Lego Masters landed on our TV about the same time the pandemic landed in America. It’s a show about, well, Lego Masters. In each episode teams were given a LEGO building challenge, Build a Fairy Tale! Build a Theme Park! Build a Bridge! Contestants could use as many bricks as they wanted, their only limit was time. Every week when we sat down to watch, we poured out a a big pile of bricks so our girls could build something while they watched the show.
Builds lasted six to fifteen hours. Around hour one or two of the build, judges wandered from station to station to offer feedback. Usually, they’d just suggest a little change, one element wasn’t quite dramatic enough or perhaps the motor used to move a special feature wasn’t powerful enough. But sometimes, the judges would look at a build, glance at one another and shake their heads. The builders bit their lips as the judges explained that the build story didn’t make sense. In a Lego build story is everything. The build wasn’t big enough or open enough. A good Lego build is large but also open, you are invited into the scene instead of feeling like you are peeking into it. They often finished their critiques by waving their hands over the build while sighing because the build simply didn’t have enough color and Lego is all about color.
These criticisms, so far into the competition, were always devastating to the builders because whether they got one or all three criticisms (and so many got all three), they had to rebuild. They needed to take apart their work brick by brick and make something new. Something with a better story, something more expansive, something with more color.
The successful builders took the judges’ advice, even though they were two hours into the game. They pulled down what they’d built and built again. Successful teams were smart about it. They reused many of their original bricks while returning others to the bin. They added new bricks too as their concept became richer. Sometimes a feature they loved from their original build had to be scrapped, it just didn’t fit into their new design. A shame at first but by the end it was always replaced by something better.
The unsuccessful builders kept on building their original build. So much time had passed, after all. And they’d already put so much work in. And surely, the judges would appreciate what they’d done when the final bell rang to signal the end of their time. The ones that listened to the judges mostly progressed. The ones that didn’t listen, mostly didn’t get to hear that final bell again.
My fellow Mormons, we’ve been building our church since 1830. We’re hours into the game. We’ve really built something! And I’ve built with you. I’ve placed so many of the bricks myself. Every Sunday and the six days in between. I used to be so proud of what we’d created. Not just proud of it, but comforted by it. We would, I thought, be protected and raised by what we’ve built. (Maybe not so different from how the Babylonians felt about their tower.) There are some gorgeous and sustaining elements in what we’ve built. I’ve often felt myself buttressed by them.
But I can tell you that in quiet and loud moments, in the halls, in Relief Society, in the middle of conference, between delivering the babies and the meals, I’ve felt the Spirit stop and assess what we’ve made. I’ve sat still and felt the eye of a disappointed God survey our ramparts and our rooms and our hidden places and our helping places and in this, the second hour of our build, God is telling us
Our story isn’t good enough. The Word deserves an excellent story,
The church is big but not expansive. The God who exercises eternity demands an expanse.
We are not open enough. Visitors are Welcome but not welcomed.
And there isn’t enough color. God created every color and yet our official palette remains beige, cream, white and lightly spray-tanned.
We’ve got to pull apart what we’ve built brick by brick. I know that we’re proud of a few of our rooms, I know that many of the features we’ve incorporated into the design are neat and even effective. And I know that once everything is taken apart, and it’s time to put something new together, there will be feelings of loss — for both worthy and unworthy elements that no longer fit the scope of our project. I know that it feels scary and even counter-productive to tear down walls. Especially when so many of us like a good wall. But we’re not constructing this church for us, we’re building it for God. And God is too big to fit inside what we’ve made.
Do you know why God can’t wedge Himself all the way into our church? He cannot come all the way in, because our Black brothers and sisters cannot come all the way in. We won’t let them. We’ve never let them. And God cannot fully fit where his children cannot fully sit.
In her Atlantic essay, Choosing to Stay in the Mormon Church Despite Its Racist Legacy, Janan Graham-Russell writes,
“A portrait of a young black woman hangs outside a sealing room within the temple recently built in Payson, Utah. Once described as Jane Elizabeth Manning James, the nameless woman remains as “anyone whose heart is broken and whose spirit is contrite.” It is a reminder of the presence of African Americans in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, here in the chapels and along the pews with our fellow Saints, waiting to be let in.”
