Tuesday, March 21, 2006

I believe in equality

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


Chris (hurricane) said...


A very thought provoking post. Thanks for it.

For some good reading on the priesthood ban and the history of blacks in the LDS Church, I highly recommend Black Saints in a White Church by Jessie L. Embry.

Chris said...

Thanks for your post.

Let me first say that I don’t know all the reasons why blacks were denied the priesthood. I have thought about several different possibilities, and a few seem to make a lot of sense to me. However, I don’t know God’s reasoning for sure.

I have had several black LDS friends. It’s interesting talking to them about this topic. Some have struggled with this issue to a certain degree. However, hearing their faith and testimony has strengthened mine. They have received answers and comfort on the topic. If they have faith and do not doubt the Church’s history on this issue, then how can I?

God has always limited blessings to groups of people based on characteristics beyond their control. When the Savior was on the earth, He focused His ministry on the Jews. Non-Jews were left out at no fault of their own. It wasn’t until after Christ’s death that the Gospel was taken to other people. Even today, the Gospel is withheld from various groups of people who cannot help their circumstances. Whether race, nationality, country of origin, etc. prevents someone from having Gospel blessings, God is aware to those people and He will make it right.

Is it fair that some members don’t have easy access to a temple? Is it fair that some members will never see an apostle in person? Is it fair that good people are the victims of abuse? The list of these questions is endless. God knows what He is doing. He has His reasons. The Church leaders have their reasons as well as far as policies and issues governing the Church.

I can understand why this issue would be troubling to some people at first glance. However, I truly believe that anyone who studies this issue with humility and faith will get the answers they are seeking from the Lord.

Chris (hurricane) said...

God has always limited blessings to groups of people based on characteristics beyond their control.

Men also routinely excuse their injustice toward others in the name of God.

Long before I had issues with the Church because of my homosexuality, I came to the conclusion that the priesthood ban was a result of culture, not divine inspiration. But that's another discussion for another thread... and maybe another blog!

-L- said...

It's a hard issue to understand, and that is indeed centrally relevant to this post.

Good point that the priesthood is not an entitlement.

Chris (hurricane) said...


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 think there is another alternative--as with the rest of us, the men called to lead the church cannot easily transcend the culture in which they live or the time in which they are born. They are subject to the same biases and prejudices that the rest of us are. Because of this, I think it is unrealistic of us to expect them to be socially progressive and out in front of social trends, particularly since the institution and the culture of the church are inherently conservative. But I think it is equally unrealistic for us to try to find answers that don't fully take into account the cultureal and historical context in which the church and its leadership act.

That said, here are just a few random thoughts about the priesthood ban...

1. Joseph Smith ordained at least one black man to the priesthood.

2. There is no record of any revelation on the subject to Joseph or Brigham or their successors until President Kimball. The significance of this, in my view, is that there is no moment in time that one can point to and say, "There, the priesthood ban began and was instituted because of XYZ, revealed to God's prophet."

3. As I said above, prophets, though called to lead God's church, are also men bound to the culture in which they are raised and live. I think it exceedingly unrealistic to expect them to be able to transcend their culture, particularly on emotional issues of the day or those that are deeply rooted--and racial attitudes were certainly deeply rooted during the decades of the ban.

4. The various justifications offered to support the ban where largely unoriginal and derivative of other theological justifications for slavery and racial discrimination.

5. The LDS Church was an overwhelmingly white institution that did not have to confront this issue, particularly when its policies reflected popular cultural attitudes about race.

6. There is evidence that President McKay wanted to change the policy--which is what he considered it. His desire, however, met with stiff resistance from certain members of the Twelve, who felt the ban was not policy but doctrine and would settle for nothing short of a clear revelation from God on the subject before supporting a change.

7. The timing in the change in policy tracked, with a slight lag, changes in cultural attitudes about the role of black people.

All of this, when added to my understanding of some of the doctrine you already cited in your original post (man punished for his own transgressions...) led me to conclude that the ban was not divine in its origins--though I am certainly open to the idea that its termination was divinely inspired.

And from this I draw similar conclusions about the LDS Church's policies towards women and homosexuals. In time, I'm confident that these policies will also change, though as with the priesthood ban, I think they will lag the rest of society by a decade or two (or three).

-L- said...

Thanks for the insight. I agree that cultural influence seems to be the primary influence for the priesthood issue. I don't think the same holds for gays. See my next post...