Kindness and Civility: the Smiling Face of Oppression

7

January 27, 2014 by Tariq Khan

Following recent court actions in Utah regarding the fight for same-sex marriage, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent instructions to congregational leaders in the United States. (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-instructs-leaders-on-same-sex-marriage)  The instructions serve to remind local leaders that, regardless of how society and laws change, the Church still actively and officially believes in opposing marriage rights for same sex couples;  “Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established.”  The instructions are also sure to add; “While these matters will continue to evolve, we affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree.”  I argue that this type of “kindness and civility” actually functions as a mask to make hatred, prejudice, discrimination, and bigotry seem legitimate and even Christ-like.

Recently I researched the LDS Church’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s.  In 1967, at the General Conference of the Church, in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave a talk titled “Civil Rights: Tool of Communist Deception”.  The talk was then published as a pamphlet by the Church’s Deseret Book Company.  Speaking from the pulpit, in his influential Church position of Apostle, Elder Benson – who would later become President and Prophet of the Church – instructed Church members that the Civil Rights Movement is a communist conspiracy, and that it is the duty of the Church to oppose it.  He then talked about how the Church and its members should go about opposing it; what to do, and what not to do.  He argued that the “seed of Cain,” which is what Mormon leaders called black people, were unsuspecting dupes; that rather than having valid and honest grievances about racism, they were tricked by calculating communist leaders to take part in anti-racist activism.  He told Church members, however, that when opposing the Civil Rights Movement, they must do so in a civil manner; not to take part in “backlash activity” or “anti-Negro vigilante action”.  That is to say, be nice and polite when working to deny black people equality with whites.  To put it in more understandable terms; it is not racist to make Rosa Parks go to the back of the bus as long as you tell her to move politely.  This politeness masked the fact that what Benson actually called for in that talk was an increase in violent police repression of black activists.  He made light of black claims of police brutality, saying that black people just made that up as a way of discrediting the police, which was also part of the communist conspiracy.  The politeness, the civility, that Benson was arguing for masked the reality that his ideas translated to violence and coercion against black people in the real world. The fact that he did this in the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ, abusing his office as an apostle to promote racism and repression, makes it especially vulgar.

Mormons today are embarrassed by the Church’s past racism.  Many Mormons believe that because in 1978 the Church ended its racist priesthood/temple ban on blacks, “racism is over” so there is no need to talk about unpleasant things like Ezra Taft Benson’s right-wing extremism.  When I bring things like this up in my own Mormon communities, people accuse me of unfairly “attacking the Church.”  Criticizing Church leaders is “the beginning of apostasy”, and to do so is evidence that one is “under the influence of Satan.”  Racism is over so it is irrelevant to bring things like Benson’s talk up.  “Talking like that isn’t helping anything.” I’ve heard it all.  My real agenda, in their minds, is to destroy their faith.  Believing that I am an unreasonable wolf in sheep’s clothing is psychologically easier than facing the fact that high-ranking Church authorities have done and said things that were simply awful and wrong.  I argue, however, that it is relevant and necessary to face our fears and anxieties head on, and to really dig in to these unpleasant aspects of Mormon culture and history, not for the purpose of attacking the Church or destroying anyone’s faith, but because understanding these issues is relevant to making sense of and overcoming current problems of the Church’s role in perpetuating oppression.

The LDS Church today is a leading force in the United States in perpetuating hatred, bigotry, and discrimination against LGBTQ people.  For any of my Mormon friends who doubt this bold claim, I encourage you to take notice of the high rates of LGBT youth in Utah who are homeless or commit suicide.  (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/635201873/Deadly-taboo-Youth-suicide-an-epidemic-that-many-in-Utah-prefer-to-ignore.html?pg=all,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MxCXjfAunk)  To believe that these tragedies have nothing to do with Mormon culture and anti-LGBT Church teachings is to be willfully naïve.  The Church has and still is making life miserable for many LGBT people.  Since at least the 1980s, the Church has worked actively to ensure that LGBT people remain second class citizens.  This has nothing to do with the “will of the Lord.”  It has to do with the prejudice and ignorance of Church leaders, just as the Church’s past racist policies did.  To think that you are “kind” and “civil” while simultaneously supporting discrimination and oppression is hypocrisy.  It is a lie to say “we love you” to LGBTQ people while working to make their lives miserable and push them to the margins.