Why are our Black brothers and sisters still waiting on the outskirts of their own faith community, waiting to be let in? Well, like everything in Mormonism, it started with the Restoration.
The Restoration was riddled with racism. When writing about the possibility of imminent abolition Joseph Smith said that freeing all enslaved African Americans would “set loose upon the world a community of people who might, peradventure, overrun our country and violate the most sacred principles of human society, chastity, and virtue.” In his book, Religion of a Different Color, Paul Reeve writes that Joseph Smith “followed his renunciation of immediate abolitionism with a rejection of interrracial mixing.”
The years since Joseph Smith spoke out against the freedom of Black men, women and children (remember, Black babies were enslaved too) have born such anti-Black fruit I don’t just wonder when Christ will curse our fig tree, I sometimes wonder if He hasn’t cursed it already. And if He has, and we haven’t noticed, what then?
Our next prophet, Brigham Young, stripped Black people of the right to administer the priesthood. People who study church history call this a “priesthood ban” but as Jonathon Stapley notes in his book, The Power of Godliness, “it was far more than a ban on the ecclesiastical priesthood of the church.” Black men, women, children and babies could not participate in any of the rites of the temple. They were denied sealings. Do you know why Mormons become sealed to one another? We are sealed because we believe we build heaven by eternally linking ourselves to one another. On sealings Stapley writes, “the Mormon priest materialized heaven at his altar, sealing wife to husband and child to parent. Where these linkages did not exist, there was simply no heaven; where they did exist, so did heaven. And this heaven persevered.” Brigham Young denied Black families heaven on earth because he believed they were descendants of Cain and still needed to atone for the murder of Abel. Young’s ridiculous reasoning wasn’t new, he merely picked up and propagated a common, coarse Christian heresy used to support slavery for hundreds of years. Black families were banned from formally building a Mormon heaven until 1978.
Neither our Presidents Smith nor Young could fathom a world in which Black people stood in full fellowship with man or God. They made anti-Blackness one of the footings of the Church’s foundation. And then, as our church was built up and out on that foundation, their successors added plenty of racist bricks of their own. J. Reuben Clark, the man BYU’s law school is named after who in 1943 wrote in a church magazine that racial intermarriage was a “wicked virus”, believed blood banks needed to be segregated so that there would be no blood mixing. LDS Hospital agreed with him. In 1943, the hospital opened a blood bank with separate supplies for white and black people. In her book, Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in 20th Century America, Susan Lederer writes that although segregated blood banking was supposed to have stopped in the 1970s in Utah, for years afterward concerned white patients were assured they would not be given donated black blood. President McKay believed it was unfair to force white children to learn with black children and removed lines supporting desegregation of schools from at least one Deseret News editorial. In 1995, the year I turned ten, the church published a lesson manual for the youth containing a 1976 quote from Spencer W. Kimball. The quote begins, “We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background….” The year I graduated high school, 2003, that same quote was republished in the Eternal Marriage Student Manual.
And of course it wasn’t just the men. It never is. Eliza R Snow, the woman who gave us the doctrine of a Heavenly mother in a hymn, also argued against abolition. In her poem The New Year 1852 she writes that African American people bear a curse from God,
The curse of the Almighty rests upon
The colored race: In His time, by his
Own means, not yours, that curse will be remov’d
Eliza has plenty of modern day sisters continuing her work. In one of the wards of my youth, a newly converted Black sister was enthusiastically congratulated by a member of the ward’s Relief Society Presidency. Why? Because the the presidency member felt that the converted sister’s black skin had become lighter since she joined the church and so her conversion was obviously taking. When the Black sister told this story to my mom, she laughed. As a child I thought her laughter was her seeing the ridiculousness of the situation. As an adult, I believe she laughed because none of us had created a space safe enough for her to cry. This was in 1992. I have friends with similar stories stretching all the way up to this last week.
Line upon line, precept upon precept, brick upon brick.
