In Tents # 83 A Note on Hermeneutics part 3

Ganesh Cherian, from Patheos: KiwiMormon

Black Friday today. How intriguing that we would associate commerce, shopping for Christmas, with blackness, or darkness. We have a lot of negative associations with blackness, which can be problematic, embarrassing and cruel when we attach those associations to people whose skin is is also dark or black. Last month I ended with a quote from Ganesh Cherian of Wellington New Zealand, “A Former Bishop’s Doctrinal Dilemmas

During this particular lesson one of my fellow high-priests informed us that two friends (a former Bishop, and a Stake President) in England had recently left the church over the Race and the Priesthood essay.  As dutiful leaders they had instructed their congregations,  referring to the ‘the seed of Cain’ explanation for withholding the priesthood from Black members of the church until 1978.

And I posed a question about that word dutiful.

If no one with general authority to each doctrine to the Church has been teaching the the seed of Cain explanation for nearly 40 years, who taught those men it was their duty to teach it as doctrine? And who taught whoever taught those men it was his or her duty to teach about the seed of Cain?

Another way to phrase that question would be, “What do we do about teachings we find repellant or troubling?” It’s a very old question. In his Great Courses lectures Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman talks about various controversies in the early church, including docetists who thought it unseemly to imagine that God could suffer as humans do, or would go through the indignity of suffering on a cross, therefore the suffering described in the gospels must be only seeming, docetic, not actual.

The problem of troubling teachings probably goes back much farther. Listening to the Wisdom of Solomon this morning I might have come across another example. In chapter 12 the author prays in Solomon’s voice, mentioning the conquest of Canaan.

8 Nevertheless even those thou sparedst as men, and didst send wasps, forerunners of thine host, to destroy them by little and little. 
9 Not that thou wast unable to bring the ungodly under the hand of the righteous in battle, or to destroy them at once with cruel beasts, or with one rough word: 
10 But executing thy judgments upon them by little and little, thou gavest them place of repentance, not being ignorant that they were a naughty generation, and that their malice was bred in them, and that their cogitation would never be changed. 
The author is re-imagining Exodus 23:28-30 (which is repeated in Deuteronomy 7:20-22):

28 And I will send hornets before thee, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite, from before thee.
29 I will not drive them out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee.
30 By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land.

Robert Alter says these passages are themselves attempts to deal with embarrassment, with the fact that by the time of the split between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when much of the Torah was written, the Israelites had been in Canaan 200 years and still had not completed the conquest (The Five Books of Moses, 453-4, 919).

Joseph Smith’s answer to what to do with old teachings and practices was to seek the mind of the Lord. And when the answer to the question of Abraham’s polygamy brought the Church to the brink of dissolution, Wilford Woodruff followed the same practice and sought the mind of the Lord.

And decades later David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball both sought the mind of the Lord on the question of removing the restriction on priesthood for those of African descent. (See pp 22, for McKay’s prayers, and also note 71 on p. 32 for a comment on Harold B. Lee’s thoughts.)

But even after new revelations old teachings remain in memory, and often in print, so that even two generations after one of the recipients of the revelation instructed teachers in the Church not to teach various explanations of the priesthood restrictions–including those he had taught–there are still people dutifully teaching about the seed of Cain.

Ganesh Cherian’s post garnered 1630 comments. I’ve skimmed through them a couple of times, lots of discussion of Church History and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and seerstones (though nothing I noticed about ancient American airfields), and a few people talking about having dutifully taught the seed of Cain ideas as doctrine.

None of those dutiful teachers, from what I can tell, are of African descent. And members of African ancestry whose work I’m aware of don’t teach it–certainly not Marcus Martins or Darius Gray, and definitely not ShaBang who feels the essay on race was many years too late and insufficient as an apology.

Why weren’t these three and many others dutifully teaching the seed of Cain doctrine? Were they less valiant in fulfilling their duty, less valiant in their desire to serve? Doubtful, since Marcus Martins was the first missionary of African ancestry to serve after the priesthood revelation, Darius Gray was one of the founders (and second president) of The Genesis Group, working with two junior apostles, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, to set up a church unit dedicated to fostering and supporting African-American and other members of the Church, and ShaBang exemplifies the Christian duty to speak truth to power.

Maybe these three just didn’t know the doctrine? Again, doubtful. Marcus Martins is passionate about knowing and preaching the Gospel, and his parents, Helvecio  Martins and Rudá Tourinho de Assis, drained their retirement funds to make sure he finished his doctorate. Darius Gray prayed and studied mightily to formulate his understanding of how priesthood and race relate to each other–NACBAC (Not a Curse but a Calling)–which he received permission from President Hinckley to teach. ShaBang is also a passionate student of the Gospel.

So aren’t you really asking how and why discarded teachings survive? No, that’s not quite the question I’ve been puzzling over. Ganesh Cherian’s essay was a guest post on KiwiMormon, and Ganesh is a name from India–which suggests this Kiwi Mormon former bishop has a heritage from two countries colonized by privileged whites. How do people of color dutifully teach a doctrine that implies–almost explies–that God disapproves of dark skin and uses it to punish people?

So you’re talking about the Lamanite curse now?  In #4 I expounded at length my reasons for seeing II Nephi 5:21 as a statement of excommunication, not a reference to skin color, so I’ll sidestep the question and note a comment Cherian  makes toward the end of his essay

In our predominantly Polynesian community faithful feeling is trusted before reason, and conformity is valued over critique.  My Pasifika brothers have been powerful and untiring servants of the church, sacrificing time and their meager means to do so. Because of language, education or cultural barriers it is unlikely that many of the older generation will ponder these revisions as I have. We may find ourselves on opposite sides of a delicate line, they preferring a version of church history that agrees with the ‘fabric of faithful feeling’ and myself seeking an understanding of the facts?

If a particular teaching is part of a “fabric of faithful feeling” that fabric might be more important to the people who clothe themselves in it than any individual thread.

But why would God allow leaders of the Church to teach for so many years a doctrine like the seed of Cain that wasn’t true?  Perhaps God is not a dictator, but rather someone who tries patiently to bring his people out of their cultural assumptions and teachings into a higher state.

Consider this comment from Edward L Kimball’s  Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood. p. 50, a summary of an interview with his father.

This answer had become clear in Spencer’s mind as early as late March, but he felt unity within the leadership was important, and he continued to discuss the matter with others. He sensed resistance from some, which he fully understood. He did not push, lobby, pressure, or use his office to seek compliance. Instead, he increased his visits to the temple, imploring the Lord to make his will known, not only to him but also to the Twelve, to these good men who all their lives had quoted other Presidents of the Church that it was not yet time. In a sense, the past prophets of the Church stood arrayed against this decision. The wisdom of the dead often seems loftier than the word of an imperfect living spokesman. Spencer wanted more than anything to have his fellow servants share with him a witness of the Lord’s will. Camilla noted that in their prayers together, where he had always asked for “inspiration” or “guidance,” he began to plead for “revelation.” She also noticed that he read the scriptures even more intently than usual during that spring.

Your turn.

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