Sunday, October 11, 2015

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!

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