Prophets and the people that follow them can be racist, and often are racist, because prophets and the people that follow them are fallen just like everyone else. Racism can only exist in a fallen world and a fallen people.
There’s a story from our history that haunts me. It’s 1839 and Joseph Smith is sick. Everyone is sick. Some saints thought it was malaria, others thought it was the climate. Whatever it was, it was everywhere and in everyone and everybody needed to be healed. People were dying. While Joseph laid sick in bed, Elders attempted to heal the people. Some were healed, but most of the sick stayed sick while many once well became ill. The laying on of hands wasn’t working. On July 22nd, Parley Pratt wrote, “Brother Joseph, while in the Spirit, rebuked the Elders who would continue to lay hands on the sick from day to day without the power to heal them. Said he: ‘It is time that such things ended. Let the Elders either obtain the power of God to heal the sick, or let them cease to minister the forms without the power.” Joseph went on to heal dozens of people himself. We call that day the “Day of Power”.
It has been 200 years since the Father and the Son visited Joseph Smith. 190 years since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally established. We’ve believed we were building God’s Kingdom over all those years. There has been so much good work, I know there has. But God’s Kingdom is never finished and I cannot see how we’re in the middle of it — either in building or in action. God’s people must always be in the middle of it. My sisters and brothers, we are disconnected from one another and so we are disconnected from God. We stand apart from the needs of the communities that hold us and so God cannot work through us. We tithe but do not forsake and so God cannot give through us. We talk about eternal links that secure heaven but are unwilling to link arms with our brothers and sisters to secure their safety in this world. This is my sin too and I can hear Joseph’s remonstrance remade,
“It is time that such things ended. Let my people either find the will, make the way and do the work to build the Kingdom of God or let them cease to minister the forms without the power.”
I do not want to cease. We must not cease. The beauty of our anticessationism is that to believe in a God who never ceases is also to believe in a people who can never, must never, will never cease. Ceaselessness is encoded in our theological DNA. We must help build the Kingdom of God and it is only the Kingdom of God if all are folded in.
We can do this. But first, we have some demolition to do.
There are so many bricks to get rid of, there are books to be written and general conferences to be given, about all the bricks we must toss away, but today let’s sit and hold just three (before chucking them),
Let’s start with Christ. No, we shouldn’t bin Christ. But we should get rid of our obsession with representing him as White. Recently, the Church announced that there are eighteen approved images of Christ that can be used in church foyers and entryways. Christ appears as a white (sometimes blue-eyed) man in every single picture. Historically, of course, this makes no sense. While we do not know what Christ looked like we know, pretty definitely, that he was not a fair-skinned European man with blue eyes. He was born to Jewish parents in the Middle East. Theologically, it also makes no sense! It is important that Jesus was born Jewish. Culturally, well, culturally our need to canonize an ahistorical, anti-theological White Jesus makes sense. We’ve been obsessed with the purity of white blood for as long as we’ve been obsessed with a curse on black blood.
We want a White savior because we’ve been taught that we must be white saviors. If Mormons are not white by birth, they’ve been taught they’ll be made white through righteousness. When we softly canonize White Jesus we sharply continue the canonization of white supremacy.
So, we need new art in our churches, in our homes, in our temples. Display pictures of Jesus as he might have actually looked. Wouldn’t it be nice if upon coming across a painting of himself, Jesus could actually recognize himself? I think He’d walk right by this one and wonder why we decided to hang a picture of Jared Leto in His Father’s house. Also! Hang diverse paintings of Jesus that look like our worldwide members look. Wouldn’t it be nice if upon coming across a painting of Jesus — whether in a hallway in Nigeria or Hong Kong or any city or suburb in America — our members could recognize themselves in Him? More than nice, really. Necessary.