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that it was not the vile racist vigilantes that disappointed him most.  What he found most disappointing was all of the nice, polite, white Christian’s who professed love while working against civil rights, or at best remaining silent in the face of oppression.  This is exactly where I see the LDS Church today; preaching a hollow form of kindness and civility, a love that functions in the real world as hate, while perpetuating oppression, and doing so in the name of Jesus Christ.  Dr. King spoke prophetically in that letter when he said: “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.  If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”  http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

Today in the LDS Church, the young people are, by and large, much smarter and more aware than when I was youth.  They are increasingly disappointed by the Church’s prejudice masquerading as love.  If you want to hate gay people, then hate gay people, but don’t pretend that “kindness and civility” make oppression ok, and don’t pretend that you represent Jesus Christ.  The spirit goes where it will, and if you want to be bigoted, fearful, and small-minded, then the spirit will go somewhere else.

7 thoughts on “Kindness and Civility: the Smiling Face of Oppression

  1. Boston H. Manwaring says:

    I agree with your argument that the LDS church desperately needs to change from within–for the individual, by facing his or her fears and anxieties head on, as you say–but I cannot help but disagree that kindness and civility are always a mask for the unrighteous and sinister. I know many members of the LDS church who sincerely seek to abide by the second greatest commandment and treat the gay community where they encounter it as they wish to be treated. We must be aware of such sincere efforts and encourage them so that, as this issue unfolds into the future.

  2. Boston H. Manwaring says:

    -sorry- …as this issue unfolds into the future, the church will have a more enlightened, truly loving membership.

  3. Adam Shaffer says:

    D&C 121:36-39 teaches that when we oppress others the spirit is grieved and departs from us just like Tariq and Martin Luther King rightly assert, but the scripture goes on to say that when this occurs we lose our priesthood authority. This means that this church policy is steadily tearing the Church apart from within. This is not something we can take lightly. By only focusing on outward observances you are becoming whited seplechures.

  4. Mark Schulthies says:

    How do you separate church and state? Historically, use of the church was an important means of the state keeping government control. As Americans, we recognized and still give praise to the ideal of keeping government separate. No official Church of the United States of America! Much harder to maintain the status quo. As members of the LDS church, we’ve suffered and benefitted by the reality that our leaders inject personal politics into the framework of the church while crying foul when government leaders do the same. It’s human failing. Expecting different is ignorant from church people or the LGBT people.

  5. […] Kindness and Civility: The Smiling Face of Oppression (Tariq Khan, The Mormon Worker)– “This is exactly where I see the LDS Church today; preaching a hollow form of kindness and civility, a love that functions in the real world as hate, while perpetuating oppression, and doing so in the name of Jesus Christ.” […]

  6. Cc says:

    The communists were in fact using civil rights issues to their advantage. Lots of prominent black leaders and activists condemned the communists for placing their own ideological goals above the interests of black Americans and noted that the communists were not interested in black Americans per se but rather in exploiting blacks to achieve their own radical political ends. See Hutchinson’s book “Blacks and Reds” for more info

  7. Tariq Khan says:

    Cc, you are right that there were communist organizers who tried to subordinate black liberation to communist party goals, and there is undoubtedly a history of white communists attempting to subordinate racial oppression, as well as gender oppression, to class oppression. And you are also right that many black activists criticized communists who did so. I’ve been reading a lot of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was a Marxist, but was also very critical of white Marxists who he felt did not understand the dynamics of white supremacy in the U.S. I am familiar with the Hutchinson book you mentioned. One of the major purposes Hutchinson’s book serves, however, is to dispel the myth (a myth that was perpetuated by people like Ezra Taft Benson) that black political movements were tools of communism. He shows that many of the major black organizers in the U.S. were quite aware of communist attempts to co-opt black movements and they consciously did not allow that to happen. In other words, according to Hutchinson, civil rights was not a communist conspiracy at all. There certainly were black communists involved in the movement, but even many black communists used communism as a tool for black liberation, rather than using black liberation as a tool for communism. Thanks for mentioning the Hutchinson book though. It certainly is a worthwhile read. Another good book that talks about the relationship between communism and black liberation movements is Eric McDuffie’s book Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism. Also Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism. Both of these books also show black radical leftists who subordinated communism to black liberation rather than the other way around.

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