I don’t know if I’ve ever faced blatant racism in the way that I did a weekend ago. It’s taken me some time to process the experience though, in the moment, I knew it was wrong. I felt it in my gut: revulsion, surprise, confusion. Certainly I’ve seen it in on television or heard it on the radio. But never have I been face-to-face with it. Sadly, I said nothing. I wanted to walk away from the conversation in protest, instead I stood there dumbfounded, jaw agape, and nauseated.
There is a powerful scene in the movie “42” about Jackie Robinson that you’ll not soon forget if you’ve seen the movie. Powerful in part because of how the actor was able to say the terrible things he said so convincingly–as though he truly believed what he said. The actor is the phenomenal Alan Tudyk and he plays a rival coach from a southern U.S. city. I watched it unfold and heard him say such awful things about a man because of the color of his skin, and remember well how I squirmed in my seat and wanted it to end. The difference between this and my real-life experience is that I knew I was watching something portrayed in a negative light. No one on the movie set believed or condoned what was being said. I could be relieved it was over and marvel at the fine acting I had seen while considering what races of humans have put up with because of their natural condition.
Enter Friday night last week.
I had just attended a movie with a group of adults for the birthday of my best friend. Luckily, he was not part of the conversation that occurred after the movie as we all stood outside enjoying the unusually cool evening and avoiding a return home to responsibility. To set the scene, I am a formerly entrenched mormon now on the outside looking in though my major circle of friends remains deeply committed. Here I was conversing with the current bishop of the local congregation (think priest for catholics and pastor for evangelicals) and another man who held the same position only a three years ago. I was a counselor to both of them before asking to be released from the position because I could no longer do it with integrity, feeling that mormonism was indeed built on a foundation of deceit.
We are discussing politics and Donald Trump. After stating that I can’t vote for the man in good conscience, the current bishop chimes in. Know that I have largely admired both of these men for some time and think of them as a good, decent, honorable people. As closely as I can, I’m going to try to quote what he said:
What did you guys think about Ben Carson?
(We nod or shrug, indicating that at this point he seemed a better option than our current nominees–though he has expressed some bigotry of his own.)
You know, I kind of liked him but…I don’t know. You know with Obama, just looking at him makes me sick. The more I think about it the more I believe there is something to it–that Ephraim is supposed to lead.
(Knowing exactly what he means, I begin to feel sick. Then the former bishop nods his enthusiastic agreement.)
Now, I know that may sound racist but…the cursing happened for a reason.
HE ACTUALLY ACKNOWLEDGED THAT IT WAS RACIST. But you got that sense that he was thinking (because I’ve thought this before while immersed in the same, dogmatic worldview), “If God said it first, then it can’t be wrong.”
Those of you wanting clarity on how Ephraim fits into this, I can expound. In context alone, its an explicitly racist comment that needs no explanation.
This upsets me on many different levels and further exposes the world of castes, privilege, and discrimination in which I lived and breathed for so long. To say that this is just one man’s opinion (or two based on the enthusiastic agreement of the other gentleman) and that the church to which he belongs can’t be held accountable for it is naive. Mormon doctrine is incredibly dogmatic with very little wiggle room for personal interpretation. Disagree? Ask Jeremy Runnels or John Dehlin about that. The fact is that these ideas are well-supported by Mormon doctrine and tradition. I’m not just a bitter outsider, I’m someone who was deeply invested in it from 12 years old to 34.
This bishop knows what he meant as well as I do. The difference is that I feel sick about it. This is a clear example of Steven Weinberg’s famous quote, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I might add, “to say evil things.” And we all know that evil deeds often follow evil words.
Perhaps there was something to the words of the alleged Jesus who is quoted in Matthew 15 as saying, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” It defiles those who have to hear it, too.