Let’s toss “The Book of Mormon is a perfect book” rhetoric right over our shoulders into the rubble where it belongs. When we say the Book of Mormon is “the most perfect book” we think we’re quoting Joseph Smith but that’s not what he said. He called it “the most correct book” and he was talking about his translation, not the conclusions or experiences of the men who wrote the book. Moroni himself concludes the book by acknowledging there may be faults in it, making him a more self-aware editor than many of us prove to be when editing our own belief system. If we believe that the Book of Mormon narrates real mortal lives then we must believe they were really mortal lives — which means that they were not only imperfect but they were also often understood incorrectly or only partially by the people who lived them and those that recorded them. If we believe men wrote the Book of Mormon we must believe it was written imperfectly. We are imperfect men and women reading through all that imperfection trying to find glimpses of a perfect God. It’s beautiful really, all the striving that goes into making scripture sacred. Perhaps Joseph Smith was wrong and his translation, one that depended on the limited language of his time and the limited lens of his experience, was inspired but not untainted. Joseph Smith was a great man but he was not the most perfect man, he was not the most correct man. He was, despite everything, still just a man; more imperfection sifting through imperfection in the search for our perfect God. That’s beautiful too. Perhaps Joseph Smith was right and his translation was completely correct. We still have imperfect lives recorded imperfectly and read imperfectly. This leaves room for growth and progress but leaves not an inch for dogma.
Once we understand that the Book of Mormon doesn’t need to be perfect to be scripture, that it is as full of prejudice as the characters that people it and the people that read it, we can engage with and refute the racism within it. Mormons know how to hold scripture as sacred while understanding some of it is inspired, and some of it is not, because that’s how we hold the Bible. Let’s use that skillset and paradigm shift. The prejudices we find in the Book of Mormon aren’t proof that the book is not true. They’re just proof that we need Christ, the people of the Book of Mormon need Christ, Joseph Smith needs Christ. The flaws of the Book of Mormon make it a document that functions as hard proof of a fallen world while also offering us the hope of a world perfected through Christ. We need to stop justifying the racism in the Book of Mormon and start reckoning with it. The Book of Mormon can stand it. And we can too.
Find a large bin for every racist statement made by an authority in the church. (We might need to have one custom made to get one big enough.) We don’t get to do this quietly or secretly. Pick these bricks up — every talk, every statement, every throwaway line in an archived letter — and hold them up to the light and show every member they’re so rotten they can’t hold their shape. Do this over every pulpit, in every classroom and on every mission. And then put every single one in that big bin and label it a safety hazard.
(It may be a worthwhile project to archive all these statements, put them in a place where they’re accessible with explanation and acknowledgment of their generational harm. I, a white woman who has never experienced racism, cannot know if this would be one of many ways to confess our sins or if it would cause more pain. We need to listen to Black members of the church to know the way forward.)
Once we’ve picked everything apart, it’s time to design a new build. And it can’t be white people designing a church they think will be better for Black people. We need Black people to be active in designing a church that is just better. We immediately need more Black General Authorities, more Black primary teachers, more Black bishops and more Black Relief Society Presidents.
As our concept expands to look more and more like the Kingdom of God, we’re going to need lots of new bricks to bear the load of our collective vision. Here are a few I’d suggest adding to the first phase.
We need to replace racist language with explicitly anti-racist language. Sin loves a vacuum. Mormons understand this. That’s why we give the same lessons over and over again. We want to keep teaching and living sin away. Well, racism is a sin. We need to have anti-racism woven into our manuals, handbooks and lived experience.
Embrace and enfold Black voices into lessons and talks. Teach from the writing and experiences of Black women and men.
Embrace expressions of faith that look, feel, and sound different than our staid current tradition. The current American Mormon culture of quiet, solemn worship isn’t inherently bad, but it’s also not inherently God’s culture of worship. It’s just one expression of many beautiful ways to worship. In our music, in our chapels, in our sermons, we need to make room for the many because Mormons should be made up of the many.
For better and worse, Mormons live by the manual. When teaching Mormon history, teach Mormon history. All of it. Force us to grapple with the sins in our past as fully as we are asked to grapple with the sins in our heart. God wants us to reckon with our racist past and present. Do you know what “reckon” means? It means to count, to calculate, to work out. We’ve got to take out the ledger and add up our sins. We’ve got to account. And then, with Christ, we’ve got to begin to pay off our debts.
