Saturday, October 24, 2015

Racial Diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve is Important--and Worth Caring About Today (Part 3)

Quick recap: I'm riffing on a post by George Handley about concerns some Mormons have expressed about the fact that the three new apostles sustained at last week's general conference are all white Americans. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. This is the final entry in this mini-series.

Like I said in Part 1, I really liked Handley's discussion of revelation:
Revelation involves reasoning, but it is ultimately unpredictable and sometimes flies in the face of reason. That is not to say that it is unreasonable, of course, but in my experience it rarely matches our most rational expectations. While this can be challenging at times, if we think about it (rationally of course!), this is as it should be. If revelation always came in direct harmony with our expectations, then we could hardly call it revelation at all. It would be indistinguishable from the result of human deliberation and casting a vote. While such deliberation is essential to reaching greater understanding in a democratic society, in the church we seek revelation by combining the needs and thoughts of a group with our faith in a higher power. This does not mean we put reason aside but it does mean that we have to trust in a higher authority than in our own individual or even our collective wisdom.
I agree that any meaningful understanding of revelation requires humility--the seeker/receiver by definition does not know the answer until revelation comes. It must at times differ from what we would otherwise do relying on our own wits. I think that's simple but profound, and needs to be kept in mind more often (speaking for myself, at least).

And I agree that if one believes the prophet is a prophet (and that being a prophet has some real, priesthood-y, revelatory meaning to it, however defined in the details), then you are under an obligation to seriously consider the things he says and give them a presumption of correctness. Automatically discounting anything they say that contradicts your priors means you don't really believe they're prophets.

However, by the same token, if you don't believe that leaders are infallible (which Mormons don't shouldn't), then that presumption of correctness should not become irrebuttable.  In other words, if personal revelation is to be meaningful when institutional revelation exists, there have to be some times when your personal revelation is not 100% in accord with institutional stances. Because leaders are fallible, blindly obeying everything they say means you'd be believing/doing some things that aren't right (or at least not 100% right). [1]

Ultimately, I think if we're doing all this in good faith--being willing to humble ourselves to revelation that goes against our mortal preferences, but also being willing to seek personal revelation for church issues that trouble us--then we're a much stronger community. Disagreeing with a systematic problem in the church and trying to constructively and properly change it (however those terms are defined) is a Good Thing as far as I'm concerned. [2]

Consider the words of Dallin H. Oaks:
Revelations from God—the teachings and directions of the Spirit—are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. Fortunately, we are never out of our Savior’s sight, and if our judgment leads us to actions beyond the limits of what is permissible and if we are listening to the still, small voice, the Lord will restrain us by the promptings of his Spirit. [3]
I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for someone to have felt that it would have been a good idea to call a person of color to the apostleship in this most recent conference--based on personal revelation--and yet to also believe that it was within "the limits of what is permissible" to call the three good, spiritual, capable men who were chosen.

In the end, I strongly believe that it would have been wonderful for the church to have a person of color (or two or three!) in the Quorum of the Twelve by now. I believe that it would be a blessing both substantively--race and ethnicity affect the way we experience life and thus how we experience revelation, so people of color would bring valuable insights to the table--and in the message we send to members and the world about truly valuing all of the diversity that God has created. So yes, I was disappointed that it didn't happen this time, and I do think we still have a systemic (not intentional or mean-spirited, but nonetheless serious) problem with race in the church. But I know we will get men of color in the Quorum of the Twelve, and I have faith that it will be soon. And in the meantime, I sustain Elders Rasband, Stevenson, and Renlund as inspired choices, and I know they will have wonderful things to teach us all.

