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Perspectives

on Church History

Seeing as We Are Seen

A Personal Essay on Race and the Priesthood, Part 2

Ahmad Corbitt
 

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After I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1980, I studied the priesthood ban that my newfound church had removed from people of African descent two years earlier.1 I think this is natural for many African Americans who join or investigate the Church. But as I sought to deepen my relationship with God, I found my focus and energy continually more centered on Jesus Christ and His Atonement. And as I ministered to others, including our Heavenly Father’s black children, it became clear to me that the Savior's Atonement is the most potent source of divine power and peace for anyone struggling with anything related to the restored gospel or the Church that administers it.2

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s declaration about “the testimony of Jesus"3 sprang to new life for me. “The fundamental principles of our religion,” he said, “are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”4

As my focus on the Savior's Atonement increased, the vision of Heavenly Father’s unified human family became clearer. Correspondingly, the priesthood ban and its particulars diminished in importance for me. I saw that this was also true for other Latter-day Saints who struggled with the former ban. Although they benefited from reliable, candid, and well-reasoned discussions of the priesthood ban, such as the recent Church-issued statement on race and the priesthood, they became converted to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ—and remained in His Church—only as they gained a personal witness and understanding of His Atonement and applied our Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation in their lives. In my case, the doctrine of the Atonement expanded my sense of identity. It catapulted my identity as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, a minister of the gospel, and a brother in the human family far above even the most socially ingrained aspects of my black identity, despite my intense racial experiences.

This profound spiritual self-perception didn’t diminish my earthly racial identity. Rather, it contextualized my racial identity in eternity.5 It enabled me to more clearly see persons of all races and ethnicities as my true brothers and sisters and to understand race and ethnicity from a more eternal perspective.6

I believe that as our understanding of the Atonement increases, another breathtaking reality comes into focus, like a familiar scripture passage that suddenly leaps off the page with new meaning and power. We see that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely able and divinely destined to become the most unifying global organization in the history of the world. Clearly, the Savior’s Church and the gospel it administers transcend race, ethnicity, and culture. The Church exists largely to gather and unify the Father’s children from every nation on the earth as brothers and sisters. At a general conference of the Church with members from all over the world, President Henry B. Eyring taught:

“My beloved brothers and sisters, it is a joy to be gathered with you. … We live in many different circumstances. We will come from every nation and many ethnic backgrounds into the kingdom of God. And that prophesied gathering will accelerate.

“… My message of hope today is that a great day of unity is coming. The Lord Jehovah will return to live with those who have become His people and will find them united, of one heart, unified with Him and with our Heavenly Father.”

President Eyring emphasized that having our “hearts changed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ … is the only way God can grant the blessing of being of one heart.”7

Given the Church’s powerful potential and prophesied future in unifying God’s children, what do I say when concerned Latter-day Saints ask me about the priesthood ban? How do I urge them to respond if they are asked “Is the Mormon Church racist?” or “How can you belong to a church that once discriminated against black people?” A sincere African-American couple, newly baptized members of the Church, recently asked me to help them respond to these questions. I was serving as one of their ecclesiastical leaders at the time.

Rather than look backward and attempt to provide a historical explanation—an approach that can be helpful for many—I felt impressed to help this couple look forward—an approach I believe is essential for all people. I told my friends that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most successful international organizations in the world at promoting brotherhood and sisterhood among all races and ethnicities, including people of African descent.8 They were surprised. I explained that our Church is uniquely empowered and destined to achieve worldwide peace, harmony, and unity among all the peoples of the earth.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most successful international organizations in the world at promoting brotherhood and sisterhood among all races and ethnicities.

In part 3 of this essay, I’ll say more about my conversation with this couple, including their reaction to what I shared with them. For now, let’s consider this question: How has the Lord positioned and empowered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to achieve such a vast and wonderful mission—to bring unity to the human family? To answer the question, we must remember that through His Atonement, Jesus Christ transforms the way we view ourselves and the entire human family. He transforms the way we see the Church, its leaders, its gathering and saving mission, its members, and the restored gospel in general.

