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Monday, July 30, 2012

Guest Post: Discussing Race With An Investigator

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Ryan Gotchy Mullen always uses three names in print, but only one aloud. He is a husband, father of three, engineering grad student and avid reader of the Book of Mormon. His hair has been both black and white in the past, but is now rapidly turning gray.

Race is always a tricky subject for me when talking about the Church. How can I simultaneously explain that my church had erroneous views and prejudiced racial policies while affirming the Church's divine origin? As a modern Mormon man I am comfortable with this dichotomy, but I'm not great at explaining it. However, a friend of mine is taking the discussions and in reading the Book of Mormon, he stumbled upon the Lamanite cursing. In his own words:
I wanted to be honest in that I had a hard time reading 2 Nephi 5. It started with the chapter description. Then again in v. 21, where it seems to claim when the Lamanites were "white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome," but then because of their unbelief, God marked them and "cause[ed] a skin of blackness to come upon them." I read this as saying something about both black and white skin. The way it praises white skin is bizarre, and blackness is seen as some kind of punishment. As I read this, I read that the Nephites continued to have white "delightsome" skin and that the Lamanites where marked---by God---with black skin. So, good guys are white; bad guys are black.
He goes on to stress that he has never witnessed racism from modern Mormons, however he's aware of Mormons' rocky racial history and sees in this passage strong evidence for the idea that Joseph Smith was influenced by his culture in writing the Book of Mormon. Here's my response:

This is actually an active area of Mormon thought. I think I mentioned to you, at one point Mormons thought that the Book of Mormon events took place across the entire Western Hemisphere. In fact, one edition of the Book of Mormon had footnotes indicating that the Lamanites lived in South America and the Nephites in North America. Based on further study of the text, most Mormons now agree that the events described had to occur in a much more limited range of geography.

Similarly, our understanding of skin color's role in the Book of Mormon has changed over the 180 years since the publication. In fact, the Church recently updated the chapter heading to 2 Nephi 5 to remove references to race as a curse; you can see this by comparing the heading on your smartphone with that in your hardcopy. To me this highlights that we don't understand Nephi's descriptions. In fact, the most common response I received from people I asked about this topic is "I don't think about that a lot because I don't understand it." Usually, the person also expressed faith that one day God would make this more clear through revelation to the Church as a whole.

But to give you the range of beliefs, some LDS believe 2 Nephi 5 describes a literal, miraculous change in the skin color of Lamanites. No one I talked to interpreted this to mean God viewed the Lamanites as second-class human beings, however a few believed that the Lamanites brought this consequence on themselves as a direct result of their forgetting God. Others said it was not a punishment, but simply God's way of distinguishing the two groups.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hugh Nibley, regarded by most as the LDS scholar, proposed that Nephites and Lamanites were not racial categories. In this view, any reference to "skin" in the Book of Mormon should be interpreted figuratively. This view is supported by an edit Joseph Smith made in 1840 changing the promise to believing Lamanites in 2 Nephi 30:6 from "they shall be a white and delightsome people" to "they shall be a pure and delightsome people."

Personally, I don't ascribe to either of these views; I take a "natural" view on skin color in the Book of Mormon. I have never known any individual's skin color to actually change, Michael Jackson excepted. Thus, I do not believe that Laman or Lemuel woke up one morning with darker skin. And in fact, the Book of Mormon never records any person experiencing such a change. It only describes groups of people getting darker or lighter; I interpret this genetically. My personal view is that Laman and Lemuel (or their children) intermarried with indigenous peoples, and it was their children (or grandchildren) that had darker skin. Nephi, who preceded Mendelev by 2300 years, had no background in genetics, and so ascribed this to the power of God. Thus, I do not interpret skin color as a sign of God's dis/approval, either now or in any past age. And in my close reading of 2 Nephi 5, the "skin of blackness" is not specifically mentioned as God's cursing. It is mentioned in connection to God's curse, but the curse itself is "being cut off from [the Lord's] presence" (v. 20). I do see that Nephi's followers conflated the two: a generation later, Jacob preached a sermon against Nephite racism (Jacob 3). However, it does not seem that Nephi himself shared this view. He teaches specifically in 2 Nephi 26:33 that the Lord invites all to come unto him "black and white, bond and free, male and female."

In closing, I want to discuss the bigger picture here -- why Nephi even mentions the Lamanites skin color. The opening story of the Book of Mormon was written by Nephi some 30-40 years after it happened. Nephi states several times that his purpose is to record the spiritual version of his history (1 Nephi 6, 9 and 2 Nephi 5). Grant Hardy makes the case that Nephi undertakes this task to explain (to himself as well as his children) how things went so wrong once his family reached the Promised Land. Nephi recounts the divine origins of his family's journey - with both Lehi and Nephi receiving clear visions guiding them to a new world and promises of prosperity. However, once in this new world the family divides. It seems Lehi never stopped hoping that this division of his sons could be prevented; to that end he blesses each of his sons in 2 Nephi 1-4. However, Nephi shows that he and his followers did split from Laman & Co. In the words of Joe Spencer, a grad student at UNM,

"Whatever in this description might bother or rankle, Nephi’s own purposes are clear. He means to draw a very sharp distinction between the two now fully separated peoples. He’s certainly accomplished that!"

Nephi then spends all his remaining text on describing how this breach in the Promised Land will be healed. Not surprisingly, the answer is Jesus Christ and we have beautiful sermons in 2 Nephi 9-10 and 2 Nephi 25-33 expounding this answer. But what is surprising, or at least in contrast to Lehi's plea, Nephi prophesies that this breach will not be healed for hundreds of years. In fact, most Latter-day Saints believe that the rapid growth of our church in South America is a divine manifestation of prophecies in 2 Nephi that Lamanite descendants would accept Jesus Christ far in the future.

I hope I've answered your questions. Moreover, I hope I've demonstrated that the Book of Mormon is complex and our understanding of it does evolve. However, my testimony that it comes from God does not. As a thirty year-old grad student, husband and father, the foundation of my love for the Book of Mormon is the same as it was when I read it as a fourteen year-old boy: God answered my prayer. I know he will answer yours.
So what about you? Do modern Mormon men wrestle with the issue of race in the Book of Mormon? How would you answer an investigator with this question?

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