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[1] How to respond when you disagree with the prophet's/the church's stance on something is a whole separate issue. Clearly it could be the case that while not ideal, the stance is well within the bounds of moving in a general good direction, in which case there might not be any real productivity in disagreeing publicly (an example of this might be someone who disagreed with, say, the missionary age change--not a huge deal even if you think that 18 year olds are a bit too young to be regularly sent out to preach the word). On the other end of the spectrum (say with the priesthood/temple ban for blacks), it might be appropriate in certain situations to speak up and voice concern with the stance. The details of all that are pretty complicated and personal and I certainly don't have them figured out, and anyway they are beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

[2] See, e.g., birth control, evolution, blacks and the temple/priesthood, loving and accepting your LGBTQ family members, etc.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, "Teaching and Learning by the Spirit," Mar. 1997 Ensign.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Racial Diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve is Important--and Worth Caring About Today (Part 2)

Quick recap: I'm riffing on a post by George Handley about concerns some Mormons have expressed about the fact that the three new apostles sustained at last week's general conference are all white Americans. Part 1 is here, and Part 3 is here.

As I said in Part 1, my first point of disagreement with Handley is that this isn't a concern about individual apostles, it's a systemic concern. What do I mean by that? In short, it's bigger than you or me (especially if you're white like me) or the three individuals sustained as apostles last week.

Handley--misunderstandingly, I think, not with any bad intent on his part--takes the focus off the system and puts it on the individuals called. But that, I submit, is not what the criticism is about. This personal anecdote of his, while beautiful, is a good example of the focus on individuals called:
Twice now I have been called to serve as an ecclesiastical leader, the second time just two weeks ago. And on both occasions my name was announced and the congregation had a matter of seconds to decide to vote in support of me but did so unanimously. Kind notes and expressions of faith followed, helping to shore up my own state of astonishment that the Lord would have chosen me. I felt the most profound gratitude for God’s trust but just as importantly for the trust of the members who, apparently without much hesitation as far as I could tell, accepted the will of the Lord. . . . 
When it happens to you—you whose appreciation for your own weaknesses and limitations is especially keen—you feel such profound gratitude for the faith of others who trust that your particulars (in my case, a white middle-class male who is also blessed with a particular form of foolishness) will not stand in the way of the Lord’s will. Their faith might go so far as to believe that your set of life experiences might even be needed in the particular circumstances your ward or stake finds itself in. In my experience, such faith grants such an added source of power to a leader that revelations come much more easily. I can say this much: those hands raised in support signify not a vote in favor of a person but an expression of faith that together we can hope for the Lord’s guidance in our lives as we work together in doing the Lord’s work.
This is an absolutely beautiful and moving expression of how humbling church callings can be--and how zionizing it can be when a community truly sustains people in their callings. However, I think this is also where he starts talking past people. Granted, some people probably don't like one or more of the new apostles individually for some reason. But honestly, most members know little to nothing about any of them, and their talks were pretty neutral-to-positive-sounding for the more progressive Mormons who are the ones voicing concerns about (the lack of) racial and cultural diversity in the Quorum. This underscores that the concern is with the system, not the individuals. In other words, your ward might well be entirely fine with your white middle-class maleness, George, and believe you were an inspired choice--but it's not about you.

Systems can be sincerely and thoughtfully intended to be neutral, but end up being discriminatory or problematic in application. Questioning a system doesn't have to mean questioning any of the particular individuals administering it or who it chooses for advancement (though it can do that too--obviously it depends a lot on the particular facts).

Here's a little thought experiment to frame this. Let's take an organization that you really love--not a church, so we can keep the Eternal Truth baggage out of it (for now--we'll get back to that later). Let's say it's your local Rotary Club (or whatever). You're a big fan of this club. It does a ton of good, you feel lots of community there with your fellow members, the food is delicious, etc etc. Now let's say you live in a pretty white area of the country, and your Rotary Club has never had a person of color in its leadership (which is elected by the current leadership when someone moves out or dies). It'd be easy enough to say, "well, maybe there just hasn't happened to be a person of color in this small, 95% white town who was interested or qualified--and even if there had been, it's true that America used to be pretty racist, so maybe there was some discrimination in the past, but nowadays it's pretty much a meritocracy--and anyway, everyone in leadership is a great choice, they objectively do a ton of great work!" Fair enough.

But then let's say your city starts getting a lot more people of color in it, and in a decade or two it's about 80% people of color. And you notice that there still hasn't been a person of color chosen. And maybe you say, "well, it's important for our leadership to have deep roots in the community so they can do their jobs the best, so that probably has a lot to do with it--and anyway, the leadership are all still top notch: the new ones have brought in great new ideas and have very strong resumes and maybe white people just happened to be the best picks!" Alright . . .

