Well, actually, I believe in qualified equality. It's the only way I've been able to sort it out. I'd like to believe in equality of all men everywhere, but that's kind of hard for me to do. Is an embryo equal to its mother? I kinda don't think so. Is a terminally ill 94-year-old equal to a healthy 20-year-old working man? I dunno.
I was apalled when some animal rights activists in my community destroyed a laboratory that claimed to humanely treat its research animals. But I do think causing animals to suffer unnecessarily is wrong. Does an animal have an equal philosophical claim to life? Some say yes. Is a cricket equal to a dog? Is a microbe equal to a man?
The conversation is confounded by unstated assumptions of what exactly is being compared. Intrinsic value of the being? Value to society in terms of productivity? Equality in terms of capability? Complexity of life or future potential? Equality in terms of 'human rights'? Value as a 'child of God'?
Frankly, I've been disappointed with the church's past stance on black men having the priesthood. And I've been confused by why women can't have the priesthood or hold more leadership positions. The church has been charged as a racist, misogynistic cult because of these issues, and in my mind there is no easy defense. Why would God, who has made it clear that men will be punished for their own sins and not Adam's transgression, seem to place limits on people for some intrinsic aspect of their identity that is nothing to be ashamed of--no fault of their own?
Either there is no God, God is a bigot, the church doesn't accurately speak for God, or the reasons behind actions of the church are not well understood. I take the last view, although it feels awfully apologetic. There are examples of seeming inequality in all faiths I can think of--a prophet is blessed above his peers, a nation is intended to impose their theocratic rule, etc. But ultimately in the Mormon view, God's purpose is to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man. His purpose is not to make life easier. His purpose is not to make sure life is fair--he only promises the afterlife will be fair. I realize this isn't a perfect answer, but it seems passable. Inequality and mistakes are indefinitely tolerated because of mortal weakness and the fall of Adam. The world is a crucible. Cultural change happens in pockets and waves--never a homogenous revolution. And this is the context in which the church operates.
But a perfect church led by a prophet in direct communication with God should be above the fray. It should be progressive--ahead of the curve. And because we judge where the head of the curve is based on our human bias, it is often difficult to understand. We have no idea what the consequences would have been if God had arranged things more equitably more early with blacks and the priesthood, but He does know. It is not unreasonable to assume that in his omniscience he did what was best for all, the nuances of which we can't comprehend. OK, perhaps it's not unreasonable, but it does take a pretty active suspension of disbelief to throw Occam's razor out the window.
At the same time, deliberate guidelines on gender roles and permissible sexual conduct are reportably not tied to cultural issues, but rather reflect a societal structure that transcends this world altogether. I'm going to discuss this hairy issue more in a later post.
Not everyone gets a fair shake in life. For that matter, pretty much nobody gets a fair shake. Equality, in this sense, is meaningless. I can't tell you how sad it is to see some of the young people in clinic who have debilitating health conditions that make it impossible to have a normal life. Some will never walk, some will never have sex. We do our best to assist them in reaching whatever level of normal function is possible, but often it's not much, leaving a glaring example of 'inequality' in our society. So, I tend not to believe in this type of equality. God doesn't 'owe' us equality in this sense. He doesn't owe anyone a sexually satisfying life. He doesn't owe anyone the chance to be an Olympian.
However, equality is an ideal I believe in when speaking of a person's worth. God is "no respecter of persons," and He will accept all who repent and come to Him. Further, equality of opportunities is something that isn't inherent in life, it's something to fight for. Cultural limitations on opportunities can be codified in policy or they can just be steeped in the societies' habits and practices themselves. Cultural limitations should be battled, and for their courage and success we honor folks like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Nevertheless, culture is a hard thing to change. Even today, there is lasting oppression. Today it is just as important to battle for parity in opportunity.
Some argue we should also fight for the other type of equality. Everyone deserves a perfect body and limitless experiences--regardless of the cost to society. We are all "entitled". I can't think of very many uses of the word "entitlement" that don't really bother me. Sure, we should help and serve the less fortunate among us, but feelings of entitlement are counter-productive as they encourage unrealistic expectations and sometimes flagrant selfishness.
Ultimately, I don't really understand why the church has unpleasant blotches on its past in terms of racial equality. But I'm reluctant to dismiss all the good and beautiful I've seen in the church because of something I know little about that happened in a time and place that is completely different. I doubt any of us have the context to understand it. Passing judgment is so easy, but God is the only one who does a good job of it. So, I'll leave it to him.
I'll try to address equality as it relates to women's rights and gay rights in the next post. In the mean time, here's a more complete treatment of Mormonism and race