joseph the translator.

He did, of course, perhaps encourage the inclusion of King Benjamin's sermon which among the other great principles declared that there be no slavery and that mankind should treat others with equality. For some reason, the 'skin of blackness' gets top billing over the much more important social program that told the Nephites specifically to treat others as equals." 

So in attempting to understand the Book of Mormon as an ancient text one may conclude that the idea of "race" in the Book of Mormon may be less about skin color and more about inside/outside groups and righteousness/wickedness based on decisions rather than simply genetics. Also, in taking the Book of Mormon as a whole, one may see God attempting to promote unity rather than "racism" in passages like King Benjamin's sermon, Nephi's declaration that "All are alike unto God," and Christ's rebuke of the Nephites who neglected to record the prophesies of a Lamanite.10

Gardner would take Moroni's caution seriously when applying the Book of Mormon to "our day":
Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been (Mormon 9: 31). 
This approach is not intended as a mere "apology" for what current readers may understand as racism, but as a way to understand why it is there, what it meant to the ancients, and what it can mean to contemporaries. Condemning Moroni not, but seeking to better understand and perhaps learning to be "more wise," is one aspect of "likening with care."

Sharon Lindbloom, "Quiet Misgivings About Mormon Racism," Mormon Coffee blog, Feb. 11, 2008.

The criticism is affected by Gardner's myths one, two, four, and five.

Brant Gardner, personal e-mails in my possession, Sept. 12-14, 2008.

For more, see Stephen R. Haynes, Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, Oxford University Press, 2002.

This was noted by "Nitsav" in a recent Juvenile Instructor discussion on changes to the Book of Mormon text dealing with race.See Christopher, "No More 'Skin of Blackness'?: Race and Recent Changes in the Book of Mormon," comment 46, Juvenile Instructor blog, Sept. 19, 2008.

Recent changes to Book of Mormon chapter headings were discussed on the Juvenile Instructor blog as noted above. Such changes seem to reflect our current understanding of race, and are not unique to the 21st century Church. Joseph Smith also seems to have recognized an uncomfortable feeling regarding some passages and didn't mind making adjustments. The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon said Lehi's descendants "shall be a white and a delightsome people," which was changed to "pure and a delightsome people" in the 1840 edition (see 2_Ne. 30:6; FAIRwiki, "Book of Mormon Changes/'white' to 'pure'"). For more on the Book of Mormon, see John A. Tvedtnes, "The Charge of 'Racism' in the Book of Mormon," FARMS Review, Vol. 15, No. 2.

"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). As Brigham Young hinted at an interesting hereneutic: "I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities" (July 8, 1855, Journal of Discourses, 2:314).

Alfred North Whitehead posited a "propositional" way of interpreting or understanding texts which, in my view, underlined the limitations of language without robbing it of its actual power. I believe LDS scriptural interpretation, including the acknowledgement of fallibility, can be seen in a similar way, and hope to blog about that soon. For now, see William A. Beardslee, "Whitehead and Hermeneutic," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 47, No. 1, (March 1979), pp.31-37.

See Gardner's myth one.

See Mosiah 2-5; 2 Nephi 26:23; 3 Nephi 23:9-14. The graphic is adapted from the wallpaper "No Racism" created by "pincel3d" on deviantArt.


poulsen said...

Looking at the etymology of the word race, one finds the following.

race (2)
"people of common descent," c.1500, from M.Fr. razza "race, breed, lineage," possibly from It. razza, of unknown origin (cf. Sp., Port. raza). Original senses in Eng. included "wines with characteristic flavor" (1520), "group of people with common occupation" (c.1500), and "generation" (c.1560). Meaning "tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock" is from c.1600. Modern meaning of "one of the great divisions of mankind based on physical peculiarities" is from 1774 (though even among anthropologists there never has been an accepted classification of these). Klein suggests these derive from Arabic ra's "head, beginning, origin" (cf. Heb. rosh). O.E. ├żeode meant both "race" and "language;" as a verb, ge├żeodan, it meant "to unite, to join." Racial is first attested 1862. Race-riot attested from 1890.
"Just being a Negro doesn't qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine." [Dick Gregory, 1964]

Note that one of the possible origins of this english word is "of unknown origin". This fits well with Jacob's definition of Lamanites and is consistant with the Ancient concept of "them versus us"

Larry Poulsen

BHodges said...

It seems the difference between our modern understanding of "race" and that of more ancient peoples is traceable as changing over time simply by looking at that etymology, Larry. Good addition.

poulsen said...

I have always found that the etymology of an English word is a good way to contrast ancient culture with modern culture. Some concepts change slowly, others change very rapidly. Sometimes significant change occurs within a single lifetime. For example the word gay, It has changed in meaning drastically just within my own lifetime.
This is why we need to take great care when likening ourselves with the cultures of the scriptures.


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