Mormons are always worried about their activity. Let’s actually be active. I remember someone once whispering that she thought I’d become “inactive”. I was young and stunned. I never wanted anyone to consider me “inactive”. I felt so ashamed. I would still feel ashamed to be labeled “inactive” but now I am thinking about a different kind of inactivity. I cannot stand by, inactive, while our faith community and the people within the communities we call home are hurting, hungry and harmed. We need to become an active people. Active in addressing injustice, active in bridge-building, active in the actual work of community.
We’ve got to say Black Lives Matter, because language often drives action. Then we’ve got to actually live like Black Lives Matter. We, of all people, should get this. Black Lives Matter because Mormons believe they believe life matters. Our Christianity is not one that looks just to the next life, we believe in building heaven in this life. Black spirits matter because we believe spirit matters. Black bodies matter because we believe bodies matter. Joseph Smith wrote, “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.” How can we be anything but active when the spirits of our Sisters and Brothers slighted, when their bodies are harmed in our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches again and again and again?
As Maya Angelou wrote, whether we help or not, our Black sisters and Brothers, “like air” will “rise”. But do we think we as a people can rise without them? No!
We need to become less insular. There are so many amazing ways to do this. For example! We have a lot of church buildings that sit empty for most of the week. They’re big, they have basketball courts, they’ve got kitchens. They’ve even got a room with shelves that is supposed to be the church library but kind of just stores a few printers from the 1980s. Why not use our churches as community centers throughout the week? Put, as Joseph Smith said, “good books” in that library. Keep some basketballs ready to go in the court. Use the kitchen to feed hungry neighbors. On Sundays, the chapel opens and the community rooms rest. Make our church a sanctuary seven days a week. It would take a reworking of our resources. New financial disbursements. Different insurance on the building and the activities within it. New callings. But we’re rebuilding right now, so why not?
We’ve got some really good bricks from our previous build and we need them. We’re not ourselves without them. In the new build, they’ll be used as keystones.
Our doctrine. A Heavenly Mother and a Heavenly Father composing a God who weeps. Our Christ is a brother we can touch, who can hold our hands and our sins and our sorrows. Worlds without end and people without end and progress without end. Each of us is, as Matthew Gong wrote, an “embryonic god”. The Mormon understanding of humankind’s past and potential is radical.
Our heritage of collectivism. Mormons believe heaven can only be built through the collective. We are not individualists. Individualism is anathema to Mormon theology. If heaven can only be built through physical and spiritual collective action (and the temple is a physical and spiritual place) then God’s Kingdom on earth can only be built through both physical and spiritual action. Our ancestors said their prayers and then got off their knees and acted for the community.
A God who weeps, yes. But also a God who keeps going. Our church is anticessationist. That means we believe that God never stops, miracles never stop and revelation never stops. We believe that God has, can and will reveal Himself and His son and the universe and the heavens to anyone with enough faith. We believe that faith sustains God as well as God’s people. That means personal revelation is driven by the same force that holds God as God holds us. God never stops revealing and so we must never stop seeking. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We must seek revelation from a revealing God to know better, and then when we know better, we must do better.
I get ahead of myself a little bit, thinking of what we can build. I know the tearing down will take some time. I know it will be painful. I know there will be hurt feelings and wronged hearts. I know we’ll tear down a support that should have stayed and have to figure out how to get it back up. Or we’ll miss tearing out a facade and then spend years arguing over whether or not it really needs to come down. We’ll wonder if all this dust and detritus is worth what can come after it’s cleared. When we feel that way, when I feel that way, let’s turn to page 175 of Mere Christianity and read what Lewis had to say about being torn down and built back up,
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
God’s Kingdom is a living house because God’s Kingdom is made of you and me. We must get to work so that God can get to work in us and through us.
I don’t know how long this build will last. I do know we just need to begin. And then the next time the Judge comes to see what we’re building, He’ll nod once and tell us what to do next. And if we want to progress? We’ll listen.
If you’d like to learn more so you can do more, here are some resources. These are not all the resources. Just a few. To get you started.
Black Mormon women are speaking out now, all the time. Melodie Jackson, Janan Graham-Russell , Dr. LaShawn Williams, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes are a few that can be found and listened to on Twitter.