Then fast forward another 50 years, and as an old geezer you realize you still haven't seen a person of color picked for leadership--but again, every. single. (white) individual who gets elected is a stellar candidate, with an impeccable resume! Is it possible to agree that no single white person was a bad choice to join the leadership, and yet believe that something very messed up is happening with how the system is set up? It might not even be consciously racist--maybe the leadership happens to pick people they know well, and (like most cities in America) unfortunately the races just don't interact nearly as much with each other as they do with themselves. So no conscious "let's keep the blacks out!," but just "hey, John's daughter just graduated from Harvard Business School, he was great, and she looks great, let's pick her!" And again, she really is a great pick! But I think you'd be very justified in being upset about how this system--which has chosen only great people--has been excluding many qualified people of color. [1]

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying this is how apostles are chosen, and I do believe that God literally inspires it and so it's better than my Rotary Club draft process, [2] but I'm simply using the example to explain the idea of systemic versus individual criticisms. The principle here is that people can be perfectly satisfied (or even very happy!) with the individual apostles chosen while still getting concerned as the years go on that only white people get chosen. It can start to suggest that there might be some shortcomings in the system. Of course, how long before any member starts to feel that way will vary--some people probably did by 1988, ten years after Official Declaration 2, and clearly many people still haven't gotten anywhere near that point. But I think that a lot of members would start getting pretty uncomfortable if, say, 50 years from now we still had never had a non-white apostle--even if those members had sustained and loved and appreciated each and every single (white) apostle who had served. My point is that it is possible to sustain each apostle but see a systemic problem.

To wrap this part up, then, I think Handley fundamentally misunderstands the concern. [3] He frames the concern as having problems with individuals, when many of the same people who were disappointed that (again) only white men were chosen also sustain those men as individual apostles. (See, again, The New Apostles: Soul Mates? Maybe Not.)

So that's the systemic vs. individual issue. Part 3 will discuss how people can reconcile this concern over a system with their simultaneous belief that the church is also guided by revelation in a meaningful way.

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[1] This is one of those times where "I don't see color!" is the worst. Because if you don't see color in any individual choice you make, you could end up with 50 years of only white people in your club leadership and not even realize it! Race matters. Keep it (appropriately) in mind.

[2] I have basically no insight into the details of how that process works except that I do believe that inspiration from God is literally involved. But Elder Christofferson did give an interesting peek into a bit of the process recently:
Elder Christofferson said the selection and calling of new apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve is the prerogative of the president of the church.
"President Monson, I don't know if this always has been the case, but his practice has been to ask each of his counselors and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve to give him names they would recommend for his consideration, not to discuss with each other but just individually, to give him whatever name or names they feel impressed he ought to look at," he said.
"What process he goes through exactly, I'm not sure. That's, again, something private he pursues. He then brings back, when he's reached his decision and had the inspiration he needs, the name or names to the council that we have of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to sustain it. That goes forward to general conference."
Ooh, and the lds.org page on calling apostles uses that same Elder Christofferson quote, and also includes a video of Pres. Hinckley describing the process too!

[3] And in a sense, it's easy for Handley to misunderstand, because it's not like most people are writing too-detailed online rants explaining every step of their thinking on this; in fact, the most common reaction by those who wanted to see an apostle of color called was (appropriately!) more visceral than academic. But then again, it's important to realize that that's a position of privilege not to have to spend a lot of time with these concerns or have to really grapple with what the root of the criticisms might be, judging them instead by tweets, facebook posts, quickly published blog posts, or whatever other sources he may have seen them expressed in.  (And again, the onus is absolutely not on people of color who were upset to have to educate everyone about everything in every tweet.)

Racial Diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve is Important--and Worth Caring About Today (Part 1)

This is the first of three posts on this topic. Part 2 is here, and Part 3 is here.