As President Brigham Young taught, “This work is a progressive work, this doctrine that is taught the Latter-day Saints in its nature is exalting, increasing, expanding and extending broader and broader until we can know as we are known, see as we are seen.”9 When we truly participate in this work, as we keep our covenants with God and serve His children, we no longer look at each other and the world, in the words of Paul, as if “through a glass darkly.”10 Instead, we begin to know and see ourselves and others as God knows and sees all His children. This godly viewpoint helps us perceive that ancient and modern prophecies are being fulfilled: God is “gather[ing] together in one all things in Christ.”11

Footnotes

[1] Oddly enough, I don’t remember the moment when I learned of the priesthood restriction. While I was writing this essay, I was told by a good friend that at the time of my baptism, I asked “a lot of tough questions” about the ban. While I am sure this is true, I don’t remember it. My earliest memory of talking about the ban was when I was a full-time missionary teaching a black man in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He had served at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah, where he had heard several times about the restriction. He was incredulous that I, as a black person, could be a Mormon. So while I don’t specifically remember struggling with the ban, early on in my Church membership it became a challenge to help others overcome so they could experience the deeper and sweeter fruits of the restored gospel that lay beyond it.

[2] It was about this time that I heard a talk that had a great impact on my life: “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Citing the teachings of President Ezra Taft Benson, Elder Oaks invited the Church to repent for not remembering the Book of Mormon and its essential feature of salvation through Jesus Christ. See Ensign, Mar. 1994, 60-67.

[3] Revelation 19:10; see also Doctrine and Covenants 76:51.

[4] Joseph Smith, in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 49.

[5] President James E. Faust taught: “We do not lose our identity in becoming members of this church. We become heirs to the kingdom of God, having joined the body of Christ and spiritually set aside some of our personal differences to unite in a greater spiritual cause. We say to all who have joined the Church, keep all that is noble, good, and uplifting in your culture and personal identity. However, under the authority and power of the keys of the priesthood, all differences yield as we seek to become heirs to the kingdom of God, unite in following those who have the keys of the priesthood, and seek the divinity within us. All are welcomed and appreciated. But there is only one celestial kingdom of God. Our real strength is not so much in our diversity but in our spiritual and doctrinal unity. For instance, the baptismal prayer and baptism by immersion in water are the same all over the world. The sacramental prayers are the same everywhere. We sing the same hymns in praise to God in every country” (“Heirs to the Kingdom of God,” Ensign, May 1995, 62).

[6] Note this observation by President Henry B. Eyring: “Everything Alma and his people [at the Waters of Mormon] were inspired to do was pointed at helping people choose to have their hearts changed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is the only way God can grant the blessing of being of one heart” (“Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69; italics added). Elder Russell M. Nelson taught: “Differences in cultural background, language, gender, and facial features fade into insignificance as members lose themselves in service to their beloved Savior. Paul’s declaration is being fulfilled: ‘As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’” (“Teach Us Tolerance and Love,” Ensign, May 1994, 70). President Howard W. Hunter taught: “I suggest that you place the highest priority on your membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. Measure whatever anyone else asks you to do, whether it be from your family, loved ones, your cultural heritage, or traditions you have inherited—measure everything against the teachings of the Savior. Where you find a variance from those teachings, set that matter aside and do not pursue it. It will not bring you happiness” (quoted in Richard G. Scott, “Removing Barriers to Happiness,” Ensign, May 1998, 85). We must be careful not to focus on lesser, cultural matters, such as racial or ethnic identity, more than on eternal identity and salvation through Christ. Those who focus more on cultural identity than spiritual identity invert the two great commandments, putting their identities in relation to God below their identities in relation to culture (see Matthew 22:36–40).

[7] Henry B. Eyring, “Our Hearts Knit as One,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 69.

[8] One effective way to respond is to help others understand relevant history, as the Church’s statement titled “Race and the Priesthood” does. Such an approach may include an explanation that other churches and religions have also imposed restrictions based on race. I believe that in taking this approach, we should avoid addressing these issues in ways that tear down other religions. Also, we should be careful, in these days of growing secularism and aggressive atheism, that we don’t diminish faith in general.

[9] Brigham Young, in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 87; see also Doctrine and Covenants 76:94.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[11] Ephesians 1:10; see also David A. Bednar, “The Divine Relationship between Missionary Work and the Spirit of Elijah” (address given at the seminar for new mission presidents, June 2013).