I just read a well done and thought-provoking blog post by George Handley, a BYU professor who has written some great stuff about environmentalism. This post of his, though, is about the recent apostles chosen to join the Quorum of the Twelve at last week's general conference. There's a lot I like about it, and I definitely recommend reading it. But in the interest of blogging (which has to thrive on some sort of conflict, right?), I wanted to think out loud about a few things I disagreed with. So apologies that this gets long-winded (I have a really bad habit of doing that in writing), but it's more for me than for you, so suck it up. Or actually go read something better on the subject, like this amazing post from Feminist Mormon Housewives about soul mates and revelation--it gets the same point across more vividly and concisely. Ah, to have that gift!) [1]

One of the sentiments widely expressed in the online Mormon world in the last week is surprise/disappointment/concern/anger/defensiveness/all the feels about how all of the new apostles are white and American. In a church that is growing so strongly in Latin and South America, Africa, and Asia, some people were pretty sure we'd see at least one person of color and/or non-American chosen--myself included.

The typical response from most Mormons to these concerns, I think, is along the lines of some combination of: "(1) these callings came from God, so it's unfaithful to question them; and anyway (2) it's the message, not the messenger, that matters." (With an optional "(3) the church is super brave for avoiding any appearance of evil political correctness!!!") I think Handley's is the most thoughtful of these responses I've seen, though I think it still ultimately still falls short of the mark. (But again, like I said, there was also a lot in it that I liked, too!)

One of my favorite bits was this pithy explanation of revelation: "If revelation always came in direct harmony with our expectations, then we could hardly call it revelation at all. It would be indistinguishable from the result of human deliberation and casting a vote." I think that however revelation is defined, that certainly has to be part of it. Revelation must be surprising. [2] I also very much appreciated that he rejects the idea of revelation as "a purely transcendent transmission of information from God to man"; it's messier than that: "a form of communication, not merely a transmission of information, between God and his children, and that means that it involves some kind of translation from God’s understanding into our own." [3] Handley also goes into lovely detail about how a plurality of views and interpretations of revelation--without devolving into a moral relativism free-for-all--is a great strength of the church.

But then, I think, he gets a bit side-tracked (and/or misunderstands the criticisms) by beginning his response to people's concerns about the new apostle selections by stating that "Throughout my church life, I have heard criticisms about the callings of certain individuals to certain callings." (emphasis added). I think this framing fundamentally misses the mark on what people are criticizing. Handley does go on to admit, as I think we all must, to having at times brooked similar criticisms (at least privately) himself. And he goes on to express sympathy with the critics' intent, recognizing that race, culture, and language matter: "Because the church is a global family, I can certainly understand the desire to see a non-white or foreign born apostle called," and agrees that more racial diversity in upper church ranks "would no doubt open up new and different conversations with the Lord."  But his bottom line is this: "[I]t is, I think, a misguided use of faith to place private expectations or hopes ahead of what the Lord wills." (emphasis added)

I think my response to Handley is twofold: (1) this isn't a concern about individual apostles, it's a systemic concern; and (2) I think it trivializes people's concerns on this issue to call them mere "private expectations or hopes." But as this post is too long already, I'll split up my responses into separate posts.

*Can you handle the suspense? Tune in next post, for rando white guy blogger to explain racial issues in the church!* [1 (yes same footnote again)]

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[1] But seriously, I'm (trying to be more) aware of my racial privilege, and I'm not trying to speak for people of color--as I said, this post is mainly me thinking things through (after reading and listening to a good amount of what people of color are saying on this), and hopefully it's also helping any white people who read my blog to think through as well. Importantly, I highly recommend that everyone actually read the words and thoughts of people of color on this issue. I already mentioned a great FMH post, and here's another wonderful read from Feminist Women of Color (which you should read if you don't already), and a heartbreakingly simple public Facebook post from a man of color, the comments to which are probably a good microcosm of what these conversations within Mormonism right now look like (warning: it's pretty extremely depressing/facepalmy). And those are for starters. If you're not reading and hearing from people of color--on this and pretty much every other issue, religious or non--then I'd recommend adjusting your news sources.

[2] Well, revelation need not be surprising all the time--it can certainly also confirm something you thought but weren't sure of, for example, but bear with me here. (Stupid lawyers and their endless caveats. [or is that just me??])

[3] Oh that more people would quote (and take to heart) Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, as Handley does in his post: "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." This is really critical!